Brad Templeton's Photography
What Digital Camera Should I Buy?

What Digital Camera Should I Buy?

(This is a companion to my article on What lenses should I buy for my Digital SLR.)

There are a ton of digital cameras available, and they are all great fun. If you haven't already gotten a digital camera, you don't know what you are missing. They have been a great success because they make people enjoy photography in whole new ways that film doesn't.

But which one should you buy? The answer depends on how serious you are about your photography, and often the answer may be "not just one." The more serious you are, odds are you will get at least 2, if not 3. (Especially if "you" are a couple that usually travels together.)

For most people, the answer will be a "point and shoot" (P&S) camera in either the supercompact or compact sizes. For serious photographers it will be a digital SLR where you can change the lenses, often in addition to a P&S. For a small subset of folks it will be a P&S SLR, which is a bulky P&S with a large lens that you can't change.

As to which brands to get, I'll get into that later. However, I will point out that if you are going to have more than one camera, there is a lot to be said for having two that take the same accessories, such as memory cards, batteries and even external flashes. That can save a lot of money, and travel weight.

I've bought camera gear from Amazon and been satisfied. I get affiliate money if you buy via this box, but my opinions are not influenced by it. Feel free to bypass the box if you prefer.

Digital SLR

An SLR, by which I really mean an "interchangeable lens" camera, is the only choice if getting top quality photographs is what you care about most. Quite simply, the lens is the most important technical factor in a good photo, and only in this format can you get the best lenses, and only in this format can you change to use the right lens for the job. (Note that the most important factor in a great photo isn't the equipment at all -- it's the light and the photographer.)

In addition, the DSLRs also happen to have the best imagers, which makes this doubly true. There is no inherent rule that requires this, it is simply that since DSLRs are bought by those willing to spend the most money, they have the best sensors.

However, there are a number of reasons wny not to use a DSLR.

Because you often won't carry this camera, I recommend most serious photographers also have a P&S which they will carry more often. There, the choice is between a larger P&S with some decent capabilities (like a fast lens, a flash shoe and a better sensor) which will fit in a handbag but not a pocket, and a pocket size camera that will always be present.

Which DSLR?

Well, I've been exclusively with Canon. I like the UI and am familiar with it, and they have some very fine lenses available. However the truth is that both Canon and Nikon make high quality products, you are not going to go wrong with either. While the other vendors make good products too, I would stick with these two leaders unless you have a particular fondness for another brand. They have the most users, the most support and the most accessories, as well as 3rd party accessories that are much easier to find. You will find a much more robust market for buying and selling used (and new) stuff on eBay.

Some people who have older lenses from a film camera they liked to use may decide to stay with the same sort of camera. That can make sense if you are very used to the products, or your lenses are particularly good. However, if your lenses are from an earlier lens mount without autofocus, you really should consider selling them and buying new autofocus lenses while there is still a market for the old lenses, rather than buying an adapter for the mount. Autofocus is worth it so much of the time. (So if you have FD lenses there is no particular reason to stay with Canon, other than that you like the new Canons models.)

In the Canon line, it's great to start out with the latest Digital Rebel. They are light, have the same sensor as the higher end (50D) model, but are not as rugged and are missing the useful wheel on the back and some shooting modes. If you get a bit more serious you can move to the higher end cameras. As you get better at photography, you'll find you can make use of the better controls, larger viewfinder, faster shooting rate and durability of the higher end.

The best: The 5D Mark II

If you want the best, the one I personaly carry, and you have $2600 to spend, then just about every serious Canon photographer I know today today is carrying the 5D Mark II. Really.

That's a "full frame" camera which means the sensor is as big as 35mm film. Bigger sensors are what it's all about when it comes to quality, especially in low light, but there is a catch: Lenses tend to be better in the middle than at the corners. On the small sensor cameras (7D, 50D, Rebel T1i) the corners are not in the picture. On the 5D they are.

On the other hand this is not bad with good lenses, so the smaller sensor cameras are wasting a lot of what the lens produces, and thus you are carrying around bigger, heavier lenses than you need.

The 5D Mark II, has several incredible things that make it the only camera to carry if you're serious, even above the top-end "pro" cameras.

(The ISO level is a measure of how well the sensor picks up light. At ISO 3200 the 5D Mark II is 32-40 times better than many pocket cameras which shoot at 80-100!)

Note the 5D lacks a flash, as do the higher end cameras above it. On-camera flashes pretty much always provide bad pictures, but sometimes they are the only way to get an indoor picture. And they can do fine in sunlight as a "fill" flash. But as noted, you can often take indoor pictures without a flash, especially with an image stabilized lens.

