If you’ve found your way onto this page, you’re probably at least slightly interested in buying a camera. In this post, I’ll teach you everything I’ve learned about choosing a camera, including things to think about before you buy and a few suggestions for cameras that work well. Happy shooting!
“That’s an awesome photo! What camera do you use?”
Don’t worry – it’s a really common question I get asked around the office or among my friends, especially after I post photos online from a recent trip. People see one of the photos I’ve posted online and are eager to take some like it. I decided to take this question live, since I’ve gotten it enough to know that it’s on many of your minds.
The bottom line is that it’s not that important what camera I have. Although having a nice camera can help, it’s all about having the right camera for your photography goals and your budget. What works for me might be completely terrible for someone else. In this post, I’ll suggest a couple of things to think about before buying and then give some of my camera suggestions from my 10+ years of shooting. But first…
A few things you should know about photography
Before we dive in to choosing a camera, I wanted to bring up a couple of SUPER important points about photography that might change the way you view your own camera, equipment investments, and work. Here are a couple of the main things you should keep in mind when deciding whether to upgrade or buy a new camera.
The camera doesn’t make the photographer
I can’t help but feel a little funny when people ask about my camera, because I attribute my most beautiful photographs to good timing, well-framed composition, the right camera settings, and hours spent editing – NOT what camera I have. In fact, I view my camera as a ‘means to an end’ of getting a beautiful image from my eyeballs onto a more concrete medium, like your computer screen.
Often, I have seen friends buy expensive cameras and quickly get frustrated because they don’t know how to use them. I’ve also seen friends who use these expensive cameras on automatic modes and get frustrated because they can’t take a good photo of the night sky. If you aren’t sure you want to learn the ins and outs of exposure and manual settings, an expensive camera is probably more trouble than it’s worth.
With that said, I don’t recommend dropping thousands of dollars on a high-end, full-frame camera and 5 lenses in the hope that you’ll suddenly turn into an amazing photographer overnight and Pegasus will pop out of thin air to fly you to the world’s best photography spots. It isn’t going to happen.
What I DO recommend is digging deep, thinking about whether you’d truly like to learn your camera inside and out, or if you simply want to take photographs of your travels that are higher quality than your iPhone. When you’ve figured that out, you’ll be ready to choose a camera that is best suited for your interests and goals as a photographer. The main takeaway? Don’t buy a new camera expecting to magically take better photos because of it. Taking great photos is a combination of a lot of things, as you’ll see below.
Post-processing is more than half the battle…
Let me let you in on a secret I’ve only ever told my friends – my photos NEVER come out of my camera exactly as I saw them in real life. Most photographers will tell you the same thing. Maybe the colors aren’t quite right, or maybe it’s a bit underexposed. Maybe it just didn’t feel the same.
For me, post-processing photos in Lightroom is what brings them from their out-of-the-camera state to what I remember them to look like in person. It’s the bridge between digital and reality. And as you may have noticed, I like to bring out the colors in my photos as much as possible without making them look fake. (I love a little drama in my life, obviously.)
The point here is that in order to take really incredible photos, you also have to learn how to edit really incredible photos. And this can take time and practice.
…but editing can rarely make up for crappy photography
The inverse is also true. No amount of editing can make up for a) not knowing how to use your camera and b) not taking good photos in the first place. Sometimes I’ll bring a photo into Lightroom and realize that it has motion blur, or that it wasn’t focused on the right subject, or that I messed it up in one way or another. These issues are super difficult to reconcile, and I usually end up throwing out my photos when this happens because I can’t just snap my fingers and refocus the photograph, or make it not blurry, or fix other issues with it that were caused by the way I took the photo in the first place.
You can take a crappy photo on an iPhone, or you can take one on a $10,000 DSLR. The camera doesn’t matter and the editing doesn’t matter if the photo sucked to begin with.
