Photography for Beginners Part 26: Buying a Camera – The Shopping Process

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 25: Buying a Camera – Features

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In the last few posts we’ve covered the things that need to be considered when you’ve decided to buy a new camera. However, deciding what kind of camera you want is only half the battle. Once that’s decided you have to actually shop for and pick one.

Some people are expert shoppers who relish the research and comparison process and they need no tips from me. But if you hate shopping so much you don’t know where to start, feel overwhelmed when you look at retail sites, or are afraid that you might miss noticing the perfect camera for you, maybe I can help.

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The Elimination Process

Make a list of every camera model from every brand that is of a type you’re interested in and that is within your price range. If you have a limited budget or very specific tastes it may be a short list.

A good way to make this initial list is to go on a camera store website like B&H that sells everything on the market. I recommend that site because the page design makes it very easy to search for your requirements and it’s unlikely that you’ll miss anything.

I don’t recommend using Amazon for this, even though it’s a default shopping site for many. The search results are unpredictable and frequently incomplete, which means you probably will miss things.

At B&H click on digital cameras. On the left side of the page are categories such as style, sensor size, and price that you can use to limit what is displayed. For instance, you could select DSLR and APS-C, or point and shoot and 1″.

Cameras that fit your requirements will now be listed on the screen. Write down any of the models that really catch your eye, and also the ones that look like a so-so match.

Once that’s done you have your working list for camera models. Now your features list comes into play. You need to scan through the individual product pages for all the cameras you wrote down so that you can quickly eliminate any models that obviously aren’t right for you.

To do this elimination you need to know which features are must-have, want-to-have, or nice but not very important for you. (See previous post, Part 25.)

Cross off any models on your working list that are a no-go based on features. If there are some you’re on the fence about keep them on your list. Sometimes a camera that you didn’t think much of to start with can end up being a finalist or even the one you buy.

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Serious Business

Now you have your list of camera models that you need to do deeper research on. The goal is to come up with 2 or 3 finalists. (Though if you started with a short working list you might already be down to your finalists.)

It’s time to look at reviews. The more reviews you look at for each model the better so that you get a variety of opinions. Look for people who spent quite a bit of time using the camera, not just an hour.

Avoid websites that are designed only for the purpose of getting advertising revenue from your clicks. They merely regurgitate info from elsewhere, often only from marketing materials, with no hands-on experience with the cameras. These sites become easy to spot once you’ve seen a few.

As you go through reviews you might want to make notes on your working list for the best and worst things about each camera because it can be difficult to keep it all straight in your head.

Read and watch reviews with four things in mind:

*  Are the features that are most important to you implemented well?

*  Does the camera perform well for the types of photography you do most often?

*  When the reviewer describes how the camera handles and feels, how closely does that match what your preferences are?

*  Do reviews mention a problem that is related to how you will be using the camera?

Not all reviewers will agree on every point. Some are pickier than others or just have different personal tastes. What you’re looking for are patterns. If everyone says it’s a great camera it probably is. If all or most point out a particular weakness it’s likely to be true.

As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no such thing as a perfect camera so a weakness isn’t automatically disqualifying. Is the weakness something minor that you don’t care much about or is it something integral to how you’ll be using the camera?

If your research makes it clear that a camera isn’t the right fit for you, or has a problem that would bother you too much, cross it off your working list.

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Web Resources for Research

(This is not a comprehensive list, but includes sites I have used.)

DP Review

DP Review is an excellent site for all things related to digital photography. (That’s what the DP stands for.) They have photography news, detailed reviews, buying guides, and a camera compare tool that allows you to look at several camera models side by side.

DP Review also has user forums that are some of the best on the web. There’s a section for beginners, and sections devoted to each camera brand as well.

DP Review Camera Hub

DP Review Buying Guides

Cameralabs

Cameralabs does very detailed reviews which include a lot of sample photos. I don’t know if they review every camera released, but they cover a lot of them.

Sometimes doing a search just by the camera model doesn’t bring up a review. If that happens you can type in the brand name and the word “reviews.” You’ll get a lot of results and you can look for the correct model.

Since the site uses blog software you need to keep clicking to see older posts to find the model you want. Knowing the month and year the model was released helps to let you know how far back to look.

Cameralabs website

Imaging Resource

Detailed reviews with some sample images similar to the above sites. They also have a comparison tool that lets you look at two camera models side by side.

The comparison tool usually has links to SOOC (straight out of camera) JPEGs for each camera so you can compare images for quality, color, etc. Though a lot of the pics aren’t that helpful. And be aware that comparing reduced resolution images online can’t tell you much. You need to download the full files and look at them on a high-resolution screen.

