Starting from Scratch

It’s rarer than the “what should I upgrade to” questions I get, but I still receive quite a few “if I’m starting from scratch, what should I buy” questions. 

Nikon DSLR upgraders can just look at my Ultimate Camera Upgrade opinions. But for those of you starting from scratch, I really haven’t written anything to sort out your options. This article is a first stab at doing so, and reflects my opinions as of May 2017. 

Please Form Orderly Groups
I’m going to tackle this differently than you might expect. I’m going to categorize you into one of three groups: convenience shooter, basic shooter, extended shooter. 

A convenience shooter is just that: you use the camera casually and want convenience over everything else. You don’t really want interchangeable lenses (inconvenient to carry and to change), you tend to shoot JPEG, you are size/weight sensitive, and you don’t want a lot of things to learn and keep track of. 

Canon and Nikon want to serve the convenience shooter with low-end DSLRs and with—more so in Nikon’s case than Canon's—superzooms. Why? Because that’s what they make ;~). Yeah, it’s as simple as that. Over the years, the Duopoly managed to figure out how to take a complex product (DSLR) and make it inexpensive while still appealing to convenience shooters. If these companies don’t sell you a superzoom with a low-end DSLR, they want to sell you two basic kit lenses (18-55mm, 55-200mm or similar). 

Frankly, if you’re truly a convenience shooter, I don’t think a DSLR is the way to go. Especially since we have perfectly competent compact cameras such as the Panasonic LX-100 Mark II and Sony RX-100VII at the bottom (and most convenient) end, and compact cameras with more lens such as the Panasonic FS200 and Sony RX-10 just above them. Unfortunately, none of these cameras are all that well connected socially, so they become decidedly less convenient than you smartphone if your goal is to get images to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, 

Bottom line, the camera makers really don’t know how to make a truly convenient camera. Thus, the convenience shooter tends to always be making some sort of compromise. Funny thing is, the under-40 crowd has not only figured that out, but they’re voting by not ponying up their dollars to camera companies for anything right now.  

Just the Basics
I define a basic shooter as someone who mostly stays in well-established, basic focal lengths. A 35mm, 50mm, 85mm prime set and a 24-70mm and 70-200mm zoom set more than fill their photographic needs 90% of the time, maybe far more. 

Update: by “basic” I mean staying within the framework of most established photography in terms of look and perspective. Some people have complained about my compartmentalization here and claim that they can “do everything” with just the zooms. No, they can’t. To fully capture the types of images that are most often found in published materials, you need a fast prime set in addition to zooms. The smaller the sensor size, the more this is true, as DOF isolation gets more difficult.

For this shooter, there is a great range of choice, though strangely, not really from Canon and Nikon ;~). Canon EOS M and crop sensor DSLRs don’t satisfy the lens requirements (at least with Canon lenses). The Nikon DX mirrorless Z50 and DX DSLRs also fail the job when it comes to lenses. (Gee, is it any wonder that these companies are struggling to find new users? They can’t even do “basic” right. ;~)

At present, the interchangeable lens camera sets that best fit the basic shooter are:

  • Fujifilm XF
  • Olympus/Panasonic M4/3
  • Sony E/FE (A6000/A7/A9 series)
  • Canon full frame (EF or RF)
  • Nikon FX (F or Z)

I suppose I could throw in Leica and maybe Pentax DSLRs, but remember people are asking for my recommendations when starting from scratch. 

Leica is tough to recommend just on price. Sure, hand crafted with great optics, but also extremely expensive and in my experience somewhat flakey in the field. Pentax is difficult to recommend because they seem to still be iterating the 90’s products and it’s entirely unclear where they’re going or how fast. Where there is some clarity—e.g. the long-promised full frame DSLR—Pentax seems more like it’s following a “Canon and Nikon did it, we could do it too” kind of offering, and it’s happening really slowly. Hard to recommend Pentax to someone new, as they could quickly get frustrated with the glacial pace at which the company is moving. 

This last part is important. If you’re going to buy into a new system today from scratch, you want some warm fuzzy feelings about where that company will be in the future with new, compatible offerings that expand your options. Otherwise you shouldn’t be buying an interchangeable lens camera system.

Obviously, there are no guarantees, but no one wants to buy into a one-time or dead-end system. Pentax doesn’t qualify as either, but neither does Pentax shed off warm, fuzzy thoughts about the future of their cameras in any given line, either. Things like the K-S1 DSLR with its disco lights on the hand grip of what was realistically just a basic low-end convenience DSLR tend to make you think that the company isn’t tracking center very well ;~). 

