Digital Camera Buying Guide

Nikon DSLR camera

Thank you for your interest in our digital camera buying guide workshop. Here is our digital camera buying guide. With this guide you can navigate the confusing process of selecting and buying a new digital camera. You want a camera more powerful or more useful than your phone but the choices of what to buy are complicated and probably a bit confusing. With so much to consider in terms of megapixels, price, weight, reliability, and lens systems your head is spinning. How do you find the right digital camera for you?

Camera Categories

Understanding digital camera categories is the first step to figuring out what camera to buy. Decide the following:

  • Do you need to go big and get a DSLR?
  • Do you want something small and compact?
  • What options exist between the two?

A DSLR is a powerful computer with interchangeable lenses and lots of manual settings that can be intimidating. Today’s compact point and shoot cameras are not what they were before the digital age. They come with increasingly more bells and whistles like red-eye-reduction, scene and face recognition, and more. There are also a wide range of options between them like mirrorless cameras that have interchangeable lenses and other sophisticated cameras that pack in some of the features of the big cameras but are more compact, light-weight, and easier to use.

How do you decide what category of camera you need?

Digital Photography Buying Guide

Knowing what you want to do and where you plan to use your camera is essential.

  • Are you an avid traveler or do you plan to travel?
  • Do you attend a lot of events?
  • Do you want to do photography as a hobby or even explore it as a business?
  • What do you want to take pictures of?

If you can confidently answer what you anticipate photographing you can narrow your options down a camera category that fits your needs.

If you’re truly unsure what you want to do the best idea is to take time to think about it. Cameras are expensive. Buying one without knowing what you plan to use it for will leave you frustrated when it doesn’t do what you need.

Eliminate What You Can

If you’re really unsure start by eliminating what you can. A compact point and shoot with all of their lack of versatility will limit your choices if you take a variety of photos and plan to use your new camera often. You might eliminate DSLRs if you don’t want to carry around a bunch of extra lenses and other accessories. The more that you know about what you will use your camera for the easier it will be to select the right one.

Make a list of what types of photos you want to be able to take. Write down what would limit your use, (size, weight, complexity, lack of appropriate lenses). Get to know what you plan to do with your new digital camera. This is the first step and as a result you will be able to select a category of camera.

How Many Megapixels

I’m asked this all the time. How many megapixels do I need? You’re asking that questions because the camera phone industry have convinced you that it’s important. Digital camera manufacturers told us that megapixels are how to measure the value and quality of a digital camera. As a result, you’re asking yourself how many megapixels you need. There is a world of related and essential questions that you actually need to answer. When you do this question, while important, will be easier to answer.

What are megapixels?

What are megapixels? Megapixels are a unit of measurement. The term means 1 million pixels but pixels are not a uniformed size. Think of pixels like car lengths, you’re told to allow a following distance of x number of car lengths but there is a big difference between a Smart Car and a Cadillac Escalade. Similarly there are differences in sizes of pixels. Just as with automobiles the less expensive pixels are often smaller.

A DSL’s pixels might be 8 microns wide (a micron is one millionth of a meter). Your smartphone’s camera pixels might only measure 0.8 microns. That’s a difference of a factor of 10. You might think that having more pixels in that space would be ideal but the trade off is those pixels are less light sensitive and their size means they lose some dynamic range. Your new iPhone could be 50 megapixels but a 5-year-old professional model DSLR with 12 megapixels will still produce a higher dynamic range, larger print size, and better photos in lower light. Megapixels matter but the size of the pixels matters more. The size of the pixel determines how much light it allows in.

Sensor Size

The sensor size is more important than the number of megapixels. If you’re seriously looking for an improvement over your smartphone a modestly priced compact point and shoot camera will have a much larger sensor. A full frame DSLR will have an even larger sensor. The only sensors you will find larger than that of the full frame DSLR’s are for medium format cameras and they are priced starting around $4,000 without adding in the cost of lenses. They can cost as much as $20,000 or more just for the camera. As a result they’re probably not a great choice as a beginner digital camera.

Most new compact point and shoot cameras will provide you with resolution that will allow you to print a photo in the 8×10” and often up to the 11×14” range. Mid-range cameras with somewhat larger sensors produce even nicer enlargements in size and in dynamic range.

