Answering the Age-Old Question: What Camera Should I Buy?

Answering the Age-Old Question: What Camera Should I Buy?

As a photojournalism professor, one of the questions I get asked most by beginning photographers is, "What camera should I buy?" As if there's a single, definitive answer to that. The answer I always give is: What do you want to do? There's a camera out there for everyone, and here's a guide for what to look for when you're starting out.

The big question that one had to ask 10-15 years ago was whether you wanted to shoot video or photos with your camera. There was a long period where Canon was the only game in town for serious stills and video capabilities, with its EOS 5D Mark II in 2008 blazing the trail into what is now the cinema lineup of cameras, while Nikon was still trying to figure it out with its wonky motion JPEG codec on its D90, and Sony was barely a blip on the radar. In 2024, almost all the major brands have enough capability on both sides of the equation that for most people, it's a non-factor.

More important these days is whether a system has enough lenses and flexibility to accomplish the photo and video goals you have in mind. So, the first question to ask yourself is…

DSLR? Mirrorless? Fancy Point and Shoot?

This one’s an easy one. Get a mirrorless camera. If you’re reading on this site, you’re probably well past point-and-shoot cameras, or you’re looking to go past the capabilities of one. Sure, there are really high-end models such as the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV, which features a 1” sensor that’s larger than a smartphone, but still quite a bit smaller and less flexible than a DSLR or mirrorless camera. There are better ways to spend $1,700, if you’re looking for something you can grow into as your skills and needs change.

Did I need a mirrorless camera to make this shot? No. Did it make getting a sharp shot nearly wide-open on an almost 30-year-old portrait lens (the Canon EF 135 f/2L USM) much easier? Undoubtedly.

But why did I open with the hot take of getting a mirrorless camera? I held out until 2023 with my Canon EOS 6D and Canon’s still actively selling many DSLRs, including the successor to my camera, the EOS 6D Mark II. Pentax is out there doubling down on the future of mirror-flippers with its K-3 Mark III DSLR, but again, I think there are better ways to spend $1,700, unless you’re a die-hard fan of the old-school style of shooting.

When I say old-style, I don’t mean the through-the-viewfinder view that is largely the only debatable advantage of the format. I mean that you’re shooting without all of the aids that help you make better photos: live exposure preview in the viewfinder, eye-detection autofocus, and the ability to shoot with all the same capabilities on a flip-out screen that you have in the viewfinder. Many of these same advantages carry over to video as well, which is often higher resolution than what's available in DSLRs, as most companies have stopped developing their DSLR lineups (except Pentax) years ago.

There are a couple exceptions to this in the very last generation of DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 90D and the Nikon D500, but at this point, those cameras are several years old.

Which brings me to the other issue with DSLRs: There’s no future. The tech has gone as far as it can go and while existing lenses and features are great, there’s no comparison these days.

For instance, the most sophisticated DSLR autofocus systems don’t hold a candle to even a mid-range mirrorless model’s eye-detection and focus capabilities. The new tech has breathed life into my old lenses that I wouldn’t have dare shot wide open before just for focus accuracy reasons.

So, What Should I Buy for $1,700?

"Mature" mirrorless systems like Micro Four Thirds and Sony's E mount have tons of lens options at lots of different price points available compared to newer systems like Nikon Z or Canon RF.

Since that number has, inadvertently, come up for fancy DSLRs and point-and-shoots a couple of times already in this article, what’s a good model for someone who knows enough to be dangerous in the world of photography?

Well, the big three camera brands should certainly top the list: Sony, Nikon and Canon. For the money, you can get an EOS R8 for $1,299 or an EOS R7 for $1,399, which leaves a little bit of money for lenses. At Sony, that can get you an a7 III (though without a lens) or an a6700 with a kit lens and some money left over. Nikon’s got the Z6 II and the Z50 with a bunch of lenses. All of these will get you 4K video and all the benefits of an ecosystem under continuous development. There’s going to be some fantastic stuff coming in mirrorless from all of these companies, so your camera will probably be able to do things in the future you haven’t even thought of yet.

That’s not to discount other brands out there. Panasonic makes some excellent video-focused mirrorless models, such as the S5 II and Fujifilm has been out there with the fantastic X-T5 for some time. And against all odds, the Olympus line still exists under the rebranded OM System and has some classics like the OM-5. (RIP my OM-D E-M10 II, one of my favorite cameras I’ve ever owned, but you can still get the newest version, version IV, for $799).

That’s not to say there aren’t lower (or higher) priced cameras that may meet your needs, but any of these aren’t a bad start.

What Are Some of the Downsides?

There are some “dead” mirrorless systems out there, such as the Nikon 1 or Canon EOS M system (that I bought into knowing it was dead), and while they may be great values, the systems themselves will be a dead end, which is something to consider. No new lenses or bodies to build an empire upon.

Every brand will have some of its quirks or downsides. To me, Sony cameras are built for people with gorilla hands and have overly complicated menus, yet are somehow hooked up to the best sensors in the business. Canon doesn’t allow third parties to develop autofocus lenses for the R-mount, which limits lens choices, but its first-party offerings are very, very good. And Nikon, with its recent acquisition of RED, is a bit of a wild card with video at the moment.

What Doesn’t Matter?

This was shot with an entry-level, APS-C camera and a cheap lens. Does it matter? Not really.

In all of the talk above, I haven’t made much mention of sensor size, something you’ll hear gear-heads talk about all the time. It used to matter, with bigger sensors (full frame, medium format, etc.) offering better image quality than smaller sensors (APS-C, Micro Four Thirds) because they were larger and able to gather more light more efficiently.

