The Basics – How to Buy a Camera

I can’t believe I’m writing this post. But I was asked nicely, so how could I say no?

Before I get started I want to be very clear, I’m not an equipment geek, I don’t collect cameras and I don’t like to sit around and talk gear. I’m sure it’s lots of fun, but I would rather talk content than technical specifications any day.

At-AT Migration
At-AT Migration (the story is more important than the tool)

With that said. I completely understand that there are many toy photographers who got their start shooting with their phone or a hand me down camera and when presented with the concept of purchasing their first DSLR, the choices are more than a little confusing. There are so many wonderful brands, styles and choices that its hard to keep them separate. Do you want a full sized DSLR, a mirrorless (and its little sibling, the micro four thirds) or would a compact point and shoot be your best bet? For me the hardest part about choosing a camera is that I’m asked to look into a crystal ball and divine how I will be using this camera body well into the future – a nearly impossible task.

I’m going to simplify this post and only address camera bodies with interchangeable lenses. I’m sure there are wonderful point and shoots on the market and some great toy photographs have been taken with them. All I have to do is look to the work of @brett_wilson (who only recently moved to a DSLR) or @bricksailboat (who has used a Canon G15 for several years) to see that good photographers work with what they have and don’t let their equipment slow them down.

I can’t tell you which camera make and model on the market, out of the hundreds that are available, is going to be the best choice for you. I would strongly recommend you read a few technical blogs or listen to a camera podcast, if you don’t know where to start. You can also ask your toy photography friends what they’re using. Any toy photographer will give you the low down on what works for them. Chances are if it works for them, it will work for you.

Before you start looking at camera bodies take a look at the lenses you plan on using. Think of lenses as your brushes and the pixels, like film before digital took over, as your canvas. Lenses come in many shapes, sizes, styles, focal lengths and of course price tags. Every photographer eventually has a few preferred lenses and a couple of specialty lenses just for fun. Rarely do you use that kit lens the manufacturer is selling with the body. Sure they’re a great place to start and everyone needs at least one 50mm lens in their kit, but if you’re a toy photographer, you might prefer a 50mm macro lens, a 100mm macro or even a good wide angle prime lens. I will paraphrase a quote I heard on a camera podcast recently that rings true: You marry your lenses and your camera is your mistress.

A few questions before you start shopping

When you’re not taking photos of toys, do you like to photograph landscapes, portraits, or concerts? Are you thinking of trying to make a little money on the side photographing weddings, product photography, shoot video or just practice some guerilla street photography. Its probably not going to come as any surprise that each of these styles may require you to make some hard choices in your camera body. Knowing what is import to you will help you make that final choice.

Lets get specific

With that said here are a few specifications I look for in a camera body:

  • Does the camera have Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes? This is mandatory and also pretty standard.
  • Does the camera shoot both Raw and Jpeg? – I want to retain as much information as possible for post-production so I like to shoot in Raw format. The camera I currently use captures both formats at the same time which I find incredibly luxurious.
  • How many Megapixels can your camera capture – basically the more megapixels you have the more details you can capture which makes it easier to print large images. If you don’t plan on printing your image larger than say 8 x 10 or even 11 x14, then the number of mega pixels shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Most hobbyists don’t need a file bigger than 8 megapixels; especially if you’re capturing snapshots or uploading your images directly to social media.  Remember the larger your file sizes, the more money you will need to invest in storage.
  • Weather sealed – you would be surprised at the situations I find myself in and I don’t want a few drops of rain or a few grains of sand chasing me back inside because I’m worried about my camera.
  • Full Framed Sensor – I want a camera with the largest sensor I can afford for a couple of reasons 1) it has better low light photography performance and 2) it can maximize the shallow depth of field.
  • Multiple Focal points – this is a personal choice. For still imagery you may not need that many. But if you’re a street, concert or sport photographer – you’re going to want as many as you can afford.
  • Does it feel good in your hand?- I’m amazed at how few people take the time to really test the heft and comfort of a camera. Go to the camera store and pick up the camera you’re looking to buy and really play with it. If it doesn’t feel good, you won’t use it.
  • Interface – is the camera manufacturers interface intuitive? Are the menus easy to use or is the design a mess of menus buried under sub menus? Again, if you can’t bond with your camera and know it inside and out, you will never be able to get the most out of it. What could be worse than struggling with your camera to get the settings right while the light is fading around you?
  • Flash – If I want to add additional lighting to a scene I won’t use a flash. An integrated flash is actually a minus for me; it could go off accidentally and ruin a perfectly good photo.

