“Which camera should I buy?”

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I started in professional photography only because I wanted to take nicer vacation shots. A 1998 trip to Nepal overwhelmed my senses and yet I only had a simple film compact camera (the 1990s Olympus mju) to capture the stunning vistas that were hitting my corneas every five seconds. The minute I returned home, I bought my first film SLR, the entry-level Canon EOS 500n.

One thing led to another, and by 2001, I found myself working as a photojournalist with The New Paper in Singapore, and a few years later, I was a tech journalist who got to try the latest in camera technologies.

You could say I was uniquely blessed in being able to try all sorts of gear and take every genre of photo available. It was also this wide exposure that allowed me to – I hope I don’t sound corny here – transcend basic photography and formulate my own philosophy of shooting.

But you know, till today nobody really cares if I can take good pictures.

Most times, I don’t get questions like “How can I take better pictures?” but instead, I get “Which camera can take great pictures?”, or “Which camera took those pictures?”. Of course, you see the issue immediately – most people believe a good camera is dummy-proof and can provide great pictures on the fly. I must say the camera makers and their marketing folks have done an amazing job here.

Yet, I do have answers, and without going into the whole “It’s not the camera that matters” discussion, here’s what you REALLY want to know.

It’s not so much which camera is good, better, or flat-out incredible. Let’s be honest, it’s how much you’re willing to spend first, followed by what you want to do with the camera.

Scenario 1: I don’t wish to spend more than $500.

The truth is any compact digicam with any megapixel count will do. Today, all major brands have maxed out in terms of the image quality they can squeeze out from their pinky-fingernail-sized camera sensor (which is usually produced by a company like Sony and sold to their rivals). They’ll do fine with outdoor shots, indoor flash shots and video-recording.

But don’t expect to shoot professional-looking shots, action shots or do indoor natural light photography. You might pay extra for a better zoom, better design, and so on.

Actually, these cameras are no different in their purpose from the mass market compact film cams we used to buy before the digital age. If you don’t intend to spend more than $500, you will probably be happy with the camera’s results most of the time. The cameras are tweaked to death to provide vibrant and high-contrast photos which provide instant gratification to most people.

One additional thing – get a camera with SD (Secure Digital) memory card slot because they are the most common, and hence the cheapest. Sony Memory Sticks are cheaper these days, but the most expensive  format is the xD-card format which only Olympus seems to support these days.

Scenario 2: I want to spend between $500 to $1000.

Here’s where it gets pretty interesting. Should you buy a “prosumer” compact (like a Canon G10, Fuji EXR series, Panasonic LX-3) or an entry-level dSLR (like an entry-level Sony dSLR)?

That’s even easier to answer – do you really want a small camera or a heavy rock to lug around?

Really, that’s all.

Because although nearly everyone today knows the difference between the image quality of a compact and a dSLR, quality is a moot point when your shoulders are aching.

At this price point, most consumers are probably still more concerned about “Can this camera do every damned thing and still fit in my bag” rather than “Can I create ART with this camera?”. 

I keep a Panasonic Lumix LX-3 (S$699) in my office bag all the time, it’s possibly the best performing compact prosumer camera today (even if I don’t really like the cold color rendition). But don’t take my word for it ;D.

Scenario 3: I want to spend between $1000 to $2000

Any digicam above $800 is probably a waste of money since the Law Of Diminishing Returns kicks in. The tiny sensor in digicams will not show any massive improvement in picture quality even though the manufacturer puts big zooms or super-branded glass (read Carl Zeiss or Leica) on it.

Before June this year, the only obvious choice was to get a bulky dSLR system.

But the entry of the Olympus Pen camera changes everything. The Pen offers image quality on par with Oly’s E-series dSLR and can use its lenses (or any Four-Thirds lens from Oly or Panasonic), but the camera body is only slightly larger than a prosumer digicam.