Each of the five basic shooter choices I noted above has some issues you have to think about to make a reasonable choice:

  • The XF system is still really a hobby business at Fujifilm. While they seem totally committed to it, it’s such a small part of their bottom line you sometimes wonder whether a big cost cutting purge might some day lop it off some day. Fujifilm’s insistence on being an oddball on sensor design has pluses and minuses. At their low volume, special sensors mean higher costs or they have to keep using the same sensor technology longer (or both). Meanwhile, raw conversion options still don’t all deal well with Fujifilm’s X-Trans filtration design as the traditional Bayer filters most cameras use.  
  • Olympus and Panasonic don’t really make money at m4/3. That didn't stop Olympus from pushing the envelope with new products (both cameras and lenses), though Panasonic has taken much more cautious steps recently and seems to have scaled back some of their product plans considerably. The smallish size of the sensor (2x crop from full frame) also means that you have to be careful not to push it into shooting situations it isn’t going to excel at (though this is mitigated somewhat by lots of fast primes). Update: since I wrote this article, Olympus has divested itself of the camera group into a new company called OM Digital Solutions. Both Olympus and Panasonic can no longer be relied upon to keep promoting m4/3. 
  • Sony’s A7 series isn’t quite what it seems at first glance. Everyone gets all excited about high performance full frame sensors in a “small” mirrorless body, but despite four generations now, there are still some serious issues you need to be aware of, including a menu system that is disorganized and sprawling. What’s most exciting to me about the Sony A7 series is price/performance of the camera bodies. Sony’s pricing aggressiveness certainly lowered the cost of being a full frame shooter. But a full kit of basic gear isn’t as small as you think (and the good lenses tend to be somewhat expensive).
  • Canon and Nikon full frame DSLR cameras are big, as are their lenses for the most part. You’re committing to the biggest systems out there, though you’re getting essentially the entire history of SLR/DSLR cameras informing the designs. In other words, these are mature, well considered products.  

All that said, for basic shooting I could go with any of the above, though I’d need a bigger bag if I picked Canon/Nikon DSLR full frame ;~). 

Must Have Everything
Once we get to the extended shooter, the shooter that wants to be able to do anything and everything photographically, the choices narrow further:

  • Olympus/Panasonic m4/3
  • Canon full frame
  • Nikon full frame
  • Sony full frame (but there are still some missing elements, like tilt/shift lenses)

There’s a good chance that Fujifilm XF will join those options in the future, but right now in terms of having a wide range of body choices and a truly full lineup of lenses to choose from, even m4/3 barely makes this list. The legacy aspects of Canon/Nikon still carry a lot of value forward, as the number and types of lenses that work on current Canon/Nikon full frame cameras is huge. Nikon has pushed a bit further lately with lots of full frame body options, as well. Plus Sony’s A7 series pricing has pushed both Canon and Nikon towards offering lower cost full frame bodies, too. 

But this is also where specialties start coming into play. If you’re a sports shooter, it’s difficult to match the high-end Canon/Nikon offerings. While mirrorless offerings have gotten better at focusing over time, none really gives me the level of tack-sharp focused frames in continuous drive that the Canon and Nikon bodies do. To some degree, this applies to wildlife photography, as well, especially once you get to birds in flight (BIF) shooting. 

That said, you might not really need the “extended” package for some fairly professional tasks these days. For example, wedding photography really mostly calls for something closer to what I called the “basic shooter” group. I can (and do) see wedding pros using Fujifilm X and Sony A7’s these days. 

So I’d caution people about thinking that they’re automatically in the extended shooter category. Maybe. Maybe not. It really depends upon the type of shooting you do. So let me break that down:

