The Search for Camera X

As a photographer, I’m frequently asked: “what camera should I buy?

Unfortunately there’s no magical unicorn camera that’s perfect for everyone. So when it comes to buying cameras, I’ve developed a system that helps me find Camera X.

What’s Camera X? Glad you asked.

Camera X is the null name I give to a camera that I haven’t bought yet. It’s a thought form that guides my way through the mountains of spec’s, statistics, opinions, and conventional wisdom, that makes buying a camera such a chore.

Camera X: what can your camera do for you?

Before I did anything else, I took all the things I wanted to see in my new camera and distilled down into a single sentence. I considered how much I wanted to spend, how often I used the camera, how much weight I wanted to lug around, and how it work with the way I took photos. After thinking things over for several days, I came up with this:

Camera X is a low cost compact digital camera for personal photos that complimented my film cameras and is small enough to take everywhere.

I did this as a preluded to descending down the buzzword rabbit hole of megapixels, sensor size, and all the things that camera makers deem important. Why? Because creating a clear definition of what I wanted kept me from turning my modest proposal into an epic stretch goal.

Use your statement to narrow down choices for Camera X.

Having determined what Camera X had to do, I narrowed down my choices. DSLRs were the first go, as the size and weight put them outside my statement. Also, since the pictures were just for me and not for a paying client, I didn’t need ludicrous resolution.

(Fun vacation game: go to a tourist destination and count the amount of people with giant photo backpacks full of camera stuff  that’ll never be used on their trip. I’m not being mean — I was that guy.)

So, no DSLRs. Since I wanted to keep costs down, that meant I was in the market for something with a zoom lens hard mounted to the camera. I also wanted a hot shoe (the place where the flash goes) so that I could still use my existing strobes. And because I wanted to take pictures like I did with my film cameras, Camera X would have to have manual controls and not be fully automated.

Demonstrate and Validate.

Now that there was an idea of what I was looking for, I went down to my local camera shop. Nikon and Canon, two big names in photography, both had cameras that would fit my one sentence statement, and I made a point to handled each model. In a lot of ways, this is by far the most critical step. You’re buying something that potentially will be with you for a long time, so fit and usability count as much — if not more — than anything else. A camera that’s a pain to use is a camera the never gets used, no matter how good it is. With that in mind, I stood at the counter and pressed every button and turned every dial on every camera in front of me. I looked through the viewfinder, flipped out the screen, and tired to fake out the autofocus.

And then I left without buying Camera X.

Cooling off period.

NASA has a thing they call “Go Fever.” It’s when you want to fly a rocket so badly that you rush past red flags and warning signs and end the day with a bad launch and an epic explosion. I’m not launching rockets (yet), but buying a camera in the heat of the moment can feel equally disastrous. Leaving the camera shop empty handed was hard, but it was for the best. I gave myself twenty-four hours and made sure it was the way I wanted to go.

Camera X becomes a Canon G9.

I returned the next day and then for the next four years I happily took pictures with my Canon G9. In this case, the process worked. I had a small compact camera that was always with me, the manual controls made every picture my own, and the hot shoe let me work with my flashes as I always had. The G9 was the unicorn until four years later when I slipped on the ice and broke it.

In conclusion.

A Camera X process isn’t the only way — or even the “right” way — to buy a camera, but it’s a method that’s worked well for me.  For every camera out there, there’s billions (that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s make it millions) of hours of reviews, marketing videos, and demonstrations, all trying to tell you what to buy. What they can’t do is tell you if a camera is right for you.  Knowing what you want before you walk into that camera store means that you’ll walk out with a camera that you’ll be happy with for a long time to come.