How To Choose The Right Camera Body

To take great photographs you must have a great camera, right?  You must have the latest full frame DSLR camera from Nikanon to make photos worth printing or showing on your favorite social media sites, just go to any photographers meet up and they'll tell you.  Or do you?  The actual camera is just about the least important part of making a photo, just make sure it works and you know how to operate it.  Unless you plan to make REALLY BIG prints to hang on your wall megapixels are just a marketing tool for the camera companies to separate you from your hard earned cash.  If you will never print larger than 11x14 and have good technique 6MP is plenty, if you plan to print at 20x30 inches 12MP is plenty if we still assume you have good technique and if you simply want to show something online your smartphone will do just fine.  I have personally sold dozens 24x36 inch prints made from a 10MP or 12MP camera.  The real professionals I know normally shoot with cameras that are several years old, well worn and lack the latest greatest features, yet they take many gorgeous photographs.  Why would a professional photographer use an older camera?  Because he or she has to be profitable and they are not trying to impress you with their gear, just their skill.  Amateurs or fanboy (and girl) types keep the camera manufacturers busy turning out new products, but skilled pros and enthusiasts don't need these modern marvels.

I too fall prey to the marketing hype of the big camera companies, when a new model comes out I lust after it and imagine all the great photos I could make if I too had 50 or more megapixels.  But then I think, take emotion out of it, and realize that the camera body is the least important part of the system for most users.  Can you get by without a great camera and still get some beautiful photographs?  Certainly.  Ansel Adams and Henry Cartier Bresson did just fine with talent, patience, creativity and the ancient equipment (by today's standards) they used.  In fact there is a special satisfaction that comes with making a photograph with a less than state of the art camera.  You don't need a special techno marvel to do this for you.  You are the most important part of the system.

This brings me to the photograph below.  In late 2011 I received an email from someone who claimed to be with Outdoor Photographer Magazine.  This being the premier publication in the world for landscape and general outdoor photography I was skeptical, after all I'd not Infrared Photograph of Historic Yates Mill In Raleigh, NCYates MillInfrared Photograph of Historic Yates Mill In Raleigh, NC submitted anything to them.  So I ignored it as spam.  Fortunately she followed up with more emails and a phone call until I realized she was legitimate.  She explained that the editor of the magazine had seen this photograph in an online forum and they wanted to publish it.  When you have an opportunity to be published in a major magazine you certainly say yes.  It was featured as the January photo in their 2012 calendar.

That is not the interesting part of the experience.  The interesting part had to do with the photographers who saw the photograph and used the link to my website so thoughtfully provided by Outdoor Photographer Magazine.  I was not surprised by the thousands of website hits that were generated, but I was surprised by the hundreds of personal contacts I received from photographers all over the world.  It was very pleasing to be recognized for what I'd done.  Then I started reading the emails.  There were several very knowledgeable photographers from around the world who gave me both compliments and hard hitting, insightful critiques.  But there was a vast majority who wanted to know one thing...  "What camera did you use for this shot?  Oh, and nice work."  This question came in over and over from all over the world, but especially North America and Europe.  So I dutifully and truthfully answered them.  "I used a Nikon D40x with a 720nm internal IR filter by Lifepixel and a Nikon 18-105 lens shot hand held at 1/80th of a second, ISO 100 and F9."  This is where it got interesting.  Many thanked me, some emailed more questions and some critiques or advice, but most thought I was not telling them the whole story.  Some even accused me of lying to them to keep the equipment secret.  After nearly a dozen really nasty emails along the lines of "why don't you tell me what you really used, are you afraid of a little competition?" I started telling them what they wanted to hear, that I'd used a Nikon D3X (the highest resolution DSLR available at the time) and 24-70 F2.8 lens.  Then I was grudgingly thanked by one for finally coming clean and I never heard from him again.  So much for being able to tell how great a camera the photographer had by looking at the photo. 

So, what camera should you get?  That depends on what you want to use it for.

If you like to take candid family photos, portraits and vacation shots any basic DSLR like the Nikon D3300 or Canon T5i with their kit lenses will do nicely.  If you are looking for a bargain you can always go used.  This requires some research and careful inspection of the camera you want to purchase, but you can find a bargain if you remember megapixels don't matter.  The three images below were all taken with different cameras.  One was taken with a 12MP, one with a 16MP and one with a 24MP camera.  Two were shot on full frame sensors and one on a cropped frame sensor.  Can you tell which is which?  Feel free to click them to view as larger sizes in the gallery.  You will see which is which at the bottom of this page.

Resolution Examples
Portraits by SimplyPhotosnc.com Portraits by Simplyphotosnc.com Portraits by Simplyphotosnc.com

If one of these had been made with a 6MP camera you would not have been able to easily tell on the web either.  The point of this is to say don't worry about the camera body as much as your skill set and your lens set.  Skill and lenses are much more important than camera bodies.  Look for reviews of some older camera bodies in the near future.  These will allow you to get all the image quality you require while freeing your hard earned capital to buy the lenses you really need to get great photos.