Just because a camera is more pricey does not mean that it is better for you
Notice that the title of this article is “How to Choose the Best Camera for YOU.” The best camera for you might not be the best camera for me, and the best camera for me might not be the best camera for my friend Sally, etc. There are a lot of factors that play into choosing the right camera, including price, capabilities, specs, weight, brand, ergonomics, and more. The way my camera feels in my hand may not feel the same way to someone else. This post is meant to guide you to a camera that might be a good match for you, but don’t take it as the end-all-be-all of choosing a camera. Only YOU can decide which camera is best for you!
Things to think about
What is your budget?
How much are you reasonably willing to invest in your photography? A few hundred dollars? A few thousand dollars? A good photography kit isn’t just a camera, but it also includes a few lenses, a tripod, some SD cards, a remote, and a host of other accessories that can add up in cost. If you’re not willing to spend a lot of money or a lot of time on your photography, it might be worth looking into some of the compact, automatic camera options.
Crop body vs. full frame?
So you’ve decided you’re willing to invest a bit of money and time into buying a manual camera. Wonderful! Now you’re faced with the question of whether to buy a crop-body camera or a full frame. If you’re wondering what the difference is, here’s a good write up. If you are on a somewhat tight budget, I recommend going for a crop sensor. They are cheaper, but still offer superb image quality and a wide array of lenses that you can purchase depending on your photography needs. Plus, if you spend less on your camera body, you’ll have more money to invest in things like accessories, new lenses, editing software, etc.
If you already own a crop-sensor camera and are looking to upgrade, full frame is your best bet. Full frame cameras are best used when you already know how to shoot in manual mode, and I wouldn’t recommend buying one to someone who isn’t well seasoned in the technicalities of photography. However, if you think you’re ready to take that leap (and make a significant monetary investment, too), then there are a ton of wonderful full frame options available to you.
How many megapixels is it?
Are you going to blow your photos up to the size of a poster board or larger? Or, do you plan on cropping your photos down to less than half their size? If neither of things apply to you, then having tons of megapixels won’t matter much.
DSLR or mirrorless?
This is a hotly debated topic, and I’m probably slightly biased because I’ve shot mirrorless for over 3 years now, but I’ll answer with this – it depends. It depends because cameras are only as good as they feel in your hand. I have small hands, so the mirrorless cameras feel a lot better to me than the larger DSLRs.
About DSLRs: DSLRs are the classic high-end digital cameras and have the widest assortment of lenses available. They are tried-and-true and they are the industry standard. However, DSLRs are pretty large and heavy, especially when you get to the most expensive models. They are also pretty conspicuous, so you must be extra-alert with them when traveling.
About mirrorless cameras: Mirrorless cameras are the new generation in digital shooting. They are much smaller and more compact than DSLRs because they do not contain an extra mirror. Their compact size is perfect for travelers! However, because they don’t have an additional mirror, their viewfinders are run by LED lighting and therefore have MUCH shorter battery life. Additionally, it can be kind of weird to go from shooting through a viewfinder to having an image available on a live view screen.
Choosing a camera
Alright, folks, we’ve gotten past all of the introductory junk, and now we can get to the good stuff – choosing a camera! I’ll be writing a post later on with what I personally use, but here are some of my picks for cameras at every price range.
Point-and-shoot camera: For the traveler on a budget who wants an upgrade from their phone
These cameras are easy. These cameras are light. These cameras take awesome photos at a small price. What more could you ask for?
Maybe you don’t want to spend a shit load of money on a new camera, but you want something that takes nice photos that you can later edit and post for all your friends to see. A point-and-shoot camera is great for this. These usually run in the $150-400 range and are nice and compact for all those adventures you’re going on. They’re also super nondescript and won’t make you as much of a theft target as a bulkier camera would.
Here’s a lovely photo I took back in 2008 using a 6 MP point and shoot:
Some great point-and-shoot options:
High-end compact camera: For the point-and-shooter who wants a bit more flexibility
If you want to start experimenting with different lighting and shooting modes, but still don’t want the hassle of a fully manual camera, look no further than the high-end compact camera. These cameras are as small as their point-and-shoot counterparts, but offer additional specs and functionality, like HD video, more shooting modes for different light settings, and additional WiFi capabilities. They also often have lenses with greater zoom. These cameras run anywhere from $500-$800.
