How to Buy a Digital Camera
Cameras used to be long term investments before the digital age, now people change them as rapidly as they replace last year’s computer. New features, more mega pixels, better color, smaller size – there are many reasons to upgrade. Film is mostly used for fine art or disposable cameras now in the USA, most purchases today are digital. What kind of camera is right for you, and will help you take the pictures that meet your vision? We will discuss point and shoot, entry level DSLRs with interchangeable lenses, and professional cameras. At the end of this article are links to websites reviewing specific camera brands and models. My personal favorite brand of camera is Canon, followed by Nikon then Sony.
Point and Shoot
This is the type of camera that does most of the thinking and decision making for you. If you want your pictures taking to be easy, with little fuss, choose this type of camera. However, don’t be surprised if about 20% of your pictures look like crap. Some picture taking situations are complex and too difficult for the computer in the point and shoot camera to understand. So if you want your more difficult pictures to turn out well, you will need to read books or magazines about photography, or take a class, and learn how to use a DSLR (digital single lens reflex, one that has interchangeable lenses) camera that allows you to make more decisions.
Features to look for in a point and shoot camera include:
Small enough to take with you
Allows you to turn off automatic functions, and take some control. Specifically allows you to take camera off of program mode, and use shutter priority, aperture priority, and / or manual mode.
High quality glass optics, not plastic lens
Wide optical zoom range
Fast auto focus
Allows you to use flash or turn it off at will, even outdoors
Red eye reduction
10 or more mega pixels
Rechargeable battery, long battery life
Many point and shoot cameras advertise wide zoom ranges, but in reality they are talking about “digital zoom”. This means that the camera just takes the center portion of the image and crops it to make it appear closer. Results? The resolution of your image will go down, and your picture will be less sharp and more noisy and grainy. Make sure when you read about the zoom range of a point and shoot camera that they are talking about optical zoom – the actual lens – and not digital zoom.
Higher end point and shoot cameras have several shooting modes, program mode, shutter priority, aperture priority, and / or manual mode. These modes allow you to make some or all of the decisions about your picture’s exposure, and using them will help you learn how cameras work. Buying a point and shoot camera that has various shooting modes is a good way to make the transition to a more professional SLR system.
You want to be able to turn on or turn off your flash at will. Why? Let’s say you want to take a picture of fireworks over a lake at night, with your camera on a tripod. Your camera in program mode will check the light level, see that it is dark, and turn on the flash for the exposure. However, this will cause the area within 15 or 20 feet of the camera to be brightly lit, and the rest of the picture dark! With the flash on, the shutter will close before the fireworks finish their display. With the flash turned off and the camera in shutter priority or manual mode, you can set your camera on a tripod, leave the shutter open for 3-10 seconds, and capture the fireworks and their reflection in the lake.
Entry Level Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Cameras
Entry level SLR cameras all have a smaller than “full frame” sensor. This means that the sensor that captures the image is not as large as a 35mm negative frame, so the picture is cropped. How much smaller the sensor is compared to full frame is called the “lens factor” and it is described as a number such as 1.5. It also means that wide angle lenses are not as wide as they would be on a full frame camera. For example, a 28 mm lens that would take in a wide angle view on a film camera or a full frame digital body would act like a slightly wider than normal lens on an entry level camera. Camera manufacturers have a solution available, making lenses that are “ultra wide” and only work with cameras with a lens factor. These might be 12mm or 14mm lenses that would show darkness around the edges of the picture with a full frame camera. Be careful how much money you invest in the ultra wide lenses, because if you upgrade to a full frame DSLR these lenses will not work.
Features to Look For In an Entry Level DSLR
Lens or sensor stabilization or vibration reduction method available (reduces blur in hand held pictures)
Largest, brightest LCD screen on the back of the camera
Highest mega pixels you can afford
Good sensor cleaning method
Widest ISO range (the sensitivity of the sensor to light)
Standard user modes program mode, shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual mode, as well as Bulb (aperture stays open as long as the shutter button is depressed)
Timed shutter will stay open up to at least 30 seconds
Fastest shutter speed of at least 1/2000 of a second
Ability to shoot in RAW and JPEG capture or both at the same time
Accurate light metering system
Fast, wide area auto focus sensors
Shoots at least 3 frames per second
clear, bright viewfinder
Fuzzy, blurred pictures are always a disappointment, unless that is what you are trying to get! These most often are the result of using hand held telephoto lenses at slow shutter speeds, or normal lenses in low light or close up situations. No matter how hard you try to remain motionless, your body is in constant motion from your breathing, heartbeat, the wind, etc. Canon makes optical image stabilizer lenses to reduce camera shake. Nikon calls their lenses vibration reduction or VR lenses. Other camera makers put shake reduction in the sensor or camera body. Make sure the camera system you are buying has a good method of reducing camera shake or vibration. Read the reviews in photography magazines or on the websites listed below, and find a camera system that meets your needs.
