Buying a Camera System

This article was inspired by Roger Cicala's blog (at Roger made his camera system evaluation transparent and open for discussion. Essentially I agree with Roger that selecting a camera system is a very personal task because the needs and expectations between photographers vary so much.

Want to get some advice buying a new camera system? First you need to understand your own goals using the camera and lenses. If you don't know what you want then there is no way to make good decisions (there are no absolute "right" choices). Of course you may not know yet because you are just starting with your photography. Still start thinking about this:

  • What do you want to photograph?
  • What cost would you envision?
  • What bulk and weight are you willing to carry? Longer hikes or getting older (we are at that stage :)
  • What are you doing with your images: Web or print (which size)? 
  • Do you like to work on images in post processing?
  • Want to use a tripod or more handheld? 

First ask yourself what you want to shoot

Here it is important to think about what really is important to you. I give you an example. I like photographing birds but not as much that I would lug around a 600mm f/4 lens (we don't even talk prices here), get up early and wait long hours for the birds to be in the right spot. I like to photograph birds but this is not part of my essential needs selecting a camera system. This means that I miss some nice birdshots with my usual equipment but that does not really bother me because the 600mm would stay home most of the time anyway (unless you buy and carry it for me :-)). Photography should be fun and if this does not include for you/me hauling a 600mm then just accept it. If you later switch to different photographic areas you then can adapt your equipment.

Cost is important

Many starting photographers would like to be able to capture everything. This will either result in a broken neck and bank account or in a mediocre do-everything camera. Decide for the camera and get one good starter lens/zoom. You will be surprised what you can do with just a single cheap 50mm prime lens or a 28-70mm zoom.

Bulk and weight

It is very important to keep the kit as small and light as possible. If the bulk or weight of your gear is often the reason it stays home you made the wrong choice.

What are you doing with your images?

For the web nearly all camera work just fine. For prints only consider printing big if it really matters. Prints are not improving by just printing larger. Our main target is 13-19" up to 20" wide. Most of the cameras can do this if you don't crop too much.

Do you like to work on post processing?

Some photographers want masterpieces right out of the camera. This rarely happens though. All the excellent photographers we know embrace post-processing and like it as part of their work. Why do we mention this here? It does not help to get the best cameras if you hardly get the best out of them.

Mostly tripod or mostly handheld

Some people think I don't like tripods because I shoot mainly handheld. I actually like tripods but also the freedom and flexibility of shooting handheld.

Tripod required (this image is Texture Blended)Our Requitements

So let me outline my personal needs (actually our needs as I photograph most of the time with Bettina). 

  • Handheld outdoor shooting of nature and urban landscapes, opportunistic travel photography
  • Sometimes interior shots with wide angle (see above photo, from tripod)
  • Close-ups but not really macro photos
  • We want a tele range of at least effective 70-200mm (35mm equivalent)
  • Moderate WA to mild tele at about 28-70mm (35mm equivalent)
  • We want to be able to use f/4 to f/8 in most cases. This means the lenses should be already quite good at f/4. All that slow consumer zooms may actually need f/8 to perform reasonable. For some cameras f/8 can be already diffraction limited where effective resolution goes down.
  • Want to be able to shoot good full HD (1080p24p - 60p) video. For video we use a tripod most of the time.
  • We hardly ever use flash (more likely our fault because fill flash can be a great tool) 

f/2.8 or f/4 is a question

If you work in low light and/or want shallow depth of field the f/2.8 zooms are for you. You pay for this with more bulk, weight and higher prices. While Roger seems to opt for f/2.8 we prefer some of the f/4 zooms to save on weight and size. The Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS zoom was our workhorse for years and still goes strong. Now also Nikon offers a full series of f/4 zooms. With the m43 system the Panasonic 12-35mm and 35-100mm f/2.8 zooms are very small so no real need for slower f/4 zooms.

We actually own Nikon (D800), Canon (5D Mark II, 60D) and m43 (GH3) systems. Too bad none does it all. So we are not in the situation which system to buy but which system we  use in our practical work.

Disclosure: We bought all these systems from our own money (yes, we are that crazy :). Due to our field tests at Digital Outback Photo we use a lot of gear. Does it help to get better photos? Not really because all the new gear is often more a distraction.

Our Nikon System

In pure terms of image quality (for large prints) the Nikon D800 is hard to beat. As a system it is heavy and expensive.

