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What you need to know before you buy your camera: A simple guide to the basics so you can make an in

The paradox of starting in the world of photography, is you need to spend your money on equipment before you know what that equipment can do. As a result, new photographers may be persuaded to buy things they end up not being satisfied with.

“The cheap deal” that often entices beginners is almost never a bargain. You pay for what you get in photography, so do not be tricked by a sales person whose tactic may be to sell you “that camera” with two lenses or other free things thrown in, when they are not the lenses that you want.

What camera do you want?

Firstly, you need to understand a little about how the camera works to know what to look for.

The camera is just a tool that records light. Light comes into the camera in three ways, called the “Three Controls of Light” or Exposure triangle: these are ISO, Shutter speed and Aperture. I will explain these one at a time so you can understand what a camera can offer you.


1. ISO.

Inside the camera are Photosites which are light-sensitive spots. When the light comes in through the lens, it hits the Photosites and records what it sees in digital numbers. You can change the sensor’s sensitive to light by increasing or decreasing the way it records the numbers. This is called ISO. Salespeople will try to sell you something on the basis of how many megapixels your camera has. Nowadays most cameras, even cheap ones, have plenty of megapixels to produce large photos so this is not the most important factor when choosing a camera. In actual fact what makes the difference is the size of the sensor. A larger sensor can distribute the megapixels further apart from each other and offer a better resolution, especially in low light situations or if you want to crop or blow up a photo really large.

Cameras with full size sensors are much more expensive and are used by professional photographers. If money is not an issue, this is what you should aim for.

On the other hand, most amateurs use cameras with smaller sensors and still take very nice photos. If you have sufficient light or if you use a tripod in low light and don’t have to use a high ISO, then a cheaper camera with a smaller sensor will be adequate. If, however you are looking to go professional, then eventually you will need a camera with a full size sensor. This may be referred to as shooting at full size.


Here is an example of why you may need a high ISO. This photo was taken with a Nikon D750 camera, which has a full sensor and an 80-200mm lens. It was a challenging situation of photographing school boys playing soccer in a hall with florescence lights.I shot the photo at 1000 ISO and the camera has handled the light well.


This is a close up of the cropped image. Even with this severe crop, the image still stands up. If a photo looks like there are white gaps in between the pixels, it is often referred to as Snow or Noise.


2. Shutter Speed

The shutter speed refers to how fast the shutter opens and closes to take a photo. The faster the shutter closes, the less light is let in and visa versa. Most cameras will allow you to keep your shutter open on the setting BULB which holds it open as long as you like. They also will shoot at fast shutter speeds.

More important than how fast your shutter closes, is how fast your camera can shoot continuously. If you are photographing sport, that would be something to consider. Also worth noting, is if you intend taking photos in severe weather condition or if your camera is likely to be knocked about, you need to make sure it is solid and as waterproof as possible. This will mean looking at heavier, larger and more expensive cameras. This is particularly important if you intend shooting sport with a long lens.

If you are likely to be traveling with your camera, you need to consider what is more important for you. You may want the convenience of something light, small and cheaper.

This photo was taken with a Nikon D4s on a fast continuous shutter release. When photographing sport, the photographer cannot see the expressions on the faces of their subjects or see everything that is going on in the frame. Shooting fast continuous shots gives the photographer the best chance of capturing the most interesting moments.


While everyone else was holding onto their umbrellas, I walked across Princes Bridge in Melbourne looking for a wet weather picture. I knew that my camera, a Nikon D4s, could handle the rain and not get damaged. As I started walking, a double rainbow appeared in a perfect arch. In a world where everyone is taking photos on their mobiles, I was the only person with my camera out and ready to take this photo because I had confidence in my equipment.


3. Aperture

This is the least understood and most confusing part of buying camera equipment. It is also one of the most important. The Aperture is the hole inside the lens which allows more or less light in. I want to emphasis this is not in the camera but in the lens and it is worth spending extra money on a good lens. The size of the aperture is measured in F-Stops. This can be a bit confusing because the smallest number is the biggest hole. So F2.8 is a large hole while F22 is small.


Not all zoom lenses are the same. If it is cheaper, even with a longer zoom, there is a reason. It is probably a lenses that change aperture depending on what the focal length is. Fixed aperture lenses are preferable especially for portraiture as they allow soft backgrounds even when they are zoomed out. Most amateurs choose the cheaper lens and there are ways around the disadvantages to produce good photos which I teach my students but if you have the budget, it is worth getting the fixed aperture lens.

This photo was taken with a Nikkor 80-200mm lens at 2.8 zoomed at 200mm. Taking portraits with a long lens and small aperture gives that very pleasing look of an out of focus background and sharp subject. If you are spending money on new camera equipment and can afford it, make sure you buy a lens that can shoot what you want by buying a fixed aperture zoom lens.


With a fixed aperture lens, I was able to get the subject in the foreground in focus using a long lens while keeping the background soft. If you want a professional look to your photos this is crucial.


Portraits will often look more professional taken with a fixed aperture lens.


Things to remember when you buy camera equipment.

You get what you pay for.

By following some of these guidelines, you will know what is important to you and therefore what you should be spending your money on. I use Nikon equipment but I also recommend Cannon. Nikon tends to be slightly more expensive but I feel it is a bit more ergonomic. Some people like Olympus which is a good travel camera as it is small and strong but I think the setting are a bit confusing. I recommend sticking to these brands. Even the entry level cameras are good. There are cheap compatible lenses or flashes available but if you can afford to stick to these brands, they will often have better features that work better with the camera and will be more robust.

There are other brands around and cameras change all the time. If you know what you are looking for and find that other brands can give you the same features, then they may be worth considering. You can buy second hand equipment but like computers, cameras keep getting better, so an older camera which may have been expensive in its day, may not be as good as a new cheaper camera.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a camera, depending on what you are shooting, but you are better off not compromise on the lenses, as they will make the difference between average photos and great ones.


Story and Photos by Susan Windmiller


Many photography students ask me what type of camera they should buy before attending my course. This blog is in response to their question. I do not sell cameras or have any deals with any camera company. This is just my advice to my students. With some understanding of what to look for in a camera, I hope budding photographers can more confidently find the equipment that suits them. Prices and particular models change all the time, so it is up to the buyer to investigate for themselves. I run private classes and short courses for beginners. Contact me if you are interested in learning photography.


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