DSLR Buyer’s Guide

I’ve seen – and repeated, and believe to a big extent – the photographic maxim that it’s not the gear that matters. But that statement should always have an asterisk next to it, because sometimes gear does matter.* If you’re shooting with a point-and-shoot camera or a camera phone and realizing that A: you’re really enjoying photography, and B: you’ve started to hit some frustrating limitations with your current gear, you’ve probably given some thought to buying a DSLR or compact interchangeable lens system. As with the other guides that I’ve put out this week, the SLR guide (which you can also apply to Micro 4/3) has less to do with brands than with the questions it’s helpful to ask – sometimes of yourself, sometimes of the person at the camera shop – before you buy.

Do You Already Own an SLR? If you shot in the film days and still have a brace of lenses, it may be worth sticking to the same mount. Of course, there are caveats: if you used Pentax, Nikon, or Leica, more of those lenses will fit the manufacturers’ current models without adapters than the others. If you used Minolta (whose later AF lenses fit the Sony Alpha mount), Canon (who changed mounts in the 1990’s) or Olympus, your mileage may vary… some lenses will fit, while others will require adapters. Not all lenses will work perfectly on all cameras; you may lose autofocus or metering, for instance. But being able to use older lenses on a new body can represent a significant savings.

What Can You Spend? Start here. What you’re willing or able to spend is going to determine quite a bit else. If you’re budgeting for lenses along with the camera and something’s got to give, go cheap on the body, not the glass, and you’ll thank me later. Once you’ve figured out your price range, you can narrow it down to a set of bodies that fall within those price points.

What Category of SLR? Here, we’re talking about types rather than brands. Broadly speaking, your choices break down to entry-level, consumer, “prosumer” and professional, in addition to the usual divide between full frame or crop sensors. Because a camera is consumer-grade doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get consumer-grade photos out of it; a number of factors, including the quality of the lenses you put on the camera, and the skill level of the person behind the camera, will do just as much to determine that as will the body.

That’s also not to say they’re all the same. Each step up in a manufacturer’s lineup adds something that the camera “below” it didn’t have. By way of an example, let’s do a cursory comparison between the Nikon D5100 and the Nikon D7000. The 7000 has a larger, heavier body that’s sealed better against the elements, and uses more metal in its construction. It also has a built-in AF screw, more manual controls, dual card slots, better battery life… I could go on, but I think you get the point. A similar comparison between the entry-level D3xxx and the consumer D5xxx would reveal similar differences. Figure out the specs that matter to you, and buy accordingly. And don’t worry if your next-door neighbor shoots with a “better” camera (unless he offers to pay, in which case, he can be as opinionated as he’d like); after all, you’re the one who’s going to be using the thing.

New or Used? If you can find a used camera with a low to moderate number of actuations (clicks), it can represent a significant savings over buying new. A body that’s two to three (or more) generations old can run a fraction of the cost of something newer, and as long as you’re buying from a reputable seller (that is to say, a local shop and not Craigslist or eBay), it should be a safe buy. Used equipment is also good for someone who’s just dipping a toe in the waters, or just doesn’t feel like plunking down hundreds/thousands more on a newer model. The trick to buying an older body is to know what improvements have been made in technology since the model you’re looking at was last on the shelves. Each generation brings improvements in ISO, image quality, and other parts of the feature set, and knowing the differences between models allows you to make an intelligent decision on the kinds of tradeoffs you’re willing to make.

How are the Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked forum (dpReview, Canon Rumors, Nikon Rumors and the like) or a review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.

How’s the Ecosystem? If you’re married, or have ever thought about marriage, you’ve probably heard it said that you don’t just marry someone, you also marry their family. That also, in a roundabout sort of way, applies to cameras. You’re not just buying a camera body, after all; you’re buying a “family” of lenses and peripherals (speed lights, GPS dongles, video microphones, and lots more) to go with it. The investment in glass alone can – and likely will – run you at least as much as the cost of the body, if not much, much more.

And the lenses are more important, in a sense, than the body. Remember, the technology in your camera will become obsolete at some point. That doesn’t mean won’t still make photos (and very good ones). But you may find that in a generation or two, you may want to upgrade your body. Lenses, if you choose them carefully, don’t become obsolete; they hold their value much better (at least in the case of OEM lenses, though some aftermarket lenses retain value well).

If you’re buying a used body, you can usually find a good, and inexpensive, used kit lens. Your other alternative is to pick up a 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8 as your first lens. On one hand, you don’t get the convenience of a zoom lens. On the other, however, primes are great learning tools, in addition to being great for creativity and shot discipline. They’re also sharp, inexpensive, and fast. You’ll appreciate the flexibility you get in low light, or in isolating subjects with shallow DOF, that you won’t get to the same degree with a zoom unless it’s a very expensive zoom.

Examine the Guts:  The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to lead with the megapixels. They’re the least of your worries. A higher megapixel count has its places, but also its problems. Higher MP counts mean larger files, which mean slower write speeds if the camera’s processor is poky, and also means that you’ll find yourself running out of drive space that much faster. If you’re trying to decide between two versions of the same camera (say, a T2i and a T4i), pay attention to the processors as well, since changes in the processor can mean better stills and videos, quicker write speeds, et cetera.

How’s the Build Quality? Although SLRs mostly share a very similar form factor — pentaprism or pentamirror atop a body that accepts lenses of varying types and sizes, usually with a grip of some sort — there are variations (some subtle, others not) in how those things are implemented, and how it all fits together. See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. If the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.

