The camera you choose will not improve your artistry (sorry, no quick fix for that), or your creativity (again, no shortcuts to be found here either), but it can improve your list of options and tools available to allow you to fully explore your creativity.
I love cameras, I really do. They have always fascinated me. All the buttons and dials, all the sounds they make, and you get to walk around with attention getting gear. Well, that last bit can be a concern in some areas. But still, cameras are fun to use, and if you can tame all the technology and master the parts that are important to you then you can create some amazing imagery. And that is an important thing to remember, you will never use every feature of a camera, just learn to master the ones you do need, and over time the rest will follow as needed.
There is no ‘best’ camera, but some can certainly do things others cannot. And like most things, price is something of a guide, but not a guide to quality. Pricing on cameras, like pretty much everything else, is based on popularity and/or unique important features they provide, but mostly popularity. If a camera gets a ton of great press, and you see the popular professionals touting it in their blogs and interviews, it is likely to be near the top of the price pile.
But lets ignore the fluff and discuss the various technical details that a camera can offer, and what it is about those details that matters to you, the photographer.
The imaging surface – This would be the film or the digital sensor. The standard size against which all others are measured is 35mm. This is a measurement diagonally across the surface. Unless otherwise specified every lens is measured against this standard size. Most camera bodies have a smaller sensor, also known as a crop sensor. As the sensor shrinks it increases the focal length of the lens. So, as an example, if you mount a 24mm lens on an APS-C sensor body, you will have a 24 * 1.6 focal length, or approximately 36mm, which translates to that wide angle lens not being such a wide angle. If you mount a 200mm lens, it becomes a 320mm lens. The depth of field is also increased (more of your image will be in focus) and there is a slight penalty in terms of the light available for imaging. Its complicated, and I have written up a special page just for this topic here.
Medium and Large format – The vast majority of people will never use these, but its good to know they exist. Medium format cameras are the largest of the handheld cameras, though they general live on a tripod. Large format, which can be 4″x5″ and up to 10″x12″ or even larger, are huge boxes, and not likely to be handheld when in use. The benefit to these cameras is their very wide field of view potential and the incredibly high resolution potential in the final image. Medium format cameras are available in digital formats, while the large formats are still film based. High end photographers shooting for magazines and advertising generally use medium format for the high resolution imagery they produce. Medium format cameras can be far more expensive than a normal DSLR. These cameras are generally not used for just strolling around and snapping pictures, a good deal more thought goes into a shoot, and usually in a studio or in very controlled conditions. What is amazing is that the large format camera, the big box thing, was the original camera, and it was used to capture images all over the world until the process was simplified and miniaturized. So they are very capable, just very bulky and unwieldy.
Weather sealing – While not critical, it is comforting to say the least. Some cameras are built to deal with harsh conditions. This came from the photojournalism world where they had to survive war zones and dusty/rainy conditions. This doesn’t mean they are indestructible, but they can handle rain without getting ruined so your stress level if caught in less than ideal weather should be greatly reduced.
ISO – In the film days the ISO was set according to whatever film you loaded. So prior to your shoot you would have to know the conditions you would be shooting in. In the digital cameras you can change the ISO very easily. Various cameras have different ranges of ISO they can offer, but it is critical to understand that even if the camera lists a high ISO it might not produce a clean image using that high ISO, so do your research if anything over say … 1600 ISO is going to be important to you.
RAW – Most cameras now provide a RAW format. If all you do is snap pics of your child and file them away, this might be overkill. But the RAW format image file, as opposed to JPG, opens a number of options for salvaging your image if it is exposed improperly, as well as a wide range of color correction options. A JPG file has been heavily compressed, and much of that compression process is simply a discard process. By retaining every detail of the sensor data you are able to make a number of changes to the image in post production software such as Photoshop (adobe), and most cameras that offer this format include a utility that lets you handle RAW files as well. These files are significantly larger than JPG though so you will need larger memory cards, and storing them on your computer will require most space, so plan accordingly. But it is well worth it usually.
LCD Screen – For some people it is important that the LCD screen can be moved, usually tilting or swiveling, so that it can be viewed easily from odd angles. If this is important to you make sure to check for it.
