The Most Important Thing I Look for in a Camera

The Most Important Thing I Look for in a Camera

As I await the arrival of my new Nikon D850, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time over the past couple of months pouring over specs, B&H user comments, Fstoppers reviews, and YouTube unboxings. I’ve read all there is to read about my new camera, as well as its closest competitors, to get the best advice on the ideal use of my hard-earned money. Of course, one person's answer as to why I definitely should buy a certain camera is the same as another person's answer as to why I definitely should not buy the exact same camera. So which camera is right for me? And at the risk of sounding self-absorbed, the emphasis is on the word “me.”

You see, I’ve come to understand that picking out the right camera for you is slightly akin to going to the local animal shelter to find yourself a new puppy. There are plenty to choose from. And they are all awesome, because, well, dogs are awesome. But unless you live on acres of land or in an abnormally large apartment in Manhattan, the odds are you can only choose one. Perhaps you’ve done research on different breeds. Perhaps you have certain allergies or space requirements that, prior to entering the door, seemed like the most important aspects of your search. But once you begin walking the aisles, taking a moment to meet each perspective canine face-to-face, trying hard to maintain your elegant cool but quickly being reduced to the grinning joy of a five year old boy, one thing ultimately becomes clear: you’re not so much there to choose a puppy as you are there so that a puppy can choose you.

Camera searches are much the same way. With all the technical advancements made over the last decade by camera manufacturers, it's hard to really ever make a bad decision when buying a camera. Even the lowest model on the sales chart is more than likely capable of producing images in auto mode that are light years ahead of the best cameras available a decade ago. An initial browse will likely return an endless number of models that you could buy. But which one is right for you?

Well, to know that, you must first take a second to consider who exactly you are. Not in a larger existential sense, although that would help, but rather in a more practical sense. How exactly do you plan to use this new shiny toy? Are you a landscape photographer? A top-end commercial shooter? Will you be photographing subjects in the studio? Do you need a machine that can withstand the rigors of an eight month backpacking trip through the Serengeti? Will the beautiful frames that emanate from your camera make you the king or queen of social media? Or do they need to maintain resolution when stretched across the entirety of a skyscraper in Times Square? All of these questions and many more help you decide, or in some cases dictate your decision of one camera versus another.

Of course what question and answers you deem most important depend entirely on you. No two photographers are the same and neither are their equipment needs.  

I’ll use myself as an example. I am a lifestyle, fitness, and activewear photographer. My clients are some of the largest athletic brands in the world (and some of the smallest). So what does that mean? That means that I will often be asked to photograph moving subjects. After all, why photograph an athlete, but never have he or she be, well, athletic? So I personally need a camera with decent burst speed. I’m not a sideline game photographer who has to generate an endless barrage of files on every play without prior knowledge of what’s about to happen. No, I generally know (roughly) what my subject is about to do. I may have even just told them what I want them to do. It’s less about spraying and praying, and more about trying to capture the decisive moment. So I may not need the absolute fastest burst speed on the market, but still, I need a camera that can produce multiple frames quickly and efficiently.

Then there is file size. My clients generally are hiring me to produce images that will be used to market their products. Sometimes the ultimate end of that image will end up on a billboard. Sometimes it is only meant to buttress their Instagram account. So, when shopping for a camera, I need to make sure I am choosing a camera with enough resolution that it can be blown up to a decent size without losing quality. Of course, since I am also on a budget, I have to focus on getting all those megapixels at the best possible price as well. For me, that means having a high-end DSLR as my “in-house” camera and then renting cameras with larger sensors, such as the Phase One or Hasselbad when needed. I know I can service the vast majority of my clients with my own Nikon, and the clients who need larger files are generally willing (and able) to pay the equipment rental costs to obtain them.

Speaking of my “in-house” camera, I am in the Nikon family. That’s not a declaration of superiority to any other brand. But, when I began my photographic journey 12 years ago, it began with a Nikon. Over the years, I’ve grown with each successive member of the Nikon family. And more importantly, as I’ve grown with Nikon, I’ve purchased a small armada worth of lenses, flashes, and accessories all built for the Nikon line. That’s not to suggest that I would never consider changing to another manufacturer. But it does mean that switching to another camera brand would immediately render a large portion of my photographic arsenal obsolete. So, now when I go to purchase a camera, the newest Nikon is always going to have a certain practical edge on the next camera in line, since going with another brand would require an immense financial investment beyond just the cost of the new body alone.

