What’s the best camera? How can I get that professional look to my photos? What camera do you use? These are the type of questions I regularly see in my DM’s from budding photographers looking to find out where they should invest to take their photography to the next level.
In this post I am going to break down the differences between the major camera systems and explain what might be best, for you, by helping you narrow down the options that are important for you, but I have to start with the truth.
The truth is, as I’m sure you’ve already heard, that what camera you use really isn’t that important.
Look, I know that gear matters, I don’t live in some delusional world where I think everyone should be shooting feature films on cell phones… but you could… like seriously it’s actually been done pretty successfully!
There are a lot of factors that go into imaging before light ever hits a lens or sensor, and mastering those things (as well as really knowing how to use the camera that you DO have to properly expose images) will make a bigger difference in the impact you have on your audience than what camera you buy.
OK now I’ll start getting into the stuff that you really came here for, but seriously do not ignore the advice if you ever plan on going being a professional and charging people for your work you want to focus on perfecting your craft not the gear.
Where do I start?
First thing’s first, what are you using your camera for? AND what will you be using it for in the future? (this is important because later on I explain how you kind of get stuck with your choice)
What you use your camera for and what kind of images you want to create should determine your decision for the most part, not just the name brand on the camera. To get you started I have a bunch of questions you can ask yourself to gain clarity on what you want to use your camera for (this isn’t definitive as you gain experience you’ll have more of these questions just by knowing your work and your goals).
- Am I shooting photo’s or videos or both? (people who shoot both call themselves hybrid shooters)
- What Genre’s am I interested in? (portraits/ street/ landscape etc)
- How much money do I have to invest into a camera system?
- What kind of environments will I be shooting in? **1**
- What do my friends/mentors shoot with?
Lets unpack that last question really quickly before we move on, this is really one of the few times where brand kind of matters. See, if you know a more experienced photographer who shoots a given system, they might let you borrow gear, or if you ever second shoot for them you may need to use some of their accessories and having the same camera system as them makes it so that a lot more things are compatible across your camera body and theirs. This isn’t a a huge factor for everyone which is why it’s the last on the list, but depending on your situation it is something to consider.
An important thing to understand is that when you get a camera you are not just buying a camera, you are buying in to a camera system. Every camera body manufacturer has their own lens mounts (and accessories) that are completely incompatible with any other manufacturer (with some exceptions **2**). This pretty much locks you into their system because you can often loose money if you decide to switch to a new system. Now before I move on to helping you make a decision based on your answers I have to tackle an issue that you may or may not be aware of depending on how new you are to photography.
DSLR vs Mirrorless
For that uninitiated, when it comes to “professional” cameras there are mainly two types, DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras which have a mirror in them, and mirrorless (i think that one is self explanatory). The main differences are how the focusing systems and viewfinders work. You can look into this more if you want, but I’m gonna give my recommendation… MIRRORLESS. I’ll explain.
If you shoot video at all mirrorless is better because optical viewfinders(dslr) are pretty useless for video because they don’t give you a preview of your exposure and only offer basic metering. Mirrorless cameras give you a true preview of video in the viewfinder which is useful for pulling focus checking exposure and monitoring in bright sunlight when screens get harder to see.
If you shoot photos in natural light with a mirrorless camera, you can see your pictures before you take them by pressing the shutter button. You can also get an approximation of what the image might look like with flash all before you press the shutter button! And what you see in the viewfinder is exactly the same as whats on the rear screen. With DSLR’s focus is generally much worse once you stop using the viewfinder (except for canon Dual Pixel AF cameras), you are also not seeing a preview of the image you are just seeing light reflected which some people like but it doesn’t realistically offer many benefits over modern mirrorless cameras where electronic viewfinder lag is no longer an issue.
Mirrorless technology and more recent that DSLR tech, and it’s the future, so for pretty much everyone I suggest just going mirrorless except…
- If you’re on a super tight budget so you’re buying used and want access to years of old legacy lenses and bodies at low prices.
