This question, though very simple, has a profound answer that goes beyond marketing gimmicks and a simple comparison of camera specifications. It is probably the most difficult question, particularly when you are investing your hard-earned money into buying an expensive camera with even more expensive lenses and accessories around it.
Having a modest background with limited means, buying any camera was never easy for me. However, given my undying passion for photography, I somehow managed to buy a few, including pre-owned ones, that I could afford. Now that I am considering to upgrade my camera to a full-frame (35mm), that dilemma of actual ‘need’ versus ‘luxury’ struck me again, questioning, why I should buy a new camera when I already have one (APSC) in good working condition and can get better one anytime on rent. The answer to this question must be strong enough to justify spending in lacs.
Stage 1: To Buy or Not to Buy?
The most practical way to find an answer is, asking yourself what do you this camera for. If it for casual clicking or social media posts, you may just buy a good camera phone, which will satisfy your need with the added advantage of portability. The only issue here may be the display and printability of those pictures on a large scale, despite the higher megapixels count that these phones may boast of. If you need it for occasional professional assignments or shoots (assuming you are not a full-time professional) you can still get the best of cameras and lenses easily on rent in most of the metropolitan cities. The only flip side is, it may prove to be a bit expensive, if you get such assignments more often or travel very frequently, staying longer than three days. Further, the camera and lenses may not also be in the best of conditions, having been overused or manhandled by many other people.
Therefore the only few reasons I find for myself to invest in a full-frame camera are: (a) my frequent travels and longer stays sometimes, and (b) professional-grade image quality, extended dynamic range, more colour depth, enhanced manoeuvrability, superb low-light performance, video options (like timelapse, slow motion, 4K recording, etc.) and endurance in extreme weather conditions, that no smartphone or APSC sensor camera can offer. Needless to say, this comes with a price, i.e., more cost and less portability. However, the opportunity cost of not having a professional-grade camera (if you can afford one) may sometimes be much higher, if you really aspire to level up your game sooner and stand equal to other professionals in terms of equipment. Having found my reasons, this is where my search for a perfect camera for myself began.
Stage 2: Which Camera to Buy?
There is nothing called a ‘perfect camera’ or ‘best camera’. You have to also add the words, ‘for me‘ when thinking of buying the best camera for yourself. Your search criteria will then narrow down based on three factors:
(B) Type of photography that you would mostly do with this camera; and
(C) Brand preference.
If you start thinking from this point, you will not be bogged down by a plethora of choices that are currently available in the market. Deciding on a budget and intended usage first, is so important that if not thought out well in advance, it can confuse you greatly and result in a waste of money.
Budget and Genre: In my case, I capped my budget to a maximum of 2.5 lacs (with one lens) and started looking at my earlier photographs to see what kind of photography I have been mostly doing and intend to do in future, given my specific circumstance (current employment, family, individual likings, etc.). The decision, though not very easy to make (if you have been into more than one genre of photography) is nonetheless very important to prepare a road map of your future lens and accessories purchases, saving you a fortune.
Brand Preference: Coming to brand preference, it is always subject to your individual taste and preference. No brand is good or bad, and in order to stay competitive, they all offer competitive products in a similar price range. However, your choice of the brand may also be affected by (a) the price and availability of their lenses on rent; (b) resale value, if you decide to upgrade later, and (c) after-sales services, and (d) prior experiences. Further, you may also consider the brand history and alliance. For example, Sony has earned a consistent reputation for its mirrorless cameras, being the pioneer in making such cameras. It also has an alliance with Carl Zeiss which is one of the best lens makers in the world. Similarly, Panasonic Lumix has a long history of offering cinema-quality video features, with an exclusive alliance with Leica, which is my most favourite brand for lenses. My individual preference is to go for an underrated brand offering very competitive features at a more affordable price, instead of falling for more popular and heavily marketed brands.
Stage 3: Doing the Research
Live Demo: Once you decide on the brand, do not rush into your nearest camera store or e-commerce web site to buy it. Try to get the contact details of their exclusive dealer or distributor (not a third party selling cameras from other brands too), which you can find online or through their social media handle. You can also get it easily by attending their educational webinars. Once you have the contact details, fix a meeting with their representative who can give you a much detailed live demo of the product and answer all your queries and doubts. This is something that no third party salesperson or camera dealer can give you.
Comparison: Further, when comparing the specifications online, do not pay too much attention to the minor differences as not all cameras are created equal. It is always a trade-off basis what is more important to you, auto-focus (AF) speed or AF accuracy, portability or durability, megapixels or sensor quality, photography features or video capabilities. While you can compare these cameras online on Camera Decision, I suggest you to make your own spreadsheet comparing the specifications in the order of your priority, keeping unimportant features out. Some of the features, that I consider very important for a DSLR are sensor quality, dynamic range (i.e., the difference between the darkest and lightest tones in an image), colour depth (i.e. how many different shades of the same colour it can capture), low light performance (determined by the highest ISO you can set without grains), usability in harsh conditions (snowfall, rain, dust, etc.), in-body stabilization, and autofocus (AF) speed and accuracy.
Reviews and Ratings: Secondly, while it is advisable to read as many reviews as possible, one should not take these reviews and ratings for granted as some of them may be biased or sponsored. One should just note the most common issues that many other users also found with the camera so that it is easier to make an informed decision. As I prefer a very detailed review, my go-to websites for camera review is Imaging Resource and sensor comparison is DXO Mark. For live on-the-field reviews, I mostly visit DPReview TV‘s YouTube Channel, as it provides separate reviews for photography and videography capabilities of a camera by two different experts, which is not very common to see. To sum up, you should always take these reviews with a pinch of salt, as no camera would every have a hundred per cent positive review.
The Best Approach: The most practical and objective way to decide is to get your shortlisted cameras from your favourite brands on rent and see for yourself which one you liked the most, given your hand’s size and grip, camera’s weight, design, ergonomics, and user interface. If you loved the photographs when transferred to your computer or displayed on a bigger TV, it is good for all practical purposes, as we mostly see photographs either on our phone, laptop or TV (if not printed).
Stage 4: Managing the Budget
Once you have already finalized a camera, the next step is to get the best price for it. I would not recommend buying online for two reasons. Firstly, it may have warranty issues at times. Further, if you buy offline from an authentic dealer, you may also get one year extended warranty on the product. Secondly, you may also find seasonal offers and freebies (like, extra battery, software subscription, etc.) that may not be available online. Most importantly, you will always have a go-to person to get your issues resolved, camera features explained, and get the necessary support.
When you decide to buy offline, try to enquire pricing in at least two or three different cities and negotiate the final selling price on that basis. You may get huge discounts on MRP if you are able to do this. Further, if you can go for a slightly older or just the previous version of the same camera (like, choosing Sony A7R III over A7R IV), you can save some cost there without compromising much on the features. Lastly, buying a pre-owned camera is not something that I would recommend to anyone, as it is very difficult to diagnose the problems in a camera (or microscopic scratches/fungus in the lens) without taking it to a service centre.
In my next blog post on the buyer’s guide series, I will discuss how to choose the best lens for your camera. Watch out for this space!