Through the Gadling Lens: What kind of camera should I buy?

Maybe you’re about to take the trip of a lifetime: your passport’s ready, you’ve bought all the latest guidebooks, you now have an entirely new wardrobe/set of luggage to take on your trip, and you want to make sure you capture every perfect moment for posterity — but your camera skills are a bit lacking. Or perhaps you’re tired of going on fabulous vacations, only to return disappointed that the hundreds of photographs you took don’t really capture the brilliant blue of the ocean, the way the sun turned everything golden, the teeming humanity or the grandeur of the mountain ranges.

Well, today’s your lucky day: welcome to Through the Gadling Lens, Gadling’s newest weekly guide to ensuring you enjoy your travel shots for many years to come. I’ll give you practical tips on how to frame your shots, how to use Photoshop or other photo editing software, how to archive your shots, where to find great online photography resources and other tools to help you capture your very best images. In fact, if you have any burning questions about travel photography that you’d love to have answered, be sure to shoot me an e-mail at, and I’ll be happy to answer them right here on the site.

In the meantime, let’s get started with the basics: choosing a digital camera. Ask any photographer, and she’ll likely confirm that the number one question she’s asked is “what kind of camera should I buy?” This question, obviously, isn’t easy — besides the fact that there are literally hundreds of brands and types of cameras to choose from, the truth is that the answer depends strongly on how you plan on using the camera in the first place.
Given this, these days the decision ultimately comes down to a choice between buying a single lens reflex or SLR camera (read: the kind of camera where you can switch out lenses), or a point-and-shoot (read: the kind of camera where you can’t). When making your decision, here are some things to consider:

You should buy a point-and-shoot if:

  • You like to travel unencumbered. Let’s face it: SLRs are bulky. They’re heavy. And worst of all, they take up precious carry-on baggage space. If you’re the type of person who likes to pack light for trips, go sightseeing without so much as a backpack, and your rule for daytrips is that all necessary gear must completely fit in your jeans pockets, then clearly, an SLR would be exactly the wrong kind of camera to take with you. With the designs and profiles of compact cameras getting smaller and smaller by the day (without, by the way, losing any snap-taking-power), a good point-and-shoot would definitely be the way to go.
  • When visiting a new place, you don’t like to have anything on you that screams “TOURIST!” Nothing says “foreigner” like a large camera hanging around your neck — and I say this as a person who has a large camera perpetually around her neck, even when I’m at home. If you’d rather not stand out, and prefer to take your images and keep your tourist status on the down-low, a compact camera will likely be more your speed. Bonus: its easier to sneak the point-and-shoot into places where photography is discouraged — just make sure that your flash is turned off!
  • You just want a camera that will take quick shots of scenery and snapshots of you and your friends on holiday. If you couldn’t care less about apertures and f-stops and your eyes glaze over when people start talking shutter speeds and ISOs, then a SLR would likely be more camera that you require. Do yourself a favour and simply buy a good compact camera. And the good news: with a few tricks of the trade, you’ll find that a point-and-shoot is capable of images as high a quality as an SLR, even if it might not have the range.
  • You don’t have unlimited funds to purchase a camera. Brand new single lens reflex cameras are expensive; conversely, you can get a fairly decent new point-and-shoot for hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars. Then, once you’ve purchased the SLR body, you’re going to have start buying lenses and other accessories to really make it sing. If you really want a new camera, but don’t have the time to save up for a good SLR, a good point-and-shoot is your only alternative.

You should buy a SLR camera if:

  • You’re interested in learning about photography, independent of your upcoming trip. Again, single lens reflex cameras are pretty expensive — I wouldn’t recommend purchasing one unless you consider it an investment. And once you discover the power of a single lens camera — the variety of images and technical depth you can achieve with one — you’ll want to spend some time learning how to harness that power.
  • You want to take specific types of pictures. Perhaps you’re interested in taking huge, wide-angle, panoramic views of stunning scenery, like the Grand Canyon. Or maybe you’re interested in getting nice tight, magazine-cover-quality shots of beautiful local faces, or even really up-close macro shots of the stamens and petals of an exotic flower. Or all three. The truth is that a standard point-and-shoot rarely has the range to do every type of photography out there. And if you’re interested in a specific type of photography, and really sticking to it, then investing in a good SLR might be a sensible option.
  • You’ve got some money to spend. In addition to buying an SLR camera body, you’ll have to buy the proper lens … or two … or five, depending on what kinds of images you want to take, and how serious you want to get. There are things like macro lenses, fisheye lenses, portrait lenses, zoom lenses … and the list keeps going and going. Then there are flashes. Tripods. Reflectors. Clearly, you don’t need to get all of these things at once, but once you have a SLR, there’s always some new gadget that promises to increase your ability to take that stellar shot. Never let it be said that photography is a cheap hobby.

Now that you’ve decided what kind of photographer you’re going to be, here are some additional tips for going out and actually picking a camera:

1. Do some research. Ask friends what kinds of cameras they use, and how they like them. E-mail professional photographers, and ask for advice on specific products. Go to review sites, like Digital Photography Review for example, to see how the various brands stack up against each other. As with any expensive purchase, arm yourself with knowledge before plopping down the cash.

2. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, actually go to a camera store and try them out. Review sites and blogs can only tell you so much — the truth is that using a camera is a very personal experience, and what might feel good in the hands of one person may not feel so great in yours. Go to a camera store and actually look through the viewfinder. Play with the dials and meters. Click the shutters. Decide which feels right for you. Then make your decision.

3. When it comes to online purchases, buyer beware. Recently, I was in the market for a new SLR camera body. I knew how much the suggested retail price was for the specific camera I wanted, so when I found a site that purported to sell the camera body for almost half the amount, I was thrilled, and placed an order. Two days later, I received a call, and the person online wanted to “clarify” if I wanted a battery with my camera. And a battery charger. And a manufacturer’s warranty. By the time the “extras” were added, the price was more than I would’ve paid going to my local camera store — and that was all before shipping! Needless to say, I canceled the order, and purchased the camera from my local store. It was a lesson that I should’ve known before placing the order: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

4. Don’t be afraid of second-hand. Photographers are a fickle bunch, often trading in their relatively-new cameras for the latest and greatest. My first camera was purchased second-hand 15 years ago, and it still works beautifully (when I’m in the mood to shoot film, that is!). Buying second-hand is a great way to get a powerful camera for a fraction of the cost. But if you choose to do so, be sure to actually try it out before buying it (see #2, above).

5. And finally, when it comes to purchasing an SLR camera, remember that what you buy today is likely what you’ll keep buying 10 years from now. For example, I’m a Nikon user — and the Nikon D300 I just bought takes the lenses that I bought for my original Nikon FE Series camera fifteen years ago. As such, be sure to buy an SLR from a manufacturer that has a long history of service and support, that you can be sure will be around for a while, because you don’t want to spend $1000 on a lens that you won’t be able to use twenty years from now. In my experience Canon and Nikon are the most popular brands among professional photographers, so I would certainly consider them when looking for an SLR — but if you’d prefer another brand, be sure to look into history and longevity before making a purchase.

Good luck with your camera purchase! Stay tuned for more Through the Gadling Lens features: next week we’ll talk about what various lenses can help you do. And again, feel free to send me questions directly at — I’m happy to tackle them here on Gadling!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.