- If you are some kind of hipster that want to learn to expose the old way where you cant see the picture before you take it but you also don’t want to go as hardcore as shooting film, where you have to wait for a chemical process that you probably wont be doing yourself and will have to wait forever and pay for. (If this one is your reason just shoot film anyway it’s awesome!)
I’m not hating on DSLR or film, I actually still shoot film for some of my personal work because I’m one of those hipsters. And you can shoot great stuff on dslr’s or film it’s just that for the far majority of people a mirrorless camera will give them the most freedom to create.
Micro Four Thirds vs APS-C vs Full-Frame vs Medium Format
Now I’m going to do is pretty uncommon, I’m gonna straight up tell you what I think is the best sensor size for beginners generally, people like to dance around this issue but I’m gonna be straight up and say aps-c. While aps-c isn’t the right choice for everyone I think it’s a good starting point for a few reasons. But first let me explain a bit about what all those words in the subheading.
These are the main camera sensor sizes in order from smallest to largest. Sensor size does play a role in the final image but there are pro’s and con’s to all of them. I’ll keep it short and general but feel free to leave any question in the comments.
Generally the smaller the sensor, the smaller the camera you can make, and the smaller the lenses you can make. Also Smaller sensor ecosystems also tend to be less expensive in general.
However, the larger the camera sensor the better it performs in low light situations, and you also have an easier time of getting shallow depth of field (the blurry background thing) especially at wider angles of view.
If you’re the target audience for this post then medium format probably isn’t for you, it’s big (except for the new Fuji), expensive, and you probably don’t need it. A medium format camera is one of those things where if you’re going medium format you’re probably already experienced enough to know exactly why you need to go medium format.
Full frame is a great option if you have the money, but if you’re just starting out you may not be sure that you want to spend several thousand dollars for a full frame camera and the full frame lenses to go with it.
Micro four thirds is a good option, but if you ever decide you want a larger sensor you will probably have to spend a lot because the micro four thirds mount isn’t compatible with anything with a larger sensor.
Overall aps-c is best because there are a lot of low cost aps-c bodies, and depending on the manufacturer you may be able to put on full frame lenses which you won’t have to sell if you ever decide to upgrade to a camera with a larger sensor as long as you stay withing their ecosystem. Canon and Nikon are really good for this if your’e going the dslr route, while Sony and Fuji make great aps-c mirrorless cameras.
If you have a Sony (Canon or Nikon as well) aps-c camera you could only buy their full frame lenses, then if you ever decided that you needed the benefits of full-frame all you would have to change is the camera body and nothing else. At the time I’m writing this Fujifilm doesn’t do full frame so there’s no upgrade path there, but as I’ll discuss in the next section you don’t really need to think for getting a bigger sensor as an “upgrade” necessarily and may not ever need to go full frame or medium format. And Canon and Nikon are kind of just getting into mirrorless and their offerings are not to compelling so i cant recommend them unless you want to go the dslr route.
Lets dive deeper…
So right now I’m shooting on a panasonic g9 as I’m working on a review of it, I’ve been using it for all of my paid work for months now. I shoot a lot of portraits and like using shallow depth of field sometimes. It would be easiest and cheapest to get this effect on a full frame camera, but i can still pull it off on my g9 by understanding what effects depth of field. And the G9 offers price to performance that for what I do, is the best on the market right now.
It’s also generally easier to get wide angles of view for landscape photography on full-frame cameras but a lot of landscape pro’s shoot micro four thirds because they have to walk around a lot, and a micro four thirds system can be way smaller and lighter than a full frame system in many situations, and when shooting landscapes the deeper depth of field that you generally see on micro four thirds can actually be an advantage.
I just had to dive into this so that you really understand although I am gonna make some general recommendations, it really is true that you have to find what works for you there’s no unbreakable rules when it comes to making art. So no matter what camera you buy what matters most is your knowledge of photography.
That’s all great but what should I actually buy Jamal?
What you can afford.
Ok I’ll get more specific.
In my opinion you should invest in Sony or Fujifilm.
