How Not To Buy A Digital Camera

You want a new camera – but which camera? You want to make the best decision you can. You may turn to some of the popular and large online camera forums to get advice. All you have to do is read through those camera forums to find out how NOT to buy a camera. The things that most of these folks comment on baffle me.

It seems that the only two things (which are in fact related) that most camera buyers care about these days are:

1. How “noisy” is the sensor?
2. What is it’s low-light capability?

About 15 years ago, ISO 800 film sucked. It certainly sucked compared to the digital images I can make with almost any ILC (Interchangeable Lens Camera) at ISO 800. But now if you can see a speck of noise with the Hubble Telescope from two inches away, then it’s too noisy. I just don’t get it. The singular focus (pun intended) by those in the camera forums on low-light performance does NOT serve the average photographer. It just doesn’t.

Yes, I too am concerned about noise, but it’s probably somewhere in the middle of my list of things I am concerned about when I pick a new camera. Even lower is the “low-light” capability issue.

The word “photography” was created from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”. So in short – photography is all about light. Why would I evaluate a camera on its ability to work WITHOUT light??? Don’t have enough light? Make some. Flash units, studio strobes, reflectors, LED panels, etc. We have lots of choices here. More than ever.

Now obviously I am being a bit tongue in cheek here but why aren’t people talking about the next new camera’s ability to autofocus quickly, or accurately? Should they ask how big is the sensor? How about the camera’s durability, or its ability to work in extreme environments, or its size/weight or its ability to work with a large selection of lenses, or its ability to shoot at a high frame rate or its buffer size??? Why not talk about the next new camera’s ergonomics, or viewfinder? Why not ask what the manufacturer’s reputation for service and support looks like? How is the color reproduction and how about the light meter? Is it accurate? How long will the battery last and how available are replacement batteries? How complicated is the menu system? Does it do in-camera HDR or allow for auto-bracketing HDR shooters can live with? How much does it cost to buy and maintain? Does it offer HDMI, USB or wireless connectivity? What sort of memory cards does it use and can it handle multiple cards? What about value? I could go on but you get the point. When selecting a new camera body, there are many things to consider beyond noise and low-light capability.

Yet – I would venture to say (based on a very unscientific study I did last week reading through a dozen different camera forums) the majority of the discussion about the next new camera body (regardless of brand) is related to noise and low-light.

Those of you new to photography (or under 35 years of age) probably don’t have the same frame of reference that I do, but I can guarantee you that camera trends come and go. While today it’s NOISE and LOW-LIGHT capability, tomorrow it will be something else.

If your research is limited to low-noise cameras that perform well in low-light, you might be sacrificing a whole host of other (possibly more important) features that would help you make better photographs.

It does matter if a camera can produce relatively clean files. But if you think your camera is a bit too noisy here and there, you can always fix that in post. These days, fixing it in post is easier and cheaper than finding a camera that can photograph a black cat, in a black barn at night, hand-held, with sharp and noiseless results at ISO 12800 viewed through a 100x loupe!!!


Remember that low-light performance is just one factor to consider when buying a camera. All the other things I mentioned in this post should be as important if not more important in making the best choice.

The good news is that there are very, very few bad cameras these days. Almost any new camera will perform better than the photographer who operates it 🙂

PictureMethods has partnered with B&H Photo & Video to bring you the best gear selection and prices. Check for the best camera deals here.