©2019 by Going Digital Photography Courses

  • Jan Hunter

Choosing the Right Camera & Lens

Read our advice to give you all the information you need to choose the right type of camera and lens.  


WHICH DIGITAL CAMERA SHOULD I CHOOSE?


Your choice of camera will depend on three factors:

  1. the types of photograph to be taken

  2. how much you can afford to spend

  3. the portability of the camera


If you read on you will be able to decide what type of camera will give the best results.  It's then up to you to decide how much you would like to spend and whether carrying heavy equipment is an option.


TRY BEFORE YOU BUY


We're happy to loan you a camera on many of our workshops, so you can try before you buy.



GENERAL POINTERS

  • to photograph moving subjects, e.g. sport, candid portraits, wildlife (but excluding waterfalls, waves, etc.) you'll need a DSLR or good compact system camera

  • for landscapes a DSLR or compact system camera will allow you to fit graduated filters to the lens for more dramatic skies

  • for close-up and macro images you'll need either a DSLR or compact system camera with a macro lens or a compact, bridge or superzoom camera which all have good macro modes

  • for flash photography, look for any camera that has a hot-shoe so you can add a separate flash unit (built-in flash creates hard shadows, so is limited in its use)


DSLR


For many years, DSLRs have dominated the market for more serious photographers, however change is afoot, with many photographers now considering the latest generation of compact system cameras.


DSLR cameras are often much easier to use than compact, superzoom and bridge cameras, as they have most of the controls on buttons on the body of the camera (not buried in menus). Canon and Nikon are the two dominant manufacturers and they offer a vast range of lenses and other accessories.  


A typical DSLR with a medium-range zoom lens.

Other manufacturers like Sony and Pentax also produce DSLRs with a modest range of lenses and accessories, but you can also use other compatible lenses such as Sigma and Tamron.


DSLRs come in two types: 

  1. full-frame sensor (like 35mm SLR’s), which are better for photographing large scenes such as landscapes, large groups of people, for example guests at a wedding, prices now start at around £1,000

  2. smaller (crop) sensor, often 1.6x so a 100mm lens becomes a 160mm, the effect is like using a telephoto lens, so your photos will not cover such a wide angle - of course this doesn't matter at all unless you want to shoot with very wide-angle lenses.  Prices start at under £400 and they produce good photos of all types, with the right lens.

Advantages

  • You can buy a lens for every purpose.

  • Optical viewfinder means you're seeing action as it happens, so capturing moving subjects is much easier than with other cameras.

  • Depending on the lens you use, DSLRs are also much faster to focus than other cameras, and often take far more shots per second, which makes them great for action photos. 

  • You can attach separate flash units, which give much better results than built in flashes. 

  • Most of the controls are found on buttons on the camera body, so making adjustments is quick and easy. 

  • Some shoot very high quality video.

  • Because of the large sensor size, they produce better quality images at high ISO settings (which can be required when shooting in low light)

Disadvantages

  • Cost (although you can now buy an entry-level DSLR for less than £400 but you still have to add lenses).

  • Size and weight.

  • The cost of additional lenses, from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds.

  • The need to buy other accessories, e.g. hot-shoe mounted flash.


High-speed action  & low light photography


All DSLRs will give you the opportunity to take great photos of most stationary or slow-moving subjects.  If you wish to photograph high-speed action however, you may have to consider spending more money on lenses with faster autofocus speeds and wider apertures.  These lenses will also give you a much better performance in low light. See Lenses below.


MIRRORLESS COMPACT SYSTEM CAMERAS


These cameras offer all the features of a DSLR.  They have no mirror, hence the smaller size and lighter weight.  The performance of some of the top-of-the range models is now on a par with a good DSLR and they are generally much easier to use than a compact, bridge or superzoom camera.



Compact system camera with 12-100mm lens

The most popular brands are Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji, which all have a good range of compatible lenses.


Advantages

  • Smaller and lighter than a DSLR

  • You can buy a range of lenses as well as fitting existing four-thirds lenses by using an adaptor

  • As with DSLRs, depending upon the quality of the lens, most take very good quality images

  • Many offer high resolution in the region of 15MP upwards.

  • You can attach separate flash units, which give much better results than built in flashes.

  • Some shoot very high quality video.

Disadvantages

  • Only the more expensive models have autofocus systems on a par with good DSLRs, so they're not all suited to action photography, so if you want to photograph fast-moving subjects do check out the reviews before you make a decision.

