Photography #101: Choosing a Camera

 

One of the most common questions I get is “I want to buy a camera, which one should I get?”

Somewhere in the archives there is a similar post to this. I think it is time to update it, anyway. Well that depends on a lot of things. Here are a few pointers that should help you choose. I will generally only address digital cameras and talk about film cameras in a separate post.

Throughout this article, I will link to articles and reviews that I think may be helpful.

#1 What are the choices?

In general, a camera is just a light tight box with something in it to record the light, a shutter mechanism and a lens attached – and that is what large format cameras still are. In the digital age, as you probably notcied, there are many more choices.

Point and Shoots (P&S)

Point and Shoot (courtesy of wikipedia)

Admittedly, I am not a big fan of P&S cameras for what I shoot, but they are certainly have a role and are probably the most sold type of camera these days. In fact chances are you already have one! They are also compact, and often referred to that way. Differences mainly pertain to features, zoom range, camera size and most important for image quality, the size of the imaging sensor.

Most compact have a very small sensor, mainly a so called 1/2.3″ CMOS, which is about 1/30th of the area of 35mm film. While they may sport 16 mega pixles (MP), the main problem is that the smaller the sensor, the less light it will gather; this is instrumental in how the sensor behaves under low light conditions. In analogy to film, sensor sensitivity is expressed in ISO, where ISO 100 is the baseline, similar to what Kodak Gold was. Many if not all compact cameras do OK at ISO 100, but rapidly deteriorate. Some produce good images at ISO 400, few are acceptable at ISO 1600.

A group of higher end cameras, often dubbed “enthusiast” compacts feature larger sensors, such as a 1/1.7″ (roughly 1/18th of 35mm) and they behave significantly better in low light and often focus on other capabilities that may cater to a “prosumer.” They often have not as many automatic features, but offer more manuakl controls, just as their “pro” brothers, the DSLRs, do. Also they keep the sensor pixels down to around 10MP, increasing the “pitch” of pixels, and thus improving the light gathering capacity. Examples here are the Panasonic LX-5, Canon’s S95 and G12, Nikon’s P7000/7100. These often produce quite decent images at higher ISOs, though they still are no match for DSLRs. Many also allow you to record the image data in RAW, a file format that records more information than the regular JPG format that most P&S cameras use.

What plagues all compacts is the lenses. While they may be praised in highest terms, they are relatively “dark” and get darker as you zoom in (so called variable aperture zooms). What I mean by “dark” is that they have fairly small apertures. If you are confused about aperture, be patient and wait for a later post, which will explain it all in detail. In brief, the aperture describes the size of the opening that light hets through. The lower the aperture number, the more light gets in; The “most open” lenses are f0.95, just below the “f-stop” of f1.It goes all the way up to f64 or even higher in steps of factor √2, i.e. multiplying the previous number by √2, that is 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8 etc etc. Each step, or “stop” means that half the light get through. A few compacts have bright lenses, such as the Olympus XZ-1, which has a zoom that starts at a wide aperture of f1.8, previously unknown to compacts, and even at the longer end is at f2.5. A large aperture obvioulsy is beneficial. As you go from f4 to f2.8, you need only to expose the sensor for half the time to get the same amount of light.

Compact lenses are often described as having a focal length of “24-70”, “28mm-112mm” – this is referring to the equivalent on 35mm film cameras or so called digital full frame, or FX, single lens reflex cameras (SLRs). People are just used to thinking in these numbers. In truth, a “28-112mm” lens is a 6.0 to 24.0mm lens on the Olympus XZ-1, to stick with the example – meaning the Olympus has a 4.6x “crop factor”. This gets confusing, but it essentially means that to get the same image on a 35mm camera as on the Olympus zoomed to 6.0mm, you would need a 28mm lens. Last but not least, the compact zoom lenses usually max out at apertures around f8, which gives them a narrow range. As a comparison, a professional SLR zoom would have a range from f2.8 to f22, soem single focal length lenses got o f32 and large format lenses can go to f64 or beyond (more of that in a later chapter).

