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How to Recommend Cameras to Other People

How to Recommend Cameras to Other People

“What kind of camera should I get?” is probably one of the questions I get asked the most often. So, I’ve become pretty quick at coming up with recommendations, and I figured it might be nice to share how I come up with them.

When someone asks me for a camera recommendation, chances are they are someone who either wants to “get into photography,” “take nice pictures,” or “have a good camera for traveling.” Most of the people who ask me for help fall into one of those categories. But the questions I ask them before coming up with a recommendation are usually the same. They all get at the root of where they see photography taking them in the future.

Here are the three main questions I ask when I’m trying to come up with a solution for someone interested in photography.

1) What Do You Want to Shoot?

Before I can recommend a camera to someone, I always ask this question first. It’s the biggest factor in determining a lot of camera variables, from the focal lengths of the lenses to the frames-per-second the camera can shoot. It’s, in my mind, the most important question to ask.

For someone who says they’re interested in landscapes, I just recommend a wide-angle lens. For someone who says, more generically, “nature stuff,” I might recommend a wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens with a macro function. For those interested in portraits, I’d recommend a cheap 35mm, 50mm, and/or 85mm prime lens. You get the idea. Those who are interested in shooting sports will need a camera that has better autofocus and a faster frames-per-second than someone shooting portraits. 

If they say they just want something for traveling, I lean towards smaller options such as mirrorless cameras or sometimes even a point and shoot. For a lens, I’d recommend either a small prime or something with a wide zoom range, like an 18-200mm.

If you get a feel for what they want to be able to take photos of, you'll be better able to recommend a suitable setup for them. Of course, all of these things depend greatly on the next question, which is,

2) What’s Your Budget?

For some reason, people seem surprised when I ask this question, sometimes more often than when I ask the first question. I’m not sure if they just don’t want to share how much they can/will spend on camera equipment, or if they think all of the cameras are generally the same price, or what, but it’s an important question to ask.

I’ve never had anyone who asks me for a camera recommendation give me a budget of over $1,500. Therefore, I’ve never recommended a large DSLR to anyone. If only they knew that just one of my camera bodies was $7,000 new…they might just back away very, very slowly.

These days, most people are giving me a budget in the $500-800 range. While this is tricky, it can also be kind of fun to learn about what smaller consumer-oriented cameras are out there. I view this whole process as a way to keep up to date on the camera market and sometimes find interesting things that are out there that I wouldn’t have heard about if I hadn’t been looking. 

3) Are You the Type of Person Who Would Read the Manual?

This question really throws people off. When people ask me for photography or camera help, usually my first response is to ask them if they’ve read the camera’s manual. Usually, most of their questions can be answered by looking in the manual, and they can pick up other tips along the way. 

If the person tells me they would read the manual for this new camera, I feel more comfortable recommending a more complicated camera to them. If they say they probably wouldn't, then I’d lean more towards a point and shoot or something more simplistic. The last thing I want is people coming to me asking how to change the shutter speed on their camera. If they're going to need to leave the camera on auto and have no desire to get more complicated, that's something I need to know up front.

After I’ve gotten those answers, I generally just start an Amazon wish list for them, which is an easy way to throw some things in a “cart” and send it over for a recommendation, telling them that they may find a better price elsewhere, such as B&H or another photography-centric dealer. 

Next, I start searching for lists such as “Top 10 Mirrorless Cameras of 2018” or “Best DSLRS under $1000.” These lists are a great starting point to see what’s out on the market for lower-budget options, and a quick way to get an overview of what might work for them. Once I find a decent camera body, if it’s one that takes interchangeable lenses, I start looking into those. Oftentimes, finding a camera with a decent-sounding kit-lens is all I need, especially if it's for someone who just says they want to, in general, have a "nicer camera" to "take better photos." But sometimes, depending on what the person wants to shoot and their budget, I find lenses that fit their needs a little better. 

Don’t forget to throw in an extra battery, a memory card recommendation, and always a couple of cleaning items such as a LensPen or rocket blower. Maybe even a book on how to use that particular camera, if one exists. If I’m feeling nice, I might look into a bag that would fit it all, too. And remember, they might need a way to edit the photos. Depending on their comfort level with computers, I might recommend a monthly Photoshop/Lightroom CC subscription, or just recommend they use the Photos application on their Mac, etc. 

