What should I get for my first "real" camera?

Along with plenty of other photographers I have received this question quite a bit. That’s why I’ve decided to dedicate an entire post based off of this question since it’s sort of an all encompassing subject. One that should probably be revisited regularly since technology changes at a pace only a Buggati can keep up with. I’m going to be honest with you, I haven’t had enough experience with many brands to give you a detailed explanation as to what camera you should get. However, I will help guide you by offering you some insight into some major considerations when picking out your first real camera.

First up, is Mirrorless vs DSLR. If you’re reading this, then chances are, these two words may be greek to you. So let me boil it down to some simple concepts for you to consider the differences. One of the main types of cameras (digital or not) that have been around for decades involve a mirror. When you look at the camera without a lens on you’ll see an angled mirror. This mirror is how you’re able to see through the viewfinder and compose your shot. Since you’re looking through a mirror you’re seeing the scene exactly how your eyes see it and that’s not necessarily how your sensor will read the image. With a mirrorless system, that mirror is gone; hence the nomenclature. This elimination of a mirror allows a couple of benefits for photographers. One of the biggest deals people like to make about mirrorless systems is that they’re inherently smaller since there is a significant portion of the system eliminated. While this is true, the differences are minimal once you strap on “real” lenses to that “small” camera. We’ll cover lenses a bit later. The real benefit I see in mirrorless cameras comes down to how the viewfinder works in these systems. See, you’re constantly getting a “live” preview of your scene in a mirrorless system. What you see in the viewfinder is what you’ll get when you press the shutter. Having this preview allows you to really get a sense for what changes are going on when you change your exposure settings. You won’t be able to see everything the way it is (motion blur for instance) so you’ll still need to understand exposure, but at least this is a good start. You also get different overlays on your current view (histogram, rule of thirds grid, and so much more). The biggest downfall of mirrorless cameras is that since you’re getting a digital projection (aka, you’re looking at a screen) you’re eating up a lot of battery; and with smaller bodies come with diminished battery life. However, this is a small issue since you can easily carry extra batteries. Hence, I feel like a mirrorless system is the way to go for anyone’s first camera. The main companies that offer great mirrorless systems for decent prices are Sony, Fuji, and Olympus. Nikon and Canon have them, but they’re not even in the same ballpark as the others in terms of quality and available lenses.

Next up is the consideration of sensor size. If you choose to accept that mirrorless is the way to go then you need to decide what type of sensor size is important for you. They all offer great image quality with today’s technology, so try not to get lost in the minuet details here. Each company has different sensor sizes and these will have an effect in two main areas, depth of field and low light capabilities. The size of sensor also has some impact on dynamic range, but I won’t cover that in this article since this probably shouldn’t be of your concern at this point. Olympus uses what’s called a micro-four thirds sensor (m43). This is the smallest sensor of the bunch. A smaller sensor means that at an equivalent lens focal length and aperture more of your image will be in focus. The shrunken sensor also means that you won’t have the best performance in low light. Fuji and Sony both have what’s called a “crop sensor.” This is a bigger sensor than the m43 sensors olympus manufactures and thus a shallower depth of field and better performance in low light. Finally, at least in the scope of this article, you have a “full frame” sensor offered by Sony. Currently Sony is the only company throwing a full frame sensor in a mirrorless package. This type of camera has some of the shallowest depth of field and has the best low light functionality in the mirrorless packages (in our price range, mirrorless medium format options do exist, but then you’re taking out a mortgage for a camera). Something else to keep in mind with these sensor sizes is that the focal length of the lenses are actually different. A 20mm lens on a M43 camera is actually like a 40mm lens on a full frame camera. It’s complicated and this has it’s own subject on its own, but the standard focal length measurement is based off of full frame cameras. This is just important when you’re buying lenses and someone tells you that you need to have a 50mm lens in your pack (or any focal length for that matter), it’ll actually be a different focal length depending on the size of sensor you get.

Why does the sensor size matter? Lenses. When you purchase a camera you’re making an implicit promise to invest more money into that camera in terms of lenses. All of these systems have a wide range of lenses available (not like Canon and Nikon have, but still). A M43 lens won’t really work for a full frame camera. See, when you decide that later in the future you want to upgrade your camera, you’ll want to make sure your lenses will work with that camera. With Olympus, you should be okay since it doesn’t look like they’re leaving the M43 arena. Fuji also seems locked down on cropped sensors. Sony on the other hand makes both cropped and full frame sensor cameras. So if you buy a cropped sensor camera from Sony (like the a6000) then you might want to get full frame lenses for it (the FE line). These lenses work on cropped sensors but the cropped lenses don’t. Have I confused you yet? No? Wow, then you must be some sort of genius.

Let me give you the quick summary of what I recommend for your first real camera… Go get a mirrorless. You can’t go wrong with any of the aforementioned systems I mentioned. You really can’t even go wrong with Nikon or Canon. They have a “live view” mode, but they’re not quite as developed as the mirrorless systems since that’s sort of an “extra.” If I were to recommend a simple but fantastic camera to start out with, the Sony a6000 will give you a great starting point. Then start collecting full frame lenses from Sony and Zeiss while you get better at shooting. Then eventually you can move up to the full frame sensor A7 series cameras and have a nice lens collection to go with it. There are so many other details that you need to consider, but that’s just my general recommendation for those starting out. The other brands have their own strengths that Sony doesn’t offer. Oly makes some great cameras that are dust and water resistant. So does Fuji. Fuji also has a hybrid autofocus that uses your typical phase detection and a rangefinder like system. This is beyond my understanding since I’ve not dealt with rangefinders. Canon and Nikon have a great selection of lenses that are super fast, and amazingly sharp. Finally, with Sony’s new A7Rii, you have the option to use just about any other company’s lens mount on their camera while still maintaining great autofocus.

In the end I’m sure you’ll make a good decision. Just make sure you have fun with it. These are just tools to help you capture your moments. Nothing more. Don’t let the hammer drive then hand that holds it. Learn whatever system you have. Learn it’s strengths, and utilize it’s weaknesses.