If you will be shooting landscapes for printed display then resolution and technical quality are very important.  If you are going to shoot landscapes for display on a website or social media then any base DSLR with a kit lens will do.  Do you see a trend here?  Unless you are printing your photographs resolution has very little impact.  Even a high resolution, full HD consumer monitor is never going to tell you the full story. 

When shooting landscapes you will either need to shoot in very bright light for high shutter speeds, not the best time of day for this, or you will need a high quality tripod.  You will need to shoot at a relatively small aperture and sometimes you will want longer exposure times.  They say resolution is king for landscape photography, so let's do the same test as we did with the portraits above.

Coquina Rocks by Simplyphotosnc.com Linveille River Gorge by Simplyphotosnc.com

Again one of these was taken with a 24MP, one with a 16MP and one with a 12MP camera.  For the internet does it really matter?  If you are going to print your photographs then resolution begins to make a little more difference, but only if you are printing larger than 8x10 inches.  If you are printing 8x10 images any camera body will do, if you are printing larger pay attention to detail and more resolution will pay off.  If you will be printing up to 16x20 inches you should look for a camera with 12MP or more.  I have printed many 24x36 photographs with 10MP and 12MP cameras that looked great, but I've also printed just as many that ended up in the trash bin.  If you really want to print that large you should consider a 20MP plus camera body.  But it will only matter if you have the correct lenses and, more importantly, the correct shooting discipline.  So for 99% of us any camera will, again, do just fine.

Sports and wildlife photography require a big, fast expensive camera body is all I've ever heard.  If you want to capture great photos of your kids playing soccer, football, dancing or to catch a photo of that really cool bird you keep seeing in the back yard you do not NEED a high end camera.  A high end camera can certainly make the task easier, but is not required.  What is required is a working knowledge of your subject and good timing, a fast frame rate only makes it a little easier.  When photographing my daughters dance competitions I often fire a burst of shots at 10 frames per second, but find I normally delete all but the first one.  Why?  Because I know my subject and have her leaps, turns and kicks timed.  The high frame rate is just to cover for me when I mess up. 

This type of photography is were another photo geek term raises its ugly head though, ISO.  This is a rating that compares to film speed from those days when we used that stuff (well, for some of us "those days" are this afternoon) and basically means how sensitive your sensor is to light.  The lower the number the lower the sensitivity, the higher the number the higher the sensitivity.  The only problem with increasing ISO and light sensitivity is you are also increasing digital noise in your images.  To shoot clean images at high ISO normally means a more expensive camera, so if you normally shoot your sports and wildlife in well lit areas you can stop reading now.  But if you, like me, tend to have to photograph under dim stage/stadium lights or in a forest or lake edge in the last light or first light of the day ISO can make or break your image.  This does not mean you have to have an expensive camera, but it can help.  See the two examples below.

You can see a real differnce in the image quality of these two photos.  The photo on the left is pretty well detailed and has very good color and dynamic range in spite of the heavy back lighting and dark shadows while the photo on the right has very poor detail and color due to much worse digital noise.  Look at the skin tones and the pink section of the wall and the noise simply jumps out at you.  The photo on the left was shot at ISO 4000 while the photo on the right was shot at ISO 3200.  I chose photos from two cameras with the same resolution and from the same generation, the only difference being the sensor size, to demonstrate where a full frame camera is worth using.  The left hand photograph was shot with a Nikon D700 and the right hand photograph with a Nikon D300.  These cameras are virtually identical with the exception of sensor size.

But what about wildlife?  I do like a fast, full frame camera with lots of resolution for this type of shooting but it is not a requirement.  Let's view the photographs below (I know, you have to be getting tired of that) to see some differences.

Anhinga by Simplyphotosnc.com (C)STEVECOAD@919-434-4710

Anhinga

10MP Nikon 1 V1 set at 5 FPS

Pelicans

12MP Nikon D90 4.5 FPS

Red Tail Hawk

24MP Nikon D600 5.5 FPS

It is true that I have cameras capable of shooting at 10 frames per second, but I used the examples above shot at much slower frame rates to show that timing is much more important than frame rate even for the most difficult of subjects, birds.  Don't worry about frame rate and resolution, worry about getting the camera focused on your subject and releasing the shutter at the time you feel is best.

So, which camera should you buy?  Whichever one you can afford and the one that is most comfortable for you.  If you don't like carrying or using a camera it does not matter how technically good it is.  Don't worry about resolution, features or speed but about the one that meets your basic needs and is easy to use for you.  Then start thinking about your skill set, lenses and flashes so you can really improve your photos.

 

So, what about those "which is which" photos? 

STEVE COAD SimplyPhotosnc.com

 

Portrait taken with a 16MP DX sensor camera

Portrait taken with a 24MP Full Frame sensor camera Portrait taken with 12MP Full Frame sensor camera
Sunrise on the Coquina RocksSunrise on the Coquina RocksLong exposure with manually triggered off camera fill flash
Taken with a 12MP DX sensor camera Taken with a 16MP DX sensor camera Taken with a 24MP Full Frame sensor camera

I hope you found this page helpful and if you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me.  Next comes the fun part, writing about lenses and individual camera bodies!