Every person who undertakes photography as either a hobby or profession is faced with a series of decisions that will set them on a path of their photographic life. There may be many divergent tracks taken during the life photographic, but they are often started by one simple and often consuming question; “What gear should I use?” Choosing photography system is more than just deciding between film and digital, DSLR or mirrorless, full frame or APS-C. Deciding on what is the right photographic gear makes the difference between finding joy and room to improve and grow in your photography, and frustration, disappointment, and eventual abandonment.
So you’ve decided to give photography your time and effort. You may have ideas about the type of photography you want to do. You may just be enchanted with the allure of the camera and what it can accomplish. Whatever your reasons your very first decision is what type of camera to get. Today there are many options available, and all of them are great, for certain purposes. Let’s have a brief look at the options.
For many people, this was their first real camera. A compact, fixed lens marvel that was great for snapshots. Point-and-shoot cameras offer fully automatic shooting for those who don’t want to get too technical. Of all the types of cameras available they are the simplest. However, it has to be mentioned that much of the market for point-and-shoot cameras has been overtaken by the use of cell phone photography which has rapidly reached a point where it offers similar simplicity and image quality, with the added advantage of always being in your pocket. If your idea of photography requires more than simply pointing and shooting the other items in this list will serve you better.
Mid-way between the point-and-shoot and the DSLR is the ultra zoom camera, also known as a “bridge” camera. With a more robust build and more advanced controls than a point-and-shoot camera, the ultra zoom is a nice step up for many users. Though it does not have the ability to change lenses like a DSLR or mirrorless camera the ultra zoom takes its name from the built-in zoom that covers a range of focal lengths from medium wide angle to telephoto, often around a 24mm – 400mm equivalent. Modern ultra zoom cameras can offer 4K video and weather sealing depending on price point. Here is a camera that can handle most photographic situations. If you are a photographer, who needs near-DSLR quality but is unwilling or unable to invest in an entire lens ecosystem a bridge camera may suit your needs.
When they think of professional photography, most people think of a DSLR. The DLSR is the camera that you see on the sidelines at major sporting events and in the hands of photojournalists covering the news. The advantages of the DSLR over the point-and-shoot and ultra zoom are build quality, image quality, and lens selection. Consumer level DSLRs offer many of the features of the professional equipment at price points near that of ultra zooms. A major difference between consumer level DSLRs and professional is sensor size. Consumer level DSLRs will have APS-C size sensors while “pro bodies” will offer full frame (35mm film equivalent) sensors. In practice the difference may be negligible, but not in price point. Full frame sensor cameras will cost considerably more. Increasingly, DSLR cameras offer considerable video options as well including 4K video.
However, you still must consider the cost of lenses. The cost of lenses can rival the cost of the camera itself. If you are planning to make money from your photography, or see it as a lifelong pursuit, a DSLR will provide you an excellent entry point to more technical skills. As a prospective buyer, you should still consider what it is you hope to accomplish before selecting your gear. There is a strong allure to all the lenses available for the system, but for most photographers, even professionals, only a handful are necessary. You have the choice of prime and telephoto lenses, but that is perhaps a topic best left for another article.
Do you plan for your camera to take lots of abuse? The build quality of a professional DSLR will benefit you. If you intend to shoot motorsports or other fast action, a DSLR will serve you well due to the more robust auto focus systems available, but it can still be matched by another offering on this list.
Mirrorless cameras are a newcomer to the photography market. Offering many of the advantages of larger DSLRs at a significant weight and size reduction, mirrorless cameras enjoy popularity among professional and advanced amateur photographers alike. Interchangeable lenses are available for mirrorless cameras at smaller sizes and comparable quality to DSLR offerings. Mirrorless camera image quality is superb, and models run from full frame sensor sizes to APS-C.
A mirrorless camera can cover the same types of photographic goals as a DSLR from portraiture to street photography, and in some situation may be better suited. If you are a street photographer, a mirrorless system would be beneficial for both the smaller size and weight and for being less obtrusive.
Point-and-shoot – Snapshots and non-professional personal photography
Ultra Zoom – Semi-professional and personal photography
DSLR – Professional photography; sports, wildlife, portraiture, street, fine art. Especially sports.
Mirrorless – Professional photography; sports, wildlife, portraiture, street, fine art. Suited for street photography.
While this short guide won’t settle the argument of what gear separates the amateur from the professional, it does give photographers a starting point to deciding what system is best suited to accomplishing their goals. Photography is all about a series of decisions made toward achieving a single result: a good image. When selecting gear for the first time, or even if you are on the path to an upgrade or considering changing systems, the question that matters most is what does the gear do to help you make your type of images in the most efficient way possible. Answer that question, and the decision becomes much easier.
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