5 things to consider when buying a camera for museum and heritage-site photography

So, you’ve decided it’s time to get a new camera, or – at least – to start saving up. But, good lord, there’s myriad cameras out there. All sorts of shapes and sizes, different names and models and f-numbers and sensors and megapixels and IBIS’s and lenses and this and that and … aaaargh!

It’s overwhelming!

a man with his head against a wall
Is this you after scrolling through pages and pages of cameras on Amazon, and still having no idea what you want? Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

In a post like this, I can’t (and won’t) tell you what camera you should buy; that’s a very personal decision. Nor am I going to try to explain all the terms and technical specs you see listed about a camera. What I can do, though, is help you think through the most important things you should be taking into consideration before handing over your cash:

This should then help you narrow down your choices and make your shopping easier and more enjoyable.

Before we get started, if you’re not familiar with the four broad categories of digital camera, have a read first of my other post about the different types of digital camera. Having an understanding of the terms ‘compact, ‘bridge’, ‘mirrorless’ and ‘DSLR’ and the strengths and weaknesses of each type will help you make a much more informed decision. I’m not going to cover film cameras in this post. Although film photography has had a bit of a renaissance over the last few years, it’s quite specialist these days. So, digital only.

Also, please bear in mind I’ve written this post primarily for those who like to take photos when they visit museums and art galleries; who like to have heritage-infused holidays; or are working in museums, art galleries and heritage sites.

1. Budget

The first, most important consideration when buying a camera, is to work out what your budget is. To be honest (and perhaps not terribly helpfully), the sky’s the limit when it comes to buying cameras.

You can pick up a very basic point-and-shoot compact for around £70, or you could sell the car and kids and buy a Hasselblad medium-format camera for a mere £31,000. Generally speaking, you can get a decent compact for around £300–£1,000, and a flagship mirrorless with kit lens – such as the Sony a7 III or Fujifilm X-T4 – for £1,500–£2,000. Smaller mirrorless cameras can go for similar prices to compacts.

If budget isn’t really an issue for you, or you’re applying for funding for your camera as part of a research project or for your museum, you have the luxury of choice; of being able to spend a little more and buy according to your needs, and not by the limitations of your wallet.

However, many of us need to think carefully when we’re handing over three- or four-figure sums on a piece of electronic equipment. And rightly so. It’s a big purchase, and you should spend your money on something that you’re going to enjoy and get the most out of. Never just go out an buy a camera on a whim. Do your research, check out reviews and shop around.

Buy second-hand

If you can’t find what you want with your budget, consider going second-hand. There are specialist second-hand dealers out there, plus many local camera shops and manufacturers will refurbish pre-owned cameras and do a damn-fine job of it. You may well get more for your money with a refurbished model that’s a few years old than buying brand new if you have a smaller budget. (There’s some links to retailers in the Resources section below.)

I would urge caution buying second-hand privately (e.g. on eBay or Gumtree). Although you may get gear even cheaper than through a second-hand dealer, you’re buying the camera as-is (no refurb), and you have no guarantee the camera’s going to be in decent shape. I know that eBay provides buyer protection for these things, but even if you do manage to get your money back on a duff sale, that’s a whole load of wasted time and stress you can’t reclaim. That’s not to say you can’t get some great deals, and I have photographer friends who buy vintage lenses on eBay for buttons and have a great time with them. But, it’s more of a minefield for the less experienced and should be approached with caution.

Finance options

Another option, if there’s a camera you have your heart set on but don’t have the savings to pay for it outright, would be to look at financing options. They come in all shapes and sizes, but again, I urge you to explore with caution and a level head. These finance agreements usually come with pretty hefty interest rates, and if you let the agreement run rather than paying off early, you can find yourself paying several hundred pounds more than if you’d bought outright. They’re also dependent on credit ratings. If your credit rating is poor, you may well not get approved.

I’m not a financial advisor, and I would never advise anyone to get themselves into debt. A six-month or twelve-month interest-free credit agreement can help out only if you know you can pay it off before the interest-free period ends. Otherwise, you’re throwing money into the void. And, if you default on payments, you’ll ruin your credit score.

If you don’t need the camera straight away, it’d be better to put into a savings account and buy only when you have the money saved up. If you are saving up, consider asking friends and family to add to the fund as your birthday gift.

Wait for the sales

If you don’t need a camera straight away, wait for the holiday sales to come around. You can save yourself three-figure sums by waiting for Black Friday or the New Year sales and end up with a better camera than you were expecting. This can also give you some time to put aside some money in a savings account.

Are you struggling to get your photos edited?

