Which Camera Should I Buy? This One? No, That One! But Then Again...

I am regularly being asked which cameras people should buy. My reply is always the same: never ask a photographer that question; we always recommend what we own. How many Sony owners would recommend a Canon or Nikon? Here are seven hints to buying the perfect camera for you.

Here's Why You Shouldn't Rely Solely on Reviews

It was a few years ago now, but I remember reading two reviews of the same camera in two magazines. Both magazines, now defunct, were from the same publishing house. One gave the camera a glowing 5-star review, and the other magazine gave it a dull 2-star rating. The manufacturer advertised in the first magazine, and a full-page advert for that camera appeared next to the review. They did not advertise in the other magazine at all. I've been suspicious of reviews ever since.

If you look all the online for reviews of cameras today, you will still find hugely differing opinions. Try Googling reviews of the Canon EOS RP model as an example. It is simultaneously the world's best mirrorless, and has noisier images than most current full-frame cameras. Then, it has mediocre 4K video capabilities and slow burst modes, yet is a versatile and extremely approachable camera, even though it doesn’t dramatically outperform its rivals. Which of those points of view do I believe?

Use reviews for guidance, but don't rely on them to tell the whole story.

The world's best or worst full frame camera? It depends upon what you read.

Much Ado About Nothing

The other thing to remember about reviews is that, to make great reading, they often make a huge fuss over what can be tiny differences. Take a look at the entry-level DSLRs from different manufacturers. In functionality, there isn't a lot to choose between them. In the real world, a beginner will take similar images with all of them, as would an experienced photographer.

Most cameras in any given price bracket are very similar.

Don't Ignore the Unique

Of course, occasionally, there are some that stand out with features unheard of in other brands and models. As far as I know, the ability to watch a long exposure gradually develop on the live view screen (Live Bulb), or take composite photos only adding new light as it appears (Live Composite)—think of shooting lightning, or light painting a subject—are attributes unique to Olympus that are even found on their entry-level OM-D E-M10s. Yet, there are reviews on reputable photography websites that don't even mention these distinctive features in the specifications, let alone in the review and comparisons to other cameras.

Conversely, when I bought a Sony a7 several years ago, none of the reviews I read mentioned the need to pay for apps that gave the camera the functionality I needed. Those features came as standard with other full frame cameras. I felt hoodwinked.

Look for unique features in camera systems that set them apart from others.

Some cameras have unique functions and choosing the ones that are useful to you in an important consideration. For example, Olympus cameras enable you to watch a long exposure gradually develop and the histogram move to the right while the shot progresses.

What About Buyers' Reviews?

Buyers' reviews are unreliable. As I suggested at the start, people will almost always sing the praises of the camera system they own, despite not being able to compare it with others. Furthermore, they will rarely admit to a purchase decision they made being the wrong one. Consequently, they will write shining reviews to justify the kit they just invested in. Probably rightly so, as all the big brands make great cameras. But people rarely admit that they made a bad choice spending those hundreds of dollars.

A camera owner will almost always think they made the best choice. But what's best for them isn't necessarily best for you.

I once bought a Sony A7 to meet the requirements of a photographic contract. I know lots of people like this camera. But for me, it was an expensive mistake. The strap lugs dug into my hand, and it lacked the advanced features of my other cameras unless I paid extra for them.

The Dark Side To Customer Reviews

Treat customer reviews with a pinch of salt. It's well-publicized that the internet is strewn with fake customer reviews. Now, instead of just researching what camera or lens we should buy, we also have to research those who write about them. Which?, the UK’s respected Consumer Association magazine, has 27 articles warning about fake reviews.

You can be sure that businesses big and small will lurk behind fake personas on websites and talk up their brand, talk down the competition, and try to discredit any article that criticizes their products. I know someone who was employed by a company to do just that; they signed a non-disclosure agreement, so they cannot officially talk about it now they have moved on. But this is a huge scandal waiting to be exposed. A colleague recently observed a new account that was set up here with the sole purpose of praising a particular retailer.

Both positive and negative posts and comments can be outsourced. You can buy for $8 a social media post, or pay $100 per 10 comments on an article or post. Furthermore, goods bought on Amazon arrive with labels offering free products for those who write 5-Star reviews of their goods. Even reviews on Trustpilot are easy to fake.

You can spot these kinds of dirty tricks going on in online forums. For example, in Facebook groups dedicated to single camera systems, there are individuals who always make negative comments about the brand. These are sometimes subtly underhand, with negatively toned questions like “I’ve read reports that this lens is soft, can you recommend an alternative?”, or “Has anyone else had the shutter button stick on this camera?” At other times it's more blatant.

The reverse happens too. If you post anything genuine criticizing a camera, then be prepared for a revenge attack by that brand's pet trolls.

Amazon is trying to tackle this issue with its Vine Voice of trusted reviewers, where the reviewer receives a free product and writes about it. The downside of that, as with most customer reviews, is that the opinions of cameras by Vine reviewers are not balanced and reviewers may lack the expertise and experience of using other cameras.

