Part I: Getting your first camera: why you should just buy a Pentax.
I'm no kind of guy to mess around with my words. If you want to read as little as possible about what kind of camera to buy then go on eBay and get a used Pentax DSLR body from a few years ago with a basic Sigma kit lens. If that's as much advice as you needed then you can stop reading now. If you want to know why I think that this is the best advice then keep reading.
The trick to buying your first 'proper camera' is to first understand how photography works. It's true that a good photographer is never limited by their equipment but if you're just starting out then sayings like these won't be any help to you. You need a camera that you can learn on and it's not easy to pick one. It can't be a compact point and shoot and it can't be your phone camera. I suggest buying an inexpensive, used DSLR. They have a real viewfinder for composition and advanced controls that allow the photographer to change how the sensor interprets light. These features make them the best to learn on as well as the choice for most professionals. I'm not recommending a mirrorless camera simply because while the newer ones are excellent they are still quite pricey. With that in mind here are the minimum requirements for a good first camera:
- Interchangeable Lenses This is the most important. A camera is split intwo two fundamental halves. A body and a lens. The body processes the light that goes through the lens and makes it into a picture. The lens focuses the light so that the body can process it. There is no use for one without the other and a good camera system has to allow you to change lenses. In order to understand how to take a good picture it's crucial to be able to see and feel the impact lenses have on photography. Your camera can have the best of everything else but if you can't change out the optics then you won't be able to learn much.
- Toughness In order to learn to take pictures one must first take pictures. Chase Jarvis said 'The best camera is the one that's with you'. If your camera is too fragile to be taken anywhere or used in the rain then you will find your opportunities to learn severely limited. You can't be precious with it. It will get dropped and bashed on stuff in the course of its use. It needn't be bomb proof but it can't be made of tinfoil and imagination either.
- In-Body AF AF stands for Auto Focus. AF isn't essential for taking pictures. Many good photographers and even many amateur photographers got by without AF before it was invented. However, its benefits are too great to be ignored. Most importantly AF massively reduces the time needed to take a picture. Simply put, you can't catch that decisive moment if you're too busy focusing your equipment. In-body AF is important because it makes lenses cheaper to buy. It's usually regarded as worse than in-lens AF because it uses a louder and slower motor to do the focusing but I'm not writing a series on videography so loudness doesn't matter and the speed difference is only perceptible if you compare with the newest and most expensive lenses. It's important to mention here that if the lens isn't compatible with the in-body AF system (e.g. vintage lenses from before AF was a thing) then it won't autofocus even if you have in-body AF.
- In-Body IS IS stands for Image Stabilisation. It's hugely important. Unlike AF, IS is a true necessity. Without it your limp jelly noodle arms will wobble around and ruin all the best shots even when you're desperately trying to keep the camera as still as possible. I have no idea how photographers managed without stabilisation for so long. It's important that it's in the body for exactly the same reason that AF is important in the body.
- Many Lenses The lens probably has more impact on the quality, look and feel of a photograph than the body. When learning it's important to be able to experiment with different lenses. To do this you need to be able to fit as many lenses on your camera as possible. This means a lens mount that hasn't changed for a while.
- Decent Sensor The sensor is what's replaced film in a digital camera. It literally digitises the light that falls on it into a photograph that you can edit, print and share on instagram. They come in different formats but usually you are choosing betwen a Full Frame sensor and a cropped sensor. Full frame refers to a sensor that is the same size as a full 35mm film frame. They're still quite expensive and only recently became mainstream enough in cameras that the average person can afford. Cropped sensors refers to anything less than full frame with the most common being APS-C and Micro Four Thirds. They all have a disadvantage when compared to Full Frame and a true comparison is for another article. Most of the cameras within an aspiring beginner's budget will have an APS-C sensor. Note that I haven't mentioned anything about megapixels at all and that's because above 8MP they do not matter in a vast majority of cases.
- Shooting RAW RAW is a type of image file which is not compressed. What this means isn't super important right now and I will cover it in a later article but it is hugely important that your first camera can save images in a RAW file format. Most DSLR cameras can do this so you needn't worry, just keep it in mind.
Here's the part where I tell you why you should buy a Pentax and give you some pointers on how to find one for a good price. Put simply, the only camera that fills every check on that list while remaining at a reasonable price point will be a Pentax.
Canon and Nikon are the industry heavyweights to be sure. I prefer Canon, I learned most of the basics on a Canon and I like them. Nikons are good too, I'll be the first to admit that I haven't used them much but everyone I know who has says that they're great. If you look at reviews you'll see that both brands are largely the same.
Pentax is another venerable name in the industry but its days of dominance are in the past. Now it makes excellent DSLR cameras that are known for their great value and feature rich bodies. Almost every Pentax body has built in AF and IS. Even the cheapest DSLRs from Pentax are weatherproofed and most of their DSLR bodies are manufactured with a strong metal chassis.
They have an impressive collection of vintage lenses stretching way back into the film era which are still compatible with their modern DSLR bodies because their lens mount hasn't changed since 1975. There's even an adapter made by Pentax that although rare and somewhat pricey will make any lens autofocus.
In short, most Pentax camera bodies will hit every point on this list and with a kit lens will make up an ideal for a first camera. They are easy to learn on and allow for growth in skill as time goes on. They can also be found for far less money than a Canon or a Nikon. Usually if you search on an online classified ad website or eBay you can find a full kit with a medium level body, kit lens, bag, charger as well as all the necessary cables and a strap for less than US$300 you just have to go back a few model years. It will be literally all you need for a long time and while it won't be as cool as a Sony A6500 or a Canon 1D it will be easy to learn on, tough enough to withstand many environments and cheap enough that even if you don't find photography that interesting you won't have spent a huge boatload of cash.
Most importantly, don't forget that a good camera isn't even half of what you need. It's incredibly important but so are many other things and they all need to be balanced. This is a recurring theme in photography. If you need help buying a camera then feel free to e-mail me and I'll do my best to be helpful and stay tuned for the next article where I show you how to buy a lens.