Which camera is best is a good question to ask. Although there is no such thing, but rather a series of technical parameters you have to apply for yourself. In college situations my students had many different cameras from small compacts to DSLRs and so called bridge cameras. It’s what is best for you, on the basis of needs and what you are doing.
As with outdoor gear the topic is often pursued with enthusiasm. Equipment becomes an end in itself, measuring performance more than results. But in the first case, the result is enjoying a walk up Great Gable. In the second case, creating photographs you enjoy. Testing a tent, jacket, or camera, can to some extent be achieved with a walk in the park and sleeping in your garden. It depends on technical conditions not the location. The rain is the same whether it’s at Kinder Scout or beside your kitchen door. The difference lies with the drama and glamour of the story and if the story, itself, is buyable and sellable.
The term ‘pixel peepers’ is sometimes used to describe people more interested in technical data than aesthetic results. There’s no comparable term for outdoor people that I’m aware of, but there is an industry model consisting of gear manufacturers, advertisements, and disseminating media. Magazines rely on advertising revenue, wouldn’t exist without it, and there is an excessive amount of gear testing and reviewing which propagates the business model. Read the review, then you see the adverts. As with cameras we occasionally need buying information but it’s out of control and antithetical to outdoor values. Nature, ecology, and “the peace of wild things” as the poet Wendell Berry said: not the noisy consumerism of endless products. If a shirt maker, for example, introduces a new shirt with some irrelevant difference from last year, or in a new colour, you might ask yourself: will that change my experience of Scafell Pike?
Brands, models, and recommendations are part of a conversation I avoid. A few years ago I pointed out to an outdoor photographer the small sensor camera he was using (and advertising) could not deliver the same results as a full frame camera. A client entered the conversation and said ‘we’re happy with his results.’ A teaching topic suddenly became reputational. A full frame sensor delivers better results than APS, micro two thirds, or the smaller sensors in compact cameras. It’s important to understand this as the basis for buying and using a camera. There are other factors, and it doesn’t mean full frame is best for you: but it’s the technical reality.
Scottish photographer Colin Prior wrote about ten years ago the Sony A7R was comparable to the quality of medium format film. Those cameras, and you can still buy them, are large and heavy. Bigger size means better resolution, dynamic range, and depth. Depth is a subtle matter which can’t easily be measured but can be defined. In the early days of digital photography people said the results were ‘flat’ compared to film. Three dimensions are reproduced on a two dimensional plane. Silver halides did it better, they said, compared to digital pixels. This might be compared to the difference between vinyl records and digital sound. I’m not a music connoisseur and can’t comment. I accept there may be a subtle difference, although it could now have disappeared.
It is technically accurate to say the more pixels you have the better: but not always. Manufacturers sometimes develop new cameras, with more pixels, and the previous model was better. Those pixels are computed and resolved, because the camera is a small computer. This raises the subject of shooting in a raw format, or JPEG, which is technically complicated so I won’t address it here. The basic idea is that a camera is not ‘neutral’ in terms of image processing. Canon, for example, have a reputation for a ‘creamy’ effect which I liked. When I transferred to Sony I noticed the difference and missed it; but there was also a greater vibrancy and clarity. The quality of some phone cameras is surprisingly good and adequate for many needs. The sensor is tiny, the lens is tiny, but the software engineering is highly developed.
I use a Sony RX100 Mk2 for video and occasional long shots which are more than adequate for internet pictures, but not good enough for my work. When so much photographic activity occurs on the internet this is another important topic. A tiny resolution shot on Twitter, or Facebook, does not necessarily translate into a print for your wall. There is also a peculiar psychological effect when an ordinary picture attracts social attention which appears to be photographic. This is not important if you snap for fun and social sharing, enjoying sunset moments and the mountains. I do this myself, posting from my walks; recently in Scotland and Snowdonia. One of the problems with the internet is context collapse. With words, one sentence appears to be damning but see the speech, or book, and it isn’t. Separate a photograph from a surrounding web site and your impression will be different. This is an important topic in the context of photography education, and developing a necessary discerning eye.
In addition to sensor size, pixels and the relative result – social images for friends or a framed print – the lens is another consideration. A high quality sensor reveals the flaws of an inexpensive lens which is one reason why they must be the same standard. The other reason is a better lens means better pictures irrespective of the camera, and you’re wasting money if you don’t spend comparably.
When choosing a lens, the ‘standard’ or 50mm length tends to be optically very good, which is useful information. There’s a long history for its technical development, and there are engineering reasons why it’s easy to manufacture. Inexpensive 50mm lenses are sometimes a useful part of your kit, and often have large apertures effective for low light situations and selective focus. A large aperture zoom, both long and wide focal length, means a lens which is large, heavy, and expensive.
Focal length is an artistic choice which depends on the scene. Before you even get there, you have to buy the lens you think you need. The beauty of a mountain view often needs a wide angle capture; but not necessarily. There might be a beautiful light effect in a small area which becomes the aesthetic focus. This is a subject I like teaching. In college, I used a projected display. Outdoors, I advised on framing and composition. The ideas are the same, and this is consistent with something I often say: photography education is not location based. The learning is aesthetic, creative, and applicable anywhere.
For convenience, and a modest display, you don’t need an expensive camera and lens. The quality needs of Twitter are tiny, making a small print about the same; the paper of a magazine does not reproduce the resolution of a high quality camera. Interchangeable lenses give you maximum versatility but there’s a cost, financially and practically, in terms of weight and efficiency.
It’s quite possible the results of a compact camera, or even a phone, are sufficient for your needs. One of the most famous war photographs ever made was that of the D-Day landings in 1944. The boat slides onto the pebble shore and soldiers jump out to fight. It is blurred, grainy, badly exposed, and startlingly good. Technical quality is not everything, although that’s a topic for another time.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.