Here in the UK, there are Nine Amazon Vine Voice reviews of free products for the Nikon Z5. These are more trustworthy than other customer reviews, but can lack the expertise of professional reviewers.

It's Popular Because It's Popular

Putting fake reviews aside, the marketplace is not a level playing field. A company that holds a larger percentage of the market will have more fans, and therefore more positive reviews.

They will also have more money to invest in advertising. If there are more adverts for X and fewer for Y, then X will make more sales. Whether you want to believe it about yourself or not, you are heavily influenced by advertising; most people believe adverts don't affect them; they are wrong. If adverts didn't work, then they would not exist, let alone be an industry worth $325 billion.

Sales figures also influence buyers: consumers think that half of all cameras are X, so they should buy one of those. Consequently, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brand X becomes more popular because it's popular.

A cool advertisement and lots of sales do not equate to that being the best product for you.

The Canon 6D Mark II is a hugely popular camera. But, is some of its popularity due to its popularity?

A Camera is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

When you buy your first camera, it is fairly certain that you will end up investing in extra kit that is compatible with it. Make sure you buy the system that is best for you. When you've spent a few thousand dollars on lenses, and that camera dies, then you will then probably commit to buying the same brand again, and again.

Although most cameras within price brackets are similar, different camera systems do have advantages and disadvantages. Some brands' lenses are significantly more expensive than others; other systems risk becoming obsolete as manufacturers abandon DSLRs for mirrorless; some cameras perform better at nighttime; others are better at fast focusing on moving subjects; some are smaller and lighter to transport, making them great for traveling; and a different system may have a better range of lenses. If you envisage shooting outdoors in harsh conditions, then top-end environmental sealing might be important.

Think to the future about what you want to do with your photography and research which system works best for you.

So, How Do You Choose?

Do your research. Think about what you want to photograph, and learn which camera and lens combinations will help you achieve that. Don't ask in forums which camera you should buy, ask which models of particular brands have the features you need. Read different reviews, but also look at the specifications on manufacturers' websites. Consider value for money, and how long the camera will last.

But Most Importantly

Although they are few and far between these days, if you can, go into a real camera shop and check the ergonomics of different cameras. See if they fit your hands and whether they are too heavy to carry all day. Do your fingers easily reach the buttons? Does the camera feel well-made? Is the viewfinder tiny and difficult to see through? Do the focus points reach the edge of the frame?

I'll repeat once again, they all make great cameras. Whatever you decide won't be the wrong choice. In fact, pick any camera at random, and in no time, you will be singing its praises and recommending it to everyone else starting out in photography!

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21 Comments

Stephen Strangways's picture

The "pay for apps that gave the camera the functionality" link is broken because the URL is repeated twice,

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for letting me know, Stephen. I'll get that fixed.

Ivor Rackham's picture

It should be fixed now. Thanks once again.

Michael Krueger's picture

Link is working for me right now.

Tom Reichner's picture

There is some merit to buying a camera model because it is popular. Personally, I like to have a very popular camera make & model because of the greater number of resources available.

I want to be able to find a lot of accessories, a lot of tutorials, and a lot of compatible lenses for my camera. I want to have a camera with the same lens mount and the same menus that my friend's cameras have.

When I first got serious about "going digital" in 2007, I chose to buy a Canon mainly because they were the most widely used brand at the time. I wanted to be sure to have a camera that it would be easy to find help with - something that most other photographers would be familiar with so that they could more readily help me learn how to shoot with the new digital technology.

It's kind of like the same reasoning that I use when I buy a car. The last 4 cars I have owned have been Toyota Corollas. Why? One of the main reasons is because I want something that is easy to find cheap parts for, and that every auto mechanic is familiar with working on.

Whether it is cameras or cars, or anything else, no matter how well something works, or how good of a "fit" it seems to be, if it is a not-very-popular model that is not in very widespread use, you are going to have a more difficult time finding information, accessories, parts, and service at very competitive prices.

Almost all of my friends shoot Canon, and when we are shooting together this makes it very easy to help one another with lens swaps, battery borrowing, help with figuring out new settings, etc.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Tom, on the other side of that, there is recognition both in the fields of psychology and ecology that too much choice is a bad thing. Canon make fine cameras, but 27 interchangeable lens cameras where a lot of the features overlap is excessive and makes a mockery of their supposed commitment to the environment. Most camera manufacturers have their faults when it comes to ethical issues, though, whether it is supporting big game hunting, being involved in supplying surveillance equipment to oppressive regimes, or not being strict with their supply chain to avoid slavery and exploitation.

Most mental health organizations recognize the harm done by too much choice.

The internet is so vast these days, with forums, YouTube channels, and Facebook groups dedicated to the most obscure photographic specialism or camera brand, that I don't think the argument that one will have a difficult time finding information holds up. Even Googling "Pentax Help" brings up 14 million results, and they are one of, if not the, smallest of brands making DSLRs.

