Don't buy a new DSLR until you've read this

What camera should I buy?

"What camera should I buy to shoot flowers?"

"I want a DSLR, what should I get?"

"I need a new camera for the holiday of a lifetime, what do you recommend?"

These are all questions I've been asked online already this year (today is 16 January). I love being able to help other photographers, but when it comes to choosing your camera, I need more than 140 on Twitter, or a quick FB instant message.

This is the post for everyone who's asked me a question like that, and been frustrated that I couldn't just tell them, "Buy the Canon xxxD", or "Get the Sony Axxxx".

Short answer

Get the most expensive lens you can afford, and spend the rest of your budget on the camera body.

Let me explain...

These are the questions I really need to ask you

(And the person in the camera shop should ask you these as well.)

Why do you want a new camera?

Is it because you think a DSLR will take better pictures?

Do you know that a DSLR won't actually take better pictures than the camera you've got now (even if that's just your phone) until you've spent at least 3 months learning how to use it (assuming it's your first DSLR)? Are you prepared to put the work in and learn at least 5 startlingly new concepts that your brain will rebel against for 2.9 of those months? Yes? Sure? Read on.


Is it because you think real bloggers/travellers/crafters/gardeners use a DSLR?

Did you know that it's the photographer that takes the photo, not the camera? See point above - will a DSLR take better pictures?

Is it because you're frustrated that you can't blur the background - your widest aperture is only f5.6?

You don't need a new camera, you need a new lens. You are limited only by your budget. If you can afford a pro zoom that's f2.8 end to end (£1,000+), go for it. If you've got £100, buy a 50mm f1.8. If you don't know what any of this means, return to question 1 - are you prepared to spend 3 months learning what all this means?

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Is it because you've got a bridge camera and are frustrated because you can't change the lens?

Yes? You may read on.

Is it because you need a DSLR to take pictures of flowers/landscapes/your safari/the Taj Mahal/your grandchild?

This is nearly a legitimate reason, but you still have to understand what you're doing.

The reason your compact camera or phone can't do as good a job as a DSLR for these subjects is mostly to do with the lenses. For flowers you'll probably need a super wide maximum aperture, or maybe a macro lens. For landscapes, you'll need a wide angle lens that doesn't distort, and a super small minimum aperture. Your safari - you'll want something with a high max ISO and a long zoom. The Taj Mahal is presumably in the middle of a memorable trip, and you'll want as many options as possible. And your grandchild will soon be moving with the speed of light, and you'll want the option to use a fast shutter speed.

But leaving your DSLR on auto, and not understanding what focal lengths are, will not help you. You can get the DSLR and lenses you need, but you will have to learn how to use it, to get any benefit at all.

Is it because you've noticed your images are too soft with your current DSLR, the AF isn't as good as you'd like, or CSM burst rate isn't enough?

I think you already know which new camera you want. If you've got the money and you think it'll make you happy, go for it.

Do you have a DSLR but you want a completely new system which is smaller and lighter?

Again, it comes down to budget, but I made the switch to mirrorless and haven't regretted it.

What's your current camera?

Is it a phone, or a compact camera that you use on auto?

Go back to the first question and persuade me that you will learn how to download images to your computer, remember to format your memory card, and learn all of these concepts: exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focal length. Oh, and editing. You can't use the images straight out of the camera. And you can't post them straight to Instagram - you'll have to learn how to get them from your camera to your phone. If you don't learn all this, you'll have a nice, heavy, expensive piece of kit that will make you feel guilty every time you open a drawer and remember you haven't used it for the last year.

Have you got a DSLR and some lenses already?

Think carefully before you switch manufacturer. You're not just investing in a camera, but all the lenses as well.

What's your budget?

You really do get what you pay for. I'm not sponsored by any manufacturers, I just got a Canon when I was 13 and have stuck with it ever since. Until I switched to Fuji last year for their mirrorless system. The only definite advice I'll give is: don't get the kit lens, whatever system you go with. You do not have to buy the lens and the camera together. The kit lens will be a marvellous looking super zoom which claims to be able to take wide angle landscape photos all the way through to animal safari shots on a long zoom. Yes, it will be able to do that, but you will very, very soon get frustrated with the small maximum aperture, especially at the zoomed end.

The reason you are getting a DSLR is so you can make the most of the manual controls - don't shoot yourself in the foot before you've started by getting a lens that is cheap but offers only half the control of more expensive lenses. I come back to my initial advice: get the most expensive lens you can afford, and spend the rest of your budget on the body. Get a second hand body if you need to. 2 year old digital DSLRs are amazing. The minimum I would say you need to learn photography is around £100 for a 50mm 1.8, and whatever body you can afford. Then save up for something like a 70-200 zoom, and a wide angle fixed or zoom.

Have you heard about mirrorless cameras?

Don't be put off by the jargon. DSLR just means Digital Single Lens Reflex. SLRs were a revolution because they let photographers see exactly what they were taking a photo of, using a mini-periscope built into the camera. It involves a fixed mirror at the top, and a 2nd mirror behind the lens that flips up and down again when you take the photo. Mirrorless cameras take the same quality photos as DSLRs, they are just smaller because they've taken the mirror out. Processing power is now fast enough that the electronic viewfinder (what you see on the LCD) doesn't lag like it used to, so they don't need to use the analogue mirror system. The key thing is, both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses. That's what you should be focussing on. In fact, some people call them ILCs, to cover both DSLRs and mirrorless - Interchangeable Lens Cameras.

Have you got any must-have's?

Check these before you buy:

Do you need to shoot video? Does it have to be 4K?

Do you need built in wifi?

Do you need to be able to shoot in particularly low light?

Will slow buffering bother you?

Will you pay more for more accurate autofocus?

Is people recognition a must-have or a gimmick?

Tiltable LCDs might seem like an optional extra, but have you tried them? They are invaluable for low/high viewpoints.

So, what camera should you buy?

If you're sure you want an ILC, go to a camera shop and try one. You might think you want a tiny mirrorless, but then when you get there you might find the dials are too small, or once you put a long lens on it, you lose all the smallness benefit. Or you might try the top of the range pro Canon or Nikon, and find out just how heavy it is.

And don't forget what I said about the lens.

And finally... which camera took all the photos in this post?

My iPhone. 

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