Latest update: November 1, 2016
One of the questions I get asked most often is "What camera gear should I buy?" and I usually reply with a few questions - what is your budget, and what sort of photos do you plan on taking? We'd be here for hours chatting gear if we covered all the options and there's no way I could lay out a blanket statement on what gear to get, so let's just cover the basics about what's out there for a more educated decision.
A great addition to this article is the more in-depth discussion of the Exposure Triangle. Head over to read that to learn more about why these factors are important when choosing a camera.
This list below is definitely not exhaustive (for that, feel free to drool over B&H's catalog of almost endless selection) but hopefully should give the new user some guidance on gear.
Keep in mind it's often the choice in lenses that make better photos - not the camera body itself. Sticking to the main brands like Nikon, Canon, Fuji, and Sony will make buying lenses (especially second-hand) much easier.
Be sure to jump to the end of this post and geek out with useful tools for comparing choices in cameras!
The three basic choices when choosing your kit :
Choose between DSLRs at all price points, and the overwhelming dozens of lens selections. Their optical viewfinder means less shutter lag and in general they are a bit more robust than smaller cameras.
Choose any of the growing offerings within the mirrorless categories for a very capable and portable setup. Their small form factor and interchangeable lenses cover almost all applications, and most of the new ones have high quality 4k or even 5k+ video.
The point-and-shoot cameras with non-removable lenses are much higher quality than years' past and very affordable. Most of them have good low-light performance and sometimes even ƒ/2 of faster lenses.
Other considerations include options like weather sealing, build quality, memory card choices, the ability to use batteries in other cameras, any extras like WiFi and GPS connectivity, dedicated buttons for functions, intervalometer, HDMI output, and touch screen rear displays. Like anything else, these cameras fall into the beginner/intermediate/pro categories.
First off, you'll need a camera...
L to R. Nikon D750, Nikon D500, Olympus PEN, Canon G7X, Fujifilm X20, Canon G16
Independent of what camera you shoot with, they all have a sensor at their hearts. What really matters when choosing cameras are the sensor and the lens combination.
Let's start with the "full frame" sized sensor - the equivalent to 35m film, measuring 24mm x 36mm in size. For example, my Nikon is a 16-megapixel full frame camera, and creates photos that are 4928px x 3280px, or 16,163,840 pixels total. That means 16 million pixels are squeezed into the physical dimensions of 24mm x 36mm. In Nikon terminology this is their FX line.
The "crop sensor" or APS-C is a smaller sensor - in the Nikon world this is their DX line and about 24mm x 16mm, and in the Canon world it's ~22mm x 15mm. What that means is that a 16-megapixel camera will have to squeeze those pixels into a smaller space. (This is also referred to the "1.5x and 1.6x crop factor" because of the full frame sensor being that much larger than the crop sensor).
To make things more confusing, Canon also has an APS-H size that is a 1.3 crop factor. Not so much a full frame and not so much a crop sensor.
From here and smaller, the size of the sensor continues to decrease. In physical dimensions - here's a road map of popular sensor sizes
The manufacturers don't make remembering these things easy... but it's generally safe to assume the $1500 and under bodies are crop-sensors. For the sake of brevity, I am only listing a few in each category...
Nikon D750 (DSLR)
Canon 5D Mark IV (DSLR)
Sony A7R (mirrorless)
Nikon D500 (DSLR)
Canon 80D (DSLR)
Sony A6300 (mirrorless)
Fujifilm X-T1 (mirrorless)
Micro 4/3 (MFT, M43 or µ4/3)
Olympus E-PL7 and PEN-F
Canon G7X ii
Sony RX 100 IV
Canon G16 and S120
Most phones have camera sensors in the 1/2.3 - 1/2.6" range.
What do all these things mean?
A cropped sensor means the low-light noise characteristics will be different. A smaller sensor with the same resolution as a larger sensor will be made with smaller individual pixels. As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the pixels the more noisy the image is. This won't be distinguishable until at least ISO1600 - feel free to explore the varying cameras' performance at higher ISO using the tool listed at the bottom of the post.
The crop of the sensor also means that when you take a photo, the smaller sensor will capture less of the image than a full-frame sensor. For example, if you photographed the following scene with identical cropped and full framed bodies with the same lens, you'd get two different images. This might represent an advantage, perhaps for sports or wildlife photographers looking for a bit extra reach with their telephoto lenses.
With a DSLR, you'll need a lens next... or a fleet of lenses (it's a slippery slope)
The lens is often the more important part of the equation, and its been said that glass holds its value while bodies lose value as soon as the next model comes out.
Before we get into lens specifics, let's return to the issue between full and crop frames. When a lens is specified as being suitable for a full frame camera, what's meant is that the image circle projected onto the sensor is large enough to ensure all of the sensor sees light. Take for example this scene, imaged with a full-frame lens. Note that the blue frame is able to see all of the scene, and that the red frame is simply a cropped version of the same scene:
If you were to instead choose a lens designed for a cropped body and mount it to a full-frame body instead, you can see that the image circle isn't large enough to illuminate the entire sensor.
Instead of utilizing the entire sensor area, your image would be strongly vignetted and look something like this:
In short, buying a full-frame camera requires you to buy lenses designated full-frame, which are often more expensive than their crop-body cousins.