Some great compact camera options:
- Sony DSC-RX100M III Cyber-shot – $698
- Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II – $529
- Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX10K – $698
Crop-frame DSLR or mirrorless: For the novice (maybe still on a budget) who wants to learn the ropes of manual settings
If you actually want to learn the technicalities of photography and want the equipment that will enable you to do so, I recommend investing in an introductory DSLR or mirrorless camera. Why? Because these cameras will enable you to shoot in manual mode, meaning you can adjust your shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and more on your own.
If you’re budget-strapped, I recommend checking your local craigslist or asking your friends if anyone is selling an old camera body and lenses. Buying used can help you save some money, and you can find really well-taken-care-of equipment for much, much cheaper than retail price.
- For DSLR, I recommend the Canon EOS Rebel T6i. Before I switched to mirrorless, I had the Canon T3i (older version of this baby) and I loved it.
- For mirrorless, I recommend the Sony Alpha a6000. I also had the predecessor to this, the Sony NEX-6, and it was my favorite camera for a long while before I switched to full-frame. I took some of my epic Turkey hot air balloon shots with this baby!
For the serious photography enthusiast: An introductory full-frame camera
Have you already figured out the basic ropes of manual shooting and want to take the next step towards becoming a serious photographer? Consider an introductory full-frame camera. These cameras are some of the best in class, and come with full-frame sensors to capture your sharpest and most stunning images yet. For world-class technology, they come with a price: most of these bodies are $1,000-1,500, and that’s not including the lenses.
- For DSLR, I recommend the Canon EOS 6D. I have never tried it, but I’ve heard great things.
- For mirrorless, I recommend my beloved Sony a7. I currently have this bad boy and I don’t know what I would do without it. It’s light, sturdy, and unassuming. What more could a photographer ever want? (More on this later.)
For the photography professional: A high-end full-frame camera
If you’re at the level where you need a camera of this level, this article might not have been very helpful for you. Sorry ’bout that. These cameras are the best-in-breed, the top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art pieces of photography equipment that exist today. Once you’ve gotten to the level where you need this kind of camera, you will know, because you’re probably making some if not all of your income form photography or photo-related activities. If this sounds like you, check out these incredible options.
- For DSLR, I recommend the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Many of the world’s best photographers use this camera to shoot stunning photographs and earn a living.
- For mirrorless, I recommend the Sony a7R II. This body is on my wish list for sometime in the far off future when I have enough saved up. Matt from Expert Vagabond wrote a great review of this mirrorless camera here.
One Last Note
Buying a camera is far from all you need to be a good photographer. You’ll also need to look into lenses, a tripod, filters, a carrying case, and other wonderful accessories that make our lives easier as photographers. Like I mentioned earlier, a good editing software is critical for anyone hoping to create beautiful photographs. Most importantly, a good photographer has a willingness to learn, and is patient and self-critical throughout the process. Like anything in life, photography is a learned skill, and it takes more than a nice camera to perfect your art. Go forth, take pictures, and share your artwork for the world to see!
- Trey from Stuck in Customs has some incredible camera and photography advice on his blog. He also has a few courses that are super helpful for learning the ropes of composition and post-processing.
- Liz from Young Adventuress has a great write-up about photography gear on her site. I read this a few years ago and it stuck with me!
- Dave and Deb from The Planet D offer their photography advice from 8 years on the road in this comprehensive post.
Stay tuned for next week’s photography post, where I’ll talk about the cameras/lenses/accessories/other equipment that I personally use, as well as some of my top tips for carrying all of your things with you on a long-term trip! In the meantime, shoot me a message on Facebook if you have any questions.
I’ve included some links from affiliates here. If you found this article helpful, please consider buying whichever camera you decide on using the links on this page. Your support helps keep The Kay Days alive! As always, all opinions are my own.
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What camera do you have? Share your favorite camera tips in the comments!