Controls – what you’ve got and how it’s laid out – also matter a great deal. Just remember that generally, more manual (more knobs, buttons and dials) means more money. The upside is that it can also mean fewer headaches, since those external controls give you the option of changing settings at eye level versus having to explore menus every time you want to change something. Even if the camera has more controls than a small aircraft, I’d still suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. You can and should familiarize yourself with the manual, but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.

Ready for Your Closeup? Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result. The one caveat I’m going to add before you get started: whatever lens you plan on using at first – a kit lens, a 50mm f/1.8, an 18-200mm – use that for your test shoot. You don’t want to put a 60mm macro on the camera to test it, and then go back home and shoot with an 18-55mm. You want the photos to look like they’d look as you would shoot them.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks. In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How about with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing? Is the viewfinder bright and easy to use for manual focus? Is the LCD sharp and clear, even in bright light? If you plan on using the video feature seriously, make sure you also put the video features through their paces.

Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the auto white balance? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor. Don’t forget that this is all about capturing your vision, so it’s all about what looks pleasing to your eye.

A Few Thoughts in Closing: Remember that you’re not done just because you’ve picked your camera. You’ll also want to consider the following:

  • Spare batteries: I strongly suggest a battery from the camera manufacturer, especially if you’re buying new.
  • Memory Cards: One for the camera, plus one spare (or one per slot if the camera has dual card slots, plus spares). Avoid Class 2 cards, and stick to class 6 or class 10, especially if you plan on shooting video or doing a lot of burst shooting.
  • Case: You’ll need some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place. There’ll be a case buying guide in this space tomorrow.
  • Strap: I know, your camera probably came with one. You want to hear the one thing that pretty much any photographer — die-hard Nikonian, ardent Canon fan, Sony partisan, etc. — can agree on? Ask them about the straps that came with their cameras. They’re uniformly scratchy and uncomfortable. Don’t do that to yourself, especially if you’re going to have it around your neck for any length of time. There are much better options, from the pricey but lovely Black Rapid to straps by MOD and Crumpler (the latter is my personal favorite, especially if you’ve got heavier glass on the end of your camera). Your neck will thank you.
  • Support: If you’re shooting with an SLR, I’d suggest investing in a tripod or monopod before putting money into additional glass. Even a mediocre tripod beats the best image stabilization system if you use it properly. Just don’t be stingy spending on a tripod. Yes, you can get one at a flea market for 25 bucks… and that $25.00 “investment” is all that’s going to be between your expensive gear and the pavement. Think about it.
  • Cleaning Equipment: I’ve written elsewhere about cleaning supplies for cameras, and rather than belabor the point here, I’m just going to suggest you check out that article:

There are other doohickeys and gadgets to go with your camera… speedlights, ring lights, reflectors, macro tables, backdrops, extension tubes, teleconverters, and lots, lots more. However, if you take the stuff above into consideration and choose carefully, you’ll have built the foundation for a solid kit, and a hobby — or an obsession — that you can spend a lifetime learning and perfecting.

*For why the gear doesn’t matter, read this. For why it does, kinda, read this. Then take an aspirin, which you can probably find here. The first two links are my takes on the “gear doesn’t matter” argument, and that last one’s an Amazon affiliate link. Your purchases through that link help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

**Incidentally, if you don’t want to spring for a new camera strap yet, consider a seatbelt cover. It’s not the most attractive option, but it’s cheap, effective, and surprisingly comfortable. If you end up with a pair, use the other one for the shoulder strap on your camera bag if that’s not already padded.

Lens Buyer’s Guide, Part Two

You don’t have to be a frequent visitor to photography forums to have asked yourself whether you should be investing in bodies or in lenses. My personal opinion, for what it’s worth ($.05, adjusted for inflation) is that if you choose your glass wisely, you’ll have an arsenal that you won’t outgrow, and that will be equal to any camera body you put it on. Your investment in lenses will probably surpass what you spent on your camera body, so it’s best to research carefully before buying.

Sometimes the latest glass really is your best bet, especially when there are performance issues addressed in later iterations of something, or when the design is significantly upgraded (quicker autofocus, better coatings, et cetera). The issue there is that the latest lenses also come with the highest price tags. When I posted Part I of the Lens Buying Guide yesterday, I hinted that there are ways to save significantly. There are two ways of doing this: one is by purchasing older lenses, some of which are still made (or were made in sufficient quantity that your local camera shop will still new copies in stock). Another option is buying used.

A word of caution before we get started: before buying a lens — new or used — consider whether or not you actually need it first. If you’re undecided, check out the Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Buying Anything and Everything, which is your handy Magic 8 Ball for buying camera gear. For the rest of you who’ve decided, here’s an annotated checklist for your next lens purchase. Some steps will apply mainly to purchasing used lenses, while others are a good idea whether it’s used or brand new.

1. Check your mount: Some systems, like Pentax or Nikon, are very flexible. Nearly everything ever made for Pentax SLR’s will fit nearly every Pentax SLR ever made, and Nikon’s used the same F mount on its SLRs since 1959, though not all lenses support all functions (see below). If you’re using another brand, your mileage may vary; if you’ve got older Canon,  Olympus or Sony lenses, you can use older glass (in Sony’s case, lenses made by Minolta before Sony bought them out lock, stock and barrel), but in some  cases you’ll need an adapter.