As for servicing costs, Here in the UK, having a shutter replaced on any of the Canon 5Ds far more than doing that on a shutter on an Olympus E-M1, between £260 and £400 compared with under £150 for the Olympus.

It does make sense if you are going to be sharing kit with others to use the same gear. Because I rely on my kit for a living I don't share it!

Toyota do make great cars!

Tom Reichner's picture

It is interesting that you mention Canon supporting big game hunting as something that is an ethical problem. I also support big game hunting. In fact, over 50% of my photography-generated income comes from licensing photos to the hunting industry, whether it be to hunting magazines, for use by state game commissions, or for use in advertisements for hunting gear. I used to be an avid hunter myself, before I got serious about photographing the animals.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I didn't actually say Canon supported it! The sides to arguments about the ethics of hunting. They are long and complex, and both have compelling points of view.

Matt Edwards's picture

I don't find it too difficult to recommend other manufacturers. Nikon, Sony, Canon, Fuji, they all make great cameras and have slightly different features, catalogs, and price points that make them relevant for different folks.

I'm into Sony's, my GF is into Nikons, and I just recommended a Canon to a friend in the market for a new camera.

Brand loyalty is a silly concept for insecure people that want to have their own choices justified

Steve Cook's picture

Agree Matt, each person has different needs depending on their subject matter and workflow. I currently own Sony, Nikon, and Canon. No Fuji (yet, LOL)

Tom Reichner's picture

About brand loyalty ...

It is not so much that I want to be loyal to Canon. It is that I am unwilling to learn new menus. I bought a Nikon D200 for a teenager a couple weeks ago. She is new to photography and really wanted an affordable DSLR to learn the basics on. Which I think is great!

Problem is, that when I tried to show my friend how to use her "new" DSLR, I was completely lost, as the layout and menus are different from the Canon ones that I am used to. Spent 20 minutes trying top figure out how to access the card slot and couldn't even figure that out without resorting to a YouTube search for "how to" instructions. Yet any Canon I have ever had, I never even have to think about where the card is and how to open the card slot door - it is just intuitive - somehow my fingers and my brain already "just know" where it is, even if it is in a different location than it is on my other Canons.

Same thing with the settings in the menu, and the modes on the top dial. I "just know" how to use any new Canon that I get, and have never had to watch any tutorials or read any manuals. And I am, by nature, mentally lazy. I am simply not willing to make my brain focus or concentrate on learning new things about a camera. So I think I will be sticking with Canon products, simply because I already "get" the way they lay out their controls and menus, and never have to spend any time learning anything new.

So I guess I'm not really wanting to be "brand loyal", but yet brand loyalty comes as a default because I demand "button and menu familiarity".

Ivor Rackham's picture

I spend a lot of time teaching photography and consequently handle lots of cameras of different brands. They do vary a lot, but I don't find them that dissimilar, all are intuitive and none of them take too long to learn. There is one brand I do always have to think twice about, but I won't say which one because its owners will find them easy.

Tom Reichner's picture

Well, I tried to use this Nikon D200 and didn't figure it out in a few minutes.

I used to own a Sony bridge camera and the menus drove me to tears ... I was totally confused, but used it for a year and a half on full automatic because I couldn't figure out how to adjust any of the settings.

The local photographer here in town used to have a pair of Fuji DSLRs. He let me play around with them for a few hours to see how I liked them, and I couldn't figure them out at all.

The cell phone I use now is the Motorolla G Power, and I only use the camera on full auto because I didn't "just know" what things to tap on to get to the settings.

If you don't absolutely hate making your brain focus and concentrate for more than 3 minutes at a time, then I can see how you would be able to use so many different kinds of cameras - because at some point you were willing to take 10 or 15 minutes and learn how to find and adjust the settings. But for me it just doesn't work that way. There are things I don't like about my Canons, but at least I can figure out how to use them in 2 or 3 minutes flat, and never have to read any manuals or watch any tutorials. And that is of the utmost importance to me.

Matt Edwards's picture

I wasn't really meaning your personal brand loyalty, all of what you said makes sense. When you buy into an ecosystem of products, you become invested with things like the operating systems, and obviously with cameras you start to build a library of lenses and other accessories.

I was referencing brand loyalty more so in regards to recommending brands to others, or saying "X brand that I happen to use is best". That type of thing is very annoying because all the reputable brands of camera manufacturers have great products and can all be recommended for different reasons.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think I get what you are saying. I do not think that Canon cameras are "the best". But I have found that they are the best for me, given my particular sets of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to camera use.

Steve Cook's picture

When I get asked that question, my first response is "what type of photography do you do?" This is so obvious but not asked enough.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's an important point, Steve.

Marc F's picture

Flip a coin. Heads you buy a Leica, tails you buy a Hasselblad.

Ivor Rackham's picture

My coin would go in the money box instead, as I saved for one of those.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Very true, Dana.