Gear is probably the most difficult subject for sharing resources (so this page gets a long introduction). More than any other part of photography, information (and misinformation) about the equipment of photography is everywhere and all over the place. Many people have strong opinions about gear and strong opinions against equipment they do not use.
Many of us photographers enjoy the gear in and of itself, much as car enthusiasts and computer geeks love the tools and specs of their worlds. But even if you are not interested in photographic gear in general, I think you almost have to be passionate about the camera you yourself use to make photographs. To make a good photograph is an act of love. You care deeply about what you are seeing. You care deeply about your ability to express what you are seeing. And some gear will be better suited to your seeing and your expression than others.
If you are frustrated (not constrained, that’s a different topic) by the gear you are using, that frustration will probably come through in your photographs. Or it will at least limit the good that comes through. All of us work within constraints regardless of the gear we have. Using an 100MP medium format camera with a bag full of lenses will have very different constraints than a disposable film camera, yet it still has constraints. But only you can finally say what constitutes a frustration versus a constraint. For me, the ergonomics and dynamic range of a smartphone camera are frustrations more than constraints. For the next photographer, having to carry around a second device and compose and make the photograph on something other than a 5″ touchscreen could well be frustrations.
Also, consider when and where you make photographs. If you take your camera with you everyday, definitely pay attention to the size and weight. If you only ever take a camera on an outing specifically to make images, then size and weight may not be so important. Then again, if you’re hiking up and down mountains on these outings… If you do both, you may consider having a compact system for everyday and a larger, higher quality system for photo outings. On the other hand, you may well be frustrated by the quality of the smaller system and end up caring the larger all the time. Or you may just end up using the smaller system all the time if you’re satisfied with the quality. Plus you have to consider if you can afford to truly fill out both systems.
So, with all that being said, I will foolishly offer some resources on finding great gear. These resources will naturally reflect my bias towards image quality and specific exposure controls (e.g. an aperture ring on the lens and a marked shutter speed dial). So keep that in mind in so far as your priorities differ.
- Use a prime lens. Start with something standard, a 35mm or 50mm equivalent (or something in the 40mm range, that’s what I started with). Use just that lens for six months to a year. If you have a kit zoom lens (or a fixed zoom lens camera), limit yourself to a particular focal length. Learn to use it for all it is worth. One bonus to starting with a kit zoom lens, you can do this with several different focal lengths and learn which one you want to invest in for your first good prime lens. Even if down the road you use zooms exclusively, I believe you’ll put them to better use if you think of them as offering multiple primes in a single package. In other words, learn to use a zoom (or collection of primes) to change perspective and not just framing.
- Use a relatively fast lens, at least F/2.8 though I prefer at least F/2. Why? You don’t (and probably shouldn’t) shoot at that fastest aperture all the time, but it does let you play with depth-of-field control. More importantly for me, it lets me keep my shutter speed up and my ISO down in low light. I am not at all opposed to using strobes/studio lights/what have you for making the photograph you want. But I dislike using a flash (particularly an on-camera flash) just to illuminate the scene enough for a decent exposure.
- Note: if you do not take pictures inside, this may not apply to you. A landscape-exclusive photographer, for example, would likely be much better served with a good image stabilization system for those times when a tripod isn’t used. And no reason to worry about having F/2 if you always stop down to F/5.6 or slower.
- Buy good glass. Notice I have started by talking about lenses. The sensor matters, but good glass matters more. Whatever camera system you go with (even a fixed lens camera), I think the lens should be your first consideration unless you have very specific needs elsewhere (e.g. waterproof to a certain depth). Among other reasons, this is important if the size of the camera matters to you. A compact body will not matter too much (and probably won’t handle that well) if the lenses you want are enormous. Once you know what lenses you want, you can find a good body to match them. And if that lens system doesn’t have a body you want (or can afford), then you can look elsewhere.
- Use a camera body that lets you shoot raw. Even the latest smartphones are moving in this direction. If you never end up taking advantage of shooting raw, so be it. But at least it’s there if you want to. Adobe Lightroom is the standard for processing raw files, though there are number of good options out there. Personally, I use and prefer Capture One Pro for the image quality and workflow. As a plus, I also prefer their pricing model and it runs better on my computer.
- Use a camera body that lets you easily control your exposure manually. Even if you shoot mostly in aperture or shutter priority (or even program mode), the flexility is important. And if you practice exposing manually, you can learn a lot about light that you can then translate back into your preferred exposure mode. I’m assuming that every camera that can shoot raw can shoot manually, but I have used some where changing your exposure settings in manual was far from intuitive.
- Buy used, you’ll save a ton of money. Once you know for sure exactly what you want, you can always buy new if you have the money. But initially, you may buy and sell a bit of gear before you find the tools that work best for you.
My personal criteria for a camera (system)
- An aperture ring on the lens.
- A marked shutter speed dial on the body.
- A dedicated ISO dial/wheel or at least a button that can be dedicated to changing my ISO.
- I prefer quick, dedicated controls for changing the focus point (a joystick or D-pad that can be used for this).
- As few controls as possible outside of the above. Just focusing control(s) and a shutter button. In fact, for a simple enough control scheme, I would even forgo marked dials/rings if the camera otherwise worked for me (e.g. the Hasselblad X1D or Leica SL). Basically I want a camera that puts as little as possible between me and making the photograph. I suspect this is true for everyone, we all just have different preferences for what makes the process transparent.
- A grip that feels secure in one hand.
- As large a sensor as I can afford with all of the above (also paying attention to the dynamic range of the sensor, not all are created equal).
- A minimum of 16MP.
- I require a viewfinder. I appreciate a good EVF (high resolution, fast refresh rate, large magnification).
- I appreciate a tilting screen for low-angle work.
- I appreciate weather sealing for peace of mind.
If you’re at all familiar with the current camera market, you might have noticed that my criteria doesn’t allow for many options. Especially when cost is factored in, Fujifilm’s X series is really the only digital system that I’m interested in (notice the non-Fuji cameras listed above all run into five figures pretty quickly). That is first and foremost why I continue to use the X series. As of February 2017, for me that means using the X-T1 with the 23mmF1.4 or 35mmF2 as my everyday camera.
- Ming Thein — Ming is pretty straight forward about the gear he tests and uses. He’s independent. He tells you what he likes, dislikes, and why. He covers a lot of brands. Here’s a general page (a little dated) regarding cameras and lens. I also highly recommend this article on sensor sizes. Instead of dividing the options into good/bad, he talks about strengths and weaknesses and rendering characteristics that could help you determine the best choice for your photography.
- The Camera Store TV — A fun YouTube channel that offers practical and honest reviews about a wide range of cameras (and to a lesser extent, lenses).
Some might consider gear reviews from photographers using a particular camera system to be suspect (particularly when they are in some way recognized or approved by that brand). I do not object to this. However, I do find value in listening to the thoughts of photographers on the gear that they actually use and love.
Listening to a photographer tell you why he or she loves their camera system of choice is instructive. If you share their ideas of a good camera system, then their praise (or criticism) is relevant. So are these reviews biased? Of course! (And they’ll probably tell you that themselves.) But they are biased in a different way than websites whose main purpose is to offer reviews on the equipment that manufacturers give/lend to them.
I would not choose a system just based on the reviews of its enthusiasts. But I probably wouldn’t choose a system without their reviews either. So, here’s some websites with reviews I appreciate regarding X series cameras and lenses. For what it’s worth, as I understand it, X-photogaphers are all photographers who used the X series before Fujifilm approached them to serve as ambassadors.