Some features that are commonly available in the newest cameras that you might find handy:

  • Wi-Fi: This is especially important if you need to quickly upload your images to the web for either clients or social media. If you don’t have  consistent access to a computer this is a handy feature.
  • Electronic View-Finder – EVF’s have come a long way since they were first introduced, it’s really amazing to see your depth of field or exposure change in the view finder before you take the photo. With optical view finders you have to take the photo and look at the results on your view screen before you can make your adjustments.
  • Image or Sensor Stabilization: It’s nice to have a little assist for hand shake or if your like me, you like to push hand help photography to below 1/60th of a second.  To have some form of stabilization built into either your lens (often referred to as IS, VR or OS) or your camera body (usually found in mirrorless systems), is a great feature to have.
  • Swivel view screen:  This is definitely a feature I can take or leave but many toy photographers swear by it. Personally I like the challenge of getting myself in awkward positions so I can look through the viewfinder. You’re on your own with this one. 🙂
  • 4K video: If you’re thinking about using your camera to pursue a career in video, you may want to explore this option more. If you use your camera to occasionally capture personal or family moments on video, 4k is not only overkill, but it will cost you in terms of additional storage space. Its cool, but wouldn’t you rather spend that extra money on a new lens?
A final word

A word of caution on entry level DSLR’s, they aren’t built to last. I’ve know two toy photographers this year who’ve been put out of commission because their camera bodies stopped working. After looking to send them in for repair, it became apparent that it would be easier and cheaper to buy a new body. Rather than purchase an entry level DSLR, maybe consider a sturdy little mirrorless camera.  Or add a macro lens to your iPhone. Or better yet, upgrade your budget and look at a lower end pro-camera.

The best camera is the one you have with you. In this case an iPhone 5S.
The best camera is the one you have with you. In this case an iPhone 5S.

Whatever camera you eventually decide to purchase, remember your camera is only a tool. It doesn’t take the photos – you do. Even the worst camera in the right hands can be used to capture amazing photos. Conversely, the best camera in unpracticed hands is simply a point and shoot.

If you’re still not sure which camera to buy, try renting a camera body and your dream lens. There’s nothing like spending some quality time with a camera to really tell if it’s the right choice.

I hope you found this post a little bit helpful. As I stated at the beginning, tech talk is not my forte. 🙂

~Shelly

Whats your favorite camera and lens combination for taking toy photographs and why?  Please leave your comments below and lets continue to learn from each other.  

PS. I will confess that during the research for this post I fell in love with the Sony Alpha 7II, a full frame mirrorless camera body. I won’t be giving up my trusty Canon 5D mrkIII anytime soon, but the idea of photographing with vintage glass makes me get just a little bit excited. Sony’s mirrorless system will accept any camera lens (with an adapter), has stabilization on the full sized sensor and shoots 24 megapixel files, all of which makes it a smart choice for what I want to do. Before I pull the trigger (maybe next year) I will be renting this body and testing it out to make sure I like it. A strategy I highly recommend before spending any amount of money on a pro-camera. 

Published by

Shelly Corbett

<—- If I keep telling myself this, will it come true?

