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Photos courtesy of Glenna Gordon

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[Editor's Note] – When I first read Glenna’s post, So you want to buy a camera, I immediately reached out to her to have it republished here on Matador Goods.

Glenna Gordon is a professional photojournalist whose publication credits include New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, BBC, Reuters, Guardian, UNICEF, USAID….just to name a few. She has been living in Africa (primarily Uganda and Liberia) since 2006 and maintains the blog, Scarlett Lion.

Words and photography by Glenna Gordon

A couple of friends, strangers, and blog readers have recently asked me for advice about buying cameras. Unfortunately, I actually know very little about non professional model cameras. But, I do know about cameras generally, so here’s some advice.

General Thoughts

You don’t need a million megapixels.

Anywhere from 5 – 10 will be fine – anything else is a feature you’re paying for you won’t need. It’s fine if the camera has more megapixels than that, just don’t let a sales person get you to buy a more expensive model because it has more megapixels.

Weather sealing is very, very very important.

Canon and Nikon are essentially the same and put out identical products. Which one most photographers use is usually based on which one their first photo teacher told them to buy. My first photo teacher happened to be sponsored by Canon, so I use Canon. So I don’t use it because it’s better than Nikon, just because I started with it.

However, that means all subsequent advice is related to Canon models because that’s what I know.

SLR vs point and shoot


At this point, there are now pas cameras that have the same optical abilities as SLRs.

The two models I would recommend looking at are the Canon S90 and the Canon G11 (again with Canon caveat in mind).

They do absolutely everything that a basic entry level SLR will do EXCEPT change lenses.

So, unless you plan to change lenses often or extensively make use of aperture and shutter speed controls manually, these cameras are really really great and will make excellent images.

The entry level SLR that is most similar to the s90 or the G11 but will have the ability to switch lenses and give you better manual controls is the Canon Rebel.

There are a bunch of different models of the Rebel, and they’re all basically the same. It’s a very good camera and will do everything you need – I got started on this model and even started selling images made with this camera in 2007 before upgrading.

After that, if you want something fancier, models like the Canon 7d are neat because they will also do video, though the audio quality is poor.

As far as I can tell, the Canon 50d and Canon Rebel are very similar cameras with different price tags. They have the exact same size image sensors, the same number of auto focus points, etc. The Canon 5d has more ISO expansion than the rebel, but that’s not necessarily a good thing if you don’t know how to use it sparingly.

I’d say if you want something more than the Rebel, save your money and jump from the Rebel to the 5d or the 7d.

Lenses – if you do go the SLR route

The 50 mm fixed 1.8 or 1.4 lenses are awesome and run about $100 and $350 respectively.

Much better investment than bulky cameras.

They are harder to use than zoom lenses but create really great, crisp images where you can have small parts selectively in focus.

They also force you as a photographer to work harder, which always results in better images.

Other than that lens, you might want something that covers the range of about 24 mm – 70 mm or 100 mm at most. Unless you’re doing breaking news or photos in violent situations, you will never need more zoom than that. Wildlife photography usually involves a zoom of at least 200 – 300 mm.

  • Make sure you buy a UV filter to protect your lens from dust and scratches.
  • Don’t buy a polarizing filter. Good camera salesmen will try and get you to buy these when you say you’re going to Africa (“It’s so sunny!”) but they’re actually horrible because they reduce detail in the shadow areas, which means in black people’s faces too.
  • Use a small paint brush or soft bristled tooth brush to clean your camera.
  • I also really like disposable lens cleaning tissues because then I don’t worry about cleaning my lens with an already dirty cloth. Also great for keeping my glasses clean.
  • Always keep your lens hood on. This is important not just to avoid sun spots in your image, but also because if you bump into something (or someone bumps into you) they hit your cheap and easily replaceable plastic lens hood and not your lens.

    Especially in situations where you have limited personal space or things are moving quickly, this is incredibly important.


The final thing is that which camera you buy is about a million times LESS important than how you use it. And I’m not just talking about perfect exposure here – I mean getting up close to people and not being nervous about asking for their images.

It also means moving around a lot and finding unique angles rather than shooting from eye level.

And the best thing that you can do to make great images is shoot with great light – early morning and late afternoon only. I don’t even bother taking photos outdoors from about 10 am – 3 pm for the most part if there’s an option not to.

*In the MatadorU Travel Photography course, you’ll learn the skills you need to become a travel photographer.

  • Michelle Schusterman

    Great advice here – I’m saving a copy of this article, since I’m considering getting my first SLR maybe later this year. Thank you, Glenna and Lola!

  • Hal Amen

    Michelle, I’m in the same boat. Thanks for the advice, Glenna!

  • Theodore Scott

    I have owned a Nikon D90 for a little over a year. I researched the D40, D60, and D80 as well. Even though I went with the D90, I think I could have been very happy with any of the others.

    The camera model has been much less important than reading stacks of books on photography and learning how to use the camera. Learn how to take pictures out of auto mode as soon as you buy it.

    Also, I agree on the 50mm. It is the only lens I have purchased beyond the 18-105mm zoom lens that came with the camera.

    • Lola Akinmade

      @Theodore – I agree. It’s a lot more about technique, composition, and having a creative eye. Even though I use a D300 (I’m a Nikon-head), some of my best work have come out of the D40 which is 4-5 times cheaper.

