Which camera should I buy?

Which camera should I buy?

I get asked ‘which camera should I buy’ a lot from friends and clients and generally people that I bump into on shoots. This usually starts with people looking at my ‘big’ camera with the lens and lens hood and the speedlight hanging around my chest on my custom made leather strap (I will be selling these soon! 🙂 ). It is a question which is quickly followed by “what do you want to shoot?” This is the core of the purpose of answering this question. I am sure that many of my photographer friends have experienced this too.

The photography industry is a continuously changing and evolving one. An industry that is lead by big camera companies pushing, chasing and trying to outdo each other to create the next big thing – the next big breakthrough in photography gear. Every year the big players launch new cameras focussed on the different segments in the markets, the pros (whose feedback they use to improve all the time), the prosumer with the expendable cash and the  beginners, student and casual photographers.

Different brands

There are quite a few brands that play in this market. I will only focus on the main players and some of the up and coming brands in the stills and video market. (just to be clear, all my opinions are skewed toward still photography. I don’t know enough about the video market to give an educated opinion. 🙂 ) Canon and Nikon are the big boys with Pentax, Olympus, Sony, Fuji, Panasonic all offering very good camera systems too. All locally available in South Africa.

The biggest brands are Canon and Nikon and they dominate the DSLR (digital single lens reflex) systems.

Different body types

There are a few different camera types to consider when buying your camera.

Cape Town Photographer

Which camera should i buy

The compact, also known as the ‘point-and-shoot’ is the easiest to use. It is like the name suggests a small camera with a fixed lens. the lens is manufactured to be a part of the body and cannot be removed. It is basic although some can be quite technical and one can achieve some stunning results. The Canon G1X mark ii is one such camera. This bad boy can shoot fully automatic and make all the decisions for you or you can adjust everything from ISO to shutter speed to aperture and shoot in RAW. These cameras are great for running around shooting your family snaps. Small and light enough to drop into your handbag without taking up much room or even to slip into your coat pocket.

Canon G1X

The Mirrorless system is a relatively new system, being born only a few years ago (they came to the market around 2011). The biggest players in this market are Sony and Fuji, but Canon and Nikon have decent offerings too. These cameras have developed (see what I did there?) very quickly in a short space of time. They are exactly what they say they are, Mirrorless. The have no mechanical shutter and flip up mirror. So they can pack the same sort of tech as the DSLR cameras into a much smaller space. They have digital viewfinders which in most cases are super intuitive and the beauty is that what you see on the screen or in the viewfinder is exactly what you will get in your screen at home when editing! These systems can have either bodies with fixed lenses, like the Fuji X100T, or interchangeable lenses, like the Sony A7S ii.

cape town photographer

which camera should i buy

Sony A7S iifujilfilm-x100t

Fuji X100T

The Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) system is modelled on the old film cameras. They have a viewfinder that can see exactly what the lens sees because of a mirror that flips up in front of the shutter which sits in front of the sensor. They have mechanical shutters which in most cases roll down over the sensor capturing the light. They are the most versatile of the camera systems and one can have complete control using the lenses of choice. These systems are generally what the professional photographers and videographers use because they are very versatile and with a massive variety of lenses to choose from for every situation, the shooter can control the outcome according to their needs.

DSLR bodies are made for the various market segments and are priced and specced accordingly. The entry level DSLR will have the basic options available and the basic kit lenses so anyone can shoot with them. The better prosumer cameras will have extras thrown in like video and sound jacks and the bodies tend to be made more robust than the entry level cameras that tend to be made of plastic and are generally a little smaller in the hand. These 2 bodies usually have crop sensors. The sensors will be smaller than the professional sensors, usually 1:6 of the size and will be of a lessor quality.

The professional DSLR systems are all weather sealed with all the bells and whistles. The best sensors and usually full frame too. They will more often than not have a higher frame rate than entry and prosumer bodies. And some, like the flagship bodies will have more than 1 sensor to handle the processing power of high frame rates and a big sensor pixel count. These cameras are great for shooting anything from your kids to weddings.

cape town photographer

which camera should i buy

This is an indication of the camera body lineup of Canon at the moment from the Canon 100 to the 1300 to the 760 to the 80 to the 5D iii to the flagship 1DX ii. The size is an indication of the difference in physical size too.

As an update I was contacted by Jenn from Jenreviews in New Zealand who has written a very comprehensive article on 12 questions to ask when buying a DSLR. Go across to her page and check it out.

The Medium format system  is mostly used by top end fashion, architectural, landscape and product photographers and usually in the professional arena. These cameras have huge sensors! Generally, the term applies to film and digital cameras that record images on media larger than 24 by 36 mm (full-frame) (used in 35 mm photography), but smaller than 4 by 5 inches (which is considered to be large-format photography). This end of the spectrum is dominated by companies like Hassleblad and Mamika and Pentax. The file sizes can be enormous, over 40MB and up to 100MB for each file. I personally have only ever shot with one of these once and that was when I was in college. One day when I am big I will have the opportunity but until then I will reserve all opinions.

