Several budding photographers frequently ask me when they have some money to spare what is the best camera they can buy for that money. This starts at the end of the year and continues until May every year. I hope by writing this that it gives some idea on where I stand. This may seem a little harsh, but bear with me.
The first thing I would spend money on is good, quality glass. I am a film shooter from way back (or what seems like it), and the lens was always what mattered on the cameras I used as a film photographer. This is the key part of the camera that captures the image you are shooting. The quality of image you capture is highly dependent on this piece of equipment. An image can be blurry with purple fringes, red fringes, or blue fringes. There may be a lack of clarity with the sharpness of the overall image including the contrast. A lens might not focus well or there may be indescribable distortions, either. Another bad trait is an unevenness in the image brightness – most often seen on the outer edges and called vignetting. In some cases with poly-carbonate lenses (no metal), they start out great but with use they become lose and the quality of the image deteriorates. All of this impacts the images you create more than the camera.
How do you know you have a good, quality lens? Some people think this means looking for the highest stats in the photo magazines for clarity, barrel distortion, and pincushion. While these values give you a good idea of lens performance, they aren’t the be all, end all to a quality lens. Don’t just buy based on the stats. There are other factors: how heavy the lens is, does it feel smooth and a solid movement, and does it focus quickly and accurately. Finally, is it a lens that functions for you as a photographer and is it something you will really use? This doesn’t mean going out and buying only prime lenses or the top of the line prime lenses. Instead, look at what you shoot and buy lenses that work for the images you shoot. I recommend getting a general use zoom lens and at least a 50mm equivalent prime lens for low light shooting at a minimum for a general topic shooter.
Once you have our lenses selected, it is time to look at the camera bodies. Start small. If you are on Canon, look at the Rebel T3i or for Nikon, look at the D5100. Depending on what you have left in money, get a body with a decent sensor as this is the other part that impacts your image. Both Canon and Nikon have decent prosumer products, so don’t think that they are garbage. True, they don’t have all the bells and whistles that higher end cameras do, but they are excellent at capturing images. They aren’t nearly as durable but the way most people treat their cameras, this really shouldn’t be an issue. I highly recommend spending a little more if you can afford it and getting a grip for your camera if you can afford it.
One thing I will highly discourage is going out an buying a top of the line camera like the Canon 5D Mark III and then scrimping on the lenses. Purchasing this way is backwards, and it will reflect in the images you capture.