Looking for the best camera (point and shoot or DSLR), lens, or other photography gear and equipment to buy? This photography buying guide offers helpful “real world” ratings and reviews on photography equipment from an experienced photographer (take a look at my photo galleries to see my work). Although my specialty is landscape and travel photography, the gear reviewed can be used in a whole range of photographic scenarios. (Note: this guide was most recently updated in February 2014 to cover new products.)
Before considering any camera and photography equipment upgrades, it is a great idea to learn about photography. Use online resources (Google can find a tutorial on anything!), but if you want to learn the basics or read something more thorough, we recommend books (read our book reviews). The book we always recommend starting with is Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. Seriously, get it. All of the expensive equipment in the world won’t help you if you haven’t learned the basics, and that book is the best way to learn the basics. A book is a lot cheaper than a new lens, and if you’re a beginner, that book will improve your photography more than a new lens.
No camera “takes good pictures.” Some cameras can help an adept photographer more than others, but if the person taking the photos doesn’t do things right, photos taken with a $2,000 camera can look worse than photos taken with a camera phone. Likewise, many experienced photographers can take better photos with an iPhone than inexperienced photographers can with expensive DSLRs on Auto Mode.
The point being, it’s important to learn the fundamentals of photography in addition to buying shiny, new toys. This guide will start by providing resources for learning more about photography (the most important step) and then reviews and information concerning buying more tools to improve your photography.
Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson – (same one as above, just in case you missed it there, because it’s really that important) this book is where I learned photography. He would still be using automatic mode if it weren’t for someone recommending Mr. Peterson’s book. A wealth of information, from the basics to some more advanced techniques, this book is the perfect jumping off point.
The Photographer’s Eye - Great composition is paramount to a great photo, but unfortunately it’s one of those things that’s difficult to learn. This book helps any aspiring photographer really learn composition. This is a book to read over and over again. Definitely the second-most important book to own on photography and one that’s become a recent favorite of mine.
Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Boxed Set, Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4 - A four part series of beginner and intermediate books with plenty of useful tips for veteran photographers, too. The information in these books really runs the gamut, and if ever there were to be a single (or 3 book) series for mastering the craft/business of all types of photography, this would be it.
We’ve done a number of blog posts providing tips for improving your photography at Disney. Here are some of the best ones, which you should read once you have a decent foundation to understand photography (in other words, read a couple of the books above before reading these):
This just scratches the surface on the photography guides we’ve written. To read and learn more, browse the photography category of posts on the blog. Once you’ve learned a bit, it might be time to buy some new equipment to help you take better photos. Read on for our buying suggestions…
Over the last few years, we have had the chance to extensively use a number of cameras. Primarily, we use Nikon DSLRs, various point & shoots, and iPhones for photography. Since 2008, we have used a Olympus EM-5, Canon XTi, Nikon D40, D90, D7000, D700 D600, and Infrared D70. Sarah uses an iPhone 5 for Disney iPhoneography. You can see what’s currently in my camera bag here.
While we are primarily Nikon users, we aren’t crazy brand-loyalists. Every manufacturer is making excellent cameras right now, so you need to read reviews for particular models of cameras. The top Canon DSLR cameras are definitely quite comparable to the top Nikon DSLR cameras. Personally, if in the market for a DSLR, I’d stick with one of the big two not because they’re better than Sony or Pentax bodies, but because of lens support. If you’re looking to go mirrorless, Sony or Olympus are the way to go. When it comes to point & shoots, a number of manufacturers (including Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Canon, and more) are all putting out great cameras.
Let’s go through the different categories of cameras for reviews of some of our favorite cameras that we’ve used.
Nikon D3200 DSLR - This is the newest entry level DSLR from Nikon, which offers great bang for your buck in a small size. It has pretty solid image quality when compared to higher level cameras, and only lacks some of the features–definitely a great value. It’s definitely a good idea to use less of your budget for the camera body so you can put more towards additional lenses and necessary accessories! (Read Our Full D3200 Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 9/10
Nikon D7100 DSLR Camera – If you’re upgrading or are more serious about photography, skip the D5200 and go straight to the D7100. The benefits of the D7100 over the lower models are improved dynamic range & high ISO performance, better build quality, better HD video capabilities, and more. Each of these improvements seems insubstantial on its own, but together they make for a pretty impressive camera that you can grow into as a photographer! A slightly cheaper option here is the Nikon D7000, which is a great camera, but is a bit older and doesn’t perform quite as well. (Read Our Full D7000 Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 9/10
Nikon D600 DSLR Camera – I pre-ordered this within minutes after it was announced, and am so glad I did. It offers full frame quality, amazingly clean images at high ISO, incredible dynamic range, and a litany of features. I purchased this instead of the Nikon D800 because the D800 offered too many megapixels for my shooting style. In my opinion, the Nikon D600 is the perfect camera for the very serious Disney photographer. (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 10/10
Nikon D70 Infrared DSLR Camera – Infrared cameras are a niche camera that can only achieve a specific type of photo (see above). I use the Nikon D70, but I don’t recommend it. Instead, I’d buy a new Nikon D5100 and have the conversion done for $250 via LifePixel. Infrared cameras capture light beyond the spectrum of light visible to the human eye. If you already have a solid lineup of gear and want to try a new style, think about purchasing one. All others should avoid. Read Our Full “Infrared Photography Guide & Tips” post for more info.
