Tips to help you choose a camera for a Christmas present for 2016

Written by Gary on December 11th, 2016

Choosing a camera is a paradox – on the one hand, nearly every camera with a sensor as big as Micro Four Thirds or larger made in the last 5 years will give you great image quality and loads of functionality, but on the other hand, the devil can be in the details and choice of a camera does need a lot of consideration – and don’t just get sucked in by the salesman.

To narrow things down, I am only going to consider cameras where you can change the lens “interchangeable lens camera” or “ILC”.

Here are the things you need to consider:

  1. does the person already own a camera which can change lenses?
    • if they do, you probably should be getting the same system (ie, same manufacturer), unless they are wanting to change systems – best to ask them!
    • if they don’t, and they are new to photography, then by all means, follow the tips, but again, maybe best to ask their preference for manufacturer and what they really want to use it for!
  2. what is your budget and perhaps more importantly, what is their budget for future lens purchases?
    • unless you have loads of spare cash, you should avoid paying too much for a camera system, and be aware that digital cameras will become technologically outdated within 3-5 years, and probably stop functioning after 7-10 years, so there is no point paying a lot for a camera unless either you are going to make a lot of money from it, or you will be using it every week or so – buying a $1000 camera and have it sit in a drawer only to be taken out a couple of times a year waiting for it to become obsolete is a waste of your money.
    • that said, buying a budget dSLR because its a cheap entry point may well end up being false economy as it almost forces one to stay with an old school system that you may not want to continue with, and prefer mirrorless for its compact size and technological prowess. A budget dSLR does though allow a cheap access to shallow depth of field portraiture and for many this is a good reason to buy one with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, and it does allow upgrade later – just not to mirrorless at this stage. Beware, some of these cheap dSLRs, particularly the Nikon are not compatible with the AF in some of the lenses, and they all have rather crappy viewfinders, feature sets, and build quality in comparison to better dSLRs or mirrorless cameras, and generally have no weathersealing and minimal AF sensor placement so your subject needs to be in the centre of frame to AF.
  3. be aware there are always trade offs – there is no perfect camera for every use!
    • Micro Four Thirds will be great for most people as they are small, light, affordable and give great image quality and versatility in most conditions and at the end of the day, if the camera is too big or heavy to carry, you won’t have it with you and what’s the point of that? I use Olympus OM-D cameras for this reason.
    • the best sensor quality will be full frame cameras but these will be big, heavy and very expensive and may be much noisier and slower to use, and certainly more complex.
    • cropped sensor dSLRs may seem to give a good compromise but for many reasons may end up being the worst of both worlds.
  4. do you understand what the person would like to use it for as this will determine the type of camera and its feature set?
    • if they are into sports or wildlife with moving subjects, this will require a high end camera to ensure autofocus
      • heavy, super expensive, pro full frame dSLR cameras which require expensive, big, heavy pro lenses:
        • Nikon D5 – the best autofocus of moving subjects out there; $US6500 body only but limited video
        • Canon 1DX mark II – $US5999 almost as good as the Nikon for AF perhaps has a better sensor image quality but falls down in many areas in comparison
      • compact, light, great telephoto reach with great feature set but high ISO and AF not quite as good as the above, but much better hand held video, burst speed, night mode features and image stabilisation:
      • cropped sensor dSLR for reasonable telephoto reach and good all round performance but no built-in image stabilisation and the dedicated lenses are not great so you will need to buy expensive, large full frame lenses for best quality:
    • if they are into surf photography or underwater, they will need a weathersealed system with option for an underwater housing
    • if they are into night photography, they will need a system suited to this:
      • best high ISO performance – Sony a7S mark II – but $US2999 body only
      • budget full frame mirrorless with image stabilisation – Sony a7 mark II
      • best compact, walkaround  with great image stabilisation and hand held videoOlympus OM-D E-M5 mark II or Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II or Panasonic G80/85
      • most full frame dSLRs will also do a great job at this, but are expensive, big and heavy especially when including the good lenses:
        •  if autofocus, burst rates, flash sync, IS, video quality, touch screen and weathersealing are not important, you may consider a budget level full frame dSLR such as:
          • Canon 6D – $US2099 when released, 2012 technology due for replacement!
          • Nikon D610 – $US1999 when released, 2013 technology
        • if you want more features and weathersealing, and can pay a lot more:
    • if they like to do hand held video (eg. for family or holidays), they will need the best video image stabilisation system so their videos don’t jump around and seriously annoy the viewer – consider the Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II for standard video quality,  or, for 4K video super quality, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II or the more affordable Panasonic G80/85
    • do they want to look cool and don’t care about the price or ability to AF on fast subjects?
    • if they want ultimate high resolution sensor image quality and are prepared to pay for it in cost, weight, slow burst rates, large file sizes, need for high end expensive lenses and need to use tripods (pro landscape or studio work):

