How to Choose the Perfect Camera and Lens

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INTRODUCTION
WHICH CAMERA GEAR IS SUPER EFFECTIVE?

Welcome to my guide on how to choose a camera and lens. There are hundreds of cameras and lenses in the world now – It is no wonder people get so lost in choosing their new camera gear. Good for you rich people, you can just “gotta buy em all”. But as for the rest of us poor folks, we have to choose super effective gear, and stick with it for a long time.

So this is what the guide is all about, helping you to choose a good camera and/or lens. A small note before we begin though – this is a beginner friendly guide. I will mention a few basic things briefly in this guide. For those of you who are a little more advanced, you might want to skip those sections.

 

 

NAVIGATION
TABLE OF CONTENTS

Step 1
Yourself & Subject

Step 2
The Camera

Step 3
The Lens

Step 4
More Considerations

Closing
Experience & Cheat Sheet

 

 

STEP 1
YOURSELF & THE SUBJECT

The first step of buying new camera gear always starts with establishing your own needs – Because this is all about you, this is your photography. What do you want to shoot next? What do you want to do next?

 

WHAT KIND OF PHOTOGRAPHY?

This is the easiest and hardest question for yourself. What do you want to do with photography? Take some landscape photos? Portraits? Pets? Travel? Casual or professional? For some other people, it may be “I don’t know, I want to try a bit of everything” – By all means, that is fine as long as you have a baseline on what you need.

 

WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS?

Well, now that you know what you are going to do with the camera, it’s time to establish for yourself what you need exactly. For example :

  • I am into underwater photography, so waterproofing is a must.
  • Just for some casual shots, simple camera gear will do.
  • I travel quite a lot, so the camera must not be too heavy but still decent.
  • Going to study photography, then go professional. Need some heavy guns.
  • I want to shoot some videos too, a video function is a must.

 

WHAT KIND OF BUDGET?

I understand, you may not know the market very well yet, but you still need to set aside some money for the camera. My recommendation is to set aside US$500 to $800 if you are going for simple gear. Casual shooters who want a decently good camera should spend about US$1000 to $1500. For those of you who are going “heavy guns”… prepare to burn a hole in your pockets.

 

 

STEP 2
THE CAMERA & SPECS

After establishing a baseline of what you want, it is time to choose a camera – Big gun or small portable one? Which camera suits your needs? What kind of specs do you need? What functions?

 

DIGITAL & ANALOGUE

Before we start on this step, you should be aware that there is something called “digital camera” and “analog camera” these days. But just what are those!?

Analog cameras simply mean the traditional film and mechanical cameras, while “digital cameras” are the more modern electronic cameras that use memory cards instead. So please take note – This guide is about helping you to choose a digital camera.

Not that analog cameras are bad, they still have their own charm. But as this world is moving towards digital, it only makes more sense for this guide to focus on the digital cameras.

 

THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF DIGITAL CAMERA

Alright, the first consideration for a digital camera, is to choose a “type”. Digital cameras these days come in all shapes and sizes, but in general there are only a few “kinds”. So go choose your weapon – big gun or small and portable?

 

COMPACT CAMERA

Size and weight : Small size, light weight. Some may even fit into your pocket.

Capability : The lens for compact cameras are typically fixed and cannot be changed. Generally does not have a “manual mode” either, just full auto, point-and-shoot. Not really fantastic in terms of performance. Decent image quality, decent lens, just something better than your camera phone.

For : Those of you who want to have a better camera than your phone, not too much weight to carry around, and don’t care about the technical bits. Not much of a performer, but good for casual photos.

MIRRORLESS MICRO 4/3

Size and weight : Decent size, not too heavy, not light either.

Capability : The next “big thing” in the photography world. These babies are what I call “very big smartphone cameras with interchangeable lens but you cannot make calls nor access the Internet with it”. Full manual controls, and the performance ranges from decent to excellent (depending on which model you buy).

