Gear Guide: Camera Bodies

Last year, I put together a series of posts on buying gear for my kids. Some things have changes, some have not – this is an update to last year’s post more than a new one, so some of it will seem familiar. Note that prices and links date back to November 2014, camera companies are constantly updating the equipment so there may be newer versions of some cameras out there.

Today, let’s talk about camera bodies. We’ve already discussed the sensors earlier, so we don’t need to dive into that. By now, hopefully, you’ve read up on lenses as well as where to buy these things and whether you’re going new or used.

Camera bodies fall into three categories, I think: Consumer, Prosumer and Professional.

Consumer Cameras

If you’re going to be making a living with these things, I think you need to stay away from the consumer level cameras. These cameras exclusively have the APS-C sized sensors, but that’s not what makes them poor choices.

They are slow and not built for daily use. The viewfinders are difficult to work with if you wear glasses. The controls are not setup to be very intuitive and the menu structures can be very complex. Trying to set one function that you use often can take far too many pushes on buttons and twists of dials.

I will tell you that I start my students on consumer level cameras, but that has more to do with cost than anything else. I find them to be very small for my hands and, as I wear glasses, I struggle with seeing both the full frame and the metering info at the bottom of the viewfinder. And that full frame? It usually isn’t – you’re usually seeing a cropped version of the frame, showing about 92-95% of what’s being recorded. Since I hammer my kids for edge control, that can be a problem – it may force you to crop, thereby throwing away perfectly good pixels in your workflow.

The accessories are limited at this end of the spectrum, as well. All of the lenses and strobes will work, but the specialty items may not be there. Things like a vertical battery grip or a wireless transmitter just may not exist. (Although the Eye-Fi makes up for that last one in spades, provided speed and battery life isn’t crucial to you.)

Over the years, I have had a growing suspicion that camera manufacturers calibrate their meters differently at this level. It seems to me that the consumer level cameras are biased towards a little bit of overexposure. My suspicion is the average shooter is more likely to underexpose their image and is not as worried about protecting highlights. I haven’t tested this very thoroughly, but anecdotally, it seems to hold up.

So, what cameras are in this range? For Nikon, it’s the D3300 ($500, with a kit lens), D5300 ($600, with a kit lens) or D7100 ($1,400, with a kit lens).

Please, please do not take what I say next as a slam on Nikon because I admitted earlier I shoot Canons: There is something about the way the earlier versions of those three cameras render JPGs that I – I – do not like. I have seen files from several versions of each of them and there is something about them that I don’t like. I have not seen files from the D3300 or D5300 so this may have changed, but the earlier versions of those cameras, and the D7100, produces a file that looks … chunky. No other word for it comes to mind.

Also, I think they are not durable enough for what we do.

On the Canon side, the EOS Rebel SL1 ($550, with kit lens) and Rebel T5i ($650, with kit lens) are the current models. You can still find the older T4 and T3 cameras for less if you look around.

The files out of those cameras looks better, to me, but I’m still not convinced they will hold up over time. I have an SL1 and the high-ISO image quality is fairly stunning, but the body is so small I struggle with it – bending my fingers to the controls is a constant battle. That said, the thought of pairing an SL1 with Canon’s new EF-S 24 mm f/2.8 lens … that would be a stellar walkabout combo is you can set the camera up for your hands.

Prosumer Cameras

If you’ve been reading along for a while, this is probably what you’re looking for. When you hit this point, you start adding not features but quality to those features. If you look at the specs and compare them to the consumer grade gear, you’ll see a lot of similarities – similar resolution, similar modes, etc.

But what you won’t see in the specs is the higher level of responsiveness you get here. You also start getting lots of accessories as this is the class of camera serious photographers gravitate to. These cameras will hold up a lot longer and there are lots of professionals that are in this range.

Most of these cameras are still in the APS-C sensor range, but a few get to full frame.

Starting again with Nikon, you’re looking at the D300s ($1,600, body only). I know a lot of photojournalists who are using this camera and its predecessor, the D200, was my last Nikon body – and I think it was one of the greatest cameras I’ve ever owned.