Dynamic Range

A camera’s dynamic range is a measurement of how much contrast the sensor is capable of recording. The sensor’s capability to record details in ever deeper shadow and brighter highlights is a big benefit of digital cameras. The dynamic range of film, especially slide film was very narrow, negative film was greater, and digital sensors have proven to offer a large jump in dynamic range. Dynamic range increases as the sensor size increases. If seeing a lot of detail in your photos is important you’ll want to compare the dynamic range of the cameras that you’re looking at buying.

Types of Sensors

There are two types of sensors used in modern digital cameras though one of those is largely going away. CCD sensor cameras are still on the market but they’re rare. These actually produce higher quality images but they’re more expensive. Most camera manufacturers now exclusively make cameras with CMOS sensors. A camera with a CCD sensor might be an older model. Investigate to make sure you’re not being sold a camera that is several years old priced similar to new cameras with more advanced features.

Magnification and Depth of Field

The size of the sensor affects magnification and depth of field. If you’re shopping for DSLRs a cropped sensor camera will increase the magnification of the image, lengthen the focal distance of lenses, and will have a wider depth of field than a full frame sensor. The smaller sensor size only captures the middle of what the lens projects when compared to a full frame sensor. Take the same photo with the same lens from the same place with a cropped and a full frame sensor the cropped sensor appears to be zoomed in.

This information is important depending on what type of photos you plan to take. They do make lenses for cropped sensor cameras that give you very wide fields of view so wide angle photos are less of a concern. If you want to shoot telephoto pictures a cropped sensor magnifies your images which means the power of your telephoto lens appears to be greater. Be aware that if you plan to photograph sports or nature with a telephoto lens and want that nice out-of-focus background from a shallow depth of field it’s better to use a full frame camera. The smaller the sensor the wider the depth of field will be. As a result getting a blurred background in portraits and sports become much harder if not impossible.

The same forces that cause this wider depth of field also influence sharpness so the larger the sensor the sharper the image can be but sharpness depends on a lot of complex factors.

Low Light Photography

Low light photography is important. If you plan to shoot anything from family get togethers to your latest meal you’re going to deal with situations where wish you had more light. There have been big advances over the last few years that help everyone when it comes to low light photography. Compared to film, the sensitivity of digital sensors is incredibly high. This is great but you’re still going to run into low light issues. That’s how the world works.

Our camera’s light sensitivity is managed by a setting called ISO. This setting groups pixels together to increase their sensitivity. Higher ISO results in increased digital noise. ISO is a hold-over from film. The sensitivity of film was measured on the same scale. You might remember buying 400 speed film for action or 200 speed film to take portraits outside. Find a camera with an ISO range that will allow you to photography what you want. Higher ISO isn’t just important for low light. A high ISO will help you capture action in moderate amounts of light.

You can find a camera that can make great photos in low light due to it’s high ISO capabilities but it might sacrifice clarity in lower ISO settings. Look at reviews and dig a bit deeper once you’ve narrowed your camera choices down. Cameras can come with crazy high ISO capabilities but produce photos that are so noisy at those sensitivity levels that they’re not worth using. Investigate the ISO numbers and the quality of the high ISO photos.

Image Stabilization

Image stabilization (IS) is another tool that helps with low light photography. In small cameras image stabilization may be integrated into the camera. In DSLR cameras it can be packaged in the lenses or the body. Getting a body with IS capabilities means most if not all the lenses work with stabilization turned on. Make sure you can also turn it off. Sometimes IS can cause issues such as shutter delay.

It can cost more to get a camera with IS. In DSLRs it’s often a feature of camera brands with less market share. They add such features to compete with bigger names. Big brands add IS to lenses, specifically large telephotos or other lenses used for action photography.

Having stabilization helps with low-light photos. If you plan to photograph nightlife or other activities in lower light make sure you buy a camera with IS. Compact cameras are starting to come with other low-light settings are for stationary subjects such as for portraits. These features might be of interest to you. Read about them carefully and make sure you understand what they do. Don’t pay extra for a gimmick that you can’t use.


Low light capabilities are great but sometimes you need to use flash. Today nearly all cameras have a built-in flash, even the higher end DSLRs include them. Like sensors, the size of the flash is a factor. The smaller they are the less powerful. Smaller also means harsher. You will need flash from time to time. This means you must consider flash when buying your camera.

