It’s an argument we hear all the time: the camera doesn’t matter nearly as much as the vision and talent of the person operating it. And yet, we still hear that nagging voice in the back of our head… “if I only had a better camera/lens/accessory.” Indeed, I’ve worked my way up from my old Nikon EL2, to my first AF camera (Nikon N70), to an F5, and then to all flavors of digital cameras. Along the way, of course, I was taking more and more photos and growing into my gear. To make things even more complicated, the camera manufacturers release new models all the time, begging us to upgrade to the latest and greatest features. So whether you’re just getting into photography or considering an upgrade, I want to take a quick look at the discriminating factors with today’s digital cameras.
Choosing the Camera That’s Right for You
It’s a great time to be a photographer. Good cameras and lenses are available now at just about any price level. When it comes to image quality, today’s entry-level models would beat the pants off many high-end cameras from just a few years ago. When you look at a camera, there are a few major features to consider:
- Image Quality
- Ease of Use
Let’s start with image quality. In a simple sense, think of this as how well your camera delivers colors, tones, and noise-free detail. In other words, we’re looking at the camera sensor. The biggest discriminators in this category are resolution (megapixels) and low-light performance (ISO). What’s amazing is that just about every DSLR out there delivers the goods when used properly. Resolution is no longer the domain of the top-end camera, as even the entry-level Nikon D3200 offers 24 megapixels. You can crop with relative abandon or make huge prints from just about any DSLR today. When it comes to noise, every camera I’ve played with delivers good results through at least ISO 1600. That’s territory that no film could ever match with clean details and excellent color.
So what do the top-end cameras offer to set them apart in this category? Not much. Top-end models will usually have slightly better metering systems (increasing the likelihood of a well-exposed image), and slightly better file-saving options for capturing color tones. While all Nikon DSLRs can capture a RAW file, the higher-end models allow you to save your RAW images with lossless compression and higher bit-depth. Most of the time, these differences are completely unnoticeable in the final image.
A camera’s performance usually comes down to two things: frame advance rate and autofocus performance. If you want to shoot action, these parameters will be important to you. If you shoot landscapes or portraits, then these features don’t matter much. A few years ago, the performance differences between the top and bottom end cameras was quite pronounced. A low-end camera might have only offered three or five AF points and a continuous shooting speed of less than three frames per second. Now, most DSLRs offer at least 11 AF points and 4-5fps burst shooting. Higher-end cameras offer 50+ AF points and 9-11fps shooting. Having more AF points and a fast burst rate is not a prerequisite for sports or action photography. These systems increase the probability of capturing a moment of peak action…assuming you know how to properly use the system. For a lot of people, 51 autofocus points would be frankly overwhelming. And I’ve seen my share of people missing shots because they haven’t learned the nuances of their complex camera. Capturing nine out of focus shots per-second isn’t really ideal.
Ease of Use
People often say they want a camera that’s “easy to use.” For some, that means a camera with minimal buttons and fully automatic “scene modes” that allow them to just point and shoot. That’s one definition. Of course, you can also look at it from the other side of the equation, too. A camera with more dedicated external controls means you’ll have simple, direct control over settings like metering options and ISO settings. For enthusiasts and pros, time spend messing with the camera menus means potentially missing shots. As you go up the DSLR ladder, you’ll find more and more direct control options. For me, this is one of the main reasons I prefer my Nikon D4 over many other cameras. On the other hand, for a lot of people, buttons just make things seem more complicated, creating confusion and causing intimidation.
Today’s cameras do a lot of amazing things. They shoot video. They can control flashes wirelessly. They can even connect to your local computer network to transfer files. Rarely are these options the ones that should influence your buying decision, unless there is a specific need, like a particular video format or flash-sync speed. However, there are other things to consider that can impact your photography. Camera size can be very important. Even a small DSLR with a kit lens is fairly big and heavy to transport. When I’m on vacation, I like to use my little Nikon 1 camera, as it weighs next to nothing and still delivers better images than my iPhone or a traditional point and shoot.
Ok, so now what?
If you’re looking at cameras, keep in mind that there will always be a new and improved model around the corner. Don’t worry about that. The camera in your hand today will always capture better shots than one you don’t have. Every DSLR made today will deliver damn good image quality; even the low-end models blow away what was out there 3-5 years ago.
You should consider moving up to a higher-end DSLR model if you routinely:
- Shoot in very low-light conditions without a flash (i.e., concerts or sports)
- Need to deliver peak action shots for clients
- Shoot in conditions that require a rugged, weather-sealed camera
- Require high-resolution images for large prints or demanding clients
- Spend the time necessary to learn the nuances of your camera
My recommended Nikon cameras
- I just want a good camera for family use: Nikon D3200 or Nikon 1 mirrorless camera
- I want room to grow and photography is my passion: Nikon D7000 or D600
- I want a high resolution camera for portraits and landscapes: Nikon D800
- I photograph concerts, sports and wildlife as a serious endeavor or professionally: Nikon D4