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What kind of camera should I buy?

By Christine Gacharná

Nikon D200, 70-200mm lens at 105mm, f2.8 @ 1/1250 second, ISO 400

Nikon D200, 70-200mm lens at 105mm, f2.8 @ 1/1250 second, ISO 400

Q: What kind of camera do you have? Do you use Nikon or Canon? Do you shoot .jpg or RAW? Do you use Bridge or Aperture or Lightroom?

A: Nikon or Canon, digital or film, .jpg or RAW … all are just tools in a photographer’s toolbox. The question I am most often asked is best answered in “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. (Stephen Mitchell translation)

That’s how I used to answer this question.

And then I would get:

Q: But what does that mean?

A: A young poet sends his poems to Rilke and asks for Rilke’s critique. This is but a glimpse of Rilke’s answer to the young poet:


“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

Q: Uh, yeah, okay. So, really, should I buy Canon or Nikon?

A: It means it’s not about the camera! It wasn’t the quill that produced Shakespeare’s timeless works. It’s not a camera that takes great photos — it’s the photographer.

Q: Oh. So…what kind of lens should I get?

:sigh: Since I keep getting the questions, I’ve decided to expand my answer. It’s probably going to take me a couple of posts to get it all in. I plan to include photos (how better to illustrate my point?) and a “cheat sheet” that I hand out to students when I’m teaching classes.

The bottom line is, if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve (you being the photographer), how can you possibly expect your camera to?

Google “Nikon vs. Canon” and you’ll come up with thousands of forum discussions and reviews.  Both companies make great cameras (and, perhaps more importantly, great lenses!)

My very first camera was a Canon. My current point-and-shoot (PAS) is a Canon. My digital SLR body is a Nikon. I’ve owned at least a dozen SLR camera bodies, both digital and film, since I was a college freshman, but there’s one very good reason I continue to buy Nikons: I have Nikon lenses. I bought my first lens, a 50mm, when I was 18. I’m still using that lens. (That’s an inadvertent yet relevant plug for Nikon; newer bodies work with old lenses. A Nikon lens from 1959 can be used as-is on the digital Nikon D40. This is a general truth, please do the prudent thing and check specifically with your lens and/or body for compatibility before purchasing.)

Sometimes, when Canon outpaces Nikon in a particular heat, I toy with the idea of switching over; but I’ve found if I hold out long enough, Nikon will pull ahead again as surely as Canon will catch up and give Nikon a run for its money. There are a few details where Canon outshines Nikon and few others where Nikon outperforms Canon, but the bottom line is that they are fiercely competitive companies and both produce a good product.

If you’re already invested in lenses for Nikon or Canon, the questions of whether to buy a Nikon or Canon digital SLR is best answered first by whether or not those particular lenses are compatible.

If you’re not already invested, flip a coin.

Q: What kind of lens should I buy?

A: What kind of pictures do you want to take?

Because here’s the deal: there is no magic pill that will reverse the effects of aging, remove unwanted pounds without diet or exercise, grow you an instant billionaire overnight by working from home. It’s the same thing with photography! There is no PAS or body-lens combo that will deliver you the images you want. Cameras don’t shoot pictures; photographers do. Cameras aren’t photographers; people are.

This is why we have to start by breaking things down into a crash course in photography. There are many factors to creating one image, and choosing the right gear to create specific images requires knowledge of such factors.

Q: Will it be long and tedious and involve a lot of math?

A: Of course not! I’m an English major, so math is guaranteed limited (unless you want to step it up a notch in the comments. I’ll moderate, but I’m not going to calculate.) If you wish you knew more but don’t really have time or energy to dig through mounds of information on your own, I’ll boil it down here.

Q: What if I already have some gear and don’t want to buy more?

A: Then your best option is the same as everybody else’s: learn to use the gear you already have!

I’ll file the series in “Photography 101” so you can come back anytime and find all the installments (after they’re written!) by clicking on that category thread.

So before we begin, let’s agree, for the sake of simplicity, that you’re looking to create images that are first and foremost in-focus and not too bright (overexposed) or too dark (underexposed.) Simple. And you’re looking at digital SLRs (because if you’re looking for a PAS, CNET reviews would suffice.) Send me your questions and we’ll get started…


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  • lens comparison | cg - […] Despite answering this question at length in a previous post, I still get a considerable number of people who continue to ask the question: What kind of camera/lens should I buy? […]ReplyCancel

  • Mircea Wedding photographer - It’s not to joke around with this question , lots of people are asking ” wich one is better ?” .
    Probably the one you can afford , the more expensive the better. And then the little details… lens, bag, filters…ReplyCancel

  • Nate Esteban - Great blog, great pics and the information was very provocative and appealed to me on many levels, thanks!ReplyCancel

  • Hobosic - Greatings, christine – da best. Keep it going!
    Thank you

  • christine - it was the whole book that hooked me, but this is one of the passages that answers that question so well; I have the edition translated by Stephen Mitchell. very simply brilliant.ReplyCancel

  • Ray - Very nicely done, Christine. At last I know which Rilke passage you were referring to.ReplyCancel