Selecting the Best Camera for You
The Digital Camera Market Place
Selecting the best camera requires sorting through many variables in what has become a very competitive market place. You can now get smart phones with cameras that rival dedicated cameras. While at the high-end side of the P&S market, you can get compact cameras with large sensors and high-quality built-in lenses that produce image quality nearly as good as DSLRs. The rapidly advancing mirrorless Compact System Cameras (CSC) market delivers image quality as good or better then DSLRs, and a number of CSC manufacturers have a lens selection diverse enough to meet the needs of most photographers, further undercutting the DSLR market. This leaves DSLRs to move up market with high-end crop sensor bodies and affordable full frame sensors bodies. Meanwhile, the once entry-level full frame DSLR market has reached such incredible levels of performance and image quality that anyone can now own professional level equipment without breaking the bank. Since full frame cameras have been pushed close to their image quality limits, the industry has now moved to making more affordable medium format cameras. In other words, if you want a camera capable of producing excellent image quality with a spectacular feature set then the options are nearly endless. Unfortunately, this means that selecting the best camera for your particular photography needs from all the possible options requires considerably more effort.
Deciding between a P&S, CSC and DSLR
So what should you get? Well starting at the top, DSLRs still provide the best potential overall image quality and functionality. However, to tap into DSLR image quality you will need high quality lenses, and this will add substantial cost, size and weight to your photography kit. Higher quality lenses are intended for specific uses and typically have reduced zoom ranges or have a fixed focal length, which means that you are likely to need more than one lens. So without multiple high-quality, expensive, large and heavy lenses, then a DSLR will only offer marginal improvements compared to relatively inexpensive, small and light high-end P&S cameras. CSC have removable lenses just like a DSLR but the lenses and bodies are smaller/lighter than a DSLR kit, and so they fill the middle ground between DSLRs and P&S cameras. As with DSLRs, CSCs still require the purchase and use of multiple high-quality lenses to optimize image quality and exceed high-end P&S camera quality.
Even with the significant reduction in DSLR/CSC camera prices over the last few years, DSLR/CSCs don’t necessarily represent the best performance for the money compared to P&S cameras. Unless you plan on investing a lot of time into mastering the art/technique of photography and also a lot of money into building a collection of lenses to get the most out of a DSLR/CSC camera, then P&S cameras often represent the best short term value. Over the long term, DSLR/CSC cameras offer better value because they allow for independent body and lens upgrades as you tailor your photography kit to meet your specific photographic interests.
Take note that nearly all camera's yield better performance when using advanced modes (Manual, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority) that allow you to take control of aperture, shutter speeds, ISO, focus and exposure settings. Even the best DSLR/CSC cameras are designed to give you standard images in the auto modes. The ability to capture a scene’s special atmosphere will require that you depart from these standard settings. In addition to learning how to use your gear's more advanced manual features, making the leap into RAW file format will unlock a camera's full image quality and allow you to more fully explore your creative potential (but if you shoot in RAW be sure to use good quality lenses because the camera's auto lens correction features will be disabled and poorly made kit lenses often have shockingly bad distortion and vignetting). All of these features/settings are far easier to adjust and optimize with a high-end DSLR/CSC cameras, although, some high-end P&S cameras offer a complete set of manual/advanced controls/features.
So if you are seriously interested in photography, think that you will get more than one lens, plan on using manual/advanced settings and want to shot in RAW file format, then the decision is relatively easy, get a DSLR or high-end CSC camera. If you are really serious about photography, then I usually do not recommend CSC cameras over DSLR cameras because their lens selection can't match DSLRs, especially when compared to Canon or Nikon's complete line of entry level to professional lenses. However, if you require changeable lenses in a compact package, then go with high-end CSCs. If the higher costs, increased size and weight, and/or the idea of using manual/advanced settings sounds like too much of a hassle, then go with an entry-level CSC or P&S camera.
Deciding on Sensor Size
Whether you have decided to go with a DSLR, CSC or P&S camera, it is the sensor size and lens optics that will play the most significant role in determining the camera's overall image quality. For P&S cameras you cannot change the lens so get the camera with the largest sensor and best built-in lens. For DSLRs and CSCs you can change the lens, so sensor size becomes the deciding factor when selecting a camera body. A Full frame (FF) sensor is the same size as 35mm film. Other sensor sizes are smaller than a full frame sensor and are referred to as a crop or percentage size of the full frame sensor size. Crop sensor formats include the following, listed from largest to smallest with the crop factor in parentheses: Full Frame (1.0x); Canon APS-H (1.3x); Standard APS-C (1.5x); Canon APS-C (1.6x); Micro Four Thirds (2.0x); 1" used in many new large sensor compact cameras (2.7x); Large P&S 2/3" (3.9x); Large P&S 1/1.7" (4.5x); Standard P&S 1/2.3" (5.6x); iPhone 1/3.2" (7.7x).