But Why Go to All This Trouble?

Obviously, giving someone a detailed recommendation like this takes some time and effort, but everyone I’ve done it for has always been extremely appreciative. Little things like this can leave a good taste in someone’s mouth when they have the opportunity to recommend your business to someone, and who knows — they might come to you and pay for some photography lessons in the future, which is a great way to fill in some slow-times during the weekdays if you don’t have any shoots scheduled or editing to do. I’ve even booked sessions from people who got the cameras I recommended but then wanted me to do some portraits of their families.

You never know where a little extra boost of customer service, even for non-paying customers, will get you, and it’s a great way to stay up to date on the market. Going the extra mile for people you barely know is the quickest way to make friends, promote your business, and to be a nice person. 

Lead image by Sam Walker.

Stephen Ironside's picture

Stephen Ironside is a commercial photographer with an outdoor twist based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. While attempting to specialize in adventure and travel photography, you can usually find him in the woods, in another country, or oftentimes stuffing his face at an Indian buffet.

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grandfather use to say there were two things that'd tell you a lot about a man, his hobbies and his shoes. haha.... my apologies for the context, of course.

What if his hobby was shoe collecting?

haha, i know, right! i honestly have no idea what he'd a said to that riddle tho...

Just kidding around. I love your grandfather's saying.

The last person (non photographer) who asked for a recommendation, I told them to get a new phone. And yes, my first question was what is your budget.

You pretty much use the same set of questions I do. The only difference is I ask for the budget first thing. Nice article!

I generally tell people to get a good smart phone. My iPhone 7 may be a little behind the curve, but it takes decent images. On my last bucket list trip to New Zealand, South Island, some of my most impactful images were taken with my iPhone. I also carried a couple Nikon D850s with 16-35 and 100-400 lenses, a D7200 with 17-70 macro, and RX 100 II converted to infrared.

Do you ask them if they are serious about photography? There you are shooting with the best DSLR in the industry and you tell people to get a cell phone? I sincerely hope that if someone you're discussing gear with that is serious about learning photography and asks about a camera, you don't tell them to get a phone. Why burden them with the limited abilities of a phone?

Besides, most people have phones with sensors built in. I'm all in for the camera companies and want them to flourish. The phone manufacturers are doing just fine without photographers telling prospective shooters to buy a phone instead of a camera. Good grief!

My comment that you down voted; what I didn't say is that he has no particular interest in photography and wanted to take record shots of a trip to Japan.

That aside, I have more than a slight suspicion that those who are the most vocal about gear generally can't shoot to save their lives, regardless of the gear they're using.

Agreed. As Ansel Adams would say, the most-important tool for photography is the 12 inches behind the camera. Master your craft and you can take great photos with even a smartphone camera. The gearheads tend to be the types who have 50 different lenses, but couldn't shoot a proper portrait if their lives depended on it.

The reality is that most people are not hobbyists in photography, much less professionals. They just want to capture the fleeting images of loved ones who will no longer be alive and children who will grow up. Based on that reality, any camera will do, and given sales of cameras overall, most people have reached the same conclusion.

Every now and then, we who are hobbyists and professionals must remember that the world is not like us.

Being a photographer, wouldn't it be nice if you took two or three minutes to actually find out what a prospective photographer's wants and needs are? It doesn't take long to find whether or not the person is serious. I'd rather you give advice than a youngster at Best Buy that more than likely has never done any serious work with a camera try to sell a new photographer a camera.

In the first place, you assume that Michael doesn't ask. Chances are that he does and even James Brown noted that he asks about their level of interest. [I tend to ask as well.] Put simply, you were making an argument based on an assumption that shouldn't have been made.

Secondly: Although I do ask, often, if those folks are interested in going beyond point-and-shoot photography, they will usually tell you. Often, they will shout it before you even ask. The folks who are moving into the hobbyist arena will demonstrate such interest. This doesn't mean you shouldn't ask. It does mean that the question is often answered before you even get to ask.