For : Those of you who wants a good capable camera without all the weight. Lens can be changed, so you can try out a bunch of different things. Be warned though, these are not cheap toys.

DSLR

Size and weight : Ranging from not-too-heavy for the starters, to heavy and bulky for the professional series.

Capability : Performance ranges from “decent” to “excellent” again, depending on which model you buy… along with the lens you chose. Capable of shooting almost anything, DSLRs are the good old workhorse in the photography industry.

For : People who are serious about photography, don’t quite mind the weight. Wants the flexibility to go into different fields and good performance.

ACTION CAMERA

Size and weight : Small and very lightweight, fits into your pocket.

Capability : Don’t let these tiny boxes fool you. Check out “Go-Pro” and these cameras have been used in live shows, underwater, mounted on drones and some rather extreme cases. Given it’s size, it still produces decent images and videos.

For : More video than still camera, for those of you who are adventurous. If diving and sky diving sounds good to you, this is made for you.

 

THE BRAND

Is the brand really that important? Well, the debate between Nikon vs Canon has now evolved into Nikon vs Canon vs Sony. My take is that the argument will never end. Each company has produced some excellent products and some pretty lousy ones.

So my take is, to look at what each brand has to offer instead. Because once you are stuck to a certain brand, it will be hard to make a switch.

Decide, after you look at the products line-up and lenses available. Look at their build, quality, and performance history. Listen to the feedback of photographers who have already used the camera for years… Not some random ramblings of a fanboy.

 

CONSIDERATIONS – BUILD

Size : Don’t buy a huge DSLR and expect it to fit into your pocket… unless you are a kangaroo or something.

Weight : How heavy is that camera plus the lens, plus any stuff you might be carrying around? If it is going to hurt you, then no.

Quality : Most beginner DSLRs these days are made of cheap plastics, which is why they cost a lot lesser than the professional ones.

That aside, listen to feedback, has anyone else had trouble with the camera you are looking at? Any mechanical failures? Software failure? Any particular quirks?

Design : Well, some people go for a particular camera because it looks good. Can’t stop them.

But what makes more sense for me is the ergonomics, and how the menu is designed. Shooting with a camera that does not look good, but easy to use is more important.

Weather Sealing : If you shoot outdoors a lot, make sure that the camera is weather sealed. Or you are going to have a hard time maintaining your camera when dust and water gets in.

Waterproof : If you are planning to shoot underwater, look for cameras that are waterproof. Or look for cameras that have an underwater housing.

 

CONSIDERATIONS – SPECS

Megapixels : How many megapixels do you need? At the time of writing, July 2016, most cameras are at least 10 megapixels or more. Some may think that is not enough, but think again… even at 5 megapixels, the image size is 2560 x 1920 pixels. That is close to a 2K screen, way better than full HD. A small reminder that more megapixels does not equate to better image quality anyway.

Image Quality : The image quality mainly depends on 3 things in a digital camera – Sensor, image processor and lens. Learn to read some of the numbers.

  • Firstly, the sensor size. Technically, the larger the sensor, the better. A “full frame” camera is probably one of the best you can get, but it costs a lot.
  • The dynamic range. Technically again, larger the range, the better (but more expensive).
  • Sensitivity and SNR. This will measure how good the camera is in low light.

Lastly, when in doubt, use your own eyes to determine if you like the image quality.

Storage : Which card formats do the camera support? Does the camera have built-in memory and how large is it?

Battery Life : How long will the battery last and can the battery be replaced?

Frames per second : Not really that important, but if you are shooting action and fast moving things, you will need a decent frame rate.

Auto-focus : How many auto-focus points are there? How fast and how accurate is the auto focus system?

Video and sound : Do you Vlog? Take short videos? Then look out for video features in the camera.

Wireless and GPS : This is a small plus. Some of those cameras that directly link to your smartphone and allow you to instantly post online just saves you a lot of trouble these days.