0 thoughts on “The Basics – How to Buy a Camera”

  1. Nice overview, thanks Shelly

    Always good to realize that the lenses are, in some way, more important than the bodies. Bodies come and go and (good) lenses usually last a lot longer. So, I feel that when choosing your first DSLR-body it’s good to look at the brand, because the next body will probably be from the same brand, because you already have the lenses.
    I have always been with a Pentax, a niche these days, but with good quality equipment in my opinion.
    I’ve been looking to transfer to a full-frame (Pentax has relatively recently released their first one I think, with good reviews), but the prices puts me off…. and I probably would like to replace the lenses to full frame lenses. So I’ll wait for now.

    1. Thank you Daaws for your comment. 😀

      Yes photography equipment is an investment.; one lens at a time, one body at a time. I was looking at medium format digital cameras and yes, the prices threw me. But I think in a few years I might pull the trigger. There are so many good options in terms of brands (pentax has always been solid) and third party lens makers (Sigma and even LensBaby!) that you aren’t always limited by the brand of camera. But your right, when you choose a brand, you will more than likely stick with that system – you can’t beat a lens and a body that was designed to go together. 😀

    1. Very exhaustive overview! I started with the Canon EOS 350D, upgraded to the 550D and then, since one year and a half, switched to a micro four thirds camera, the Olympus E-PL7. Since I love hiking, I decided to switch to a mirrorless camera because is definitely smaller, but that doesn’t mean lighter… 😉 But with an appropriate case I keep it on my backpack’s shoulder strap. And I have no regrets: the only thing I really miss is the viewfinder, when I shoot outdoors. It’s available as accessory, but I think it’s too expensive, better waiting and upgrading the entire body.
      I chose Olympus over Canon, because of some interesting features the E-PL7 had, like the wi-fi, an app for both iOS and Android (to use the smartphone as remote control) and the focus peaking that became slowly indispensable to me, especially for legography.
      I totally agree when you say that the kit lens is rarely used. After a while I bought the M.Zuiko 25 mm 1:1,8, the lens I take the 80% of my photos with. What about the remaining 20%? I use the M.Zuiko 60 mm 1:2,8 macro.

      1. Luigi, Your Olympus sounds like a great compromise. You have a couple of great lenses and I will admit that I’m totally jealous about that focus peaking. I use that when I video and I find it incredibly useful. I can only image how much easier it makes focusing on little mini figures. Sweet!

        I will admit that I’m old school and no viewfinder would be a deal breaker for me. But your photos show prove that it gets the job done. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Nick, I should have known you use a wide angle lens! It makes so much sense when I look at your work. I know Mike also uses a wide angle lens for his photos. Canon recently came out with a 10mm-22mm which looks promising. I love a wide angle but have never used one for mini figs …yet 😀

      Thanks for sharing!

  2. Reminds me of the classic response to the question “Should I buy a Canon or a Nikon?” (which can be expanded to include Sony, Fuji and other famous manufacturers these days): “Yes”.

    Cameras are getting so good these days that it really doesn’t matter which brand you choose if you stay with one of the big players. If a system has a macro lens available, it will probably fulfil all my needs!

    I don’t agree entirely with the full-frame sensor reasoning, when I moved from APS-C to FF the DoF change was negligible. And certainly for the D800, it didn’t result in better low-light performance because Nikon added so many more pixels to the sensor that the photosite size was about the same as the smaller sensors!

    1. Hey Mike I couldn’t agree more! There are so many good choices its hard to choose. But it bothers me when a person chooses an entry level system which is often so cheaply made. My parents brought me up to buy things once – so I usually go to a sturdier model. I think cameras should be the same way. If you can’t afford something in the prosumer category – then step back a notch an d work with one of the amazing mirrorless cameras that are on the market. You don’t always need to have interchangeable lenses.

      I come from the land of underwater (no light) and rock (no light) photography – so having a full sized sensor is a big one for me. But for most people who aren’t that sensitive to light needs can get by with one of the many crop sensors out there. Most photographers who are posting there images to the web wouldn’t even need to worry about noise in a low light situation since it wouldn’t really show up until you started enlarging the image anyway. Its all a rather moot point for sure!

      Did you notice how I sidestepped how a cropped sensor changes your lens focal lengths. I figured I would leave that for the pros!