Finally, as I said earlier, most people aren't interested in being either hobbyists or professionals. They just want to capture fleeting memories, share them easily, and occasionally print them. A smartphone camera works great on the first, does better than traditional point-and-shoots and ILCs on the second, and can work just fine when it comes to the last. I have printed many a smartphone photo and they have turned out great; smartphone camera technology has greatly improved in the last eight years.

Sometimes, David, the "advice" we give as hobbyists and professionals is pure overkill. Certainly you want to help others get the best bang for their precious dollars. At the same time, we have to be a little more humble about what the rest of us wants in cameras and out of photography in general.

RiShawn ... you stated my position much better than I could. I wanted to keep my comment short so assumed that readers would understand that I had already asked how serious someone was before making a recommendation.

Okay, I agree that if that person said that he had no interest other than capturing a moment or two that a phone works. But I'd still rather see a camera in his hands.

You infer that because I wish to take the time to give advice about a camera purchase that I can't shoot. I've posted a bunch of shots to my gallery here, so there is something for you to critique if you wish. I don't hide behind a keyboard, I post my work.

Why do you "rather see a camera in [someone's] hands"? After all, those who are interested in becoming hobbyists and professionals will do so and express their desire for an ILC. Those who just want a simple device to capture memories should have the option to put their precious dollars towards devices that may more-useful to them.

An $800 smartphone with a high-quality camera will do that job better in many cases than a dedicated point-and-shoot or ILC because, unlike the latter two, smartphone photos are easier to share because smartphones are communications devices. If they choose to buy a dedicated camera, then I will recommend the best point-and-shoot options within their budget range.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy cameras and photography. But I also keep these things in their proper places. I rather see someone own a photographing device that is best for their particular needs.

Two reasons; a phone is very wanting as far as photographic versatility goes and two, I'd much rather see the camera companies get the dinars than the phone companies. Phone companies are doing just fine, not all of the camera industry is.

On your points;

1) Versatility: Depends on what you are talking about. If you are talking about the ability to quickly share photos (and video) with family and friends, smartphone cameras are far more versatile than point-and-shoots and ILCs. Because smartphones are communications devices with access to both mobile networks and wifi, something almost no traditional camera has. Also, because the smartphone camera is small and fits in the pocket, it is also more-versatile than the traditional camera.

If you are talking about the ability to switch out lenses, ability to use some form of optical zoom and the ability to produce RAW and jpeg photos, point-and-shoots and ILCs do have that advantage. But most people don't care about that kind of versatility. They care about sharing.

2) I prefer people to get the best photographic devices they need for their purposes. If that is an ILC or point-and-shoot, fine. If it is a smartphone? Fantastic. I don't care about the companies other than how they serve me (as well as others) as a consumer. Besides, by the way, Sony (along with Samsung) is the dominant imaging sensor producer for smartphone cameras as well as digital ones, while Hasselblad, Zeiss and others are doing well in their partnerships with smartphone makers. Methinks only Canon and Nikon are having issues -- and that's their fault.

Sharing videos and photos instantly aren't on my radar, so that part of the equation is way in the back of my list of questions for a prospective buyer. But there's no denying that this is important to a lot of people.

You're correct in your speculation that I mean the ability to do a lot of things with an ILC. But my discussion always gets to the "whatever is good for you" point, although, it never ends with a phone recommendation. Truth be known, I haven't given any advice to anyone that didn't already have a phone with a camera included. Pretty rare these days.

I know other companies deal with the cell phone makers. Samsung bailed on the camera side of the equation other than their phones.

Because Canon is Canon and all that entails, they'll be just fine. Nikon may have saved themselves, at least in the short term, with the advent of the D850, the D5, and the D500, all really terrific cameras. Suffice it to say that I'm firmly entrenched in the ILC group and will continue to steer people in that direction.

Not to be too pedantic, but a phone with a camera is still a camera. So technically, they'd still have a camera in their hands if they bought an iPhone.

Step 1.) If you've never used more than one brand / option etc....stop right now and don't give advice to people. Half the time, all you're really doing is trying to get them to buy the same gear as you did, because it will help YOU feel more secure about the purchase, and the rest of the time you'll just be giving an incomplete, one-sided opinion.