Imaging Resource reviews

Imaging Resource comparison tool

YouTube

YouTube is another great source for camera info, but you need to be a bit selective. Most so-called reviews are just brief overviews of camera features. Those can be useful, but also look for longer videos from people who have actually used the camera for several days or bought it for themselves. You want some details about their experience using the camera, and what they like and don’t like about it.

Type the brand, camera model, and the word “review” in the search bar.

User Forums

Forums can be a time-suck, so a good approach is to scan through a year’s worth of threads and look for patterns. Is a problem for the model you’re interested in mentioned repeatedly? Are people generally happy with the camera? Any thread that looks like it might be informative you can click on to see what people are saying.

Forums are a good place to ask questions you might have about whether a model has a feature you’re interested in or anything else you’re wondering about.

You also might be able to discover that a firmware update has addressed a problem pointed out by reviewers. Reviewers do their reviews when a model is released and rarely go back and update them later.

User Reviews

User reviews can be helpful because they’re based on real world usage, but you do need to be very selective.

Look for detailed reviews from people who have used the camera more than a day or two and who sound like they know what they’re talking about.

You can find user reviews on DP review, camera store websites, and Amazon.

Amazon has been my go-to site for customer reviews on all kinds of things, but the vast majority of camera reviews are fairly useless. They tend to be brief raves or rants from people who know little about photography. Look for the long reviews with plenty of details, especially ones that list both pros and cons.

The other thing to look for in user reviews is common likes and common complaints. These can show up even in the less useful short reviews. If one or two people out of 75 complain about something it could be just them, or they got a defective unit. If a bunch of people complain about the same thing it’s worth noting.

Rumors Sites

Most or all brands have a rumors site. The people who run the sites have inside contacts who tip them off about new releases for cameras and lenses before official announcements are made.

If a model you’re considering has been out for over a year it’s good to know if the next generation is on the horizon. You might want to wait and see what improvements will be made or what new features might be added.

Rumors sites can occasionally contain bogus info, but the ones with a good rep tend to be fairly reliable. You can look back through the posts on the site to see how often their rumors were proved true.

Do a web search for the camera brand name and the word “rumors” to find the sites.

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Lenses

If you are buying your first ILC, or already have one but are considering switching brands, you also need to research the lenses.

Lenses are a pain to research, but you need to know what you’re getting into before plunking your money down. You aren’t just buying a camera, you are buying into an entire system.

Part of what makes lenses difficult is that no brand has a lens line-up that contains only top-notch lenses.

Some brands are known for their excellence in lenses, yet there will still be a few that are pretty good, but not quite up to the standards of the rest.

Some brands are very inconsistent. Some of the lenses in their line-up are top quality, some are decent, and some are stinkers.

Some brands have two tiers of lenses. For instance, Canon has their regular consumer lenses, plus their L lenses which are of a higher quality. Sigma (third-party lens maker) has their regular lenses and the high quality Art line-up.

So you can’t rely only on overall lens reputation. What you need to know is if the specific lenses that you would be buying are good ones or stinkers.

The first thing to figure out is if you’d be getting the kit lens with the body, or buying the body alone and a higher quality or different focal length lens. If the kit lens is a focal length that you want, look at reviews. Then also look at reviews for more expensive lenses of a similar focal length.

If you know that you will be buying more lenses in the future, like adding an ultra-wide and a telephoto to your kit, research those lenses before you buy the body as well. You need to know now if they are good lenses. If they are only mediocre you should strongly consider crossing that brand of camera off your list.

You can use all the websites mentioned above to also get info on lenses.

Good lenses can be expensive, so prepare yourself!

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Final Shopping

Based on what you discover from your research you should now have your short list of finalists. It’s time to go handle them in a store.

If you don’t have a physical store within reasonable driving distance obviously you can’t do this. But I can’t stress enough how important it is to actually hold and use a camera before buying if at all possible. When you’re going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a piece of equipment it’s worth it to spend a chunk of your time and some money on gas first.

Even if you only have one model as your finalist you still want to handle it before buying. You might discover something unexpectedly negative and need to look at other models from your list.

If visiting a store is impossible because you live in a small town in Montana, you’ll have to make your final decision on paper and use your best guess as to which of your finalists is the one to buy. Make sure you order from a retailer with a generous return policy in case you don’t like it after using it for a few days.

Bring a memory card to the store if you have one. Display models rarely have one in them and that will hinder testing.

Also bring your list and research notes with you in case you need to reference them.

In the store tell the sales rep which models you want to look at. If you’re buying an ILC make sure it has the lens you’re also considering attached. If it doesn’t, ask the rep if you can change it to the right one.

The rep should be able to answer any questions you have as you handle the cameras. You can also ask about reliability. Many reps are willing to tell you if they see a higher than normal amount of returns or repairs with a particular camera.

