Photo Tips #2 : Which Camera? (Part 2)

Posted on Wednesday 24 August 2011

In the first part of this series I talked about Compact Cameras, and came to the conclusion that you should probably have one – at least as a second camera for keeping with you all the time. Now it’s time to look at a couple of categories which step it up a bit – the Superzoom and the new Micro Four Thirds format.

Superzoom (aka Bridge Cameras)

 

This format is traditionally designed for people who want to get some of the flexibility of a full DSLR but without all the accompanying expense or size. The name Superzoom comes from the fact that one of the big selling points is usually a lens with a large optical zoom factor (see the previous post for why optical is the only zoom that matters). The laws of physics force the camera to be larger than a Compact, but by cutting out some other features it’s still smaller than a DSLR.

So what’s cut out? The two primary things are the ability to change lenses and the optical viewfinder. For most casual and even some serious photographers the ability to change lenses isn’t that important provided the built-in one has a good zoom range. Thankfully this is usually the case, with something like the pictured Canon SX30 IS providing 35x optical zoom – which is huge by any standards.

The optical viewfinder is also something that a lot of people won’t miss. Those who are used to using Compacts are also used to holding the camera out in front of them and using the screen to frame the shot – and Superzooms can use the same technique. That said, there are advantages to holding a camera up to your face and peering through the viewfinder, and the LCD-based finders on Superzooms are in my experience pretty terrible. Why do I say this? Primarily it’s because one of the main uses of a viewfinder is in checking the focus, and that’s basically impossible when what you’re looking at is a highly magnified (and very blocky) LCD screen.

On the upside, Superzooms typically have a lot of the features that you’d expect to see on a DSLR. For example, there will be full manual control of exposure, shutter speed, ISO and aperture – and usually manual focus as well (although that’s of limited utility without a good viewfinder). The larger lens will also provide better image quality than a Compact, and the larger body size allows for bigger batteries (therefore longer life), and more comfortable handling and controls. One thing which can frequently make Compact cameras hard to use are huge numbers of menus and option screens – necessitated by the tiny body not having space for many buttons. No such problem here, expect real mode-select dials, flash buttons and so on.

There are also some features which are common place on Superzooms but are only recently coming into the DSLR space. A key one of these is the articulated screen, which allows you to pivot or tilt the rear display for easier viewing when holding the camera at an unusual angle such as above your head.

All in all, Superzooms represent a good compromise in size, cost and features between a Compact and a full size DSLR. Price wise you should expect to pay between $300 and $500.

Pros

  • Much better lens quality than a Compact gives better images and higher zoom range
  • Most of the flexibility of a DSLR in a smaller, lighter, cheaper package
  • Longer battery life
  • Physical controls are faster to adjust than menu options
  • “Hotshoe” connector on the top of the camera to attach an external flash

Cons

  • Larger and heavier than a Compact – the protruding lens makes for a more awkward shape
  • Image quality (particularly in low light) still not up to DSLR standards
  • Can’t swap out lenses
  • No optical viewfinder

What Matters?

  • The optical quality of a Superzoom is typically higher than a Compact, so it’s worth going for a higher megapixel count to match. 12MP or above is a good number to aim for. Again, don’t be swayed by huge numbers unless you know you need them.
  • Zoom is obviously a major factor here! If you’re thinking about wildlife photography or getting good shots of sporting events you’ll need the highest zoom you can get.
  • Image Stabilization is more important the higher the zoom, so in this category of camera it’s pretty much essential.
  • Speed – again useful when shooting sports or wildlife, the ability to take a number of shots in quick succession becomes practical with these cameras, unlike most Compacts. 2-3 shots per second should be possible.
  • If you’re interested in shooting video, it’s worth checking whether you can use the zoom or the autofocus in that mode. In many older cameras you can’t, which obviously limits their practicality.

You Should Buy One If…

  • You want more control and better image quality than a Compact, but without the cost of a DSLR
  • You would choose a Compact for it’s size, but need a longer zoom range for sports or wildlife shooting

Micro Four Thirds

Micro Four Thirds cameras are another “midway point” between Compacts and DSLRs. Whilst aimed at the same “better than a Compact, cheaper and smaller than a DSLR” market, they’re different from Superzooms in a number of significant ways:

  • They do offer interchangeable lenses
  • They are smaller and lighter than Superzooms
  • The image quality is significantly better
  • Lenses with very large zoom ranges are either not available or are very expensive

Currently only a few manufacturers (primarily Olympus and Panasonic) are producing these cameras, although they are gaining popularity quite fast due to their flexibility and compact size, so expect others to join suit. This will have the benefit of increasing the (currently quite limited) range of available lenses.

These models are however more expensive – expect to pay $400 for the base body plus standard lens, and anywhere from $100 to $700 for additional lenses. If you’re looking to shoot portraits, family pictures, landscapes and travel then this could be an excellent choice. If you’re looking for sports, wildlife or other subjects where magnification is important, it’s probably not your best bet.

Note that manufacturers of Micro Four Thirds lenses use the same notation for specifying the zoom range of a lens as a DSLR manufacturer would – so instead of “3x” as you might see on a Compact or Superzoom, you might see “14-42mm”. I’ll explain exactly what this means in a later article, but for now, I’ll say that 14-42mm is approximately equivalent to 3x and the 45-200mm I saw online would be equivalent to around 11x.

One final note on lenses. You may see adapters to allow your Micro Four Thirds camera to work with standard DSLR lenses from the likes of Canon or Nikon. While this may seem an attractive way to expand the range of available lenses, beware that using these adapters will disable most of the automatic functions of the camera – you’ll need to set focus, aperture, etc manually.

Pros

  • Better image quality than any Compact and most Superzooms
  • Interchangeable lenses for flexibility
  • Most of the flexibility of a DSLR in a smaller, lighter, cheaper package – even smaller than a Superzoom
  • “Hotshoe” connector on the top of the camera to attach an external flash

Cons

  • More expensive than Compacts or Superzooms
  • Image quality (particularly in low light) still not up to DSLR standards
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Limited range of lenses at this time

What Matters?

  • The optical quality of a Micro Four Thirds camera is very good, so it’s worth going for a higher megapixel count to match. 12MP or above is pretty standard.
  • Image Stabilization is always good, and most of these models have it.

You Should Buy One If…

  • You want more control and better image quality than a Compact, but without the size of a Superzoom
  • Budget is less of an issue
  • You don’t need to shoot subjects from a long distance

 


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