  • Ameya

    No mention of the Canon T2i? It’s got most of the quality of the 7D (and the video on both is almost identical (& amazing!)) but it comes in at about half the price of the 7D, which is much more professional and fancy/confusing, so if you aren’t a technically savvy professional, I suggest that one!

  • Kate

    I have an old Canon Rebel. I was going to go in for a new body when I was back in the states, but the guy at the shop explained there was no need, really. The one thing I would like in a new camera is a better range in ISO, but I shoot a lot at night and that’s why.

    Glad to see someone writing about the megapixel issue. Unless you’re planning on making billboard sized prints, there’s no need to pay more for more mpxs.

  • Carlo

    @Ameya, the T2i (550D outside of NA) is the Rebel that she’s talking about…I didn’t even realize they’ve already upgraded from the T1i/500D. What’s with the speed of all these camera upgrades!

    I have to respectfully disagree that the Rebel and the 50D are very similar cameras. We have both (well, the 40D, but that’s essentially a 50D). Number one, the 40/50D has a much more solid body and feel. It’s bigger and balances much better in your hand, especially with a larger lens attached (and especially if you have bigger hands).

    Also, the Rebel shoots max 3.4 frames/sec while the 50D maxes out at 6.3 frames/sec, so if you shoot sports or other action scenes, that’s a big difference.

    The Rebel is also plastic, whereas the 500D is magnesium alloy (I’m going off the spec sheets here)…so the Rebel does feel a bit like a toy.

    Not saying one’s better than the other, but just pointing out that they are quite different cameras and the price difference between the 50D and the 7D is relatively large. So I think it’s a valid middle camera between the Rebel and 7D.

  • Carlo

    I wonder what Glenda’s thoughts (or anyone else’s for that matter) are on circular polarizers? Because you have control over how dark to make it by rotating the filter.

    Also (sorry, one more point then I’ll shut up) just wanted to put forth my agreement about it’s how you use it, not the camera. Just like in tennis or golf, you can have the best racquet/clubs in the world, but it don’t mean a thing if you’re a crap player. The only picture I’ve ever sold (for a book cover) was taken with a point and shoot (Canon Powershot S5 IS).

    • Lola Akinmade

      @Carlo – I personally am not a big fan of using filters. I try as much as I can to seek out the best natural (and in some cases, artificial) light sources, and try to post-process where needed. The problem with filters is that they tend to denigrate the overall quality of the photograph the image sensor records.

  • Bethany

    Great post! Being a professional photographer I really enjoyed reading it. I like the thought of the filters but I can’t help it, I love my polarizer. I don’t use it all the time but those blue skies! Love ‘em! Just about to upgrade my Nikon to the D300 (this weekend!) and wish this article had a bit more about Nikon but it’s great for Canon users.

  • Travel With a Mate

    Great advice here. We recently blogged about what the best camera bag is for budding travel photographers as well as preparing for your big travel photography adventure.

    So many people these days are getting more serious equipment and being creative with their travel snaps. Even as a pro photographer I’m glad! Less boring holiday photos is always a good thing!

  • João Almeida

    “They do absolutely everything that a basic entry level SLR will do EXCEPT change lenses.”

    Not very true, high-level compact cameras still have smaller sonsor areas than SLRs, which means lower image quality (a big difference when you want to print photos).

    I also would like to suggest another format: the Micro Four Thirds (like the Olynpus PEN or the Panasonic GF1), I don’t own one but with the strengts of both compacts and SLR (roughly the size of a compact with the image quality and the changeable lenses of SLR cameras) they might be excellent travel cameras.

  • Leng | Globe Nomads

    I like your post but I completely disagree on your point about polarizers. Even though I don’t have one now, I am saving for a good one. There are circular polarizers out there in the market which will only take away 1 stop of light. A circular polarizer is absolutely vital for landscape photography. I look at the last photo in your post and the sky is totally washed out. You could really use a polarizer!

  • DanTheRed

    Some good points, but reads a little to much like it was underwritten by Cannon. (Disclaimer, though, was well done.) It has the effect of making it look like a two-horse race…Canon or Nikon, when there are several other fine makes out there. (I happen to be a devotee of ‘one of the others,’ so perhaps I’m a bit overly sensitive. But, for the same reasons as the author states…I prefer the brand I learned on, and “grew up with.”

    About polarizers, my first preference for using them is not for polarizing, but rather as a lens protector. If you don’t use a polarizer, please get a clear “filter” (or some filter) as the last line of defense before your lens gets scratched.

    Other recommendations: mono-pod vs tripod, for super-light travelling. (or shooting-from-the-middle-of-the-action-situations.) It provides a measure of stability (not as good as tripod, obviously) with a lot more maneuverability. I’d also recommend multiple flashes, for different functions. This runs against the “travel light” idea, I realize, but opens up a lot of options for creative lighting. 

    I’d also recommend for long shoots or travel situations to take a netbook or laptop. This gives the ability to see the images larger, more comfortable reviewing of photos, I find deleting the dreck is quicker this way, plus ability to offload your photos, and free up memory for more shoots. In rough travel situations, it allows photos to be uploaded to the internet, and thus preserved, before coming home. Not a minor consideration in some parts of the world.

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