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Self-portrait, Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park. 

What Camera Should I Buy?

a guide for beginners, by Philip Greenspun for

Quick Answer

It depends.

View Cameras

Not too many photographers start with a 4x5" view camera, but that is rather a shame. View cameras are the most flexible cameras, usually made from a basic design that has not changed for over 100 years. You know the guy in the old time photo studio who photographs with his head under a cloth? He's using a view camera. Ansel Adams? He took most of his best photos with a huge 8x10" view camera. All those luscious ads for food in magazines? Taken with view cameras.

A view camera is fundamentally a light-tight box with a slot at one end for a lens and a slot at the other for the film. You compose and focus your image on a groundglass, then displace the glass with a sheet of film four by five inches in size. That's right, the negative from a view camera is about the same size as a proof print that you get back from a 1-Hour lab.

I tried several times to teach a very intelligent friend how to use my Nikon 8008. Despite the camera's marvelous user interface and available automation, she simply couldn't remember what all the different controls were for. However, she had no trouble understanding my SINAR monorail view camera, an enormous contraption that intimidates 99% of experienced amateurs. That's because a view camera's controls are simple, direct, and physical.

Another advantage of having used a view camera is that it gives you an understanding of perspective. With a view camera, the lens and film aren't fixed parallel to each other. This opens up a huge range of creative opportunities that are unavailable to most users of 35mm and medium format gear. For example, if you want to take a photo of a building with a Nikon, you have to point the camera up towards the sky. You will then be projecting the vertical exterior of the building onto the angled film surface. The lines of the building will converge towards the top of the frame. With a view camera, you shift the lens up and/or the film down. The film is now "looking up" at the building through the lens, but the film is still parallel to the building exterior so lines don't converge.

A used view camera outfit will cost you about $500. I prefer metal cameras such as Calumet, Cambo, Linhof, and Sinar. All view cameras work the same way. What you pay for in a more expensive camera is the assurance that when the controls are zero, everything is in fact parallel and you'll get a sharp picture. My friend Elsa has a beautiful Deardorff wooden view camera that we tried to use to copy her 20x24" Polaroid originals. In theory this should yield high-quality images. In practice, it does not. I measured the camera with the indispensable Zig-Align mirrors (available from [email protected] for about $50) and discovered that the lensboard and film back were not anywhere near parallel. Nor could they be reliably kept parallel so we scrapped the idea.

Don't buy a view camera until you've read View Camera Technique.

Note: You'll find a lot of view camera samples in my FlashPix References Images collection.

35mm SLRs

Feet The 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) is most folks' idea of a serious camera. SLR means that the same lens is used for viewing and taking pictures. A mirror in the body directs the light from the lens up into a prism for viewing, then flips up out of the way just before an exposure is made. These are extremely versatile instruments in the right hands and can take beautiful pictures if used with care.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of SLRs are bought with cheap zoom lenses and then used with an on-camera flash as the primary light. There is nothing especially wrong with taking snapshots this way, but don't expect an SLR with a 35-80 zoom and an on-camera flash to take a better picture than a point and shoot camera. Furthermore, the point and shoot will fit into your pocket so you're more likely to have it with you when Fate sends the makings of a great image your way. The camera that is too expensive, too heavy, or too bulky to carry isn't of much use.

Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park (Alaska) If you are serious about photographing people, animals, or travel, then an investment in an SLR may be wise. A good budget system would include a cheap body, a 50/1.8 lens, and a tripod. Add a portrait lens, a big telephoto, or a wide angle depending upon your needs. If you have relatively big bucks, consider really wide angle lenses (20mm or wider), high quality telephotos (300/4, around $1000), or professional zooms ($1000 and up). If you are tempted by the consumer zooms (apertures of f/4 or f/5.6 and prices of $300 or less), then you should ask yourself whether a point and shoot wouldn't be better.

"Minolta makes the best bodies, Nikon makes the best lenses, Canon makes the best compromise" -- My rich friend Bob who has all three systems.
Frozen Yogurt.  6th Avenue and 12th.  Manhattan 1995. You're probably not as rich as Bob, so you'll have to decide on a camera system. Canon and Nikon enjoy an overwhelming dominance of the professional 35mm SLR market. There are good reasons for this and the dominance tends to be self-perpetuating because off-brand manufacturers don't have much incentive to invest in R&D. Minolta has some excellent technology, but a lot of weak lenses and a lingering air of cheesiness about most of its stuff. One can rent exotic Canon and Nikon lenses (e.g., a $4000 300mm f/2.8 telephoto) in most major cities but rentals for other brands are virtually non-existent. Finally, Nikon and Canon are probably the lowest cost systems for serious photographers because they have high resale value and economies of scale on the big lenses (e.g., the Nikon 80-200/2.8 is under $1000 and is mass-produced, the Pentax 80-200/2.8 is $1800 because they probably only sell a handful).

Saarinen's Gateway Arch.  St. Louis, Missouri. One of the delights of reading Internet newsgroups such as is the recurring flame war that erupts over whether prestige brands such as Leica are better than plain old brands such as Nikon. What it boils down to is that Leica makes some fairly nice, very expensive lenses. These handily outperform the low quality, cheap lenses that Canon and Nikon were forced to make to compete with Sigma, Tamron, and (shudder) Tokina. The $1200 Leica 180/2.8 does indeed outperform a $300 Nikon 70-210 zoom set to 180. That doesn't mean it outperforms the $850 Nikon 180/2.8, which is what a professional Nikon photographer would be using.