D800 + 70-200mm f/2.8 VR IIOur core Nikon Lenses:

ο Nikkor AFS 70-200 f/2.8 VR II: We like it but probably could live with the f/4 variant that was not out when we got the 70-200mm VR II. Besides of weight, size and price we love it.
ο Micro Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 VR: Nice macro but we find the servo AF too slow.
ο Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8: Nice lens but no VR
ο Nikkor AFS 50mm f/1.8: Cheap lens with excellent image quality
ο Nikkor AFS 85mm f/1.8: Inexpensive lens for an 85mm at f/1.8 with excellent image quality
ο Nikkor AFS 24-120mm f/4 VR: Good for such a wide zoom range. Corners could be sharper. Very universal with this range. We improve the detail with our sharpening (Optimal Sharp V3).
ο Zeiss ZF 21mm f/2.8 for wider angle (manual focus). We like this lens a lot but we also use the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 zoom in the rare cases we want very wide angles (mainly indoors and on tripod).

D800 + AFS 85mm f/1.8 G

Our Canon System

We actually like the Canon 60D a lot. Still we don't use it much anymore because the GH3 works just fine for us. That leaves our trusty 5D Mark II. Why no 5D Mark III? The 5D Mark III is clearly a nice improvement but not that much to dump our fine 5D Mark II.

Canon 5D Mark II + 100mm f/2.8 Macro

Our Canon Lenses:

ο Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS: Still love it
ο Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro: Just love this macro with its fast AI Servo AF We mainly use it when we shoot poppies and other flowers in spring.
ο Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS: We find the corners too soft for full frame sensors. Ok on the 60D though.

Canon 5D Mark III + 70-200 f/4 IS

Our m43 System

We got the Panasonic GH3 over the Olympus OMD just for two reasons:

ο The GH3 is much more refined for video
ο The OMD is a bit on the small side for handling (Bettina uses her left eye and did not really like holding the OMD)

Otherwise we really like the Olympus OMD. The IBIS (in body image stabilization) is a huge plus. For the GH3 we need Panasonic OIS lenses.

Panasonic GH3 + 35-100mm f/2.8 OIS

Here are our main m43 lenses:

ο Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 OIS: quite nice zoom but not cheap.
ο Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 OIS: Small for this range and wide aperture. Would also not call it cheap.
ο Panasonic 7-14mm f/4: Amazing ultra WA zoom for its size and range
ο Panasonic 100-300mm OIS: The poor man's long tele zoom. Have seen nice results but don't expect miracles. This is a consumer zoom. Can be great for video though. Here is a sample video we did.
ο Panasonic Leica 45mm f/2.8 Macro: Very good image quality but slow AF.

Panasonic GH3 + 35-100mm f/2.8 OIS

Other Systems

Fuji X-Pro1 + 35mm f/1.4

We also checked and own other systems.

ο Sony NEX-7: Has potential but the lenses with AF are lacking big time. No fast quality zooms like with the m43 system
ο Fuji X Series: We enjoy our Fuji X-Pro1 but AF is sluggish and some lenses still missing for us
ο Sigma DP1/2/3 Merrill: We own a DP2M and like it a lot. This is not a general-purpose system.
ο Nikon V1: Very fast AF but lenses and resolution lacking.

In the end all three main systems (Nikon, Canon, m43) have their place for our work. The GH3 will be used most of the time because of its video capabilities, size and weight. If I wanted full frame both the Canon (if buying now we would use the 5D Mark III) and Nikon would serve us well. In terms of maximum resolution the D800 (even more the D800e) is hard to beat.

What would be single system for us look like today?

Hard to tell, but I think it would be the GH3 system for size and weight. If you start out I think a Panasonic GH3 (if you are into top video) or Olympus OMD with the Panasonic 12-35mm f/ 2.8 could be a great starter kit.

Single lens/camera combos we like to use

ο Nikon D800 + 24-120mm f/4 VR: 36 MP can help with detail
ο Panasonic GH3 or Olympus OMD + 12-35mm f/2.8 OIS: Gets you started
ο Olympus OMD + Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 (with IBIS): Nice for low light use
ο Fuji X-Pro1/X-E1 + 35mm f/1.4 (no IS): We like this combo

If this is all too expensive for you then check out the Sony RX100. The RX100 is amazing for its size and even sports great video. We use the RX100 as our standard P&S camera. We don't use it a lot because we carry too often dedicated camera systems with us. The RX100 is not much bigger than an iPhone but so much better.

