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 a professional photographer (me). Although my specialty is landscape and travel photography at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the gear reviewed can be used in a whole range of photographic scenarios. (Note: this guide was most recently updated in April 2013 to cover new products.)
Before considering any camera and photography equipment upgrades, it is a great idea to learn a little 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 a book (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 on earth “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.
Here are our photography recommendations:
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 Tom 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, and 3 – A three 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.
Now for the equipment recommendations:
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, when Tom got his first DSLR, he has used a Canon XTi, Nikon D40, D90, D7000, D700 and Infrared D70. He presently uses the D600 (read the full review with samples), D7000, and Infrared D70. Sarah presently uses a Sony RX100 (point and shoot) and iPhone 5 for Disney iPhoneography.
While we are Nikon users, we aren’t crazy brand-loyalists. That’s just crazy. Both are making excellent cameras right now, as are the less-common brands (Sony, Pentax, and others), and we don’t think you can go wrong with either brand. The top Canon DSLR cameras are definitely quite comparable to the top Nikon DSLR cameras. Personally, I’d stick with one of the big two not because they’re better than Sony or Pentax bodies, but because of lens support.
Let’s go through the different categories of cameras for reviews of some of our favorite cameras that we’ve used.
Point & Shoot Cameras
Up until 2012, I really didn’t use point & shoot cameras that often. This changed with the Sony RX100, which is my favorite by a long shot. It’s the first point and shoot I’ve personally used that offers near-DSLR quality in a pocket size.
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 S95 – The Canon S95′s biggest strengths for Disney 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 if you’re looking to take a pocket-sized camera to the parks that will give you great creative latitude, I will say with fairly strong certainty that this should be your choice. It’s no Sony RX100, but it’s a great compromise if your budget doesn’t allow for the RX100. You might also consider the Canon S100, which is a refresh to the S95. Score: 9/10
To read the rest of our Point & Shoot Camera reviews, visit our Point & Shoot Camera Reviews.
We’re Nikon users; here are the cameras we have used and recommend. What works for you might vary based upon your needs.
Nikon D3100 DSLR - Up until Summer 2012, Sarah used this DSLR, which offers great bang for your buck. It packs a lot of punch for its price. 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! This camera has since been replaced by the Nikon D3200; we’ve heard great things but haven’t had a chance to test the newer model. Score: 8/10
Nikon D7100 DSLR Camera – If you’re upgrading or are more serious about photography, skip the D5100/D5200 and go straight to the D7100. The benefits of the D7100 over the lower-models are improved dynamic range, improved high ISO performance, better build quality, ability to meter with additional lenses, substantially better HD video capabilities, and dual memory card slots, among other things. 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. It doesn’t have every little bell and whistles of the Nikon D700 (the camera I purchased in early 2012 when I made the leap to full frame), but its image quality is better, which is most important, and it’s a more compact package. 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
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…
Nikon D70 Infrared DSLR Camera – 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 are a niche camera that can only achieve a specific type of photo (see below). Infrared cameras capture light beyond the spectrum of light visible to the human eye. If you already have a camera and sell lens and want to try a new style, think about purchasing one. All others should avoid.
Read Our Full “Infrared Photography Guide & Tips” Post
Waterproof Cameras: If you’re looking for an underwater option to use at the beach, Typhoon Lagoon, or Blizzard Beach, check out our Waterproof Point & Shoot Camera Reviews. That page is due for an update, which will occur in late Summer 2013.
In lieu of a dedicated waterproof camera, we recommend the DicaPac Waterproof Digital Camera Case. It works surprisingly well!