If you want to go full frame, Nikon has the D610 ($1,600, body only) to offer you. And, yes, that’s the same price as the D300s. If you have some Nikon glass and it’s all designed for full-frame bodies, there’s no compelling reason to choose the D300s over the D610 now. Maybe the availability of the pop-up flash on the D300s and its ability to control another Nikon strobe … but that’s minor considering the advantages of the D610. My friend Prof. Wasim Ahmad has pointed out that the D610 has the same pop-up flash ability as the D300s, though the latter has a better autofocus system in low light

The other option is the Nikon D750 ($2,300, body only) which gets you the same sensor as the D610 plus built-in WiFi for easily moving images to a smartphone or tablet. It also has a higher ISO limit of 51,200. (Which, as a film guy who group up on Kodachrome 64 and thought TMAX 3200 was insane kind of blows my mind.)

If you fancy yourself a little hipster, you may want to look at the Nikon Df ($2,350, body only) – a full-frame, retro-styled camera. As a once long-time Nikon shooter who came of age on F3HPs, FAs and FM2Ns, there’s some very attractive about that camera …

Over at Canon, you have two choices in the crop-sensor world – the EOS 70D ($1,000, body only) or the EOS 7D Mark II ($1,700, body only). I played briefly with the 7D Mark II earlier this month … whoa. The AF system was spectacular.

For an entry level full frame, Canon has the EOS 6D ($1,900, body only, currently there’s a $300 rebate).

Professional Cameras

Which brings us to the top of the line cameras. Here, you start to lose some features (like built in flashes, which are pretty useless to the pro) and pick up things like better weather sealing, highly advanced autofocus systems, much lower shutter lag and better monitor screens. You’ll also have more options for video and a ton of accessories.

There are two paths you can go here – general assignment work, which will give you a smaller camera but lower burst rates, or sports and breaking news, which gives you similar image quality but in a very robust body that is designed to shoot at 10 or more frames per second.

Nikon’s entry here is the D810 ($3,300, body only) and Canon’s is the EOS 5D Mark III ($3,400, body only but there’s currently a $300 rebate). Both are excellent cameras and you can get the vertical battery grips (which will hold two batteries instead of one and give you a vertical shutter release, something many of us really need to help balance the camera). They each have phenomenally sensors, though Nikon is winning the megapixel war at 36.3 to Canon’s 22.3. But … well … unless you’re shooting billboards, I’m not sure that matters too much anymore.

When you step up, you choose between the Nikon D4s ($6,500, body only) and the Canon 1DX ($6,800, body only).

I’ll let you take a deep breath here.

The Nikon gets you a 16.2 MP chip, 11 frames per second and full 1080p video. The Canon gives you 18.1 MP, 14 frames per second 1080p video, as well.

So, the smaller, lower priced bodies give you more resolution, but the larger, more expensive ones give you speed. Which do you need?

Other Options

There aren’t many, really. Sure, Sony, Pentax and Olympus are selling what look like similar cameras, but they do not have the full system to back them up. You will find some really nice cameras out there, but if you can’t buy the accessories you need to grow your business, that’s a dangerous and potentially expensive path to start yourself on.

There’s also the Leica cameras which I so love … and cannot afford. But that’s a specialty item and not really appropriate for general news photography.

So, Which Ones?

Note the plural – I would never head out on an assignment without a backup. Ideally, you would have two identical bodies so the controls would be familiar and you could move from your wide lens to your telephoto seamlessly.

But when you’re starting out, that probably won’t happen. You’ll probably end up going used and getting one body that’s a generation older – and that is fine. But look for cameras that are similar in design so the controls are reasonably consistent. A Canon 1DX and an SL1 would be a nightmare combination … but a D810 and a D300 wouldn’t be bad at all.

For me, starting out, I’d put together a business plan that would support purchasing a pair of either Nikon’s D610 or Canon’s 6D. That would let me do 90% of daily news work at an affordable price point. Both have been out long enough that there are some on the used market, too. ( has a D610 in EX condition for $1,482 right now and a 6D for $1,432 in similar condition.)

If that were a little too rich, the Canon 7D (one generation back) has a great reputation and is available, used from, for around $700. The camera my upper level kids have been using for a couple of years with no major issues, the Canon 60D, is running around $550 at

On the Nikon side, the D300s is holding on at just under $800. The previous version, the D300, didn’t have video capability and has a slightly slower burst rate, but you can get one for under $500.

Mark E. Johnson

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