How to buy a new camera

With Photokina 2012 behind us, and a ton of new gear on it’s way to store shelves, I thought this might be a good time to talk about what to consider when buying a new interchangeable lens camera. I want to approach this from two perspectives – the first time camera buyer, and the person who’s already invested in a system(i.e., the “upgrader”).

The first thing a first time buyer should consider has nothing to do with the camera itself. This person needs to think first about what they like to photograph, and what lenses they’ll need to create those images. Buying into a system that lacks a dedicated macro lens wouldn’t make much sense, if one is interested in pursuing macro photography. Would you like to photograph wildlife? Well then, find out which system offers a quality telephoto option. You can pretty much guarantee that new and more capable camera bodies will be released every year, but there’s no guarantee that the lens or lenses you require will be produced, if they’re not already part of the system in which you’re interested.

If you’re already invested in a system – that is, you’ve got a bag full of, say, Nikon F-mount lenses – and you’re not willing to sell your gear and start from scratch, the first thing you should consider is what features or level of performance you require in a camera body. Let’s stick with Nikon for a moment. If you’re primarily a landscape shooter, the high resolution 36MP D800 would be of interest to you. If you’re a sports shooter, the D4 might be more appropriate, with it’s ability to shoot at 10 frames per second for up to 200 shots. The wildlife shooter might want to take a close look at the D7000, whose crop sensor provides a bit of extra reach at the telephoto end. A person interested in travel photography might well be happy with the Nikon 1 V1, a small, fast focusing camera with tiny, highly competent lenses.

The first time buyer obviously has more choices, as he’s not tied to a particular lens mount. If that person enjoys travel photography, he might look towards one of the other mirrorless systems, such as the Sony NEX cameras with their APS-C sensors and outstanding image quality. Again though, this first time buyer must be aware of the available lenses. Right now, there are a handful of good to excellent prime lenses in Sony e-mount, with more (expensive)options on the way. For someone interested mostly in street photography, that might be enough. For a person with broader photographic interests, the m4/3 format might be more appropriate, with it’s large selection of tele and wide angle zooms, macros, and fast tele and wide angle primes. In fact, in the mirrorless realm, there’s considerably less difference in terms of image quality and performance between cameras than there is in the land of DSLRs. With mirrorless, the choice really does come down mostly to what lenses you need.

One thing both types of buyers must carefully consider is what they need, as opposed to what they want. The ability to shoot 10 frames per second, or to shoot noise-free images at ISO 6400 is tempting, but how often is it necessary for your style of shooting? A lot of photographers tend to over-buy. They chase after features or levels of performance that they’ll make use of rarely, if ever. The money wasted in this regard would be far better spent on higher quality lenses.

One final point to consider – learning to get the most out of a new camera often takes considerable time. Therefore, an upgrader needs to be sure that the new features or performance he seeks are worth the effort of becoming acquainted with a new camera, and the first time buyer must understand that it may be weeks, months, or longer before he feels comfortable with his new gear. I purchased a Nikon D80 in early 2007, and shot with it for about four years. At the time of purchase, the camera was a state of the art DX APS-C model. Four years later, the D80 lagged two generations behind state of the art. Yet, after those four years of use I had become so well acquainted with the controls and capabilities of my camera, that I felt as if I was able to wring every last bit of performance out of it, and was able to do so quite instinctively. After four years I was able to concentrate solely on the art of making images, and didn’t need to worry about technical concerns, nor try to recall which button did what. Buying a new camera may actually cause your photography to take a momentary step backwards, as mine did when upgrading to the D7000, and then again when switching over to the world of mirrorless – be sure you’re willing to accept that risk, and that you’re willing to put in the time and effort to master your new gear.

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