I can help you get your photos of artefacts and ancient sites edited and ready for print and online sharing

2. What will you be using your camera for?

Different types of camera each have their own strengths and weaknesses, depending on what you’re using them for. So, it really is worthwhile thinking about this before you start looking. Will you be using it for days out with the kids or the dog? Will you be taking it on visits to museums and art galleries? Will you be taking it on holiday with you? Will it mostly be sitting on a tripod photographing artefacts?

Will you need to be quick and handy with your camera?

If you’ll be using your camera primarily for days out, for snapping the (grand)kids, family get-togethers etc., your best bet might be a compact camera. Their small size makes them easy to keep handy in a pocket or bag, and you can capture those moments really quickly.

Will you be in places with low light?

a museum gallery with low lighting
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has very low lighting in their Egyptology gallery

If you visit museums and heritage spots with low light (such as churches, temples etc), you should consider the following:

  • the ISO capability
  • the ability to shoot in RAW format
  • sensor size
  • in-body image stabilisation and optical image stabilisation

ISO is a digital process in which the camera amplifies the light in a photo (a little like a guitarist using an amp to boost the sound of their guitar). This allows the camera to digitally brighten your image. However, the process also amplifies tiny little errors within the pixels (which can happen when there’s not much light for the camera to pick up); this creates what you may know as ‘noise’ – those annoying little multicoloured flecks in your photo. Over recent years, camera manufacturers have worked to make ISO processes much better, thus reducing noise. So, newer cameras are better than older for this.

RAW is to JPG what negatives are to prints (broadly speaking). RAW format files contain all the raw data the camera can collect in its pixels, whereas JPGs are processed images – they’re ‘lossy’, meaning some data are lost during processing. It’s easier for editing software and apps to recover details from dark shadows and bright highlights in RAW files.

Sensors that are very small struggle to pick up enough light to get a good photo, because the pixels themselves are smaller. This means there’ll be more pixel errors and you end up with noisy, fuzzy photos. When you’re doing your shopping, look for cameras listed as having ‘full-frame’, ‘APS-C’ or ‘four-thirds’ sensors. Like mobile phones, compact cameras and bridge cameras tend to have much smaller sensors (though not all). So, consider a mirrorless camera, a DSLR or a higher-end compact or bridge.

Cameras with in-body image stabilisation (IBIS), or lenses with optical image stabilisation (OIS) are helpful. IBIS and OIS are like suspension in your camera, helping mitigate handshake, so you can use a slower shutter speed in low light. A slower shutter speed means the shutter’s open for longer, allowing the sensor more time to pick up light. Because it’s actually letting more light hit your sensor, it’s a better way to improve your exposure than ISO’s digital amplification.

Will you be travelling with your camera?

If you’re going to take your camera abroad, you need to consider how much space it’ll take up in your luggage and rules for carry-on on airplanes. Don’t pack your camera into your hold luggage (unless you have specialist camera transport cases), because … well … we’ve all seen those videos of suitcases being hurled around in airports.

Also, you need to think about where you’re actually holidaying. If you’re off to somewhere dusty – like Egypt – or wet – like the UK (😬) – look for weather sealing on your camera. Weather sealing protects the camera from moisture and dust getting into the mechanisms. But be aware, weather sealing ≠ waterproof. You can’t take your camera swimming with you; weather sealing’s designed to give your camera some protection if it starts raining or if there’s some dust or sand in the air.

a man in the rain under a broken umbrella
Sometimes, you just don't want to have to put your camera away when the rain starts falling ...

Compacts will fit easily into luggage and won’t weigh you down, but just might not be enough for that holiday of a lifetime, especially for those touring around temples and museums. Bridge cameras were designed specifically for those who wanted a convenient, all-in-one camera to take on holiday, but with better capabilities than a compact, so that’s worth considering.

DSLRs are robust and have great battery life for taking on days out, but I wouldn’t recommend one unless you know you won’t be bothered by the weight or the space it’ll take up in your luggage. If you want the capabilities and lens choice of a DSLR, a smaller, lighter mirrorless could be a better option.

Will you be setting up for photographing artefacts in a museum or on a dig?

If you’re working for a museum or on an archaeological dig and will be using a tripod and extra lighting, look at mirrorless or DSLR. As well as being able to use the tripod and external lighting, being able to tether your camera to a laptop and choose and change lenses is really handy. I find myself photographing everything from 1.6 cm-long arrowheads with a macro lens to 2 m-long coffins with a wide-angle lens, as well as documenting people setting up exhibitions and working on artefacts. Whilst a zoom lens on a compact or bridge would be fine for some of this, I’d struggle with the macro work and the focus-stacking. And the larger sensors and ability to shoot in RAW give me the high-quality images I need.