2. Autofocus (AF) Type: If you’re using an older film body that doesn’t autofocus, or if you prefer/don’t mind manual focus, AF stops being an issue. Some SLRs use a screw drive AF system, while others require the lens to use a built-in motor. Consumer SLR’s generally won’t have an AF motor, so lenses that require one in order to autofocus will only focus manually. If you’re used to manual focus, or if it’s a lens that’s as likely to require manual focus to work correctly (like a macro telephoto), an AF motor isn’t as much of an issue.

3. Lens Speed: Consumer zooms typically have a variable aperture, with many starting at f/3.5 at the wide end and stopping down in stages as you zoom in (typically stopping down to f/5.6 by the time you’ve hit the end of the zoom range). Prosumer and professional zooms tend to have a constant aperture throughout the zoom range (generally f/4 or f/2.8), but the size, weight, and cost of those lenses are going to be higher (often much higher) as a result. The cost of a prime, in the meantime, is dictated in large part by their maximum aperture. An f/1.4 will be more expensive than an f/1.8, which will be more expensive than an f/2 or f/2.8. The added speed does give more options when you’re trying to blur a background out of focus or shoot in very low light, but unless you need that all the time, it might be hard to justify spending several times more on a 1.4 for a fraction of a stop of extra light.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what you’re dealing with, it’s time to start getting a bit more specific about your research.

4. Check Reviews: As I mentioned yesterday, reviews can be a good indicator of whether a lens is worth your time and consideration. They’re not foolproof, but they’re certainly helpful. Poke around enough and you’ll see references to other lenses – sometimes older/newer versions from the original manufacturer, and sometimes alternatives from a third party manufacturer like Sigma, Tamron or Tokina – that may also be worth a look. If you’re looking for a single lens (let’s say a macro telephoto), make a list of your options.

5. Build Quality: This may be covered in your research ahead of time, but you’ll also be able to tell quite a bit from an in-person inspection. See if the lens mount and filter threads are metal or plastic, and also how much plastic is used in the rest of the body. Heavier lenses tend to be better-built, but they’ll also tire your neck and shoulders that much faster when the camera’s around your neck for any length of time. It’s up to you to decide whether you want (or may need) to sacrifice a bit for the sake of weight.

6. CPU vs. Non-CPU Lenses: Newer lenses will have a CPU or “chip” that communicates distance and exposure information to the camera. As with AF, if your camera doesn’t support those features, you may not need the added cost that they bring. If you can do without the chip (maybe you’re using a light meter, for instance, or maybe your camera can be programmed to meter without the chip), that’s another opportunity to save money.

Now that you’ve researched your options, it’s time to get down to brass tacks in the camera shop. Some of the steps below will apply more to buying a used lens than a new one, but many of them should be done whether it’s new or straight from the factory.

7. Inspect Filter Threads: Check to make sure the filter threads aren’t dented or stripped. Dents usually indicate that the lens has been dropped or mistreated, and stripped filter threads will keep you from using filters on the lens. Also bear in mind that larger filters are more expensive, so a polarizing filter that’s downright cheap in a 52mm size could be frighteningly expensive if you need it in 82mm.*

8. Inspect Front and Rear Elements: The “elements” are, in this case, the glass on either end of the lens. Make sure it’s clean, and free of chips/scratches. You’ll also want to make sure that the lens coating isn’t worn or cloudy.

9. Try the Zoom and Focus Cams: does the zoom work smoothly, or is it too stiff/loose? Is it working across the zoom range, or does it stop at a certain point (i.e., does it get to about 105mm on a 200mm lens and continue to “zoom” without actually changing distance)? Check focus as well, to make sure that it doesn’t feel too loose, and that the lens manually focuses accurately at different subject distances.

10. Check Aperture Function: The aperture blades should open and shut smoothly, and the blades should not be oily.

11. Bring a Flashlight: Open the aperture fully, and shine the light from both ends around the inside of the lens. Look for mold, fungus, bugs (yes, bugs; I’ve seen dead creatures in lenses) and any other kind of foreign matter in the lens. A little dust in the lens isn’t terrible (and is pretty much inevitable when you’re dealing with a lens that telescopes when you zoom – they breathe), but mold and fungus can turn a sharp lens foggier than a bathroom mirror. Not sure what a dead crawly in your lens does to your photos, and I’m not eager to find out… if you’ve had the experience, please share.

12. Check the AF: Slower lenses (f/3.5-f/5.6) are also a bit slower to autofocus. The reason for this is that a lens will go to its maximum aperture when it’s focusing (even if you have it set to f/16) in order to send enough light to the AF system. For this reason, a 1.8 will generally focus faster than a 3.5. Try the AF in different lighting conditions. Is it quick and reliable, or does it “hunt,” especially in low light? Also check the accuracy of the AF, and make sure it’s not front or back focusing.

13. Check for Sample Variations: If the lens is reviewed well and your results don’t match, it could be a poor sample. This goes both ways, obviously, since it’s also possible to get a good copy of a lens that’s gotten bad reviews (I speak from experience here). If a lens performs worse than expected, ask to see multiples (and if it performs better than expected, be happy). If the person helping you is serious about photography, they’ll understand.