The LCD screen on the back of the camera is how you know that you “got it” before you move on to a new photographic situation. If you are outdoors in bright sunlight, a small, dim LCD won’t tell you anything. Get the brightest, largest LCD screen you can find.
Every time you change lenses, there is an opportunity for dust to get on your camera sensor, causing spots to appear on your images. Changing lenses at the beach, outdoors with high winds, or in industrial settings will increase the risk of dirt and dust, and you may have to clean your sensor daily if you change lenses in these environments. Older DSLRs require that you clean the sensor by removing the lens, popping the mirror up, and blowing on the sensor with an air bulb. Every third or fourth time you need to clean the sensor with a special sensor cleaning liquid and flat swabs made for the purpose. Many newer camera bodies have sensors that are self-cleaning. Some camera bodies vibrate the sensor to remove dust. Make sure your camera body has a sensor cleaning method that you are comfortable with, and that will make your pictures clean and spot-free.
ISO is the measurement used to determine how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. It is the replacement term for film’s ASA rating. Usually this number ranges from 100 to 1600, with the lower number being less light sensitive. The higher ISO numbers should be used in low light situations, or with fast shutter speeds when shooting something moving at high speed, such as racing cars or humming bird wings. The higher the ISO number used, the more noisy or grainy looking your images will be, and the color will be flatter and less saturated. Some new entry level DSLRs have higher ISO numbers then 1600, such as 3200. Other camera makers brag that images from their cameras have good color and little noise at ISO settings of 400 or 800.
I once had to shoot Hewlett Packard’s annual stockholder’s meeting with no flash, because they felt that flash disturbs their stockholders. Although there were spotlights on the stage, I still was shooting at ISO ratings of 400, 800 and 1,600, depending on the lens I was using. I was shooting with a Canon 5D with a 70-200 f2.8 lens with the optical image stabilizer feature. At times I was shooting wide open at shutter speeds of 1/60 or 1/125 hand held, which would not have been possible without the optical image stabilizer in the lens and higher ISO settings. The images were sent world-wide while the meeting was still in session, and were published globally in newspapers, magazines and online. Thankfully the Canon 5D has very little noise at high ISO settings, and the pictures were not required for 2 page tabloid size magazine spreads!
Buying a Professional DSLR
The average DSLR camera body will only last a professional for 2-3 years, for the same reason that people upgrade computers every 2-3 years. The technology improves, the cameras have higher resolution, and the cost drops. The Canon 1DS 11 mega pixel camera that sold for $8,000 about three years ago was the best DSLR available. Now the new Canon 1DS Mark III sells for the same $8,000, but is 22 mega pixels, captures millions more colors because it is 14-bit instead of 12-bit, and has better auto focus and other features.
Although that is true, the technology for lenses does not change nearly as rapidly. Sure, there are developments in auto focus and things like optical image stabilizer features, but good glass is good glass. So make sure your investment in a camera brand is one that you can live with through most of your career. I was a Nikon man for the first 20 years of my film-based photography career, and of course when I bought my first digital camera I wanted to take advantage of my investment in Nikon Lenses. However, all of my camera gear was stolen just after the first Canon 1DS full frame camera came out. Nikon would not offer a full frame camera until several years later. After doing my research, I switched to Canon, as I knew that professionals would not be happy with their wide angle lenses having a 1.5 or 1.6 lens factor.
Features to look for in a Professional DSLR
Everything listed above under “Features to Look For In an Entry Level DSLR”
Wide range of lenses, with a full line of wide angles, macros, telephotos, super-telephotos, zooms and specialty lenses such as tilt lenses
The best quality glass in the lenses
Durability – you will drop it from time to time on the job
If you shoot sports, action or fashion, you will need fast auto focus and a fast drive with a high number of frames per second available – 6 or 7 frames per second
You will need to shoot RAW format, make sure that it can, and that you have the software that can read the RAW files. You may need to upgrade your version of PhotoShop
Full frame sensors are best for most professional applications
The most mega pixels you can afford. Do not consider anything less than 12 mega pixels if you plan to shoot for publications or need prints 16 x 20 or larger
A number of on-camera flash options – including TTL options that can use more than one flash
Rechargeable battery, long battery life
The Canon and Nikon camera lines were built with professionals in mind, and have cameras that will meet your needs. No other brands have the depth in lens selection that these two camera vendors do. If you are considering any other brand, look over the features list carefully to make sure you won’t be sorry five years from now.
Reviews about specific brands and models of cameras can be found at: