“What Camera Should I Buy?”

I get asked this question a lot. Most non-photographers think that it is the camera that takes great photographs. It’s not. It’s the photographer that makes great photographs.

Hang around any group of professional photographers for a while, and sooner or later you’ll hear the apocryphal story about the dinner party where the hostess oohs and ahs over how beautiful the photographer’s images are. “You must have a wonderful camera,” she gushes. At the end of the evening, the photographer thanks his hostess for a delicious dinner. “You must have a fantastic stove,” he says.

The fact is, Michelangelo’s David is not great because Michelangelo used a certain hammer. Hemingway is not considered a great author because of the brand of typewriter he used. Mozart’s music is not considered timeless because he had a great quill pen. What makes an artist great is not the tools used, but the artistic vision employed. A corollary to that statement is something I heard many years ago in junior high school woodworking shop: “A poor workman always blames his tools.”

The same is true for photography. All of the great masters of photography of the past used camera gear that was far inferior to what you can buy today at a fraction of the price. If Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson were alive today, either of them would make better photos with an iPhone than most people could take with the newest Canon or Nikon. On the other hand, they’d also be really, really, really old.

“Okay,” the non-photographer says, “I understand that. But what is the best camera?” That’s like asking, “How long is a piece of string?”

I remember when my boys were little. They used to ask me questions like, “What’s the best car.” My answer would be that it depends. A Ferrari is a beautiful machine, but it would be a mistake to take 5 dogs to the vet in one. A Rolls Royce is well-made, but it would be a poor choice to race in the Indy 500. How many passengers do you need to carry? Are you planning on driving off-road? How fast do you want to go? Do you want a sun roof? How important is gas mileage to you? How much can you afford to spend?

When someone asks what camera he or she should buy, or what is the best camera, the answer is that it depends. It depends on what the photographer wants to accomplish. Some cameras excel at underwater photography, some at video, some at aerial photography, and so on. If you plan on photographing the Super Bowl, you’ll need a different set of tools than if you want to take photos of your newborn child. There is no “best.” There is only what is best for your needs, considering the type of photographs you want to take and how much you can afford to spend.

If you started reading this article hoping to get the answer to your question, you’re probably mad at me by now. Why won’t I just tell you what camera to buy? What kind of inconsiderate idiot am I? (Actually, I’m just the regular kind.)

Okay, since you still want to know, I’m going to make some recommendations. I’m assuming (yes, I know what happens when I assume) that you’re asking me because you’re brand new to photography.

The best camera is the one you’ll actually have with you when you suddenly have the need to take a photograph. You already have one of these in your pocket or purse right now. It’s called a cell phone. In the history of the world, more photos have been taken with cell phones than with all other kinds of cameras put together. Lots of bad photos, but lots of good ones, too.

Photo of giant Buddha taken on iPhone 6+ last night at Tao in Las Vegas
Photo of giant Buddha taken on iPhone 6+ last night at Tao in Las Vegas
Me holding my Phase One camera. Photo taken with iPhone 6+.
Another iPhone 6+ photo. This is me holding my Phase One XF 380 with 120mm lens. Which am I more likely to have with me for that spur-of-the-moment photo, the Phase or the iPhone?

I know you’re not satisfied with that answer. So, if you want a camera to record family memories, and if you’re probably never going to get prints made larger than 8”x10”, then I’d recommend you buy a small point-and-shoot digital camera that you can fit into your pants pocket or purse. Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, Leica, and others make good ones. You should be able to find a good one at your local camera store in the $300-$500 price range. It should serve your purposes for the next 3 or 4 years, at which time you’ll probably find yourself upgrading to a model with more features.

If you are new to photography and want to get serious about learning photography, I recommend that you buy an old used completely-manual 35mm film SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera with a functioning match-needle light meter and a “normal” lens (i.e., approximately 50mm focal length). If you’re careful shopping for one on eBay, you can probably find one for about $125. Good brands to look for are Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Olympus, Pentax, and Mamiya. I like the light meter system on the old Minolta SRT cameras best, but that’s just me. Different strokes for different folks.

Film instead of digital? Trust me. You’ll learn a lot more about photography and how light works with an old manual film camera than you will starting out with a new digital camera. Once you understand what you’re doing with film, you’ll advance much faster when you transition to digital.

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