Choosing Your Next Camera Body for Photography

Choosing Your Next Camera Body for Photography

Late last year, I wrote here about choosing your next lens for photography. In the comments, I was asked to write a similar guide about cameras. So today, we will be discussing the important factors in choosing a new camera body, or if you are just getting into the world of interchangeable lens systems, your first camera body.

As with the question about lenses, cameras are an extremely personal decision, and nobody's recommendation should be the decision-maker for your purchase. You need to understand how you shoot and what your requirements are. Most of the features in high-end DSLRs are really nice, but nice is where they stop for most people. Unless you need those features, you might just be able to save yourself a few hundred, or in some cases, a few thousand dollars. So, let's take a look at some of the things that differentiate camera bodies.

For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on interchangeable lens digital systems. I will leave out medium format digital cameras, because I assume that if you're looking at one of those, you know what you're looking for.

Manufacturer

If you already have a collection of lenses, this is more than likely a no-brainer. However, if you're just starting out, this can be a daunting decision. People are going to tell you this and that about the system they use, but only by trying will you know what works for you. Canon? They're great. Nikon? Fantastic. Sony? Some great stuff there, too. Fuji? You get the point. They're all great systems, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. The brand doesn't matter, so long as the body fits well in your hands, does what you need it to, and is supported by great glass (see the previous point about manufacturers).

Mirrorless or DSLR

The gap is closing between mirrorless cameras and DSLR systems. No longer are mirrorless cameras relegated to the casual user, as full-time working photographers begin to make the switch to Sony and Fuji systems for stills. However, there is still a gap. DSLR systems generally have more extensive lens collections, as they draw on a longer heritage. They are also generally faster to operate, have better battery life, and fit better into large hands. If you require uncompromising speed and usability at this point, DSLRs are still the best choice. However, for those who work slower and don't mind having to use menus to select some options, mirrorless systems can produce excellent images as well.

Viewfinder

This may seem like a small consideration, but many people swear by rangefinder style systems for the experience of being able to see outside of your current composition. There are also a large number of entry level mirrorless cameras without viewfinders at all. Do you like to have your camera at arm's length? Up to your face? Covering only one eye?

Not only is the positioning important, but when it comes to DSLR cameras, the coverage of the viewfinder is also important. If your viewfinder is only 97 or 98 percent of your total frame, you may find yourself guessing at the outside edges of your frame and needing to crop every image in post.

Sensor Size

Zack Arias kindly pointed out to us that between APS-C ("crop") and so-called 35mm full-frame sensors, there is very little difference in image quality. Honestly, all interchangeable lens systems out there have great cameras, great sensors, and great lenses. In the end, you should be holding the camera in your hands and looking at the available lenses for that system (remembering that high quality lenses for APS-C sized sensors can often be had more cheaply than their equivalents on full-frame). A crop sensor may even be beneficial if you are going to shoot sports or wildlife, as you will get a little extra reach out of lenses designed for a full-frame sensor.

ISO Performance

Consider what you'll be shooting. Those new Nikon D5 and Canon 1D X Mark II low-light beasts may seem appealing, but the previous generations can be had a lot cheaper secondhand now that their successors are on the way. Most current prosumer and professional level cameras are great up to ISO 6400, and some even beyond that. How often will you actually use those high ISO values? If you're shooting a lot of low-light corporate events or weddings, perhaps it's a great idea to get the latest and greatest. However, for most applications, you won't need those extreme numbers.

Autofocus and Overall Speed

If there's one time I unquestioningly reach for my Nikon D750, it's when I need things to happen extremely quickly. The D750 is flawless in its performance. The buttons are responsive, the autofocus leaves nothing to be desired, and it writes files to card as fast as I can shoot them. My Fuji X-T1? Not so much. That's a camera for when I have time. Its autofocus still isn't quite there, and I simply don't get the shot-to-shot speed I get from my D750. Consider what you'll be using the camera for. Sure, you can pull off shooting sports with the Fuji cameras, but if you're looking to simply know that you have every shot every time, nothing quite beats the performance of high-end DSLRs.

This scene happened out of the blue on a recent family shoot, and it only happened twice (over the course of about three seconds) — a difficult situation for any autofocus system. Seven out of eight shots here were dead on out of the D750. I would not expect the same response from the Fujifilm X-T1.

