Moving away from your phone: Tips for beginners who want to buy a camera.
BY TONY FRAME
The rise of smartphones has led to everyone being an amateur photographer of some sort. Even if you’re not posting photos on Facebook or Instagram the chances are you’ll still be using your phone to take snaps when on holiday or a night out. But maybe you are like many people who have been disappointed with the quality of your photos of late and find yourself hitting a brick wall at times because of the limitations of your phone’s camera. Or maybe you have been getting into photography as a result of using your phone and now you want to move to the next level and invest in a real camera.
With a wide range of DSLR’s & Mirrorless cameras out there it can be difficult to know what to buy. Your budget will probably dictate what choices you have but don’t let this put you off. I would say never buy cheap as you always end up buying twice. Then again, the most expensive camera doesn’t always mean its the right camera for you, especially if you are just starting out.
Depending on the phone you have been using I would say that unless you are willing to spend more than £300 on a camera then don’t bother buying until you have saved up that much. Compacts under this price range won’t really take your photography to the next level from your phone.
DSLR OR MIRRORLESS CAMERA?
First things first. Before we start it is important to know the difference between these two camera systems as they will be mentioned throughout. If you don’t know what aperture is, or ISO or shutter speed, don’t worry, they’re not relevant to the tips needed in you making a decision buying a camera, even though they will be mentioned.
Now, it used to be that DSLR’s (Digital Single-Lens Reflex Camera) were the only cameras to have the option to change lenses. Well, now there’s Mirrorless cameras which offer the same option. A lot of people still don’t know what a Mirrorless camera is. And people still think DSLR’s are what ‘proper’ photographers use. Lots of professional photographers use Mirrorless cameras now and for a variety of reasons.
In my opinion DSLR’s are a thing of the past and will be obsolete in five years, with Mirrorless cameras replacing them. It has only been in the last three years that Mirrorless cameras have been taken seriously by the photography community.
Mirrorless cameras have garnered the name because they literally don’t have the reflex mirror inside, unlike DSLR cameras. The mirror in a DSLR reflects the light up to the optical viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras do not have optical viewfinders, they have electronic viewfinders.
The main difference with a Mirrorless camera is that you can see the changes you make with your camera in real time through the electronic viewfinder. So if you change your aperture you will see the image get brighter or darker as you apply the change. The same applies when changing the shutter speed. You will also be able to see your photo in the viewfinder after you have taken it.
With DSLR’s – when you change your aperture or shutter speed, even your ISO, you don’t see the changes in the viewfinder as the viewfinder is just a glass window, whereas a Mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder is the image that it is seeing through the camera’s sensor.
BENEFITS OF MIRRORLESS VS DSLR
• You see real-time changes in the viewfinder when you change the aperture or shutter speed. This means when you are about to take a shot you know exactly how it is going to look beforehand.
• You see your image in the viewfinder right after taking the photo. Whereas a DSLR only shows the photo on the back LCD screen.
• Better and faster auto-focus through the viewfinder.
• Some Mirrorless cameras can take photographs completely silent meaning there’s no annoying shutter noise. This is something that DSLR’s cannot achieve. Beneficial if shooting a wedding or a live event.
• Size of camera. Interchangeable Mirrorless cameras can be very small and half the size of a DSLR. This can be beneficial if you are on holiday and don’t want to be lugging a big chunky camera around. It can also mean you can shoot discreetly which is favoured by street photographers.
The one thing that annoyed me the most with using a DSLR was that you would have to take a photo, look at the back screen to see if the photo was exposed properly or in focus, and then change the settings (aperture, shutter speed or ISO) and take the photo again — then repeat that process until the image was exactly as I wanted it. That in itself is called Chimping. Mirrorless cameras take this inconvenience away which makes it a faster and more reliable way of doing photography.
NEGATIVES OF MIRRORLESS CAMERAS
The biggest complaint of Mirrorless cameras when they first came out was that the electronic viewfinder struggled in dark situations and the battery life wasn’t as good as DSLR’s. This is primarily because Mirrorless cameras are using more electronics and they drain more battery life. This was true of older Mirrorless cameras.
Certainly the battery life may be an issue with the lower priced Mirrorless cameras, but the viewfinders have improved massively in the last three years. The camera in your phone is technically a Mirrorless camera.
The debate of Mirrorless VS DSLR will continue for a few years yet, but ultimately it comes down to personal choice. All major camera manufacturers have a Mirrorless range now. Either way you know the differences and we can move on with the tips for buying a new camera.
TIP #1 SENSOR SIZE
Fundamentally this is probably one of thee most important things you should know about when buying any camera. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t tried selling cameras for a living. Once you know about sensor size it will open up a whole different world of how you look at cameras. In a sentence nutshell; the sensor is what produces your camera’s image.
Every camera and every phone with a camera has a sensor inside that produces your image. Forget megapixels for just now. They mean very little at this stage. When you are buying a camera the first thing you want to know is what size is the sensor. Sensor size, sensor size, sensor size! That should be your mantra when you go out to purchase.
Think of a camera sensor like a window. Now think of a window in a large dark room. The bigger the window is, the more light that can come into the room, and the more detail your eyes can see in the room. Same principle applies to a camera sensor size.
Basically, the bigger the sensor size the better the image quality and detail is overall, especially in low light. You know those shots of that sunset you take on your phone and when you viewed them back on your computer, or tablet, and they looked kinda crappy and nothing like the sunset you saw? Yip – exactly that, you know what I’m talking about. Well that is because your phone’s sensor size is too small that it can’t suck in the detail from what you shot.
Smartphone camera sensor sizes do vary but currently the biggest sensor in any phone stands at 1 2/3 in size. If your platform is solely Instagram then by all means a luxury smartphone like an Iphone XS Max or Google Pixel 3XL, or a Huawei Mate 20 Pro will give very good results for your Insta feed, depending on the type of photography you do. But remember – those phones are far more expensive than any entry-level DSLR or Mirrorless camera. And Instagram photos are not that big which is why most peoples photos look pretty good on there. No doubt a 6×4 photo shot on your mobile phone looks pretty good, but when you blow it up to A4 size that’s when you see the detail is lost and the image looks fuzzy in comparison to the 6×4 print.
MAKING THE JUMP
What you want to aim for is a good jump up from your current camera sensor size. Which means that if you have been using your phone then you have got quite a few options. Just be careful you don’t fall into the trap some people do and think that buying a bridge camera or a compact camera with a big zoom is the next step up from your phone. Because the chances are it isn’t.
What you need to do is jump up to a camera with at least a 1 inch sensor to notice a difference in the image quality compared to using your phone. This sensor size will give you the option to choose from a premium compact camera or a premium bridge camera. Over time you will probably realise the limitations that those cameras have – they both have fixed lenses and can be quite expensive when you compare them to interchangeable lens cameras.
If you want to see a big difference in your photos have a look at the sensor size chart below, with the hierarchy of sensor sizes, which will help you understand the options you have.
BREAKDOWN OF SENSOR SIZES
One thing to add here – remember how I mentioned megapixels earlier. Well…there’s a big misconception that higher megapixels means better quality photos. This is true but the understanding of it is wrong. Sensor size comes first then the megapixels matter.
For instance – a 40 megapixel photograph which was shot on a mobile phone with a 1 2/3 sensor will never be as good a quality photograph compared to a 12 megapixel photograph taken with a Full Frame camera. Because a Full Frame sensor is massive compared to a 1 2/3 sensor size (which is what premium mobile phones have). Look at the chart below.
MEDIUM FORMAT SENSOR SIZE
The biggest sensor size of them all. Cameras like Hasselblad and Leica will set you back a cost of at least £5,000 to start with and that’s just for the body! Unless you are wanting to take photos to be printed on billboards or inside the walls of a shopping mall you do not need to even consider a medium format camera just now.
FULL FRAME SENSOR SIZE
The second biggest sensor size. Full Frame cameras are generally the choice of professionals, most photojournalists will use a Full Frame camera and they are especially favoured by Wedding Photographers. Most Full Frame cameras have interchangeable lenses although there are a few with fixed lenses (you cannot remove the lens). Full Frame cameras are not as expensive as Medium Format cameras and can start from as low as £800.