  3. What a great overview without getting too techy! You pose some important questions that will help newbies and “old hands” alike in choosing new gear. My current setup is a Canon 5D mrkII with a 100mm f2.8 macro lens, or an iPhone 6. While I love my DSLR setup and will likely not get rid of it, it’s heavy and bulky, and is becoming more and more a burden to take on trips/adventures. I’m also kind of over having to strain my body just to look through the optical viewfinder!

    Cindy’s actually looking at one of the Sony Alphas too! (They’re easy to fall in love with!) We want to add video to our creative outlets, plus, her Nikon setup actually belongs to her work.

    As for me, I’m looking at super downsizing to a compact point-and-shoot, mainly for documenting vacation stuff with more control and quality than my iPhone or waterproof cam, but will also shoot decent toy photos. (I’ve been picking the brains of Wiiman and Bricksailboat – their shots are amazing from those little cameras!) This camera would serve as my light travel companion for those steep 10-mile hikes or Hawaiian adventures when I don’t want to be lugging around that hefty DSLR.

    Been researching Canon G7x mkII and Nikon DL24-85, but have yet to go test them out. Aside from the obvious compactness and convenience, the other features I find attractive are the tiltable LCD screen, bright f/1.8-2.8 lenses, and wi-fi. I’ll let you know what I finally settle on!

    1. Leila,

      It sounds like you and Cindy are on the right track on your next camera purchases. Im glad to see you’ve reconciled yourself to the fact you will have multiple cameras. At some point you realize that one camera will not be able to fit every scenario.

      As for hiking with your DSLR did you know that BlackRapid has a really awesome backpacking set up? It attaches directly to your shoulder straps. I have one and it makes hiking with a bulky camera pretty easy. This might be a cheap short term solution for your backpacking needs.

      I know your interest in video and I would highly recommend you research lenses. I can really see you going down that road in a big way. I think you will appreciate the different looks you can achieve with glass that was manufactured by hand, with all the imperfections etc, they have a beautiful analog look.

      Let me know what you decide on. Personally Im glad I’m not into video so I can get the original Sony A7 rather than the A7II, so much cheaper!! 😀

      1. Oh and I totally forgot to mention my other lens combo, which is the Canon 50mm f/1.4 paired with a 12mm extension tube! I hadn’t touched my 50mm in years since I’ve gotten into toy photography because it was horrible for macro. But with the extension tube, it has become my most used lens for my stop-motion animation project, providing me with a “wide-angle” option compared to the 100mm’s field of view. I haven’t yet tried to photograph toys with it out in the wild, but it’s been totally effective in studio, giving the composition a bit more context by including the background.

        I’ve been working your old 5D mkii to the bone on this project, by the way. It’s powered on for hours each night and all weekend, shooting approx 700-1000 photos each session! When it’s time for you to upgrade to that Mark IV, I may be interested in getting your Mark III hand-me-down! 😉

        Thanks for the backpack strap tip! That may come in handy for something in the future. But I really am just looking for a high-quality point-n-shoot. Super lightweight/compact… so I can pack more toys! haha just kidding. 🙂

        1. I’m so happy to hear that the 5d Mkii is working so well for you. Its always nice to know your ‘older’ equipment went to such a good home. Lol! At this point in time I have no intention of moving onto the MrkIV. Even if I side step to the Sony mirrorless I doubt I will be letting go of the MrkIII anytime soon. But I promise if anything change, you have “right of first refusal”!

          I was looking at Leicas this weekend for fun and the macro set up I came up with that would work for my application also utilized an extension tube. Maybe I should also check this option out, it would be an easy way to get a wide macro lens for my canon.

          Thanks for sharing Leila! Your perspective is always great to hear! 🙂

          1. ooh, i’m curious what your Leica setup would be! Yeah, the extension tube option is pretty cool if you can work within its limited focus range.

