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What Camera Should I Buy? (Organized by Camera Type)
A Guide for Beginners, by Philip Greenspun

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Self-portrait, Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park.
Guide Contents:
  1. Quick Answer I
  2. Quick Answer II
  3. View Cameras
  4. 35mm SLRs
  5. Medium Format Cameras
  6. Point & Shoot
  7. APS
  8. Digital
  9. If you're going on a trip
  10. If you still can't decide
  11. Insurance
  12. If you've got your credit card ready
  13. Why Bother?


Reader's Comments

Quick Answer I
It depends.

Quick Answer II
If you're lucky, you can match your situation to one of our pre-defined situations in this new article on buying the camera for the job.

View Cameras

Not too many photographers start with a 4x5" view camera, but that is rather a shame. View cameras are the most flexible cameras, usually made from a basic design that has not changed for over 100 years. You know the guy in the old time photo studio who photographs with his head under a cloth? He's using a view camera. Ansel Adams? He took most of his best photos with a huge 8x10" view camera. All those luscious ads for food in magazines? Taken with view cameras.

A view camera is fundamentally a light-tight box with a slot at one end for a lens and a slot at the other for the film. You compose and focus your image on a groundglass, then displace the glass with a sheet of film four by five inches in size. That's right, the negative from a view camera is about the same size as a proof print that you get back from a 1-Hour lab.

Philip trying to photograph George.  Boston Garden.  The camera is a Sinar F2 view camera. I tried several times to teach a very intelligent friend how to use my Nikon 8008. Despite the camera's marvelous user interface and available automation, she simply couldn't remember what all the different controls were for. However, she had no trouble understanding my SINAR monorail view camera, an enormous contraption that intimidates 99% of experienced amateurs. That's because a view camera's controls are simple, direct, and physical.

Chapel.  Wellesley College.  1981.  My first view camera photo. Another advantage of having used a view camera is that it gives you an understanding of perspective. With a view camera, the lens and film aren't fixed parallel to each other. This opens up a huge range of creative opportunities that are unavailable to most users of 35mm and medium format gear. For example, if you want to take a photo of a building with a Nikon, you have to point the camera up towards the sky. You will then be projecting the vertical exterior of the building onto the angled film surface. The lines of the building will converge towards the top of the frame. With a view camera, you shift the lens up and/or the film down. The film is now "looking up" at the building through the lens, but the film is still parallel to the building exterior so lines don't converge.

A used view camera outfit will cost you about $500. I prefer metal cameras such as Calumet, Cambo, Linhof, and Sinar. All view cameras work the same way. What you pay for in a more expensive camera is the assurance that when the controls are zeroed, everything is in fact parallel and you'll get a sharp picture. My friend Elsa has a beautiful Deardorff wooden view camera that we tried to use to copy her 20x24" Polaroid originals. In theory this should yield high-quality images. In practice, it does not. I measured the camera with the indispensable Zig-Align mirrors (available from zigalign@compuserve.com for about $50) and discovered that the lensboard and film back were not anywhere near parallel. Nor could they be reliably kept parallel so we scrapped the idea and substituted an old metal camera instead.

If you're ready to buy a view camera, read "Choosing a Large Format Camera" and then View Camera Technique.

At right: the very first image that I made with a view camera, back in 1981. I was a 17-year-old undergraduate at MIT taking an intro photography course (the only one I've ever taken). We had old cheap metal view cameras, loaded Tri-X, and developed the film and prints ourselves.


35mm SLRs

Feet The 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) is most folks' idea of a serious camera. SLR means that the same lens is used for viewing and taking pictures. A mirror in the body directs the light from the lens up into a prism for viewing, then flips up out of the way just before an exposure is made. These are extremely versatile instruments in the right hands and can take beautiful pictures if used with care.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of SLRs are bought with cheap zoom lenses and then used with an on-camera flash as the primary light. There is nothing especially wrong with taking snapshots this way, but don't expect an SLR with a 35-80 zoom and an on-camera flash to take a better picture than a point and shoot camera. Furthermore, the point and shoot will fit into your pocket so you're more likely to have it with you when Fate sends the makings of a great image your way. The camera that is too expensive, too heavy, or too bulky to carry isn't of much use.

Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park (Alaska) If you are serious about photographing people, animals, or travel, then an investment in an SLR may be wise. A good budget system would include a cheap body, a 50/1.8 lens, and a tripod. Add a portrait lens, a big telephoto, or a wide angle depending upon your needs. If you have relatively big bucks, consider really wide angle lenses (20mm or wider), high quality telephotos (300/4, around $1000), or professional zooms ($1000 and up). If you are tempted by the consumer zooms (apertures of f/4 or f/5.6 and prices of $300 or less), then you should ask yourself whether a point and shoot wouldn't be better.

"Minolta makes the best bodies, Nikon makes the best lenses, Canon makes the best compromise" -- My rich friend Bob who has all three systems.

Frozen Yogurt.  6th Avenue and 12th.  Manhattan 1995. You're probably not as rich as Bob, so you'll have to decide on a camera system. Canon and Nikon enjoy an overwhelming dominance of the professional 35mm SLR market. There are good reasons for this and the dominance tends to be self-perpetuating because off-brand manufacturers don't have much incentive to invest in R&D. One can rent exotic Canon and Nikon lenses (e.g., a $4000 300mm f/2.8 telephoto) in most major cities but rentals for other brands are virtually non-existent. Finally, Nikon and Canon are probably the lowest cost systems for serious photographers because they have high resale value and economies of scale on the big lenses (e.g., a Nikon 80-200/2.8 costs less than a Pentax 80-200/2.8 because the Nikon is mass-produced for photojournalists whereas only a handful of Pentax's customers are in the market for lenses that cost over $1000).

Saarinen's Gateway Arch.  St. Louis, Missouri. One of the delights of reading Internet newsgroups such as rec.photo.equipment.35mm is the recurring flame war that erupts over whether prestige brands such as Leica are better than plain old brands such as Nikon. What it boils down to is that Leica makes some fairly nice, very expensive lenses. These handily outperform the low quality, cheap lenses that Canon and Nikon were forced to make to compete with Sigma, Tamron, and (shudder) Tokina. The $3150 Leica 180/2.8 does indeed outperform a $120 Nikon 70-210 zoom set to 180. That doesn't mean it outperforms the $700 Nikon 180/2.8, which is what a professional Nikon photographer would be using.

In the good old days, introductory photography instructors recommended the Pentax K1000, an all-mechanical metered-manual body. Instructors liked the K1000 because it forced students to make decisions about aperture, shutter speed, and focus. Another good feature of the K1000 was its lack of features. There are only three controls that affect the final image: aperture, shutter speed, and focus. A whiz-bang body with 25 buttons and dials, a few of which might help the professional attacking a specialized problem, is likely to confuse the beginner. Hand-in-glove with the K1000 went the 50mm prime lens. This was fast enough to permit available-light photography and freed the student to think about composition rather than where to set the zoom on a zoom lens.

Pentax discontinued the K1000. The only production camera that is similar is the Nikon FM2. This is a great body and any lenses that you buy to go with it will never be obsolete. However, the FM2 costs $450 plus $90 for a 50/1.8, which is more than some students want to invest.

If you're willing to flip a few switches, you can disable the automation on a Pentax ZX-M to function like the old K1000. With a 50/2 lens, this is only about $200. If you're willing to read an owner's manual and flip yet more switches, a modern plastic wonder body will work fine for the learner. And the automated features may prove useful later in the student's photographic career.

Whatever you do, don't spend too much on the body. It is much better to have a good lens on a cheap body than vice versa. The body is ultimately just a light-tight box; the lens forms the image. Also, remember that if you get more serious, you'll almost surely want a second body.

