Like most of you who are reading this, I was in the market for a new Digital Camera. Sure, my trusty iPhone takes a mean selfie but I plan to take my photography to the next level and that’s just not going to cut it anymore. But wow — cameras have so many options these days… much more than they did 10 years ago when I bought my first DSLR. That’s why I put together this list of 5 things to consider when buying a digital camera.
This was the process that I used when I recently bought mine. To give you a better idea of how I use this process, in each step I’ll show you how it applied to my own purchasing strategy.
1. What will the camera be used for?
The first thing to consider when buying a digital camera is what you will be using it for. Trust me, there’s a digital camera out there with your name on it. It doesn’t matter what bizarre situation you can possibly come up with that you might want to capture. It can be done.
Are you looking for something to keep in your pocket and snap a few photos while out on a day trip? Or are you planning to capture weddings, birthdays, and other special events? Maybe you are planning to take up photography as a serious hobby and are looking for something with all the bells and whistles? Each of those scenarios lends itself to a different type of digital camera, and each, of course, falls into a different price range.
Point & Shoot
Point & Shoot cameras such as the Canon Powershot Elph 170 IS are great as a budget digital camera that’s perhaps a step up from lower-end smartphones in the way of features and image quality. You won’t have any problem fitting these guys in your pocket and if you happen to lose it overboard while out on the boat you’re only out $100 – $200 at most.
Feature-wise, you can expect to get on the order of 12x optical zoom, and 20-megapixel resolution.
What you won’t get in this type of camera is any serious amount of flexibility beyond the very basics in camera control. But hey — it’s called point and shoot for a reason. If you want greater control, check out these next ones.
If you’re looking for a digital camera that’s a bit more capable than a point & shoot, but don’t want to step all the way up to a full-blown DSLR camera, then an advanced compact camera may be for you. Take the Canon PowerShot SX60 HS, for example, it offers 65x optical zoom, wifi connectivity, and some basic controls like manual focus.
Although the lens on some of these cameras looks like they’re removable, it’s an illusion — they’re not. I was actually quite amazed at the range of features and price available. Entry level models start in the $200 – $300 range, but there are enthusiast-class compact cameras available costing several thousand dollars.
DSLR / Mirrorless
For most serious photography whether professionally or as an enthusiast, you’ll want to pick up either a DSLR or a mirrorless digital camera. These cameras allow you to change the lenses to suit the type of shot you are going for and offer everything from completely automatic to manual control over ever aspect of the picture.
There’s a huge range in features and specs even within this class of camera, and the price ranges from $400 to, well, the sky’s the limit really. A mid-range camera will set you back close to $1,000 though.
The advantage of these cameras really is the control that you get. There are many different effects that can be achieved by changing the exposure, lens, and filters for example.
Since my reason for purchasing a new camera was to get into more enthusiast-level photography, I opted to go with this class of camera. Which brings me to the next point to consider: DSLR or Mirrorless?
2. DSLR or Mirrorless?
Having made the decision to go with a more substantial camera than a simple point & shoot or compact, I was still faced with the choice of either a DSLR or the newer and much-hyped mirrorless variety.
DSLR cameras have a mirror inside them that most of the time direct light from the camera’s lens into the viewfinder so that you can preview the shot. When you press the button the mirror rotates to instead direct the light onto the camera’s sensor.
Over the past few years, mirrorless camera technology has gone mainstream. As you can probably guess from the name, these cameras do away with the mirror found in DSLRs. Instead, light passes directly through the lens and onto the image sensor. The sensor periodically updates the viewing screen electronically. Pressing the button simply records the image that was on the sensor at that particular time.
There are pros and cons to both DSLR & Mirrorless cameras:
- Doing away with the mirror and related internal components reduce size and weight, making mirrorless digital cameras much less bulky.
- The optical viewfinder in a DSLR camera under some circumstances (low light in particular) provides greater accuracy.
- Mirrorless cameras are generally better at shooting video, with a number of higher-end models even capable of 4K video.
- The lack of moving parts in a mirrorless camera allow them to burst more photos per second. Mid-range mirrorless cameras can typically shoot about 10 frames per second while a comparable DSLR is about half that.
- DSLR cameras enjoy better battery life due to the fact that there is a lot more going on electronics-wise in a mirrorless camera… and all that takes juice.
- Mirrorless cameras are not as old or well established as DSLRs and, therefore, don’t have quite the variety of lenses or accessories available…. yet. That’s all changing quite rapidly, but for now, DSLR cameras have more options available to them.
- Image quality and stabilization are similar for both DSLR and mirrorless cameras; no real advantage for either.
I planned to use my new camera in a studio setting as opposed to carrying it around all day, so size & weight were not that important to me. I also don’t plan to shoot much video with it. Those are two of the main advantages that the mirrorless cameras offer, and I also like the idea of having a large selection of lenses and accessories. I decided to go with a DSLR camera.
