What makes a good camera?

Each time a friend comes up to me & asks, “I want to buy a new camera. What’s the best camera to buy?”. This is when I feel the sudden urge to bring the palm of my hand to my face! Two words keep spiralling through my mind… “Not again?”…
What is the “best camera”? Is there such a thing? Most camera makers will claim that their auto-focus is the quickest or theirs have “creative” filters which enhances your images. Every camera brand has their own signature gimmick to lure unsuspecting consumers to what they think they need but usually never tell you about what is more important & what really matters in a good camera. That’s usually because most of what matters don’t really sell to be honest.
I’m writing this article because I’m quite tired explaining this over & over again I sound like a broken record. So why not just put it into a neat little package & point my friends to this link so they won’t bother me lol!

Some considerations

Before you decide what camera you’re going to invest on, here is a very basic check list you’ll want consider…

  • What is your budget? – Important this one because there really isn’t a limit to this!
  • What do you want to shoot? – Family or holiday photos? Nature? Landscape photography or just a multipurpose camera?
  • Is this your first camera? How serious are you going to be? – This matters a lot!
  • Do you want a compact camera or an interchangeable lens camera?
  • Are you expecting relatively good results out of the camera or are you going to invest time into learning digital post processing?
Having a camera to start with!

This I think is the most important thing about a camera you should really be worried about if at all. To be honest any camera will work…. Technically the best camera is the one that is with you when a decisive moment happens! It doesn’t matter if you have a Leica M9 when it’s tucked away in your dry box at home & then Paul the alien jumps out in front of you! If you’re really on a budget, get any camera off the shelf at the local camera store. With the technology of digital imaging these days, any compact will do. Heck even your iPhone 4 will work under most situations.

The controls

Now for some features that you will want on your camera. Any camera can shoot automatically nowadays. But not all cameras will let you have manual controls. Even fewer cameras will put those manual controls where you can get to them & make changes quickly & efficiently. Prosumer cameras claim to let you have full manual control but when you really dive into the user manual, most of these settings are hidden deep within the camera’s UI. This is why folks upgrade to DSLRs for serious shooting.
But not all DSLRs have the proper manual controls in the right places. I used a Canon 60D before & I made a decision to change to a 7D because of this. I needed easy access to my flash compensation, picture style & white balance… all 3 which are accessible on the 60D from within the menu UI but they were much easier to get to on the 7D in the form of a push of a button. The 7D also had a useful one time RAW photo capture which I liked.
When looking for a good camera, consider the controls & where they are. Work around what you can live with & what you really need. When looking for a new camera, always look for the quirks & problems with making changes to what you always tweek as a photographer. A bad camera is one that gets in the way of you trying to get the shot. The speed in which you make changes to your camera could be a matter of whether you get the shot or not!

Do the auto functions work?

After getting the manual controls out of the way, you need to check if the auto functions work like the manufacturers says it does. Most of us even when using a DSLR capable of manual settings will use some form of auto exposure, auto focus or auto white balance of some sorts. Check to see if they don’t get in the way of you making the shot.
You know you have a good camera when…

  • The auto exposure is spot on & you rarely have to dial your exposure up/down in different lighting conditions
  • The auto white balance can handle various challenging lighting conditions
  • The auto focus spot on & is capable of giving you enough control to frame & compose your shots accurately

You may say that you can always fall back on manual controls. However I am a strong believer of if you can get the winning shot shooting in auto mode, who cares? Not saying that you should shoot full auto, just that when you need it, it’s there & it doesn’t fail!

The in-camera RAW to JPG conversion

This may be a surprise to some folks but each camera behaves different in this aspect. This is very evident to me when I was shooting between the Canon 60D, 7D & the 5DmkII. If you shoot in RAW & convert to JPG using Photoshop or Digital Photo Professional (DPP) you may not notice this. What separates a good camera from a mediocre camera is the in-camera RAW to JPG conversion.
Here are some examples…

  • Sharpness/JPG artifacts – The Canon 60D produces sharper images using the default picture style compared to the 5DmkII… which in turn also produces sharper images than the 7D. However on the flip side you will notice a tad more JPG artifacts on the 60D JPG output compared to the other two cameras. Not much of a problem here, just dial the 60D sharpness down & the other two cameras (7D/5DmkII) up a little.
  • Color balance – The 5DmkII auto white balance is slightly warmer than the 7D. The 60D outputs the “bluest” looking images of the three cameras. Again nothing your manual white balance settings can’t fix.

Of course all this doesn’t matter if you shoot RAW but this is just to illustrate there really is a difference in RAW to JPG conversions within each camera’s firmware. Not saying which is better than the other, just that you will have to see for yourself which suits you & which JPG output works for your workflow.
I chose the 7D because it had the least amount of sharpening of the three which allowed me flexibility when post processing my images. It also had a warm auto white balance which was not too warm (5DmkII) or cool (60D) but was just right for my tastes.

So these are the aspects which I think makes a good camera.

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