Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cameras–Is it time to upgrade?

One funny thing that happens to me a lot is that many people I know outside of work seem to think that I do audio, video, and/or photography for a living.  My job is in software development, but that is apparently less glamorous than multimedia to the general public, so for some reason I'm known better to people in my personal life for the things that I like to do with media rather than creating software.

So one of the questions I often get asked is “which camera should I buy?” Or the same question phrased differently, “should I get a new camera?”

For some reason nearly everyone interested in photography gets stuck on camera technical specifications. For example, the first question people ask me about one of my cameras is “how many megapixels is it?” when in reality that number doesn't really mean much of anything these days, as I'll discuss later.
So in attempt to sort of pacify everyone, here are some general guidelines on what cameras to look at, and whether you should upgrade your existing camera to something newer or more expensive.

Digital SLR

First, advice for people who already have a digital SLR camera and are thinking about upgrading…

You probably don't need to upgrade if…

  • Your camera has a resolution of 6-8 megapixels or better, and you do nearly all of your shooting outdoors during the daytime.
  • Your camera model was released during or after 2009.

You may want to consider upgrading if…

  • Your sensor resolution is less than ten megapixels, you do a lot of cropping on images, and you create large prints.
  • You shoot at night or indoors a lot, and for whatever reason don't want to use a flash or a large aperture (f-stop less than 2.0) lens.
  • The limitations of your equipment are preventing you from getting the shots you want.


While most digital SLR cameras released in the last 10 years or so are capable of really good pictures during the daytime, many models released before 2009 struggled to perform well in low-light situations.  Then in 2009 something magical happened, where all of a sudden cameras from all manufacturers were being released with better clarity and low-light sensitivity with much higher usable ISO settings.  If you shoot in low-light (such as indoors or at night) having a 2009-model or newer camera can make a big difference.
If you shoot primarily in daylight, or with a flash, or a large aperture lens, you probably don't need to upgrade.  Even early model cameras going back to 2004-2005 still do really well in these situations, and you wouldn't gain much by moving to a newer camera.

If you really have an itch to buy new camera equipment, lenses are always a much better investment than electronics.  A good quality lens will make a bigger difference in picture quality on an older body than a cheap lens on a newer, more expensive body.  And lenses hold their value really well – oftentimes you can resell a good lens for the same price you originally paid, or take just a minimal loss on it.  The value of anything electronic, especially digital camera bodies, plummets very quickly.

What should I get?

Even the most inexpensive digital SLRs take amazing pictures these days, and most models released since about 2010-2011 shoot pretty spectacular video as well (as long as you are willing to focus manually).  Unless you have a very specific need for a higher-end model, the cheaper (and usually lighter and smaller) bodies make a lot of sense.  I own several SLRs, and when I want to take a camera with me that isn't too big or bulky, I take my 2010-model Canon T2i because it is small, lightweight, and takes fantastic pictures.  I only use my bigger and bulkier SLRs when I need fast control over exposure settings. The bigger, more expensive models really don’t take better pictures than my much cheaper T2i.  They're just faster to navigate and provide professional-level control.  (As for lenses for my T2i, my 10-22mm wide goes with me for indoor shots, 50mm or 85mm for portraits, and the kit 18-55mm, 28-135mm, or 24-105mm for outdoor shots depending on how appropriate a big lens is for the situation.)

I’m primarily a Canon guy, so I really like the Canon T3i, T5i (adds touch screen), 60D (no touch, but adds more buttons for more control; no lens with this link).  All are well under $1000, and are excellent.  Full-frame bodies like the 6D or 5DmkIII are of course amazing, and they give better low-light sensitivity, a wider field of view, and of course much more control, but at much greater cost – $2000 or more, without a lens.  Unless you're shooting professionally it’s hard to justify the price.  The SL1 is also nice because of its tiny size (and it is tiny for an SLR), but it is otherwise essentially the same as the T5i without the flip-out screen at considerably greater expense.

Canon also makes a lower-end model called the T3, which takes good pictures, but difficult to recommend because you can get a lot more camera with a used T2i (sometimes for less), or the T3i for not much more money.  The LCD screen on the T3 is quite poor, and doesn't flip out like the T3i (for easier shooting above or below eye level).  The T2i/T3i is also faster, has a lot more resolution, higher quality video, and much better low-light sensitivity, among other enhancements that to me make it a better buy.  But if the T3 is what you can afford, you're still going to get great pictures.

Nikon also makes great cameras, but I don't follow their lineup closely enough to make specific recommendations.  The one thing to watch out for on Nikon cameras is that the less expensive bodies (< ~$700) don't have the mechanism to autofocus on “AF” series Nikon lenses, and those lenses happen to be the less expensive ones.  So plan on spending considerably more on lenses with Nikon than Canon if you buy a cheap body.  If you get a D90 or more expensive model, the AF lenses will autofocus and the less expensive lenses are fine.

I’d be a little careful about buying other DSLR brands, as the lenses made for those cameras have inconsistent quality and you have to be really careful about what you buy.  If you invest in Canon or Nikon equipment you can be assured that you're always getting something at least very good, if not excellent.  Neither brand makes bad stuff.

If you're just starting out and want to buy your first digital SLR, get the T3i or T5i.  Anything more complicated will be overwhelming because of its complexity, and won't give you better pictures.  The kit lenses included in the box have really good image quality these days, and will be sufficient for new photographers.  Once you begin to understand photography a little better you can step up to a better lens for more control over what you shoot, and you won't have to upgrade your camera.

