This question is a lot easier than the previous question and the answer, for me, is simple: the cheapest one in which the sensor is used by the “more advanced” cameras. This post is divided into four parts and there is a conclusion:
- I try to assure you that an entry-level camera will do everything you need.
- What matters is the sensor first (along with the lens, which I will return to later).
- I compare three entry-level cameras from three brands.
- There are few more things to consider before buying a camera.
1. Entry-Level Cameras are as Good as “Better” Ones
Probably you want to have a better camera. You would not like a Nikon D3300 or Canon 550D. You would prefer a Nikon D7200 or Canon 70D. But what is the difference between an entry-level camera and a “professional” camera? Let us look at some of these differences:
- There are more buttons and/or rings on a more advanced camera. Look at this photo:
D7100, which is the more advanced camera, has more buttons behind, as well as having two more rings (one on the upper-left side, one in the front) which help being faster while shooting. Unless you need to be fast while shooting, the additional two or three buttons will not change your life.
- More advanced cameras are comparably bigger (and therefore heavier):
Some decades ago smaller cameras were preferred more. Probably you have heard about Leica. Do you know why it became legendary? Because of its size. It was the first easy-to-carry camera, therefore loved by photographers1. Yet today professional means bigger and heavier.
- More advanced cameras have a top screen which shows the current settings (which you can see in the viewfinder):
Do you need it? Simply no. You can easily look at the viewfinder (or back screen, if you use it) and see your settings.
- Entry-level cameras have more preset modes (like night, sports, landscape, etc.) on the ring while more advanced cameras have less of them (look at the above photo). I use the camera between four modes (Av/Tv/M/video), therefore the rest of the ring does not matter for me. It will not matter for you also, if you passed the test in the previous post.
Let me assure you that an entry-level camera is not a stupid toy, but is not less capable of producing wonderful photos than the more advanced cameras. Why? Because what matters is not the size of the camera or the buttons on it but the sensor. For example, the entry-level Nikon D3300 uses the same sensor with its bigger brother D7100 (and maybe D7200) and for half the price of it (650 vs 1200 USD). Why pay for two three more buttons and dials, if you do not direly need them?
A picture is worth a thousand words, so I give you three thousand words which are all taken with entry-level SLRs:
2. The Better the Sensor, the Better the Camera
After these physical differences, let me get into the sensor so that the rest of the post will make sense.
The sensor is the “film” in the camera on which the light falls and what matters in a camera is the sensor, and almost nothing else. There are two types of sensors: Full frame and crop sensor. Full frame sensors are better than the crop ones2, and newer sensors are better than the older ones – which is close to being a law, yet it is not.
Look at this comparison. Nkon D750, which has a crop sensor, scored better than than Canon 5D Mark II, which is a full frame camera. What is more interesting is that Canon’s score is equal to Pentax’s entry-level K-50 because of its lesser dynamic range (13 vs 11.9 EVs)3.
So should we choose Nikon out of these three? No. There are so many variables and I will try to dig in some of them now.
3. A Comparison of Three Entry-Level Cameras
Previously I asked what you will use the camera for. If you will shoot sports or fast action (maybe even babies?), you need to use a camera which can shoot more frames per second. With a camera that can shoot only three frames, your chances of missing the frame will increase. Or if you are shooting landscapes, you need the camera to capture more details (i.e. shadows). If you are into street photography, the camera should produce less noise at higher ISO and it should be light enough to carry all day.
Let us look at three entry-level cameras from three brands again, which are introduced approximately at the same time: Nikon D3300, Pentax K-50, Canon 700D:
- Nikon and Pentax score almost equal (while Nikon is the best) while Canon has by far the worst sensor.
- Pentax was the cheapest when it was introduced while Canon was the most expensive (600 vs 750 USD).
- Canon has the smallest sensor while Pentax has the biggest (which is almost equal to the size of Nikon).
- Pentax has the fastest shutter speed (1/600 vs 1/4000).
- Pentax has higher frames per rate (6 vs 5).
- Pentax has in-body image stabilizer while the others do not.
- Pentax is weather sealed while the others are not.
- Nikon’s battery is the strongest while Pentax’ battery is the weakest.
- Pentax’s viewfinder is better than the others’.
- Only Canon has articulated (moving) screen4.
4. More Things to Consider
So, should you get a Pentax? The answer is again no. You do not have to buy a Pentax (although I personally would recommend to do so). There are more to take into consideration:
- If there are people from whom you can borrow lenses, the brand(s) that the person uses is better to go for. Isn’t the variety of lenses the reason that we want an interchangeable lens camera after all?
- If you have a love through some brand, as I did for Nikon, you better leave it aside. No need to miss the chance to use Helios 44 because Nikon is not capable to do so, no?
- As time passes, you (highly probably) will build a (basic) setup (like 50mm 1.8, 17-50 2.8, or such) and you will be stuck with that setup unless you will accept receiving less than what you spent on collecting them. Not all lenses can be used among different brands. Nikon and Pentax do not accept any lenses from other brands while Canon can use both Nikon and Pentax lenses. You should keep this in mind.
- As I wrote before, mirrorless cameras are becoming mainstream and if size and weight matter to you, you should take them into consideration. Because I am against almost no battery life, which is the common problem among mirrorless cameras, I do not even look at them but you maybe should look at them too.
As you see, there are so many things to consider when you are buying a camera but there are, actually, two things that matter the most: the sensor and the lens setup.
After some extensive research, I went for Pentax even though I loved the red triangle (a.k.a. Nikon) for more than a decade. My reason was rather simple: I am not rich and I needed something cheap. As it is the lenses and the sensor that matters, and as Pentax’s sensor is better than Canon and is almost equal to Nikon, I had to choose between Nikon and Pentax. And as because Pentax can use old (legacy) prime lenses, which cost 1/4th or even 1/5th of modern lenses, I decided on Pentax. I do not care (much) about auto-focus, and comparing with the gains, losing auto-focus is almost nothing.
The trade-offs are as follows for the three cameras I compared above:
- Canon can use almost any lens but has the worst sensor among the three. Also Canon “updates” its cameras, especially at the entry-level, twice a year and your camera will lose its value so soon.
- Nikon has the best sensor but is limited with Nikkor lenses. Besides, its better lenses are rather limited compared to Canon, and are more expensive.
- Pentax has almost as good sensor as Nikon, but there are not many people that use Pentax and borrowing lenses is not easy. Also Pentax has fewer lenses available if you rule out the legacy lenses.
So the conclusion is what you guess: if you can dare as I did, I would highly recommend buying a Pentax camera. You will not have a Canon or Nikon, and you will not be able to show-off as much as you like, but will have a better camera for lesser price. Besides, using legacy prime lenses is a lot more fun and creative than you can guess now.
- This is one of the biggest reasons of mirrorless cameras becoming mainstream.
- Except rare cases like bird photography, which I will write about later.
- This is because Canon is introduced in 2008 while Pentax is introduced in 2013. Remember the law: the newer the sensor, the better.
- It sounds like a Pentax ad, right? Well, it is not. No one pays me anything. You can check my setup on my Flickr page, if you do not believe in me. I just put the comparison here.