 

STEP 3
THE LENS

Camera confirmed. Now check if the lens can be detached. Seriously. I have confused people coming to me before, asking if they can buy lenses for their smartphone – An  interchangeable system and lens attachment are 2 different things. Proceed with this section only if you have an interchangeable system.

 

WHAT IS YOUR CAMERA’S MOUNT SYSTEM?

Nikon DSLR users – You only have the “F mount” lenses to deal with. Although some older lenses will still work on a modern Nikon cameras, you still want to do your research on backwards compatibility. Be careful not buy a DX lens for a FX camera though. DX lenses do work on FX cameras, but you will suffer a megapixels lost while shooting in crop mode.

Canon DSLR users – If you have a modern EOS camera, all EF-S lenses will work. It is backwards compatible with the older EF lens too. For the even older lens families, you are going to need an adapter.

As for all the others – Sony, Pentax, Leica, mirrorless users, please do your own homework on which mount system your camera is using… or this guide will never end.

For those with a fixed lens that cannot be changed – Sorry, but you are stuck with that one lens. You might want to consider a camera with an interchangeable lens, or try to fit on a lens attachment instead.

In any case, there are lens adapters out there where you can mount Canon lens onto Nikon cameras, in vice versa, and even across many different systems. Although they are quite interesting, I don’t really don’t recommend getting those. Adapters are in “compatibility mode”, and some lens features may not work properly when you use an adapter.

 

THIRD PARTY LENS

Now that you know which mount system your camera is using, it is time to look for the range of lenses available. Apart from looking at your own camera brand’s “original” range of lenses, I have an honorable mention to make.

Third parties such as Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina produce mighty decent lenses… and they only cost a fraction of the “original”. So please do take a look at what they have to offer as well, and expand your range of available selections.

 

CONSIDERATIONS – FOCAL LENGTH

For you guys who do not know what focal length is yet – It is basically “how near or far you can see with the lens”, and typically measured in mm. E.G. 16mm, 50mm, 200mm. The smaller the number, the more “zoomed out”; The bigger the number, the more “zoomed in”.

For what you want to shoot, choose a focal length that makes most sense to you. Here is a generic guideline:

Landscape : You will to go wide on landscape. Choose a lens from 16mm to 35mm.
Street : Close, but not too close. Far, but not that far. From 35mm to 85mm.
Wildlife : Don’t want to become food for the animals? Then shoot from far. Get a lens that is at least 200mm.
Macro : I am not a macro expert, but my personal favorite is 105mm macro lens.
Portrait : Everyone has a different take. Anywhere between 24mm to 135mm.
Food : Personal take – close to macro but not. Between 50mm to 135mm.

Don’t let these recommendations restrict you though. Who says that you cannot use a telephoto lens for landscape? Who says you cannot use a wide angle lens for wildlife? If you have a crazy idea, just go for it.

 

CONSIDERATIONS – ZOOM OR PRIME?

Before we go on to the next, we shall address the issue of choosing between a zoom or prime lens. For you new guys, a prime lens simply mean a lens that has “no zoom”. So zoom lens or prime lens – Which is better? Well, there are plus and minus to each.

  • Zoom lens in general, have more moving parts and thus more clunky mechanically. They are typically heavier and more expensive as well (more parts and glass).
  • Prime lens on the other hand, don’t have a lot of moving parts. They may not be as convenient, but they are built like tanks. The general feedback so far is “a zoom lens will break in 10 years, but a 15 years old prime lens still rocks”.
  • Prime lens typically have better optical quality. Typically. So-called.

Please don’t be mistaken that prime lens are the better choice, there are great zoom lens too – There are many popular zoom lens such as 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. The choice is up to you. People who are into travelling will find that zoom lenses are more convenient. While people who are into producing quality pictures will want a good prime lens.

Zoom lens : They offer more convenience, but they are a little more bulky.
Prime lens : Not as convenient, but generally smaller and built like a tank.