  • Landscape — can get by with “basic” if the right wide angle lenses exist and the cameras have enough pixels for you. But they’re going to gravitate towards pixels, which means Canon 5Ds/r, Nikon D850, or Sony A7R Mark IV.
  • Wildlife — as noted, this is one of the areas where the “extended” group of the DSLR duopoly shines, especially when it comes to lenses and focus.
  • Sports — also as noted, you really need to narrow things down to probably just the Canon and Nikon options to be fully flexible. Sony’s A9 has made a credible in-road here, though.
  • Portrait — can get by with “basic,” period. 
  • Architectural — tricky. If you really need to correct out linear distortion and control perspective, you need tilt/shift lenses, which tends to put you in the “extended” group of the DSLR duopoly. If you’re comfortable with doing post processing corrections, it starts to be all about how good the really wide angle lens options are, and some of the “basic” kits can certainly be competitive.
  • Wedding — “basic” all the way.
  • Event — “basic” all the way.
  • Fashion — I’m tempted to say “basic” yet again, but fashion photography is so fad-driven that I would be hedging my bets by buying into one of the “extended” offerings myself. Indeed, I’d be trying to generate new fads by pushing envelopes of usage, which pretty much means I need all the options I’d find in the “extended” offerings.
  • Baby/Children/Family — “basic” is probably good enough.
  • Macro — The “extended” offerings listed above tend to have more options for the close up photographer, though technically you can make pretty much any ILC system do great macro work. It’s really a matter of convenience and flexibility. I’d tend towards the “extended” group of cameras if I thought this was my speciality. At the same time, I’d also chastise Canon/Nikon for not doing enough in the macro realm recently; they tend to be resting on their laurels. 
  • Travel — small, light and “basic.” With one addition: what you pick really needs a good wide angle lens zoom. Fortunately, all of the “basic” camera systems I note above have one.
  • Adventure — Much like sports, with an asterisk. Some adventure sports require small/light packages (e.g. serious climbing). But I’d tend towards “extended” and Canon/Nikon in particular. First, you need the same things as in sports. Second, this area is fad-driven like fashion, so you need flexibility. Third, this tends to be abusive to equipment, so you need things that are built like bricks.
  • Nature — if by “nature” we mean everything from landscapes to wildlife—which just happens to be where I live—then you probably need one of the “extended” choices from the DSLR duopoly, though again Sony FE is putting up a credible threat. That’s especially true if you’re trying to do all aspects of nature on one trip.
  • Black & White — this is usually combined with one of the above, and thus susceptible towards the categorization of the above. However, if you’re seriously into B&W, sensor choices become a big factor, and Bayer sensors tend to be towards the bottom of the list (e.g. X-Trans and Foveon tend to be better choices). This, however, is an area I expect to change in the future. Right now we have only Leica selling a true monochrome camera, but I suspect this will change in the future.
  • Underwater — none of the above ;~). UW is a bit tricky. The four things you’re looking for are (1) wider lenses; (2) close focusing; (3) good high-ISO performance; and (4) strobe support. Technically, you can get underwater housings for virtually any camera or camera system these days. So your choice is mostly going to be based on those four things I just listed. 

Final Words
There aren’t any “right” answers. Indeed, there aren’t any “perfect” solutions available for any of the types of photography I just mentioned. This is one of the problems caused by the huge growth of digital photography over film: the camera companies all pursued volume. Thus, we’ve gotten a lot of “convenience” choices, a fair amount of “basic” choices, but the “extended” group has been short-changed quite a lot of the time, with relatively few truly new choices coming down the pike. 

As volumes come down in camera sales, I think we’re going to see less attention to the “convenience” group and more towards the “extended.” They’re the ones that continue to buy gear and are willing to pay higher prices for the right products. To survive, the camera companies are going to need to sell a lower volume of product at higher prices, simple as that. So to some degree, there is some safety in buying into the “extended” category.

But frankly, there’s little safety at all, which makes choosing what to buy from scratch so difficult right now. If I were coming out of college trying to establish myself as a still photographer right now, I’d be really cautious about where I put my investment in gear. 

Finally, I know a lot of you are just chafing at the bit right now and ready to fire off a missive to me about why I dissed your favorite system. Uh, guys (and yes, you’re almost all guys), you already have a system ;~). This article is about making choices from scratch, not about justifying what you already have. 

If you're sticking with DSLRs here in 2021, here are the cameras that still make sense to me:

  • Canon — EOS 90D (with crop-sensor lens reservations), EOS 5D Mark IV or EOS 1DX Mark III
  • Nikon — D500 (with crop sensor lens reservations), D780, D850, or D6

All of these cameras are excellent, and even bought today should provide you years of competitive use.

Afterward: did it strike you the same way it did me? A lot of photography can be done by just buying into the “basic” group. Yet Canon EOS M, Canon EF-S, Nikon Z DX, and Nikon DSLR DX don’t actually have the lens sets to do “basic” right. While pursuing “convenience”—and not always doing a very good job at that—these camera sets just got completely out of balance to the center of photography. Yes, EF-S and DX sold many tens of millions of units in the last decade, but it’s not a sustainable business. I think Canon and Nikon got too much into the “let’s sell boxes” and too far away from “let’s enable photography.” Sad, really. As they could have easily done both. 

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