From the reviews I read online, everyone whines about the lack of an optical viewfinder and slow autofocus of the Pen. But seriously, that’s missing the forest for the trees. In the hands of a good photographer and using a prime lens like the Zuiko 25mm or 17mm (both f2.8 fast lenses), the Pen is truly a powerful camera with its great color rendition and carefully thought out ergonomics. Read my reviews here.

But is it good for the average consumer?

I’d say “probably not”, since you’d complain about the same missing features (flash and fast AF). You will never take the mediocre kit zoom lens off, even though you could change the lens. And you’d think changing prime lenses is a pain. Then again, most “pro” photographers today prefer to use heavy zoom lenses so who am I to say primes are better? ;D

So go buy a dSLR system if you’re not sure if you should spring for a Pen.

Great image quality can be had at this price (hey, money can buy many things) but like I said, it won’t produce great pictures if you don’t bother to learn photography. Most people will wonder why their dSLR pictures look no different from their cheap compact cams. If you find yourelf in this predicament, please sell your dSLR and buy a sub-$500 digicam instead. Or borrow a photography book from the library to unlock your own potential (and not your expensive camera’s).

As for whether you should buy Canon or Nikon, I’d say Canon because I own their gear, but again, that’s my personal preference.

Scenario 4: I want to spend above $2000.

You shouldn’t be reading this since you’re already enamored with a particular brand or model and nothing I say will convince you otherwise.

11 Replies to ““Which camera should I buy?””

  1. Haha! Great post, Ian. I recently bought a Ricoh CX1. I say, it’s one of the neatest pieces of gear I’ve owned. It’s built well, and the nifty DR function does take nice photos. The zoom (7.1x) is very quick, and the menus are a breeze to get through. I only wish it had a brighter lens (this one starts at F3.3).

  2. Just a few points to add. You are so right to bring price into the discussion. If someone is unwilling to spend enough then will have limited equipment options.

    This is the dirty secret of the digital camera age. There needs to be a DSLR for about $300 (yes, that should include a lens). Instead, that $500 margin you mention is pretty accurate. Some good shopping can get someone a DSLR for a little under $500 but that is still a lot of money.

  3. Hey G – thanks! I’ve never used a Ricoh, so how’s the image quality? They’re badly marketed in SG though…For digicams, it’s okay to start at f3.5 because they’re largely used for outdoor or flash photography.

    Hi Mark – sorry, forgot to clarify everything here is in Singapore currency (USD$1 = SGD$1.45). But yes, you’re right. With reduction in manufacturing costs, it’s probably possible to create a dSLR for USD$300 to 500. But the market is now in a position where it markets “Bigger = More Expensive”. Easier to message and advertise you see ;D

    That’s also another reason why so many tech reviewers and enthusiast photographers are complaining about the USD1k pricing of the Olympus Pen. Why should one pay so much for a small camera? When it doesn’t have a flash or viewfinder? The entire consumer market has been suckered into the whole Big Size mindset (that includes Big Megapixels, Big Lens) as well.

  4. Hey Ian, photo quality is quite good. They’ve improved the noise reduction (as in they don’t go overboard with it where the pictures look smeared), and the colour tones are quite accurate. I dare say (with my limited knowledge), the colours are softer and warmer than the LX3. White balance is very accurate, and with multi-point WB, it gives pretty accurate rendition of the colour spectrum across the entire photo. I shot a rainbow gum tree (soon to be on FB) and I’m happy with the results! The thing that impresses me most is that it’s built like a continental car while most digicams are built like Korean ones (no offence to Kia/Hyundai drivers). You’re right though – Ricohs are not marketed well here. The new GRDIII has a f1.9 lens and it may be a sleeper hit here in SG!

  5. For me, all PnS cameras are really all about the same in terms of quality. Probably better just to get the cheapest camera since all other stuff are just marketing gimmick. Basically all the PnS cameras below $1000 are the same.

    I think the most important criteria in the PnS camera is really speed. Startup, functioning, focus, shoot, replay image. If PnS can match DSLR in terms of speed, they will be more useful. It sucks not being able to capture the moment because the camera’s not fast enough.

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