A Camera Buying Guide, by Ross Foote
Buying a camera is as personal as buying a purse, shoes, a car or a gun. There is a specific one for every possible use, but not any that will do everything, so the first decision has to be “What do I want this to do now, and in the future?” If you never plan to do wildlife or sports photography you probably don’t want to invest in telephoto capabilities. If you plan to do flower shots you need a closeup capability. You can find cameras that fill many needs, if not all, but you need to decide your use before you think Nikon, Canon, Fuji or Sony.
Some basics. There are essentially 4 different classes of cameras and multiple subsets within each. Simply put the main four are: 1. Smart phone; 2. Compact pocket size; 3. Larger single lens units; and 4. Interchangeable lens bodies. Lets look at each with acceptable uses, pros and cons. I am excluding the speciality cameras like dedicated black and white, or architectural tilt lens under the theory that if you are looking at those, you are not reading this article.
1. The Smart phone is probably the most popular camera on the planet, and with good reason. Convenience and accessibility. The best camera in the world is no use to you if you don’t have it with you and we almost always have our phones. In the last 3 years the cameras in phones have become outstanding. Sharp, automatic, consistent and easy to use. To see what can be done click on http://www.ippawards.com/gallery/ . However the strong suit for camera phones is ease of use and simplicity. For the everyday snapshot its hard to beat. Drawbacks are lack of zoom features and inability to effectively manage depth of field. You can zoom on screen, but what you are really doing is just recording on a smaller and smaller part of the sensor. Your better off taking the picture and cropping later. You can do some exposure controls now to lighten or darken areas and you can do selective focus on screen, but basically the camera makes the decisions for you and changing that is cumbersome and can be counter intuitive.
A real advantage is the ability to immediately send the photo to friends, Facebook, Instagram etc. Great optics, convenience of carry, use and posting make a compelling argument for this being a primary camera for most. Annie Leibowitz says the iPhone camera is one of the best cameras in the world. Great place to start training your eye. The downside is without significant post production work you are limited in what you can do with the image in a fine art world.
2. The pocket camera combines convenience and enhanced features. Most come with limited optical zoom, preset shooting modes that allow you to choose a setting for your condition like, sun, shade, night, sports, portraits, landscape etc. What this does is tune the camera to automatically maximize the capabilities based on known factors in each such setting. You can also just set everything to Automatic and let the camera make all the decisions. This is the origin of the term “point and push”. These are now very sophisticated and most will default to focus on faces in the frame, compensate for extreme lighting, warn you if there is a danger of camera shake etc.
With the point and push pocket camera you get a larger and more sensitive sensor (the electronic film), quicker auto focus, a better (but still limited) flash, options to change sensitivity settings, and generally a larger image file than on a phone. Most will also allow you to make several key adjustments for light balance (the camera sees sun, incandescent and fluorescent light very differently), f/stop, shutter speed and light compensation. Essentially you can make all the necessary adjustments to operate as a manual camera, however most of the adjustments are buried in menus and submenus and become so much trouble they are rarely used. One other advantage is most now allow you to save the photos in RAW format which allows more complete adjustment back in the computer. As a practical matter the highest and best use is as a point and push device with the ability to make scene select adjustments.
A major drawback is most of these have a very limited zoom range in the lens. To keep the conveneice of small size there are serious physical limitations on what can be included. Make sure to check on the zoom range as to what is optical zoom. Digital zoom degrades your picture. These also rarely have a separate viewfinder so you will be looking at the screen to compose your picture rather than putting it up to your eye.This is a factor for the nearsighted, but a result of keeping it small for convenience. There are many that are weather and waterproof so great to take skiing, snorkeling, hiking etc. You may not want your SLR in the surf taking pictures of your kids splashing in the waves. The inconvenience of external adjustment knobs can be a good thing at times.
3. A fast growing market now is the larger “point and push” type cameras. These look more like the traditional SLR, only slightly smaller. They come with a variety of zoom lenses, some of which are quite strong and can really get close to a bird in a bush or high schooler in the middle of the soccer field. The lens is an structural part of the camera which is good in that you never have a problem with dust getting on your sensor, but you are limited to the range that comes with the camera.
These cameras come with the scene settings that allow for simplified shooting and a full auto setting if all you want to concentrate on is composition, but with a bit more space on the camera you usually get adjustment knobs and wheels that facilitate manual adjustments on the fly. Can be key to adjusting for stage lighting at a child’s school play or a candle lit birthday cake. These also generally have larger sensors which allows for richer images, lower light capability, a host of anti-vibration features and the ability to save files in RAW or JPEG format. You also get choices on what decisions you want to make and what you will leave to the camera. Where the focal points are, how the light meter works or any lighting compensation can be adjusted.
You can select manual and you control shutter speed and and f/stop. The camera does only what you tell it. You can also choose to select only the f/stop to control depth of field and let the camera automatically set the shutter speed for proper exposure. If stopping or blurring the action is your goal, you can choose shutter setting and let the camera pick the f/stop. A great way to start learning the effect of each setting.
Almost all of these have and electronic view finder (EVF) meaning you can hold up to your eye and see the image on a small screen. this has an advantage because you get to see the exposures, depth of filed etc, however it is not a clear as an optical viewfinder. This is the growing trend and with EVF improvements many hit end units are now doing away with the mirrors and optical viewers.
