You Want to Buy a New Camera! Now What?


Choosing a new camera should not be difficult.  The reality is that whether you buy a current Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, Sony, or Panasonic/Lumix, the camera is going to be capable of delivering excellent images if you do your part.  I regularly laugh when I see folks get into brand wars.  All the makers produce solid products, the key to a great purchase is aligning the camera to your personal use cases.

What's a Use Case?

At the risk of coming across as a smart aleck, a use case is simply a cogent description of what you want to photograph, what your outcome will be and how much work you are willing to do to get there.  We all have multiple use cases.  Some camera sellers even care about this and ask, what kind of photos you want to make.  If your seller does not ask, you are in the wrong place.  Leave.  Right away.

Another type of use case is comfort, and this one is very important for the simple reason that a camera that is uncomfortable to use and uncomfortable to carry will spend its life in a bag on the floor in the closet.  The technical term for this is waste of money.  With all due respect to online sellers, you really need to put the potential buy in your hands and bring it to your eye.  The camera has to fit your hands well, orient to your dominant eye and actually be usable in these situations.  A camera is not a smartphone.  You do not hold it out at arm's length and hope for stable shots.  If you are busy tapping to focus, you are missing shots.  Don't let smartphone-like features that work well on a smartphone overly influence your choice of a real camera.  How you use the two is going to be different.  Plan for this.

For example:  I can hold and shoot with pretty much any camera.  A camera with buttons that are too numerous or very small is not going to work for me because I will often hit more than one at the same time.  It might be a great camera, but it won't work in my use.  Many cameras have touch screens now.  I am left eye dominant and I cannot use a camera with the touch screen turned on (with a couple of rare exceptions) because to get my eye to the viewfinder, my nose touches the screen and changes settings.  Tap to focus is a complete non-starter for me because the camera is at my eye and I don't use the LCD to make images.  To each his or her own use cases.

What do you want to make images of?  You must be able to answer this question because it will lead to better questions about weight, shooting frequency, distance to subjects and need for lighting.

Where do you want to make images?  Is it predominantly outdoors in good light, or do you have a family member who performs on a poorly lit stage?  Will you be spending time making images of close up subjects in poorly lit wooded areas?  Make a list before you head into the camera store.

What will you do with your images?   Are they just going on Facebook or Instagram or do you want to be able to exercise more control over the final product?  Are you going to make prints regularly?  If so, what do you think will be your average print size?  Whatever that size is, go up at least one level when you answer the question.  Big prints are addictive and incredibly pleasing.  If you won't be making prints, you can probably get by with a smaller and less expensive camera, because the image quality on the web is so darn horrible spending big bucks on a camera only to post on Instagram is a waste.

Considerations to Help Define Your Use Cases

Your use cases will tell you about the type of camera to look for as well as inform you about what angles of view you are going to want to capture.  Most cameras in the beginner to intermediate space come with a kit lens.  Contrary to common thought, these are not optically inferior chunks of plastic.  They are optically an excellent value for the money, but the build quality will be lesser than that of a professional grade lens built for daily use and potential abuse.  To expect otherwise is silly considering the price differential, but don't get swung by someone telling you that the kit lens is junk.  It may be perfectly fine for your use cases.  

Some sellers will try to convince you to get an all in one lens right off the bat.  This could be a great choice for you, but if low light is going to be a use case, this is not a good direction.  Regular low light use is a good reason why a kit lens may not be your best choice either.  Make sure that the seller has understood your use cases and your budget.

Most all cameras today do very good video, although only the mirrorless models and those in Canon's lineup with Dual Pixel AF can autofocus usefully in video.  If video is even marginally interesting to you, your use cases are driving you towards mirrorless.  This is not a bad thing at all, because the mirrorless makers are way ahead of the DSLR makers when it comes to the functionality of their video offerings while not compromising on stills.

Most selling organizations offer some form of warranty extension which may also include additional perks of "lemon protection" or swap after three service visits.  You have to decide whether these plans are of value to you.  The cost is going to be about 25% of the camera sell price.  None of these plans cover dropping or drowning, so they are not insurance for accidents.  They are based on a manufacturer flaw not your opinion.  Check reviews of these programs first and ensure that if needed it is easy to work with.  If you have to deal with anyone other than the seller, be extra cautious.  These programs are all very high margin for sellers, so expect a full court press during the sales presentation.  If this sort of thing makes sense for you, budget for it.  I have watched sellers, convince a buyer to purchase a lesser model just to get the extended warranty sale.  Such sellers are known as scumbags.

It's Not Just a Camera

Consider as well that a camera and lens purchase is never just a camera and lens purchase.  Plan your budget ahead of time for extras that you may need, again determined by your use case.  This will include spare batteries if you will be shooting a lot in a single go.  I personally recommend avoiding off brand batteries on new cameras because they will not have the intelligent chip that the camera is expecting and you may encounter more issues than the alleged savings are worth.  

If your camera of choice does not include a wall charger and you must charge the battery in the camera, budget for a wall charger.  Being able to charge the battery in camera should be an option, not a requirement and makers who require it, do so to drop the box price, and nail you when you buy the charger.  Sound scummy?  It is.

You will want a bag to keep your camera in, and a new camera is often a good time for a new bag.  Your use cases and total kit size will help you pick a bag.  I would strongly recommend considering a bag that is not festooned with branding or logos.  Look for one with a bright interior so you can find things when it is dark.  Think function first, looks second, because looks do not help you make good images.  

