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This is probably the most common question there is, to which there are many
correct answers. Therefore, it's important thing is to learn how to
interpret answers correctly. There is a very broad range of first-time
camera buyers, ranging from the casual photographer who just wants to get
fun pictures of their kids on vacation or at events, all the way up to
the ambitious hobbyist who wants to get really serious with photography,
maybe even turn professional. Suffice to say that anyone reading this
article is probably not a professional, or even an experienced amateur.
(That is, unless you're here to evaluate my writing.)
The first mistake people make is asking this question to camera store
sales people. The second mistake is by asking professional photographers.
Why people do this is perfectly understandable: one assumes that a
professional knows the information so well, that they can just tell them
what to get, and the work is done.
Oh, if it were only that easy.
When I got started, I did the same thing: aked the pros. I got the stock
answer, "it depends on what you want to shoot." This got me nowhere fast.
I just wanted to go and shoot. But, instead, I was just given a huge
run-around of more questions that I didn't know:
What kind of pictures do you want to take?
I don't know. Good ones.
Do you want to shoot nature, sports, landscape, portraits?
Uh.... All of them, I suppose.
Then they'd throw a lot of technical information I didn't understand,
at which point, I was forced to go to the net to do research. Little
did I know at the time that their questions were literally useless.
Regardless of what I wanted to specialize in, or the kinds of photos
I wanted to take, none of these issues has anything to do with what
kind of camera to buy. In retrospect, I can speak as a professional
photographer now, the right camera to buy is based on very different
factors. I eventually learnedas you will (through me, perhaps)that
all the information I ever needed to know about what camera to buy was
from people like me (at the time), not the pros.
Now, when I say, "people like me" I didn't mean just going to a
best friend and saying, "what did you get?" You want to aggregate a
lot of information from a lot of sources. The best way to do that
is to use the net; read product reviews, newsgroups and discussion forums
where people just like you talk about this stuff. This doesn't have
to take a long time provided you bother to do it. It'll take a long
time if you don't do this research. You're going to save a lot of
time and headache if you stop asking individual people this question,
and instead, search the net for information. Once you get the info, the
next big challenge is interpreting it properly. Or, more accurately,
knowing what you need, versus someone else's needs. Oh, and being
able to discern biased pontification from Pros versus true, candid
advice from your peers.
The best way for me to help you at this point is to prime you for
understanding the issues involved. With this in mind, let me remind
you once again that you will almost surely make a mistake by following
the advice of one individual! That's why I'm not giving you a specific
recommendation on anything. I'm giving you a checklist of issues to
consider, with which you move forward with research.
Two Types of New Buyers
There are two types of people who buy new cameras: the ones that just
want to shoot casually, and those who are serious and eventually want
to progress either as a hobby or professionally. (There are grey areas
inbetween, I realize. We'll get to that.) 95% of people buying their
first camera don't have a specific idea of what they want to shoot:
people, landscapes, vacations, action shots, fine art, etc. You may
think you have a specific goal, but believe me, your ideas of what you
want to shoot will almost assuredly change within a year or two. (And,
if you are confident that you know exactly what you want to shoot,
and you end up sticking with it, I will chastize you later for being so
narrow-minded and not allowing for the flexibility of new creative ideas
hit you later.)
So, with the above in mind, let me ask this question: "do you regard
photography as something you take seriously, or are you only interested
in getting a good, easy camera for everyday subjects like your family,
events, and vacations? If you're going to be serious about itthat
is, you're going to be one of those people on a hike that annoys
everyone else who has to wait for you to take yet another picture of
that treeyou should start with a higher-end camera that you can grow
into as your photography evolves. There are comparatively few options
in this category that the decision-making is simpler. (That's the good
newsthe bad news is that they're also insanely expensive, which is
what suddenly turns it into a hard, deliberative decision. But we'll
get back to that later.)
