What Camera to Buy – Part 1: Choosing a Make

By Jack Berglund

Related Posts
What Camera to Buy – Part 2: Cameras by the Pound
Buying a Camera – Part 3: Whats in a name?

Choose the Make First

With a wide range of cameras from big name manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, Sony and Pentax, picking your first DSLR can be difficult and time consuming but it needn’t be. Somewhat counter intuitively, when buying your first SLR camera the best approach, in my opinion, is to pick a make first and then the model. With most other purchases you would compare the different offerings from different brands in the price range you were looking at and pick the one that best suited your needs. Buying an SLR camera is different.

At any given moment, the camera with the best set of features for the price might be a Canon, Nikon, Sony or other brand. With the different release schedules, one manufacturer may have an edge after releasing a new model or drops the price of an existing model but this can change quickly. At a given moment, the Sony might have a million more pixels or the Canon higher resolution video but resist this kind of thinking…

Trust Me, Choose the Make First then the Model

Why is the brand more important than the camera? Imagine you were buying a car knowing that whatever make you bought would be the make you’d buy for the rest of your life. You love the looks of the new little Fiat 500, the price is right and the package great. However, looking down the line, you realize that Fiat don’t make any good midsized or large cars and you’d be hard pushed to upgrade in the future. It wouldn’t matter how good the Fiat 500 was. Clearly, in reality you’re free to switch makes of car any time you like but with cameras its more difficult to jump.

Lenses for one camera system do not typically fit on another and the ergonomics, such as the order of menus, for each brand differ significantly. As you accumulate a collection of lenses and get used to the way your camera works, you are unlikely to change brands in the future as it would be expensive (new lenses as well as a new camera) and frustrating (you will zoom out every time you want to zoom in and won’t know where a function is at a critical moment). This ‘lock in’ to one brand means that there are more important factors than an individual feature of a camera.

Now, some of you will be thinking that you don’t even know if you’ll take to photography and so thinking about upgrades is a little premature. This is undoubtedly true, but there isn’t as much difference on paper between the different offerings from the different brands for entry level DSLRs. This being the case, you might as well factor in the future. I started with no idea whether I would take to photography and after 18 months am on camera number two and own four lenses.

If you focus on picking a manufacturer first, before looking at the individual models from that manufacturer you can save a lot of time and will end up with a camera that fits your needs now and allows you to grow in the future. If you’re looking at Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony or Olympus then their entry level cameras will all offer you what you need, so how to pick a brand?  You’ll notice I don’t mention Hasselblad or Leica here as they are typically used for professional studio or landscape photography.

Picking a Manufacturer

What factors should you consider when picking a manufacturer?  Resale value, selection of cameras at different price points, selection of lenses, availability of second hand equipment all come into play.  The good news here is that if you stick to Canon or Nikon you’ll be well covered on all these points.  Cameras and lenses from both manufacturers generally hold their value well, so if you upgrade or decide photography isn’t for you you’ll get most of your original investment back. Sony, Pentax and Olympus can’t match Nikon or Canon for the selection of lenses or cameras.

I’m particularly interested in the availability of second hand lens as its a great way to get some very nice equipment for a more obtainable price.  Unlike camera bodies which improve significantly with each iteration and are refreshed every few years (less in the case of entry level models), a good quality lens will still be good If you look in any photography magazine or search on the web, you’ll see most of the second hand glass is available for Canon or Nikon.  The reason is that they sell the most cameras and are used by professional photographers around the world.

You’ve narrowed the choice down to Canon or Nikon, so how to pick one?

Canon or Nikon?

In my opinion, the single most important factor when deciding what make of camera to buy, is what your friends have. If you like be different from the crowd, this might be difficult to swallow but it will be worth it. If you’ve got a camera from the same manufacturer as a friend, even if its not the same model, you’ll get a wealth of benefits.

One day you’ll be out hiking, the light will be perfect and the views amazing and you’ll realize you forgot to charge your battery. Not to worry you think, I have a spare (of course you do). You then realize you left the spare on the charger and its a 3 hr drive back home and you’re going to miss out on some great shots. As you might expect, similar to the lens situation, batteries for one manufacturer’s camera will not fit in cameras from another. This is where having a camera from the same manufacturer as your friends come in. With a bit of luck, one of them will have a spare battery which you can neatly slot in.

Similarly, you might be thinking of buying a new lens or flash similar to the one a friend recommended. Having bought a camera from the same manufacturer not only can you act on the recommendation you can also borrow the lens for a weekend (assuming your friends are generous and you don’t have a reputation as ‘the clumsy one’) before committing to buy. Not possible if you have a different make of camera.

What if you don’t have any friends? Don’t worry about picking a camera make: I don’t recommend you take up photography just yet. I’ve been surprised how many people I know are interested in photography and its a nice subject to talk about and share an interest around. It is, however, at heart a somewhat anti-social hobby as you’ll spend a lot of time walking around just you and the camera (I’m assuming that’s not just me!)

If you’re interested, I bought a Nikon for my first camera and haven’t looked back. My girlfriend (who happens to be a professional photographer), had a series of Nikons (film and digital) so the choice was easy. In addition to being able to share equipment and talk the ‘same language’, there is an additional benefit that whoever’s camera we have with us on a trip (I say whoever’s but in reality her top of the line Nikon D3 trumps every time) we both know how to and feel comfortable using it. When I pick up a Canon, not only does it take a while to figure out where the on switch is, but most maddening, the zoom rings operate in different directions. Zoom in on a Canon is Zoom out on a Nikon and vice versa!

In summary: Pick the make of camera before the model. Unless you have a good reason, stick with Canon or Nikon as they have the best all round future proof offerings. Decide between Canon and Nikon based on what your friends have.

Also check out Buying a Camera? Watch out for Scams

In What Camera to Buy – Part 2: Cameras by the Pound, I discuss what you get in addition to more features when you spend more on a camera.

  1. When my friends/relatives ask me to help them choose a compact digital camera, I always find out the budget and then line up all the cameras close to that price and tell them to pick one.

    DSLRs are quite different and I would pretty much agree with you that the brand, for most people, is a lifetime decision. I know a professional wedding photographer who switched from Nikon to Canon and then back to Nikon because he wanted what he felt was the very best at the time, but this is very much the exception.

    I chose Canon five years ago mainly because it seemed the obvious leader in DSLR, even though I had always wanted to own a Nikon. If I was starting out now, I think I would lean towards Nikon. However, I know that changing my entire system now would be prohibitively expensive and would gain me little, possibly nothing. Chances are I would later wish I had stayed with what I had.

    One of the biggest deciding factors for me was picking up the various makes and models and seeing what felt right in my hands. The Canon still feels right, so it was a good decision!

    In spite of all of this, I believe for many people, the decision process is based on parameters I would not even consider (price, size, colour (yes, really), unique or novelty features and so on) and I guess that is valid for them.

  2. Hi,

    I’m looking for a new digital SLR camera.

    Previously, I’ve used small compact digital cameras and recently, I’ve been inspired by the picture quality of a friends Fuji digital SLR camera.

    I will also be using the camera to produce marketing videos for my websites. So in that respect, it needs to be capable of producing good quality video.

    No Pentax products please !!! I’ve worked there and so I’m well aware of their shortcomings !!!

    I’d be grateful if someone can suggest a product circa $250 (£160).


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