A lot of introductory photography instructors recommend the Pentax K1000, a $175 throw-back to the 1970s. Personally, I think a used Nikon 8008 for around $250 is a far better camera. Instructors like the K1000 because it forces students to make decisions about aperture, shutter speed, and focus. IMHO, these instructors lack the courage of their convictions. If they really want to teach fundamentals, they should make students use view cameras. Besides, with a few touches of buttons and wheels, an 8008 or Canon EOS-5 can be made to function like the K1000. If you really must have a manual camera, a used Nikon F3 (without the enormous motor drive), FM, or FE2 is a vastly better investment than a K1000. At least you won't have to throw it out (along with whatever lenses you buy) when you get serious.

Whatever you do, don't spend too much on the body. It is much better to have a good lens on a cheap body than vice versa. The body is ultimately just a light-tight box; the lens forms the image. Also, remember that if you get more serious, you'll almost surely want a second body.

Don't ask me where I stand on the Great Canon v. Nikon Dilemma. I can't decide. Both systems have moments of brilliance and crippling weaknesses. In the end, if you have a tripod and patience, you'll get a great photo with either system.

Lesbian & Gay Pride March 1995.  Manhattan. [Note: After a year of having this advice on the Web, I've noticed that most people are ignoring it and filling the Q&A forum with questions like "which (cheap) Minolta zoom lens should I get for this latest (whizzy) Minolta body?". So I guess I am going to have to have some kind of bottom line recommendation for men whose penises are too small for the Yashica T4 and whose wallets are too thin for a set of lenses that would take a better picture than the $150 Yashica T4. Here it is... If you must have an electronic wonder body and a cheapish wide/tele zoom lens then get the Canon EOS 50 (Elan II) and 24-85 lens. The EOS-50 offers the best features of the Canon system: dual control wheels and the ability to move AF to the exposure lock button. The 24-85 is reasonably good quality, the wide setting is truly wide, and it has the delicious ring USM AF motor. Do not buy a third-party (and therefore non-USM lens) for a Canon EOS. Do not waste your money on a slow 70-210 zoom.

Ostrich head. If you want to do something similar in the Nikon world, the N70 plus the 24-120 zoom would not be a bad toy.

If after reading this, you are still tempted to buy an expensive Nikon N90 body and cheap Tamron 28-200 zoom lens, keep in mind that you could make exactly the same public statement at a $1300 savings. Just buy a white T-shirt and a black laundry marker. Use the marker to write "I'm a dickless yuppie" on the front.]

Medium Format Cameras

Medium format cameras use 120 and 220 film ("rollfilm") and produce a negative approximately four times the size of a 35mm negative. Unfortunately, this makes them four times the size and 4-16 times the price of 35mm equipment. A Hasselblad or Rollei won't fundamentally do anything that a Nikon can't, so I'm afraid that I can't recommend any medium format camera as a good beginner's tool.

An exception to this rule is if you are doing your own darkroom work, in which case handling 35mm negatives is a chore. Medium format negatives are much easier to handle and a dust spot on a 6x6 negative is enlarged much less than one on a 35mm negative so that dust control is not such a problem.

A Yashica twin lens reflex ($100-200 used) or a Fuji rangefinder camera ($700-1000 new) would be a reasonable place to start experimenting. Another approach would be to thoroughly read The Hasselblad Manual by Ernst Wildi. Now you'll know more about how to use the Hasselblad system than many owners. Then rent a 'Blad for a weekend.

Photo: Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park, from Travels with Samantha

Point & Shoot

Money for beer.  Times Square, 1995. If you are serious about photography, you should have a camera with you at all times. No matter what else you buy, then, you'll probably also want a point and shoot camera, the smaller the better. Most of the knowledge that one uses to make images with a real camera can be applied to point and shoot photography. Most people don't realize that their P&S cameras have exposure and focus lock (press halfway down), the same reliable flash exposure control system as a new Nikon (and therefore better than a $1500 Canon EOS-1n), and can give great results on a tripod.

You can't get really extreme perspectives with a P&S, i.e., none come with 20mm or 200mm lenses, but if you were going to buy one of those crummy medium-range zooms for your SLR, then you didn't really need the SLR to begin with.

Specific brands of P&S change all the time, but I've written a fairly detailed guide to helping you choose.


I've written a guide to the Advanced Photo System (APS) that links to my reviews of Minolta and Canon APS SLRs as well as a friend's review of the Canon ELPH. I'm not a fan of the APS system.


We're talking cheap toys ($500-2000 things like the Apple QuickTake) or expensive tools for news agency photographers ($15,000 Kodak/Nikon). None of these suit my needs, but check out Rich's comparison of low end cameras, PhotoCD, and desktop scanners if you are fascinated by technology for technology's sake. Currently, the word on the street seems to be that the Kodak DC50 ($1000) is not too bad.

If you still can't decide

Then read Photographic Materials and Processes. If that book frightens you, try the excellent Photography (5th Edition) by Barbara London and John Upton (ISBN 0-8230-4975-2).

If you've got your credit card ready

Check out my guide to reputable (and not so reputable) camera merchants

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