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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.