Not necessarily true. Even if you don't have experience with other brands, if you know what you're doing, you can still generally make pretty good recommendations for them. I've been a Nikon shooter for my whole career, until I got a Fuji last year. But, I've recommended plenty, of Canons. Sometimes I'll ask people if they have a brand preference -- maybe they've used a Sony in the past and are comfortable with the menu system, etc. I can read reviews and check testing sites and come up with a recommendation for just about any brand.

I shoot Nikon, but recommended a Canon G16 (years ago) to my parents, as it was better for their needs than Nikon's Coolpix.

For point-and-shoots, I usually recommend Canon. I generally feel that Nikon makes better "big" cameras, and Canon makes better "small" cameras. Not including mirrorless, of course, which neither excel at.

Canon excels at mirrorless just fine, for those who are hobbyists below the full-frame threshold. I'd personally try a Fuji or a Panasonic / Olympus, but for folks who might have gotten used to a Canon Rebel or other APS-C body, and really like it, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the EF-M system.

For point-and-shoots, I only ever recommend the "indestructible" cameras, the ones that are waterproof and shockproof, because I've lost count of how many relatives and friends reported to me that they bought camera XYZ and it got a grain of sand in the lens, and Nikon/Canon/Kodak (yeah, it's been a while) told them it would cost more to repair than the cost of a whole new one. ;-)

Just before I went on holidays last year, my Sony a6300 broke down (shutter mechanism died). Sony service in the Netherlands is so slow I could grow a long beard and a ponytail before it was back. The short version is, I bought a Nikon compact camera on the airport in Munich (hardly any choice) and that died after a week with a stuck lens.
Fortunately, I had my old Sony a77 with me.

Sure, if you're a very experienced photographer who knows one brand very very well, and you're advising a beginner or hobbyist who does not have very lofty goals overall with photography, then sure. (Especially if you actually pay close attention to other brands, and read a lot of reviews on them.)

But, my point stands- the MAJORITY of folks who barely know their own recent purchase, shouldn't be giving advice to others who are still open to any option, and equally serious. I've lost count of how many people I've read who gave advice along the lines of "yeah, I just bought this lens a week ago, it' great! I haven't given it a thorough test yet, but I like it so far! You should buy it too!"

That's the type of advice-giving that I think should be discouraged, and I think others would agree...

I stopped giving advice. Most people will buy what the salesman in the big store advises. And that is usually a cheap low-end Canon or Nikon with even cheaper lenses. Most of these end up in the cupboard because they think they are too cumbersome. They know Canon and Nikon because they have been on the market for a long time.
Mirrorless, they think are cheap compact-cameras, they probably even don't know Sony as a camera manufacturer and they don't know Fuji, Olympus or Panasonic.

All the more reason to persist in giving advice. You're right about the big box stores and if you have the opportunity to head them off at the pass, why not do so? We know that most cameras do a nice job these days. Just giving a bit of direction to make their task easier will keep them from putting their cameras on the shelf.

Giving direction for gear purchases is just as important as telling a new photographer about the rule of thirds. If the person has gear that suits his/her needs, it makes the process easier and more enjoyable.

You have a point

I work in a camera shop and my method is very simmilar: Determine what the person will be using it for, find out what budget they have and whether they want the option to change lenses or not and then i take them through the options that are left. Of course if their budget doesnt cover their requirements then i have no problem being honest and telling them that it cant be done for that price. Id rather them get the right type of product for the job than sell them something that isnt.

Great point. I've told people their budget is unreasonable for what they want to accomplish plenty of times, but everyone starts somewhere. I usually try to get them a super-budget option and then one that would be more ideal if they could swing the funds.

A good article. I have friends who have been interested enough when going on big overseas trips ask me similar questions. Some of them I have given them simple lessons with their existing cameras or recommended new ones to buy.I am staggered that people spend all that money,costly to europe from Australia, and mainly use their iphones. In ideal light for scenic shots the phones are fine. But.......the biggest issue is fill flash.They see a nice scene and want to take a shot with them and friends in the foreground. They usually end up with terrible underexposed faces and mostly washed out backgrounds,Another relative just used her phone and every shot she took came out as a movie. Hopeless to watch until she found a button on the lap top to freeze the movement. Her and her brother could not work out how to turn the movie mode off the whole time they were there.Of course if they want to get a bit more serious they will ask someone like me or yourselves for some pointers. The two guys I did some specific training with before they left had a mixed result.One listened to my advice and used the fill flash correctly. Some beautiful shots of the UK including Scotland.Not everything was perfect but most were better than the average snapper. My other friend bought a new camera and on day 2 of his trek on the Kokoda Trail(google it) he dropped his camera over a cliff into a river and waterfall.Embarrasing! He is not deterred though. He is coming for some more lessons soon.