It doesn’t matter anymore. Advances in sensor technology and better lens design have rendered the differences mostly academic. Any camera produced within the last 4-5 years will produce image quality that’s plenty acceptable for even the most demanding photographer. Buy into the system that has the lenses you want and that fits your budget.

When and Where to Buy?

So, you’ve settled on buying a mirrorless camera. When's the best time to buy? What's a good way to buy it?

Unequivocally, the worst thing you can do is Google and buy from the first link you find. There are many fly-by-night operations selling non-existent or gray-market (non-US) models. Buying a gray market camera can mean that you may not be able to get your camera serviced by the manufacturer in the United States, and that features might be region-specific and/or locked out.

Instead, buying from a reputable retailer such as B&H Photo/Video or the manufacturer directly is your best bet. Many times, manufacturers sell refurbs with warranties comparable to new models, and that’s another way to save money on what essentially looks and feels like a new camera. I’ve bought refurbs from the major manufacturers many times without incident.

Finally, timing is very important. You’ll often find the best deals in November-December, around Black Friday through Christmas.

Do you have camera buying advice of your own? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I read something somewhere that March is often a good time for deals. I don't know if that's true this year. The Canon mirrorless sytem gets you access to 35 years worth of EF autofocus lenses that are even better on the RF adapters than they ever were on DSLR Canons. I used a circa 1993 300 2.8 until last year on my R bodies. You can pick up a Like New, used one of those for $1750 plus tax. They are really sharp. See if you can borrow or rent a camera to try it in your hands. is a good place to rent from. If it isn't comfortable in your hands you will hate it. That why I didn't buy a Canon R5 or R6 or R6II. I found them really awkward to hold, even though in almost every situation they take great photos. I might buy an R5 down the road for the gorgeous 45 MP images now a clean used on is down to half what they were new.

Adding a battery grip is helping me get used to the switch from 5d to R6ii.

You do cover a lot of ground BUT one big thing you do not cover that makes any and all cameras worthy! And that is todays software, If you have made it to photojournalism professor you must have lived through the many years of having to use a camera makers software when not able to afford PS or Lr when each cost $800+ and each full update, a beginner could never start with either. Programs like Photomatix and Oloneo PhotoEngine for under $100 started Adobe to make PS and Lr affordable. This has made any camera like an expensive rig, believe it or not.
As far as selecting a camera a person should look at lenses first that would make great starters. Just an example I have been a Sony user since '14 and still carry the 24-240mm and with Sony cameras having a button you can assign to APS-C you can get 36-360mm next a 16-35 f/4 is very low price but if wider needs the very old APS-C E 10-18mm (15-27mm) works in full frame at 12-18mm (18mm if light shield is removed) gets pinpoint stars even. Saving for the below $2k FE 200-600mm and the 2x teleconverter makes a good covering of most any thing one would like to capture to test ones skill. The point is you can get any camera but you need a small line of lenses to get started. I started with my old Canon FD film lenses with an adapter on my A7s. Also Sony is still selling new the A7mod 2 under $1K at best buy you get a camera with IBIS meaning no tripod needed for walk around shooting. Old mirrored rigs need tripods. Saving is what smart new photographers will be.
Always remember lenses are forever and old camera lenses will work with adapters on most any camera, ever go to an estate sale, I have and the kids will just give a camera and bag full of lenses if you show interest. The old film lenses are 35mm style and if foggy there is away to fix that without sending to a repair shop.
Just to repeat Software will make any camera great today, so an old camera at a Goodwill can be great to learn the basics of light control. Tools are never cheap but well made always both past and present. Just keep your pennies piled high and always learning.
1. a recent A7RV using the FE 24-240mm at APS-C 360mm the lens is great.
2. captured hand held with the A7RM2
3. Captured with A7s + APS-C E 10-18mm in full frame mode at 12mm 3 years BEFORE a 12mm available
4. A7s + Canon FD 100-400mm telephoto in '14
Every photographer learns everyday starting early gives you some stories to share!

I agree that sensor size does not matter from a practical perspective. For most photographers the size of the sensor is irrelevant. This is especially true when considering most output is to low res screens.

A larger sensor is the most direct way to better technical image quality. Larger sensors will always offer less noise and more dynamic range than smaller sensors. You can mitigate this difference by using extremely good lenses on smaller sensors. A $2000 full frame camera with a $500 lens will render similar technical results to a $500 m43 camera with a $2000 lens. Equivalency is a real thing.

Now deciding which combination is the best choice for a given photographer is a more complex decision.

It's "which" camera should I buy.

I've said it before, I'll say it again - for most people, the best answer is a newer smartphone.

The hard question is “Which brand.” I don’t know how you decide that. I happen to have chosen Canon, but it’s not the only great camera out there. After you have answered that, buy the best body that you can afford.

My advice is consider buying used whatever flagship (or high end) model of whatever you're looking into so long as it ticks the boxes of what you need. I recently bought a used Sony a9 from MPB for $1479. The thing only had 4835 mechanical shutter actuations. When I took it out of the box, my first impressions, "This is used"? Even in 2024, it's very relevant. For what I shoot, it can run circles around the new offerings in this price range.

1. Fullframe
2. AF is soooo gooood. Holy cow.
4. Dual Memory Cards
5. Z battery lasts forever.

This is the first I've bought used so I only have experience with MPB. But, I'm sure KEH, B&H, and Adorama are also great and reliable sources for used camera gear. The only reason I went with MPB is their selection of a9's. They had 10+ to choose from where others had 1 or 2.