Friends often ask me what kind of camera they should get. Usually, it’s because someone wants a new travel camera, their first real camera, or they want a device capable of more functionality than their smartphone.
It’s a bit of a difficult question, as the camera industry is in transition with mirrorless cameras almost outselling DSLRs now.
But there are some easy qualifiers. Someone’s first camera or a new travel camera should offer a couple of things:
1) The ability to shoot manual: Knowing how to shoot manual is the singular skilled shared amongst serious pro and enthusiast art photographers. Though camera software systems continue to improve with technologies like eye recognition, autofocus interprets a shot in just one way. That limits your artistic flexibility to create depth of field, long exposures, creamy bokeh, etc. If your interest in photography expands, you will want to learn how to shoot manual.
2) Flexibility to evolve: Some people just buy a camera for special trips and occasions. Others evolve and want to do more as their skill set grows. Usually, that means upgrading a camera body or buying new lenses. If you choose to upgrade your body, then you will want your old lenses to work on the new body.
So 90% of the time I recommend an interchangeable lens camera system. Fortunately, these qualifiers are not very limiting. Many camera systems will anchor you and provide the flexibility to grow through the years. That way if you want to take landscape photos, you can get a wide angle lens. If you want to take macro photos of flowers, you can buy a long macro lens.
The usual exception to this rule is folks who want a strong travel camera that offers a lot of flexibility, without any lens changes, etc. They simply want to pull out the camera and shoot. I usually recommend a Fujifilm x100f (the above sunset was shot with an x100f), Sony RX100, or Nikon P1000, depending on their needs.
Camera Technology Debates
The recent Nikon Z and the Canon R camera system launches provoked a ridiculous online debate called the mirrorless wars. The debate featured an Internet-wide series of suspicious trolling comments that were pro-mirrorless Sony. This commenting wave or campaign trashed older DSLR technologies as well as Nikon and Canon’s newer full frame mirrorless offerings. The debate even featured a “Can’t we all get along?” post published in several publications across the industry.
The brand war didn’t help folks trying to get into photography much. Instead, it just produced more questions. Confusion of this nature can mislead someone into buying the wrong system for their needs. I liken this to buying too much car: You need a fuel-efficient commuter car, yet you end up buying a Mercedes C 350e.
Much of the mirrorless war debate dealt with full frame technologies, a 35 mm format favored by serious enthusiasts and professional photographers. Full frame cameras are expensive, whether they are labeled “prosumer” or professional grade cameras. In reality, they are probably too expensive for most people.
Many more cost-effective camera systems use smaller mirrorless 4/3 and both traditional and mirrorless APS-C sensors, also called crop sensors. All of the major brands have decent options here.
Let’s assume you are not ready for a full frame camera from an interest, skill, and/or a cost perspective. You still have many camera systems from which to choose.
From the mirrorless side, Fujifilm’s X series of cameras are fantastic. I shoot Nikon and am well entrenched in their system, but if I was a would-be enthusiast starting from ground zero, I would pre-order a Fuji XT-3, or buy a Fuji X-E3 or a heavily discounted XT-2 today. Fuji offers a mature XF lens mirrorless system with plenty of flexibility to evolve as your skills grow.
There are many more good choices. Olympus and Panasonic continue to wow mirrorless enthusiasts. Sony has an aging but still good a6000 series of cameras. On the traditional DSLR-side, Canon and Nikon have excellent affordable APS-C cameras in their Rebel and Dxx00 lines, respectively. Canon also has a popular M series of crop sensor mirrorless cameras.
Generally, I try to steer people towards the mirrorless side of the house. Reading the tea leaves, it seems evident that in five years most cameras will be mirrorless. Creating flexibility for the future probably means getting into a good mirrorless system.
A camera is just a tool. A mirrorless camera will not make you a better photographer than a traditional DSLR. Learning how to shoot and edit your photos will deliver the result you want.
Ignoring the Hubris
One final word on technology: You don’t need 16, 24, 46, or even 100 megapixels to become a good photographer.
I see a ton of photos every day when I go through 500px. Some really great photos made with “non-professional” cameras just stun me.
I also see a lot of photos that lack in lighting, composition or some other aspect(s), at least to my tastes. It’s surprising how many of these lesser photos are made with shockingly good equipment.
You wouldn’t buy thousands of dollars worth of culinary tools to learn how to cook. Instead, you would experiment with recipes, watch how-to videos online, maybe even take a class. The same could be said for your camera and photography.
Remember, great photography comes down to the person holding the instruments. For most people, the number of slots your camera has, or whether or not it has in body stabilization, or if the camera is full frame, APS-C or 4/3, or PhaseOne, Canon, or Olympus does not matter.
Whatever system you choose, have fun.