Sony if you plan to go full frame one day, and Fuji if you like the design of their cameras (they have a great system of real tactile controls that makes shooting fun, they feel kind of like old film cameras). Whatever system you choose get whatever camera you can afford with a kit lens. We’ll talk about lenses in another post, but kit lenses are a great learning tool even though they generally aren’t the best lenses you can get for any given system.
So if you wanted to go Sony and had $500 i would get an a6xxx series camera.
If i had $2000 and wanted to go fuji I would get an xt series camera.
Now as you decide your budget remember that you will end up wanting more lenses and accessories in the future so you don’t necessarily want to put everything into the camera body because lenses actually play a huge role and in the long run you end up keeping those for longer periods and switching out camera bodies every few years.
All that being said going with a Panasonic or Olympus camera isn’t a bad choice either. If you’re a travel/landscape/adventure photographer things like their smaller cheaper weather sealed bodies might be worth it for you if you don’t really need anything you get from a larger sensor. For Panasonic and Olympus I would say the same thing just get what you can afford and upgrade from their there, shooting micro four thirds locks you into brand a bit less because you can use Panasonic and Olympus lenses interchangeably although they do perform slightly better on their native systems or so I’ve heard. I use mostly Olympus lenses on my Panasonic bodies and never had any issues.
Panasonic is coming out with a full frame camera which looks promising but i haven’t used it yet and you still won’t be able to use lenses from their micro four thirds system.
But what about Canon and Nikon?
Honestly Canon and Nikon are fine and you can make great pictures and videos with those systems. But lately neither company has been giving their customers what they ask for. It seems to me like both of them are resting on the fact that their the big names in the industry which is not a good sign in the longs run… because capitalism. That’s why I can’t whole heatedly recommend them. Trust me I loved canon, getting a Canon 60d changed my life it was my first “youtube camera”, and Nikon putting two card slots in the d7100 made it so that i could do pro gig’s on a budget with confidence that I was never going to have to tell someone i didn’t have their photo’s because something happened to one of my sd cards. But Nikon and Canon just announced their full frame mirrorless offerings recently and they have one card slot…
I really don’t want to hate on Nikon and Canon so I won’t, but I’m definitely not going to recommend them too highly… at least not right now (unless you want to buy a used camera that’s mainly for photos). Hopefully they can get their acts together but right now and in the foreseeable future it looks like Sony, Fuji and Panasonic are the way to go.
Again Canon and Nikon just aren’t giving consumers what they want except for Canon with the articulating screens, that’s why I have reservation recommending you go into their system. You may end up needing more than what they choose to offer down the line as they transition into mirrorless. And if you decide you want a Canon or Nikon mirrorless then you’ll have to get an adapter for all your lenses when you could have just gone with a mirrorless system to begin with where you wouldn’t need adapters.
In the long run I think Nikon in Canon will have competitive mirrorless bodies but if you aren’t already a Nikon or Canon shooter there’s really no compelling reason to wait around for that. And right now their about a generation behind other mirrorless manufacturers.
Specific Recommendations for Beginners
$400 - Used Panasonic G7 (good for people mainly interested in film making) - This camera has the best video of all the cameras on this list(4k) except for the other panasonic, it has a fully articulating touch screen, easy to use menu’s and good ergonomics. The downside is that it has a smaller sensor so it isn’t great in now light and the autofocus in video is not very good. Serious video shooters manual focus mostly, however with the fully articulating screen it’s good for YouTubers and those folks might want to use autofocus, it’s workable but not the best. It’s performance is comparable to the gx85 later down but it has a bigger body (which might be a plus depending on what you want) and no In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)
$450 - Used Nikon d7100 (good for people mainly interested in still photography) - Dual card slots (so you always have a backup of your pictures), great ergonomics and the widest selection of lenses. The cool thing about Nikon is that they kept the same mount longer than anyone else so you have access to lenses going back to the manual focus only days. The downside is that eventually if you want to go mirrorless you will have to buy an adapter for your lenses, and Nikon has never really done great video, the quality is usually fine but the live view autofocus and mic pre-amps leave a lot to be desired.