  • Viewfinder lag - because what you see through the viewfinder is generated digitally, it takes a fraction of a second to appear - long enough to make it difficult to follow an unpredictably moving subject.  Look out for a camera that has a fast viewfinder if you favour action photography.

  • As with DSLR's you may need different lenses for different subjects

  • Existing four-thirds lenses can be very heavy compared to the camera, so they feel unbalanced, but the range of purpose-built lenses for compact system cameras is growing rapidly.

Summary


As technology moves on, compact system cameras are becoming a realistic alternative to DSLRs, even for professional photographers, and the size and weight advantage makes them an obvious choice for many photographers.



COMPACT & LARGE COMPACT (ALSO CALLED SUPERZOOM OR BRIDGE) CAMERAS WITH APERTURE PRIORITY MODE


These cameras allow you to take full control of your photography by setting Aperture and/or Shutter Speed.  Some produce images on a par with many DSLR cameras and have very long zoom lenses.  Look out for models with a viewfinder though, trying to take shots while looking in the screen on the back of the camera can be very difficult in bright light, and it's harder to keep the camera still.


Superzoom camera with built-in lens


Advantages

  • Usually small enough to fit in a pocket, they can have almost as many features as an SLR, and allow the photographer to take control for predictable results.

  • Great for close up and macro photography and portraits

  • Some will take a hot-shoe mounted flash.

  • Many offer high resolution in the region of 12MP.

  • Come with lenses that zoom from wide-angle to telephoto (up to 30x optical zoom in some cases)

Disadvantages

  • They can be slow to auto-focus, and what you see through the viewfinder is digitally generated, so it's a little slow and therefore hard to track moving subjects.

  • The built in flash on these cameras is good as a fill-in flash outdoors, but does not produce good indoor shots, so look out for models with a hot-shoe so that you can add an external flash. 

  • Be aware that some models only take AA type batteries.  They use a lot of batteries and some of the rechargeable AA's are just not powerful enough, so the camera won't function correctly.  Much better are models that take Lithium-ion batteries.  These are usually supplied with the camera and come with their own charger.

  • Image quality can be poor in low light.

Summary

These are great cameras to have on hand at all times.  To get professional looking images every time, it's essential to take control by setting Aperture or Shutter Speed.  Look out for models where most of the features are accessible through buttons on the camera body, not hidden away in menus.  Great for landscape and close-up photographs.



LENSES


For DSLRs, the two dominant camera manufacturers, Canon and Nikon, offer a vast range of lenses for their digital cameras.  Other compatible lenses are made by Sigma and Tamron, usually at more affordable prices - the main disadvantage of these compatible lenses is that they often do not autofocus as quickly as the camera manufacturer's own lenses.  


For compact system cameras, lenses are predominantly made by the camera manufacturer.


Quality of Lens

Almost all manufacturers have three tiers of lens in terms of quality and performance:

  1. entry-level (often come with the camera)

  2. medium-priced - these lenses are of better build quality and may also autofocus much faster than the entry-level equivalent

  3. professional - these are the best build quality, often much better sealed against dust and wet and are usually the fastest to autofocus.

Types of Lens


Aperture

The lens description usually includes details of the aperture, e.g. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro. The f/2.8 is the maximum aperture of the lens and indicates how much light it will let in, so a small f-number like f2.8 is really useful if you plan to shoot in low light, as it will enable you to take better quality shots without having to use an excessively high ISO setting that will affect image quality.


Prime lenses

These have a fixed focal length.  Generally they produce marginally better quality images, but are best suited to photography in controlled conditions, so they can easily be used in a studio or outdoors, for example, where you are photographing animals at a feeding station, from a hide.


Zoom lenses

These have a range of focal lengths, e.g. 75mm to 300mm, giving you much more flexibility in your photography, by offering a wide range of magnification.

Keep in mind that it is very difficult to hand-hold a lens at 300mm or greater, even with image stabilisation (vibration reduction), so blurred images can be a problem.


Macro lenses

Both prime and zoom lenses can also be used for macro (close-up) work, but do check the minimum focusing distance of a lens before buying - some lenses will not focus closer than 1.5m (4.5 feet) from the subject.


Image Stabilised Lenses

This feature can give you sharper shots when shooting in low light (therefore at slow shutter speeds), however with much improved noise reduction in the latest cameras, image quality at higher ISO settings is now much better, so shutter speed can be increased via ISO to give sharp shots without the need for image stabilised lenses.


What Now?

Once you've decided which type of camera is right for you, a quick search of the internet will provide ample reviews to help you make a decision.

Finally, do visit a shop and ask to look at the models that interest you, so that you get a good feel for the weight and size before you make your final decision.