I’m a photographer. I’m not in camera sales but I get asked the same question incredibly regularly.
Still I do maintain a strong interest in camera gear so I generally know what’s happening in the industry.
What do I use? For 25 years I’ve been a Nikon user in the main. Plenty of their gear, the film bodies, digital bodies, lenses, flashes and accessory equipment has passed through my hands.
But I’ve also had a very strong love (and that’s probably the right word too) for Leica generally and their M6 specifically – a far more emotive, instinctive and visually appealing brand than can be spoken of logically.
Still have my film Hasselblad gear and Cambo large format camera and yes, if you want to go all out and grab some of the finest gear made in the digital medium format market, be prepared to spend up big ($50,000 – $100,000!). Okay – got that out of your system!?
I like how Nikon works and how the gear feels in my largish hands. Every time I pick up a Canon camera now it feels wrong. It isn’t of course. But their controls are so dissimilar to Nikon’s that I’d struggle for a very long time if I ever made the switch.
So I like Nikon, partly because I know it but mainly cause it gets the job done really, really well. Yet I could equally say the same for Canon, Leica, Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, Pentax, Kodak, Konica, Sony or any other current or past 35-mm camera maker.
They’re all more or less the same thing – a small box that collects the “decisive moment” for the future…
My advice has always been to head to a camera shop and handle the cameras that have tempted you because of their price or features. Read some of the websites that contain good information (e.g. DPReview which has plenty of comparison info + pro reviews and user reviews. And just to balance things I’ll also add The Luminous Landscape site and The Online Photographer – the former site is great for pro’s and the latter is my favourite photography site) and shop around too – maybe go to three proper camera stores at least to look and to HANDLE your choices.
In Australia seriously consider buying a fully legitimate camera that will have an Australian honoured warranty. Some grey market and ebay resellers import their product from overseas and it may have either no legally enforceable warranty at all or has to be returned to the country of origin for warranty servicing.
So what should you buy? Well if you’re looking at pro-priced gear you really need to do your own research.
I would suggest either of the big two (Nikon and Canon) because of what you end up buying into.
They both have professional services in Australia. They do very good back up. They have incredibly extensive gear lists. There’s no trouble getting the gear fixed in Australia. And just about every camera store in the country stocks one or the other or both.
If you’re just looking around as an amateur or already have a camera system with a different brand you’ll often find that all the other brands, or your existing brand, have really great things to offer.
There really isn’t a lot of difference with the digital SLRs (digital single lens reflex camera or dSLR) these days. Honestly! Very little difference. It may come down to handling, or you might need certain accessories, but it’ll rarely come down to how much difference there is between the actual images.
So what if you don’t want a dSLR? What if you want a compact camera?
Compacts come in two general forms, cheap or pricey.
The cheap ones are all so same-same and far too numerous to mention. It feels like it’s a category populated by a thousand awful models.
They are often badly thought out, often with illogical controls, often flimsy, often underwhelming in performance, often with menus that make little sense that are NEVER fully explored by the owner, often too complicated, often too restrictive.
In some cases, if you already have a camera phone that you’re happy with, don’t waste money on a cheap compact.
I don’t recommend cheap compacts to anyone anymore cause there is the sense that the camera makers have all under-performed. But I’m also happy to be corrected.
If you want something that does work well, but is priced higher, and is compact then the current king of the hill is Canon. Their G11 and S90 (which aren’t brand new models anymore) are great.
Panasonic has an LX3 that is widely admired.
Leica has a couple of wonderful models but their high price is often too much for most. Therefore just take a step back, look at the Panasonic’s and realise that there is some re-badged stuff from them that are made for Leica!
In other words, there’s not much to choose from here either but that’s okay – it just makes finding the right model in this category a lot easier.
These “expensive” compact models tend to offer good build quality, some pro features, good glass, and really good picture performance.
A new category is the Micro Four Thirds cameras. They are small cameras that perform really well and they’re being built to offer quite extensive accessory lists.
Small, desirable, beautiful, functional, good performance – it’s not for nothing that this is probably the best performing market at the moment.
Panasonic (G1, GH1, GF1) and Olympus (E-PL1, E-P2) have their various models here and they’re nifty little things.
Look, it’s all personal preference. Work out your budget – try and stretch it a little more to get something better cause it’ll probably last longer, have a few extra features AND also give you full manual control.
And that might be the real point. If you can buy a camera that easily gives full manual control you’ll be happy with the camera for a long time. After all, in my opinion, a camera should give you memories based on the parameters you set and not what the camera thought best (it’s not always right).
Before you purchase – be warned. Nothing is forever. New cameras come out. We’re in a year for a major imaging expo in Germany, so we’re about to see a whole slew of new models. If you can wait a few months we’ll have a clear picture for the next two years or so. If you can’t wait – buy knowing full well that what you get will last you many years! And if you’re uncertain – ask.
BTW – what defines a good camera to me? It has to shoot in RAW mode (not just jpegs out of the camera), be well built, use compactflash cards (although that’s not entirely necessary), have excellent battery performance, and it has to fit MY hand correctly.