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
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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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Who Needs A Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Camera?

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5, Sony NEX-7, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Samsung NX210

The mirrorless category is growing by leaps and bounds, and many pundits think these sorts of cameras represent the future of photography. There's a lot of variety in the mirrorless interchangeable-lens group, from models that look like retro-35mm film cameras to sleek designs that compare in size to point-and-shoot compact cameras and from Four Thirds sensors to APS-C sensors to CX sensors (from Nikon) to Q sensors (Pentax). It can get a bit bewildering. Looked at as a single category, the mirrorless models offer a lot of choices for nature photographers.

The key advantage to mirrorless cameras is their size. The body is small and the lenses are small compared to conventional DSLRs, yet because of the interchangeable lenses, they give the options of multiple focal lengths and, as a whole, quite good image quality.

Who Needs A Mirrorless Camera?
Traveling photographers who want a full-featured system that can be carried on airplanes easily
Hikers who want a lightweight system that still gives the options of multiple lenses
APS-C mirrorless systems are a good fit for someone who wants near-DSLR performance and image quality in a lighter system

Large-sensor mirrorless cameras are especially interesting for nature photographers who want to lighten the load without sacrificing image quality. There are several models available with APS-C and Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds sensors, and these have proven to be capable of very good image quality.

Because they don't have mirror systems, the mirrorless cameras rely on electronic viewfinders (EVFs) or just the LCD panel for composition. Nature photographers probably will find that an EVF system is a necessity, whether it's built in or an add-on accessory. The LCD panel is just too limiting in some situations like snow or other very bright conditions.

One other thing to consider about the size of a mirrorless system: the entire system—camera, lenses, accessories—is smaller than a DSLR system, which makes them very attractive for travel, in particular. A number of photographers like having a mirrorless system in addition to their DSLR. If you're traveling with two systems, things do bulk up considerably as you add multiple battery chargers or lens adapters.

Who Needs An APS-C DSLR?

Canon EOS 7D, Nikon D300S, Sony SLT-A77

As the price of full-frame DSLRs drops, you might be tempted to think that APS-C cameras are on their way out, but we think these DSLRs still have a future.
For one thing, APS-C sensors still make for less expensive DSLRs, which is obviously of some benefit. Beyond price, there are other clear advantages. Sports and wildlife photographers have found that the magnification factor advantage inherent in APS-C DSLRs is valuable because of the boost at the telephoto end of the range. The magnification factor is a tricky point. It's not really a strict "something for nothing" arrangement, where a 300mm lens magically becomes a 450mm lens, but because of the reduced angle of view from the APS-C sensor, the crop of the image circle looks more like that 450mm. Photographers argue this point constantly, but the fact is that using your 70-200mm zoom on an APS-C camera creates images that look like they were taken with a 105-300mm lens. Add a 1.4X teleconverter, and now you're looking at a lens that acts like 420mm at its most telephoto.

Who Needs An APS-C DSLR?
Wildlife photographers
Action photographers
Anyone who finds that they do most of their shooting at the longer focal lengths
Photographers leaning to the price side of the price-to-performance ratio

Beyond magnification factor and price, APS-C cameras have some other enticing advantages. Midlevel models tend to have a lot of high-end features and technology taken from the top pro cameras. Many pros who have multiple bodies complement their full-frame camera with an APS-C model that has professional AF performance. In essence, one might be the camera for maximum image quality and wide-angle while the other is set up for speed and longer focal lengths. Not everyone has the luxury of having multiple bodies, and if your photography leans to action, the APS-C DSLR is a good choice.

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Who Needs A Large-Sensor Compact?

Sony RX1, Fujifilm FinePix X100, Leica X2

Who Needs A Large-Sensor Compact?
Minimalists who won't compromise image quality
Anyone who's looking for a DSLR backup, but doesn't want to add a whole new system
Photographers who want to have a camera with them at all times, but need more image quality than an iPhone

A new class of cameras started picking up steam in 2012: the large-sensor compacts. These are fixed-lens (non-interchangeable) compact cameras that have APS-C or even full-frame image sensors. This class of cameras is among the most exciting advancements for serious photographers looking for a minimalist system with top-drawer image quality.

While DSLRs are at the top in terms of image quality and versatility and mirrorless interchangeable-lens models are smaller, but can bulk up with added accessories and lenses, large-sensor compacts have the potential to give you DSLR-class sensors in a completely slimmed-down body that's truly pocketable. The obvious drawback is versatility; you only get the fixed lens.


