Sunday, August 25, 2013

Josh's Helpful Camera Buying Guide

If you are reading this, it is probably because of one of the following reasons:
  1. You read this blog regularly, and are simply reading my latest post.
  2. You have recently asked me for advice on buying a camera.
  3. You are part of a clandestine government organization that has been following my movements for the last six months and is gathering information that will ultimately tie me to The Pentavirate.
  4. You Googled "Pentavirate," and wound up here.
Regardless of what brought you here, congratulations. Welcome to the blog. I hope you find it educational, enlightening, and many other words that start with "E." And four years from now, when you find yourself wrestling to justify the purchase of a $2,000 prime lens and its accompanying $200 filter, even though you already have a perfectly good $1,000 L-series zoom that covers the exact same focal length, you can both thank me and blame me.

Image of yours truly in action, courtesy of:
Harry Cleigh Photography
If at any point in time you have asked yourself (or myself) the question, "what camera should I buy?", here is my answer:

It depends.

It depends on what you want to use it for. Are you interested in simply "taking pictures," or do you want to "get into photography?"

Allow me to explain...

If you just want to "take some nice pictures," there are plenty of point-and-shoot cameras out there that will take perfectly nice images of you standing in front of famous places. By "point-and-shoot," I am referring to the smallish all-in-one cameras that you can buy for anywhere from $100 to $500, which only require the user to "point" them at a subject and click a single button to take ("shoot") a picture.

I don't mean to be condescending, here; I actually got into photography through a couple of nice point-and-shoot models. But if you're not looking to be an artist, and are more interested in quick results than indulging in the creative process, this is your category. Now, since I haven't purchased a point-and-shoot since 2006, I don't have much advice beyond that. Megapixels are pretty much irrelevant at this point, and all I remember from my point-and-shoot search is the idea that optical zoom means something and digital zoom doesn't. I'd check the reviews on B&H Photo, Consumer Reports, or for more specific info.

But if you want to buy a camera because you feel the subtle tug of art beckoning, if you recognize the delicate grace of natural light on the pile of unfolded laundry sitting on your bed in the morning, and long deeply to capture it for all eternity so its beauty will always be available for you and your 500 Facebook friends, my general advice is to get an SLR. An SLR (or Single Lens Reflex, if you care) is more of a traditional camera that allows you to swap lenses and basically control all the functions of your camera (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.). Greater control may equal greater time investment (and certainly financial investment), but it also leads to greater creativity and greater image quality. If you want to "get into photography," this is where you want to be, sooner or later.

From here, you need to ask yourself a pair of follow-up questions:

What do I want to take pictures of? Do you want to do portraits? Sporting events? Super close-ups of little bugs like those photos you saw on a website one time?

How much do I want to spend? Do you have a generous budget, or do you want to take things slowly and see how committed you are to your new hobby?

The type of camera you wind up with, and more importantly, the lens (or likely lenses) you wind up buying for it, will vary greatly depending on your answer to this question. For one thing, SLR cameras can cost anywhere from $300 to $50,000. Not a decision you want to make lightly. Chances are, if you're reading this your current answer will sound something like this:

"I want a modestly priced camera that will be good at taking pictures of everything."

It's OK; that's not a ridiculous answer. I mean, it kind of is, but it's really all right. Just as long as you don't think your camera will be the BEST at taking pictures of everything. In my relatively few years of observation, the trend in photography seems to be that the more you spend, the better your equipment will be able to perform more limited functions. Luckily for beginners, most camera manufacturers team up entry-level cameras with kit lenses that are geared towards a nice balance of quality and versatility.

At this point, instead of break down the infinite number of follow-up questions and solutions, I think it would be more beneficial to tell a streamlined version of my own camera-purchasing story:

After using my dad's Olympus point-and-shoot to take a few pictures in downtown Chicago a few years ago, I decided I wanted to get my own camera. At first I thought I'd find a simple point-and-shoot for around $150 that would do the trick. (My real money would be saved for the $2,500 Canon pre-HD video camera that I thankfully never bought.) Then I read a review of a camera called the Canon S3-IS, which looked more heavy-duty and, unlike most of the Canon Powershot series, was black (I like black). It sounded like it had fancier features, and the review people liked it, so a few months later, I bought it for about $350. For the next 18 months I used it frequently, and eventually concluded that:
  1. It never caught my subject as quickly as I wanted it to (because I tend to favor action shots).
  2. I needed to buy an SLR.
Since I had been using my S3-IS frequently, I knew that photography was not a passing hobby, thus I could justify the expense of my new artistic pursuit. I did some more research, and narrowed my SLR choices to two:
  1. A high-end Canon Rebel (the exact model escapes me)
  2. An entry-level semi-pro camera (at that time, the Canon 40D)
After careful consideration, I decided to buy the 40D, because it felt like something I could grow into. It also shot six and a half photos a second, which took care of that whole "catching my subject" thing. Once I got my finances in order, I slapped down $1100 for a kit that included the 40D and a 28-135mm zoom lens.

When it came in the mail, I opened the box like it held the Holy Grail. My new camera was big, heavy, and black (black!). It had a textured contoured grip that scientists had designed to draw the artistic powers straight out of my fingertips. It also made me feel like I was completely out of my league. I almost felt embarrassed to take my first pictures with it. But I have never regretted the choice to "buy up." My wallet has, but I haven't.