Which camera should I buy?

02 November 2010   |   by Ajay Jaiman   |    photography

I am often asked ‘Which camera should I buy?’ Sometimes the query is about digital SLR (DSLR) cameras, at other times it is about point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras. After trying to answer the question in short bytes online and in long winding conversations in person, I have decided to collate my thoughts on paper, er… screen.

Part 1: Which DSLR camera?

Let me get to the DSLR question first, because to me that answer is simply ‘don’t’. Yes, I mean don’t buy it, or at the very least try to resist the temptation. I am convinced that most people do not need a DSLR, and you could very well be one of them. My view is that unless you can come up with some strong reasons why you need a DSLR and a good P&S is not good enough, you should not buy it.

Don’t do it for sexiness. Don’t do it because you think onlookers with ‘puny’ little P&S cameras will make way for you, and look at you with deference. It won’t happen. Especially because you will often find yourself at the spot, armed only with your phone, because you would have left the fancy DSLR at home. Trust me, even the smallest and cheapest DSLR systems are so big and heavy that unless you are a real oddball you will not have the energy to drag along a bulky camera bag everywhere you go. And you will miss some of the best pictures of your life.

If that does not dissuade you then let me tell you this: buying a DSLR is akin to buying an elephant – you end up paying for it for years, and many times more than the cost of the original purchase. Once you have the camera, you will want lenses, you will want flash, tripod, monopod… and then you will want bags to carry it all. Yes, bags because you are never going to find one bag that satisfies all your needs. And then you will also want Lightroom and/or Photoshop, which needs to be upgraded ever so often… Next you start toying with the idea of buying a second body or even a full-frame body… And that is not all, soon you will start dreaming of infra-red triggers, off-camera mounted flashes, about specialized equatorial mount, tilt-shift lens… you get the picture (pun intended).

Consider carefully: can you really afford another expensive addiction? If you can, then go right ahead and buy yourself a DSLR but do yourself a favour and buy a good P&S too, because you will need it. For the rest of us a ‘good’ P&S is the answer. The exception being, as I said earlier, if you believe that you have already exhausted the limits of a good P&S camera. If you find yourself saying things like ‘I wish I could get a much shallower dof’, or ‘I wish I could have better bokeh in my portraits’, or ‘I wish there was lesser noise in the high ISO pictures’, or ‘I wish they could do something about the shutter-lag’ or ‘I wish I could use flash with a slower shutter speed’, then, by all means you should consider a DSLR. Till then, invest in a good P&S.

Every year the limits of what you can do with a good P&S are being pushed back. Some time very soon there will be P&S cameras in the market that will deliver picture quality and camera controls that will be very close to what a good DSLR offers. I will happily trade in my DSLR for it. I think some of the high-end P&S cameras are already good enough for me, and therefore I have decided to trade in one of my APS-C DSLR for a high-end P&S. You just can not beat the convenience of pocket-ability. Sometimes the difference is taking a picture or not taking it at all, because you left the monster camera at home.

Part 2: Which P&S camera?

Ok, so now we get to the difficult question. Which point-and-shoot camera? Have you ever tried to answer the question ‘which car’? It is difficult, unless you narrow it down to a class of vehicle. You can not legitimately compare a SUV, a luxury sedan and a little electric car. Similarly among P&S cameras you need to start by narrowing down to what is it that you want to do with it. How important is pocket-ability? Will you use it largely for family and holiday pictures, or do you actively travel around looking to make candid portraits? How important is low-light performance? Do you like using the flash? Do you have the time and energy to shoot RAW and then process each image individually? Do you like shooting video? Do you like your video to be HD?

You should create a wish list and then order it by importance, because you will not get it all in one camera, irrespective of how much you are willing to pay, at least not at this time. So you will have to make trade-offs. Once you have the list, your job will become a little bit easier. Here are some of the key things you need to decide on:

  • Size: You can find cameras that can fit the front pocket of tight jeans and some that will need rather large baggy pants or perhaps a small bag.
  • Camera RAW: If you are looking for your first camera then you probably need not worry about this. But if you have been shooting for some time and think of photography as a serious hobby then you should. I’d advise that you shoot RAW even if you do not have the time to individually process the images. Perhaps one day you will find the time to come back and work on some of the old images. You will thank me then – please remember to send me a thank you note :)
  • Video: In some of the higher-end still cameras you can shoot pretty good video. Even HD video. At the time of writing the high-end ones were doing high definition at 1280 x 720 pixels and not what is called full HD, but then this is pretty darn good too. Some P&S cameras offer full HD but they do not have RAW capture. So you need to make a call.
  • Lens: Two important things to consider are focal length range and speed of the lens. Long lenses look very seductive, but in the 25 odd years that I have been playing with cameras I have found that the long lens is nearly not as useful as the wide one – unless of course if you are a wildlife enthusiast. In which case you should not be in this P&S section anyway. So in my view a wider and faster lens will help you take significantly better pictures of your kid cutting a birthday cake, or of the family at dusk in Goa.
  • Cost: The range starts from about Rs 5,000 ($100) and goes on endlessly, but you could get some serious stuff at about Rs 25,000 ($500) or so.

I suspect that for a true beginner this is getting a little too complicated. Therefore let me make some suggestions in a couple of different (somewhat arbitrary) categories. I am not a professional camera reviewer and the list is far from perfect. In the interest of simplicity I will keep the list short and will not offer detailed reviews. If you are interested I can point you to websites that review cameras for a living. If you have a strong view on the subject and can help improve the list, please feel free to contact me. I will gladly acknowledge your contribution here. I will use that feedback as well as new information (the world around us continues to change very rapidly) to update the list occasionally.

I don’t have recommendations for DSLRs right now. Perhaps I will come back and add that at some later day.

For those in need for a more technical analysis and detailed advantages and disadvantages kind of discussion should head over to this article at the Digital photography school