“What Kind of Camera Should I Buy?”

For newbies, knowing who to ask and trust is critical. For experienced photographers, being a responsible advisor is equally important.

Jim Kuzman
Live View

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For many people testing the waters of photography as a new hobby, the excellent cameras in our smartphones replaced the once-popular point-and-shoot or entry-level interchangeable lens camera. But from time to time, people who know I am a lifelong photographer will still ask, “What kind of camera should I buy?” or point their friends and family my way when the time comes to think beyond their iPhones. As a fellow shutterbug, I suspect you, too, have been in that position.

As the adage popularized in the Spider-Man comics goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” While we aren’t wall-clinging superheroes, providing truthful and appropriate guidance to budding photographers is essential. Beginners “don’t know what they don’t know” and are apt to take the words and opinions of “experts” as gospel. Their long-term interest and success in photography depend on the information they receive early on.

Earlier this year, I bumped into a fellow photography club member in the flower gardens of our local metro park. Let’s call him Phil. I was carrying my little Fuji X-S10 with a 23mm f/2 lens. Phil was packing his Canon 5D Mark III and a 70–200mm f/2.8 zoom. As we were talking, a mother and her teenage daughter approached us. “You guys seem to know something about cameras,” said the mother. “My daughter wants a ‘good camera’ to take nice pictures of flowers and landscapes. What would you recommend?”

Ordinarily, I answer that question with more questions because it is impossible to make a good recommendation based only on that information. We have no idea how serious her interest is, how much (or how little) she knows about the basics of photography, or how much she WANTS to know. We have no idea of her budget. We don’t know if she has friends or family members already invested in a system with whom she might be able to share lenses given a compatible body. The list of unknowns goes on.

But before I could say a word, Phil — who has a very high opinion of his own opinion — had set his gums to flapping. “If you’re going to shoot outdoors, you want a Canon. Nikons are fine in the studio but no good outside. Make sure you get a full-frame camera — they’re better.” He had lots more to say, but I was so aghast that I quietly walked away. And besides, to the uninitiated, his gear screamed “professional photographer,” and my little Fujifilm looked like a Soap Box Derby car at the Daytona 500.

If you’re a newbie looking for advice, beware The Expert. If you’re an experienced photographer, wield your expertise responsibly. Image: Adobe Stock.

To begin with, his assessment of Canon vs. Nikon was pure nonsense, but he said it with such utter confidence that anyone who didn’t know better would accept it as truth. Indeed, the mother and daughter were enraptured by this photo club equivalent of a television evangelist.

And then there was the full-frame comment. For starters, he’s using a term that made no sense to his audience. And, of course, there’s the blanket assertion that a full-frame sensor is “better.” In some cases, they absolutely are, but you need a LOT more context to support that claim.

As I was leaving the park, Phil was still holding court, and his tongue was still wagging, but the look on the women’s faces had gone from enthralled to overwhelmed. Phil’s goal wasn’t to help an aspiring new photographer. No, he was committed to showing off how much he knew, even if 95% of it was a wheelbarrow full of… nonsense.

A couple of months later, the photo club was invited to our local university to tour the College of Fine and Performing Arts and hear a presentation by the professor in charge of the photography department. We walked into a classroom full of high-spec iMac computers and a row of large-format printers. The professor explained that the iMacs were loaded up with Adobe Photoshop. “We teach our students to shoot RAW and edit in Photoshop,” he explained, “They shoot only in RAW because you can’t edit a JPG.”

I had to bite my tongue. Unlike Photo Phil, this man was a formal educator in charge of the entire photography department at a state university. But there he was, spewing just as much nonsense to students who paid good money for formal education. There was no context or nuance. No “Often, RAW files provide more latitude in editing” or “We shoot RAW because it better supports our post-processing curriculum.” Nada. Just, “You can’t edit a JPG.”

As for Photoshop, there’s no denying what that software can do in the right hands (and for the record, those hands are not MY hands), but for basic photo editing, it’s akin to cracking open a pistachio with a sledgehammer.

I left worried that an entire student body would never know the satisfaction of making a worthwhile image right in their cameras, enjoy the freedom of spending more time taking pictures and less time editing them, or discover the joys of the beautiful film simulations manufacturers like Fujifilm offer.

