I’m sure there’ll be a lot of digital cameras on Santa’s sledge this year! However, if you’re trying to decide which entry level digital camera to buy, then it can be a very difficult process. Once upon a time the choice was between a polaroid, a compact film camera or an SLR film camera. Nowadays each category is getting more and more crowded and complex. In this blog I’m going to be taking a look at the “first posh camera” category i.e. a first “proper” camera with interchangeable lenses.
Many people out grow their compact or bridge camera eventually, wanting to take better quality pictures and try out more creative techniques. A camera for which you can buy different lenses and which has more settings is the next step. A few years back the only option was a d-SLR camera and beginners would look for an entry level model. Then the manufacturers worked out that some people found these cameras and lenses quite heavy and inconvenient to carry around. Professional photographers accepted the weight and size of their gear more readily than amateurs or hobby photographers.
The solution came firstly in the form of Micro Four Thirds cameras, a very small camera body with small lenses. Those clever developers had worked out how to do away with the mirror used inside a d-SLR, meaning the camera could be smaller and slimmer. This all sounds ideal for many people but there were some drawbacks that prevented these cameras from appealing to keen photographers.
Just before we go on, a word about camera sensors
Much of a camera’s performance is reliant on this piece of technology. The sensor is the digital equivalent of camera film. Light falls on it and the image is recorded in pixels. It’s way too magic and complex for me to understand never mind explain, but that’s it in a nutshell. Here’s an infographic from Digital Camera World that explains it.
It’s the size of the sensor that is all important. The larger the sensor, the better the image quality, the colour accuracy, the performance in low light and the dynamic range (ability to capture the full range of light and dark tones).
The different sensors are as follows (largest to smallest):
Full frame: equivalent size to 35mm film – used in professional level camera models.
APS-C: also known as cropped or two thirds sensor – used in many entry level and intermediate cameras. Around 1/3 smaller than a full frame sensor.
Micro Four Thirds: used in the first generation of mirrorless cameras. Approximately 30-40% smaller than the APS-C sensor.
Compact camera sensors: Significantly smaller than the micro four thirds sensor.
(I’ve left out the more specialist medium and large format cameras here).
Now back to Micro Four Thirds cameras…
Although better performance than the average compact camera, they cannot match the quality of a camera with a APS-C or full frame sensor. Most of them also lack a viewfinder, so you have to use the LCD display, which can be problematic in bright sunshine. If you are making the leap to a better quality camera then d-SLRs or mirrorless cameras will represent a higher jump in performance and image quality.
Where do Mirrorless cameras fit in?
This is the category of camera that everyone is watching with great interest, as huge technological strides are being made all the time. These cameras are slightly larger than Micro Four Thirds but that’s because they have the APS-C sensor that’s used in entry level d-SLR models. The latest models are being compared to d-SLRs and the reviews are good. A few things to note:
- Entry level d-SLR cameras can now be bought at a snip – Canon 1200d was available for £199 on Black Friday 2015. The mirrorless equivalents can be around twice the price.
- Some mirrorless cameras also do not have a viewfinder and screen visibility can be an issue when it’s bright.
- Those mirrorless cameras that do have viewfinders have got a digital one, not an optical one. The camera shows an electronic view of what you are photographing. On some models this is excellent – bright and clear and no time lag, but on other models it can look odd with a time lag.
- Battery life can be quite short but this can easily be overcome by carrying a couple of spares.
- As these cameras have only been around for a few years there are less lenses around than for d-SLRs. However, for most amateurs the range of lenses is more than adequate and more lenses are being added all the time.
- Don’t be tempted to buy one of the earlier models as the technology has improved a lot in the last couple of years.
I’ve recently switched from a Canon 5d camera to a Sony A7 mirrorless. This was the first mirrorless camera to feature a full frame sensor and therefore just about matches my Canon 5d performance-wise. I’m very happy with my choice and you can read my thoughts on the A7 here.
Size, weight, quality and cost – these are the main factors to consider. If you are on a tight budget grab a bargain on an entry level d-SLR. If you can afford it go for a mirrorless camera with APS-C sensor (personally I would leave micro four thirds out of the equation completely). Unless you have a large budget I wouldn’t go for a full frame mirrorless camera yet, as the lenses are quite pricey too.
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