14. Pixel Peep: If at all possible, bring your camera body with you to the camera shop (and let me underscore, to the camera shop; they won’t let you do this in a chain store) to test the lenses. You’ll see how the lens performs on your camera as you’ve set it up, with all your quirks. I don’t know what in the hell they do to cameras at the camera shop, but it seems like every last thing is ass-backwards on them. Save yourself the frustration.

But I digress. Shoot plenty of photos, and then get them home. Look at them nice and close. How’s image quality? Check at different apertures, with different subjects and distances. Look for distortion, vignetting, lens flare, color fringing, and sharpness. Also look at the lens’s color rendition; some lenses will be warmer or colder than others, or a bit more or less contrasty. Remember to check various focal lengths and apertures, since a lens that tends to distort or vignette wide open at 24mm (for example) may perform differently when it’s stopped down, or when you zoom to 28mm.

If you’ve done all that and the lens passes with flying colors, it’s probably a safe bet.

Oh, and before I forget: If you’re buying used, consider buying a good UV filter, caps and a hood. Make sure the type of hood is appropriate to your lens type; petal hoods are a must for wider lenses, and bayonet mount hoods are much easier to use than their screw-in counterparts (besides which, they don’t always give good results on wides).

Do you have any tips, or have you scored a killer deal on a used lens? Share your tips and experiences in the comments section below!

*If you have lenses that take filters in similar sizes – one that takes a 72mm and one that takes a 77mm, for instance – consider buying the larger size along with a step-up adapter, and use the same filter on both lenses. Buying the bigger filter means a bigger hit to the wallet initially, but it’s a savings longer-term when you’re not buying two of everything.

Lens Buyer’s Guide, Part One

Raptured Scarecrow

Your camera is thoroughly broken in, and you know your kit lens like the back of your hand… its capabilities, its limitations… Its freakin’ limitations. Darnit. So you’ve decided it’s time for a new lens for your camera. Where do you start? Right here, of course.

There are several types of lenses, and while I can’t cover every last one of them (apologies to LensBaby fans, among others), I’m going to cover many of them here. As with yesterday’s guide, I’m not going to get much into brands. The aim, instead, is to familiarize you with your options as a starting point for even more research. Tomorrow, there’ll be another guide that will tell you what you need to take into consideration when you’re buying a new or used lens.

Let’s get started with the normal lens. It’s called that because its FOV (Field of View) roughly approximates that of the human eye. On a full-frame or 35mm camera, a 50mm lens is “Normal,” while on a crop sensor camera, lenses between 28mm and 35mm (42-52mm equivalent) closely approximate a Normal lens. The 50mm 1.8 is a great next step from your kit lens, since its simple optics and small size usually mean a lens that’s fast, light, sharp and cheap. There’s the added bonus that the faster aperture means more control over DOF (Depth of Field), pleasing bokeh (the out-of-focus circles of light that appear in photos taken with the aperture wide-open) , and more options in low light.

When you see a lens referred to as wide or telephoto, they’re using a normal lens as a frame of reference. So a wide angle lens is anything wider than a normal, while a telephoto is anything that gives you a narrower FOV than a normal lens. Your kit lens likely starts at 18mm if it’s a crop sensor (meaning it’s about 27-28mm equivalent), or 24-28mm on full frame. Wide angle lenses are most often used for landscapes and architecture, though some photographers swear by them for other purposes (like street photography) as well. When considering wides – especially wide-angle zooms – pay attention to distortion, especially at the widest end of a zoom lens. Many wides will exhibit barrel distortion, particularly if you’re shooting at or around the lens’s maximum aperture.

Dune Shadows

At the other end of the spectrum are telephoto lenses, which are anything over 50mm. Short telephotos (40mm and 60mm on a crop sensor, 60mm and 85mm on full frame) are popular for portraits because the perspective they offer tends to flatter the subject. Longer telephotos (in the 200-500mm range) are great for bringing the action in close.

Specialized lenses: There are lenses that may fall into one or more of the above categories, but that are designed for particular purposes. Perspective Control lenses are beloved by architects, for instance, because they allow the camera to be kept horizontal while shooting a vertical subject. This is done to eliminate the converging perspective that you’d normally get when shooting from the foot of a building and pointing your camera upward. Fisheye lenses provide a 180-degree field of view, which can be very useful for landscapes and certain types of architectural photography (and, in capable/creative hands, even portraiture). The optics of Macro lenses allow closer focus and often much sharper results than would be possible with other lenses.**

If you don’t have, don’t want, or can’t afford a particular lens, there are times that you can approximate the same effect in post-production (cropping, perspective correction and distortion in Photoshop, for instance, can mimic the behavior of a zoom, perspective control, or fisheye, respectively). Macro photography can be done with inexpensive close-up filters, although the results won’t be nearly the same as using a good macro lens. If it’s something you don’t plan on doing or using very often, there’s nothing wrong with taking a shortcut here and there. On the other hand, if you plan on doing a lot of something, or if the end result is critical (a paid job, for instance), then you’re better off spending the money.


Bear in mind that you can get primes for a huge number of focal lengths between 8mm and 1,000mm (or more), or you can purchase zoom lenses that will cover various focal lengths. These range from wide zooms (like the Nikon 20-35mm) to telephoto zooms like the common 70-300 and 150-500.*** The “trinity” of primes (35mm, 50mm and 85mm) can easily be covered by a single zoom (like a 28-85mm 3.5/5.6, a 24-120mm f/4, or nearly covered by a 24-70mm f/2.8), but bear in mind that there’s a significant tradeoff in terms of speed, and sometimes also of image quality using a zoom. The 24-120mm, as of this writing, retails around $1,300.00, and the 24-70 for close to $600.00 more than that. It’s easy to assemble the trinity and then some (throw in a nice macro, for instance), especially if you’re willing to go with older or off-brand glass. Which brings us to another question: what’s the best way to narrow down to a specific lens and brand? I’m glad you asked. We’ll take that up in this space tomorrow.