3. What Camera Grade is Right for You?
So to recap, I’ve narrowed my search down so far to a DSLR camera. The choices don’t stop there, though. DSLR Cameras can essentially be broken down into four grades: Entry-level, Enthusiast, semi-pro, and Professional. Each grade above entry-level offers increasingly better specs and more features, with a price to match. But my question when I was doing my research is what exactly do you get for that extra money, and what do I really need?
Entry-Level DSLR Cameras
Just as the name states, an entry-level DSLR camera is the base model that will typically deliver a solid performance but will be lacking in advanced features. Since this grade of a camera is really aimed at beginners and those buying their first DSLR, a design emphasis is placed on automatic settings and ease of use.
- Price range: $400 – $600
- Often supplied as a kit with camera, lens, camera bag, filters, memory card, etc.
- 16 – 24 megapixels
- Poor low light performance compared to higher-end models (low ISO speed)
- Usually supplied with a lower-quality lens kit
- Slow speed: Can take upwards of about a second to take a shot when factoring in the time to auto-focus and flash
- Sensor size is typically APC-C, which produces a more telephoto shot compared to the full-frame sensors found in higher end cameras
- Build quality is generally plastic, with minimal weather proofing
In my own personal situation, I knew right away that I was looking for something above entry-level. My previous camera was an entry level Canon Rebel EOS 5D and while it produced nice photos, I was ready to take it to the next level.
Enthusiast DSLR Cameras
The next step up from an entry-level DSLR camera is often referred to as the enthusiast level. These cameras get to be a bit better quality, produce better photos and have more features. Enthusiast DSLRs are aimed exactly as the name suggests, at those who are looking for something a bit better than the bare minimum but aren’t quite ready to go pro.
- Price Range: $800 – $1,500
- Sometimes sold as the camera body only, with lens purchased separately
- APS-C sensor size is standard
- 20 – 24 megapixels
- Higher number of auto-focus points, which results in faster and sharper focusing
- Faster frames per second (fps) during burst, typically 6-8 fps
- Greater ISO sensitivity (better for low light photography)
- Some models offer touch-screens and 4K video capability
- More durable materials of construction than the entry-level models
In my case, the enthusiast class DSLR cameras were pretty close to what I was looking for. I primarily was drawn to the improved auto-focus and the greater ISO sensitivity, both of which would be a help to me in studio and nighttime photography. I can live without a touchscreen and as I’ve said above, I wasn’t planning to shoot much video so the cameras with 4K would be a waste to me. Before making a decision I decided to check out the semi-pro cameras, though.
Semi-Pro DSLR Cameras
Sometimes referred to as midrange, semi-pro DSLR cameras are in fact used by many professionals. The difference between these and what would truly be considered a pro model is sometimes quite minimal feature-wise but the price is still within the realm of mortal men. These cameras take excellent quality photos, are fast, can take some abuse due to their higher robustness, and virtually every feature in the camera can be tweaked and adjusted manually.
- Price range: $1,200 – $3,500
- Extremely high build quality (often magnesium body) with excellent weatherproofing
- Not supplied with lens, which must be purchased separately
- High frames per second in burst mode, upwards of 10 fps
- Excellent auto-focus, often with 60 plus AF points
- 20 – 24 megapixels
- Nearly all have a full-frame CMOS sensor (wider field of view)
- Has every feature and control you could possibly need
- Some models offer touch screens or 4K video
Wow – this is what I was looking for! The question then was, do I really NEED that much? Probably not. For my skill level I probably wouldn’t make use of many of the features, but on the other hand, it would be nice to have something to grow into. But before I move on to the next step, let’s have a look at some of the characteristics of the pro cameras.
PRO DSLR Cameras
Well, here we are. The pinnacle of photographic excellence — the pro level DSLR cameras. The stuff dreams are made of. Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I’m sure most of us really are dreaming if we think we can afford some of these. I’m certain that at my skill level, I wouldn’t make use of half of the features of a pro level camera, but maybe some of you are so let’s take a look.
- Price range: $5,000 – sky’s the limit
- Extremely durable, the absolute best quality construction and materials
- Extremely fast, power on to the first photo in a fraction of a second. Sustained continuous shots at upwards of 10+ fps is standard
- Extremely high ISO sensitivities allow shooting without noise in very dark conditions, to ISO 25,000+
- Full frame sensor is standard
- Lenses are always sold separately
- More advanced computer processors on board than the lower tiers to enhance autofocus and increase speed with image processing
- Typically very bulky and heavy — 5 lbs or more is common
- Complete control over every feature and setting
- Fewer automatic modes and gimmicks that can be found in the consumer models
Beautiful, but way more than I want to spend for a lot of features I am never going to use (let’s see if I still feel the same way in a couple more years, though!) I settled on somewhere between a high-end enthusiast-grade camera, and a lower-end semi-pro model. Now to narrow the selection down even further.
