Choosing camera is never easy, especially if it's your first camera. What to look for, which brand and when to buy? These are some of the questions you might be asking yourself.
Words & photography: Maksim Kalanep
Before you start answering them - try to think of more. More questions you can come up with - the easier the whole process will become in the end. It's like one of those maps with questions - one leads to another, but at the same time excludes other options or opens them up.
Let's say if you are limited by the budget - you won't be able to afford top of the range camera. Or if you want to shoot sequences - you can't get away with cheaper options. Same with the low light performance and high resolution - one excludes another.
So keeping that in mind let's begin:
Limited or unlimited budget?
Compact with a fixed lens or interchangeable system?
Film or digital system?
Cropped sensor, full frame or medium format?
Resolution - matters or not?
Low light - matters or not?
Brand - matters or not?
Size - matters or not?
Build quality - matters or not?
Selection of lenses and accessories - matters or not?
Flash compatibility - matters or not?
Where to buy - online, at the shop, locally or from abroad?
When to buy?
Second hand or new?
Latest model or the one before?
Option to shoot sequences - yes or not?
And the list goes on ...
...and you might wonder now - how am I supposed to know all the answers?
You might - if you already own a camera and you are into all the technical stuff. But what if you don't - you might find the list above very confusing and not helpful at all.
So let's start with the best option first - less is more - as discussed in the first two articles. Use what you already own or buy something very affordable for now - learn it, go out and start shooting and see what functions or options you might be missing. Basically find out what limits you to get the desired shot. If nothing - then you've got a perfect camera ideal for your needs.
In reality, it's never that easy and there are tonnes of other factors or simple inner thoughts that will always tell you that you need a new better camera than the one that you already have.
Let's build a universal camera for skateboard photography based on average case scenario a skate photographer might find him/herself in.
Your plan is to shoot a couple of portraits, 2 single tricks plus 1 manual combo trick. The first trick will be in a tiny alley, second shooting from a distance, third somewhere in the middle. So one will be done with a fisheye, second with a long lens, third with a standard lens. You possibly need off camera lights for alley trick. As well as a portrait lens. Triggers for your lights. You can't shoot a manual combo trick in a single shot - you need to take sequence. You might run out of daylight for the sequence, so you need to pump up the ISO. You also want to have a backup on a second card in case one fails while you shoot. And the battery has to last all that time while you take photographs.
To do all that you need a camera that allows you to change lenses, has a high capacity battery, performs well in low light, has an accurate and fast focusing system, can shoot at more than 8/9 frames per second, has a fast processor, two memory card slots, is compatible with radio triggers for off camera lighting, is quite robust if hit by board or simply dropped in a rush, is weather sealed, easy/comfortable to hold/operate, not so heavy & massive to keep your back/neck free from pain.
Any modern semi-pro digital SLR camera will click all those boxes except one - 8/9 frames per second or more. Only top of the range cameras like Nikon D5 or Canon 1DX Mark II will do that. But do you really want to shoot sequences? Do you want to pay double just to have that option in case? Of course, those cameras are made like tanks and will survive anything and worth all the extra money you pay for them if you shoot professionally and make money out of it.
If you really need an option to shoot sequences you can always go back in time and buy previous versions of those top of the range cameras like Nikon D3, Nikon D3S, Nikon D4, Nikon D4S, Canon 1DX. You will loose some resolution compared to modern options, but the overall image quality still will be very high even in low light. The amount of money you can save this way is quite substantial.
Same applies to so called semi-pro cameras like Nikon D750, Nikon D810, Canon 6D, Canon 5D Mark IV - all of them have previous generations that in some cases will be performing almost the same but for 2 or 3 times cheaper price tag. Look for Nikon D700, Nikon D800, Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 5D Mark III. All of these are made from magnesium alloy and are more or less as robust as the top of the range bodies.
What about entry level, m43, and other cropped sensor options?
These all are good cameras, no doubt about that, especially all Fuji X100 and XT series, but with some limitations here and there, battery capacity being one of those due to body size. While they are lighter and smaller in size, some of them are plastic and not that robust or weather sealed. Those that are magnesium will cost you more or less the same as full frame sensor cameras or even more.
And there is really no point buying an entry level plastic modern body with limited controls that you will eventually get rid off - when you can buy semi-pro Nikon D700 or even Nikon D3 second hand for the same or a bit more price with all the features/controls you can imagine in a great camera body. Yes, Nikon D700/D3 won't provide you with 24 or 36 megapixels, but to shoot at that resolution you need high resolving lenses - affordable manual lenses from film days won't be a match for 24 or 36mp. 12mp in Nikon D700/D3 is more than enough for a 2-page spread in a magazine.
More megapixels also means more storage space required on your memory card, your hard drive, backup drive or cloud service and of course more computer power required to process those files. It all adds up and brings all the costs up.
What about compact full-frame cameras?
There are not that many of these. Sony RX1 series, Leica Q and classic M digital options. While being very compact and with outstanding image quality - these are very expensive and not that universal. You are either limited by fixed 28mm or 35mm lens on Leica Q and Sony RX1, Sony RX1R, Sony RX1R II or have no native fisheye option for Leica M digital system.
If you are looking to buy a film camera - then there are plenty of great cheap options from fully manual cameras like Nikon FE, Nikon FE2, Nikon FM2 to state of the art all in one manual/auto focus Nikon F100 for around £150-200. Great compact film cameras like Olympus Mju II, Olympus XA, Rollei 35, Contax T2, Fuji Natura S, Fuji Klasse, Ricoh GR1, Nikon 35Ti, Nikon 28Ti, Minolta TC-1 might be 3-4 times more expensive than that and lack shutter speed controls.
Once you more or less have an idea about what camera you'd like to purchase you have to decide where to buy it from. There are plenty of options here as well.
You can go to a high street shop and pay extra or find a small independent shop and support that with paying full price. Or you can buy it online or from Asia without warranty. Or find a cheap flight to New York, buy it there and have your flight almost for free thanks to exchange rate and historically higher prices in the UK/EU due to import taxes and other unknown reasons.
From my own experience - buying second-hand cameras is best from Japan through eBay, just look for seller rating of 99.5 or higher. You can find almost any cameras in like new condition with low shutter count and be sure it will work another 10 years. The downside - import tax.
As for new bodies - it all depends - if the manufacturer offers a 2-year warranty - then I would buy locally and take advantage of that if there are any trade-in promotions where you can save £200-300 on your purchase. If it's just a 1 year warranty and I can find a deal £500-£700 cheaper in Hong Kong with import tax charges covered by seller then I usually go for it - since none of my cameras has ever developed any faults in the first year of use. And if there are any recalls or wide known issues - local repair centre will take it in anyways, even if it was purchased in Asia. Be aware of too good to be true deals or where sellers don't mention import taxes or other duties.
To conclude - camera on its own won't do the job for you as a photographer, it's just a tool designed to capture light. You will decide what and how to freeze the moment in time. Camera with the right features at an affordable price will help you do that.