Photographing Australia:

Choosing A Camera

‘Remember, photography is not about
camera brands and models,
it’s about capturing someone’s heart.’
Steve Parish

You would be forgiven for going cross-eyed when you either Google ‘buy a camera’ – About 3,710,000,000 results (0.64 seconds)  – or walk into a camera store only to be confronted with a wall of cameras.

Where to start?

No offence to the many hard-working camera store staff, it is challenging for anyone to keep up with the massive range of brands and models available, especially these days. Of course, it is not always about what’s the best brand and or model – full frame, cropped sensor, mirrorless and that’s just a few of the considerations we need to apply. 

In this post I wanted to examine a bunch of factors that should point you in the right direction because it is not only a camera we are buying but also a whole array of the accessories which collectively can run into a serious investment. 

Choosing a camera Q&A

Even when armed with answers to the following questions, you will still need to exercise self-control when you visit the camera store. Remember just because friends have cameras with all the bells and whistles doesn’t mean you have to follow suit and so take care not to be tempted to purchase outside of your creative life purpose.

  1. How much can I afford to spend?
    You shouldn’t sell the family home, although I know a highly successful photographer who did! Remember, you may also need to upgrade computers, hard drives, and other technology to work with your new photographic setup. 
  2. What do I want to photograph?
    Do you wish primarily to photograph stationary subjects – landscapes, flowers, and still life subjects – or high-action subjects such as birds in flight or animal behaviour? Also, remember to take weight and portability into account. Maybe you even want to take your camera underwater, in which case you’ll need to check whether an underwater housing is available for the make and model of camera you have selected before you buy.
  3. What do I wish to do with the photographs that I take?
    Do you want to use them commercially, where they may be enlarged and cropped for publications, or just share them with friends online, where low-resolution files would be fine? Remember that what you determine today might not be the case in the future; in fact, it rarely is. Photo-storytelling is changing daily, so try not to limit yourself.
  4. How would I rate my perseverance
    There are many challenges along the pathway to purpose. You might face technological challenges, physical or even intellectual challenges, or perhaps just struggle to overcome psychological fears of failure or technology. Many folks invest thousands in a camera kit and then lose interest, only to find that the resale value is considerably less than they originally paid. Remember, too, that digital capture can require investment in post-production equipment and software. Are you prepared for the further investment of your money and time?
  5. Can I make a long-term plan?
    If not, I’d suggest keeping your investment minimal at first to see how you go. It’s okay to upgrade further down the track. When I started out, I knew I was hooked for life, so I made every effort to buy the best cameras and the highest-quality lenses. This has been of enormous benefit because even my earliest work is, by today’s standards, of excellent quality and commercially valuable, even though some of my images are more than fifty years old.

Based on the Q&A, what stage are you at?

Remember that fear of technology is nothing more than a mind story – a negative tale that you tell yourself. You might tell yourself that you can’t afford the money (but perhaps you can save), or that you can’t learn new technologies, but today, primary school children are creating and publishing web pages that include text, photographs and art, and streaming digital video sequences on school websites!

STAGE ONE:  Uncertain, just starting out.
You would like to start with a low investment and see how things progress; perhaps a camera around AU$500 to $600. You may even consider purchasing a secondhand camera. For example, the Nikon D3 has now been replaced with first the D3s and then D4 and more recently the D4s and D5 models. The D3 can be purchased secondhand at a fraction of the price of a new D5 (around one-sixth of the cost). This is similar with Canon and most other brands and models. You simply have to do some research online and consider your ‘real needs’, based on capture techniques and file applications. An entry-level DSLR camera can be purchased on eBay for a few hundred dollars. What is important is that you’re out there with a DSLR creating images and becoming familiar with the capture process.

