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Buying Your First Camera? Consider These 10 Things First.

“Hey, I want to buy a camera, which one should I get?” I’m asked this question at least once a month, so it’s time to write a blog about it.

Congratulations on the start of something incredible. Photography is a life enriching, some would say “life-changing" experience. So, where do you start?

When people ask what camera to buy, they often mean which camera and LENS to buy, since cameras without lenses aren’t too useful.

Buying a camera is a lot like buying a car, if you know what you want to do with it, then deciding which model to buy will be easier. Do you want a race car, a pick-up truck or a sedan, or just all-around transport? Just like buying a car, cameras and lenses vary significantly in price and features. The good news is today’s camera and lens technology is incredible. Just like deciding between a Honda and a Toyota or a Tesla and a Polestar, the models are so good, it often comes down to personal preference. You should definitely consider used models when starting out, you can save a boatload of money, just get it from a reputable person or dealer.

There are many brands, I'd encourage you to put your hands on the camera and lens before buying. See what feels good to you. Explore which camera menus systems and features work for your goals. I started with Canon because their menu system was intuitive for me. I tried Nikon and it made me nuts. Nikon makes great cameras and lenses, it just didn't work for me.

Here are 10 questions to ask to help you decide which camera (and lenses) to buy. These are starter questions. As your understanding grows, you will understand that each question leads to many others. I can’t possibly answer all questions in one post, but this will get you started.

1) All In One or Interchangeable Lens System? Do you want an all in one camera and lens or are you willing to have multiple lenses that serve different functions? Are you the kind of person that just wants to turn it on and shoot? Do you actually ENJOY learning about the ins and outs of menus and lenses or do you need it to “just work?” If you are in the "just work" camp, get an all in one camera and lens.

2) What Do You Want to Photograph? Landscapes, portraits, sports and macro photography are all popular genres of photography. At this point you may not know what appeals to you, and that’s fine. Each genre has lenses that are better suited to it as a GENERAL proposition. Landscape lenses tend to be wider, say 10 mm – 30 mm. Portraits generally are thought to be best from 50-100 mm (with 85 mm often being thought of as ideal) because the properties slim the face. You can certainly take portraits with 70-200 lenses and many do. I have even taken portraits with a 150-600 mm lens which is very long but has nice compression. Sports lenses are longer lenses, often zooms for flexibility. High end sports lenses (think big fast white Canon lens at a soccer or football game) can get to 600 or even 800 MM and are often the most expensive lenses. A Canon 600 can cost around $13,000. A macro lens is special in the way that it focuses sharply with a VERY shallow depth of field. I have a gorgeous macro lens from Tamron that is 90 mm. Full disclosure, I have done a lot of work with Tamron. I love their lenses and find them to be an excellent value proposition. What you need to understand is that different lenses have different lengths and varied abilities to bring in light. (Learn about the exposure triangle for more on that). “Fast” lenses have wider apertures (openings) that let more light in, and that cost more. I’d say generally anything from a f/2.8 or wider is considered a fast lens. So, f/2.8, f/2.0, f/1.8, f/1.4 even f/1.0 are all fast and increasingly expensive. Fast lenses with wide apertures are often desired for low light portraits and indoor or low-light sports.

3) Expand and Grow Your System? Do you want the ability to expand your system with lenses? If you buy an all in one camera, and later you find out you need a specialty lens, say a 300 mm lens for sports – You might be out of luck. You might have to buy a new camera. Whereas if you bought a DSLR or mirrorless with interchangeable lenses you could keep the camera and upgrade your lens. Some photographers will tell you to "Date your cameras and marry your lenses." This is usually because lenses are so expensive and it is not uncommon to keep lenses and trade up cameras. 

4) Weight and Size? Some cameras are bigger and heavier than others. The weight may not make a difference from your car to a studio, or on a short hiking trail, but if you hike in the mountains for 11 hours, trust me, it matters. DSLR’s (Digital Single Reflex Lens) cameras have been king for many years, they are bigger and heavier but very reliable and tough. I once bounced my Canon 7DMk2 off the side of a mountain in Canada. True story. The lens almost survived until it took an odd bounce into the air and landed  on a rock, but the metal camera was fine. I put a new lens on and kept shooting the same day. The 7DMk2 is a beast (photo below). The weather sealing on the 7Dmk2 is great. I have shot that camera in rain and snow and the peaks of Patagonia in the freezing winter and it was terrific. I love it and still use it regularly with my awesome Tamron lenses. The 7DMk2 has an all metal body, but it is NOT light. This year I bought a Fuji X-T4 mirrorless, it is smaller and lighter and has a higher resolution sensor. The Fuji X series prime lenses are lighter and more compact, than DSLR lenses. You can compare the size of the primes (fixed focal lengths, below, with the Tamron Zoom lenses). Both camera systems and lenses have their place and value, it depends on what and how you are shooting.