If you're the person who is ready to buy the 1D or 1Ds line, which are big, heavy, full frame cameras that cost many thousands, this isn't the article for you. You should buy a 7D, 50D or 5D (or Nikon equivalent) first and see if you really want to move up from there. They are very fine cameras but they are heavy, to the point that many in the working press carry the 5D or even the lighter cameras to save their shoulders. That leaves the higher end cameras for people doing landscape, studio and wedding work.

Rebel vs. 7D/50D

The Rebel cameras are very similar to their high end cousins. The 50D and 7D have a better, sturdier body, and a wheel on the back which allows faster operation in manual mode and a few extra controls. They had a few other useful features. The high end cameras are your choice when you're more serious and not ready for the cost of a 7D. The rebels are actually the better value in camera per dollar, and by a decent margin.

The 50D features 10MP and a vibrator to shake off dust. The 7D is 18MP and has 2 fancier processors with better autofocus and more. Among these cameras the difference between 8MP and 10MP is very minor. Make your choice on other features -- you might consider used older cameras as a great bargain.

Larger P&S

For many people, I recommend a larger point & shoot camera. If you think you want a DSLR but only want to have one super-zoom lens for it, you are really better off buying a high end P&S which will be cheaper, lighter and smaller, and sealed from dust. When you are ready to graduate to having multiple lenses, sell the P&S on eBay (you may not lose all that much on it compared to the depreciation on the DSLR you are wasting with just one lens) and pick up what you need.

If you're getting a P&S to go with your DSLR, then I recommend getting the same brand, or one that at least uses the same type of memory cards, batteries and flashes. For example, my Canon "G" series uses all these same accessories as my Canon DSLR. I would not buy two big fancy flashes for the P&S but I have them and can use them. As I said, lighting is core to a good photograph.

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If you want a camera specialty store, B&H is probably the best.
There are two types of larger P&S. There are "big lens" P&S which have a fairly large lens with a fairly long zoom range. Serious photographers don't like long zoom ranges (and almost never buy them for their DSLR cameras) because they always involve a compromise in the lens design. However, since you can never change your P&S lens, it is tempting to get it. (Though you can get lenses that stick on the end of your lens -- I have never done this because generally it's not considered to be very good.)

These bigger-lens cameras (sometimes called SLRs because their digital viewfinder does show you the true lens view but they have no reflex mirror) still tend to be bulky enough that you will only carry them when you are going out photographing. That makes me recommend against them slightly. However, there are some good ones from most of the major vendors. Don't go nuts on the zoom range, and the wide end is probably more useful than the long end, unless wildlife shooting is your goal.

Compact P&S

A compact P&S will possibly be one you can have with you all or most of the time, espcially if you carry around a handbag or usually wear a jacket with larger pockets. That can make a big difference, because as I noted, the camera you aren't carrying takes terrible shots. I believe the right choice is the largest and most featured camera you can get that's not too large that you will avoid carrying it a lot of the time, even if you have a better DSLR for serious photography.

You are going to have to make some compromises to get your camera that small. Your lens may not be as big as you like, or have as much zoom as you think you want. You may have to give up a flash shoe (though if you have fancy flashes, I would try to get it.)

The new G11 actually does decently well at higher ISO -- it has fewer pixels than its predecessor, a sign that Canon finally woke up.

Tiny P&S

I had not bought one of these until recently, but I was often jealous of the people carrying them because they are so small and light compared to what I am usually carrying. If you have the money, I think it's good to have more than one type of camera, perhaps even 3 different types.

Red eye is caused by light going out the flash and onto the retina and bouncing right back out to the lens. If you get a wide enough angle between the flash and lens -- just about 4" of distance may be all you need -- you can eliminate it. The "red eye reduction mode" on some cameras doesn't do much.

A tiny P&S will require some serious photo quality compromises. It will not have a big fast lens (and you always want a big fast lens if you can have it) or a long telephoto. It won't take an external flash and will come with an internal flash that's way too close to the lens, resulting in "red eye." On camera flash is always terrible of course, you get stark lighting with no shadows and people look like deer in the headlights.

The camera will almost surely not have a good low-light (high ISO) mode no matter what the vendor promises. These cameras use tiny sensors and they just demand more light for a good picture. If you never plan to do more than look at flickr-sized pictures, you can get away with the high-ISO modes on these cameras. However, this has changed with the new Canon Powershot S90, which uses a sensor like the G11's in a small package, with larger, lower-noise pixels. Alas, it is around $400.

But you will always have the camera. If something cool happens in front of you, you'll have a camera in your pocket. And that has a lot of value.