The hot shoe on this Canon DSLR camera is on the top of the viewfinder.

If you’re buying a mid-range, mirrorless or consumer introductory DSLR you will usually have a hot shoe on the top of the camera that you can mount a flash to or can add a remote trigger system for controlling off-camera flash.

A hot shoe gives you versatility. Even some point and shoot cameras have hot shoes. No matter what you plan to photograph consider the benefits of a camera with a hot shoe.

Working with available light is often enough for most people but learning how to control light, add pops of flash to brighten up parts of your photos, or exerting complete control of the light and becoming a master photographer means using and understanding flashes. Consider your lighting needs carefully. Ask experts or experienced photographers that create the types of photos you want to create about how they use lighting to better understand your needs when it comes to flashes.

Mirrorless Cameras

I’ve mentioned mirrorless cameras a few times but if you’re unaware of what these are let me explain. Mirrorless cameras are often similar in appearance to DSLR’s. They usually have interchangeable lenses and they look a bit beefier than a point and shoot but are still more compact than a DSLR. They’re called mirrorless because DSLR’s contain a series of mirrors that bounce the image from the lens to the viewfinder. The main mirror, visible in the camera’s body, folds up out of the way just as a photo is taken which gives them their loud click.

Mirrorless cameras are great for a lot reasons. They’re smaller, lighter, and less expensive than DSLRs. They often have large sensors, (some even have full frame sensors). Some offer impressive lens collections. The proximity of the lens and sensor offers some advantages as well. The downside is that they all rely on a digital viewfinder. If you plan to spend a lot of time using a mirrorless camera you need extra batteries. With a DSLR you can look through the viewfinder with the camera turned off which isn’t the case with mirrorless cameras.

Camera Weight

Another considerations is camera weight. A Nikon DSLR with a large fast lens is going to weigh a lot. Nikon are generally heavier than Canon, their biggest competitor. A Canon DSLR versus a compact point and shoot still seems heavy. If you’re planning to use your new camera on family vacations where you’re carrying a child, a diaper bag, all the things they insisted on buying, etc. camera weight is a factor. A camera that will fit into your pocket or bag might be all that you want.

The range of weight and size is surprisingly large even within each category of camera. Be sure to look at the weight of the cameras you’re considering once you’ve narrowed your selection.

Water & Dust Resistance

Like smartphones a few years ago cameras were not very water and dust resistant. Even professional level DSLRs were only moderately good at keeping the elements out. Today you have a lot more choices. There are extreme sports models with added ruggedness. Those can be very appealing if you take your camera skiing, surfing, etc. Look at the water and dust resistance of your choices before you purchase. Those with better performances in harsh conditions often signal better reliability overall.

Cameras have a lot of delicate moving parts. The bigger more expensive the camera the more this is true. Understand how much punishment the cameras you’re considering can take. Look at their warranty, exceptions to the warranty, their repair costs, and time to repair. Make sure you’re getting a camera that can keep up with you or that can be easily repaired or replaced when it fails to do so.

Interchangeable Lenses

If you’re looking for a camera system with interchangeable lenses you consider how long the lens system has been on the market. Nikon cameras still fit lenses from 50 years ago. Canon has changed their lens system over the years so their backwards compatibility is not as high but they’ve been in business for a long time and the ability to buy lenses that fit your Canon DSLR is unlikely to change any time soon. Can the camera you’re looking to buy say the same thing?

Will this new-to-the-market style of camera with proprietary lenses be around in a few years? If so will I need all new lenses if I switch camera bodies? If you think that is a possibility you might want to buy into a more reliable system where you can upgrade the body and lenses without worrying about the manufacturer eliminating them from the market.

In Conclusion

In conclusion I hope you enjoyed our digital camera buying guide. There are many things to think about when it comes to buying a digital camera. This is far from a comprehensive list. The last piece of advice is to begin to ask questions of the retailer you’re looking to buy from. Consider camera sellers who know their stuff. There are shops that have been in the business for decades and employ real experts. You can and should compare prices but sometimes expertise is part of what you’re paying for. If so take advantage of it. Fine-tune your choices and get the exact camera you need.

Happy Shooting!