How to select your equipment

You're about to spend a considerable amount of money in a camera, and you have the feeling marketers are trying to sell you weird features without ever explaining you what does what? Well you've got to  spend 10 mins reading this. I guaranty it will help you a lot! You can also email me if you have a question at . I will tell you about:
  1. A few rules you should keep in mind when buying photography equipment. Following those rules will allow you to not only get what you really wanted, but also to save money.
  2. A couple of essential accessories you will realize are very useful, that you should plan in your budget
  3. Places where I bought over the years and got satisfied, and places where I was less satisfied.
Then you can go read my gear recommandation page, that I try to keep updated with the lastest stuff.

Let's start with my rules to buy equipment. It is expensive, get over it photography is not a cheap hobby. This is why you gotta clear your mind of all the noise, and stick to a few principles that will guarantee you buy the right thing.

Rule#1 : Figure out what you intend to use the camera for

Camera are like cars: you can't get a camera to be the best at everything. If it's rather good an everything, it is never excellent at anything. Pick you fight. The other important thing is that some camera bodies (camera without lens) are very versatile, it's the lens choice that will determine what it's gonna be best at. I would use that typology of photography use:

A memory collection device, no expectations other than cheap and portable. You'll mostly care about size and durability. Any cheap compact will do the trick, and to be honest, many smartphones. I advise you try to get one of those shock / water proof cameras, they'll be able to handle your parties and days at the beach.

Photography enthusiast, you want a multipurpose camera but under a budget constraint: it's gotta be good at everything, and this will be your only camera. You care less if it's not so light. You'll need to make sure it's actually versatile. Many compacts don't offer a wide enough angle for landscape, or bright enough lens for portraits. You should be looking at:
  • Maximum and minimum focal length. For landscape, you want a camera that goes under 24mm.
  • The bigger the zoom, the lesser the quality. Don't get theX16 zoom. Prefer a camera with a 24-100mm for example, or 18-70mm something in that range.
  • Quality lenses have usually a higher aperture, it means they can let more light in, with allows of course shooting in low light, but also make those nice sharp subject / blurry background effects. Prefer a compact with a lens that opens wide, you can tell by the f number: the smaller, the better (it goes down to f2 or f1.8 at best on a good compact).
  • Make sure you don't get a compact that has a tiny sensor. If you are on a budget, you'll never be able to buy the very large sensors, but if you hesitate between 2 cameras, google which one has the biggest one. It allows better low light and image quality in general.

Photography enthusiast, with little budget constraint, likely to show interest in different areas.You can afford multiple cameras or, more likely, lenses. You are willing to first get geared up for one purpose, then progressively equip. Don't get an 800$ multipurpose lens (18-200mm for example), I guaranty that in a year or two, you'll realize your mistake, sell it to buy 2 prime lenses that are specialized, and you will have lost money in the process. Here is a list of the different areas you might be into:
  • Portraits / people photography.You focus on your friends, GF / BF, kids, family or models.You do weddings for them once in a while. You should be looking at:
    • A fix lens with a focal length between 50mm and 200mm. I personally prefer to have a 105mm or a 135mm to catch spontaneous portrait without being seen, and a 50mm to get close to the action, and shoot a portrait within a scene.
    • Keep in mind: if you don't buy a full frame camera, you have to multiplie the focal length by 1.5 to know what the real length will be. Smaller sensor  are only seeing the middle part of the image thru the lens, with is equivalent to a x1.5 zoom. If you buy a 50mm on a DX (Nikon 3100, 5100, D90, D7000, Canon 550D, 600D, 7D), you actually have a 75mm.
    • You want a fast lens. In photography a fast lens is a lens that opens wide, in our case, f2.0 at least. Luckily most fix lenses for portrait are fast, from f2.0 to f1.2 . Keep in mind that the faster the more expensive, and also, some very lenses are not worth it: for example, some of them open up to f1.4, but they are only good from f2.0 and above. In that case, there's no point buying the f1.4 version.
You want to be able to separate the subjet from the background