Memory Card Type

This gap is also closing for most applications. A few years ago, I would have told you to make sure you got a body with a CF slot. The cards were so much faster. However, with the advances in SD card technology, the differences are only an issue if you're shooting huge volumes. I recently got back from Myanmar with four fully loaded 64 GB Sandisk Extreme Pro SD cards. That's 8,000+ images. That took one hour and 8 minutes to copy. Of course, it would have been half the time with the best CF cards, but I got to watch an episode of Gotham while I waited — a fair trade in my book.

SD cards are cheap by comparison, with CF Cards being almost double the price, and XQD a little more than that for the same capacity. Remember though, you'll need fast readers and a decent USB 3.0 train to get the most from all this speed. Again, it boils down to what you really need.

Overall Handling

This is why I love my Fuji X-T1; all the dials are there. I love that tactile experience. I love my Nikons too, but they're different beasts. All of my cameras have everything I need accessible at my fingertips. Some systems do not. Especially in lower-end bodies, you'll find that settings tend to be buried in menus or more difficult to access. If this matters to you, you may end up looking at higher-end models. For me, it is important that I can keep the camera to my face and change all required settings without having to look at a screen. I also love for these settings to be reflected the moment I change them, so I can keep shooting quickly. If you're shooting landscapes, this may not be so pressing.

The small differences in the bodies of the Nikon D800 (left) and D750 (right) make all the difference for me. The D800 has the edge in button placement, with ISO and WB settings being easy to find on the top of the camera without looking. I never could get used to these being mixed in with the buttons next to the rear LCD.

In Conclusion

These are the things that I would recommend considering when looking at your next body. If your current body fulfills all your requirements, then don't worry about an upgrade. Otherwise, spend some time considering the features of the body in question, then head out and try it, and see if you like it. After all, it needs to get out of the way so you can make photographs.

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18 Comments

eliot graeme's picture

no mention of wysiwyg evf in the viewfinder section?

no mention of no lag off in the viewfinder section?

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

I suppose you know this already, Dylan - it seems Fujifilm are likely to release a successor to the X-T1 in mid 2016 (June? - two months' time?). I've been looking into buying one of their cams and at the moment, the X-Pro2 is ahead on points -

But if the X-T1 has a similar upgrade, then the X-T2 is likely to be the winner, for me. In the meantime, new X-T1s in Australia are a great deal cheaper than a Pro2, and I imagine the X-T2 (when it arrives) will be somewhere nearer to the price of a Pro2.

That said - anyone in Australia who's going to be happy with the performance of an X-T1 can get a real bargain at the moment.

Indeed, this is the case. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of it. I'm sure we're looking at improvements over even the X-Pro2's autofocus system.

The general impression is that AF on mirrorless cameras does not match that of DSLRs WRT to action. In my experience the AF of Canon 1Dx and 5Dmk3 is that in true fast action occurring in real life the AF struggles a lot.
Shooting tennis recently with a background not particularly busy was an exercise in rage with the Canons while a "lowly" Panasonic FZ1000 could nail focus far more reliably. Shooting volleyball was also a parade of DSLR AF fails.

A lot of "action" is not particularly challenging for most cameras as it is generally moving across the field of view or in the example above, not even changing the plane of focus. Action that is advancing to or receding from the camera or has any sort of busy background will challenge even the vaunted AF of Canon's best bodies.
My experience with PDAF is that it is fast but not particularly accurate and in many cases fails to find the subject despite the hype to the contrary. CDAF however is almost as fast and when locked on focus is accurate almost every time.
For me ( full time pro) the advantages of the mirrorless platform are outweighing the putative advantages of the DSLR.

Personally I have found the continuous focus of the Fuji cameras to match, if not beat the Nikon DSLR lineup, AFTER they lock on initially. The initial discovery of the subject is the only thing I'm waiting for in the Fuji system. This applies to single focus as well. The Nikons are there when they need to be in both cases with locking initial focus, but the Fuji's are still sluggish.

Would love to see some results from that FZ1000!

Terry Henson's picture

Nobody ever mentions how Mirrorless cameras DO NOT need Auto Focus fine-tine adjustments. I have a D800 and D800E and have shot over 15 weddings this past summer and hundreds of photoshoots with both of them. But what good is a camera "locking on" if the auto focus is off?? In fact, just last night I shot a photoshoot with both the D800E and the A7R. I was using fast primes on both (Sony,55 1.8 and Nikon 85 1.4g). The Sony NAILED focus every single time, much like my Fuji -X-T1. When I get home, I would say about 60-75% of the Nikon shots were perfectly sharp. I guess my point is I will trade autofocusing speed for accuracy any day.

Totally agree.
I have said this many times but the DSLR fanboys squawk that my technique is wrong.

Of course let's set aside 30+ years of experience and just look at the results.

A mirrorless camera that just nails it next to a DSLR that struggles.

One could argue that it is technique but then ALL the mirrorless manufacturers seem to have figured out how to do it without the secret AF handshake needed with the DSLR.

Of course, Terry may just have a body that needs an adjustment at the Nikon factory. I had to take my Nikon D600 back to the Nikon facility just outside Toronto a while ago because the focus was inconsistent. I was able to prove it with their own ViewNX software that clearly showed the focus point on the images I sent them on a USB stick. They repaired the problem and I have never had a focus issue again!

-Paul

Terry Henson's picture

Well Paul, I might of agreed with you my friend, but when I have had similar issues with the D610, D800, and now D800E....I can't help but state my obvious findings. Yes, I do shoot at very wide aperatures quite frequently on my nikons, but I also do the same with my Fuji and Sony bodies as well. They never ever miss!

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

This aspect of photography annoys the hell out of me. I want to take photos, not carry out technical checks & adjustments on gear which I've already paid a heap of money to buy.

I bought a couple o of high end primes to go on a shoot in France last year - had loads of trouble with AF on the w/angle - read an article recently suggesting we should all check the AF on all our lenses because we might need to make some adjustments - it was easy on 3 of them, but the w/angle continued to be "difficult".

I've been to two camera shops in the past two days - the one where I bought the lens which told me there was nothing wrong with it, and one where I found a delightful & EXTREMELY helpful & knowledgeable guy who had a much better look at it, and told me it need to by adjusted +18 on the AF.

While it was easy for him, because he has the technical skill set to do such adjustments and to assess what is wrong or not, it's not right to expect photographers generally to be just as clever at those things.

Not, at least, in my view.

That's for technicians and - in situations like this - the manufacturers.

Oh - and backfocusing etc probs like that are not likely to occur with mirrorless cams. They come from the path the light follows to get from the lens, through the focusing mechanism, on a DSLR. I came across a detailed explanation of that, too, while I was dealing with the w/angle this week.

Austin Rogers's picture

Honest question — in real-world use does anyone really notice 98% viewfinder coverage? People can't be cropping *every* image in post because of it, right?

Rob Watts's picture

Doing landscape and architecture, this can be the difference between having to crop and not. Before I had my 5D3, I had a T2i and to me it was an annoyance.

Austin Rogers's picture

Ah that makes perfect sense. Might be a good live-view opportunity too. :)

I use my 5DmkIII for architecture and use Live view all the time. I also use a CamRanger but a tilting screen on the camera would be dead useful.

"They are also generally faster to operate, have better battery life, and fit better into large hands. If you require uncompromising speed and usability at this point, DSLRs are still the best choice. "
I cannot agree with that. my olympus omd em-1 is very fast, has tons of hardware buttons that can be set to any function you can imagine. Often being able to judge the exposure exactly through the live viewfinder allows you to work faster and make batter judgement. When I don't need shallow DOF I go for the olympus not my canon 5d. And I can shoot for two days on one battery on it, including tons of video...
Alan: I had multiple mirrorless cameras (panasonic, olympus, sony) and there is NO lag in the viewfinder.
(I don't work for olympus if you are wondering)
it is a simple choice really. If you need shallow DOF for portrait you need larger sensor. For landscape etc a good mirrorless if a much better choice.

Carl Irjala's picture

No tool can view and save data and convey emotions as our eyes and brain. Hardly it will be possible in the future either :)
I chose as my first digital camera, the Nikon D750, and I'm very happy with it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this very nice article!