If the rep doesn’t know enough about the cameras you’re looking at ask to work with someone else. It’s uncomfortable, but not rude because you need the info. No one knows everything, and some reps are more familiar with some brands than others based on training seminars or the cameras they personally own.

Spend enough time with each model. Don’t feel rushed. Tell the rep you want to walk around the store and outside the front door so you can take pictures. This lets you actually use the camera and also gives you some breathing space from the rep.

Take photos inside and outside. Try different apertures and ISO settings.

How does the autofocus perform? Do you like the viewfinder? How does it feel in your hands? Are the buttons in convenient places? Does everything work as expected? Is there something funky that you didn’t expect that you don’t like?

Review the pictures you took on the back screen. Do they look good? Did the camera nail focus? How does the noise look in the higher ISO indoor pics? Are the photos sharp or does the lens show unacceptable softness? How well does the image stabilization work with slower shutter speeds?

When you’ve spent enough time with all your finalists how do you feel? Did one of the cameras leap out at you and proclaim itself to be The One? Buy it. You’ve already done all the hard work and taking time to second guess yourself will only cause unnecessary confusion.

Still not sure? Ask the rep if they think you should also look at something else based on the models you’re interested in and tell them the max you’re willing to spend. They may or may not have a suggestion. If they do, it may or may not be one you already considered on paper.

If you need help tipping the scales you can even ask the rep which one they’d buy. Ask them why they would pick that one.

You don’t have to decide now. Thank the rep for their help and tell them you need a couple of days to think it over so that you’re sure you’re making the right choice. Go home and compare the photos you took (don’t forget your camera card in the store!) on your computer. Do you like the pics from one better than the others?

No matter when you decide to buy, buy your camera from the store that helped you. Yes, I know you can sometimes save money by ordering from Amazon. But Amazon didn’t let you hold the cameras, push the buttons, take photos, physically compare and contrast, or spend time answering your questions, perhaps at the expense of helping other customers who were waiting.

The service you get from a store is worth real money, especially when you’re making a decision involving hundreds of dollars.

There are two other big advantages to buying from a physical store.

If it’s close enough you can go back after buying the camera to ask for help. I bought my last two cameras at Kenmore Camera (two suburbs away from me), and with both cameras I went back more than once when I couldn’t figure out how a feature worked or the camera was acting in a way that confused me. They were always more than happy to help.

Also, if it turns out the camera is faulty in some way you can bring it back within the return period and exchange it for a new one. There’s no need to go through the process of getting return approval, packing it up, taking it to UPS/FedEx/Post Office, and paying for shipping. You can walk out with the replacement in your hands with no waiting.

One final tip about store shopping. If you don’t already have a camera bag at home that you know will be a good fit, head over to the bag section with the display model of the camera you are buying. Look for bags of the right size, a style you like, and an acceptable price. Try them out with the display camera.

If you’re buying an ILC and know you will be adding more lenses in the future, take two or three bags back to the counter and ask the rep for the display model(s) of the lens(es) you will probably be buying. Check to see how well they fit in the different bags in addition to the body and first lens.

(In my case I have a small shoulder bag that I bought with the camera that can carry the camera body and two regular lenses. A year later I bought a backpack that can carry my entire kit, which included a very large telephoto zoom by then.)

Buying a bag in a store is much easier than online because you can see in person how well it works for both you and the camera/lenses.

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Saving Money

All of the above info about shopping in a store was assuming you’re buying a new camera. But as I discussed in an earlier post, the best way to get the most bang for your buck is to buy used, especially a used older model.

You can stretch your budget to buy more camera than you could otherwise afford. A model released four or six years ago won’t have the latest sensor or newest high-tech features, but if it had a reputation for producing great images it still will.

If you’re buying an ILC, the biggest advantage of buying used is that you can put more of your budget towards better or more lenses. Buying used lenses is also a great way to go.

Physical or online camera stores that offer warranties are the best places to buy used gear. Physical stores are great because you can inspect before buying, but they have limited inventories. For online stores, Adorama and KEH offer 6 month warranties, B&H offers 3 month warranties. All three carry large inventories of used gear. KEH only deals in used gear, no new.

If you are selling your old camera to help finance the purchase of your new one you can usually get the most money by selling it yourself, but that can be a hassle. If you are buying your camera at a physical or online store that sells used equipment you can do a trade-in to make things quick and easy.

Refurbished or open box gear is another way to go. You don’t save as much, but you’ll get a warranty, though it might not be a full year warranty like with new.

Lastly, if you have some patience you can wait for sales or rebates. Most brands have sales at various points during the year. Sometimes for everything, but usually for specific items. So there’s some luck involved in whether the gear you want is what goes on sale.

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Good luck with your shopping and may you find the camera of your dreams!

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