4. Do you have a Brand Preference?
There are several reputable manufacturers of DSLR cameras. While Canon and Nikon are the two that are probably best-known, there are dozens more, and each tries to differentiate itself from the competition. At any given price-point, there is only so far to go in tweaking specs and features. This is where the less tangible and personal preference traits come into play. Here are some of the key points of differentiation between camera manufacturers.
Camera Lenses are not Interchangeable between Brands
That is to say, that $500 lens you bought last year for your Canon DSLR? Yeah, well if you are thinking about buying a Nikon now, you’ll have to buy a new lens to go along with it because your old one won’t work. This is one of the main reasons that people become handcuffed to a particular brand of camera. It’s extremely difficult to switch once you’ve built up a number of accessories.
I’m referring to the guts of the camera here. We’re talking speed, image quality, processing speed, and features. It seems each year there’s one brand in particular that has made some new advancement and forces the others to catch up. They inevitably do though and the winner in the technology race is rarely the same for 2 years in a row.
If battery life is important to you, it’s interesting to note that Nikon cameras are well-known to have superior battery life vs. Canon in particular, but compared to many other brands as well. This isn’t true for every model of course, but if you take the Nikon D7200 against the Canon T6S for example, the Nikon wins by a large margin — almost double the battery life (1,100 photos vs. 500). Battery life for DSLR cameras is generally measured by the number of photos they can take on average between charges, and this information is a commonly published spec that you should consider when doing your research.
Aesthetics, Grip, and Control Layout
This one truly is very subjective and only you can decide what’s best for you. Each brand of DSLR camera has their own unique style that obviously differs between the models of that brand, but have many similarities as well. The only way to figure out your preference on the grip and control layout is to go ahead and try them out! It’s essential to touch, hold, and play with each model before buying, especially when considering the higher-end models because you’ll be outlaying a significant sum of cash.
Things to consider:
- How does the camera feel in your hand? Some are made for smaller or larger hands – is it a good fit for you?
- What controls will you be using most often? Are these easily accessible? How about the terminology / labeling? Is it intuitive to you?
- What about the weight? You need to evaluate this in consideration of your intended use. It’s a big difference if the camera will be sitting on a tripod 90% of the time vs. hanging around your neck!
- And now the most superficial question: Is it pretty? You’re going to be laying out some serious dollars here…. the least it can do is look good for you. Each brand of camera has distinctive characteristics that set it apart from other brands.
When buying a digital camera, it’s important to consider these things whether you think they’re superficial or not. The truth is, you’re going to be living with this camera for quite some time so you better love it! In my situation, my old camera was a Canon, so I’m a bit biased towards that brand really just out of
In my situation, my old camera was a Canon, so I’m a bit biased towards that brand really just out of familiarity but I was by no means set in stone on another one. I didn’t have a huge number of accessories or lenses to consider. Battery life is definitely a consideration for me, but not enough to tie me to a particular brand. I did decide though that I want to stick with either Canon or Nikon, as I want maximum flexibility for the future and there was really no compelling reason for me to consider one of the less prominent brands.
5. Down to the Nitty Gritty: DSLR Spec Comparison
So let’s recap.
So far, we’ve decided on the type of digital camera we want to buy, narrowed it down further to either a DSLR or mirrorless, chose the grade of the camera and finally determined if we have any brand preference. In my case, I had narrowed it down to a high-end enthusiast or low-end semi-pro DSLR camera, with a slight bias towards the Canon brand. Now it’s time to really do our homework.
Step 5 in my humble little program here is to select some camera models that fit the narrowed down criteria we’ve outlined above and run a side by side comparison. We’ve all got certain specs and features that rank higher on the priority list than others, and these differ from person to person. You should also jump back to a theme we talked about in step 4 regarding the aesthetics, grip, and controls at this point. It’s one thing to consider them from an overall brand perspective, but another to touch and feel the actual model you may be buying.
DSLR Spec Comparison
I selected three camera models that met my criteria and summarized all of the features that mattered to me in a table. The cameras I considered were the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Nikon D750, Nikon D7200, and Nikon D610.
|Canon EOS 7D MK2||Nikon D750||Nikon D7200||Nikon D610|
|Price (body only)||$1,499||$1,997||$1,097||$1,297|
|Resolution||20.2 MP||24.3 MP||24.2 MP||24.3 MP|
|Native ISO||100 – 16,000||100 – 12,800||100 – 25,600||100 – 6,400|
|Extended ISO||100 – 51,200||50 – 51,200||100 – 25,600||50 – 25,600|
|Shutter||1/8000 – 30s||1/4000 – 30s||1/8000 – 30s||1/4000 – 30s|
|Autofocus||65-points (all cross)||51-points (15 cross)||51-points (15 cross)||39 points (9 cross)|
|Rear Display||1,040,000 dots||1,229,000 dots||1,229,000 dots||921,000 dots|
|Dual Card Slots||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Battery life||670 shots||1230 shots||1110 shots||900 shots|
|Weight||49 oz.||54.7 oz.||44.3 oz.||47.6 oz.|
Based on a straight comparison of the specs, I am leaning heavily towards the Canon EOS 70D and the Nikon 750D. I really like the full-frame sensor, resolution, rear display, and battery life of the Nikon, while the autofocus, ISO sensitivity, and burst speed are attractive for the Canon.
