Choosing Your First Camera

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Choosing your first camera - Lubitel TLR and Zenit SLR film camerasChoosing your first camera is often a choice made all the more difficult by the many options found now on the virtual high street. Which brand to choose? Which model?

Finding the right camera to get started in photography is an important first step in much the same way as choosing the right guitar, or choosing a first car. The choice has to feel right and has to help, not hinder your first steps in taking pictures. On some occasions a first camera may act as a springboard onto a better, perhaps more expensive camera, on others the first may instead serve as an ‘old faithful’ throughout your photographic journey.

This choice, of course, is not the same for everyone so there is no one right answer. Instead, I thought I might lay out some things to consider before hitting that “add to cart” button.

Consider the Costs

Whether a high school student, or retired pensioner, in whatever stage of life you decide to, jumping into photography can be deceptively expensive. All seasoned photographers can tell stories of their GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It begins with choosing your first camera, then maybe an upgrade. It continues with lenses, and before you know it, you’re buying second-hand lighting rigs on ebay.

The best way to avoid this, of course, is to set yourself a realistic budget. Sketch out how much you would like to spend, and do your best to stick to it.

When buying your first camera you may want to consider additional costs. For example, will you buy camera body and lens separately or as a kit? Will you buy a camera bag? If shooting film, you must factor in monthly film and development costs. If digital, will you buy an additional battery? What about file storage?

If buying new, before putting money down, check the price-comparison websites in your country as you may find a deal. Browse independent dealers as they may be able to price-match and will almost certainly provide a more personal service. And if you’re buying yourself a particularly expensive body or lens, don’t be afraid to ask for a bargain. Dealers have thrown in the odd bag, strap, or SD card to my purchases in the past.

Choosing Your First Camera – Second Hand?

To buy the best you can and keep costs down, it may be tempting to search second-hand. This is always a possibility and I’ve found several cameras that way myself in the past. Just be careful to consider what you are buying. All cameras contain consumable parts. The shutter curtains, for instance, may break down after several hundred thousand exposures. When choosing your first camera, my advice would be to opt for refurbished cameras. These often have the consumable parts replaced and the camera may feel and act “as new”. If buying second hand, ask the seller how many exposures the camera has had. If digital, on most cameras this can be checked through the menus.

You may also want to consider the manufacturer that you choose. There is, of course, the age-old Nikon vs. Canon discussion. There are many other manufacturers making great cameras, particularly for those just starting out. For a first camera, though, it may be wise to stick to some of the bigger names. Should you need to repair at any time, this may be more accessible from the mainstream brands. And while only the most affluent or aspirational amongst us may start out with a Leica or a Hasselblad, be aware that should you choose to, your cost doesn’t stop with the high-end body with the price to match. Each of the lenses you may want to add to your arsenal will also set you back considerably more than other brands.

Subject Matter

Most photographers starting out will find themselves jacks of all trades. Beginning by photographing many things and in many scenarios until they find what excites them most. I began photographing live music shows, moved to football, and eventually found my way to street photography. Others may start at street photography, move through studio portraiture, and find themselves photographing landscapes.

When you discover where your focus will lie (excuse the pun), then you may decide to upgrade or replace, but to begin your first camera should be one that can accommodate a variety of options. For instance, you may find that portraiture is for you and as such decide to shoot with a medium format camera, however, before making that discovery, you spent time in the street, and in nature with a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex).

Personally, I began with a small Olympus point and shoot which I decided almost immediately to be too limiting, within a month I moved on to a Nikon D50, then within 6 months to a Nikon D80. All DSLRs and all while trying to find what I enjoyed most. Eventually after selling what felt like most of my belongings, I bought a Leica Rangefinder, small – quiet – discreet, for shooting in the street.

Choosing Your First Camera – So Many Choices

The market these days is flooded with choice. There are DSLRs, mirrorless bodies, Twin Lens Reflex (TLR), rangefinders, 35mm film, medium format (both film and digital), point and shoot, plastic/toy, and you might even find a large format camera or two out there.

Before making your choice of a first camera, it is best to do some research. I have linked the above so you can do some reading and learn about each. Discover the pros and cons. What are they good at? Where do they fall down? Which makes most sense for you and for what you want to photograph? A DSLR is a good all-round starting point, however, you may already know where you want to direct your photography and so you may decide on a different starting point.

Crop or Not

With digital, an important consideration when choosing your first camera is whether it has a full frame sensor or one that is cropped. It is tempting to launch into a grand technical explanation here, but I will keep it short. Cropped sensors are smaller than full frame sensors. Cheaper digital cameras tend to have cropped sensors, and due to the smaller surface area, the sensor catches less light (and thus less information) when a photograph is taken.

Cropped sensor cameras are perfectly acceptable choices, especially when starting out (not least because they are cheaper), however it is important to be aware that a cropped sensor will change the camera’s relationship to the lens. For example, a 35mm lens attached to a camera with a cropped sensor may act more like a close-to-50mm lens. The focal length of the lens will not change, however, the field of view captured by the smaller cropped sensor will be narrower. There is a good explainer of the crop factor here.

Take Control

As mentioned earlier, my first camera was a small Olympus point and shoot, though sadly I don’t remember the model. It was handy to carry around and there was some, though very limited, control of the shutter speed and aperture. I was learning at pace and immediately outgrew it, requiring more manual control from the camera to experiment with.

Controlling how much light is captured by the film or sensor, and how quickly, is a fundamental of photography and having full control of this allows you to play. Slow down the shutter speed to make running water look like mist. Increase the shutter speed to stop the water, sharp and glistening, like ice. This is just one of countless examples where full manual control of the camera allows choices to be made.

Sure, when choosing your first camera you may opt for one that has various scene-modes (portrait, landscape, action, night-time, etc), but my advice though, such as it is, would be to be sure to buy a camera with full manual control. The most thorough way to learn photography is to have complete control of the camera: of the ISO, of the shutter speed, and of the lens aperture. That way you can more quickly learn to take advantage of the relationships between all 3.

Manual control should be a primary concern, however, it is also important to consider light metering. If you have decided upon a Digital camera, it will almost certainly light metering on board, This is not necessarily a given if you are buying a film camera so worth mentioning.

Light metering allows your camera to calculate a correct exposure based on the manual (or prioritised) controls you have set. It will then report to you whether your photograph will be correctly exposed, or will be under or over exposed. A camera with an in-built light meter (as mentioned, ubiquitous in digital photography these days) is particularly important when starting out as it is a direct indicator of the relationship between the controls, and will help ensure correct exposures each time. When choosing your first camera, an onboard light meter is a must.

Choosing Your First Camera – A Final Thought

While all of the above is, I think, objectively good advice, the best suggestion I could give is to buy and use a camera that feels ‘right’. This, of course, is a purely subjective consideration.

I would bet that anyone reading this article has had experiences of buying something believing it to be a good choice until they have had the opportunity to use it then finding themselves to be disappointed. Maybe a guitar was too heavy to enjoy playing. Maybe an app for a smartphone felt clunky, unresponsive, and slow.

Choose a camera that has controls that feel intuitive, ergonomic, and natural to use. Decide on one that doesn’t require digging through a maze of nested menus to find the simplest function. Choose a camera that you enjoy bringing to your eye and pressing the shutter release.

At the end of the day, a camera is a tool, a lightproof box, to help you fix what you see. It should work for you. Not against.

This is part 1 of  the Photo School series of blog posts. To read part 2 – Understanding the Exposure Triangle – click here.

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