The other side affect of crop v. full frame is that the field-of-view between the two will differ by the same crop factor (1.5x for Nikon, 1.6x for Canon). If you look at the scene above and compare the blue full-frame with the red crop-frame, you will see that the red frame will appear more zoomed in. A normal 50mm lens on a crop body will "look" like a 75mm lens (50mm x 1.5x crop factor) on a full-frame body. It's the same affect as cropping the image in photoshop by 1.5x.
Choosing a lens
When choosing a lens, it's important to realize the implications your choices have. Check out another post I have called the Exposure Triangle, where you will learn about how lens parameters can affect the photo.
Zoom lenses do exactly that - they have a variable focal length (something like 18 - 55mm or 24 - 70mm) which allows you to adjust the field of view of the lens.
Prime lenses are non-zoom lenses, or what photographers sometimes fall "foot zoom" (i.e., you have to walk closer to zoom). Typically these are smaller in size and more simple in design with less pieces of glass inside the lens. For these reasons, prime lenses are often sharper than their zoomy cousins, and they also have a wider maximum aperture (like ƒ/1.4 compared to an ƒ/2.8 zoom lenses).
Constant aperture lenses have a non-variable aperture - it stays the same throughout the entire zoom range. The most well known is probably the flagship 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 lens. When shooting at 24mm you can open up to ƒ/2.8, and when zoomed in at 70mm it still opens up to ƒ/2.8. The benefit of this is that you don't have to adjust the exposure to compensate for a change in aperture. By definition, prime lenses are also considered constant aperture.
Variable aperture lenses change the aperture through the zoom range. This is generally an un-desired trait of a lens, but these make for great lenses to learn on.
Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization lenses feature a gryo-compensated element to correct for movement when shooting at slow shutter speeds, and some of them provide enough stability to shoot at 1/2s.
Autofocus lenses allow the camera body to achieve best focus rather than the user manually focusing the lens. Every vendor has their own autofocus (AF) technology:
USM: Ultrasonic Motor (Canon)
SWM: Silent Wave Motor (Nikon)
SWD: Supersonic Wave Drive Motor (Olympus)
SDM: Supersonic Drive Motor (Pentax)
SSM: In-Lens Super-sonic Motor (Sony/Minolta)
HSM: Hyper-Sonic Motor (Sigma)
USD: Ultrasonic Silent Drive (Tamron)
Some lenses allow you to turn the focus ring at any time for manual tweaks and some don't. Some lenses focus on older bodies and some won't. Some lenses "hunt" for focus and some snap to it quickly. Some lenses allow you to mount filters, and some have front elements that protrude making filters hard to use. We'd be here for hours discussing these things.
One of the first lenses I recommend people get is the very affordable 50mm ƒ/1.8 (Nikon Version, Canon Version). For about $200 you have a full-frame fast lens - a lens that has a wide aperture - and allows you to take photos in very dim scenes without sacrificing ISO or shutter speed. It's also great to achieve background separation, or bokeh as its known. Most lower-end zoom lenses have a variable aperture and don't allow for low-light shooting because of their smaller maximum aperture.
The third and final item you'll definitely need - a memory card.
Whatever flavor of card your camera uses (CF, SD, XQD), just make sure to get an authentic genuine brand and aim for the middle price range if you are unsure which to get. I've never had any issues with my Sandisk and Lexar cards - nearly 100k photos and not one corrupted photo. If you plan on shooting video, make sure your card supports the data transfer rates of video, or look for ones that are 4k rated. Why skimp on the memory card?
That's it for the essential gear!
..and that's exactly my go-to kit. My camera, a 35mm lens, and the memory. Check back for future posts on some non-essential but very useful gear including tripod selection, bags, and much more!
All of these choices in gear can be very confusing. Here's a few sites that allow you to compare specifications and read in-depth reviews:
1.) DP Review
DP Review's camera hub has tools that allow you to compare camera features/specifications, read in-depth reviews for individual cameras, and compare images from different bodies to assess high ISO noise performance and sharpness. Also, DP Review also publishes similar data in their lens hub.
Check out the high-ISO comparison between Canon's newest 5D Mark IV and Nikon's D750 side by side. Note the difference in black levels, sharpness, color within the noise, and slightly different rendition of color (check the queen's yellow hat, for example). The RAW images are available for download, if you would like to inspect or process them yourself.
2.) DXO Mark
DXO publish a more qualitative test on cameras, and share parameters like tonal range, dynamic range, and ISO sensitivity. Check out the same comparison between Canon's new 5D Mark IV, and Nikon's D750. Note that the D750 has almost one Ev better dynamic range at it's base ISO, but the 5D Mark IV ever so slightly beats out the Nikon at higher ISO.
3.) Camera Decision
Camera decision is a site that looks at 1-to-1feature comparison and sometimes reveals differences you may not have considered.
The folks over at Pixelpeeper have collected photos from various lenses and bodies, and this website can be useful when comparing features between lenses - things like how they render the out of focus areas (is it considered a very "busy" bokeh, swirly, or nice clean spheres of light?) and how the lenses handle any flaring or aberrations.
Pretty much the exact same as the above... just a different resource.
If you are still unsure what gear to buy and don't want to commit to a platform just yet, Borrowlenses offers a rental service for bodies and lenses and even has a used section to buy the gear if you like it.