*For a more detailed explanation of crop versus full-frame lenses, see http://www.thefirst10000.com/2012/10/full-frame-vs-crop-an-explanation/

**Be aware that not all Macro/Micro lenses are created equal. Some lenses will offer the close focus of a macro, but the optics won’t be as tack-sharp.

***For a detailed explanation of zooms versus primes, see http://www.thefirst10000.com/2011/09/primes-vs-zooms/

Compact Camera Buyer’s Guide


If you’re looking to buy a compact camera, you’ve come to the right place. Let me preface this little buyer’s guide with a little disclaimer, however. This isn’t going to be a typical guide, with reviews of individual cameras. There are a number of reasons for this. First, most compacts have the average lifecycle of a fruit fly. Second, if you pick nearly any manufacturer, you’re going to find some cameras that are awful, some that are acceptable, and some that are really good. Finally, and most importantly, my criteria for a camera — for everything from its controls to its image quality — may not be the same as yours, so there’s no substitute for actually picking them up and trying them.  With that in mind, here are some suggestions as to what you should look for, ignore, or avoid from one camera to the next.

What’s It Cost? Start here, since quite a bit else will stem from what you’re able and willing to spend. You can get a competent compact for under $100.00, but venturing beyond that price point adds more features (some more useful than others) that you may find helpful, or even essential, for your purposes.

How will you use it? Think about your typical subject matter, and what kind of shots you need, or expect, to get with the camera. When I bring my Fuji X10, I know I’m not going to get distance shots. The upshot – pardon the pun – is that I can always have a camera with me, and I can bring that camera with me places that I can’t get away with (or don’t want to take) my SLR. I’ve also used the compact for close-up shooting and put a zoom lens on the SLR for distance work. But again, that’s up to you, and what you want/need from it.

How Are The Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.

Let’s consider some of the most commonly discussed specs, and what they mean for practical purposes.

How Many Megapixels? The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to tell you that you want something with lots of megapixels. Don’t believe him.  Especially on a compact, more isn’t necessarily better. A point and shoot sensor’s about the size of your thumbnail, which means 16mp is the photographic equivalent of stuffing ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. They’re not making the sensor bigger; they’re making the pixels smaller, which means that at some point image quality starts to fall off. A 10-12MP sensor will give you good quality, the ability to do some cropping, and better high ISO performance, all else being equal.

Optical or Digital Zoom? I’ve covered this in another post (Optical vs. Digital Zoom: What it Is, Why it Matters), so I’ll give you the short version here: they’re not the same thing, and if you have to choose one or the other, optical always beats digital.

What’s the Zoom Range? I don’t suggest going too “long.” Here’s why: first, the greater the range on a zoom, the more complicated the optics. A lens that gives you 30x magnification sounds good in theory, but doesn’t look great on (photo) paper. There’s another issue with any long lens: high magnification doesn’t just magnify your subject, it also magnifies camera shake. If you’re shooting at 600mm equivalent in low light, you’ll notice (because of the slower shutter speed) that the camera’s picking up every last shake. This is true of long SLR lenses, too, but the added size and weight of SLRs make them easier to stabilize. You could put your compact on a tripod, but the added bulk and weight rather defeats the purpose of traveling light in the first place. At any rate, most of the better cameras max out between 105-120mm equivalent zoom.

How Are the Controls? Maybe the camera only shoots in full auto, with a handful of scene modes (portrait, sports, fireworks, etc.) thrown in for good measure, and maybe that’s all you need. On the other hand, maybe you’re starting to get serious about photography (or you’re already serious, and already used to an SLR or interchangeable-lens camera), and would like a higher degree of control. After all, more control means more options. Well, more manual means more money, but it can also mean less time spent spelunking in the menus, and fewer headaches, especially if there’s an assignable soft key among all the other knobs and buttons. I’d also suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. Yes, you can look at the manual (and you should), but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.

How’s the Build Quality? See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. See if the lens has a cap or those little doors, and whether the lens is threaded for filters. Look for a hot shoe or accessory shoe, and if the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.

Does it Have a Viewfinder? Most compacts don’t come with viewfinders. They’re mostly useful for shooting in bright light or at longer shutter speeds (it’s easier to stabilize the camera closer to your face than it is when you’re holding it out in front of you), but strictly speaking, they’re not 100% necessary. Viewfinders come in two types, Optical or Electronic (OVF or EVF). OVF is nearly useless for macro shooting on a compact (because of parallax issues), and an optical finder usually also has less than 100% coverage, meaning you have to second guess what’s going on outside the frame. An EVF, while it generally provides 100% magnification, doesn’t have the same resolution, drains the battery a bit faster, and also, in many cases, shows a bit of a jelly effect when you’re trying to pan.

How’s the Video? You’ll want to check the quality (whether it shoots in HD, for instance), and what that quality looks like to the naked eye. Also check the camera’s noise damping, and whether there’s a mic input and/or HDMI output (if you plan on using either). Video performance is usually competent, but — same as SLR video — the sound quality is a crap shoot, partly because of the mics used (condenser mics, which don’t pick up sound with great fidelity, and which pick up noises you didn’t even know your camera was making).