• Very high resolution images with a lot of detail. You can shoot wide with Full Frame cameras and still crop images whilst retaining a lot of detail. Good for street photographers shooting wide who then re-crop photographs later.
• Depth of field will also be wider with a Full Frame camera.
• Good for low light photography when paired with the correct lens due to the sensor size.
• True focal length *(see note below)*
*Important note* One thing to add is that when you pair any lens with a Full Frame camera it gives a true focal length of the lens you are using. If you use a 50mm lens with a Full Frame camera then you will get 50mm. Use a 85mm lens and you will get 85mm and so on. Any other camera with a different sensor size (like the ones below) will not give a true focal length. You will have to multiply the focal length by the sensor size (x).
• Price of cameras start from about £800.
• Cameras are generally bigger and heavier than other interchangeable lens cameras with smaller sensors.
• Full Frame lenses are generally more expensive than cameras with smaller sensors. Not ideal if you’re a student just starting out and barely making ends meet between studying and working a part-time job.
APS-C SENSOR SIZE
The next sensor size worth talking about it APS-C. This is probably the most popular format for people starting out in photography using a DSLR or Mirrorless camera for the first time. Most of these cameras will have interchangeable lenses but again there are a few with fixed lenses on the market. APS-C cameras can start from as low as £299.
• Images will be high resolution and detailed – you could print up photos to poster size. Good for hobbyists just starting out who want to print up photos or have more creative control with their camera.
• Cameras vary in size from almost pocket sized to being as big as a Full Frame camera – giving lots of choice.
• Lens selection is generally good across the board at all different price-points. Canon, Nikon & Sony Full Frame lenses will also work on cameras with APS-C bodies. This means if you upgrade to a Full Frame camera further down the line then you don’t have to buy a whole new set of lenses.
• Size can be an issue to some although Mirrorless cameras with an APS-C sensor cater for this problem.
*Important note* If you use a 50mm lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor then your focal length will be:
• Multiply by 1.6x if you are using a Canon APS-C camera = 80mm focal length.
• Multiply by 1.5x if you are using a Sony, Nikon or Fuji APS-C camera = 75mm focal length.
MICRO FOUR THIRDS SENSOR SIZE
Micro Four-Thirds is the favoured sensor size used in Panasonic and Olympus cameras.
• Camera sizes vary from pocket size to DSLR size giving lots of choice.
• Lens selection is good with both Panasonic and Olympus lenses working on both cameras.
• Current megapixel count is 20 megapixels at the highest end with Micro Four-Thirds. This, combined with the sensor, can mean performance in lower light situations can cause noise in the photographs.
• If you use a 50mm lens on a Micro Four-Thirds camera then your focal length will be: Multiply by 2.0x = 100mm
1 INCH SENSOR SIZE
PREMIUM COMPACT CAMERAS
1 Inch sensor size is used in premium compacts and premium bridge cameras. Premium compact cameras (like the ones pictured above) have large apertures (F1.8) so work well in low light situations and offer some manual control, as well as being small enough to fit into your pocket. Prices can start from the £300 mark upwards.
• Cameras are generally pocket sized – perfect for travelling.
• Good jump up from your phone in terms of image quality and shooting in low light.
• Battery life can be quite poor on some cameras.
• Trying to shoot manually can be problematic or limited, especially if you have large hands
• Focus system can be quite basic compared to cameras with bigger sensors.
• Whilst these cameras do not have interchangeable lenses the crop factor is Multiply by 2.7x
1 INCH SENSOR SIZE (cont’d)
PREMIUM BRIDGE CAMERAS
With a reasonable selection of premium bridge cameras on the market, these 1 inch sensor size cameras offer an all-in-one solution for hobbyists that are currently using their phone, or compact camera, and want to move up to something closer in size and weight to a DSLR or Mirrorless camera.
Whilst these cameras don’t have removable lenses they do offer a very large fixed zoom lens that can shoot as wide as 24mm with the ability to zoom up to 600mm. Perfect for wildlife enthusiasts just starting out or for taking on safari holidays. Most of these cameras will have a manual focus ring on the lens, much like an interchangeable lens has, thus giving the user full manual focus control when needed. Prices start from £500.
