By Mark Turner
Give three people the same camera, have them stand in the same place, and you’ll get at least three different photographs. That said, different cameras do have their strengths and weaknesses. The art of choosing a camera is to find the best compromise that works for you.
Any modern camera is capable of capturing a decent exposure. It’s not the camera that makes the photograph. The person holding the camera uses their creativity, knowledge, and experience to channel their vision through their camera to create an image.
As I look at the market today, I see four major categories of cameras: cellphones, compact “point and shoot,” mirrorless, and single-lens reflex. Here’s a quick rundown on each of their strengths and weaknesses.
Cellphone Cameras – If you’re like me, this is the camera you always have with you. No wonder it is so popular.
- The biggest advantage of carrying a cellphone camera is that it’s nearly idiot-proof. Just pull it out, compose, and shoot. I’ve made some wonderful images with my iPhone cameras.
- Being idiot-proof also means you have limited control over exposure or anything else, but that doesn’t really matter if you only want something simple.
- Cellphone cameras have a fixed wide-angle lens so it’s easy to have everything in focus from near the camera to a distant horizon. It also means they’re not so great for portraits. A wide-angle lens often makes faces look fatter than they really are.
- Cellphones also have very small image sensors. This means they’re not very good at low-light photography.
- Another downside to a cellphone camera is the limited battery life. Most don’t have user-replaceable batteries.
Compact “Point and Shoot” Cameras – These cameras are small, lightweight, and usually incorporate a zoom lens. Like cellphones they’ll fit in a pocket.
- You can change the battery and memory card when they run out or get full.
- Pocket cameras give you much more creative control than you get with a phone camera. You’ll probably be able to choose aperture-priority or shutter-priority auto exposure as well as a fully-automatic mode.
- They make technically better photos than a phone camera, but the results aren’t necessarily more creative.
Mirrorless Cameras –They’re called “mirrorless” because instead of having a mirror that
directs what the lens sees to an optical viewfinder, they have an electronic viewfinder or rely only on a digital display on the back of the camera.
- Being mirrorless significantly cuts down the size, weight, and mechanical complexity of the camera. This makes them less expensive than SLRs while retaining most of their strengths.
- You get interchangeable lenses, a full set of exposure modes, and a host of features. I purchased a Sony A6300 just before heading to GWA Atlanta in September. I’ve been very impressed with the technical quality of the photos I’ve made with it.
Single-lens Reflex Cameras – Back in the film days if you were a serious photographer you had to have a SLR camera (make that a DSLR now for the digital version). Even with the new technology, it’s still hard to beat a SLR for the greatest control.
- You see exactly what you’re going to get with a high-quality optical viewfinder.
- You have a large selection of interchangeable lenses. SLR cameras are also part of systems that include sophisticated electronic flash units.
- SLR’s have all the possible exposure modes, including full manual, bulb, and aperture- and shutter-priority auto modes. You can even put them in a full-auto mode and treat them like a big point-and-shoot.
- The biggest downside to SLR’s is their size, weight, and complexity. You trade these for near infinite creative control. As a full-time photographer I use my rather large Canon 5D Mark III SLR and a bag full of lenses for all of my client work. I could get just as good a result with my Sony A6300 mirrorless, but there’s a certain “wow factor” with clients when I show up with a bigger camera and all that equipment.
Making Your Decision
Ultimately, you’ll choose a camera in one of these four categories. But within each group there are many makes and models to choose from. So how do you decide?
First, think about the features that are most important to you and narrow your list to the ones that have those features. Then visit your local camera shop so you can actually hold and play with the cameras on your short list. If possible, rent your top choices so you can make actual pictures with them.
Technical considerations aside, almost every camera choice I’ve made has come down to ergonomics. Does the camera feel comfortable in my hands? Can I see the picture in the viewfinder? Can I find the settings I need in the menus? How easy is it to change the settings I use the most?
If you’d like to read more of my thoughts about choosing a camera, I wrote an article for
my online newsletter back in 2010 about selecting a pocket camera. The models have changed since then, but the critical questions are the same. You can read it at 10 Things to Look For When Choosing a Pocket Camera. You also might benefit from going to DP Review and comparing camera specs and read reviews.
Meet the Author
Mark Turner has been photographing gardens professionally for more than 20 years. His work has been published in numerous magazines and books. He’s the photographer and co-author of two popular field guides published by Timber Press, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest and Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest. He lives, gardens, and currently makes more of his family’s income photographing families in Bellingham, Washington. Learn more about him at Turner Photographics.