We have used a lot of lenses over the past few years, and we have reviewed many of these lenses on the blog. However, some stick out as our top choices if you’re just getting started in photography or want to “complete” your camera bag. Here are our capsule reviews for some of our top lenses to get when you’re first looking to upgrade your gear:
Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye Lens - This lens goes by many different names (Rokinon, Bower, Pro-Optic, Samyang, etc.), but if you find a lens that is an 8mm f/3.5 fisheye, it’s this one. This is really an amazing lens for it’s target audience. It’s really wide, reasonably fast, and incredibly cheap. It is manual focus, but manual focus is no problem at all on a fisheye lens. (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 9/10
Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens - Essentially a replacement and upgrade for the kit lens that comes with most entry level DSLRs. It allows for more creativity, but also covers a very useful focal range, so it’s not a niche lens like an ultra-wide angle or a fisheye. It covers largely the same focal length (17-50mm v. 18-55mm) as a kit lens, but offers better image quality, better low-light performance, and allows for more shallow depth of field because of the constant f/2.8 aperture.(Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 9.5/10
Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Lens - The world’s first (and only) f/1.8 zoom lens, this is a real game-changer. For a first of its kind lens, the quality is surprisingly great. The lens flat-out performs well, and the focal range is great for Disney photography as it can be used for landscapes, dark rides, in-park portraits, fireworks, and more. The lens is a bit pricey, but it’s highly recommended if your budget allows. (Read Our Full Review w/ Sample Photos) Score: 10/10
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Ultra-wide Angle Lens for Nikon - The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is a gem. With an aperture of f/2.8, it’s fast enough to use hand-held at night (or on some dark rides!) and its image quality is stunningly sharp. If you do get this lens, make sure you use it to its full potential by leveraging the distortion it produces. Don’t just use it to “zoom backwards” or cram more things into the frame. (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 10/10
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM Lens for Nikon – The holy grail of portrait and dark ride lenses as far as we’re concerned, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is the perfect focal length for photographing dark rides, and it’s a more natural portrait lens for using in the parks. It produces buttery-smooth bokeh and images that pop. Nikon offers a 35mm f/1.8 for a bit less, but it’s not nearly as good. Spend a little more and get the exceptional quality of the Sigma. You will not regret it. Score: 10/10 (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples)
***We have a lot more reviews on our Lens Reviews Page. Read that to decide what’s right for you***
Sony RX100 - This point and shoot has been described by just about everyone who has reviewed it as a game changer. I was skeptical at first, but I drank the Kool Aid, and am loving it. This point and shoot somehow combines a large sensor and a great f/1.8 lens into a compact package. The only downside is its price. It has replaced our Nikon D3100 DSLR as a backup camera–we carry this camera just about everywhere! (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 10/10
Canon PowerShot S110 - The Canon S110′s biggest strengths are its minimum aperture of f/2.0 and its ability to shoot RAW which are quite impressive for a point and shoot. Obviously it’s no miracle worker, and it definitely doesn’t compare to even an entry level DSLR, but it’s a solid point and shoot for the money. It’s no Sony RX100, but it’s a cheaper alternative. Score: 9/10
If you’re looking for an underwater camera or a waterproof case to use at the beach, diving, or at a Disney water park, check out our Best Underwater Cameras for 2013 page. In lieu of a dedicated waterproof camera, we recommend the DicaPac Waterproof Digital Camera Case. It works surprisingly well!
A lot of beginners make the mistake of only budgeting for a camera and lens when starting out, only to find out they need other accessories. These things quickly add up and can cost far more than expected. Some of these additional expenses skew more towards necessary (memory cards, camera bag, tripod) whereas some are not necessary but nice to have (polarizing and neutral density filters). Here are our picks for the best accessories:
There are a lot of differing opinions on this one, but for the purpose of vacationing to Walt Disney World or Disneyland, a lightweight travel tripod is best. We use the Velbon line of tripods, specifically the Velbon Luxi-L III. This is a GREAT tripod: incredible value, height, and it collapses to a small size!
Since tripods are such an incredibly important (yet often overlooked) element of capturing great photos, I’ve put together a thorough guide for choosing the right one.
***Visit our “Choosing the Best Travel Tripod” page for more information.***
If you want something easy and simple (with a bit of range for self portraits), get a Wireless IR Remote Control. It’s inexpensive, and incredibly useful for fireworks shots (bulb mode), nighttime long exposures (so you don’t move the camera when pressing the shutter button), and for taking shots of yourself!
If you want something with a bit more functionality, get a Fotodix Wired Remote. This is better for serious or advanced users who need more than shutter release functionality.