If you’re applying for funding to buy equipment for using in a museum or dig, or for your research project, don’t just go for a camera with a kit lens (the kit lens is the zoom lens that comes with the camera). Think about what you’ll be photographing and if you’ll need a lens with more specific capabilities, such as a macro lens, and add it into the cost.

Will you be printing your photos?

Most cameras give you pictures that will print out well at small to medium sizes for putting on the wall or for making an album. However, if you want to print big, or your photography is going to be for a glossy book or for exhibition displays, you need a good camera. Mirrorless or DSLR are the safest choice for high-quality, large prints.

If, like me, you’ll be using your camera for all sorts, you’ll need to decide what your priorities are. For those of you looking to do a broad range of photography, I’d recommend looking at a mirrorless camera. But, most importantly, look for weather-sealing, portability and low-light capabilities.

3. Do you have any physical limitations?

If you have any musculo-skeletal problems or conditions that cause fatigue, you need to take this into consideration.

DLSRs are generally the biggest, heaviest cameras, and can wear you down quickly. You’ll end up regretting taking it out with you. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (aka ME/CFS) and hypermobile joints, so I need to pace myself and be careful with how much I do. Lugging around a heavy camera really shortens how long I can stay out and makes me hurt. Mirrorless (with a smaller lens), bridge and compacts are a better choice.

If you have any neurological conditions or nerve damage that affect your ability to hold your camera steady, it’s going to be harder to get sharp, blur-free photos. Look for cameras, ideally, with in-body image stabilisation (IBIS), or a lens with optical image stabilisation (OIS). These image-stabilisation mechanisms work a little like suspension in a car, and neutralise some of your handshake.

Unfortunately, a lot of lenses don’t have OIS in them. Lenses with longer focal lengths (the kind of lenses you use for photographing things from further away) magnify movement as well as your view of your subject. If you’ve ever looked through a telescope on a pier or beach front, you’ll know that the slighest breeze looks like a force-10 gale through the telescope. OIS is a mechanism that was developed to counteract this, which is why you tend to find it only in longer lenses. I do hope that lens manufacturers will try to get OIS into more of their lenses in the future.

At the time of writing, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III has pretty much the best IBIS (7.5 stops, for the more tech-minded people here), followed closely by the Fujifilm X-T4 (6.5 stops).

I’ve heard some people say that they prefer the weight of a DSLR; that the extra weight makes it easier to hold the camera steady. If you think this would be the case for you, then go give it a try. I’d recommend visiting your local store to try holding a few cameras and see if it helps.

4. Will you want to share your photos on the go?

We like to live our lives on the go these days. Unlike the days of film, when you’d have to wait until you got back from your holiday; take your film in to be developed; wait for several hours – or even days – before you could see them; then slide them all into an album to show family and friends, we’re now able to snap and post to social media right there and then.

If you want to be able to share on-the-go, check to see if the camera you’re thinking of buying can connect to your phone. Connection is usually by Bluetooth or wifi. My camera (Fujifilm X-T2) connects to my phone via wifi using the Fujifilm phone app. I can copy JPGs over to my phone to share on social media or send to family on WhatsApp. I also have Google photos, which backs up photos straight away, so if anything were to happen to my memory card or camera, I’d have at least something backed up.

5. Where are you headed with your photography?

Where do you see yourself two or five years down the line with your photography? If you’re happy where you are with it now, then buy for that. However, if you know you’ll want to expand your photographic horizons – be it learning manual settings or trying new types of photography (like I did with the macro photography) – then I would advise you to consider a camera with interchangeable lenses. If you have a compact or bridge camera, and it can’t fulfill a new photographic ambition of yours, you’ll have to scrap the idea or buy a new camera. However, if you have a DSLR or mirrorless, a new lens can often do the job rather than having to buy a whole new camera. And if, even further down the line, you want to upgrade the camera itself, if you stay within that particular camera range, you keep the lenses and upgrade just the body.

But, if your budget doesn’t allow for you to go with mirrorless or DSLR right now, go with what you can afford, start working on your skills, and perhaps set up a savings account that you can pop a tenner here or there into to start planning for your future. And remember, you can trade in your current camera to offset some of the cost of upgrading.

Other considerations

Having gone over your main considerations when shopping for your camera, there’s a few extras I’d also like you to factor in.

Do you have a camera store nearby?

