Let’s talk about something that will make taking beautiful reference photos a more attainable reality – the vast and often confusing world of digital cameras.

Unless you have a background in photography it can get pretty overwhelming trying to choose the ‘right’ camera, and the intensely technical camera industry lingo doesn’t make it any easier. Is it worth spending extra for additional ISO sensitivity if the effective pixels are only 18 million? And how much do I need to worry about the cross-type AF points?

Did that sound like Klingon (the Star Trek language) to you?

Let’s leave the overwhelming tech lingo to photographers, and instead focus on what camera works best for you as an ARTIST.

This is a wide-ranging list of digital cameras that will make your reference picture taking and artwork archive photography much easier! It includes camera prices and the pros and cons to each.

A quick note before we get started – quite a few artists simply use their phones now that cameras are built into almost every cellphone available. And it makes sense since it’s convenient, quick, and cuts cost. 

If you’re happy with your phone’s camera then keep doing what works for you. However, the problem many artist’s run into with their cellphones is distorted colors, and that the information the phone collects is not as useful as the raw data a digital camera captures.

If you’re thinking about upgrading from quick mobile convenience to a quality digital experience, but you haven’t the foggiest notion where to start, this should help you move in the right direction. And since I don’t have any affiliation with these companies you don’t have to worry about an unfairly biased opinion.

For the past several years I have used a Canon Rebel T3i, and I’ve loved it. It’s been a dependable beast of a camera that has survived dozens of family trips from Myrtle Beach to Point Lobos, the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mojave Desert – and she’s still going strong. We’re planning to upgrade to another Rebel (maybe it’s the name I really love), the T7i – simply because the newer Rebel captures more information with 24 mega pixels compared to the T3i’s 18, and it has more options to help us share what we do here at Master Oil Painting. Higher quality images mean a better art training experience for you!

The cameras are listed according to price, from least to most expensive, with cameras to satisfy most budgets. (All of the cameras are at least 20 MP).

Digital Camera Comparison List

Nikon D3400 – $496.95

Note – The above price is listed with the Amazon Prime discount. The regular price is $646.95.

Chris Williams, a fantastic photographer who is an artist with his camera, left an expert’s review on Amazon – “The D3400 is a fun and easy to use entry-level DSLR that produces class-leading image quality at a bargain price. That being said, the AF coverage is fairly limiting and users will find it difficult to capture erratic moving subjects, like small children, effectively. For users that just want a camera that will give them great quality photos, it’s a winner, for someone looking for more features and better AF coverage, I might steer them elsewhere.”

So, it takes fabulous photos. As long as you just want to capture the incredible beauty of nature and not your 16-year-old grandson’s championship-game-winning soccer shot, sounds like you’re on the right track with this camera.

For those on the ‘never owned a real camera’ end of the spectrum, the D3400 has a very handy Guide Mode that will teach you how to use the important features of your new toy – you’ll look so confident, fellow tourists will approach you to see if you can help them figure out how to use their cameras.

Pentax K-70 (with the 18-135mm lens) – $847

Reviewers complained about how heavy this camera is coming in at a whopping 2 lbs. Now, two pounds doesn’t sound like much, you might be thinking, until you’ve got little 2-year-old Susie in one arm and the camera in the other. Fortunately, there are plenty of other benefits to make that extra bit of weight feel light as a feather…okay, probably not, but maybe as light as a 1lb camera.

To start off, the K-70 is an all-weather camera – dust proof and water resistant – probably don’t want to go snorkeling with it, but look out rain, here we come!

Another super cool feature is the image stabilization – rather than putting it in the lens like most brands, Pentax put theirs in the body. All you true blooded artists who get overly excited by the dappled light on a sycamore tree, no worries, your beating heart and trembling hand won’t cause you any trouble at all.

Canon EOS REBEL T7i  (with the 18-135mm lens) – $1049.00

I didn’t list the price for any of the other lens packages because this is the one I would suggest – the 18-135 is a lot more versatile for landscape photos than the 18-55.

This is my next camera.  Ever since I met my wife and her Canon AE1, we have been Canon owners.  I don’t want to try to influence you to this particular camera because I have many friends who use other cameras and love them.  I’ll just let you know why I’ll be getting this one.  The price.  Yep – it’s so much less than other cameras with many of the same features.  Great auto focus system, it’s lighter than the “lightweight” Nikon D500, and I have the Canon Rebel T3i, so I’m fairly familiar with the machine.