 Some features explained:

  1. megapixels
    • for most people, 5-8mp is enough, 16mp beats the old 35mm film and will produce great large prints
    • some people want even more but having more generally requires use of a tripod
    • Olympus E-M5 mark II and E-M1 mark II also have a Hi-Res mode which allows really high resolution images of static subjects with camera on a tripod – great for product imagery, architecture and “scanning” your old film negatives and slides – much faster and less complex than a film scanner and with better imagery!
  2. mirrorless vs dSLR
    • the traditional film SLR and the dSLR (digital SLR) both required a large, noisy mirror which deflects the actual image into a large pentaprism optical viewfinder at the top of the camera. During the shot, this mirror must move out of the way so the image can hit the film or sensor.
    • mirrorless camera do not have an optical viewfinder (can use either an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or the rear LCD screen) and thus do not have the mirror and thus are quieter, smaller, lighter, less subject to camera shake from the mirror, and the viewfinder can be used in video movie mode, as well as being able to display how the image will appear when taken (even in B&W or with art filter picture styles applied, as well as the exposure), and can apply a range of exposure and focus aides in real time which can be incredibly valuable. In addition, the AF sensors reside on the main sensor itself instead of reading off a mirror and thus are more accurate and do not need microcalibration as do dSLR cameras. Furthermore, you can generally see the image even in the dark or if using a 10x ND filter or IR filter which would normally make an image impossible to see through an optical viewfinder.
    • dSLRs do have an advantage in that you do not need to turn the camera on to look through the viewfinder, and the battery lasts longer, and you have a cleaner, natural view of the scene. In addition, they all have PDAF (see below) by default, so AF on moving subjects is generally better than mirrorless cameras if those do not have sensor based PDAF. They generally cannot AF on subjects near the edges, cannot focus on the closest eye automatically, and you have to resort to the clunky Live View mode on the rear of the camera for video movie mode.
  3. sensor size
    • sensor size is an important consideration as the larger the sensor is, the better the sensor image quality, especially at high ISO for low light work, and better ability to achieve shallow depth of field (ie. blur out the back ground) with wide angle or standard lenses, but the compromise is higher cost, larger and heavier cameras and lenses
    • the aesthetic appeal of most images though is independent of sensor size (as long as sensor is Micro Four Thirds or larger) or megapixels, but is dependent far more upon a visually appealing subject and composition  and this often means more accurate focus, timely capture, no camera shake and of course, lighting and the photographer’s eye.
    • Micro Four Thirds (MFT)  is the name given to a camera sensor size and lens mount system made by Olympus and Panasonic primarily, in which the sensor size is a quarter of 35mm full frame film size which gives a crop factor of 2 meaning that a 25mm f/1.2 MFT lens will give similar field of view and DOF as a 50mm f/2.4 lens on a full frame camera, In addition, the aspect ratio (shape of the sensor) is fatter than the other sensors being 4:3 in dimensions rather than 3:2, and thus they fit better with most print sizes and are better for portraits, but perhaps not as good for environmental portraits or landscapes where the length of the long dimension is more valued.
    • cropped sensor dSLRs and mirrorless cameras have a sensor crop factor of 1.5x for Nikon and Sony, and 1.6x for Canon
  4. depth of field (DOF)
    • depth of field is a term used to quantify how much of the scene will appear in focus in front of and behind the spot where the lens is actually focused.
    • a shallow DOF is often used to separate your subject from the background and provide greater visual impact, although other techniques can be used as well
    • for wide angle lenses and zoom lenses it is much easier to gain a shallow DOF with a large sensor camera (eg. full frame) than it is with a smaller sensor camera such as Micro Four Thirds
    • if you want shallow DOF on a Micro Four Thirds camera and you are shooting a subject 1-3m away, you really need a lens with:
      • aperture of f/1.2-f/1.4 for lenses with actual focal length < 30mm (and even then you will not achieve a full frame shallow DOF achievable with a 24mm f/1.4 lens or even a 50mm f/1.4 lens but you get other advantages) for example Olympus mZD 25mm f/1.2 lens – although if you are shooting a group of people at a party you probably need it stopped down to f/2.8 to gain enough DOF so everyone in a small group is in adequate focus – hence the fallacy of full frame cameras for such events – you need to be shooting a full frame at f/5.6. Just don’t expect to gain really shallow DOF with a Micro Four Thirds zoom lens in this standard zoom range.
      • aperture of f/1.4-f/2 for lenses with actual focal length of 30-100mm (this will achieve similar DOF as a big, heavy, expensive pro 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on a full frame camera) – for example Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.2, Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 lenses (the latter is perfect for most single person shots, while the 42.5mm is great for environmental portraits or shots of couples) – indeed having a shallower DOF whilst it may allow some creative imagery, will not give a portrait with ear to nose in focus