How I Respond When Asked, “What Camera Should I Buy?”

As I mentioned, when someone lays that question on me, I reply with questions of my own, typically starting with the same basic few:

“Have you owned a camera before?” Their answer will provide some insight into how much experience they have. I often hear, “No, I just use my iPhone,” “I had a Canon AE-1 back in the ’80s and loved shooting film,” or “No, but my sister has a Sony, and it takes beautiful pictures.” Those answers are very different, but they all start to paint a picture and will determine where things go later in the conversation.

“What kind of pictures do you want to take?” Someone who answers, “I want to take pictures of my daughter’s soccer games,” has different needs from someone who says, “I’m planning to do a lot of traveling now that I’ve retired.”

“Do you think you’d be interested in a camera that allows you to change lenses?” This might require some explanation of the benefits and drawbacks of an interchangeable lens camera. Still, it helps set a baseline for their expectations and suggests whether they are thinking in terms of a camera or a camera system.

“What is your budget?” Some people will answer that question with another question of their own: “I have no idea; how much does a good camera cost?” — which opens the door to an entirely new sub-conversation. Others will toss out a price range and give you a starting point.

“Do you consider yourself a technically savvy person?” Cameras can be incredibly complex, and even experienced photographers are often frustrated and stymied by poorly designed menus or too many customization options. Any camera can be set to full auto mode and make decisions that render a good photo in most situations, but all can benefit from some optimization right out of the box. This question also opens the door to the inevitable conversation about computers and tablets, as even photographers who have no interest in post-processing their images will, at the very least, need some means of getting the files off the camera’s card so they can be viewed, culled, sorted, organized, stored, and shared.

“Do you have any family members or close friends who are photographers?” I ask this question for two reasons. First, new photographers often need a mentor, even just to help set up the camera or go over the controls. Assuming it’s someone qualified (and they’re not related to Phil), there might be merit in choosing the same camera brand — so long as it legitimately suits their needs — since their mentor will presumably know their camera well. It also provides opportunities to share lenses.

Compact fixed-lens cameras like the Fujifilm X100V can be a great choice for new and experienced photographers alike and make a great lightweight choice for travel. Image: Adobe Stock.

What to do with the answers.

Hearing the answers to these questions will provide you with some basic knowledge, but they will also prompt more questions and help steer the direction of the conversation. Of equal (or greater) importance listening to how the person speaks and reacts will give you an abundance of clues about their needs and themselves.

I usually assume someone who asks, “What kind of camera should I buy?” has little to no knowledge of cameras or photography at the outset — otherwise, they wouldn’t be asking the question — and don’t overwhelm them with a bunch of options or confuse them with technical jargon too soon. The “full frame vs. APS-C vs. m4/3” conversation can wait.

Unlike Photo Phil and Professor RAW, I am careful not to push my personal preferences onto them. They will invariably ask what cameras I shoot with, and I always qualify the answer with the reasons behind my decision. For example, “I chose the Nikon Z6 because I liked the ergonomics, and I was very impressed with the quality of the Z lenses.” Or “I bought the Fujifilm X-S10 because it was compact and comfortable to hold, I love using the film simulations to get great pictures with no post-processing, and I already had several Fujifilm lenses that I really liked.”

Finally, I always encourage people to find a good brick-and-mortar camera store, even if it means driving an hour or two from home. Not all stores are created equal, and it’s crucial to find one that not only carries all the brands they might be interested in but also keeps the customer’s best interests in mind when making their own recommendations. A knowledgeable friend or mentor serves as an invaluable “wingman” on the first visit.

Patronizing your local camera store lets you get hands-on with the gear. Image: Adobe Stock.

A local store also lets them see and hold the cameras in person. It is impossible to get an idea of how a camera feels in your hand from looking at a website. They may start out wanting a small camera only to realize the buttons feel cramped. Or maybe they appreciate build quality and higher-end materials and might be put off by the feel of an entry-level body.

So, the next time a wide-eyed newbie finds their way to you looking for advice, remember that what you say to them matters. Ask questions, listen to their answers, and give them a thoughtful and truthful reply. Your words could mean the difference between them embracing photography as a way of expressing and sharing their artistic vision for the rest of their days or deciding never to pick up a camera in the first place.

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