Buying camera gear, especially for beginners and novices, or when considering “downsizing” one’s gear, can be a daunting task. One of the things that you can do to help make a well thought out decision is to create a camera buying decision matrix. What will be shared in this article is an adaptation of a technique that I have been using for a long time when doing business coaching.
There are a plethora of gear reviews that can be read, extensive test data available on sites such as DxOMark that can be researched, and the freely-given opinions of other photographers that can be considered. Put all of this together and one can easily get overloaded with information.
One of the dangers of information overload is that it can cause us to irrationally become fixated on a very small number of issues and/or camera features in our struggle to simplify our decision. This is especially true if a new feature has been talked up in the camera media, and thus given more emphasis than it may otherwise truly deserve.
Creating a camera buying decision matrix is best done with the help of an Excel spreadsheet. On the left hand side of the spreadsheet you will need to list all the camera buying criteria that you want to consider. Across the top of your spreadsheet you can then add specific camera models that you intend to evaluate against your camera buying criteria.
Every photographer may have very different needs of course so the camera buying decision buying matrix that you create will likely look very different from mine. Keeping that in mind I think it is impossible for anyone to publish a list of camera buying criteria that will be relevant for every photographer. The best solution is for you to create one that is only relevant for your specific photographic needs.
To illustrate how to create and use a camera buying decision matrix I will share the details from the matrix that I use for my purchases. Again, don’t use mine for your camera buying decisions, create your own!
The first thing to establish is your “must have” purchase criteria. These are factors that will completely disqualify a camera from any further consideration if it does not meet every one of the “must have” criteria. As such, you must really be brutal with yourself to establish this list of “must have” factors.
My list of “must haves” are as follows:
- Interchangeable lens body
- Fast, accurate and flexible auto-focus
- RAW capability
- Small and lightweight
- Capable of 1080 HD video at 30p with ‘on-the-fly’ aperture control
- Files capable of producing good quality 12” x 18” prints
- Fast AF-C frame rate of at least 10fps when shooting in RAW in full resolution
- Supported by OpticsPro
You’ll notice that the factors in this list are somewhat general in nature, but will still disqualify a number of camera bodies from being on my consideration list. Let’s consider what my simple list of “must haves” would disqualify from further consideration.
- Interchangeable lens body. This eliminates all fixed lens cameras including super zooms.
- Fast, accurate and flexible auto-focus. The cameras that would be eliminated would not be immediately apparent from looking at their specifications. I would need to actually handle various models that I may consider in order to make this determination.
- RAW capability. Since “must have” (1) eliminates all super-zooms this criteria would not rule out any interchangeable lens cameras of which I am aware.
- Small and lightweight. This factor rules out all larger, heavier camera bodies like full frame and many APS-C bodies.
- Capable of 1080 HD video at 30p with ‘on-the-fly’ aperture control. This would require actual handling of a specific camera body to verify this factor. In the past many smaller Nikon APS-C bodies did not provide this level of control so they would have been ruled out in the past. I don’t know if this is still the case or not with those bodies.
- Files capable of producing good quality 12” x 18” prints. This factor would not rule out any specific bodies other than those with sensors smaller than 1”. Since there are no interchangeable lens systems that use sensors smaller than 1” this factor would not rule out any bodies for me. If you regularly produce large size prints and set this factor at 24” x 36” or larger, it could rule out some camera bodies for you.
- Fast AF-C frame rate of at least 10fps when shooting in RAW in full resolution. This can be checked by reviewing the camera specifications of individual bodies. This would eliminate quite a few bodies made by Sony, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Fujifilm to name a few.
- Supported by OpticsPro. This may seem like a strange “must have” criteria to many people, but I view OpticsPro as an integral part of my camera system and I would not consider a camera brand that was not supported by this software. This would rule out Fujifilm cameras from my considerations.
It is quite likely that my list of “must haves” is very different than the list you may create. This illustrates why it is important to use a camera buying decision matrix that is specifically designed for your unique photography/video needs.
Once you have your list of “must haves” established, you would then move on to your “nice to haves”. These factors would be listed and rank ordered in terms of importance with a ‘value rating’ applied to each factor. Often a 1-5 or 1-10 scale is used. I use a 1-5 scale.
Here is my list of “nice to haves”:
- Availability of good quality zoom lenses: 5
- Achieving deeper depth-of-field using open apertures: 5
- Long focal length zoom for wildlife/birding: 5
- Suitable for landscape photography: 5
- Zoom lenses/body with good VR capability: 5
- Availability of good quality prime lenses for video work: 4
- Viewfinder or EVF: 3
- Battery Life: 2
- Availability of dedicated macro lens: 2
- Weather-sealed body/lenses: 2
- Exposure bracketing: 2
- GPS capability: 1
- Silent shutter capability: 1
- Suitable for portraiture work: 1
- Achieve shallow depth-of-field/good bokeh: 1
- Good low light performance: 1
- WiFi connectivity: 1
- Special in-camera image effects: 1
- 4K video capability: 1
- External flash capability: 1
You’ll notice that my list does not include anything about sensor size or any specific ‘boutique’ capabilities that may only be available on a particular body. I purposely do not put these types of factors down as they can inadvertently skew my decision matrix towards a specific body.
As you review my “nice to have” list it is likely very different than what may be on your list. Some of the factors on my list may also be on your list, but the importance rankings could be very different. For example many people would rate ‘low light performance’ at a 4 or 5 not at 1 like I do. Shallow depth-of-field and bokeh may also be much more important to other photographers than it is to me. This is precisely why it is critical for you to develop your own matrix that is designed to help you choose the best camera for your specific needs.
After you have created your personal ‘camera buying decision matrix’ you can then use it to evaluate any number of specific cameras that you are considering. Cameras that do not meet ALL of your “must have” criteria would be dropped from your consideration list.
Cameras that made it past your “must have” list of criteria would then be evaluated against each of your “nice to have” criteria and scored on a 0 to 5 basis on each factor. That camera specific score would then be multiplied by the importance rating on that factor. For example if a camera scored “3” on a factor valued at “5” in importance it would produce 15 rating points (3 x 5). To determine the camera that best meets your needs you would add up the total number of rating points for only those cameras that met all of your “must have” criteria.
For most of us buying camera gear is a significant decision from a financial perspective. Using tools like a decision matrix can help eliminate some of the emotions from the decision and help us make rational, informed choices.
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