If you like taking photos of your family & friends, an external flash is a must. The little on camera flash just washes people out and doesn’t do nearly as good of a job as an external flash. External flashes are fairly cheap, too.
Nikon SB-400 flash – great entry level flash that’s small, cheap, and has an adjustable head for bouncing. This is the flash Sarah uses.
Nikon SB-700 flash – mid-range Nikon flash that has a lot more features than the SB-400, is larger, and a bit more expensive than the SB-400. Unless size is an issue, this is the flash you should target. Its features make it much more compelling than the SB-400. I use the last generation (SB-600) of this flash.
Unlike in the days of film, most filters nowadays can be achieved via post processing. For that reason, we don’t recommend many filters. We also don’t recommend UV filters for protection (use a lens hood instead) as they slightly degrade image quality, especially if shooting into bright lights. Here are the filters we do recommend:
Tiffen 77mm Circular Polarizer – A great option for deeply saturated blue skies, but is by no means a necessity. It also acts as a neutral density filter, of sorts. Be careful using polarizers on wide angle lenses. You may not like the uneven results.
CHEAP-O $25 Infrared Filter (72mm) or 77mm - This is what you want to buy if you want to give infrared photography a try. Before I got my infrared camera, I used one of those CHEAP-O filters, and it worked just fine for me…actually, it worked great considering the price! If you like this, consider a dedicated camera…
B+W 77mm Neutral Density 1.8-64x Filter #106 – Neutral Density filters are great for long exposure fireworks shots and long exposure daytime shots. There are cheaper options, but this is really the filter that will be most versatile. If you’re considering purchasing one, read the link below to make a better-informed decision.
***Visit our full list of Neutral Density Filter Reviews.***
We recommend that you learn from our mistakes and purchase a camera bag you can “grow into” as you buy your gear. We’ve gone through far too many bags as our gear “collection” has grown.
Lowepro SlingShot 102 AW – This bag provides great bang for your buck, and can store your camera with a lens mounted, plus two additional lenses. It’s possible to cram three additional lenses into this in a pinch by using the top pouch for the 50mm f/1.8 or another small lens. It’s much better than the 100AW that it replaced, because you can carry a tripod on the side of it!
Lowepro Flipside 300 Backpack – Better for “heavy” traveling, this bag is used by many Disney photographers. If you’re only looking to purchase one camera bag, and plan on eventually owning 4 or more lenses, this is the bag to get. It’s roughly the same price as the 102 AW, but it can hold much more–and it utilizes space amazingly.
***Visit our “Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel” post for more info!***
A photo isn’t done the moment you click the shutter. Much like photographers of yore polished shots in the darkroom, it’s imperative that you have your own “digital darkroom.” Don’t mess with any software (sorry Aperture, Gimp, Paint Shop Pro, etc., users!) besides Adobe’s. They’re the market leader for a reason.
Adobe Photoshop CS6 (and its included programs, Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw) – If you’re serious about photography, this is the go-to photo-editing suite. If you’re a student or teacher, you are eligible to purchase the Photoshop CS6 Teacher and Student Edition for $192! We highly recommend buying that version of Photoshop if you’re eligible. Photoshop can do it all and includes other programs that are also incredibly useful. Highly recommended.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 - Perfect for quick edits or people who don’t want to fuss with photos as much. (There is also a Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Student and Teacher Edition available for only $80) Lightroom is a very powerful program and can do 98% of the editing that we perform on our photos.
It will probably take several years to acquire everything you need. It would be imprudent to buy it all at once, because you might find your interests differ from ours, and even your style will change and evolve. Lenses make much more of a difference than the body, so budget accordingly.
If you’re on a limited budget, start out by setting aside the cost of an entry level camera body, and add the following as funds allow. If you could purchase all of these things with money left over, consider starting out with a more advanced camera than entry level. Here’s what you’ll want:
From there, buy whatever lenses and other accessories that might interest you. We’ve discovered that buying photo gear on eBay or Craigslist is a huge risk, but we still do it sometimes. You don’t know how the seller took care of their gear, or what problems may come up down the road. You also don’t save that much over buying new. Finally, you don’t get a warranty. Things do go wrong with cameras, seemingly inexplicably, and it would really stink for that $1,000 investment to break with no recourse for you.
Similarly, there are a lot of New York City based camera stores online with too-good-to-be-true prices. These sites are scams, DO NOT order from them! If the price looks to good to be true, it is.
We’re Amazon Prime members, so we almost always order from Amazon.com. I also recommend Adorama.com, B&H Photo, or Abes of Maine, but I generally avoid all other online photo retailers (I STRONGLY recommend avoiding J&R Cameras).
If you are considering a purchase of any photography equipment, lenses, or anything else for that matter we would greatly appreciate it if you use the Amazon, Adorama, and B&H Photo links in this post to make your purchase. It benefits the site, doesn’t cost you a dime, and helps us to keep providing you with useful content! Every penny helps!
We hope this guide helps you out and answers your questions. If you have other gear recommendations or tips on new products we might like, share them in the comments! If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below, too.