How Does the LCD Look? It doesn’t have to have the same kind of resolution that, say, a MacBook with a Retina display does. However, resolution does matter. If your opportunities for getting the shot are limited for one reason or another and you need to know if you got it right the first time, it doesn’t help if there’s terrible glare, or if the quality on the display looks like a bad VHS transfer of a 1920’s silent movie.

How Big is It? Compact cameras range in size from comparatively tiny, to “bridge” cameras which have the same kind of fixed lens that a compact has, but a body that’s closer in shape to an SLR. What you choose depends on how much the form factor matters, and how vital it is to you that the camera is truly compact. Added bulk means it’s not something you can stick in a purse or a jacket pocket (unless they’re big).

Is It Ready for Its Close-Up? Now, test shoot. Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result.

In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How ‘bout with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing?

Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the white balance? How reliable is the metering? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? How well does the lens handle distortion? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? Do you notice flare, color fringing, or vignetting? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor.

Eyes Front
Eyes Front

By definition, small cameras are about compromise. You’re giving something up — oftentimes lots of somethings — for the sake of portability. The other thing to consider is that compacts typically have a much shorter life cycle than SLR’s. It’s expected that an SLR will be on the market for at least two years (longer, in some cases) and be used even longer still. Therefore, there’s a lot more attention paid to the feature set, build quality, et cetera. Most compacts aren’t designed or built like that, ’cause in another year they’re going to be replaced anyway (there’s a lot of market pressure to turn compacts out quickly ’cause for a lot of manufacturers, the volume of sales of the cheap stuff helps keep the more expensive stuff afloat). What you need to decide is what things you absolutely can’t live without, and adjust accordingly.

But let’s assume you’ve narrowed it down to your final choice. You’ve picked your camera. Congratulations! You’re not done yet! You should also give thought to each of the following:

  • Spare Batteries OEM if it’s proprietary; if the camera takes AA batteries, invest in rechargeables.
  • Memory Cards One for the camera, plus one spare; Class 6 if you plan on doing a lot of video or burst shooting, otherwise it probably doesn’t matter unless it’s a higher-end compact.
  • Cleaning Equipment At the very least, pick up a microfiber cloth or two and keep them with your camera. They double to keep your specs clean, too.
  • Case Something water-resistant, preferably. Your camera might well fit in the pocket on your shirt, jacket, or cargo pants. But things can, and do, fall out of pockets. A case gives you some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place.

That probably sounds like a lot of stuff to consider. And, now that I read over all of it, I suppose it is. Here’s the thing, though: camera gear doesn’t come cheap (unless you’re buying a $40.00 Vivitar off the rack at your local drugstore). If you’re going to be plunking down a decent amount of money for any kind of gear – and lets’ face it, even $100.00 isn’t chump change – you want to make sure that the money’s well spent. A piece of gear that isn’t doing what you need it to, or that doesn’t work as expected, is frustrating, so spare yourself the frustration by doing your homework first, and then making your purchase.

I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but if you think I’ve missed something or would like to chime in, sound off in the comment section below.

*In case you’re wondering why I don’t do something like this for camera phones, there are far too many options, for one thing. For another, I don’t know anyone for whom the camera on their phone is a primary consideration. I’ve found CNet to be a reliable judge of camera quality on mobile phones, and would suggest that you start there.

**I should point out that I’m using “compact camera” to cover a slew of non-interchangeable/fixed lens options. I’m aware that there are some great options for compact interchangeable lens cameras (the Olympus PEN series, Sony’s NEX cameras, the Fuji X-01, the Nikon V and J series, among many others), but we’ll be taking those up another time.

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The Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Buying Anything and Everything

If I Had a Million Dollars…

This is, if we may be so immodest, the only buyer’s guide you will ever need for anything photographic, ever. Well, alright. We’re kidding. Maybe. In all seriousness, though, whatever you’re buying, the dozen questions below will help you to make a better decision.

1. What do I want to buy? If it’s something that fills a need, continue down the rest of the list. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a grand or three burning a hole in your pocket and just want a new gadget, wait on it.

2. Are there aftermarket versions of this item (hereinafter referred to as “thing”), and are they any good? Branded stuff is generally going to be of higher quality, but there are aftermarket versions that can be every bit as good. If it’s something you need (or just want) badly enough, you may decide that you’re willing to make some tradeoffs to save a few bucks. Bear in mind, however, that a savings isn’t much of a savings if you change your mind and need to upgrade later. Buying right the first time means a short-term hit to the wallet, but can also mean a savings (somewhat paradoxically) down the road. For just one example of what I’m talking about, check out this post by Thom Hogan. There’s also my own take on buying OEM versus aftermarket.

3. Is there a substitute for “thing”? From time to time, I get it in my head that I’d like a fisheye lens, and then I remind myself that I can get the same effect in Photoshop; the fact that I’ve never actually bothered to convert any of my images to look like they came from a fisheye probably reinforces the wisdom of passing up the lens in the first place. If, on the other hand, you find yourself spending countless hours of postproduction time doing that very thing, it might be worth your while to just get the right tool for the job. This is also true of other low-budget fixes (i.e. closeup filters in place of macro lenses).