Mirrorless Cameras – While not a true DSLR a mirrorless camera has some advantages, a primary one being size. By not having a mirror the body can be thinner. The mirror, if you are not familiar with these devices, sits between the lens and the sensor/film. When you press the shutter button the mirror flips up, then the shutter slides across and exposes/blocks the sensor, then the mirror flips back down. It allows the eyepiece to see through the lens which creates the name of the camera … SLR… which means Single Lens Reflex. This allows the photographer to see the scene exactly as the film/sensor would view it. This also has the advantage of less noise when shooting since the sound of the mirror flipping is non existent.
Multiple lens options – If you are taking the time to read all of this I have to assume you want to be creative, and have options. If your camera has a single permanent lens then a massive portion of your potential options has been removed. This is not to say there is no value to a pocket camera, after all, what good is a camera if it is not with you. But being able to choose alternate lenses for your camera will allow you to view any given scene in different ways. Even if you only choose one lens and live with that choice for 10 years, at least your camera is tailored to your specific needs. Think of it like a car. Not everyone wants red, some want blue or beige. So it is with lens options.
Built in flash – If you will be snapping pics away from good lighting the convenience of the built in flash is hard to beat. But this is also a problem usually because that little flash can pop up when you really don’t want it to unless you remember to kill that option before taking the picture. Also, that little flash cannot be turned, so it is always going to provide the worst kind of light, straight down the lens axis. But, in many situations it can be better than nothing. The higher end cameras do not have a built in flash. This is not a reason they are better, but the assumption is that the people who want those high end cameras will also want the higher end lighting which is always going to be remotely mounted and triggered flash units of some kind. I have more on this topic here.
Auto Focus – They all have this, but what varies is the speed the camera acquires its focus. This is where the money is with the high end focus, speed as well as the ability to track the thing you focused on through obstructions, as well as being able to tell the camera how you want that auto focus brain to work. You can limit it to the center point of the lens, or you can define patterns of interest, or faces, etc. For many people the center focus option is best, allowing you to center on your subject, get focused, and then reframe the image and fire the shutter. It becomes instinctive pretty quickly.
Frames per second – There are situations where the frames per second of your camera becomes a valuable consideration. For example, if you want to shoot a picture of a baseball player hitting the ball, and you want that ball to be as close to the bat as possible, the high frame rate camera will be invaluable, allowing you to get your shot on the first try. Just start firing before the ball arrives and keep it going until he hits the ball. You will have 20 or 30 shots but one or two will be exactly what you want and you won’t need to wait until he comes to bat again. If your goal is not so critical of timing though the high frame rate shooting is less valuable. This feature is one the makers charge extra for.
Weight – If you will be lugging this camera around for long periods you need to consider its weight. The day gets longer the heavier your camera is, believe me. A quality camera strap helps spread this weight, but even the best of these cannot remove all the energy suck effect a heavy camera has on you.
Ego – If your goal is to look professional, well, that can be bought. Its easy. This effect is ruined though when the pop up flash triggers or when the lens expands when you turn the camera on so keep that in mind.
Video – Digital cameras often provide the ability to capture video. This should not be confused with them being a proper video camera, or at least not a convenient and easy video camera. They can produce gorgeous video though. The downside is that all the controls are designed around shooting stills, and they stink for video operations. For best results you need some kind of shoulder or other rig to mount the camera in, and you need to have some way to manage the focus, since autofocus is not an option for most of these cameras when shooting video. And then you have the challenge of it not adjusting to changing light situations as a normal personal video camera would. Can they shoot great quality video? Absolutely. Is it as easily handled as a dedicated video camera? Not even close. If you have ever seen a professional hollywood shoot, where you have a camera operator, a focus puller, and an audio person with a boom mic, thats the kind of effort needed to get that great looking/sounding video from one of these things. There is a difference between doing it, and doing it well.
These are the most common considerations. The technology is improving and outright changing every year. This makes it even more important to understand that the camera is not what makes a great photograph. Every camera on the market pretty much can take a great picture in good conditions. But if your interests lay in less than idea conditions you need to look into features that benefit your needs. Ultimately your budget decides many of your options, as usual. Just don’t fall for the marketing hype.