STAGE TWO: A photography-smitten amateur.
Your interests have expanded, and you’re much more active a photographer who wishes to utilise a wider range of  lenses and even upgrade your camera to one that offers more features. Of course, you might also be truly smitten with this wonderful pastime and want to go all the way straight to stage three. Finances usually hold people back. I have certainly gone without many, many things over the years so that I can fund my passion. In fact, I gave up alcohol and partying when I was 23 years old for that very reason! Based on, shall we say, $3000 per annum on partying over 50 years, that’s still a saving of $150K!  Bottom line is that if you have the passion, you’ll find a way. My idea of ‘partying’ is photographing a pin-sharp full-frame image of a breaching whale!

STAGE THREE: Total commitment.
You have made a commitment and would like to progress and become serious about your photographic work, possibly exhibiting or selling images to publishers of newspapers, magazines or books at a later date. You could even aim to submit your work for sale through photographic libraries, or even start your own library or small commercial operation.

As an example of ‘total commitment’, let me share my choices and why I made them. My dream cameras are the top-of-the-range DSLR camera systems with a full-frame sensor and a range of quality lenses. I will look at models offering operational functions like high-speed motor drives, automatic focus systems, variable sensor sizes and even consider the camera’s weight. So, why a DSLR?  Read on…

What all these images have in common is that the capture process needs to be spontaneous. All action photography requires spontaneity and quick reflexes, so I use a DSLR camera that provides me with the ability to function intuitively.

Why I choose single-lens reflex cameras

While I used rangefinder cameras for many years while shooting land and cityscapes, in the digital space I am entirely focused on becoming intuitive with the functions of a DSLR: a digital single-lens reflex camera. For those not familiar with that term, it simply means that your view your subject through the camera’s lens, either by holding the camera to your eye and/or via the ‘live view mode’ on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Personally, I use the ‘camera to the eye’ composition method almost exclusively.

The ability to shoot spontaneously is the primary benefit of a DSLR, and various makes and models are designed for this very purpose.  Apart from my fine art photography, landscape, seascape, cityscape and most wildflower work, which these days is mostly done on the Pentax 645Z medium-format system, my digital work is generally on a tripod using manual settings that enable me to take full control over aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focus settings. My current preferred camera is a Pentax 645Z medium-format camera system; it was a Hasselblad, until someone stole it from the boot of my car!

Most ‘action’ captures of humans, and the photography of wild animals (especially birds), require a range of photographic skills and split-second timing is critical. The DSLRs I like to use for this work are the Nikon D series and the Canon 1DX, although other makes and models  are discussed over at Dean Holland’s Take Better Photos page. These cameras are robust, rainproof, and designed for spontaneous action. Practice, persistence, and patience – the three ‘P’s – are essential to capturing fleeting moments to freeze them in time.

Above top left and clockwise:  These are some of the cameras I have used extensively – NikonD3s (widely used initially as a D3 for close up photography of wildlife.  A  full frame 12MP camera now superseded several models to the Nikon D5);  Canon 1Dx used currently for long lens photography, discussed in more detail further in this post; Hasselblad H4D -50 stolen and now replaced with the exact same sensor on a Pentax 645Z the worlds most effective and easy to operate medium format digital camera and, current for underwater photography the Nikon D3s in an underwater housing.

Choosing a camera best suited to a preferred capture technique

Consider which camera best suits the technique you want to apply during capture. Do you intend to photograph birds in flight, underwater close-ups of fish and coral, or maybe you want a camera that’s best for portraiture, or a sneaky compact for urban street photography?  Ultimately, the technique, when married with the intended use of the digital files you capture, will point the way; this is where your CLP helps you make these important decisions.

Choices range from cropped sensors to full-frame, from high-megapixel-rated DSLRs to medium-format DSLRs with sensors almost twice the size, from cameras with limited features constructed from plastic (costing around the AUD$600 mark) to high-end DSLRs with many functions, advanced focusing systems, high frame rates, and built-in video (around AUD$7K). And in the medium-format class, prices start around $10K but can be thousands of dollars more, and that’s before we consider lenses.

Choosing a camera based on how you wish to use your files > Read More

Should I have more than one camera?