$450 - Sony a6000 (Best Overall price to performance) - Really compact travel friendly camera with good autofocus and video quality, fully compatible with any sony e-mount lens, decent video and stills, just a great all around camera. But the battery life isn’t the best, the menus suck, and the screen doesn’t fully articulate and isn’t touch sensitive.
$550 - Canon SL2 (good for vloggers) - I put this on here because it has a fully articulating touch screen and it’s cheap. You have access to the full line of canon legacy lenses and because of dual pixel AF you can use it like a mirrorless camera. Canon makes a similar mirrorless camera called the M50 but that has a limited lens selection without adapters and it’s more expensive than $600 which is what I decided to cap this at. This may be on ok choice because canon will support your lenses if you ever switch to their mirrorless system but then you have to factor in the cost of an adapter when you switch which is a downside shared with the Nikon. This is the only camera on this list with a fully articulating screen, which is great for recording video of yourself especially combined with canons excellent dual pixel AF in video.
$550 - Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III (2nd Place better video) - This cameras has IBIS which is great for stills and video, records 4k, and has a titling touchscreen. However it has to tie with the next one because It’s although the XT-100 is more expensive it does have slightly better image quality. Both cameras have cool design and decent usability, although the Fuji may be a bit better in the usability department.
$600 - Fujifilm XT-100 (2nd place better photo) - Great lens selection, classic design with fun to use dials and tilting touch screen. Probably the most fun to use camera but with fuji you will never have the option to go full frame (not a big deal IMO). Fuji is know for their design as well as their colors and this camera doesn’t disappoint I usually don’t shoot jpeg but i could shoot fuji jpeg and not mind at all because they do great film simulations based on their classic film stocks. I think this is the best overall camera because it’s gonna be the most fun to use, its small so it wont be a pain to take with you, and the fuji image processing will give you cool looking images with minimal effort in post. All those things are great for beginners but it is the most expensive on this list and does loose pretty significantly to the E-M10 Mark III in terms of video.
$500 - Ebay Panasonic GX85 with kit lens (Best all around Usability, Performance, and Price average) - so unfortunately this camera is discontinued but you can still find grey market and open box type of stuff on ebay. It’s very comparable to the Olympus on this list but you can find it for cheaper. I think $500 with the kit lens is a real suite spot, all the other camera prices were body only. I reviews this camera on my youtube channel actually and didn’t keep it because the video autofocus isn’t great in video. However that was the only thing I didn’t really like about the camera, it has everything any of these other cameras have except for a fully articulating screen. IBIS, 4k video, good photo autofocus, tilting touch screen, good menu system and usability, and this camera wasn’t really overhyped so you can easily find them for cheap with a kit lens which means you don’t have to spend any extra money right away on a lens so that you can get shooting. The kit lens is decent and has a useful focal range and it keeps the system really small which is good for travel. Overall a great camera at an even better price point, the only downsides are that you are using the smaller sensor micro four thirds system and it looses to the Canon and Sony pretty badly in terms of autofocus in video.
Here’s the thing…
This is just a general guide with some basic recommendations, but you should shoot on whatever you think works for you. I’m just here to give you information so you can make the most informed investments.
A camera is a tool, and your only limit is your creativity! What you really need to do is shoot as much as possible, and the best camera for doing that is whatever camera you have with you, even if it’s just your phone.
If you have questions or what to get more particular in my recommendations or if you want to ask what I think of a particular camera asked me in the comments below. And if you’re looking for some educational material to help improve your photography check out my store!
Thanks for reading!
P.S. There are some cool developments I didn’t talk about like Panasonic having a full frame option now, I just felt like since the cameras aren’t out and I haven’t used them I can’t fairly asses the system (similar story with the new Canon and Nikon Mirrorless) however the Panasonic does actually look promising in terms of features at least.
**1** If you shoot in harsh environments you may want to look into weather sealing and things like that most cameras are good about that but Sony has had some issues in the past.
**2** Panasonic and Olympus lenses are interchangeable on micro four thirds. Panasonic, Leica, and Sigma lenses are compatible on full frame. And generally you can get a lot of third party accessories that are cross compatible but you have to do your research.