Do I Need a Camera in the Age of the Smartphone?

A phone camera photo of my daughter in portrait mode that while a nice memory – as I didn’t have a real camera with me – shows the weaknesses of the tiny sensor with blown out highlights and weak contrast.

A phone camera photo of my daughter in portrait mode that while a nice memory – as I didn’t have a real camera with me – shows the weaknesses of the tiny sensor with blown out highlights and weak contrast.

Don’t get me wrong, we professional photographers love our smartphones. I have shot professional work including video paid for by clients and with my phone. In certain cases it’s more convenient and useful than an interchangeable lens camera. But most times and especially in the case of family and portrait photography it lacks key features and it’s user friendliness actually prevents creativity.


You Know It’s Time to Upgrade when...

If you have one of the following problems it’s probably time for you to think about buying a camera. The exposure is not right or you can’t play with it to make the shot as dark or as bright as you’d like. The background is not nicely out of focus. The image quality is ok for sharing online but when you try to print a photo or view it on a large computer screen you were not happy with the quality. The handling of the phone makes it awkward sometimes to get a good shot. You wish you had something more ergonomic to hold onto, something a little more fun to use. You just want to improve your photography.

Photographed with a FF camera and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. It has a pleasing natural boke and sharp detail with nice soft dense colours. This quality is just not possible from a phone.

Photographed with a FF camera and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. It has a pleasing natural boke and sharp detail with nice soft dense colours. This quality is just not possible from a phone.


Where Do I Start?

So if you’re ready to step up to the next level which camera do you buy? There are hundreds of models out there. Below I have a list of suggested budget friendly cameras and lenses for first time buyers with a strong suitability for family photography (i.e. baby, kids vacation photography etc). Even today’s entry level cameras they will produce image quality good enough for professional use – I have owned one or two of them myself. But first there are two types of camera for you need to consider.

Apart from better quality overall a FF camera is also useful for low light photography.

Apart from better quality overall a FF camera is also useful for low light photography.

Full Frame or APS-C?

A full frame (FF) camera is the same size as the 35mm film of old and that’s where it takes it’s name from. Most older lenses were made for that field of view and for portraits it’s an excellent choice. It will deliver clear images and has a huge range of lenses. They can however be more expensive, heavier and larger than APS-C cameras and the same generally goes for the lenses. Though Sony make an excellent range of FF mirrorless cameras that are small and light with lenses to match.


Shot with an APS-C camera with a 35mm f/1.8 (50mm FF equivalent) lens. Even with this smaller sensor still produces a nice out of focus background known as boke. As a smaller lighter camera kit I wasn’t afraid to use near the water.

Shot with an APS-C camera with a 35mm f/1.8 (50mm FF equivalent) lens. Even with this smaller sensor still produces a nice out of focus background known as boke. As a smaller lighter camera kit I wasn’t afraid to use near the water.

APS was invented as a smaller size film that would be good enough for most amateurs but was introduced only a few short years before digital took over so it died a quick death. It allowed for smaller and lighter cameras and lenses. Digital cameras in APS-C format also have smaller camera bodies and lenses but nowadays a much higher image quality than film could ever deliver. And they’re cheaper. They deliver great imagery though not quite as good as FF cameras. Convenience and budget would be good reasons to buy an APS-C camera and you won’t really see a huge difference in your photos in most circumstances. It’s a very good choice for a first camera if you’re not ready to invest too much.


The Camera Comes with a Lens. Is It Good Enough?

Most cameras come in two options, you can buy the body-only and then choose your own lens or you can buy the kit which will come in a box with the camera and lens together. While the kit lens can be decent and a good starter lens for general use they are not good choices for portrait photography. I would recommend buying the camera body and choosing your own lens.

A 24-70mm lens give you great options for wide as well as close up shots.

A 24-70mm lens give you great options for wide as well as close up shots.

There are really two choices for your first lens for taking photos of your family and kids. Either get a 50mm f/1.8 equivalent lens (I have a whole article dedicated to that lens here) or get a zoom lens. The 50mm option is cheap, high quality and very portable. But of course it doesn’t zoom so you are limited in how wide or close up you can shoot.


The 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom is a great range that can capture your loved ones from head-to-toe to a close up head shot. Where people are concerned you won’t need anything else. The f/2.8 is not quite as wide an aperture as the 50mm f/1.8 for giving you out of focus backgrounds but it’s very close and is the best you will get in any zoom. Naturally it’s a more expensive, bigger and heavier lens. Luckily Tamron, Tokina and Sigma also make superb but much cheaper versions to fit most cameras. (Sometimes you will see variations such as 28-75mm f/2.8.) The f/2.8 is the important part where portraits are concerned. Don’t buy the cheaper f/4 versions, you’ll regret it in the long run

 

This is the single biggest factor that will change the quality of your people photography. Most cameras these days will give you a great image so choose which one you like the feel of and which one you can get the best lens you can afford.

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Shopping Advice

So when buying your first camera and lens it’s good to know what you want before you go into the store. Don’t get bamboozled by the sales guy who’s trying to offload a certain model that he has a high mark up on but one that’s not suitable for your needs. In Shanghai I always shop at the Xingguan Camera Market on the corner of Luban Lu and Xietu Lu. You will be given fair prices for cameras and lenses. But beware of buying any accessories.


I would recommend buying a good high speed memory card such as a SanDisk Extreme Pro, at least one 32gb (perhaps two) but I would recommend 64gb cards. 4K video can fill these up very quickly. And definitely get a second battery. But watch out! The stores will often try to cheat you on the price of these items so be aware of the correct price or get them online.


And NO you don’t need a UV filter to protect your lens! I’ve never needed one in 15 years and don’t know any other pro that uses them. Your lens will be fine.


And happy shooting

Photography should be fun so make sure you get a camera you like the feel of and will take with you everywhere. Don’t buy a ‘pro’ looking camera if it feels big and heavy to use as you won’t get better quality images and you’re likely to frequently leave it at home.

Photography should be fun so make sure you get a camera you like the feel of and will take with you everywhere. Don’t buy a ‘pro’ looking camera if it feels big and heavy to use as you won’t get better quality images and you’re likely to frequently leave it at home.

 

My recommendations:

Full Frame

1st choice:

Sony A7III. An excellent camera for portraits, great image quality and super fast auto focus and brilliant eye auto focus.

2nd choices:

Canon 6DmkII or Nikon D750. Both good cameras but much heavier and bulkier than the Sony and no eye auto focus. I would not recommend buying either or their mirrorless cameras for first time camera buyers.

APS-C

1st Choices:

Sony A6400, a new affordable small camera with auto focus features to match or even beat the A7III. Small and light and super fast.

Fuji XT3. An excellent camera and many users prefer the analogue style dials on this camera. It is very attractive. A very fast well featured camera with great quality lenses. However the autofocus and feature are not quite as good as the Sony A6400 and it’s more expensive.


Again I stress going to the store and picking up these cameras and seeing which one you like the feel of the best. How you enjoy using the camera is more important than image quality.