If you are willing to carry a dedicated camera these offer great advantages and the main downsize is lack of growth and expansion possibilities. Make sure you get an appropriate zoom range for all your uses and that the feature set will allow for closeups, night shots etc.
4. The interchangeable lens cameras are undergoing very dramatic changes. The traditional single lens reflex (SLR) where you actually look through the lens to compose the picture is now sharing space with a new wave of EVF based mirrorless cameras with very high quality lenses. The advantage of the SLR is a very bright accurate view through whatever lens is on the camera. In very low light situations this can become a problem. Current cameras can capture images and details too dark for the naked eye to see. With good EVF’s what you see on the little screen can actually be brighter than what you could see through glass. There has been an issue with the EVF’s having to refresh the screen so there may be some lag in the image or ghosting of fast moving images. The optical viewfinder literally refreshes at the speed of light. When you press the shutter the SLR has to raise the mirror to allow the light to the sensor which makes noise and can add some vibration to critical images. There is a minimal delay while that happens so you need to learn the time between pressing the shutter and capturing the image. There is also some built in lag time in the EVF, however most of them can be set to absolute silent mode since there are no moving parts. Many have a built in noise to confirm that the image was captured.
The advantage of the interchangeable lens models is you can choose from a vast array of lenses. Some are fixed length and some are zooms, some are professional level glass and some have plastic components. All are generally excellent and many 3rd party lens makers provide lenses for the major brands. A person wanting to advance their skills can replace the camera body (within the same brand line) wth the latest advances and continue to use the lenses, providing great growth flexibility. The same body can be used for macro (extreme closeup) to telephoto by just changing the lens. Of course you also need to carry many lenses to make such changes. My current loaded DSLR bag weighs about 16 pounds, but I frequently travel with a small fixed lens rangefinder camera and leave the heavy artillery at home.
Expense is the downside of an interchangeable system. You can grow it incrementally, but it can get expensive. Camera bodies have gotten so good now most will record great images if you have good lenses. If you are going to advance to fine art work I suggest investing your money in the best lenses. Good glass can make good pictures. Great glass can make great pictures. These also have better manual focus options, and if you are willing to do manual focus there are some great old Nikon and Canon lenses on eBay at a fraction of current autofocus prices.
There are two major distinctions in the interchangeable lens category that need to be addressed. They deal with size of the sensor and how much information can be captured. The full frame cameras (FX) have a sensor the size of 35 mm film. The DX version is 2/3rds the size. Technology has advanced sensor response to the point that the smaller units can now capture as much or more data as the old gold standard Kodachrome slide film. The smaller sensors (still exponentially larger than a phone sensor) allow for smaller lenses. Without going into the physics here, trust me it is easier and cheaper to make a lens that fills up a DX sensor than to make one for a FX. If you are considering a FX body you probably are not reading this.
The reason I bring it up is if you commit to a DX system now and buy the lenses for it, they will have limited use if you move to a FX later. They will work, but only on a smaller portion of the sensor, effectively making your FX work like a DX body. You can buy the FX lenses and use them on the DX systems, but you will actually only be using 2/3rds of the lens potential, meaning you are paying for and carrying excess capacity to insure upgrade potential later.
The SLR and the mirrorless cameras generally have automatic settings (though many do not have preset scene modes) but the real advantage comes in being able to make many more adjustments and to make them with much greater ease. There is a learning curve with any camera and these can be more complex (my current camera manual is 480 pages) but if you plan to take control and use the processing unit between your ears instead of the one in the camera, they are great. You can start by allowing the camera to make most of the decisions and as you get comfortable you can reclaim them one at a time. Some advanced ones have some great features like focus tracking that allows you to pick a moving object (flying bird) and the camera will keep it in focus as it moves. But you don’t have to go there to start.
So where do you begin? figure what you want and find a slot. As with most things, price reflects quality and performance. The more you spend in each class gets you quicker focusing, less shutter lag, bigger images, better color balance etc. Fortunately you can get into any of these systems for little money, even the SLRs with a lens for under $500. Within each (other than the phones) you will have low end units that will take good pictures and as you add features and flexibility you add dollars. And remember they are not exclusive. You can have a pocket camera to walk around with and a full SLR set for special occasions. A Nikon or Canon entry level system will give you plenty of learning potential. They are priced very competitively because they want you to start in their system and as you progress move into their more expensive lines. If you stay with your entry level camera you get the advantage of price savings. Once you have a lens investment you will probably stay with the brand. You may also find the fixed lens camera (pocket or larger) is all you ever want.
There are some great resources on the web for more detail about any of these. I recommend dpreview.com for in-depth looks and recommendations. kenrockwell.com also provides some great commentary. These are very neutral sites, but you can always go to the brand webpages (Fuji, Nikon, Canon, Sony etc) and get specifics, but probably very biased.
As my friend Neil Johnson said, “I don’t care what kind of camera a person uses, I care about what kind of picture they take.” Decide what you want the camera to be able to do, then pick one and start doing it. Remember, Get Close, Stay Focused and Keep Shooting.
Here is a newlink to dpreview that is excellent. They are non-profit technical oriented site. You can read my opinion, or go there and get professional advice. http://www.dpreview.com/?ref_=pe_1822230_158282940_dpr_nl_177_0