When I read through reviews I usually jump right down to the comments section to see what the professionals think of the review and the camera in question. My dad was a professional photographer and a Nikon man in the 60’s and 70’s, but nowadays, photographers seem to rave about the superior images that come from Canons at almost all price points. (Although the Nikon we list at the end might just persuade me otherwise)

The T7i is touted as a beginner DSLR because their menus are said to be guided.  I suppose they are, but, unless they’re drastically simpler since the T3i, I really don’t enjoy going through menus when I just want to take a picture, so when I’m out and about I usually end up doing everything on automatic.

Fortunately, Creative Live and John Greengo produced a fantastic video course just for this camera for $49 that takes all the confusion away. In the studio, when I’m photographing my paintings, programs other than auto produce far superior images for archiving.

My wish list:  a longer battery life and, although I don’t use the video on this camera, it’s not the best – I might use it more if it were.

Nikon D7200 (with the 18-140mm lens) – $1296.95

Let’s start off with what sang to me about this camera, battery life!  They claim it can take up to 1110 shots on a single charge – in their words “way more than the competition”.  I tend to take A LOT of equipment with me when I go out to paint on location.  When we go into hotels I have something plugged into pretty much every outlet.  Having a camera that can handle that kind of ‘shots per charge’ puts a smug smile on my face.

It appears the D7200 comes with an impressive Auto Focus system.  I like the point and shoot philosophy, I’m a painter not a photographer.  I want the camera to do all the work possible. 

The weather sealed body is definitely a no-brainer benefit for outdoor and travel photography and painting on location.

Canon EOS 6D (with the 24-105mm STM) – $1,799

We’re painters and generally not professional photographers. While we may have an “eye” for art, the logistics of photography can go right over our heads.  That leaves us with a quandary – how do we get photos that even approximate what melted our hearts in the field?

As artists we want to see what’s in the light and in the shadows.  Especially when we’re snapping a photo while on vacation and we just know that’s the one – the sunrise to light our paint brushes on fire. We arrive home eager to get into the studio and paint. We scan through the roughly 9 billion images (thanks digital photography!) and we find it. Our toes start to tingle as we enlarge the image on our monitor – and then we see the dark ominous spot – the nothingness. Grrrr. The only way we can tell there are trees and bushes all around is by the cardboard silhouette.

Well no longer!

This Canon is equipped with meter sensors that can evaluate and fix that.  Plus, it claims, “5-step exposure compensation for perfectly exposed images, every time.”  Now I don’t know if that 5-step thingy is a program hidden in some complicated menu, or if it’s a friendly ‘don’t worry they’ve taken care of everything for me’ feature, but for an artist it sure sounds blissful.

One reviewer of the camera stated, “Overall picture quality and color rendering, absolutely mind numbingly good.”  Now, because I care so much for my fellow artists, I would caution you against numbing your mind…

Nikon D500 DX-Format Digital SLR  (with Portrait & Prime lens) – $2,113.90

With this camera you can also go for the the Macro lens ($2,423.90) or the 16-80mm lens ($2,496.95).

This camera excites me because it claims it’s water proof – what?   I can go into the rain and take pictures?  I like that. 

This camera appeals to me for another reason as well – it’s lightweight.  I’m not getting any younger and hiking my own body weight up a mountain can be challenge enough, but lugging a camera around my neck that gains weight with every step does not thrill me at all.  The word “sleek” was used almost as much as the word “rugged” when I read reviews of this camera. 

Descriptions of lots of numbers and letters translate to gobbelty gook, or as our younger audience might say “blah, blah, blah” – but what did prick my ears was, “the 153-point AF array fills the frame from side to side, letting users flawlessly track and lock-onto subjects from the edges of the viewfinder” – the Einstein of Auto Focus!  I know how to manually focus a camera, but by the time I have the setting right the sun has gone down.  Give me a point and shoot that makes me look like a pro – I’ll take it!

The D500 is also touted for incredible low light photos.  How many sunsets of bright pink and orange have translated to dull lifeless sunsets in the image?  Too many to count.  I imagine this will also make photos taken in shady groves of trees or a garden corner sensationally saturated and magical. 

This camera may make it to the top of my Christmas list! (hint, hint Kristie)

What camera do you use and adore? Let your fellow artists know what camera makes your life brighter and your photo references spectacular.