How To Decide if a New Camera Is Right for You

How To Decide if a New Camera Is Right for You

With so many strong options in the market and so much noise surrounding each release, how do you know which camera system is right for you?

I’ve spent the week shopping. Perhaps not in the way you might think. With my own camera needs fully satisfied at the moment, I instead spent the week shopping for another necessary item: athletic shoes. I will admit to being something of a sneakerhead. Not in the sense that I collect vintage sneakers and leave them in hermetically sealed vaults to increase their value. Rather, I find myself unable to resist shoe sales and thus have amassed an unnecessarily large collection of shoes for every occasion from club to casual. Most I end up purchasing because they are cool to look at. Or perhaps they hurt my feet but go perfectly with one specific outfit. Or, they were just on sale and during an impulsive moment, I figured, "why not?" When it comes to running shoes, however, I am far more practical.

Not nearly as young as I used to be (a.k.a. old), I pretty much wake up every morning with one joint or another having reached some new level of pain. Sometimes all joints simultaneously. Partly, this is due to age. Partly, this is due to my demanding workouts. The easy thing to do would be to pull back on exercise, but neither I nor my ever-increasing waistline seem to find that option optimal. So, I trudge through my exercise each day come rain or come shine. But, just because I’m determined to work through pain doesn’t mean I want to invite it in. And, I know that footwear plays a major role in my ability to continue to workout at my highest level.

For that reason, I tend to find a type of shoes that work, then stick with them year after year, new model after new model. This works, most of the time. Except when the shoe company decides to shake things up in the next year’s version of the shoe, or discontinue the line altogether, and you quickly find yourself back at square one. That’s where I found myself this week. Reading endless reviews online to find a running shoe that would support my flat feet and bad knees, searching online for the best options, then waiting patiently for the shoe boxes to arrive at my door.

I’m not someone who likes to return things. But, this time, it took several tries to get things right. Many of the shoes with the best reviews ended up not working out for me at all once they were on my feet. Others that I expected to be home runs ended up being bunted singles at best. Finally, I found two pairs of shoes that collectively should suit my needs. But it was a long search.

So why talk so much about shoes? Well, this week, in addition to the YouTube algorithm constantly feeding me new shoe reviews, it also filled up my recommendation list with all the new photographic toys on display at NAB, the annual convention where manufacturers like to launch their latest and greatest products and stir up some noise. I like to play with new toys as much as the next man, but didn’t make it to Vegas this year to participate in the festivities. Still, YouTube found a way to get the product announcements in front of me anyway. Then, once I clicked on one product announcement video, the algorithm made sure to show me every published pro and con video as well. One hot take video would be a wannabe influencer exclaiming why a camera was the best product to ever hit the market. The next video would be a different influencer trying to tell me why the exact same camera was absolute trash and should be laughed out of existence. Of course, the camera in question had only just been announced and not yet released so clearly neither of these reviewers could have had any more access to it than briefly touching it on the NAB showroom floor, making their definitive reviews of the product objectively useless since they had literally not had a chance to use the product they were valorizing/demonizing in the first place.

Still, shopping for technology can sometimes feel like shopping for shoes online. There are a million and one different options available. And it's hard to know what’s right for you and what is just marketing noise being presented as fact. So, how do you go about finding which camera is worth your investment?

Touch It

Okay, this one may seem obvious, but the best way for you to know if a tool feels right in your hand is to, ahem, get it in your hand. Just because I, as a reviewer, feel as though a camera’s ergonomics are the best I’ve used doesn’t mean that you will feel the same. A ten-minute trip to your local camera store will answer 90% of the questions you will have about a camera. Years ago, when I was shopping for my very first digital camera, the Nikon D200, I knew instantly that it was the right camera for me just by picking it up. I went down to Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles, wrapped my hand around the grip and instantly fell in love. Years later, having shot with pretty much every brand in the market, I still find Nikon cameras to feel most natural in my hand. The tech inside the camera aside, like my familiar pair or running shoes, I know that the brand won’t let me down on the fit.

But, again, that’s subjective to me. So, if you are truly considering a new camera system, your first step should be to actually hold it in person. Take a trip to your local camera store and simply see if it feels right.