Take note that there are disadvantages of a larger sensor: 1) increased costs, 2) increased weight from larger diameter glass used in lenses, 3) increased size of camera body and lenses, 4) increased lens vignetting/dark-corners at wide apertures. You unfortunately can’t do much about the cost, so you are either able and willing to spend the extra cash or you are not. Used full frame camera bodies provide the best way to get into full frame without breaking the bank. While increased weight and size is usually considered a disadvantage, these attributes have the advantages of helping to reduce camera vibration and allowing for easier access to more dedicated physical controls. Vignetting (dark corners) is simply the trade off of having shallower depth-of-field (DOF) and increased subject isolation. With top end professional glass you can shoot wide open and get very shallow DOF or stop down to where vignetting is reduced and you get DOF that is similar to what a crop sensor camera will produce at it's maximum wide open aperture. So vignetting isn’t really a problem with larger sensors but simply one of the trade offs of having access to shallower DOF for increased subject isolation.
Before continuing any further we need to discuss depth-of-field (DOF) and focal lengths as related to sensor size. A crop sensor is smaller than a FF senor, which has the effect of the crop sensor seeing/viewing only the inner portion of the image projected by the lens. This cropped view reduces the DOF effect and increases the apparent focal length. The exposure settings for all sensors are identical at the same aperture setting but the DOF is much deeper with crop sensors and shallower with FF at any given aperture setting. When you get into photography shallow DOF has a 3D look that makes the subject stand out from the background that has been softened/blurred. So a FF camera offers shallower DOF but it also offer deeper DOF because when comparing a crop sensor and FF sensor at the same resolution, diffraction has a reduced impact on a FF sensor at any given aperture. An image taken with a FF camera at f/16 will show less diffraction blur than an image taken with a crop sensor at f/16. As a whole this means that a FF camera has greater DOF range.
The other major distinction between a crop sensor and FF camera comes from a change in the view angle or apparent focal length. A crop sensor sees only a fraction or percentage of the lens’s stated focal length, which means that a standard full frame 50mm lens acts more like a 75 to 80mm portrait lens on a APS-C camera body. So a wide angle 30 or 35mm lens is needed to have the standard 50mm view on an APS-C crop sensor camera body. Crop sensor cameras sees only the inner portion of what a lens projects on a FF sensor. This cropping appears to increase focal length, however, this is not a true change in focal length as there is no additional telephoto compression. For that effect you still need to spend the big bucks on super telephoto lenses. Those who shoot sports or birds often prefer crop sensor cameras for the apparent focal length increase and the extra reach that it provides. In addition, crop sensor cameras use only the sharpest center portion of the lens. The main downside of this apparent focal length shift comes when you need to shoot at wider angles. Placing a very expensive and high quality ultra wide angle lens like Canon's 17 TS-E tilt/shift or 11-24/4L zoom provides an unimpressive standard view on crop sensor cameras. In general, if you are interested in wide angle (architecture and landscapes) then a FF sensor is the way to go.
That being said, one cannot deny that crop sensor DSLR/CSC cameras provide better bang for your buck than FF DSLR/CSC cameras. Just keep in mind that the creative ceiling is reached quicker with crop sensors as compared to FF sensors. If a crop sensor set up provides all the image quality, DOF and lens flexibility that you need then you’ve done very well and will save a ton of money, weight and space by selecting a crop sensor over a FF. Otherwise, you will eventually reach the ceiling with the crop sensor and then you will have to take a financial hit when selling your older gear to help fund the upgrade to a FF. If you shoot subjects beyond sports/birding/wildlife, you shot RAW, you can handle the size/weight increase, and finally if you have adequate funds then FF is the superior format.
Concluding Notes on Image Quality and Camera Selection
As explained above, understanding your photography equipment, using advanced controls appropriately and shooting in RAW file format will have significant impacts on image quality. Beyond that, image quality is primarily determined by the quality of photographic equipment. In general there are two factors that contribute the most to influencing image quality: 1) Optical performance and 2) Sensor size. As mentioned earlier, many manufacturers produce excellent lenses but Canon and Nikon currently have the best selection of high quality lenses. And as discussed above, full frame sensor cameras deliver better image quality. The higher the sensor resolution the more the lens quality will influence overall image quality. At present, Canon/Nikon offers the best selection of ultra high-quality AF lenses, while Sony/Nikon offers better sensor image quality, especially for bright lighting or slower shutter speeds at base/low ISO settings. However, the differences between the major camera brands are minor and selection ultimately depends on a user's particular needs, plus there will always be some kind of compromise with any equipment. The key is to know your photographic requirements and purchase accordingly. And yes, chasing image quality can become a vicious and depleting cycle for the bank account!
Deciding How Much to Spend
When deciding how much to spend on a CSC or DSLR, just keep in mind that you will need to purchase a camera body, lens or lenses (some camera bodies are sold with kit lenses), memory card, lens pen for lens cleaning and some kind of carrying case. In addition, you may want to purchase a more powerful external flash, tripod, remote shutter release, extra battery and additional memory cards.
As a general rule of thumb you will find that the following improve as you move up in camera body price/quality:
Improved image quality resulting from a larger sensor, higher MP and improved high ISO performance
More features and more buttons/controls to activate those features
Stronger and tougher bodies with better environmental seals
Faster in-camera processors that speed up overall camera performance
Improved autofocus accuracy and speed
Faster shutter frame rates for a given camera resolution
Larger and heavier
And you will find that the following improve as you move up in lens price/quality:
Improved build quality and environmental seals at the professional level
Larger maximum apertures that are usually maintained throughout zoom range
Better image quality at any given aperture
Faster and more accurate autofocus, along with smoother and more accurate manual focus rings
Image stabilization included
Larger and heavier