• Big zoom with premium lens that shoots wide shots as well
• Manual focus ring much like DSLR or Mirrorless camera
• Can be big and heavy for light travelling
• Whilst they are an all-in-one solution, with premium lenses, they can be quite expensive in comparison with all interchangeable lens cameras, which have bigger sensors (Micro Four Thirds, APS-C, Full Frame).
• Whilst these cameras do not have interchangeable lenses the crop factor is Multiply by 2.7x
TIP #2 WHAT IS THE CAMERA FOR?
So you know all about sensors, you’ve seen the chart and now you’re going to buy a camera. When you see the massive choice of cameras you have you will probably be overwhelmed. Ask yourself a simple question: what is the camera for? As simple as this question is, you really want to think about it. Because no camera caters to every photographer.
I always say that the best camera is the one you have on you at the time when you need to take a photo. So ask yourself; do you want a small compact camera on you at all times in case you see a photo opportunity and you can just whip it out and snap away? Or are you wanting a camera with a big zoom because you like to take photos of birds and snap candid street shots of people from far away? Some questions to ask yourself are:
• DO I WANT TO CHANGE LENSES OR HAVE A ONE-FOR-ALL CAMERA?
Maybe you want to have the versatility of shooting landscapes one minute and wildlife the next, with a quick lens change, therefore an interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or Mirrorless) will suffice. Or perhaps you just want to be a light traveller and don’t want to be carrying a big bag with your camera, batteries and lenses inside as well as a tripod. Therefore a compact or bridge camera saves carrying all these extras. Sure, the sensor sizes of those cameras will be smaller than a Mirrorless or DSLR but you’re willing to compromise there. Either way you’re still making a jump up from your mobile phone.
• DO I WANT A BIG OR SMALL CAMERA ?
You may have large hands so a small camera will be tricky to use or vice-versa – you have small hands and can’t hold something heavy for long. Maybe you are intending to use your camera for going on holiday therefore a small camera will suffice.
• DO I WANT TO SHOOT WIDE AND CROP MY PHOTOS LATER?
You are a stickler for detail so you want to make sure you can re-frame your shots in post later. Or maybe you are a street photographer who likes to snap quickly when a moment presents itself thus a Full Frame camera would allow you to shoot wide, capture a lot of detail and give you the freedom of re-cropping later.
• DO I WANT TO TAKE LOTS OF SHOTS AT NIGHT?
You want to capture star-trails and shots of the moon therefore cameras with bigger sensors will capture more details and certain lenses (with large apertures) will be required.
• DO I NEED A CAMERA WITH A VIEWFINDER?
Surprisingly this is a much overlooked question and something that people forget when buying a camera. Most interchangeable lens cameras have a viewfinder but some compacts and bridge cameras do not. If you are shooting in bright sunshine you really need a viewfinder – if there is no viewfinder and only a back LCD screen you will find it difficult to see because of the reflection from the glass of the screen.
TIP #3 FOCUS SYSTEM
Another question that most people won’t think too much about when buying their first ‘proper’ camera. All cameras have different focusing systems and burst modes (fps = frames per second). If you intend to shoot fast moving subjects like cars on a racetrack or your kids playing football with their local team every weekend, then you need a camera with a good tracking focus. Compact cameras do have pretty good focusing systems these days but they are still not as good as DSLR’s or Mirrorless cameras. And even those cameras have different focusing systems.
Even if you intend to use your camera fully manual it’s always advisable to have a good auto-focus as you’ll need it for sporting events or wildlife photography. Check that the camera you intend to purchase has a lot of focus points (the more focus points the better chances of being in focus) and that it can shoot a lot of frames per second (fps). Just make sure the focus system caters to the type of photography you want to do.
TIP #4 LENSES
So you’ve looked at compact cameras and bridge cameras but you want to go with a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera. The fundamental principle about most if not all lenses is that one lens won’t really cater for every type of photography. In essence if you buy the right lenses I would say you only need three at the most. You could probably narrow that down to two if you needed to. Like the four questions on what is the camera for, apply these questions to your lenses. First off there are two types of lenses:
• ZOOM LENS: You can zoom in and out.
