If you have a point-and-shoot camera and have been lusting after the larger, more capable DSLR options, I want to interject a few questions into your thought process. As a photo instructor, I meet a lot of people who aren't sure why they have the $1000 camera they have nor what to do with it.
If money is no object, by all means, upgrade and learn to use your new equipment to the fullest of its abilities. But if you are comparing price tags, take a moment to ask yourself these questions which may help lead you to the right camera for you. There are no right answers to these questions, just answers that will help you while shopping for a camera. The questions are in no specific order except the last one.
Copyright Derek K. Miller
What do I like to photograph?
This is a very important question when looking at new cameras. Some people ask why there are different versions of the Canon 1D range and the simple answer is one version is great for high speed shooting of sports and the other is better at portraiture and wedding shoots. So picking a version of nearly identical cameras (compared to the model a level below) is important.
Do you like to shoot sports, portraits, landscape, underwater, action, documentary, etc... ? List out your preferences in order of importance. If you're tech-minded, score them with a percentage to help you see which is more vital to get right.
What's my budget?
Knowing how much you can spend on equipment is important to determine before you head into a store or to the web for a purchase. Speaking from experience, standing in a showroom with cases full of shining, new camera bodies and lenses, the temptation is high to get the latest, greatest gizmo and worry about paying for it later. Don't make that mistake and risk buyer's remorse.
The rule of thumb is to allot 1/3 of your funds for a body and 2/3 for a lens. This ratio can be adjusted, but it is a good place to start (there are some exceptions, such as the plethora of great 50mm f/1.8 lenses out there for a low cost).
It's basically saying, all those buttons and dials don't mean squat if the glass or acrylic the light is passing through is inferior. You can't get sharp images when looking through the bottom of a wine bottle, no matter how fancy the camera.
Plan out how much cash you can comfortably hand over and stick to that amount when shopping.
What features are important to me?
Here is a list to help get you started. By no means do you need any of these, (just take a look at what the masters of photography in the 60s and 70s used) but cameras these days are feature rich. Often the difference between models is a subset of options and knowing what you want will help steer you.
- Fast focus
- Low Light performance
- High speed drive
- Image stabilization
- Easy manual overide
- Built-in intervalometer
- Grip/feel of body
- Flash option
- Advanced focus modes
- Video performance
- High ISO
- Type of memory card
- In-camera HDR
Is camera size and weight important to me?
I extol the virtue of this question to anyone looking for a new camera because I feel it is important to be comfortable with your camera. Not everyone agrees, but I have seen more than a few cameras sitting unused on a shelf only to hear the owner say something close to, "It's too heavy," or "My hand can't even fit around it."
This points to the fact that if a camera, an optional tool for most people, is not comfortable, it will not be picked up and used compared to a version that is light in the hand and perfect to grip.
If grip and weight is important to you, visit a camera store and heft a few, including different lenses. Weigh them (if a scale is handy) so you know what you're looking for and what your tolerance level is. You will also need to add in a bit of buffer if you ever travel with your camera to allow that things feel heavier at the end of eight hours of touring compared to 10 minutes in a camera store.
Do I need a DSLR or would an advanced point-and-shoot suffice?
Many people are well served by taking a step back from the full sized DSLR and instead seeking out an advanced point and shoot camera. Cameras in this range include the Canon G12 and the Nikon Coolpix P510, for example. They are a step up from the thin, rectangular point and shoot and offer more features (see point above about knowing which features are important to you).
They are also easier to transport, store and handle, typically. But they might have limitations (such as ISO performance or frame rate). You may find that them annoying, so be sure to check one out in person if possible. After knowing your budget, type of shooting, desired features and propensity for light or heavy equipment, you may find an advanced point-and-shoot as a viable option.
I know some people will be disappointed there are no hard and fast answers on this post and I am sorry I can't grid out every possible answer to the questions above. As a consolation, I have started a contact form on my own website where you can ask me directly for a recommendation when you have answers to the questions above.