With that said, everyone with an interest in photography and a digital SLR camera should own a 50mm prime lens.  Canon 50mm f/1.8, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 manual or auto focus (the first link will autofocus on the more expensive Nikon camera bodies, but not on base models).  They have excellent image quality and are very inexpensive. They give you the ability to shoot pictures with a soft, out-of-focus background that you can't get otherwise without spending a lot of money, and as such they make spectacular portrait lenses.  They also allow you to shoot indoors without a flash in moderate lighting.

In the end, though, if you already have a digital SLR and it doesn't have any glaringly horrible problems, you're fine sticking with it rather than upgrading.  Spend the money on a new lens instead.

Point and Shoot

The quality of point-and-shoot cameras is all over the map.  So it is pretty hard to make specific recommendations. 

For the most part you get what you pay for.  If your camera cost you $150 or less and you're thinking about upgrading, I'd just go ahead and do it.  A P&S camera that sells for $250 is always going to be a significant upgrade over anything ever sold for less than $150, and is probably worth the money.

Point-and-shoot cameras have also improved significantly over the years too.  A P&S camera from more than 5 years ago is really going to pale in comparison to something newer. 

So as a general guideline, I’d say that if your camera is more than 3 years old, or cost you less than $150, yeah, you should upgrade if you're considering it. 

What should I get?

Camera manufacturers release new models of their point-and-shoot lines quite often – it isn't unusual for a model to be discontinued and replaced after just 6 months.  So specific models are something that I don't even try to keep up on.  So I won't make specific recommendations.  They'd be out of date rather quickly anyway.

So instead I'll give you one piece of buying advice… ignore the numbers.  Ignore the resolution (megapixels), ISO sensitivity, etc. entirely.  Despite what the difference in numbers might tell you, performance of nearly all cameras in this category are all about the same, given similar lenses. 

The one biggest factor to look at is the size of the lens.  Specifically, the glass in the lens.  The bigger the lens, the more light it collects, which improves image quality.  A small difference in lens size can make a big difference in picture quality.  So I'd recommend buying the camera with the biggest glass within your budget.
The other thing to look at is the optical zoom capability.  Many times manufacturers will try to hide this and give you a digital zoom number.  Digital zoom is useless.  Only look at the optical zoom.  Buy whatever suits your needs.

The other thing I'll mention is Optical Image Stabilization technology.  This compensates for the shake that is inherent in cameras that are being held by hand.  It is especially important in point and shoot cameras because they are tiny (and therefore harder to hold steady) and don't handle low-light as well as SLRs, so they require longer exposures which increases the likelihood of motion blur.  IS technology is very highly recommended unless you shoot on a tripod or only take close pictures in daylight.

As for brands, Canon is the clear winner in this category.  They consistently produce the best images, and are generally quite easy to use, relatively speaking.

Smartphone cameras have gotten much better in the last few years, but they really still pale in comparison to point-and-shoot models.  Not only do P&S produce much better quality pictures, they also have a real zoom capability.  The only smartphone cameras that I've found that does what I would even consider a passable job are the Nokia Lumia 1020, 920, 928, and 925, or the HTC One.  Not even the iPhone 5 or any of the Samsung Galaxy S series are any good unless you're shooting in the noonday sun.

Other Camera Types

There are a few other types of cameras out there, such as mirrorless, and rangefinder, but getting into a discussion about those is well beyond the scope of this blog post.  I'd be happy to answer questions if you're considering one of these other types.

A Final Word about Megapixels

The more megapixels the better, right?  At least that’s what camera manufacturers and salespeople would like you to believe.  But that isn't necessarily the case, especially on small cameras like point and shoot and smartphones.

The trouble with increasing the number of pixels is that in order to add more pixels the pixels themselves have to become smaller.  And smaller pixels means that less light is captured.  Which then in turn creates noisier (less clear) images, and less ability to handle low-light situations like you would find indoors or at night.
Generally speaking, as long as a camera has 6-8 megapixels of resolution, it is sufficient.  In fact, the higher you go above that the more processing has to be done and blurrier your images become to remove the extra noise, especially when shot under conditions other than sunlight in the middle of the day.  An 8-megapixel point and shoot is generally going to be preferable to one with a 13-megapixel sensor, especially on small sensors like those in a cell phone.

Higher resolution pictures also take up more disk space.  Double the number of pixels, double the size of the file.

Always remember that the highest resolution “normal” computer monitors are about 2 megapixels at best.  And 3 megapixels is enough for printing an 8x10.  You only need higher than 3 if you are quite exuberant in your cropping of images (to simulate zoom after-the-fact, for example) or if you are printing at 11x14 or larger.  Any extra resolution is wasted, and taking up extra disk space.  So, with all other things (*cough* lenses *cough*) being equal, choose a camera with the resolution closest to the 6-8 MP range.  Even photography magazines, who are notoriously picky, only require about 5 MP for print.


Chances are if you already own a digital SLR it is probably fine.  But if you own a point-and-shoot which isn't brand new or didn't cost more than $250 you could benefit from an upgrade.

SLR cameras are more of a long-term investment while point-and-shoot cameras are meant to be more-or-less disposable.  And the lens on a camera makes more difference in picture quality than the camera itself.  And aside from the top-of-the-line models, for the most part you get what you pay for.  Keep those things in mind while shopping and it will be hard to go wrong.

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