If you have a camera store nearby, it’s a really good idea to give them a visit. You can hold a camera, see how it fits in your hands, where the buttons are, and whether it clicks with you. Camera shops usually employ people who are into their photography and should be able to answer any questions you have. Don’t worry if you just want to do a scouting trip; cameras are a big buy and shops are used to people going in, looking, asking, then leaving again. It’s OK to say that you want to go away and have a think before you buy. You’re not committing yourself to going back and buying if you don’t want to. However, if you’re able to support a small, local business by shopping with them, then please do so.

Insure your camera

Don’t go out and spend hundreds of pounds on a camera, then lose it all again by dropping it, spilling your cup of tea on it or having it stolen. Add it onto your household contents insurance if you can. If you don’t control the house insurance, or can’t get it, then get yourself separate insurance. If you’re going on holiday, check to see if you’re covered by your household or travel insurance.

Buy a lens filter

If you’re buying a mirrorless or DSLR, get a UV filter for your lens. A UV filter is made from clear glass and screws onto the front of your lens. It doesn’t change how your photos will come out, but what it does do is protect your lens. I’d rather scratch a £40 filter than an expensive lens.

Different lenses are different sizes, so you need to buy accordingly. If you go to your local camera store with your lens, they can make sure you get the right size filter.

Memory cards

Don’t buy budget memory cards. They’re budget for a reason. And watch out for counterfeit memory cards on marketplace sites that allow third-party selling (such as Amazon and eBay). Your best bet is to buy a reputable brand like a Samsung or Sandisk from your local camera shop or direct from an electronics store. They cost a little more, but are higher quality and have a very low chance of failing on you.

If you’re going on holiday and know you’ll be taking loads of photos before you can load them onto the computer at home and clear the card, don’t buy just one or two high-capacity storage cards. This is called putting all your eggs in one basket (or two!). It might seem like a good idea to only have to bring a couple of 256 GB memory cards, but if you lose or damage one, or it fails on you, you’ve lost a lot of photos. Buy several smaller-capacity memory cards instead, and take two small cases to keep them in (a couple of those mini tupperware boxes will do): one for cards that you’ve filled up, and one for empty cards.

Batteries

If you’re going to be taking your camera out for long days taking a lot of photos, it’s a good idea to buy a spare battery.

It’s better to buy the batteries made by the camera manufacturer, rather than third party; although they might cost a little more, you’ll get more out of a single charge and their overall life expectancy is better.

Practice, practice, practice

If you’ve got a holiday, special event or even a research trip to a museum coming up, don’t buy your camera the day before you go. You’ll waste time faffing around, trying to work out how to use it, you won’t make the most of it and you’ll struggle to get photos you’re happy with.

Give yourself enough time to practice, to get used to the menu system, and to start understanding what the camera can and can’t do. Camera manuals aren’t always the best to learn from. Go to YouTube or Google and search for tutorials for your camera model. Photograph your book shelf, your ornaments, your cat; it doesn’t really matter what you photograph. Just play with the settings and use it enough, so when you’re off on holiday or at the museum, you can be confident you can get it to do what you want nice and quickly.

If needs be, take the manual with you when you leave for your trip, or write down how to get to the most important settings in a notebook to take with you. It’s horribly frustrating to know that you’d got your camera to do something good, but you now can’t for the life of you remember what setting it was.

If you know you’ll be using your camera in low light, have a read of my tips and tricks for taking photos in low-light conditions.

Resources

Camera stores

When it comes to buying, there’s more than just Amazon or PC World; there’s all sorts of places you can go to buy a camera. Check to see if you have any camera shops near you. Unlike the general electronic chains, specialist camera shops will have staff who know about the different cameras and can help you make a good decision. In the UK, we have Jessops, Wex Photographic and London Camera Exchange, who have physical stores across the country as well as online stores. There’s a lot of smaller, independently run stores, too, like Park Cameras in the south east, Wilkinson Cameras in the north west (I often use their Liverpool branch), and Clifton Cameras in Bristol. All these retailers usually stock refurbished second-hand cameras as well as new, and they all have both online and physical stores. Google ‘camera shops near me’ or ‘camera shops in […]’ to find your nearest shop.

MPB are a dedicated online second-hand dealer. Some camera manufacturers will also sell refurbished models on their website, such as Fujifilm.

Reviews

Before you make any decisions, read some reviews. Look for professional reviews by photographers and magazines, rather than general consumer reviews. A camera might get a low rating from a consumer because their delivery was delayed or it wasn’t what they were expecting and are feeling angry about it. Professional reviews are done by people who know their photography and know how to test a camera appropriately. Consumer reviews can be good for getting an idea of the level of service you might get from a shop or dealer. However, professional reviews will give you a better idea of the capabilities of a camera and if it’s going to be suited to your needs, more than a consumer review of Brilliant camera … five stars! will.