4. Are there other things I need to buy to go with “thing”? Photography is a lot like shaving. Just the same as Gillette will sell you a razor for around ten bucks and then charge you $75 bucks a pop for blades (I know, I’m exaggerating… but not that much), many photography-related purchases rely on other “stuff” to put them to best use. If the filter size on that new lens isn’t the same as your others, you may need a new polarizing filter; if you’re buying a new tripod, you may want an extra quick release plate; if you’re buying an SLR, you’ll need memory, batteries, and other doodads. Buying a printer? You’ll need something to calibrate your monitor (and a new monitor if the one you’ve got can’t be calibrated). Make sure you take those costs into account.

5. Does “thing” have recurring costs associated with it? You’ve decided to spring for a new printer for your photos since you’re sick of taking them to the drugstore to be printed. Congratulations! You can now pony up for paper and toner cartridges for the life of the printer. Decided that digital is passe and you’ll shoot film now? Well, that film adds up, to say nothing of developing costs (and/or the cost of chemicals and paper if you’re going to roll develop your own).

6. What is the cost of “thing”, and is that money better spent elsewhere? Let’s be honest. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. Would I like a Leica M9 with one of those lovely Summicron lenses? You bet your ass I would. I’m also mindful of the fact that I could have about five more of everything in my current kit for that much money. The same logic applies to other, lower-priced gear as well. Comparing apples to apples, I know that there are tradeoffs between my 70-300mm and a fast 70-200mm, but I also know that if I’d bought the 70-200, it would’ve been the last of pretty much anything I’d bought for a very long time. Be practical, and understand that it doesn’t have to be the best (or most expensive) thing out there to be the best tool for right now.

7. What is the learning curve for “thing”, and is that time better spent elsewhere? Some equipment is pretty straightforward. A battery’s either charged or isn’t, and a memory card or camera bag’s either got space on/in it or hasn’t. But most of what you buy is going to require you to learn something about it if you want to get the most out of it. Lenses, software, camera bodies, hell, even tripods have a learning curve associated with them. The time spent mastering them can enrich your photography, but it can also frustrate the crap out of you if you decide you didn’t need the thing after all.

8. How often/for how long will I use “thing”? You’ve convinced yourself that you’ve missed one bird shot too many, and you now want a 500mm lens. After 625 trips to car shows and not a single one to an aviary, the last winged creature you saw was the hood ornament on a Thunderbird. How’s that lens looking now? Sometimes missing a certain kind of shot makes us want a certain kind of gear to remedy the problem, but if we don’t find ourselves in the kinds of situations that lead to those kinds of shots in the first place, it’s useful to reconsider.

9. Can I rent or borrow “thing”, and is that a good idea? Renting or borrowing (or, in the case of software, downloading a trial version) can be a great way to kick the tires before you buy, or to avoid buying altogether if you can’t foresee the next time you’ll need the thingy in question. Be careful, though; rentals don’t come cheap, and if you’re renting something often enough, the accumulated rental cost can rapidly add up to what it would’ve cost if you’d just purchased the darn thing, as Zack Arias points out in this post.

10. Might “thing” pay for itself (and if so, how soon)? Even if you’re not a professional photographer, there’s still a chance that the situations in which you use your camera might defray its cost (and if you’re a pro… well, duh). If the “thing” has the ability to earn its keep (here I’m thinking of product photography, real estate photography, and other circumstances in which someone who doesn’t consider themselves a photographer still needs to take pictures of something), that’s worth bearing in mind.

11. Do a lot of people use “thing”, and where can I find out what they have to say? Let’s say that you’ve considered all of the above, and darnit, you’ve just gotta have it. Narrow it down to two to three options; even if you’re dead set on one brand, make, and model, you don’t want buyer’s remorse later because you didn’t do your homework. Now, check out reviews from several sites, but don’t stop there. Get to your local camera shop and try out the different options. Sometimes the reviews (good or bad) are right, sometimes not. Your results may vary one way or the other, and you don’t want to find out the hard way.

12. Will “thing” make me a better photographer? The answer is a qualified “Of course not.” Good gear won’t save a bad photographer’s ass, and a good photographer will find ways to make even bad gear work for them; it’s your vision that drives the photo. With that said, having the right gear  can sometimes make it much easier to translate your vision to a photo.* Just don’t mistake the gear for the vision, OK?

*Next time someone tells you gear absolutely doesn’t matter — and some people will, despite any evidence to the contrary — tell them to get a detailed shot of the surface of the moon with a disposable film camera.

OEM Versus Aftermarket Gear: A Buyer’s Guide (Sorta)

You’ve got your new camera, and darnit, you’re fired up. You’re going to buy one of everything to go with it (two, if you can find enough change in your couch cushions). Well, hold on a second. Read this first.

Here’s the thing: regardless of which camera you’ve purchased, you have options as to what you buy. More specifically, will you buy OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), or aftermarket (someone made it who’s got no connection to the manufacturer)? There are advantages and drawbacks to both; below, I’ve listed some instances in which aftermarket gear and accessories are a good idea; others in which your results may vary; and finally, times when you’re best off going with the original manufacturer.