• PRIME LENS: There is no zoom function. The focal length is fixed.
There are two main principles in a lens:
Aperture is the hole in your lens through which light travels. Lenses have different apertures and the aperture determines how clear the image is in light or dark situations.
An aperture of F1.8 will be great for shooting at night or indoors whereas an aperture with F3.5 will mean more noise in your shots unless it is very sunny or you have a good light source (like an external flash). Your camera’s shutter speed will also dictate how bright or dark your shots will be as well. The largest maximum aperture of any lens on the market is currently F1.2.
So if you want to take portrait photos and have nice blurred-out backgrounds behind a model then you need a lens with a large aperture. Most people start with a 50mm F1.8. The lower the F-number, like F1.8 then the more blur is in the background.
The biggest quandary most photographers come up against is that they want a lens that has lots of zoom and performs well in low light. A lot of zoom lenses in the cheaper price range generally have aperture’s starting from F3.5. Zoom lenses with large apertures tend to be expensive.
#2 GLASS QUALITY
• Native: Made by your camera manufacturer. i.e. Canon, Nikon, Sony etc.
• Non Native: Made by third-party manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron, Samyang etc.
The first general rule of thumb is to stick with native lenses with your camera. What I mean by that is if you have a Canon camera then buy Canon lenses. If you have a Sony, stick with Sony lenses. There are third party lenses like Sigma, Tamron, Samyang and others who make lenses for all major camera manufacturers. These lenses vary in price but you can purchase some of a lot cheaper than your native lens equivalent. Which is handy if you are on a limited budget. Like the Tamron 70-300mm which retails for about £110 which is a great price.
The thing to remember when looking at lenses that aren’t native is that the auto-focus on them might not be as fast or as reliable as a native equivalent. There’s no point spending lots of money on a camera for it’s great auto-focus system and buying third-party lenses that are slow when auto-focusing. Native lenses will always generally be better and quicker with your camera than their third-party equivalents.
There are different hierarchies on lenses. The lens that generally comes with your first DSLR or Mirrorless camera is what’s called a kit lens. This is just to get you started. It won’t be the sharpest and it certainly won’t be good for low light and it might be a bit slow when auto-focusing.
The more money you pay on lenses will either mean one or all of these things:
• Better in low light.
• Weather sealed.
Ultimately try and buy the right focal length that is relative to the type of photography you want to do. No point on buying a 70mm – 300mm when you are going to be shooting mainly in your house as the minimum focal distance is 70mm. I would always suggest you buy a 50mm lens and a zoom lens like an 18-135mm when just starting out. Those two would be the perfect starter for any beginner photographer.
In an ideal world we would have unlimited money and could just buy a whole bunch of cameras and lenses for every situation. Find what is the best solution for your needs.
My advice is write down a bunch of points you absolutely want in a camera; for example – if you’re going to be taking selfies then you need a camera with a fully articulated screen to see yourself as you take the shot. Some cameras are touch-to-focus, some are not. Write down your needs, do some research on a few cameras and then go into a camera store and speak to a sales person. Tell them what you want in a camera. A good sales person should show you all the brands within your remit.
Ultimately, make sure you pick up the cameras and try them out. The size and weight of a camera can be deceiving when looking at photos on a website. The button layout on some brands may not work right for you when you have it in your hand. There’s a whole bunch of add-ons to consider. You will need a spare battery, a camera bag, an SD (memory) card and possibly a tripod. This will all add another £50-100 to your budget.
Remember; the best camera is the one that you have on you at the time when you want to take a photo. You may be the best street photographer in the world but if your camera is too big and you only take it out for ‘a day out with the camera‘ then you will miss shots that can—and will—present themselves at the strangest most unexpected times.
Take your time choosing the right camera for yourself. It is a lot of money to pay for something that should last you for years to come, so you want to ensure you make the right choice. Hopefully the information in this article has given you some direction in making a purchase. And remember; sensor size, sensor size, sensor size – then megapixels matter.