Obsessing over the Great Canon v. Nikon Dilemma isn't very productive. The 35mm SLR is a 50-year-old technology, the market is quite competitive, and the systems have become rather similar. If you have a tripod and patience, you'll get a great photo with either system. It really isn't worth buying into the Canon EOS system unless you can afford at least an Elan 7 and one good USM lens, e.g., the 50/1.4. See our review of the Canon Rebel for the most basic Canon stuff is frustrating. Thus if your budget is limited to under $400 what you want is a Nikon N65 + 50/1.8. Amateur Photographer, an English magazine, tested every 50mm lens on the market in May 1991. All performed very well, since the 50 is the easiest lens to make, but their expert rated the Nikon 50/1.8 AF lens as the best out of the 25 lenses tested, including snob brands such as Zeiss and Leitz and more expensive faster lenses such as the Nikon 50/1.4. Anyway, the Nikon 50/1.8 costs around $90 and has a reasonably nice manual focus ring, unlike its Canon counterpart. Finally, you'll want to budget enough for a tripod.

Lesbian & Gay Pride March 1995.  Manhattan. [Note: After a year of having this advice on the Web, I've noticed that most people are ignoring it and filling the photo.net Q&A forum with questions like "which (cheap) Minolta zoom lens should I get for this latest (whizzy) Minolta body?". So I guess I am going to have to have some kind of bottom line recommendation for men whose penises are too small for the Yashica T4 and whose wallets are too thin for a set of lenses that would take a better picture than the $150 Yashica T4. Here it is... If you must have an electronic wonder body and a cheapish wide/tele zoom lens, get the Canon Elan 7 and 24-85 lens. The Elan 7 offers the best features of the Canon system: dual control wheels and the ability to move AF to the exposure lock button. The 24-85 is reasonably good quality, the wide setting is truly wide, and it has the delicious ring USM AF motor. Do not buy a third-party (and therefore non-USM lens) for a Canon EOS. Do not waste your money on a slow 70-210 zoom.

Ostrich head. If you want to do something similar in the Nikon world, the N80 plus the 24-120 zoom would not be a bad toy.

If after reading this, you are still tempted to buy an expensive Nikon F100 body and cheap Tamron 28-200 zoom lens, keep in mind that you could make exactly the same public statement at a $1200 savings. Just buy a white T-shirt and a black laundry marker. Use the marker to write "I'm a dickless yuppie" on the front.]

Should you decide to go the 35mm SLR system route, you might find my "Building a 35mm SLR System" article helpful.


Medium Format Cameras
Medium format cameras use 120 and 220 film ("rollfilm") and produce a negative approximately four times the size of a 35mm negative. Unfortunately, this makes them four times the size and 4-16 times the price of 35mm equipment. A Hasselblad or Rollei won't fundamentally do anything that a Nikon can't, so I'm afraid that I can't recommend any medium format camera as a good beginner's tool.

An exception to this rule is if you are doing your own darkroom work, in which case handling 35mm negatives is a chore. Medium format negatives are much easier to handle and a dust spot on a 6x6 negative is enlarged much less than one on a 35mm negative so that dust control is not such a problem.

A Yashica twin lens reflex ($100-200 used) or a Fuji rangefinder camera ($700-1000 new) would be a reasonable place to start experimenting. Another approach would be to thoroughly read The Hasselblad Manual by Ernst Wildi. Now you'll know more about how to use the Hasselblad system than many owners. Then rent a 'Blad for a weekend.

More: see "Choosing a Medium Format Camera".

Photo: Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park, from Travels with Samantha


Point & Shoot

Money for beer.  Times Square, 1995. If you are serious about photography, you should have a camera with you at all times. No matter what else you buy, then, you'll probably also want a point and shoot camera, the smaller the better. Most of the knowledge that one uses to make images with a real camera can be applied to point and shoot photography. Most people don't realize that their P&S cameras have exposure and focus lock (press halfway down), the same reliable flash exposure control system as a new Nikon (and therefore better than a $1500 Canon EOS-1n), and can give great results on a tripod.