We have used a lot of lenses over the past few years, and have generally found that third party lenses are the best way to go if you’re on a budget and first party lenses are the best way to go if money is no issue. This is primarily because you don’t pay for the first party brand name, so you get better value for your money. The third party lens reviews here apply equally for use on both Nikon and Canon bodies (as well as any other mount in which the lens is made). Here are our capsule reviews:
Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 Manual Focus, Fisheye Lens for Nikon - 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. Tom sets his to 3′ and typically never adjusts it during the trip since at 3′, everything in the shot is in focus (there is some scientific explanation to this, but we don’t know what that is!). (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 10/10
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: 10/10
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Ultra-wide Angle Lens for Nikon - Some might call Tom an ultra-wide angle “fiend.” Well, this is the lens that started it all for him, and is one of two ultra-wide angle lenses he presently owns. The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is another 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. The only slight qualm is that it’s only 11mm at its widest. For most people this won’t be an issue, though. Tom just likes really wide shots. 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: 9.5/10
Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens – Often described as the “jack of all trades, master of none” this is really a great lens for a beginner looking for more range than the kit lens offers. Once you get more and more into photography, you’ll probably use this less and less, but it’s still a great option when traveling light. It’s not as sharp and it does have its flaws, but don’t let the gear-snobs fool you–you can get great shots with this lens. (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples) Score: 7/10
Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens – The nifty fifty as it’s known among its fans, this lens is highly overrated. While you can produce some great images with it, for Disney trips, it’s not that great of a lens on a crop sensor (DX) camera (if you don’t know what a crop sensor camera is–it’s most sub-$2,500 camera bodies). If you’re trying to take photos of dark rides or portraits, most of the time you’ll find that it’s simply too much “zoom.” For creative purposes while wandering the parks, it’s a gem and a great value (look at the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens (Score: 8/10) version of the lens if you have a camera body with an in-body focusing motor). Score: 7/10
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 considered, 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 the images really pop. Plus, with an aperture of f/1.4, it’s a bit faster than f/1.8 lenses. While Nikon offers a 35mm f/1.8 for a bit less, do not be convinced that this is a better option! 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 lens reviews on our Lens Reviews Page. Read them all to decide what’s right for you!
A lot of beginners make the mistake of only budgeting for a camera and lens when they go to purchase a camera, only to find out that other smaller costs quickly add up and cost them far more than expected. Some of these additional expenses skew more towards necessary (memory cards and camera bags, and to a lesser extent a tripod and flash) whereas some are not necessary but nice to have (polarizing and neutral density filters). Here are our picks for the best accessories.
Remote - Get the Nikon ML-L3 Wireless Remote Control for the D3000, D40, D40x, D5000, D60, D7000, & D90. 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!
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 tripod (this package comes with some nice accessories, but frequently is out of stock; if no product shows, just search for “Velbon Luxi L” once on Amazon). This is a GREAT tripod: incredible value, height, and it collapses to a small size! The only downside is that it can be hard to find. It the link above stops working (as it does from time to time), please leave a comment below letting me know.
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 like taking photos of your people (and if you’re going to a Disney theme park, you should!), 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. Tom uses 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 star filters or any color-shift 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. However, this is a “controversial” area of photography, so you might want to read counter-points. 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.
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. Neutral density filters are of substantial interest to Tom and he has thoroughly researched and tested them. 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.
Obviously, you need a bag to carry your gear. We recommend that you learn from our mistake and purchase a 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. Tom crams three additional lenses into his in a pinch by using the top pouch for the 50mm f/1.8. It’s much better than the 100AW that it replaced, because you can carry a tripod on the side of it! Despite all that room, it’s a fairly lightweight bag.
Lowepro Flipside 200 Backpack – Better for “heavy” traveling, this bag is used by many of the top 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. If you don’t mind a slightly larger bag, this is the bag to get.
Ape Case Large SLR Holster Camera Bag ACPRO650 - Sarah only carries her camera, one lens, and SB-400 flash when she’s in the parks, and for that, she uses this. She tried out one of the Crumpler “Million Dollar Home” Camera Bags before choosing the Ape Case, and we both thought the Crumpler was highly overrated and overpriced. They must have a good marketing team. Conversely, the Ape Case, which is largely unheralded, is an excellent and lightweight bag. Look into the other sizes they make if you want something slightly larger.
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.” Even if you only perform minor edits, a post-processing program is a must. 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! $192 may seem like a lot, but given that the price for that version of PS (extended) is typically $999, it’s actually quite a deal. 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.
SmugMug - not necessarily traditional “software,” but the best service out there for backing up and setting up a polished portfolio/store. You can fully customize SmugMug (as you can see from my gallery) and it has a lot of power. Well worth the price for serious photographers. Use this link when signing up for SmugMug to save $5!
Obviously we have accrued all of these items over several years. It would be imprudent to buy them all at once, because you might find your interests in photography differ from ours. We would recommend starting out by buying an entry level DSLR body no matter what your budget and spending the rest on lenses and accessories. Lenses make much more of a difference than the body, so budget accordingly.
If you’re on a limited budget, start out with the camera body, and add the following as funds allow:
From there, buy whatever lenses and other accessories that might interest you. As you can see by my list, I don’t value a telephoto lens all that highly, but if you do, get one.
New or Used? – Tough question. 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.