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Buying a Camera on a Budget.

Looking to invest in a camera, but have a pretty small budget? This post may be useful to you.

In the decade since I’ve started shooting, I’ve primarily been a Canon user. I’ve owned and used probably around half their cameras – from the original digital rebel (300D) all the way to my current 1Dx. I’ve even got a D30 sitting on my desk. I’ve also owned a very small handful of Nikons and a couple Fuji X series cameras.

Why Canon? Why not Nikon or Sony? When I started, I wanted the larger sensor of a full frame camera. Sony hadn’t really gained a foothold yet, having just purchased Konica Minolta, and Nikon had sworn they’d never make a full frame camera, so my choice had been made for me. Once I’d purchased Canon equipment, in order to change to a different manufacturer, I’d need to resell the lenses, speed lights, and other related equipment at a significant loss. Just as importantly, as I grew as a photographer, I learned to use my camera by muscle memory. I don’t have to think about using a Canon camera; a Nikon on the other hand, is like alien technology to me. It’s so insanely similar in use and function but it’s different enough that I have to think about how to use it.

Anyway, the point here is: buy for the system, not the camera. Once you’re in, you’re stuck with it. Canon and Nikon are both extremely solid systems and can do absolutely anything you want them to do. Everyone makes stuff for both those brands. Everyone carries and rents stuff for both those brands. Sony is a distant third here. Not on quality or technology, but a great example is my Profoto flash trigger. They make one for Canon and one for Nikon; if you’ve got Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic or anything else short of medium format, you have to make do with their simplified generic trigger. This is true of a lot of equipment. Keep that in mind. Nikon and Canon are safe, flexible, and common. Other manufacturers make awesome cameras too, but the moment you need a tilt-shift lens or you’ve got to have a camera that’s compatible with your computerized panoramic tripod head you might be out of luck.

Next? Sensor size. This is probably THE most important thing. It’s why your iPhone will never compete with a professional camera, even one from 1999. The larger the sensor, generally speaking, the easier it is to create that nice, diffuse blur in the background. It’s got some other effects, like being better with high ISO and getting better dynamic range, but that’s less important for beginner users. Sensor size is one of the major reasons photos look better when taken from a DSLR than from a point-and-shoot camera.

When we talk about interchangeable lens cameras, there are three major sizes. In ascending order: Micro Four Thirds or MFT, APS-C also known as DX, and Full Frame, also known as FX. Olympus and Panasonic are only MFT. Fuji is only APS-C. Canon, Nikon, Sony, and as of now Pentax all make both APS-C and Full Frame cameras. Some of you are going to point out Pentax also makes a massive Medium format camera and Nikon makes the tiny Nikon 1 but they are outside the scope this post.

Now, sensor generation. Something you should know is that my crazy-expensive 1Dx doesn’t really outperform the the 5d MKIII (or the budget full-frame 6D for that matter) by very much in either dynamic range or ISO performance. There are differences, but they’re fairly minor in the scope of things. They all belong to the same generation of technology. The reason why you buy a 1D rather than a 5D or a 6D are for other reasons, like tracking erratically moving subjects, recording to multiple cards, faster frame rate and buffer clearing, or a variety of other little things. Cameras from the same manufacturer, sensor size class, and generation will perform similarly. A Rebel and a 7D are not appreciably different from a photo quality perspective if they’re from the same year. Having said all this, the time when sensor generation comes into play is when we’re really pushing the limits of what our cameras can do. Sunsets are a good example because of the wide dynamic range – a newer camera will perform better. Another example is shooting in low light. Newer cameras have less digital noise when you start to push the ISO. If you’re not pushing the limits, you probably won’t notice a difference if you get a camera that’s older than the current generation.

I know I just said barring sensor size, there is very little difference in image quality between cameras of the same generation… Knowing that, it would make sense to buy the newest lowest end camera you could afford because it’ll have the best image quality you can get for your money – right? This is technically true, but the simple fact of the matter is that you have to actually get the photo first to determine if the image quality is worth it. Higher end cameras tend to be faster to physically use well. A good example is that while a Rebel user has to hold down a button and rotate a wheel to change aperture in manual mode, someone using a 7D has two wheels which makes for less fumbling. Another example is that higher-end cameras have bigger, brighter, and clearer viewfinders which make it easier to quickly frame your subject. There are other differences, like better auto focus systems, stronger internal frames and custom settings that let you do some pretty cool stuff very fast but the gist is that newer cameras have better technical image quality and better cameras let you work more quickly.

Lenses. Unlike bodies, you want to buy and keep lenses for a very long time. This is an expansive and expensive topic. For your first camera, just use whatever comes on the camera and know that it’s probably not that great. Save your money and when you’re ready, buy lenses you can (and will want to) keep forever. Plan on spending no less than $300-500 for a non-zooming lens and more than $1,000 for zooms. Buying it right the first time will save you money in the long run.

Finally, megapixels. There is a time and place for high megapixel counts, but lower megapixel cameras tend to perform better in low light, all things being equal. There is a reason the flagship 1Dx has only 18 megapixels while the entry-level Rebels have 24. You pay in dynamic range and and high ISO, for what amounts to cropping leeway that anything short of a very high-end lens can’t even resolve clearly. You will probably never notice the difference between a 12 and a 24 megapixel camera, so just don’t worry about it.

Putting this all together, I tend to recommend that people buy mid-range professional cameras that are a couple generations old. They’ve got the technical chops to do pretty well but unlike lower end consumer cameras, they have the advantage of having been designed for hard and fast use. They tend to clear their buffers more quickly, track subjects better, physically handle better, and are better able to withstand day-to-day punishment. Best of all digital cameras tend to lose their value fairly quickly and a camera that may have cost a couple thousand dollars five years ago, may only run $500 today.

A note on used cameras: most interchangeable lens cameras with the exception of the very low end are very expensive pieces of equipment that are designed to be used professionally. By and large, people tend to treat cameras very well since they cost so much, in spite of the fact that they were designed to be abused. This means the used market is filled with old cameras in great condition. Don’t be afraid of the used market.

Some mid-range APS-C cameras to look at from oldest and cheapest to newest:
Canon 30D, Nikon D200
Canon 40D, Nikon D300
Canon 50D, Nikon D7000
Canon 7D(NOT 60D or 70D there was a confusing line split here), Nikon D7100