Terrible article. Wides are not the be all and end all for landscape - you'll want to select details as often as not. And otoh you won't need a fast lens. So they're a good case for a high quality kit zoom - which are quite common with mirrorless systems. Re. travel cameras, if you're going for a small mirrorless than again a kit zoom should be an option - eg the folding Panasonic 12-32. For the obvious reason that they're smaller than a wide range zoom but give more than one focal length.

And worst of all, the article doesn't mention focus speed at all. People often want a small camera that will keep up with running children and don't care about large images, in which case one of the tiny Nikon mirrorless cameras becomes attractive. They're cameras hardly anyone on fstoppers will buy, but they're one of the best options for anyone who wants to shoot their kids and take pictures on holiday - CAF and burst rates are up with sports photography gear and the cameras slide into a pocket. And taking pictures of running children is what most people want to do.

You: "And worst of all, the article doesn't mention focus speed at all."

Article: "Those who are interested in shooting sports will need a camera that has better autofocus and a faster frames-per-second than someone shooting portraits."

Good work.

>>You: "And worst of all, the article doesn't mention focus speed at all."

>>Article: "Those who are interested in shooting sports will need a camera that has better autofocus and a faster frames-per-second than someone shooting portraits."

Yep. The article does NOT mention focus speed. It just says "better AF" which is different - it might mean more accurate or still workable in lower light. And it restricts this to sports. A good article would have said something like "Don't forget focus speed. A lot of people will assume any expensive camera will take great pictures of running kids. Of course we know better - fast AF can be expensive or require compromises you might not normally consider, like -"

(Don't feel too bad: proof-reading is a skill in itself.)

Anyway, once again -

- The first to do when a non-photographer asks you about cameras is to find out if they want to shoot running kids

...And the second thing to do is to find out if a woman is going to use the gear, even if a man is asking. Someone recommended a fullframe body and fast zoom to a female photographer for portrait work yesterday, without thinking to tell her that the combination would mean holding almost 3kg at eyelevel...

What an adorable grasping at straws.

You don't consider AF speed to be one of the components of "better autofocus." LOL

And wait: The first thing you should ask someone is if they want to shoot running kids? That's oddly specific. What if they don't have kids? I hope you don't deal with a lot of pedophiles.

And the next thing you'd ask is if a woman is using it? Also, a little weird (with a tinge of misogynistic presumption).

You don't seem to be all there, friendo.

>> You don't consider AF speed to be one of the components of "better autofocus." LOL

Actually I said that I did. But that doesn't mean that mentioning "better AF" is the same as mentioning AF speed. Let alone providing an adequate discussion of an essential topic.

>> And the next thing you'd ask is if a woman is using it? Also, a little weird (with a tinge of misogynistic presumption).

Women have on average 60% of male upper body strength. This is fact, not misogyny. (And, yes, it is very weird that you have failed to notice that women are smaller on average than men...) If a woman is going to use a camera then options like, say, an A7 with a 18-200 as a travel camera become a lot less attractive - you need to consider weight more and make sure the female user is consulted about system weight. You are in fact being misogynistic by not considering the reasonable needs of women and encouraging them to be considered by others.

(Actually, I know you just meant that as a cheap shot at me - but you really ***are*** being misogynistic by not thinking about this.)

Let me try to dumb this down so you can understand:

Imagine you had a friend, and this friend told me to let you to meet him in NYC. And instead I told you to meet him in "America". Yes, NYC is in America... But I didn't really pass on the message. Communication must be specific enough to useful. "Better AF - for sports!" is not adequate or useful in this context.

I assume that many/most readers on this site (including yourself!) know at least a little bit about photography, so when I say something to the effect of "consider autofocus needs when recommending a camera to someone," I assume they will understand that subset of variables.