Left to Right: Fuji XT-4 with flip out screen, and 56 mm f/1.2 and Canon 7DMk2 DSLR with Tamron 24-70 f/2.8. Middle Fuji 16 mm and 56 mm. Left Tamron 70-200, Tamron 15-30 and Tamron 24-70 f/2.8

5) Video?  Do you want to shoot video? If so, you likely want a hybrid camera that can shoot stills and video. The Panasonic Lumix cameras are excellent all in one cameras with excellent video. The Fuji X-T4 is an excellent mirrorless hybrid camera. I really like the flip out screen (see above photo) that my Canon 7Dmk 2 does not have. If you want a camera that shoots video you need to have at least a passing familiarity with frame rates, and video formats so you understand what your output will be and how that affects your final product. This is a deep topic, to say the least. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources on the web if you are interested in video. 

6) Aesthetics? Do aesthetics matter to you? Do you like vintage dials? Some people care about camera styling, some don’t. To me the Fuji X line is really gorgeous. I love the vintage look of the dials. Some people don’t care and that’s fine.

7) New or Used? Do you care if it is new, or is used ok? There are some incredible deals out there if you shop used from a reputable dealer. If you can get your hands on a used 7DMk2 or a Fuji X-T2, they are a few models back but would make GREAT starter cameras for those willing to have interchangeable lenses. As an example, there are 4 main differences between a Fuji X-T4 ($1700 body only) and the Fuji X-T2 (about $600 used body only). The X-T4 has: 1) A swing out flip screen which is arguably better for movies, and vlogging; 2) IBIS (in body stabilization) which makes it easier to capture sharp videos and stills easier while handholding and in lower light; 3) MUCH better battery life, you might have to carry 3-4 batteries to shoot all day with the X-T2, but perhaps only one with the X-T4. 4) Higher video frame rate which allows for more slow motion video playback. These may not matter to you and you can save $1,000 and buy a sweet lens or two, or maybe 2/3 of a sweet new FUJI 50 mm f/1.0!

8) Lens/Camera Compatibility? You can buy all your cameras and lenses from one maker like Canon or Nikon or Fuji. You can also buy a camera from one company, and lenses from another.  Do you have access to lenses from another system? Lenses are expensive, they go from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. If you have a friend or family member who will sell their lenses or let you use their lenses, give consideration to buying a camera that works with those lenses. Be aware that there are 3rd party lens makers like Tamron and Sigma that produce great lenses and are compatible with some cameras. You’ll need to check each camera and lens combo. I had a bunch of Tamron lenses and bought a Fuji, which is not generally compatible with the Tamron. I found the Fringer adapter and now I can use all of my Tamron lenses on the Fuji, along with the gorgeous Fuji primes like the 16 mm f/1.4 and the 56 mm f/1.2.

9) DSLR or Mirrorless? Do you understand the difference between mirrorless and DSLR? Short answer, DSLRs are a mature, proven system and they are heavier and bigger than mirrorless camera systems. Mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirrored shutter that goes up and down (hence the name). Mirrorless systems typically have electronic shutters which are typically faster. Full frame is a third option and medium format is a 4th but are generally not starter cameras, and both the cameras and lenses are considerably more expensive.

10) Price Point? How much are you willing to spend out of the gate? For about $1,000 you could get a nice combo of Canon camera (maybe a T6i or T7i) and a Tamron all in one lens like the 16-200. You could go mirrorless and get a used mirrorless that is less expensive,  see my points about the Fuji X-T2 vs. Fuji XT-4 above. Are you willing to carry several lenses or do you only want one lens you never have to change? New mirrorless cameras are about $1700 and up, and lenses vary from about $350 up to about $900.

PRO – TIP #1 Tripods – If you are going to do any photography involving a tripod – think landscape photography and/or studio portraits, you will most likely want a tripod. Get a good one the first time, and get a ball head. Expect to spend north of $300. If you buy a cheap one, under $100, expect to buy several more.  I am a fan of Manfrotto tripods and accessories. In my experience, their gear is durable and long-lasting. I have taken their tripods to four continents and beaten them up. Full disclosure, I do a lot of work with Manfrotto. See my blog about tripods discussing features, height, connector plates and more.

PRO-TIP #2 Filters – If you shoot landscapes, or shoot video during the day you are going to need filters. Filters reduce the light coming into your camera to prevent over-exposure and to allow creative photography like long exposures. Nisi Optics is my go to filter company. They make all kinds of filters, graduated, ND, circular polarizers, drone filters and more. Nisi’s filters are high quality and I find they don’t have the nasty color cast of some other filters I have used. Disclosure I am a Nisi resller. Check them out for yourself. I bet you will not be disappointed with the quality. Send an email to me if I can help you select or purchase a Nisi filter. 

PRO-TIP #3 Study the Masters who came before you. If you enjoy a genre, study the masters of that genre so you can learn. Henri-Cartier Bresson, Michael Kenna, Salgado, Dorothea Lang, Andrew Bernstein are all names you should know. There are many, many more.

PRO-TIP #4 Shop Local  Your local camera shop is the best place to try out cameras and lenses in person. Shop local whenever you can, particularly now. You want these stores to be around when you want to try before you buy, or to answer technical questions. My local shop of choice is Silvio's Photoworks in Torrance, they have great staff, very helpful people, no hard sell. When you buy local, they support your local tax base.

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