  • Land and city scape / architecture. It does not move, but it requires very clean images, usually a tripod and very wide shots. Equipment will be rather the opposite of what you need for portraits. You should be looking at:
    • A wide angle, from 28mm down to 10mm. 
    • Those lenses will have distortion (as if you'll looking into a spoon), make sure you have a software with the lens profile covered, so you can get rid of distortion easy.
    • Fast lenses are not important, you'll be shooting at F8, F11 and above in order to get most of the picture sharp. Hence, you're likely to use a tripod.
    • Prefer a camera that performs correctly in medium range ISO. If you shoot architecture and the sun isn't high up in the sky, you might not have a tripod with you, you will need to shoot at iso 800 or 1600 in order to be able to use low apertures.
You want to avoid distortion, and have large depth of field (= you want all things sharp, close and far)

  • Action and wildlife. Stuff that moves, rather quick, without noticing you in advance. Rarely happens in ideal light conditions. This is likely to require the most expensive equipment, get over it right now or you'll suffer later. You should be looking at:
    • winning at the lottery
    • a camera that performs brilliantly at very high ISO (in 2012 standards, you can get a clean image at 6400, and 12800 after noise reduction). 
    • telezoom lenses, they are heavy, very expensive, and average product don't perform at all. You can only go for the best.
    • a heavy duty tripod
    • did I mention it's pricey? we're talking about a 5000$ budget at best (Nikon D700 + lens + pod) up to 10 000$ (Nikon D4 +lenses + pod). However, thanks to significant progress in sensors, you can give it a serious try with a Nikon D7000 (1300$ body only), but you will spend a few more Gs on lenses.
    • You'll need a proper heavy duty backpack.
    • You'll need a good insurance, that stuff get's stolen, and broken.
  • Travel and backpacking. It's a very specific need, it needs to be versatile, capable of shooting in bad situation, yet durable and as light as possibly can be. You should be looking at:
    • weight and size. I did India with a Mamiya 645 and a DSLR, I regretted it every single day.
    • tropicalization, in other words water and dust proofing. Most upper end DSLRs offer it, unfortunately, they don't score very high at weight and size.
    • Versatile lenses (2 maximum) that are not to heavy. You'll prefer a 35mm on a full frame camera if you are to take just one single prime lens. Otherwise, a 24-70mm f2.8 as your one and only lens would be a good choice, but this is likely to be very heavy. You can also go for a wide angle (traveling = landscapes and architecture) like a 20mm, and a portrait lens (135mm to capture people without being to close). Last good combination, a 16-35mm zoom for street scene and lanscape, and a fix 135mm.
    • You might want to give up the idea of a DSLR. Lately many premium compact with interchangeable lenses came out, some with good lenses, pocket size and water proofing. Read my camera selection page to see what is my choice of the moment.

Rule#2 What make the quality of a system is the lens and the sensor (or film if you shoot film)
Here are thing that in no way impact the quality of your pictures: FPS, Mega pixels,  maximum ISO performance, built in post processing stuff, size of the zoom, etc. All of those have to do with rule#1: you might need them according to what you want to shoot, or not. No matter what you picked from rule number one, you want to make sure you invest your money mainly on the best lens, and the best sensor.

Rule#3 : You will be exposed to a lot of marketing when buying, a lot of it is absolute nonsense
Photography is essentially the same since the 60ies. Digital has made it more accessible, and allow different things. But what makes a good camera is the same stuff. If you buy right in the first place, you are very unlikely to need an other camera for a long time. Non of those fancy features will be of any use, they just have to reinvent the wheel to justify launching a new range of product all the time.

Rule#4 : If you want to buy a new camera because your picture don't look good enough, 90% chance that it's your fault and not the camera's fault
Most manufacturer keep implying in there communication that getting whatever will make you take better pictures. No no and no again. It will only be true in case you did not respect rule#1 and picked equipment that was not adapted to your need. Yes better cameras make it easier, they offer superior productivity, durability, but in normal light condition and if you use the right gear the right way, a 8000$ system will make no difference as opposed to a 1000$ system. I am willing to demonstrate it if you don't believe me.

Whatever you own, learn how to use it properly before thinking of buying more.

Rule#5 : A great picture is not about sharpness, noise or any of those things that help manufacturers sell more stuff
A great picture is about composition, use of light, an original subject, and original angle that when they come together, make you feel something about a picture. It can be blurry, it can be noisy, you'll have not doubt it's a great picture if it is one.

Rule#6 : If you camera has interchangeable lenses, invest on lenses, not on the camera body
Fact: camera bodies keep improving extremely fast. I kept my last digital body for 5 years, but it's been limiting me since the beginning due to its poor performance ever in medium light condition. 3 years later a body came out that was brilliant in low light. 2700$... I'm glad I did not buy it because now, a body comes out with the same low light performance, but 3 times more resolution and full HD video ! I can't spend 3Gs every two 2years.

