Several people have gone to me in the past asking me what kind of camera they should get in order to be able to take "good" pictures. I would usually reply with a plethora of questions to help them narrow down their choices from the multitude of cameras currently available in today's market. As the title of this post suggests, this is only the first of a multi-part series to assist you in choosing the camera that will fit your needs, without getting too technical. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to choosing one's perfect camera, but my hope is that it will help you shape your thinking and at least eventually narrow down your choices to get you well on your way. This is also written with the presumption that you have gotten to the point where you want to put more serious consideration into the pictures you're taking. For some this may mean only taking technically cleaner, sharper, higher resolution, higher quality images. For others this could be taking pictures that are "artistic" or perhaps have a more meaningful quality to them. And for some of you, it could mean all these things. For this reason, I'll try to stick to generalities that I think will help most people in this process. Also, I'm going to stick to what I think most people are looking for, therefore we won't go into such things as large format cameras, vintage SLRs, pinhole cameras, analog film cameras, etc. My presumption is that if you have an interest in these types of cameras, you've already got something in mind. For this first part, I'll touch upon the difference between those who just want to just take good pictures, and those who want to be good at taking pictures.
One of the first questions I'll ask someone is, "What are you going to use it for?" People will often tell me that they just want better pictures of their family or their travels. This often means that they want to take pictures of general things that they would use their phone camera for, but they want the better image quality. Usually this is a person that wants the camera to do all the work as long as they still get decent pictures. Others will go on to tell me that they want to express themselves somehow through photography. These individuals usually tend to want to grow into photography as a skill. Whatever the need, "What's your budget?" is often one of the first questions I'll also ask the prospective camera buyer. You may have heard it said that it's not the equipment that matters, but the person that's taking the picture. I believe that this is generally true, but only up to a certain point. Obviously having a great camera doesn't mean you'll take great pictures, but honestly, there's a reason that many professional photographers have big cameras and lenses. You will typically get better image quality the more money you spend because as the price increases, so do sensor sizes, megapixel counts, lens quality, build quality, etc.
Keeping with the idea that price and image quality are directly correlated, there is a price point at which you will gain some capability in a camera that you would otherwise not have at a lower price. At this price point, which varies among the different camera brands, this equates to control over several essential functions. Among those functions, the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the most important, along with the capability to interchange lenses. You may not know how these functions affect the image, and there are numerous guides online that explain these in detail, but what's important to keep in mind here is that you gain more control over the camera at this price point. This is one of the key differences between cheaper point-and-shoots and cameras that have the capability to interchange lenses. Image sensors also tend to get bigger, lenses get better, and other features are present on these cameras that allow them to take better quality pictures than point-and-shoots. So yes, in general you will most likely get better pictures at this price point when your camera is set on Automatic. This is normally the case as you increase the price of the camera, but only to a certain extent.
Let's take into consideration the camera user that generally only wishes to take good quality pictures, while letting the camera do all the work. There is a kind of plateau however, where you will no longer see an increase in image quality that will seem equal to the additional cost of the camera and/or lenses. This is the point where knowledge of how to adjust settings such as the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed can affect image quality and how "good" a picture will be. This is where the skill of the individual matters, and it can matter a lot. It's going to be up to you to determine the level to which you want to understand both your camera and the fundamentals of photography. This is ultimately going determine the difference between good and good enough. Your budget may play a part in this as well as it may limit you in the quality of images you take, or you may end up spending too much for your particular needs.
Keep in mind that you should also do your own research and compare camera specs and image samples. You may find that you would be perfectly happy with the image quality of a camera that is much lower in price than the budget you had initially set out.
In my next post in this series, I'll get into more specifics such as the differences between mirrorless and DSLR cameras, full frame vs. crop sensor, go over some of the big camera brands, and I'll talk about some special features you might want in your camera.