For the work that I do, I need several kinds of cameras, and I often even use several at once; as seen above where I am using a medium format Hasselblad to create landscapes and a long lens digital SLR for birds that I am encounter while about and about.  

The nice thing about photographing from a boat – or a plane, or even from the immediate vicinity of your car while travelling – is that you can have access to several cameras several cameras, each of which will provide the best outcomes for the subject or for how you intend to use the images. In this case, I was cruising at Yellow Water (Cooinda) in Kakadu National Park.  The 80–200 mm with a 2X convert enabled the photograph of playful corellas along the river’s edge; I now use a Canon with a 100-400mm and 1×2 converter for this kind of work. The medium-format Hasselblad, on the other hand, provided me with super-sized files for creating digital art; my Hasselblad was stolen so I now use the fabulous Pentax medium format 645 which is fast and considerably cheaper and easier to use – by the way it has the same sensor as the Hasselblad. 

To fully expand on the many brands available today, I have asked my colleague Dr Dean Holland, who has a PhD in methods of teaching, to bring us up-to-date via his website on an ongoing basis. Dean is the Director of Brisbane-based  ‘Take Better Photos’. He is a master instructor and the most knowledgeable person I have met when it comes to the advantages and disadvantages of the many camera brands and models available today.  Steve Parish

Choosing a camera based on price

By Dean Holland from ‘Take Better Photos’

Invest in the best lenses you can afford, but skimp on the camera (get an older model) if you need to.

Or as some photographers say: ‘You date cameras, but marry lenses’. Good lenses hold their value for years and improve the results from every camera body you will ever own. But cameras are a poor investment, depreciating quickly as technology advances. Digital cameras are perishable goods; a camera model has a lifespan in the shop of 18 months to 4 years, and its new retail price may HALVE during that time. Imagine buying a car knowing that it will be available NEW for half the price in three years!

Last year’s camera model, either new or secondhand, is often a wiser investment than the latest model.

What camera should I get? The list below is based on how well we see cameras perform in the hands of 10,000 people who’ve been on our photography courses in Brisbane. Think of these cameras as ‘safe bets’: easy-to-use all-rounders that give you plenty of room to grow:

Visit the ‘Take Better Photos’ website for continually updated information on the many camera brands and models available.

The cheapest cameras
Small compact cameras $150–$500
Bigger compact cameras $400–$900
Waterproof cameras
Cameras with changeable lenses (SLRs and mirrorless cameras)
Up to $1000
Over $1000
Cameras for travel
Cameras for family or a new baby
Over $3000

Steve’s Current Photo Kit

I am not someone who lusts after the latest cameras.  In fact, I see cameras merely as tools for telling stories preferring to invest my money in the methods through which I tell my stories both in the online and offline worlds.  That doesn’t mean I don’t fully appreciate the technologies that are available and the incredible ingenuity that has gone into their development.  After all for someone who spent the first decade in the chemical world of a darkroom, I certainly appreciate cameras that fly and return home to my feet with the click of a button!

Nikon 1x D3s and 2 x D800 camera bodies with lenses Nikkor 16 mm fisheye; 24 mm f2.8, 50 mm f1.8; 80 mm f1.4, 14–24mm, 24–70 mm.   

  • Portable light sources: Nikon Close-up Speedlight Kit and Speedlight SB-90 x 1 unit. Nikon D3s
  • Aquatica Underwater Housings system with twin Ikelite strobes.
  • SIGMA 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM ‘ART SERIES’ lens
  • Canon EOS 1D X with and Canon EF200-400EXT1.4L lens and EF 100–400 mm f/4.5–5.6L IS USM Lens . 
  • Pentax 645Z camera body with Pentax smc FA 645 35mm f 3.5, 120 mm f/4 Macro, 50 mm f2.7 lens and 300mm f4 ED (IF) lenses
  • DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone

With over 50 years’ experience, Steve simplifies the steps to choosing and using cameras and lenses to serve your Creative Life Purpose. Discover the settings and techniques that Steve uses for every subject. Make your camera your creative voice to move people.