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.