Photo Tips #1 : Which Camera? (Part 1)

Posted on Saturday 20 August 2011

Something I often get asked when people find out I take a lot of photos, is “which camera should I buy?”. Obviously it’s impossible to give a simple answer, there’s a ton of options and the best choice depends on a number of factors. In this article I hope to at least explain the broad categories, spell out their advantages and disadvantages, and give you some idea of the factors you should consider.

I will use terms you may not be familiar with in the descriptions, these will be explained in later articles so stay tuned!

First off, I’m going to mention a few types of camera I won’t be talking about any further. First off there’s the really high end – medium format and above. These are the types of cameras favored by fashion photographers shooting for Vogue and the like. They’re huge, extremely expensive, and really only suitable for studio use. They do however produce wonderful images!

Next up is what I would call “specialty” cameras, things like Lomos. You’ve seen the pictures – washed out, distorted, 70’s looking photos of people wearing handmade sweaters on old bikes. They’re all the rage right now, but in fact most of the shots you see in that style were taken with regular cameras (or iPhones!) and then distorted in software. True believers will tell you then only way to get the authentic look is with the real Lomo camera, but they’re so niche I really can’t recommend themĀ  as anything other than part of a bigger collection.

The final thing I’m going to intentionally ignore is anything that uses film. I know! Heretic. But there’s reason behind my madness. Whilst film certainly isn’t dead, it’s a niche product much like vinyl records. There are still good reasons to use film, but if any of them apply to you then you’re already beyond the range of this article, and probably know way more about photography than I do. These days even the cheapest digital cameras have sensors capable of rivaling the film-based compacts of yesteryear, and a decent DSLR will easily outperform average 35mm. Add to that speed, flexibility, cost-of-processing, digital manipulation, convenience, and so on – there’s just no reason for 99% of photographers to consider film.

So what does that leave us with? Fortunately, quite a bit! Let’s start with what most people end up with…

Digital Compact Cameras

Canon PowerShot

These are the mainstay of the modern camera world. Typically very small, with nice large screens and lots of convenience functions. Price wise you can expect to pay between about $150 and $400. In terms of specific models, it’s really hard to make recommendations as they change so frequently. But stick with a well known brand (e.g. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Kodak) and read some reviews on a general consumer site like Amazon, and you should be fine.

Pros

  • Small
  • Cheap
  • Decent image quality
  • Lots of choice (including things like blue or pink cameras to match your outfit)
  • Some unique features such as underwater capabilities

Cons

  • Prone to image quality problems (distortion, lack of sharpness/detail, high noise, etc)
  • Inflexible shooting controls
  • Limited upgrade or accessory options (no attachments for a flash, microphone, etc)
  • Often small or non-existent viewfinder

What Matters?

  • The megapixel count is the main number that manufacturers use to sell cameras – the reality is for general use anything over 8MP is fine. Higher is not always better, and certainly don’t pay for more unless you know you need it (hint: you probably don’t). More on megapixels in a later article!
  • Zoom – the zoom range (how far you can magnify the image) on a compact camera is measured as a number like “4x” – which means “4-times normal size”, so at maximum zoom a person would be 4 times larger than at minimum zoom. A good number for general use is between 3x and 6x. Watch out though – the only thing that matters is Optical Zoom – this is where the lens itself moves moves and adjusts with a motor. So-called “Digital Zoom” is a big con and just leads to terrible image quality. Don’t consider it, and if your camera has it, don’t use it!
  • Memory card format – most cameras use SD or SDHC cards. Stick with this – avoid anything using something else such as XD or Memory Stick.
  • Video – many compact cameras now shoot video, including at up to 1080p HiDef quality. This is a very useful feature, and will in most cases produce better video than your old tape based camcorder. The only thing to watch out for – you’ll need a big memory card for video! At least 8GB and maybe more.
  • Image Stabilization is a feature that used to be reserved for more expensive systems, but is finding it’s way into compacts. It’s a very useful feature – primarily it’s job is to reduce camera shake (blur) when shooting in less than ideal lighting conditions. Great for indoor and evening shots!

You Should Buy One If…

  • You’re just getting started with photography
  • You want something easy to use and friendly
  • You’re on a budget
  • You already have another larger camera but want something more easily portable for casual use

So that’s my take on compacts. They’re really pretty decent these days, and I’d recommend everyone have one, even if it’s just for casual use. There’s no point having a big expensive camera setup if it’s at home when you’re out and about. The best camera is the one you have with you!

Stay tuned for the next installment where I’ll talk about the new Micro Four Thirds system and Superzooms.


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