How to choose a new camera

So far, the 13 major camera companies have created over 2,000 digital camera models between them, with over 100 brand-new ones in 2015. How do you choose? My current recommendations are here, and I've based the recommendations on seeing how well cameras perform for normal people who bring them to our photography courses.

But I'd encourage you to try some for yourself, to see which ones feel right for you. Here, I'll give you some ideas of what to look for when you're choosing.

It's horses for courses...

Firstly... what do you want to shoot most? You can find cheap cameras that are good at either people photography or landscape photography, but you'll pay a little more for a camera that does both well. I've put two lists of things to look for in a camera: one list is for a camera destined to shoot people or sports; the other list for shooting landscapes.

What to look for in a camera for photos of children, friends, family, wildlife or sports

To blur the background you need a long zoom In rough order of importance

  • You like it, will carry it with you, and can afford it
  • When you press the shutter, it takes the photo straight away, and doesn't leave you waiting for ages.
  • A broad optical zoom range, zooming in to at least “200mm equivalent focal length” when most magnified. This lets you blur the background on people shots.
  • Good in low-light, so that you can take photos indoors without flash. This is a combination of fast, sensitive autofocus (try it and see), a wide aperture on the lens when zoomed in (the lower the better, under 4.5 is good - professional lenses are normally 2.8 or lower), and a high maximum ISO (3200 or higher is good - but many manufacturers are "optimistic" in these ratings - see if the picture really is OK at these high settings). Optical Image stabilisation helps too, but 'digital' or 'electronic' image stabilisation is relatively ineffective.
  • Can shoot lots of pictures quickly.
  • A flash that recharges quickly, and doesn't leave you waiting for ages between shots.

Megapixels aren't on the list, because every new camera already has enough. See this page for an explanation of why megapixels are not a mega-issue anymore.

What to look for in a camera for shooting creative landscapes

Creative landscape shot with a wide zoom lens

In rough order of importance

  • You like it, will carry it with you, and can afford it
  • A zoom that zooms down to “25mm equivalent focal length” or lower, allowing you to fit everything in and get good depth to your photos.
  • A long longest shutter speed. This allows you to shoot in darker conditions (you'll need a tripod or something to rest the camera on). 30 seconds or more is good; a "bulb" mode to shoot for hours lets you photograph anything, including star trails. Bulb mode works perfectly on all SLR cameras, but on compact cameras and some mirrorless cameras it's often limited to a few minutes. For star trails, 2-3 hours is the longest you'll even need.
  • Ability to take filters – some compact cameras can do this with an adaptor, but it might be big and bulky.
  • If you're a keen computer-user, a “RAW” mode, and the software to use it, such as Lightroom. This mode keeps all the information captured by the camera's sensor, and allows you pull extra details out of the shadows and highlights in a picture. If you're a landscape photographer or you shoot candid shots of people, this is a big deal. But you do need to be comfortable editing the shots, as raw photos don't look any better until you start to edit them.

Again, megapixels aren't on the list – I don't know of a new camera that doesn't have enough already - this page explains why megapixels are not important anymore.

The three types of camera

There are only three major types of camera: big "SLR" cameras that have changeable lenses and a noisy moving mirror inside, new "mirrorless" cameras that are smaller because they don't need the mirror, and everything else (called "compact" cameras). With the right lenses, any SLR will meet all of the requirements above, except the first one - they're big, heavy, and more expensive. Mirrorless cameras will meet the lot, except perhaps focus speed - most can't focus on action as quickly as an SLR. See our article explaining the different types of photo you can take with each type of camera. to help you decide which is right for you.

Remember to also budget for:

  • A memory card at least "Eight Gigabytes" in size (or more if travelling or shooting video clips). This will give you around 1000 to 1400 full-quality photos, depending on the number of megapixels.
  • A spare battery, so that you can always have one ready (or more spares if travelling)
  • A lens brush and lens cloth to keep the lens clean.
  • If you're shooting landscapes, a tripod or Gorilla Pod (TM).
  • If you're going to put the photos on your computer, a spare hard drive or lots of DVDs for storing photos securely in case your computer dies. If you have all your photos on one hard drive, you have a 50% chance of losing them all through hard-drive failure at least once every 20 years.

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