A really great place to start is the Photography Blog. The site is run by a photographer who reviews all sorts of camera equipment, done it in a very methodical, consistent way. Every review follows the same format – he even photographs the same book shelf and alleyway for each review, so you can compare like with like. I’ve used it for all my camera and lens purchases.

Which? Magazine, a UK-based well-respected consumer-rights magazine and website, have a lot of reviews, though you will need a subscription with them to read the reviews.

You can also get good reviews from camera magazines, such as Digital Camera World, and online photography sites, such as PetaPixel. There’s a good few photography magazines you can pick up in the newsagents, but remember that they’ll usually only have reviews for new equipment.

If you’re interested, my current camera is a Fujifilm X-T2, which is a mirrorless camera. One of the reasons I love Fujifilm cameras is how Fuji have set them up like film cameras. Instead of the usual mode dial you get on top of a camera to select auto, manual, shutter priority, etc, they have dials on top for shutter speed and ISO, and an aperture ring on the lenses themselves (with an auto setting for each one).

a fujifilm x-t3
A Fujifilm X-T3 with the ISO dial on the left, shutter-speed dial in the middle, and the apture ring on the lens. Photo credit: Takeaway / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

This means all the settings are literally at your fingertips and are very quick and easy to change. I went from using the camera on full auto mode to manual within a couple of weeks of owning it. The X-T2 has now been superseded, first by the X-T3, and now by the X-T4 (which I’m lusting after!), but they also do the X-T20 and X-T30, which are smaller, slightly trimmed-back – but still amazing – models. With the exception of a few of the older blog posts (pre 2016), all the photos you see on this site that I’ve personally taken, I’ve done so with a Fujifilm mirrorless camera. And all the artefact photography I’ve done for museums has been done with the X-T2.

Conclusion

Like the River Nile, the range of cameras now available runs deep and long, and never stops moving. It’s great that there’s pretty much something for everyone out there, but it can be exhausting and confusing wading through it all.

If you can start by narrowing down some of your parameters by removing what’s not viable, you should be able to make your life a little simpler.

So:

  • Set your budget and know how you're going to finance your purchase
  • Narrow down which type(s) of camera (compact, bridge, mirrorless, DSLR) you want to choose from
  • If you'll be taking your camera out in weathery conditions, look for weather sealing
  • If you're often in places with low light (and can't use a flash), check for good ISO capability, RAW file format and larger sensor size
  • If you'll be on days out, make sure you'll be happy to carry your camera around with you
  • Go for a larger sensor size if you'll be printing your photos at larger sizes or doing photography for books
  • Check mobile connectivity if you want to be able to copy photos to your phone to share on-the-go
  • Think about where you'll be with your photography a couple of years into the future and try to find a camera that will still work for you then or be easily upgradable
  • Try to go to a camera store to look at and hold different cameras
  • Make sure you add your camera to your insurance
  • Factor any extras you might need into your budget: memory cards, lens filter, spare battery
  • Read professional reviews
  • Leave time to practice before going away on a trip with your new camera

When all’s said-and-done, buying a camera is a personal decision. Buy the best you can for the budget you have; if your budget isn’t big, a refurb might get you more than buying for brand new.

Once you know your parameters, such as budget, you can then make your decision based upon anything from brand loyalty to very specific niche reasons (such as choosing the Olympus with IBIS to counteract shaky hands).

Don’t feel you have to buy a particular camera because a friend or colleague has it and they tell you that you just must have it. Make the decision for you, and you only. (Though there’s nothing wrong with asking them to show you the camera to see if you gel with it.)

These days, the major brands – Panasonic, Fujifilm, Sony, Olympus, Canon, Nikon – all have amazing cameras and a good range of models to choose from. It’s not so much a case of ‘which is the best brand’, but ‘which model best suits my needs for the money I have?’

And if you’ve been shopping around for ages and still feel really stuck, get in touch via my contact page or drop me an email at julia@tetisheri.co.uk, and I’ll see if I can help out.

Are you struggling to get your photos edited?

I can help you get your photos of artefacts and ancient sites edited and ready for print and online sharing

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using this link, it won’t cost you any extra, but I will earn a small commission, which helps me keep this site running.

Photo credit: the header image in this blog post is by Ben Eaton on Unsplash.

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Unless otherwise credited, all photos on in this post are © Julia Thorne. If you’d like to use any of my photos in a lecture, presentation or blog post, please don’t just take them; drop me an email via my contact page. If you share them on social media, I’d appreciate a link back to this site or to one of my social media accounts. Thanks!

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