Lenses are fundamental if you choose to go the DSLR route. You cannot shoot without one. The cheaper lenses are limited in their capabilities but can still produce great results in the right conditions. The more expensive lenses will often yield better results if used correctly and they will give you more latitude to work in more difficult lighting conditions. There are wide, medium and long telephoto zoom lenses available as well as fixed focal length lenses.

The zoom lenses give you the ability to get in closer to your subject without having to move but often the sacrifice is made in terms of ability to maximise the light ‘absorbing’ capability. The more light the lens can allow through the better. I shoot with the Canon lenses, I always carry my 50mm f1.4, 24-70 f2.8 and my 70-200 f2.8. this gives me flexibility to cover almost every situation.

I often rent in other lenses I need depending on the shoot and brief. The 5omm gives me the ability to shoot with a very shallow depth of field and make things blurry in the back ground. The 24-70mm is wide enough for most situations and the f2.8 aperture makes it possible to shoot in very low light. The 70-200 is my go to zoom. I can pick out elements in a crowded room or use the zoom to compact my subject in relation to the background. The latter 2 lenses are professional lenses that can utilise the f2.8 aperture throughout the focal range of the lens. The cheaper zoom lenses will force the aperture to close when zooming fully into the subject. So a 70-300 f3.5-5.6 will operate at a wide open aperture of 3.5 when it is zoomed back at 70mm but will force the aperture closed when zoomed in to 300mm.


Your budget is the main thing to think about when buying digital camera; that and what you are going to use it for. As a hobbiest with a small budget, I often recommend buying second hand gear with the highest spec possible. If you don’t like the idea of using previously loved gear and budget is still an issue then go for the cheapest entry level kit gear. You can always upgrade at a later stage.

If you want something small that you can throw around and don’t want to worry too much about your camera, buy a compact. If you fancy yourself a amateur photographer with some skills but don’t want a smaller camera then buy a mirrorless camera. If you think you may get bit by this photography bug and want to grow in it then buy a good entry level DSLR and upgrade as you go. If you want to go balls to the wall and jump in head first and try make a living at this then mortgage you home, sell a kidney and buy the best gear you can afford making sure you cover all your bases with lenses and peripherals.

A little about me:

Most photographers will progress from the compact to an entry level DSLR to a prosumer body if they want to grow in their hobbies and some will progress to the pro bodies if they have the cash or when they start shooting as professionals. I started shooting on my mom’s Pentax when I was a teenager and then a Cosina CT1 super with a 50mm 1:8 lens when I went to college. I upgraded to a Canon EOS 300V with a couple of kit lenses when I continued my studies in London after someone nicked my beautiful Cosina! I bought my first Digital Canon in 2005, a Canon 300D with a battery grip and another kit lens for R12000! I was using an old Metz hammerhead film flash (which I still have) then and had loads of fun trying to make it work with my digital camera! No TTL with that flash! Later I bought a Canon 20D and a better kit lens for R16000 in 2007. That was a lot of money back then! I bought a back up Canon 400D and sold the 300D. in 2009 I bought a Canon 50D. I then bought a Canon 70-200 2.8 L series lens. This was a massive breakthrough for me. My first piece of professional gear. I then saved and bought a Canon 24-105 f4. and Soon after bought a Canon 5D ii after renting one for around a year for bigger shoots. This was a game changer for me. The full frame opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Better quality images, higher ISO possibilities.

Once you go into the full frame game it is difficult to go back. All other bodies pale in comparison. In 2013 I bought the Canon 5D iii and this has been my main body since then. This body has served me well and I reckon I have probably released the shutter close on 300000 times without it ever giving me problems. I will probably buy the next generation 5D body because I know that it will be as good if not better and will carry me forward for the next few years.

Below is a sales graph depicting the camera sales since 1947 to 2014CIPA graph

This graph shows the sales of digital cameras since 2008. Notice how the DSLR sales remains constant but the compact sales drops. Smart cell phone sales are the reason behind this. The smart phone can not yet beat the quality of the DSLR.


p.s. The best camera is the one that is on you. I use my iPhone all the time to shoot because it is always on me. People have photographed weddings with the iPhone and will continue to shoot creative stuff on them because they are incredible tools. Commercially though the DSLR will always be around because of its versatility.

p.s.s My gear: Canon 5Diii, Canon 5Dii, Canon 430, 580 (X2), 600 speedlights, Canon 50mm f1.4, Canon 24-70 f2.8, Canon 70-200 f2.8, many radio triggers, Light stands, bags and umbrellas and other light shaping tools.

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