            🙂

          2. Heres re the details on the Leica if you’re curious:

            https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/893170-USA/Leica_10770_M_Digital_Camera_Black.html

            adapter

            http://www.slack.co.uk/2014/Leica_Macro_Elmar.html

            Im not sure what the actual lens was. My impression of the Leica cameras was that they were best suited fro street photography.

            I think the final price tag was approaching 10K. If I was going to drop that chunk of change on a camera I would probably upgrade to a digital medium format camera. It would make the most sense with what we have so far.

            One last word on Leica’s – they are HEAVY! One of their selling points is that they are made from a solid piece of aluminum. Sure they are sturdy cameras, but once you add the lens it made it too heavy even for me. Its fun to kick the tires, but I wasn’t going to go any farther than that. 🙂

  4. For a knucklehead like me that’s recently made the transition from iPhone to Sony Cyber-shot RX10, with plans to continue my “real” camera migration, this post has been invaluable. Thanks Shelly.

    1. Brett you’re no knucklehead. 🙂

      I swear these camera manufactures do not make it easy with these confusing numbering systems. Seriously who can keep it all straight. I think you did a great job choosing the Sony Rx10, it has good all around specs and it’s obviously working for you. When you’re ready I think you will enjoy moving to a system of interchangeable lenses. Then the body becomes only one more tool, one you know you will outgrow and upgrade in time. Now the glass…that is another issue completely. <3

      I'm really in trouble with all this research - I see that Canon just announced the 5d mark IV. Seriously, I need to stop reading these camera blogs and go take some new photos. Hopefully that will cure this camera lust I'm feeling.

  5. Great post Shelly! I originally bought my camera for sports (gymnastics) photography so I wanted the cropped sensor (yes, I did notice that you didn’t mention the change in focal length ;-). Now I wouldn’t want to go full frame because then I’d probably have to buy a different macro lens. I’m currently using a 60mm macro lens that we originally bought for my husband to take photos of flowers but I have since “borrowed” the lens from him and never returned it 🙂

    I like what you said about how the camera feels in your hands… I can remember the day I first picked up the D300 and fell in love with it and how easy it was for me to hold. Now, 7 years later, I’m still using it 🙂

    1. Thanks Lynn, I’m glad you like this post!

      I guess I would tell you that you shouldn’t be afraid of a new camera because you might have to buy a new lens. You may end up with another Nikon or simply get a lens adaptor and keep using the same lens. Or you might end up with a camera where that lens you like will still work – you never know unless you try. I can’t imagine having only one lens. They come in so many different flavors and I like to mess around sometimes. Even something as simple as a LensBaby can give you look a dreamy feel – infuse a sense of memory to the subject. I think a lens like that might make a nice counter point to your crisp images; possibly introduce a backstory for your characters. Hmm, my imagination is running away on your behalf. Sorry about that. 🙂

      I think the “how does it feel” part seven more important for women. Most pro cameras seem to be designed by and for men. Not all of them feel good in the smaller hands of a woman. I’m glad you found that sweet spot. It’s obviously working for you!

  6. Good post..as usally here on SiP 🙂
    I have my Canon 6D and my Canon 100mm f/2.8L when I capture my minifigs, love the sharpness and how close I can get. I don’t have a wide lens, but I have read some people talk about it here..perhaps I should try one 😉

    P.S perhaps I don’t post so much here bit I love to read all of your posts and the replys. Give me ideas and makes me think D.S

    1. Stefan, Thank you so much for your comment, it is much appreciated. I’m glad we can inspire you to try new things while helping you to appreciate what you are already creating.

      I think you and I have a very similar kit; it certainly gets the job done. Cheers my friend!

  7. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker
    who has been conducting a little homework on this. And he in fact ordered me breakfast simply because I found it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanks for spending time to discuss
    this subject here on your website.

    1. I love it! My work caused me to buy a new camera body and you got a free breakfast! Isn’t the world a great place? I wish your friend all the luck in the world with whatever he / she chooses. I hope they remember that the camera doesn’t take the photo, the photographer does. So don’t put too much stock in fancy equipment, its only a means to an end!

      I hope you enjoyed your breakfast!

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