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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Which Camera Should I Buy?

We look at the age-old question in the light of new offerings in full-frame, mirrorless and big-sensor point-and-shoot models

Labels: CamerasD-SLRsGear

This Article Features Photo Zoom

What camera should I buy? It's the question that we get here at OP frequently. The answer always is, "It depends." In the past couple of years, the range of camera options has expanded, and in 2012 there have been some especially exciting developments that further muddy the waters. Since DSLRs supplanted film SLRs, they have been the favorite tool of nature shooters by a wide margin. The alternatives were point-and-shoot models, which were limited by their lenses, very small image sensors and shutter lag, and larger-format digital cameras, which produced excellent image quality, but were both expensive and bulky. So over the past decade, the question "Which camera should I buy?" has really been "Which DSLR should I buy?" And in the DSLR space, you were narrowing the choices by sensor size (full frame, APS-C or Four Thirds).

That has changed, and the lines have become blurred. Similar sensor sizes can be found on DSLRs, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras and now even point-and-shoot models. Also, full-frame DSLRs, once the exclusive purview of the top-end models, have migrated to much more affordable midlevel cameras. So while the answer to "which camera" is still "it depends," working out all of the details has become a little more complex.

Who Needs A Full-Frame DSLR?

Sony SLT-A99, Canon EOS 6D, Nikon D600, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Nikon D800

For best image quality and most versatility, the full-frame DSLR is still the one to beat.
The large sensors produce the best image quality, and their combination of high resolution, low noise and color fidelity has always made full-frame DSLRs the choice among landscape photographers, in particular. Also, the full-frame format allows for a range of options at the wide end of the focal-length spectrum, which is also especially important for landscape photographers.

The accessibility of compelling full-frame options has increased dramatically, and the manufacturers seem poised to grow the category even more. Canon, Nikon and Sony each offers full-frame models. Up until 2012, full-frame cameras were limited to pro models that cost from $2,500 to $7,000. That's a lot of money. While the top-of-the-line DSLRs get justifiably high marks for their performance and durability, many of us might have trouble justifying a camera body purchase above $5,000. One step down in the Canon and Nikon lineups, the 5D Mark III and D800 are, for most photographers, the realistic top-of-the-line models. At $3,400 and $2,900, respectively, these models are still on the pricey side, but they incorporate a number of top functions and features like very high resolution and AF systems from the flagship models, among others.

Who Needs A Full-Frame DSLR?
Ideal for landscape photographers
Often yields maximum image quality
High-end "flagship" models are cameras seemingly without limitations, but they're pricey, large and heavy
In the fall, Canon and Nikon each announced new full-frame DSLRs aimed at advanced enthusiasts. These cameras have the large sensors and all of the advantages associated with that format, but without some of the high-end construction and other systems.

Landscape photographers who don't need the AF systems of top-level pro cameras or the ultra-high resolution will find this new breed of full-frame DSLRs enticing. It's a good fit for anyone who wants the benefits of the large sensor, but isn't shooting a lot of fast action.
The trends are also clearly pointing to full-frame sensors finding their way into lower-end DSLRs. There had been rumors that we'd see sub-$1,000 full-frame DSLRs in the fall of 2012. That hasn't happened, but the writing is on the wall.


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