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A question I’m frequently asked by people who know of my interest in photography—family members, friends, people who have found me through my website or blog or from right here on 1001 Scribbles is:  what’s the best camera?  My answer may surprise you.  The specific answer will vary tremendously by person, depending on each individual’s photographic proclivities, intended output, physical capabilities and a number of other factors.  But the point is, there’s no single answer to the question.  In fact, the question should be altered to:  what’s the best camera for me?  And there’s an addendum to that question, which I’ll address below.

Why There’s No Single Best Camera:  An Analogy

To the surprise of some people, apparently, I’m not a photo equipment snob.  I like to think I’m not a snob about anything, but I’m quite certain that this adjective doesn’t apply to me when it comes to photo gear.  It’s not that I don’t think “quality matters”; rather, I recognize that not everyone has the same intent when photographing and, in fact, not everyone likes to photograph the same things.  Therefore, the camera that‘s the best for one person isn’t necessarily the best for someone else.  And, in fact, the camera that’s the best choice for a person for one type of photography may not be the best option for that same person when he/she is engaged in another style of shooting.

Tools are a good analogy for cameras (which are, after all, a kind of tool).  One person may prefer a heavy hammer with a weighted handle; someone else might want something lighter.  And a single person might want one type of screwdriver to complete one job but another style entirely for another type of screwdriver-required work.

Questions to Answer to Provide Insight into the Question

So, when asking yourself the question what’s the best camera for me, there are a number of related questions you should ask yourself:

  •  What kinds of things do I like to shoot?
  • What kinds of things would I like to shoot (but don’t presently)?
  • What’s my budget?
  • What’s my tolerance for weight and girth in camera equipment?
  •  What do I want to do with my photographs?

If you can honestly answer these questions, you’ll dramatically reduce the number of options and will likely eliminate entire classifications of cameras.  And, you may be surprised to find that you’ve removed some of the most expensive options from consideration.

Another Analogy

In late May of this year, I bit the bullet and put in an order for a Nikon D800E camera body.  It’s a relatively high end—but by no means the highest end—camera in Nikon’s line; the company produces two cameras that are both considerably more expensive than the D800 series.  It is, at present, the highest megapixel SLR available from any camera maker and that—along with an early series of strong reviews, along with a competitive-for-its-class price—has made the 800 series extraordinarily popular.  In fact, the cameras have been in such high demand that even now, approximately five months after its debut, you still have to put your name on a waiting list to get one.  (The 800 is a bit easier to come by than the E version; I waited more than a month to get my “E.”)  Many, many people who had not previously used a logical predecessor to the D800—a comparably high(ish) end Nikon body—have decided to go all the way up to the 800, for a variety of reasons, presumably.

And here’s the thing—the 800 is far, far more camera than a lot of these folks need or, really, have any use for.  It’s not simply that they overpaid for a camera that will meet their answers to most of the questions that I raised above…this camera is so much more than they need that they will, I predict, over time shy away from using it because it’s really too much trouble for what they actually want to do.  That makes a D800 purchase more than just a significantly larger than necessary financial outlay; in this instance, it would be a positive impediment to photographic development.

Here’s another analogy that might help make some more sense of what I’m saying.  Imagine someone getting an expensive sports car.  It’s sleek, it’s racy, it’s a nice status symbol…but after a while, some people begin to realize just how ill-suited it is for a lot of the practical aspects of vehicle use, and they utilize it less and less to the point that it rarely leaves the garage:  you can’t take it shopping or use it to transport more than one other person; it guzzles gas; it’s not very comfortable to sit in and if you’re not on the amateur racing circuit, it’s little more than a trophy.  Of course if you are on the amateur racing circuit…

All of the images that accompany this entry were taken at the White River Gardens—a botanical garden—in Indianapolis on Friday of last week, and they were all taken with the D800E.  In this Web-based presentation, using the D800E over just about any other kind of camera—right down to a camera in a cellular phone—conveys absolutely no advantage.  If this is my primary—or sole—output, I’ve gone completely overboard.  But if I anticipate the potential—or likelihood—of producing a print of, say, 20×30 inches or more, I’ve made the right choice.  I do produce prints of this size—and larger; not all the time, but occasionally.

And this is the reason why I made the choice I did—because I saw the D800E as something that would better help me make the prints I’m trying to produce;  not because it was a status symbol to own, not because it was new and most definitely not because it would make me a better photographer.  It will help me make better prints, but not better images (there’s a significant distinction; I believe it’s extremely important to always be realistic about one’s expectations).  But without that “large print” scenario, I wouldn’t have even looked at this camera, let alone purchased it.

And So…

Find the camera that’s right for you by honestly assessing what you want to do, what you can afford to do and, in the end, what you’re willing to do.  You may find that the right choice is a high end DSLR…or a camera phone…an advanced point-and-shoot…or a large format camera with a digital back…a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera…or perhaps more than one of these, depending on how many different types of photography you engage in (and on the size of your budget and willingness to deal with multiple systems in terms of interface and ergonomics).  Whatever that choice is, it has to be the best fit for your priorities, and the number one priority has to be something that your choice won’t do—and that’s get in the way of your shooting, because, in the end, the best camera is the one you’ll actually use.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday.  To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog:  Lightscapes Nature Photography.