DSLR Review Bias
The next step was to read published reviews for each model to get a feel for quality, speed, and how each performs in actual use. One of my favorite DSLR camera review sites is Imaging Resource, and they had detailed reviews for each of the cameras on my list. Following are some of the key points I picked out of each review.
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
The review made mention specifically that this camera is a good choice if “you’re an advanced enthusiast photographer looking to step up from a mid-range DSLR“, so, at least, I’m on the right track.
- Dual Digic 6 processors (their best) give this camera even more horsepower than their flagship pro models
- The 65-point cross type autofocus was praised, and the camera is equally well suited for action photography as it is for stills
- Camera’s subject tracking works well to keep a moving subject in focus as it moves across the frame
- The 10 fps burst is excellent for action shots and approaches pro-level speeds
- Camera speed overall was excellent in burst mode, and AF was able to keep up without issues
- Extremely high build quality with a full magnesium body and superb weather sealing on par with pro-level cameras
- High praise was given to the control layout
- All metering modes work as advertised, auto white-balance is solid
- Excellent image quality and high marks overall
Reviews of the Nikon D750 DSLR camera were excellent overall, but again I made some notes of my own below.
- Full-frame sensor with outstanding image quality
- Superb battery life approaching 1,200 shots between charges
- Built-in Wi-fi works great and is a nice addition
- Large, high-resolution 3.2″ LCD screen is beautiful
- Combination of carbon fiber and magnesium construction result in a camera that is pleasing to grip, and relatively light-weight for its class
- Acceptable, but not spectacular burst speed and ISO sensitivity
- Reviewer commented that the auto-focus on this camera was “the best he’d ever seen“, especially in low-light conditions
- In-camera HDR modes are excellent, but disappointingly can’t be used when working in RAW mode
- Max shutter speed of 1/4000 is disappointing
Next, I read through the review of the Nikon D7200. This camera is well-known for being an excellent choice within its class so I was already expecting a lot of praise for it.
- Excellent battery life — you can expect in excess of 1,100 shots on a charge
- Tons and tons of buttons and features, to the point of having a steep learning curve
- Rugged body and fully weather sealed
- Capable of taking about a dozen 14-bit, losslessly-compressed raw files before the camera slowed down
- Built-in wifi and NFC but implementation is a bit clumsy
- Accurate exposure and white-balance during daytime shooting, with excellent color and image quality
- Includes features for creating smooth time-lapse videos
- Video quality is great at both 30 & 60 fps, although shooting at 60 fps introduces another 1.3x crop
- Full-time autofocus while shooting video is quite poor and results in a lot of seeking while trying to focus
Finally, I read through this review of the Nikon D610. This is actually the next model down from the Nikon D750 that I looked at earlier, but I wanted to see if this camera was more value for my money, given the lower price.
- Full-frame sensor in a very affordable camera
- The 39-point autofocus system operates very well in low light
- While not a speed demon, the camera shoots a respectable 6 fps in burst mode
- Combination of magnesium and plastic construction, with extensive weather sealing
- Quiet-continuous mode is excellent, allowing 3 fps bursts with virtually no sound at all
- Excellent high-ISO performance
Time to get Hands-on!
With a good understanding of the differences in specs and features, along with one or more expert opinions by means of online reviews, it was time to head down to the local camera shop for a little one on one time with each of these cameras. Heading into the shop, it was the Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Nikon D750 that I was favoring. These two cameras offered everything I was looking for and more but were definitely the two higher-end (and more expensive) options of the four that I was considering.
I tried each camera, making note of how it felt to hold, the general aesthetics, and how it performed while in use. I ultimately decided to buy the Nikon D750. I decided that the full-frame sensor, superior battery life, combined with its exceptional low-light abilities was more important to me than the speed of the Canon camera. Also, maybe it’s completely superficial of me, but I actually liked the sound of the Nikon camera more than the others as well. It seemed to have a nicer click to it, at least to my ears.
I found this 5 step process to buying a digital camera to be very straightforward and logical in my own research. Was this guide helpful to you? Did you use a similar process when buying a digital camera or some other method? I’d love to hear your stories — please let me know in the comments below!