How To Choose a Camera

One of the most common questions I’ve seen in the forum is, “What camera should I buy?”
There’s no definitive answer. In the end, most cameras on the market are decent. I’d like to think that rather than one camera being better than another, one camera is better at some things than others.

A nice big dSLR is great, but can you slip it into your pocket?
A compact is handy, and great in social situations, but it’s not going to be much shop with sports or wildlife photography!
In the end, a camera is a tool and it’s important you choose the right one for the job.

First up, lets look at compact cameras.
There’s plenty of these around, they’re constantly being updated, replaced and improved. Also the cheapest digital option.
Very handy for carrying with you. Can slip into a pocket and are always on hand when you need it.
One problem though is they’re slow. Slow start up, slow to take a shot, often quite a big delay between pressing the button and the image being taken, often you can lose the moment.

Another is the sensor size. They have very tiny sensors, and when the manufacturers shove in as many megapixels as the larger sensor on a dSLR, the image quality can degrade. This page shows the difference in sizes between compacts, dSLRs and 35mm, also explains with tables and charts about the resolutions of these.

Last, and definitely not least, image control.
There’s very little control to be had with a compact camera.
But Uncle Stevie, my compact has full manual controls!
Yes, many compact cameras do. But again, the size of the sensor comes into play here. Because the sensor is so small, the image is effectively cropped in comparison to a 35mm, or ‘full frame’ image. This is the crop factor people talk about. On a compact, this is even more profound.
Depth of field is controlled by a few factors. One is how close/far the subject is from the camera. The further away, the more depth of field. Get close, and it becomes very narrow, like in most macro shots you see.
Another is focal length. Wide angle lenses tend to have a deep depth of field, whereas telephoto, or long lenses, have quite a shallow depth.
It’s all about balancing one against the other.
28mm on a 35mm camera is wide angle, and your subject has to be quite close to the camera for a shallow depth of field.
On a compact camera, to achieve the ‘28mm equivalent’, you have to go much, much wider. On the Canon Powershot S70, the lens is infact 5.8-20.7mm, with the 5.8 being equivalent to the wide angle 28mm. Even at the telephoto end, there’s going to be little control over depth of field.
In a way this is great for compact cameras, it means people will rarely get out of focus shots! Not so great if you’re using it as a creative control.
The other factor in controlling depth of field is the aperture, but quite often this ends up having no effect due to the extreme wide angle of the lenses in use.

Somewhere in the middle ground is the dSLR-like group of cameras.
They look a lot like an SLR, have a lot of the features, but they don’t have interchangable lenses (blessing and a curse, the more a lens can do, the less it does well, but you’ll never have to worry about a dirty sensor!) of a true SLR. Their response times can be sluggish, but not as slow as a compact. The biggest downfall is the same as the compacts. The sensor. Most share the tiny sensor of a compact, running into the same issues. They often have a much greater reach with extremely long zooms, which is why they need to be a lot bigger.

The dSLR market is not quite as flooded with models, but there’s still a wide choice. Some entry level models come in cheaper than some compacts, while the top of the line can be in excess of $10,000. Here budget plays a big part in deciding what to buy. If you buy a $10,000 body but can’t afford a good lens, your images will suffer. The lens is the most important part of the equation here. They’re the part you keep. Unfortunately digital camera bodies are an expensive, yet disposable item.
What do you need out of your camera?
Are you going to be shooting sports? Possibly spending time in bad weather? Shooting gigs in low light?
You need to look at what you’re doing and decide if you need weather sealing, good high ISO performance, fast FPS.
These are the major differences as you move up the camera food chain. And while it might be nice to be able to shoot at 11fps, do you NEED it?
Also, if you’re going to get big, expensive lenses, you may need a pro body designed to handle them. The entry level models are designed to work best with the more affordable light, plastic bodied lenses.

Decide what you want to do, work out what you need and then find out what will fit both your needs and budget.

Film SLRs!
But Uncle Stevie, film is dead. The man in the camera shop said so.
Of course he said so.
What’s in his best interest? Selling a $2,000 digital camera that’s obsolete in 18 months, or selling a $500 film camera that’ll produce beautiful images for a lifetime, or longer, and the odd roll of film for a couple bucks?

Film is far from dead. While consumer films are dropping off, companies such as Fuji have continued to improve and extend their professional film range. Recently due to great demand they brought back Velvia 50. An all new type of Provia was released. Companies that have ended film production have had their processing plants bought out by other companies who are filling the demand.
Just as print film, slide film and black and white films all have different characteristics, between each other and brands, digital is just another medium with its own characteristics.
Depending on the situation film is not more expensive than digital.

So in summary.

Think about what you want from your camera, both in terms of portability, function and artistic aesthetics and get the best tool for the job. Make sure you get what you need out of the camera (and yes, that may be the portability of a compact!), forget the other bells and whistles.

When budget is a constraint, remember to take into consideration lens choice and other accessories such as memory cards, card readers, filters, extended warranties, etc.

If you have old lenses and want to use them on your new camera, check for compatibility first.

Most importantly, go into a store, handle the cameras, find one that feels comfortable to hold and use. Compare viewfinders, make sure you can see clearly, especially glasses wearers.

For the most part, ignore megapixel counts. It’s become a race and a way to market new cameras, but people can and have been printing quite large images from 6mp cameras. (Keep in mind RB requires 10mp for large prints).

If you want to try film, don’t be put off by the talk of it being dead. You can pick up a second hand film body for next to nothing, and trying out a couple rolls of film won’t cost much at all.

Keep in mind, this advice is my opinion. Not everyone will agree with everything I’ve said.
I’ve not mentioned any particular models because they change so fast.

Latest news, reviews and comparisons can be found on the DPReview website.

Journal Comments

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