Choosing a Camera Body

Choosing a camera body 

My Pentax cameras
My family of Pentax camera bodies.
From left to right: K-5 with the Sigma 150-500mm lens, K-7 With the Sigma 10-20 lens, K200D With the Pentax kit 18-55mm lens.

Sometimes you can hear people say,
“Wow! What I great photo. You must have a really expensive camera.”

Or

“I wish I had a camera like yours. Then I’d be able to take so much better pictures.”

How many times haven’t I heard phrases like that. If you have been a photographer for a while and you have showed your work to people, chances are you have too.

So is that all there is to it? The price tag?
Of course not. A good photo still depends very much on the decisions of the person behind the camera (thank goodness, that is a big part of what makes this hobby interesting).

Some say, “But I need a BETTER camera. I want to take BETTER pictures.”

Then I ask them, “Better how?”

Then there’s silence…………

That is something that many people don’t think of. HOW the more expensive camera can improve their pictures. They just assume that more expensive is better, and it magically improves their images in every way. That is not the case.

That’s why I want to talk about what you need to consider before you buy a new camera body. This way you might make a better choice buying a camera that is RIGHT FOR YOU, and your type of use, rather than just bigger and more expensive. And then…..LEARN HOW TO USE IT.

Well now….enough with the CAPS!! ..….let’s move on.

This post is about choosing a DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex) camera body. There may be alternatives in compact point and shoot or hybrid zoom camera, but this post doesn’t cover that. This is for those of you who want to invest in a system you can build on.

Brands

You may already have your favorite here. That’s ok. Most of today’s digital camera brands deliver high quality cameras in various price ranges.
A few things to consider picking a brand though:

  1. Lens availability.

    Canon and Nikon are the market leaders in the digital camera field, and they have a large lineup of original brand lenses, in addition to all the other lenses that fit their cameras made by third party manufacturers, like Sigma or Tamron.If the diversity of possible lens choices is important to you, this is something to consider. If you are planning on building on your interest in photography, and buying a DSLR, you’re not just picking a camera brand, you are choosing a system (you might see the term “system camera” used).Although Canon/Nikon may have a large collection of lenses available, other brands also have lens lineups that will cover most of our mere mortals’ needs.

  2. Hobby or Pro.

    Most of the brands provide cameras geared towards the consumer or semi-pro market, but not all of them produce full format pro cameras.
    Consider this when you think about how far you may want to take your interest in photography.
    Canon, Nikon and Sony are the biggest brands when it comes to producing pro-level DSLRs.

  3. You want something different than mainstream.

    I am a Pentax-shooter myself. I chose that brand by accident when I bought my first camera. Back when I knew nothing about nothing. I have built on this system since 2008, and I have been satisfied with it thus far.

Pentax has a small market share, but produces some very good cameras in the hobby/semi-pro segment. My main camera is currently a Pentax K-5, which has properties and qualities that may compete well with any of the other brands in the same segment.

Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax and Panasonic are all good reputable brands in the DSLR market.

Ergonomics/weight

The physical feel of the camera body in your hand.
This is important when it comes to holding it for some time, or moving around with it.
You should test this before you buy a new camera. Make sure it feels good to hold and move around with, in various positions.

Semi-pro/Pro DSLRs may be weather-sealed and built around a full format sensor, which in turn will add to the size and/or weight. Consider if this is something you really need.

Take into account the added weight of the lens(es) you’ll be using as well. A full format pro-level DSLR with a 500mm lens is a heavy beast (but then again, a tripod is usually a good idea).

Weather sealing

The average DSLR is a plastic box with some electronics and small mechanical components in it. Dust and moisture may easily get into this box and interrupt the delicate machinery inside.

Some cameras come with some form of weather sealing though. These cameras usually have a better build quality altogether.

The casing could be made of metal or partly metal (usually a magnesium alloy). The connector sockets can have rubber covers. The buttons may have rubber or silicone seals under/around them.

These kind of properties used to be available only in pro-level camera bodies, but have become more common in consumer/prosumer cameras.
All my Pentax cameras (K200D, K-7, K-5) have some kind of weather sealing in them.