But, you know what assuming does.

If you're going to assume people don't need telling the basics, why tell them something as basic as "You need better AF for sports"? Either don't say anything, or say something worthwhile.

Which in this case means, I would suggest, that many people will want fats AF for shooting children and assume that any "expensive" camera will have it - which isn't the case. And I very much doubt that most people here have any ideas which small, reasonably priced cameras do have fast AF.

Another thing this article didn't mention was video - and the related topic of stabilization. And for a wide group of users a camera like a GX85 will jump waaaay up in appeal if they're told it can not only shoot decent video but provide stablization while doing so. Honestly, this article is worse than useless. It doesn't consider the most common use for such cameras - shooting children - or the needs of women, video, or such obviously important topics as the quality of the kit zoom available with each system - something where Fuji and Panasonic score very highly compared to Canon and Nikon. And it doesn't mention fill-flash, which can be a damn good reason why ordinary users should buy a leaf shutter compact like an LX100 instead of a DSLR.

Yeah! This article was so stupid. It didn't mention how you should ask what their kids' lap times are, what their major was in college, or how much their wife can benchpress! Useless.

This was an article describing how to begin the process of recommending a camera for someone (anyone) interested in photography. These were Stephen's three MAIN questions he asks, not all of them. Your overly specific points show your inability to grasp a fairly straightforward concept.

So here's what my first question would be to you: how much of this is you being a sad angry contrarian vs. you being being an unintelligent stubborn blabbermouth?

You could simply ask the person if they would feel comfortable holding a heavy camera for an extended period of time, rather than making assumptions based on gender. That's what a reasonable and intelligent person would do (hint hint).

Oh and please respond to that weird first question you'd ask someone regarding their desire to chase children. I'd love to read your awkward back-peddling of that statement as well.

Whoa! Did you just suggest a woman can't handle the weight of a full frame camera with fast zoom? Wow...didn't realize for the past 35 years, I've been using the wrong camera combinations, including the tank of a RB67. My bad for being a weakling woman using heavy gear...

Quick! Someone tell Dorothea Lange she's not strong enough to use that camera! She needs a man to help her!

Not only is she a weakling woman, but she contracted polio that left her with a limp. How did she ever make it as a photographer?

Amazing. It's almost like she's just as capable as a man!

Oh no be careful, Diane Arbus! Your poor little girl-bones are going to break under the weight of that Mamiya!

Wasting Time >> Whoa! Did you just suggest a woman can't handle the weight of a full frame camera with fast zoom?

No, but if you have a low literacy level, I can understand you thinking that. What I said was that women were more likely to not WANT to hold a 3.5kg at eye level, as it's the equivalent of a man doing the same with 5kg.

(Btw - no, I don't believe you're a woman. Leaving aside that the silly profile name reeks of Loser Male, any woman who used that camera combination would understand why weight needs discussing - it's almost literally impossible for a woman to be as stupid as you are pretending to be. See eg https://www.photo.net/discuss/threads/holding-heavy-camera-taking-its-to...)

Allen Morris >> Dorothea Lange

Lange used a TLR, genius. Firstly, you DON'T HOLD A TLR AT EYE LEVEL. Really. (This may explain why that Rollei didn't shoot well for you when you tried it?)

Secondly, they typically weigh about ONE kilo. Not THREE...

(One thing can be as big as another without weighing the same, Allen. And smart people use google rather than making silly assumptions)

Allen Morris >> Diane Arbus!

Ok, so this time there is a picture showing that you don't hold the camera (which despite being large still weighs a fraction of that DSLR) at eye level and you're still confused..

>> One thing can be as big as another without weighing the same, Allen.

To point out what should have been obvious, Allen, a DSLR is a box literally crammed with electronics, batteries, possibly motors, and heat sinking. A TLR body otoh is almost literally bloody empty - it's a mostly a space that keeps the lens the right distance. A TLR lens is typically 6 or 7 rather thin elements, no focussing motors, and a small shell. Not 17 elements, some of them bloody huge, a whacking great shell plus motors...

Obviously it's annoying to you when people have different opinions to you. Try not to let that stop you thinking rationally and checking facts, yes? Having differing opinions is fine. Not checking facts is not.

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