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Which Camera to Buy?

As technology brings discernable quality improvements, consumer expectations become higher. So, even if you’d like to hang onto your camera longer, as a professional photographer your customer base may not take you seriously if you’re using older equipment. It’s a fact that many professional photographers today buy the most expensive cameras they can, not just because they’re better than less expensive models, but also because they are perceived to be better by their customers. It is expected that professional photographers use the best equipment available.

Unfortunately, in some quarters, it can still be a big ask for a female photographer to be taken seriously. Imagine showing up at a wedding, as the professional photographer, with equipment no better than that owned by the groom or, for that matter, the driver of the bridal car! It shouldn’t matter, providing you can use what equipment you have well and have the necessary people handling, creative and technical skills. Sadly, professionalism is not just about knowledge and behaviour. It’s also about perception and knowing how to ‘walk the walk and talk the talk’. This is particularly important for the young, less experienced photographer. So, sadly, many aspiring photographers may feel the need for their kit to include equipment the customer doesn’t have, hasn’t seen before or can’t afford. It’s pathetic, but a reality for many working photographers!

In a future article I’II suggest an alternative to the white lens, good news not just for Canon shooters. You’ll likely spend just as much, but the gear I suggest you consider will open up wonderful opportunities for shooting truly beautiful portraits in a manner few others can match. Look out for my article titled, Low Light Photography, due for publication on this site next week.

I know numerous photographers who have admitted to purchasing the (near) white Canon telephoto zooms, at least in part, due to the fact that the look of the lenses added to the perception of their own professionalism. From a marketing point of view Canon really hit it big time when they introduced the white lens barrel into their manufacturing process. And think of major sporting events. It’s almost impossible to tell the brand of camera a photographer is using from a distance. But, when the TV cameras feature the infamous photographers pit its very clear to the (often) millions of viewers what brand lenses and, therefore, cameras are dominant. And for over 10 years, right up until very recent times, the white lenses reigned supreme. Talk about the advantages of free advertising.  

Of course we know that the camera is only a tool and, that while a professional uses the best tools she can, her ability to craft wonderful images comes from the heart and gut (intuition) first, the head (logic) second and the camera (machine/tool) third.

The trouble is that for Wally (the groom) to take her seriously she needs to look the part. As a consequence it’s not just Wally that’s convinced ‘bigger is better’. This fact might go someway towards explaining the many times I’ve seen photographers, of either gender, approach the bride as she’s getting out of the car, prior to entering the church, and suddenly start to panic. Their 70-200 zoom, often fixed to a camera with a X1.6 (or thereabouts) magnification factor resulting in an effective focal length of 112-320mm, is way to powerful to be able to make the required half and full length shots from the distance the photographer needs to stand to mange the situation in a way that makes for a good photograph. This comical and somewhat tragic situation, when photographing a very nervous and vulnerable bride, could easily be fixed by choosing a more appropriate zoom, with an effective focal length that covers either side of the normal 50mm lens.


Canon 5D camera with 90mm f1.2 L series USM lens

Canon 5D camera with 90mm f1.2 L series USM lens



Of course most folks buying cameras are not professional photographers. If cost is a concern you might consider buying a cheaper camera and put the rest of the money into a really good lens. This is an important consideration as the long-term resale value of quality lenses is much higher than that of digital camera bodies. Buying the cheaper camera initially makes it easier, both financially and emotionally to upgrade to a new model in a few years time. Of course, regardless of the camera you purchase, the inevitable loss of re-sale value can be overcome by actually using your camera as often as possible. If it sits on the shelf, you have effectively thrown your money away. It all gets back to psychology.

The final, and to my mind most critical, component of the purchase decision is Sensor Size. When it comes to making decidedly big prints a camera with a larger sensor size will produce higher quality enlargements than would be the case with the same image made on a camera with a smaller sensor. You may not notice it in an A4 print, but you should be able to see it in an A3 or larger print. Of course, this may not be an issue, if you rarely make prints larger than A4. But there is more to sensor size than enlargement quality.

