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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.