I purchased the Canon 870IS, which is a higher end unit. Having used it for a few months I can highly recommend it. Its main benefits are the wide angle lens and the image stabilizer. Its main drawback is that when using the full wide angle, expect the corners of the picture to be a bit blurry in comparison to the rest. But generally it has been quite impressive.

While obviously there are some shots that need long telephoto, the truth is I think the wide angle comes is handy much more often than the long tele. However, you can get a version of this camera which is not wide angle and thus goes longer.

The IS is very useful, because as noted, these small cameras are very noisy at high ISO speed. The IS lets you handhold longer shots. That doesn't stop moving objects from being blurry, of course.

Its lack of viewfinder (in order to make the screen bigger) has not been an issue.

Cell Phone Camera

Most cell phone cameras are not very good cameras. They really serve to just give you a low-resolution sense of where you are or were. This camera might serve as the camera you always have with you, so that you can get a larger P&S and not feel the need for a tiny P&S. If they do that, that's fine. They can take fine pictures of friends at parties and people standing in front of landmarks. But really, they are more about creating a momento than a quality photograph. If you just want momentos, they are great for that because you always have them.

A few phones, like the N95, reportedly have decent cameras.

How many megapixels?

Camera vendors love to tout their megapixels, but a lot of that is a lie. The truth is with the tiny sensors they put into P&S cameras today, having so many megapixels can actually be a bad thing. It makes the pixel sensors so small that they don't perform well. They are noisy and will do even worse in low light.

On the one hand, most people view 99% of their photos on the screen, and most people's screens are 2 megapixels today. On the other hand, I already have a 4MP screen and my old 3 megapixel camera pictures don't even fill it, and screens are going to get better. But lousy pixels won't cut it. If you truly need the high resolution, you may have to pay for it in a larger sensor camera. At a certain point, the quality of the pixels matters much more than how many there are. Anything 5MP or above is going to do fine for an average photographer.

You may even find that buying a used camera on eBay, one not trying to win the crazy megapixel race, is a good idea. Now newer cameras do have a lot of other useful things beyond megapixels, but the used camera's price will be cheaper because of that.

Now I should tell you that I do care about megapixels because I do very high resolution panoramas, and print them wall sized. So I need lots of quality pixels and thus have a DSLR. But most people don't do that, so their goals are lower. Fewer, higher quality pixels is a better goal.

This also plays into the camera's ISO ability -- a high ISO means the camera amplifies the signal to shoot in low light. Generally, the bigger each individual sensor is, the more you can do that without getting a lot of noise (grainy dots.) Don't expect a small sensor camera to do this well, and in fact many of them only shoot well at 50 ISO which is really only useful in bright conditions. Some cameras have a high-ISO mode where they shoot at low resolution and combine pixels together to battle the noise, and this can work, but don't expect high-res low light pictures from a tiny sensor camera. Again, it's more for momentos.

Pixel density

The quality of the pixels depends on how small they are, which is to say how many they pack into a square cm of space. Larger pixels have lower noise and can shoot in lower light. Here's a chart of the pixel density, in millions of pixels per cm2, numbers from

Canon 5D Mark I SR1.5
Canon 5D Mark II SLR2.4
Canon 50D SLR4.5
Rebel Ti1 SLR4.5
Powershot G1123
Powershot S9023
Older P&S (2006-07)25-30
Much older P&S12-20
Typical small P&S35 to 45

You can see the huge difference between the DSLRs and the various P&S, and also with the higher end P&S. The numbers on the older cameras are better but in this case it doesn't always mean the pixels are better because the technology has improved with time, so modern smaller pixels are similar in quality to the larger ones of 5 years ago, though there are limits.

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What is an SLR?

Note: The term "SLR" has gotten blurred with time. It stands for "single lens reflex." The "single lens" means that the viewfinder looks through the actual lens, so you see what it sees, and that is usually done with a reflex mirror that flips up. Looking through the real lens has a lot of virtues. The alternative is a viewfinder with its own lens, which never quite captures what the sensor does.

However, time has changed this. For many, SLR means "removable lens" just because all the SLRs of old did this -- SLR was in fact the only way to get a working viewfinder if you could change lenses. However, some vendors are calling higher-end fixed-lens cameras SLRs. They are partly right, because they now use a digital viewfinder, so there is just one lens, and you are looking through it. However, there is no "reflex" mirror, nor should there be -- that thing is mostly a burden to lens design. So they should call these an "SL" camera. If you're serious today, what you want is the ability to change lenses.

You can comment on this article at my blog post about it.