What kind of stupid picture is that ? Nothing, just the kind of truly random shot I go around making with a big idiot grin on my face and I have a camera with output I *really* like. It’s a garbage photo but I do like the way the NEX 7 renders color, contrast, and texture detail of the jacket fabric.
I guess where this is heading is : your camera, any decently serious camera today IS good enough. If you flunk your photos, a better/pricier one won’t help much, if only to make you feel even more rotten if you flunk them.
So what camera should you buy ? (in case you’re still asking the question, which I *still* hear a lot from family, friends and relatives). I guess it really depends, not on your needs, a little bit on your budget, but mostly on how important is it for you to actually make better pictures than that you have so far ? How much effort are you willing to put into this. Not wallet effort. Grey matter effort.
So basically if you were in the market for a camera today you’d have three choices : compact camera, mirrorless, also called CSC (for compact camera system, which means smaller bodies but interchangeable lenses), and finally, traditional DSLR (or not so traditional DSLT, that’s Sony’s offering).
If you’re a strict point and shooter with zero photo experience, zero desire to learn and little estate in your purse or pockets, then compact cams are for you. But you gotta get a good one or else it won’t do much better than your modern smartphone. In my experience the camera offering the best IQ, while being the most versatile, and best looking to boot, is the Fuji X10. Icing on the cake, it’s been replaced with the more recent and more expensive (but not better if we are to believe many users reports) X20, so it can now be had at discounted price, or found cheap on the used market. It’s not a tiny camera by any means, and not pocketable, but it will fit in a purse with no problem. That’d be my number one choice for traveling light while keeping excellent image quality.
Now if you want to have something that fits in your jean pockets, I’d go with one of these three : Canon S110 (or 100, or S95, or the venerable S90 I own myself and am so pleased with I haven’t even bothered upgrading). Small, to the point, versatile, great IQ, not much to flaw here, if only that it won’t blur backgrounds just because compacts can’t do it, for their sensor is too small. Fuji XF1, same great and larger sensor as the X10 with wonderful IQ and Fuji colors, longer zoom lens, tiny and pretty. And last, most expensive of the three but having the biggest and best sensor, Sony RX100 (which will start being discounted soon since a successor is pointing on the horizon).
Which brings us to the world of “hybrid” or mirrorless cameras. There are bascially two groups of those : with APS-C sized sensor (just like those used in regular, big DSLRs) or with m4/3 chip, namely Olympus and Panasonic CSC cameras (recently joined by Kodak that announced a m4/3 based camera but hasn’t released it to market yet). In the APS-C group we have : Sony NEX, Pentax K01, Samsung NX, and Fuji X offerings. The necessary oddball : the Pentax Q, and tiny, toysized camera with compact camera sized sensor but interchangeable lenses, in which I consider the worst of both worlds : the hassle of changing lenses and yet typically (lousy ?) IQ.
Which one of those models will be right for you depends entirely on your needs, personal tastes and preferences. Of course I’d be LYING if I didn’t pretend I didn’t buy, borrowed or tried them ALL !! Yes, I admit I did. Some for very extended periods of times and lots and lots of shots (Panasonic GX-1, Sony NEX 7, 6 and 5N) some for a week or a day or even just a few hours (Olympus E-PM1 and E-PL2, Fuji XE-1, Pentax Q, Samsung NX…). I won’t argue with anyone or try to convince anybody, for me the Sony NEX are the best option, but that’s for ME, which doesn’t mean they’d be the best for YOU.
And then you have your big boys, the old style DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, themselves direct descendants of the ancient film cameras. If you’re bound to shoot action (dog agility, motosports, horse jumping, and toddlers running around), you might be happier with a DSLR/T, as the autofocus performance of CSC’s hasn’t quite reached that of bulkier cams. Soon will, but not yet. A word of caution here regarding size. Some mirrorless cameras are actually as big or even a tad bigger than the smallest available DSLRs. Again, it’s a matter of choice and personal preferences. To me the weight and bulk gain is the MAIN attraction in CSC cameras, along with the full time live preview of the to-be-taken-shot and the Peaking focusing aid feature. Aside from that (smaller size/weight/rea time preview/peaking) I don’t see any reason in the world not to chose a DSLR over a CSC. Yet, some people do and would rather shoot a smaller sensor but bigger bodied cam like the Panny GH-3, than the larger sensor, smaller bodied Sony A37. Go figure…
DSLRs come in a lot of sizes, brands, flavors and now even colors (with the latest Pentax K50 being available in a staggering 120 different color configurations, eeek…) and it can get really tough to chose. You have more or less 3 to 4 families of big boyz : entry level (smallish, cheaper, basic features and a lot of consumer friendly gizmos) : That would be Nikon D3000 and D5000 series, Canon Rebels, Pentax Kx or K3digit models, Sony A33 to A58. Then mid range, bigger and more “enthusiast” oriented, à la Nikon D7000 series, Canon 60D, Pentax K5 and K5II, Sony A65. Bring it up a notch and you have more “professional” (as stupid a concept that is) features included in bodies like Nikon D300, Canon 7D, Pentax K7, Sony A77. And then you have the real expensive and top notch guys, with the larger and more expensive, full frame sensors, like the Nikon D600, D3/D4, Canon 6D, 5D2 and 5D3, and Sony A99. Pentax hasn’t released a full frame body though they are rumored to.
My theory is that if you know your way around a camera, the basic nuts and bolts of photography, and were blessed with a good “eye” at birth, any camera above the compact herd will serve you well. Let’s face it, and good photog can make art with anything, and easily so starting from m4/3 sized chip. On the other hand, if you are lazy minded, scared into thinking this is too complex for you, or couldn’t frame an interesting pic to save your life (don’t laugh, I know a bunch of folks who can’t), save your money and stay with the cheaper, smaller stuff. At least you’ll have an excuse for your bad pictures 😉