The full frame sensor is roughly the same size as 35mm film. While both Nikon and Canon manufacture cameras that incorporate full frame sensors, most of their cameras employ sensors referred to as APS-C format. In most Nikon cameras the sensor is 50% the size of 35mm film. The majority of Nikon lenses experience a X1.5 magnification factor (also referred to as a cropping factor) when used on these cameras. Most Canon cameras have a sensor that is slightly smaller than that utilised in Nikon cameras, resulting in a X1.6 magnification/cropping factor. Most lenses manufactured today are based around film. When it comes to magnification a 100mm lens is only a 100mm lens when used on either a film-based camera or a digital camera that employs a full-frame sensor.

Using that same lens on a smaller sensor camera produces a very different effect. While DOF remains the same (lens, aperture and camera-to-subject shooting distance are unchanged) the smaller sensor cannot include as much in the frame as a full-size sensor. It’s like looking at an outside view, through a large window, and then having someone board over the edges of the glass. Suddenly your view of the outside world has been reduced. In the same way the smaller sensor effectively crops the scene, compared to what would be captured with a full frame sensor, producing an image with reduced surroundings. You’ll see this as less information surrounding the subject and, as a consequence, the illusion of a stronger telephoto effect is achieved. In reality you are no closer to your subject but, by cropping out some of the surroundings, the smaller sensor provides the illusion that you are either physically closer or are employing a stronger lens. So, from a magnification point of view, the X1.5 Nikon sensor creates the illusion that your 100mm lens is 150mm, while the Canon X1.6 sensor crops the scene in line with what you’d expect from a 160mm lens.

This is great for those interested in telephoto (e.g. sports, wildlife, surveillance, candid) photography, but a disaster for those interested in wide-angle (e.g. landscape) photography. Placed on a camera with a X1.5 magnification factor a traditional 24mm wide-angle lens provides the angle of view of a mild wide-angle 36mm lens. Buying an ultra wide-angle 16mm lens to provide the same magnification as a 24mm focal length is not an ideal solution to this dilemma. Quality ultra wide lenses (e.g. 16mm) are very expensive, uncommon, and incorporate only moderate maximum apertures (e.g. f 4 or slower). Cameras with sensors smaller than full frame (x1 magnification factor) should, therefore, be avoided by any expecting to shoot a lot of wide-angle photography.

What’s more the smaller sensor requires the camera to incorporate a smaller mirror box assembly and, as a consequence, a smaller viewfinder. This chain of events results in smaller, lighter camera with significantly cheaper manufacturing costs and, as a result, a less expensive retail price. The down side is that you have to compose your image within a smaller viewfinder (e.g. framing device) than you would otherwise on a camera employing a full frame sensor such as the Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D700. To my mind this presents another series compromise.

Ultimately, you have to decide how long you expect to use the camera before technology and your customers’ likely indifference assigns it and, possibly you, to oblivion? You also need to consider how large you can expect to enlarge your prints on a regular basis and, most importantly, what sort of photography you expect you will most likely be doing over the next few years. If your interests are sports or wildlife photography then the magnification factor associated with a smaller sensor may well make sense. If your interests include a fair amount of landscape (natural and/or urban), then the full frame sensor is well worth considering.

What is best is actually a moot point. Of more importance is what is most appropriate to your own type and style of photography. And with the information above well digested, only you can make that decision. Assuming price doesn’t get in the way.


© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


4 Responses

  1. Glenn,

    I was in your Friday night class. I am really enjoying your daily photo. Such an inspiration to all of us learners. I am going to Lake Eyre next week and hope to put into practise some of the things you’ve taught us.

    Cheers Sue

  2. Great news Sue. All the best with your travel and photography plans.


  3. Thank you! I always wondered why you sometimes see photographers with HUGE lenses photographing people from such a short distance. I always comment to the person I’m with that they are showing off and don’t need a lens like that! But always did so with hesitation because you see it so often so I thought that maybe I was missing something with my limited photographic experience and knowledge…apparently not 🙂

    Admittedly I am guilty of the same feelings these photographers probably have. I feel somewhat less ‘professional’ as I put my short wide angle lens on, or what’s worse my insignificant looking 50mm lens to shoot someone. I feel much more proud credible and professional donning my larger telephoto lens, but unfortunately it is rarely appropriate for the work I do!

  4. Hi Suzanne,

    Thanks so much for your contribution. Wide-angle zoom lenses are great for people-based photography. They allow you to move in close, without scaring the subject, and depict them in a way that often makes them stand out from their surroundings.

    All the best,


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