Does It Serve Your Needs?

Finding the perfect camera for you is like finding the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend. Sometimes you need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. And just like finding your romantic partner can often turn out to have more to do with you understanding yourself and your needs than anything the person sitting across the table at the restaurant is doing, finding the perfect camera for you is 100% up to your particular quirks.

The shoes I had to return this week weren’t bad shoes. They just didn’t work for my foot. Just because a camera might be hot in the market doesn’t mean it best fits your shooting requirements. I’ve fallen into this trap before myself. A few years ago, I purchased an extremely high-resolution camera convinced that I had found my perfect new mate. After using it for a while, it became painfully clear that our courtship would be short-lived. The camera did, in fact, have amazing image quality. Unfortunately, it also had a historically annoying level of viewfinder blackout between frames which made it essentially impossible for me to use. Not literally impossible. But, since my work often requires me to track with and rapidly shoot fast-moving athletes, the camera’s extended blackout made my job harder rather than easier. So, while it was objectively a great camera, it was a terrible choice for me. I had made the cardinal error of assessing the camera in a vacuum rather than comparing the camera's strengths against my own unique set of requirements. The value of a camera isn’t in universal specs, it’s in being the best fit for its particular operator.

Try Before You Buy

There are fewer greater dopamine hits than making a new purchase. Putting down the cash (or plastic) and being handed back a brand new toy that, in the moment, feels like it’s opened up a whole new world for you. Renting equipment is kinda nice too. You get to play with the camera without the large expense. But, let’s face it, it’s just not the same rush you get from being able to officially call a fancy new toy all your own.

Yet, despite the decidedly less exciting transaction, renting a camera before you decide to make your purchase can save you a lot of time and a whole lot of money in deciding if a camera is right for you. Think of it as a test drive. And don’t think of the money you’ve spent renting it as a wasted investment. Think of that rental fee as insurance. Insurance against you doing something stupid like sinking a lot of money into a camera that doesn’t suit your needs (I refer again to my example in the previous section).

Rent the camera you have in mind once and put it into the most demanding situation you can imagine you’ll ever find yourself in. Did the camera hold up? Did it fall apart? Was it an improvement over your current system or were the experiences essentially the same?

Will You Need All The Features All The Time?

Continuing on the rental option, one more question you can answer is whether or not the benefits of the new camera are enough to justify purchasing it. Here’s an easy example. Almost every emerging photographer at some point will lust after more megapixels. Often the rationale for upgrading a camera is that the type of clients you are hoping to get might demand more megapixels for their projects. This might all be absolutely true and a legitimate reason to upgrade. Of course, what might also be true is that the percentage of your clients that need the higher megapixel count currently only makes up a small percentage of your business. Not that you won’t ever need to upgrade. But, at the moment, those additional megapixels will only actually be a requirement a handful of times each year. Other times, your current equipment is more than capable of meeting client expectations and won’t cost you any (additional) money which might be better spent elsewhere. The same might be true for a camera that offers more frames per second, or 8K, or any other new advancement in technology. Those things might be objectively better. But, if you never use those features, is it really worth the cost of the investment?

This is not to say that you shouldn’t upgrade your gear to meet changing needs. You know what your particular needs are in terms of tech specs to meet your client’s requirements. So, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to deciding when it’s time to upgrade. But, a simple place to start that conversation is by asking whether or not a new feature is something you will actually use. Or, is it something you’ll brag about having to your friends but won’t actually make a difference in your workflow? Would you perhaps be better served by keeping the camera you already have (or purchasing a less expensive one to begin with), then only renting the more powerful/expensive system when needed? It might not be as fun as always buying the latest and greatest. But taking time to consider which features you will actually use could save you thousands of dollars in the long run.

It’s impossible to say for certain which camera is the best on the market devoid of knowing how the tool will be used. It’s impossible to offer an analysis of the quality of a product without having actually taken it into the field. It is an incredibly personal thing as to whether or not a camera is the best ever made or a completely impractical exercise in frivolity. The only way to know for sure if a camera is right for you is to understand your individual needs and match those needs with the system best positioned to grow with your business.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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