Choosing camera gear can be a lot like buying a car. There are lots of brands with a broad range of features and functions and prices that can get eye-popping. The great thing about today's cameras is that you can't really go wrong. I am not going to evaluate cameras and lenses and so forth. What I will offer is a few insights about today’s cameras that may help you think about what you will be inspired to use and not leave in a closet. I have found some good websites that do side-by-side comparisons of just about every camera and lens - check my "good links" page for some of my favorites.
A photographer named Chase Jarvis made a business from selling an iPhone camera app with the soundbite, "The best camera is the one you have with you." I use my Smartphone for snapshots and it is great for that. In fact, cellphone cameras have just about wiped out point-n-shoot cameras in the marketplace. Smartphone cameras are the Kodak Brownie box camera of today in that they are designed for close shots of people. If you scan through Instagram or Facebook, that's a big part of what people photograph these days. If you want to do something more, then your smartphone camera can be limiting.
Before the digital age, cameras were basically a transport mechanism for film. The tonality of your pictures was defined by the film you used, like Kodachrome or Fuji Velvia, and the quality was defined by the size of the film. The quality of pictures degraded rapidly if you enlarged a print beyond the size of the negative. For super quality 8x10 pictures, you used 8x10 film; for 5x7 pictures you used 5x7 film. Of course, you had to buy a camera that used that particular size film. In the twentieth century, 35mm film fed the compact camera of the day and most people would not attempt to enlarge a 35mm negative much beyond 5x7 but some did stretch it to 8x10. In those years, most “good” cameras used what was called “medium” format film that was smaller than 4x5 inches and bigger than 35mm.
Digital cameras of today define the quality and tonality of pictures with their sensor and their lens. Each manufacturer seems to have a distinct character and quality in their sensor. Complicating things even more, lenses are no longer judged solely on their optics. A lens is a microcomputer, electric motor and gears for focusing the optics, and several optical elements housed in a cylinder that may be sealed for weather resistance, and it all integrates with the microcomputer and motors as well as circuitry and memory cards in the camera body.
Cameras and cell phones use different size imaging sensors that can affect the quality of photographs. The illustration below shows the relative size of sensors in different types of cameras.
The pixels on a 10 megapixel cell phone camera are dramatically smaller than the pixels on a 10 megapixel DSLR and consequently require a lot more interpretation and software manipulation.
If you want photos of your family and don’t want to print your pictures, a cellphone is a great choice. If you want to make pictures of subjects that are moving (sports or wildlife) or you want to a print of something far away (landscape or wildlife), you should consider a "standalone" camera. When printed as anything bigger than 4x6, cellphone photos tend to look grainy and have digital “noise” compared to those made with a DSLR like a Canon Rebel or 80D or a Nikon D3400 or D500. Once you get into interchangeable lenses, you open up lots of possibilities but you should expect to open up your wallet, too.
Mirrorless cameras are the latest major innovation in cameras, although you may not recognize them for what they are. This technology came from point-n-shoot cameras but today’s mirrorless cameras often look like a small DSLR or rangefinder camera. They don’t have an “optical” viewfinder that allows you to see through the lens before making your picture. They use a small electronic display on top of the camera that looks like a DSLR viewfinder or eliminate the viewfinder altogether and just have a display on the back. The advantage of using an electronic display over an optical viewfinder is that it shows you exactly what the camera is seeing before you take the picture. You know if your exposure is too dark because the display shows it as dark. The disadvantages are that it may be difficult to see the display in bright sunlight and it sucks life from your batteries to keep that display on so you may end up carrying several spare batteries around.
Canon and Nikon are the “800-pound gorilla” camera companies and their gear is very good for every type of photography from sports to events to landscapes to portraits to anything else you can think of. They have a huge chunk of the market, with a very strong resale capability that actually serves to reduce total-cost-of-ownership by enabling owners to sell their components at a reasonable price years after they bought it. The downside of using Canon and Nikon is that their gear is big and heavy; really big compared to a smartphone. If it’s too big to carry you won’t get any pictures with it.
Sony has a mirrorless line of cameras that tend to be smaller and it is a good brand to consider. Sony bought Konica Minolta in 2003 so they have a long history in the market. They have a good high resolution sensor that is getting a lot of positive press. Sony lenses are generally considered to be “fair” so many people use adapters on Sony mirrorless interchangeable-lens-cameras and attach other manufacturers’ lenses. That eliminates many of the benefits of getting a smaller, lighter mirrorless camera, though. They don't have the super-wide or super-telephoto lenses in their system to compare with Nikon or Canon.
Fujifilm is a great camera company that offers cameras with retro styling in a small form factor with thoroughly modern technology and great optics. You may know Fujifilm from the excellent film offerings they sold. Fujifilm designed and built cameras and lenses for Hasseblad (a popular medium-format camera brand), along with X-ray camera systems, military binoculars, and lenses for movie and television cameras. They are not encumbered by trying to engineer lens systems that work with “full frame” sensors and the physics of how optics must be mounted for them, so their cameras and lenses can be smaller and lighter. Their cameras are unique in their ability to replicate some of the film styles of the past, like Velvia. While they don’t have the spectrum of lenses that Canon and Nikon offer, the Fujinon lenses cover a good range that covers most needs and they are extremely capable and functional.
Canon, Nikon, Fuji, and Sony lenses are engineered to work with their camera bodies and you can count on them to work every time. Companies like Tamron and Sigma make good lenses but they must reverse engineer them to fit the camera manufacturer mount systems and, while they are less expensive, they don’t have much of a resale market. Consequently, on a total-cost-of-ownership basis, the cost of their lenses is often about the same or more than the “brand” company equipment.
Canon fanboys argue that they have some of the best lenses available and that Canon sensors deliver better color and clearer pictures in low light situations. Nikon folks say their sensors have better dynamic range (ability to pick up detail in shadows). People in the Fujifilm camp say their sensors are very good at rendering skin tones. All of those differentiators can be addressed with post-processing software, so they aren’t very persuasive.
35mm film and the functionality of SLR cameras enabled Canon and Nikon to take over the market from German camera companies in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1987 Canon created a new electronic mounting system for its lenses and included an autofocus motor and computer in the lens. Nikon decided to maintain compatibility with its old lens models so it stuck with a mechanical autofocus system. At that time, autofocus was not popular with professionals because mechanical systems were relatively slow. Nikon's theory was that pros know where the ball is going to be and pre-focus, so manual is all they need. Autofocus was considered a "consumer" thing. However, Canon's new electronic autofocus system was FAST and pros loved it for sports. They adopted Canon gear in droves. That's why you see all those big white Canon telephoto lenses at sporting venues.
Personally, I have a big investment in Canon gear that I won't give up for a while. I also have a Fujifilm X100S that is tiny by comparison and has become my main "family outing" camera. It is a cool rangefinder-esque camera for street photography with a stunningly clear fixed lens. One of my Canon cameras weighs about 3 pounds without a lens and Fujifilm cameras can do the same things for about a third less weight and bulk. Fujifilm is certainly innovating while Canon and Nikon are dragging along a huge customer base that they don’t want to offend. Canon was willing to make that sort of game-changing investment in 1987 but can’t seem to do it now. I’m keeping my eye on Fujifilm. I could probably sell my Canon gear and replace it with new Fujifilm equivalent stuff and come out even financially and make pictures that are as good or better. I can't quite get the low-light capability and speed from Fujifilm that I want for some of my event work, but it may not be long.