Megapixels

The war of the pixel count has been going on since the dawn of the digital era. It seemed for while that it was the most important thing in the competition between the manufacturers. How to stuff the largest amount of pixels onto the sensors.

There is a need for a certain amount of pixels, but most modern camera bodies are well within a number of megapixels that will produce a high quality photo as far as resolution goes. The resolution is an important factor in how large you can print an image, or how much cropping you can do.

More pixels is not necessarily better. Especially on smaller sensors. A smaller sensor with a certain amount of megapixels may be more prone to image noise than a bigger sensor (full format size or even larger) with the same amount of pixels.

This article explains why more isn’t always better. Think a bit about if you’ll be printing large sizes or if you would be doing a lot of cropping. Otherwise, don’t stress too much about the megapixels.

Sensor size

The sensor size is more important than the amount of pixels it can produce. A bigger image sensor usually means that each pixel is bigger as well. In this case, bigger is better (I swear I’ve heard that phrase before).

The most common sizes are:

The Full Format or Full Frame sensor size (36mm by 24mm).

These are found in bigger Pro-Level cameras. The sensor is the size of what used to be a frame of film back in the day. These are considered to produce the best image quality in DSLRs.

A full frame sensor has a wider angle of view compared to a smaller sensor using the same lens. For this reason, you can’t use lenses optimized for smaller sensors on a full frame camera. The other way around could be possible though. This sensor size usually makes the cameras bigger and more expensive.

The APS-C sensor size (23.6mm by 15.8mm (slight variations in size depending on manufacturer))

The most common sensor size among consumer/prosumer DSLRs. This has a narrower angle of view than the full format sensor, and is also known as a crop factor sensor.

The crop factor is usually 1.5 or 1.6 depending on the manufacturer. This means the sensor is 1,5 times smaller than full frame. In turn this multiplies the effective focal length of the used lens by 1.5 compared to the full frame sensor.
Example: A 50mm lens on a full frame camera X 1.5 = 75mm effective focal length when the same lens is used on a 1.5 crop factor camera.

This smaller sensor makes for smaller and cheaper camera bodies, without compromising too much on image quality. There are a few more sensor sizes out there, but the two that I’ve covered are the most common.

A couple of geeky links here and here, with some more technical information about image sensors.

 FPS (Frames per second)

This is something to think about if you plan to do some action shooting, i.e. birds in flight, car racing, sports.

It’s the amount of pictures the camera is able to take per second, in continuous shooting mode. A high FPS allows for less missed action shots.

An FPS of 10-12 is considered very high on DSLRs with a mechanically moving mirror. These are usually pro-level camera frame rates.

A frame rate of 5-8 FPS is good on a prosumer camera. A higher max FPS usually drives up the price of the DSLR though, so consider if you need it.

ISO performance

The ISO setting of a camera is there to decide how sensitive the sensor will be to light. This article explains the concept of ISO, and how to use it.

I just want to talk a bit about the performance of the cameras’ ISOs. What I mean by that is how high you can raise the ISO setting without introducing noise/grain in your images, and when noise is introduced, how the camera will handle/reduce it.

To have a camera with good ISO performance is important if you plan to take pictures in low light conditions without a flash, and you still need faster shutter speeds.

The better ISO performance sometimes goes hand in hand with a bigger price tag. This is because higher performance usually means a bigger (full format) or a more high tech sensor.

So how do you know how the camera you plan on buying performs when it comes to the ISO?
Go read online.
Google the camera model + ISO performance.
People around the world are testing, comparing and pixel peeping. Some websites provide a side-by-side comparison of reference images from cameras, like this one.

Speaking of reading online. That brings me to my last tip……

Read reviews

…and not just one. All of them.
Well, maybe not all, but at least read a few. Get to know what different people think about the different properties of the camera(s) you are interested in.
Some review sites here to get you going:
DPreview
Cameralabs
or Google might be your best friend here as well.

Now that you have read about some key points to consider, when buying a camera body, you may find it easier to find one that is right for you.

Here is a link to some DSLRs at Amazon
(I may receive a commission if you buy from Amazon through this link)

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