 

CONSIDERATIONS – APERTURE

Next stop, aperture. Again for the newbies, aperture simply means “how much light the lens let into the camera”, and it is measured in f-number. E.G. f/1.4, f/3.5, f/11. The smaller the f-number, the more light the lens lets into the camera. I.E. f/1.4 lets more light in than f/4.

So what has aperture got to do with selecting a lens again? Technically, a f/1.4 lens will perform much better than a f/4 lens in low light – Simply because the f/1.4 lens will allow a lot more light into the camera.

Typically, the smaller the f-number is on a lens, the better it is since it performs better in low light. But do take note that the smaller the f-number, the more expensive the lens tends to be.

 

CONSIDERATIONS – BUILD AND QUALITY

Build Quality : Cheap plastics or metal tank? Solid or flimsy? How does it feel in your hands?

Optical Quality : Any special coating? How does it perform? Lens Flare and Ghosting? Sharpness? Vignetting?

Sealing : Is it weather sealed? Will it break if I shoot in the rain?

Auto-focus : How well does auto focus work on this lens? Accurate or bonkers? How fast and how noisy?

Image : Do you like the images and colors produced by this lens?

 

STEP 4
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

If you already have the gear that you want in mind, do not just jump in and slap a wad of cash on the counter. It does not hurt to listen to what others have to say first. It does not hurt to try things out first. What are the other people saying about your chosen cameras? What do the online reviews say? How about hands on, try it for yourself first?

 

READ ONLINE REVIEWS

But don’t be lazy, there is no harm in doing some online research. Hop onto forums and groups to ask for feedback on the gear you have chosen. Watch YouTube videos and find some sample photos.

 

DON’T BUY FIRST, RENT OR BORROW

If you think that you have found your true love, try not to buy it first. Look for friends who have the gear, lend it and try it out. Rent it from a shop if you have to. The most important thing is, you need to be sure that you will not regret buying it. Just don’t be pressured to buy on the spot, give yourself time to check out a bunch of different alternatives first.

 

THE SALESPERSON IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

Now onto the last point. Remember, the salesperson is not your friend… unless you know him/her personally. They are often there to sell things, not to make sure that you get the best camera for your needs. Go make some friends with experienced photographers instead. They make good recommendations and are your free coaches. 😆

 

BUSTING THE GOOD EQUIPMENT MYTH

This is not really related to choosing a camera, but I think a necessary point to make. Buying a new camera does not make you a better photographer. Equipment will not turn you into instant masters, only your own willingness to learn and develop your skills will get you there one day.

The camera is nothing but a tool. The man who is handling the camera is the ultimate winner. Just don’t buy a camera, thinking that it will make you into an instant kung-fu master.

 

CLOSING
A SMALL EXPERIENCE SHARING

If you have just started out with photography, chances are, you will want to try out everything. You will either want to buy a whole bunch of gear and a super zoom lens to “one size fits them all”. Well, please don’t and let me explain.

 

When I just started out with photography, I was very much into cheap cameras and old prime lenses. Because generally, old equipment are cheaper and decently good. But here’s the problem. After a few years into photography, I have a cabinet full of old cameras and prime lenses.

Every shoot is a pain, I had to carry a lot of gear around and constantly change lenses. I later got myself a super cheap and convenient 18-250mm lens, which I regretted instantly – The optical quality is just beyond bad.

That was when I sold all my old prime lenses, cameras, the below average super zoom, and got myself a good Full Frame Nikon plus 24-70mm f2.8 gold ring lens. Not a cheap buy, but it stuck with me for years.

So this is what I will recommend to you guys who are serious – Don’t waste your time and money. Just buy good gear, and keep it for 10 years.

That’s it for this long guide. As a “final gift”, I have summarized everything into one cheat sheet. Choosing good gear is definitely not an easy decision, but I hope this guide has helped you. Cheers, and happy shooting!


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