Buy Aftermarket:

1. The Strap: The strap that comes with your camera, provided it has one, is probably scratchy and uncomfortable. The straps that ship with Canon and Nikon cameras (the ones with which I have direct experience), while they’re strong enough, have two big drawbacks. One, they’re emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name, which doesn’t lend itself to subtlety, much less stealth. Much more importantly, they feel as though they could cut through your neck if you attach anything heavier than a loaf of Wonder bread to them (and your average setup, even with an entry-level SLR and 18-55 kit lens, ain’t exactly lightweight). There are literally dozens of other options, some much more stylish (MOD and Capturing Couture have some funky options), comfortable (I particularly like my Crumpler) or functional (a number of pros probably wouldn’t give up their Black Rapid straps except at gunpoint, and maybe not even then).

2. The Bag: Many manufacturers sell bags with their name on them. They’re competent enough; they’ll hold and protect your gear just fine. The problem is, in both their design and their very conspicuous branding, they practically scream “Camera bag!” There are other options that don’t draw as much attention to themselves, like Domke’s expensive but refined-looking bags, messenger bags from Crumpler and Tenba (not my personal cup of tea; they’re a little too exposed), and more specialized bags from the likes of LowePro, Pelican and Think Tank.

3. The Accessories: Here, I’m talking primarily about hoods, and lens and body caps. For something that’s basically a little plastic widget, some of these have no business carrying the price tags they do. There are scads of aftermarket options available here, many of them every bit as good as what ships from your camera maker of choice.

Now, a caveat: I strongly suggest against buying any of these things online. When it comes to straps and bags, you want to check build quality and comfort (not to mention, when it comes to a bag, how well it organizes and holds your stuff). No matter how good the description or product photos, they won’t tell you how the product feels, which makes a big difference when it’s hanging around your neck, or on your shoulders, for hours at a time. Also, you’ll want to try caps and hoods with your lens. If you’re not happy with the fit (some caps fit better than others, some hoods may fit your lens but vignette badly), find something that works better.

Toss Up:

1. Lenses: This one’s a subject of some debate. Every manufacturer makes some lenses that are very, very good, and a handful that are either mediocre or that flat-out suck. OEM lenses are generally better (even if sometimes only by a hair), but can go for twice as much or more than their aftermarket counterparts. Tokina, Tamron and Sigma each have some lenses that are very close in optical quality to their Nikon/Sony/Canon/Pentax counterparts, while some manufacturers (Zeiss, for instance) routinely make lenses that shame anything made by anyone else, though they have a price tag to match. Research carefully, paying attention to the good and bad that’s said about any lens, and be sure to try them for yourself, since even lenses with decent reviews may not be up to your standards. I found this to be the case with a Tamron 18-270 that I tried a while back; it was, to my eyes, unacceptably soft, and the autofocus was so slow that I could probably have left the shop for coffee only to find the lens still hunting for a focus point when I came back.

2. Gadgets and Peripherals: Even Amazon has now gotten into the game of selling remotes and such for different cameras. In some cases, the price point is low enough that you’d might as well go with the “real” brand (especially cable releases and wireless remotes). An off-brand battery grip might be much less expensive than, say, one by Nikon, but you may also find that there are issues that make the price difference seem much less attractive (build quality, etc.). This can also be true of GPS and WiFi peripherals. Again, shop around and do your homework.

3. Speedlights: Here, I’m going to speak mostly for the brand I know (Nikon): There are a few companies that make less expensive speedlights, but Nikon’s stuff is engineered to work with the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System), which is a big reason that some people choose Nikon over other brands. I suspect (though I’m admittedly going out on a limb here) that other manufacturers’ flashes are probably better built to work with their cameras than a number of the alternatives. With that said, if you’re not picky about how your speedlight works (heck, somebody’s got to be buying this stuff), the savings on an aftermarket product can be significant. One word of warning: DO NOT purchase an older speedlight (or use one you happen to have laying around) for use with a newer camera. Older speedlights can fry the electronics in many newer cameras. Check with the manufacturer, and/or with your local camera shop.

Buy OEM:

1. BATTERIES: If you buy an aftermarket battery, you may save a few (or several) bucks over one with a big  brand name on it. You may also find that it drains faster, overheats or catches fire, or does something else you’d generally rather a battery didn’t do to your camera. Your warranty generally won’t protect you if you’re not using an OEM battery, so be careful here. The same also applies to camera and battery chargers for the same reason.

2. Memory Cards: Check your owner’s manual, since some manufacturers only approve certain cards for use with their cameras. While camera manufacturers generally don’t make their own cards, there are a couple of big brands with a lot of market share (and mind share), like SanDisk and Lexar, and quite a few that make less expensive stuff (PNY, ProMaster, Kingston, Transcend, et. al.). The problem here is that some of them don’t “make” them so much as re-badge other manufacturers’ substandard stuff (if that Class 10 only clocked as a Class 6, it might end up with someone else’s name on it). In short, stick with reputable brands, and spend the extra cash. I’m not going to name names here (I’d rather not put up with a lawsuit), but that’s why you’ve got Google.

3. Filters: Some camera and lens companies, like Nikon and Hoya (which owns Tokina), make filters. Some companies (like Polaroid) license their name to other manufacturers, and other companies aren’t affiliated with anyone in particular. The bigger names are generally your better bets here, since they use better glass and coatings, and manufacture to higher tolerances. Some of the aftermarket options, on the other hand, use inferior or uncoated glass, or inferior manufacturing processes (and the Polaroid filters, in most cases, aren’t even glass; they’re plastic). Since you’ve presumably spent good money on your gear (especially your glass), don’t let your filter be the weak link.

Did I miss something? Have your results varied from what I’ve listed? Let me know in the comments!