You can't get really extreme perspectives with a P&S, i.e., none come with 20mm or 200mm lenses, but if you were going to buy one of those crummy medium-range zooms for your SLR, then you didn't really need the SLR to begin with.

Specific brands of P&S change all the time, but I've written a fairly detailed guide to helping you choose.

APS
I've written
a guide to the Advanced Photo System (APS) that links to reviews of Minolta and Canon APS SLRs as well as a friend's review of the Canon ELPH. I'm not a fan of the APS system.

Digital
At the dawn of the new millennium, does it really make sense to buy a 35mm film camera? The best digital cameras offer comparable image quality, instant previewing, and near-instant sharing via the Internet. There are some obvious problems with digital cameras. Those under $1000 are aimed at point-and-shooters and people accustomed to SLRs will be disappointed in the lack the creative freedom and tiny viewfinders. The $2500-4000 single-lens reflex digital cameras, e.g., Canon D30, Nikon D1, Fuji S1, are built to accomodate legacy interchangeable lenses from 35mm systems. It is nice to be able to use your old Canon EOS or Nikon F lenses, but the small image sensor inside the digital SLR changes the effective focal length. A 50mm normal lens becomes an 80mm portrait lens. A 20mm extreme wide angle lens becomes a 32mm slightly wide angle lens. What's worse is the knowledge that you're lugging around lenses that are twice as large and heavy as they need to be. A lens for a Canon EOS film camera must project a large enough image to cover the 24mmx36mm frame of 35mm film. But the sensor on a D30 is only 15mmx23mm in size. Attaching a 35mm film camera lens to the D30 is sort of like using a medium format Hasselblad lens on a Nikon. It will work, but why would you want to pay extra money, carry extra weight, and use a camera bag that is twice as large? Maybe it would be better to wait for 2002 when there ought to be complete digital camera systems on the market with an array of specifically designed lenses.

The less obvious problem with digital cameras is that they force the photographer into a world of computer pain. With film, you only have to learn how to work your camera, remove the film and take it to a lab. For long-term archival storage, a metal file cabinet serves nicely. After you've filled up the flash card on your digital camera, you need to make sure that you've got a working computer nearby with appropriate hardware to effect a transfer. To produce a physical image you could buy and learn how to use a high-quality ink-jet or Fujix printer. Alternatively, you could figure out how to hook your computer to the Internet, upload the image to a lab, and get a finished print in the mail. For long-term storage and retrieval you could rely on an Internet photo storage service. But with dotcoms going belly-up every month, do you really believe that any of these services will be around for your great-grandchildren? If not, you'll need to come up with a strategy for organizing your images on your own hard disk. You'll have to purchase a tape drive or some other backup device and learn how to use software to ensure that your data are properly backed up. You'll have to discipline yourself to actually perform the backups and change the tapes periodically. You'll have to discipline yourself to verify the tapes occasionally.

The more that you think about computers, the better the shoebox looks!

More (with suggestions): see "Choosing a Digital Camera".

If you're going on a trip
Then read
my guide to buying a camera for a trip.

If you still can't decide
Then read
Photographic Materials and Processes. If that book frightens you, try the excellent Photography by Barbara London and John Upton.

If you've got your credit card ready
Check out my
guide to reputable (and not so reputable) camera merchants

Insurance
Check out photo.net's
guide to all-risk insurance

Why Bother?
For inspiration, here are a few of my photos that aren't in my
personal favorites gallery:

Near the entrance to The Corkscrew, a slot canyon on the Arizona/Utah border, near the Glen Canyon Dam Canyon de Chelly (northeast Arizona). Leaf.  Massachusetts Gay Head.  Martha's Vineyard.  Massachusetts.
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