    Nice article but you completely avoided the Fuji X-Pro 1 which is an amazing APS-C sized, interchangeable lens camera. It takes stunning photos and is considerably lighter in my back pack than my Canon 7D and associated lenses. My web site, http://www.fstopguy.com features a number of X-Pro 1 landscape images that can compete with any DSLR.

    On the “compact” side of things, I recently purchased a Canon G12, but wouldn’t you know it – Nikon came out with their P7700, and then there’s of course the Canon G1-X. I love the relative compactness and the flip-out/articulating screen, and in my case for a Craigslist G12, the price! My previous camera was the Samsung TL500, also excellent for the price.

    I’m still looking for a smaller, lighter camera for wildlife. Any idea when a long telephoto might be available for mirrorless camers? Any comment on the super-telephoto bridge cameras like Fugifilm X-S1, Panasonic FZ200, Canon SX50 or Nikon P510?

    Good article (don’t remember a bad one in OP) but it is more of an introduction to the subject of modern camera choices than an analysis that can aid someone to make a decision. If you are at the crossroads, I encourage you to take a good look a Sony ASP-C models. In my opinion the A77 is the best action/wildlife camera under $2000.

    I’ve just received my Canon EOS-M and EF adaptor (plus the two lenses & flash) which allows me to use my super-sharp Canon 70-300mm zoom for wildlife and bird photography. Although the sensor chip is a bit smaller than my 5DII, it’s hard to tell the difference. The results with this lens are really impressive. My 100mm macro lens gives an extremely sharp image as well. Focussing for the macro is a bit of a problem, but by turning off auto-focus allows you to rock slightly back and forth until the subject snaps into focus. Just take more images until you get it right. I should use a monopod, I know. But the kit weight has dropped from 14kg to 7kg and I can get it onto the plane as cabin luggage for overseas travel when I leave for Thailand – Malaysia in 3 weeks.

    I wonder how many readers can actually tell if a picture was taken with a full frame, APS, mFT, or a typical P&S sized sensor.

    I know for a fact that most of the students I teach cannot distinguish between which sized camera took a picture let alone which picture was shot at the highest resolution. I have at various times displayed 8×10 images shot at resolutions varying from 16MP down to 3MP and almost no one could tell me which was shot at which resolution.

    The point I am trying to make is the first question one should ask is, ” how good are your eyes and how good are the eyes of your intended audience?” Another question that should be asked is, ” how willing are you to change lenses in a dusty, pollen laced environment? Better still, how many are willing to change or do change lenses at all?

    I agree with Sharon, how come we very seldom see anything on Pentax? That’s all I have used for 30 years. Also, good information on all the different options out there. It helps me alot.

    I just returned from a trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal with a Canon Powershot S95. I have a DSLR camera but I didn’t want to carry it at altitudes above 12,000 feet because of the thin air plus I mostly took wide angle photos of scenery. The Powershot provided me the images I wanted including Mt. Everest and Ama Dablam at night under a full moon. There were many trekkers who hauled DSLR camera with big lenses on their trek.

    What’s wrong with Canon’s advertising dollars? That money helps make OP affordable, and there’s plenty of information about non-Canon products in each issue. How many ads for Sony, Pentax, Nikon, Fuji, or even Samsung cameras have you seen anywhere, even on television? Now, how about Canon? Nothing model specific, but some pretty slick presentation behind Ron Howard’s endorsement, and the tag line “Imagination”. This article didn’t go quite far enough as I would have like to see something in the “consumer level” P&S.

    The new full frame Leica M with EVR and R-adaptor will take R series lenses up to, I think, over 500 mm. Heavy, but lighter than a full frame SLR. Price? Don’t ask.

    Ken Rowland wants the Fuji XPro1 mentioned. It has been well mentioned as having superb skin tones, IF you should Caucasians only, and pretty poor landscape colors. These, when saturation is added, go artificial. Here the Canon 6D shines brightest. That will be my 1st foray into digits after zeiss/velvia.

    Hi, I am new to photography. I really want to take great photos, but feel limited as I only have my phone camera, I have had other nikon cannon just the basic. I need to know what camera I should start with on this adventure. Thank you in advance for any help.

    its true that the basic dslr camera can produce an amazing photograph result. I only use compact camera from sony NEX c3 and use a little photoshop software. What i got? I send it to stock photography web and i get 12 dollars for 1 photo. Now Im offering my my results to local magazine and they ask 5 dollars for each of my photograph. Its not about the camera you have but the ideas in your mind. with some direction from ebook I learn I can made thousands of amazing picture LOL. try one of my web http://www.photographyideas7.com we will show you one of great ebook I used. keep creative!

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