On the other hand, if you're a casual shooter, the options for
consumer-rated point-n-shoot cameras are so vast, it'll make your
First, let me get this out of the way: film is virtually obsolete by now,
so, I won't even discuss film cameras here. And if you're interested
in a film camera, go to sites like www.photo.net and searching for
discussions on that topic. All that said, film-based cameras are not
that much different as far as photography goes from their digital
counterparts. They use the same lenses, and the technology of the optics
has nothing to do with whether the camera body is film or digital. So,
even if you are looking for a film camera, you can still learn quite
a bit from the rest of this article.
Regardless of digital or film, cameras are constructed in one of two
ways: point and shoot, where the body and the lens are embodied in a
single device; and SLR, where the body and lenses are separate. (The
letters S-L-R stand for "single lens reflex", which refers to the way
the camera is constructed.) For SLRs, you can buy an inifinite set of
lenses, for which there are infinite purposes.
Point-n-shoot Versus SLR Cameras
For the casual fun shooter, a point-n-shoot camera is often good enough.
They're light, easy, and all do a fine job. Pretty much any brand will
work fine and take great pictures. I even use a point-n-shoot camera for
those times when I don't want to lug around a big one. The question
is not about quality as it is about other features: usability, weight,
asthetics, and other details. I offer no advice on specific brands,
as there are way too many, you you should be reading product reviews from
credible sources on such topics. (Try searching for "camera reviews"
on www.google.com.) That said, I have written a companion article to
this one to address the subject, called, What Camera Should I Buy? (Part 2).
If you want to take photography more seriously, you want to buy an SLR.
These have more features and can grow with you as your photographic
The first thing to understand about taking great pictures is that
sharpness and overall quality of your pictures all lie with the lenses
and film. Which camera body you choose has nothing to do with your
final results. The body may make the process easier, and therefore it
is important. But, it's not all important as many people believe. You
can put a $10,000 lens on a $100 camera and get amazing results, but
a $100 lens on a $10,000 camera body will still look bad. With this in
mind, you want to go with a manufacturer that provides quality lenses
up the ladder, not necessarily because they make reasonably affordable
lenses. All manufacturers have a series of top-of-the-line lenses that
are capable of taking good pictures. It's the price, reliability, and
versatility that define their true differences. To see what equipment I
use, see Photography Equipment, but don't necessarily use what I use because
I use it. The point is, you need to understand this stuff for yourself
before buying anything. (The worst thing I ever hear people say is, "I'm
thinking of buying the new whizzy and expensive gadget for my camera,
although I'm not sure why. I'm just told that's the best one of its
class." While this kind of thinking does great things for our economy,
the poor guy buying a gadget he probably doesn't need.
In choosing a first SLR camera system, inform yourself on the most basic
aspects, so you don't buy what you don't need. Many people feel that
they will grow into cameras they have features or benefits they may not
need yet, and that's fine. But don't get that confused with not knowing
what those features are in the first place. Depending on how diligent
you are, reading various websites on technical matters should take you
a few days to fully understand all the issues. I've known people to
gather what they need in a few hours. This isn't rocket science. If you
tire of tech talk quickly, and just want to get a basic system, that's
fine too. But don't pretend to be serious about photography unless you're
willing to learn the details.
Once you're informed, the next step is just a matter of having good
shopping skills. I consider $1500 a minimal investing for serious
beginner that wants a good, starting SLR that will serve its purpose for
several good years at least, after which time your skill and competency
may demand more. If not, fine...but if so, you won't regret the initial
investment. You can always keep that first camera as a backup. Good
shopping skills means that you establish a good price basis using
comparison shopping sites like www.froogle.com. Once there, you'll
quickly see what the real street price is on equipment. Whether you
feel comfortable buying online, or in physical stores, that's up to
you. Just keep in mind that more experienced people never buy from
brick-n-mortar stores, and almost always buy online. You usually get
a lower price, you rarely pay sales tax (unless you live in the same
state as the selling company), and you can often get free shipping.
Ok. I'm done. Off you go.
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