Budget for a camera strap.  Using the included strap with all the branding on it simply advertises that you have an expensive camera and that you are a great target for thieves.  I you wear a branded strap because it denotes your camera model so you can show off your credit line, well I cannot help you, you have bigger issues.

Your use cases may necessitate a tripod and there are two kinds of tripods.  There are good solid tripods and there are cheap tripods.  There are no good solid cheap tripods.  Plan accordingly.  A decent tripod and head is going to start around $300.  Buy your last tripod first and avoid filling a closet with increasingly expensive and decreasingly useless hunks of crap.

If you shoot in situations where your camera is going to get sprayed with muck or dust or other detritus you might consider a protective filter.  You may find this in the form of a UV filter.  You are seeking protection not UV filtration as that is irrelevant for digital photography, but it doesn't hurt.  Avoid house brand filters like you would avoid dysentery.  Why would you spend $50 on a cheap piece of glass that will negatively impact your image quality?  Candidly, since the 18-55 is the most popular kit lens out there and sells on its own for under $200, I cannot imagine why anyone would spend more than $50 on a protective filter for it.  Your use cases, your decision.  Expect a sales push because house brand filters are very high profit items.  That complete filter kit on Amazon for $15 is not even good enough to earn the title of crap.  You would do better cutting the bottom off a Coke bottle and duct taping it to the lens.

I know of no kit lenses that come with a lens hood.  Some makers offer a hood for their kit lenses as an option at a very low price.  A hood will do much more for image quality than any protective filter.  You should have a hood for every lens and use it for every shot.  There are makers who want to charge nearly $100 for a cheap piece of molded plastic.  You need a hood, and a stupidly pricey hood might incline you to look at another brand entirely.

I wouldn't be me if I did not advise you to budget for a TTL hot shoe flash.  If the camera includes a small flash or popup, I will tell you straight up that it is not designed to be used as a flash and you should consider it mostly worthless.  I know of lots of folks who advocate using them for fill flash and inside 9 feet, they can do a decent enough job.  I recommend a TTL flash with a bounce head that has a radio receiver built in so it can be used off camera simply by adding a trigger to your kit.  Go TTL and forget all the crapola about manual flash being so simple.  Manual actually is simple, once you learn how to do it, but most folks do not have the initiative to learn to do it right.  When you are buying your flash, get a bounce card so you can get nicer light.  While I am not being brand specific in this article, I will say that the MagMod MagGrip and the MagBounce are superb, easy to use and take up very little space.

Evaluating Your Seller

When you enter the store equipped with your use cases, expect a conversation with the seller before a camera is pulled off the shelf.  If this doesn't happen, you are in the wrong place, or with the wrong seller.  Do not be afraid to ask the seller if he or she is a photographer.  A stunning number are not and know nothing about photography.  You may have found a nice person, but this nice person with no knowledge brings no value to you.  Always ask after the presentation has started what the seller's favourite camera is.  If it's the same brand or the same model as what that person uses, you may be in a situation where you are not getting good objective guidance.  When I have been asked that question, I tell the truth and say I can and have shot all the brands, that they are all good, and what I shoot is not important, the only thing that matters is what the buyer wants to do.  Some folks don't like that, they want to be told to buy something so they are not responsible for the decision.  That's completely fair, but if you have read this far, it doesn't describe you.

Just because a seller has a preference does not mean that you are getting smoked, but it's to your advantage to ask to be presented options from different makers and listen carefully for any spin.  Folks like what they know and tend not to like that which they don't know.  A seller who makes statements like "this is the best one", or "pros only shoot this" is what I will call full of shit.  The real answer to most all questions when it comes to photography is "it depends", and for you "it" depends on your use cases.

Be Realistic

Most cameras today are technically capable beyond what the typical buyer will ever do.  Worrying about stuff that does not matter, because it shows up in a spec sheet but has no relationship to your use cases is pointless.  Most cameras have a life in market of 24-30 months before being updated.  Lots of so called updates are changes to graphics and brochure-ware.  The internal guts might be near identical.  Let your use cases be your guide, not what is newest and flashiest.

Your use cases will change over time.  Don't try to think more than three years out.  The tech changes pretty quickly so new tech may appear that better serves your use cases at the time.  A real camera is not an insignificant purchase, but there's a life cycle for cameras as for anything else.  The days of someone shooting the same camera for 10 years, let along 30 years are long gone.  It's important to think of where you might want to get to, but don't overreach or you may find yourself overbuying, and by the time you get to the point of needing the deliverable, there will likely be a new and better solution to the problem.  This is specifically true for camera bodies.  Good lenses are different.  I have lenses that are still being used where I have changed the camera body four times.  A simple high end lens has a long life, so consider this when buying a lens.  Buy better for a longer use cycle.

When you change cameras, the right time is when the camera that you own cannot reasonably do what you need it to do.  A new version may look pretty but in the end mean nothing more to you because what you have is doing a great job and serving all your requirements.  Smart buyer are not afraid to look at used bodies as a way to save money.  So long as it has some type of warranty, risk is low, but you will pay more for used from a store than from an individual.  Caveat emptor applies in all cases.

Buying your first, or a new camera is not difficult.  Finding the right seller will help a lot, but you must identify and write down your personal use cases.  What another creative uses is completely irrelevant, unless that creative lives in the same place as you, has a ton of lenses and accessories and is thrilled with the idea of you using them all the time for free.  A seller's favourite is also irrelevant.  What your favourite teacher, friend or Uncle Bob uses is irrelevant.  The only thing that matters are your personal use cases.  The rest is detritus.  As Robin Williams used so say "pee pee ca ca no substance"

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