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Choosing a new camera

Trying to decide on a new camera is a minefield, because it depends on what kind of photographer you are and what/where you want to go on your photographic journey! It also depends on what sort of budget you have.  That said however, having the most expensive piece of equipment will not necessarily produce better pictures but the type of camera may give you more options in capturing the image you are chasing.  Landscape photography pioneer Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984) is credited with many famous quotes but two particularly resonate with me: “The single most important component of a camera is the 12 inches behind it” and, “there is nothing more disturbing than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”. Both of these quotes allude to the camera being merely a tool and that the photographer makes the image.

I have recently gone through the camera buying dilemma. My old crop sensor Nikon D5300, while a very capable camera had some limitations for the type of photography I wanted to achieve.  It particularly suffered in low light with high noise levels beginning to be very apparent at ISO’s above 800.  This is not good considering ISO could be dialled up to 12800.

I am not an expert so I would not even presume to say you have to buy this or that brand or model. Indeed I would be wary of so called experts who do so because you do not know where their bias is coming from.  My recommendation is to do your own research and don’t rush into making a decision.

To begin my search for a replacement camera I created a list of what features and capabilities I wanted in a camera. My list changed with my research. Google searches like “cameras for landscape photographers” give lots of opinions and reviews and talk about the different features.  Some reviews even suggest what advertised features are more of a gimmick rather than a useful feature. Once I had a list, I prioritised my listed attributes from ‘must have’ through to ‘nice to have’.  I watched lots of comparisons, read huge amounts of reviews and made lots of notes.  Some of the criteria at the top of my list included: full frame sensor, a high dynamic range for better low light performance, fast autofocus, image stabilisation, weather sealing, and dual memory card slots.

Since this was to be a major upgrade, crop sensor to full frame, I also debated changing over to mirrorless. More on why I did not go that path later.

In photography, like in the computer world, people tend to polarise one way or another when it comes to brands or types.  For DSLR’s, two of the top contenders are Nikon and Canon but there are many others, some of which are in a price category above what I would even consider.  All have very good products capable of taking very good images. People however, tend to stay with the brand they first purchased and I am no different.  There is a logical and sound reason for this and that is compatibility of lens mounts and accessories.  For me I stayed with Nikon as I would still be able to use my existing lenses although I would not be able to use the full capability of the full frame sensor.  This would allow me to purchase better quality (Faster) lenses as the budget allowed, but still be able to continue to do all of the types of photography I like doing.

After nearly a year of research and getting more frustrated with the poor noise performance of the D5300 I finally took the plunge and purchased the Nikon D850 with the Nikon 24–120  F4 Lens. Reviews had this camera in the top few of the best landscape photography cameras currently available. It ticked all of the criteria on my list and offered much more. It is a camera which will last me a long time.

Now back to the current debate of DSLR vs mirrorless. Mirrorless DSLR’s have only relatively recently entered the general market as a major contender and so there is currently a big marketing push.  In reality, both types have their advantages and drawbacks, so don’t assume that one is necessarily better than the other. 

DSLRs are generally bulkier and heavier in comparison to the best mirrorless cameras which tend to be smaller and lighter.  Mirrorless cameras only had a limited number of lens choices but this is rapidly changing.  For DSLR’s you have access to a number of lenses from many manufacturers. Mirrorless models are more restricted, offering access to a small number of lenses from the camera maker, however the range of choices is growing.  Mirrorless cameras do not have an optical viewfinder so essentially operate in a permanent live view mode.  This contributes to high battery use. 

As for autofocus and low-light shooting, DSLRs have generally reigned supreme, but this has begun to change.  Mirrorless autofocus systems have improved greatly and some now boast the fastest autofocus speeds. However, DSLRs still remain superior for autofocusing on fast-moving objects, such as photographing sports or wildlife.

With a DSLR, the optical viewfinder shows you exactly what the camera will capture. With a mirrorless camera, you get a preview of the image on-screen. Some mirrorless cameras offer an electronic viewfinder that simulates the optical viewfinder.  When you’re shooting outside in good light, the preview on the screen of a mirrorless camera will look close to the final image. But in situations, such as in low light or with fast-moving subjects, the preview will suffer, becoming dull or grainy.  A DSLR, by contrast, is better in low light.  So, if you are shooting mostly in good light, both types will perform well. If you are often shooting in low light or other challenging conditions, a DSLR may be easier to shoot with.  It can also sometimes be difficult to see the image on the screen in bright light conditions.

Both camera types can shoot at very fast shutter speeds and capture a lot of images quickly. With the exception of high-end DSLRs, mirrorless cameras do have an edge. The lack of a mirror makes it easier to take image after image.  The simpler mechanics of mirrorless cameras allow them to shoot more photos per second, at higher shutter speeds.

In summary Mirrorless cameras have the advantage of usually being lighter, more compact, faster and better for video; but that comes at the cost of access to fewer lenses and accessories. DSLRs have the advantage in lens selection and an optical viewfinder that works better in low light, but they are more complex and bulkier.  Both types have the ability to produce outstanding image quality with stunning performance and convenience but remember what Ansel Adams said about the single most important component of a camera…….

There is certainly a mass of information available and it can be overwhelming so, to start the process ask yourself the following:

  • What sort of camera user are you?
  • Where do you want your photography to take you?
  • What can you afford?

To finish, I give you two more Ansel Adams quotes:

“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.” 

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” – Ansel Adams

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