I also produce motion as well as still images. While this wouldn’t have been an issue only a few years back, more and more my clients are hoping to include video as well as still in their projects. And while this may sometime necessitate the rental of a dedicated motion camera, it has become an essential benefit of even my main still camera. Being able to accommodate a client who needs both still and motion, adds to my versatility and increases my bottom line.

There are more aspects to consider, of course. Size matters. But only a little bit. Mirrorless cameras, with their far lighter form factor, are definitely intriguing to me, but having spent so many years holding larger Nikons and/or much larger Phase One cameras, I don’t really mind the weight. Even on a personal, thoroughly non-technical basis, I actually tend to miss the loud sudden clap of a mirror dropping when shooting with a mirrorless body. The benefits of ditching the mirror aren’t lost on me. I just really like the heavy kaboom that happens every time I press my shutter and the mirror activates.

And at the risk of aging myself, I still cannot stand live view. Unless there is an extremely practical reason why I physically can’t contort into a particular position, I absolutely demand to have my eye pressed clumsily against the back of a viewfinder. I realize there are other ways to do it these days, but still it just doesn’t feel natural to me to do it any other way.

And that last point, while small, brings me to the most important quality of them all: it just feels right.

Like visiting the animal shelter, at the end of the day, your new best friend will ultimately choose you. One could easily argue with any of the preferences I stated above. I could, mentally at least, make many of those arguments for you. But sometimes a camera just feels right in your hand. There’s nothing wrong with the other cameras on the market. But this one, this specific camera, just feels like it belongs to you.

A camera should be an extension of your hand. With all the technological advancements put into the latest and greatest digital image makers, photography still comes down to the basics of aperture, shutter speed, film speed, and a choice of lens. Everything else is nice to have, but ultimately beside the point. You don’t need a better camera to make you a better photographer. You need a camera that can provide basic minimum standards, but then ultimately get out of the way so that your creativity can take over.

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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This is an awesome article. I love the "buying a dog" analogy, and all the tips are spot-on. This would make for a definite read for someone looking to buy their next, or first, camera.

Thanks Tim

i think you nailed it when you write that this is not about brand fidelity but more about what feels right for your needs. Obviously previously owning lenses and accessories from a specific brand will play it's part, but that is valid for any other business or area.
Very well written article and fundamented opinion.

Thanks Pedro

I registered just to write this comment - extremely good article. I like "down to earth", "common sense" style, you buy what you need, not what everybody tells you to buy. Everybody today is running towards new shiny toys even when they have perfectly good equipment already, the initial placebo effect will wear off once the newer toy comes out and suddenly your perfect toy is not that perfect, you must fight against that feeling otherwise it will cost you a lot. I approve buying top end stuff if you really need top end performance - pixel by pixel. Otherwise, newer cameras don't offer that big improvement over the older ones.

I'm still using Nikon D90, although i had a chance to use several better Nikon bodies for months i'm still hanging to my D90, i'd rather invest in a proper lens to cover the range.

Lens and lights are always the best long term investments.

Interesting analogy. I am in the market for my first higher-end DSLR, to be used primarily for landscape photography. I read all the articles and view all the videos I can on each model, and plan a trip to the "pet store" to pick up and pet each one, to see which breed speaks to me.
What I anticipate happening is exactly what happened when I picked up my Australian Shepherd pup. She was expensive and gorgeous, had her own unique personality, and I soon found out, was so much smarter than I realized.

A great insight into parts of the mind that are not Pixie-Centric. Thanks for writing this.

(Warning: IPA induced comment) having said that, this is a great article. I’ve been looking to replace my D700 for a little bit now. I may have a slight (a slight I tell you!!) case of G.A.S but I do like the look of the D850 sepcs. But seeing as I focus on production photography cranking out literally 100’s of 5x7’s & 8x10’s monthly for a living, I don’t REALLY need 40+ megapixels... But I will say this, I woke up at 4:15am PST on Jan 31st to hike a near by butte to take photos of the super moon (about a 20min hike and mostly all for not; due to cloud cover). However, I took those 20 minutes to largely think about how ‘I wish I had a better camera’; and weighed the pros and cons internally. Don’t get me wrong, the D700 is a wonderful camera and a workhorse of a body. But with an aging rubber housing, and an ISO that could almost be laughable in some circles, it is stifling my creativity?? Who cod know?? I do feel like when I get a new piece of gear I am a little more inclined to get out often (when my wife allows) to push that equipment to see what I can do with it. Again, G.A.S. a side, is there anyone else out there who, when they get a new piece of equipment, makes them get out and do something they may not have done with their old gear? Sorry for the long winded comment, I may have been drinking and editing...