Fact: lenses last forever. They also resell really well, sometimes for more than the original price. Each lens might see a dozen camera bodies in its lifetime. This is where money should go first.


So under exploited by amateurs, there is so much you can do with it, especially in terms of landscape and night photography. If you have a light camera, you don't even need the fancy stuff, anything with 3 legs that will keep it steady, even a tiny one ! This only will allow you to shoot landscape in low light, suffering from blurry sunset? You need a tripod !

Normal behavior in camera bags: you buy the cheapest, then you do stuff, travel, you realize your bag is not convenient, too visible, you buy and other one. In the first place, buy one that:
  • is not screaming "I contain a camera"
  • can handle a little more than what you have, trust me you will buy accessories
  • can be more than a camera bag.They do small discret backpacks with a camera compartment, those a perfect for traveling. A jumper, a bottle of water, your camera.

A UV filter
Not so much for UV, but to protect the lens. You screw it if front of the lens, it will take the damages in case you crash it, costing you 30$ instead of 500$. I have one on every lens I own.

Graduated Filter
For lanscape only. Suffering from pictures where the sky is just white and the rest in normal? Or the sky is blue and the rest is all dark? You need a filter that will lower light coming from the sky only, so it all comes out nice.

Black Rapid Strap
For travelers and wedding photographers. Have you ever done a wedding with 2 cameras, including 1 SLR hanging around your neck for 7 hours? I did. It hurt for 2 days. Lucky they do some nice straps on which the camera can slide when you pull it up, and naturally lay under your arm when you don't use it. It might seem like a gadget, but when I tried it, I though "holy crap, how could I live without one before?". 


Over the years I bought cameras and lenses from most of the well know sites: ebay, adorama, B&H, Amazon, Calumnet, Keh, Pixamania. Here is my honest opinion based on facts and experience (repeated), on each of them:

Ebay: A
A great idea, but keep in mind that Ebay is just the intermediary. look for sellers that are rated 99.8 at least, that take paypal, then you are safe. The thing with Ebay is that "deals" often aren't deals. For 3 months you might see the camera you are looking for at 500$ used, and one day there are 30 of them ar 300$. One rule: be patient. Other that that, it's a great place to get used film cameras that cost 4000$ for less than 1000$. I got a refurbished Nikon DSLR there once, it was a great deal. Ebay depends on you: be smart, and you'll do great.

Amazon: A+
For new equipement only. You won't find very niche product, but appart from that, Amazon has the best customer service online I have ever seen. They are properly amazing, they have to be loosing money on that ! I mean, something I don't receive a package, email them, they send it again for free, I end up receiving it twice. Once I received a damage camera: UPS stopped by my place to collect it, but they shipped a new one the minute I called to complain. Those guys understand that the client rules. 

Pixmania: C+
The opposite of Amazon. Good prizes, yes, but it comes with a catch. They don't deliver on time, ever. You pay for fast delivery, it's 10 days late, they'll never reimburse the fast shipping fee. That mentality was comfirmed by friends working there. Avoid if you are in a hurry. Similar experiences from too many users.

Keh : F
Bad experience on used equipement: not what is described, takes MONTHS to get it replaced, sometimes not by what you asked, shipping fees are never reimbursed. Multiple similar feedback is easy to find if you google it.

B&H: A
The lords of online photography retail. They have everything, they ship fast, they price correctly. I never had to use customer service, but I've been very happy with them. Great for used gear.

Adorama: C
The clone of B&H. I used to buy a lot from them, until I got disappointed several times in a raw. First they try to sell me an obviously broken viewfinder on a Mamiya RZ, in store. The salesman trying to force it onto my camera, nearly breaking it. They were selling it "as new". Then I ordered a Fujica 645, it arrived broken, obviously not from transportation, it was impossible since the damage was on a part of the camera that was in the center of the box. They shipped it broken, they knew it. I only got the camera paid back, not the shipping. Then I ordered a Mamiya 645 1000S with a metered finder. I received one with a non metered finder. I called to complain, I got a price on a metered finder, and I received.... the same non metered finder in the box of a metered one !!! There is a clear intention of robbing people. I ended up getting what I wanted on Ebay. Shipping costs always at my expense.

Calumnet: n/a
Only used them once, nothing special at that stage.

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