What Do You Look For in a Camera?

I found Google Engineer Jean Baptiste Queru’s camera requirements via a link on Eugenia’s blog, and I wanted to share my thoughts on what I look for in a DSLR and what I recommend for the average photographer.  I consider myself a novice, a hobbiest at best, however, in my admittedly brief experience with DSLRs, I have a slightly different set of requirements that might be a little better suited for the public. Note: I shoot Nikon, so most of my examples are with Nikon models, but the same applies to Canon, Pentax, Sony, Fuji, etc).

JBQ’s list starts with sensor size.  Of course, for 99% of the general public, this is irrelevant.  Clearly, sensor size has a massive effect on your pictures.  It affects everything from focal depth of your lens to light captured and is, of course, tremendously important.  However, to get a full frame DSLR, you’re going to be paying at least 2 grand (as of May 09).  And, again, for the general public,  most won’t notice the difference in photo quality with other very capable DSLR cameras.  It’s also worth mentioning that all DSLR cameras have larger sensors than point-and-shoot ones, so you’re already looking at a sensor upgrade.   So while this certainly differentiates high quality cameras with entry level and general prosumer ones, it’s far from the top of my list and shouldn’t be for the average person.   To recap: while the sensor is the core of everything and is tremendously important, it’s not the first thing I’d recommend anyone but the experienced photographer pay attention to.

More importantly, I’d say, the first thing you’d want to look for is availability of lenses.  For the entry level or hobbiest, nothing will have a great effect on your photos than the quality of your lenses.  A fast prime lens will usually turn out fantastic pictures.

The next thing I’d consider is hardware capabilities.  For example, the Nikon D40, D40x, and D60 can only autofocus AF-S lenses.  That means there’s a massive array of capable, affordable lenses out there that can only be used via manual focus on your camera.  That kinda sucks.  A fast prime for the D60 can cost you several hundred dollars even though there are many nice ones out there for about $150-200.

Let’s extend that thought: do you need to take photos quickly? Some cameras can do 3 photos per second, some 4, some 4.5, some 5+.  Do you need rapid photo capabilities?

Next, I’d weigh in that menu structure and buttons matter.  When I had a D60, I was upset at how many buttons I had to hit to change certain settings, whereas onthe D90, I have all sorts of quick shortcuts that makes shooting in manual mode much easier.

JBQ references aperture and ISO, but for the sake of my piece, I’m going to assume we’re only talking about cameras that allow you to control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  There are a number of features I find useful but don’t count as so deadly important: it’s nice to have a high res LCD for image review, but since I only delete photos that are obviously not what I want, it’s not critical.  It’s cool to have the ability to crop and retouch on the camera, but I have never once actually used those features on the camera.  So my last essential would be comfort.

The D90 feels much more solid than the D40 and D60, and when it takes photos, it clicks much less harshly, more effortlessly and painlessly.   This makes the entire experience better for me.  Call it subjective, but pick up a D40 and a D90 and you’ll understand.  You want solid construction, not only because it feels better, but also because it’s more durable in the event you drop abuse slap your camera around have an accident with your camera.

JBQ is right about megapixels being last on the list of features.  Photo reviewer extraordinaire Ken Rockwell reports much more elegantly than I on the megapixel pyth.  More relevantly, he explains that while the D60 has greater megapixel capture than the D40, the sensors are the same size, essentially leaving you with more, smaller dots of light, but essentially the same amount of light captured.   I’ll take his word for it.

Despite opinionated bloggers giving their personal views on largely silly subjects like the minute differences in expensive cameras, one thing is definitely true: ultimately, the thing that will make you happiest about spending large amounts of money on a camera is one that looks and feels good and takes pictures that make you happy.

One Reply to “What Do You Look For in a Camera?”

  1. Great post, Adam. (Although I’m wondering what full-frame DSLR has hit $2k)

    I think your advice on the hobbiest end is spot on… It’s ultimately what feels best. Go to your local camera shop, hold the models for a bit, and go from there. Megapixels are overrated; I wish our cameras had half the MP they do and they’d be much better for it.

    And I’m glad to see you advocating the quality glass, fast prime approach!

    I look forward to hearing more photography related posts!

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