      • aperture of f/2-2.8 on a telephoto lens > 100mm – for example the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 will give nice portraits at 135-150mm at f/2.8
    • if you want shallow DOF on a Micro Four Thirds camera at > 5m away, you will need to be using a longer telephoto lens or a really wide aperture lens such as f/0.95 – in this scenario, the full frame camera will have much greater capacity to attain shallow DOF eg. full frame 35mm f/1.4 lens
  5. weathersealing
    • cheap cameras are very susceptible to dust, water, most enthusiast level cameras have some weathersealing to address this, but the best are the Olympus OM-D cameras – you can pour a bottle of water over them they are that good – so inclement weather is not an obstacle!
  6. shutter speed 1/8000th sec or just 1/4000th sec?
    • budget cameras are restricted to a fast shutter speed of 1/4000th sec which can be problematic when trying to shoot a wide aperture for shallow depth of field in bright sunlight – you are forced to use a neutral density filter to avoid over -exposure
    • better cameras will go to 1/8000th sec, and rare cameras such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II will even shoot at 1/32,000th second to really freeze moving subjects in bright light, plus it can do this at an amazing 60 fps in full sized RAW mode – incredible if you need this functionality!
  7. autofocus points and coverage
    • the more AF points and the more the cover the image area, the easier you will be able to focus on subjects that are not in the centre of your image – after all, having your subject in the centre is not that aesthetic!
    • dSLRs tend to have their excellent AF poits all crammed in the middle which is problematic
    • mirrorless cameras, particularly, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II and Sony cameras have a wide spread of AF points so you have a better chance of AF on a face well away from the centre
  8. ability to detect closest eye for autofocus
    • a critical aspect of portraiture is the needt o focus sharply and accurately on the subject’s closest eye – very few cameras can do this automatically – the Olympus OM-D, Olympus Pen, Sony mirrorlesss and the Nikon D750 dSLR, although the Nikon’s ability is restricted so the face must be within the smaller AF area.
  9. high ISO noise argument
    • as a general rule the unwanted image noise is at similar levels on a full frame camera as a Micro Four Thirds camera when the ISO of the full frame camera is 1-2 stops higher which theoretically gives the full frame camera an advantage in low light, but this advantage is lost if gaining adequate depth of field or image quality means you have to use a smaller aperture (for instance if you need to use f/4 on a full frame camera to have sufficient DOF, you can achieve this at f/2 on a MFT camera and use an ISO 2 stops lower thus negating any high ISO noise advantage of the full frame camera).
    • the full frame advantage is primarily realised in astronomy, astroscapes, and low light sports/wildlife where you are happy to have shallow DOF.
    • the better image stabilisation and wider DOF at wide open apertures allows MFT camera users to use lower ISO – it is rarely needed to go above ISO 800 on a MFT camera.
  10. burst speed
    • for action work it is useful to have a rapid fire so you can select the exact pose or expression on a sports person’s face or the position of the ball
    • basic cameras or even the high end, high megapixel, full frame dSLRs have restricted burst rates of only 5fps or slower
    • sports dSLRs are generally around 10-16fps but are very noisy due to the mirror, although they are generally the best for AF accuracy and high ISO work in low light
    • the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II can do 18fps with continuous AF and 60fps with AF on the first frame and do this SILENTLY – great for weddings or classical music concerts or the ballet!
  11. CDAF vs PDAF
    • some mirrorless cameras only have CDAF autofocus technology which is accurate but not good for moving subjects – if you need to shoot moving subjects with AF, a camera with PDAF as well (or a latest model Panasonic with their new DFD CDAF technology) will be needed. Of the Olympus OM-D cameras, only the E-M1 mark I and mark II have PDAF.
  12. 4K video vs 1080HD video
    • 1080HD is standard DVD quality video
    • 4K is much higher quality video – if I was shooting something important to me such as my children in this day and age, I would shoot hand held in 4K and to get the best image stabilisation for minimal shaky video the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II or the more affordable Panasonic G80/85 is the way to go.


Examples of great general purpose Micro Four Thirds camera kits:

PS. the first batch of Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II cameras have now been delivered but all sold on pre-orders, so you will have to wait until until after Xmas to acquire one.


  • drones are an exciting new technology and you can get fantastic drones even with Micro Four Thirds cameras mounted and these can even go to incredible 5K video quality, but before you embark on a drone for Xmas, check out these warnings

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