Sony RX100

The typical camera system buying cycle


  • Start with camera and a cheap do-everything zoom
  • Get better lenses and learn what your camera can do
  • Add more and more lenses, filters and other gear
  • Leave most of it at home all the time
  • Find your essential needs with a smaller subset


With some planning you may skip the wasted steps 1, 3 and 4.

You can find Roger's final part of "Roger Buys a Camera System" here. Roger, thanks for getting this all started.

Keep always in mind that photography is an art form and you will get your best work if you you have some fun using your gear. There is no perfect or best solution but some systems may better fit to you. Roger and I just provide some food of thought. Happy shooting.

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Reader Comments (12)

First some edits: Nikon Micro lens is 105mm VR, not IS. Canon Macro lens is 100mm, they dont have 105mm.

Typos out of the way. I am pleased to know that my preferred choice is also the choice of this author. Nikon D800 + 24-120mm f/4. I have and have had other compacts, 4/3rd, and APS cameras. What I have found is that I only shoot with the FF DSLR when it is available, so I have stopped carrying others.

Ditto on 600mm. I love to shoot birds but refuse to buy and carry 500/600/800mm behemoths. If I can use 300mm with a TC, it is great. otherwise good luck to the birds finding more dedicated photographers!

02-15-2013 | Unregistered CommenterSunnycal

Nice follow-up to Roger's article!

Slight correction though (in addition to the one published earlier): The highlight feature of the 100 mm Canon L macro (not 105 mm) is not its Hybrid AF, but Hybrid IS. :-)

02-15-2013 | Unregistered CommenterL.P.O.

Right Nikon calls their iS VR :-) and Nikon is 105 Macro and Canon 100mm .

>is not its Hybrid AF, but Hybrid IS. :-)

What do you call the micro AF feature of that lens. I mean the special AI AF for the macro.

02-15-2013 | Registered CommenterUwe Steinmueller

Hi Uwe,
Great article.
Your image of the pool table in the bar brought back some great memories. I am 99% sure this is a bar in the middle of nowhere in Nevada.I stumbled across this place in 2000 while on a road trip in the US. It was there I met Patrick from while he was doing a charity bike run across the US.
It would be great if I can get a decent size copy of the shot so I can print it and hang it up !
Thank you

02-15-2013 | Unregistered CommenterNikola

As you can see 99% is not good enough. This was shot near the coast at the Monterey Bay.

02-15-2013 | Registered CommenterUwe Steinmueller

It's a shame it's not the same place.
It's still a great shot :) and it brought back the memories :)

02-15-2013 | Unregistered CommenterNikola

I just found it !
It's called Old Middlegate Station in Highway 50 in Nevada.

02-15-2013 | Unregistered CommenterNikola

never been there. But there seem to be quite a few bars of this style. Everybody knows one.

02-15-2013 | Registered CommenterUwe Steinmueller

Dear Uwe,

Kind of a summary of Yours:
"Keep always in mind that photography is an art form and you will get your best work if you you have some fun using your gear. There is no perfect or best solution but some systems may better fit to you. Roger and I just provide some food of thought. Happy shooting."

Thanks for the "food" :-)

Just an example: I usually don' t carry my tripod with me - I like working handheld ... but often it seems as if Murphy is right (Murphys Law): If you leave the tripod at home you will need it, if you carry it with you it' s just unnecessary weight...

There is obviously no perfect solution - for none of us. But if we go out - have fun - and take the pictures we can get (and then have fun in postprocessing) it might be nearly perfect :-) And I think that' s the way we can find our themes and our essential needs.
And if not - well - at least we had fun in what we did...

"People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they do" (Dale Carnegie)

03-20-2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaren

>And if not - well - at least we had fun in what we did..

I 100% agree. When we are at Point Lobos it is just great. Nice pictures are the icing on the cake. Unfortunately this is not true if you shoot for clients.

03-21-2013 | Registered CommenterUwe Steinmueller

Nice counterpoint article, although I would have liked to see your comments on a Pentax system as well.

03-25-2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

>your comments on a Pentax system as well.

I have hardly experience with Pentax. What I used had slow AF for contrast AF.

03-27-2013 | Registered CommenterUwe Steinmueller

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