Well, if you cannot vary your camera’s exposure (the amount of light it lets fall on the sensor) by opening and closing the aperture, then you can still vary the shutter speeds. In general, compacts these days have enough width, e.g. from 2 seconds to 1/2000th of a second.

Lastly, even the most advanced compact is still pretty slow compared to what we’ll discuss next.

DSLRs

SLR stands for single lens reflex, meaning you look through the same lens you are taking the picture with (it contrasts with the twin lens reflex, which we won’t discuss here). The “D” just stands for digital.

There are two major advantages of an SLR: first, as your are looking through the lens, WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get); and second, you can change you lens, giving you much more choice than if you lens wasd glued to the body as in a compact P&S.

SLR cutaway, Courtesy of Jean François WITZ

Other advantages: autofocus is fast, hence shutter lag (the time from pressing the button until the camera takes the shot) is almost instantaneous, rather than not uncommonly a second or even longer with a compact set to autofocus. The reason is that most compact use a different mechanism, based on contrast detection, which is generally slower, where as DLR actual use a something called phase detection.

DSLR are larger than compacts. Thus the can house larger sensors. While only a few cameras to date have managed to be “full frame”. i.e. a 24x36mm sensor similar to 35mm film (at a price), the vast majority of DSLR are “crop sensor” cameras, usually between 1.3x and 1.7x, with the Olympus’ and Panasonic’s 4/3rd system occupying a special position with a 2x crop factor.

As discussed, sensor size determines performance in low light, so it is not surprising this is where the full frame sensors shine (the Nikon D3 was revolutionary in that regard, surpassed by the D3s, which can be easily shot at ISO 6400 with very little compromise in image quality). However crop sensors have become very very good, and for most people it is more than sufficient.

Another aspect of the smaller sensor is that since most full frame lenses can be used on the respective makers crop camera, the equivalent focal length is extended. What was a 70-200 f2.8 zoom becomes a 100-450 zoom at f2.8. This becomes important if you are like most people and have a budegt. While Nikon’s 70-200 costs a whopping $2,400, the 200-400mm zoom (at f4) costs $7,000! With Nikon, which I shoot, their “DX” sensor has a crop factor of 1.5. While Nikon’s F mount lenses are back compatible to the 1970’s (with some modifications needed on very old lenses), other manufacturers, notably Canon, changed the mount of their lenses when the went to autofocus back in the 1980’s..

I any case, if you go with one of the major brands – Canon, Nikon, Sony (which continued the Minolta line), Pentax – you’ll likely have plenty of very good used lenses to chose from. Modern lenses do have an advantage – many lenses these days feature image stabilization – called IS by Canon, OIS by Sigma, VR by Nikon…. basically, it detects movement and stabilizes the picture. This means a 70-200 lens can be hand held at 1/15 of a second with reasonable results, rather than 1/250 s. There is some thought that newer lenses are “optimized” for digital capture. This maybe a lot of marketing, but there are indications that some lenses do not work well with digital sensors due to the incident angle of the light, which was not as critical in film cameras. In my experience, most older lenses work well, including a superb 105mm f2.5 manual focus lens which I picked up for $75!

At the heart of a DSLR is the mirror. The mirror reflect the image that comes through the lens upwards, onto a focusing screen, that can be seen through a prism via the viewfinder, giving you that WYSIWYG. When taking the picture, the mirror “slaps” upwards just before the shutter opens, freeing up the way for light to hit the sensor. It is in a way what makes a SLR and SLR, but also its achilles heel. For one, in contrast to other cameras, such as rangefinders (see below), because of the mirror takes up space and the lenses have to “retrofocus”, i.e. project backwards further than they usually would, to make up for that extra space. That introduced imperfections and distortion that are especially obvious on wide angle lenses. It also tends to make the lenses larger. Second, the mirror slap is quite audible but also creates vibration which may blur the picture. This is why many advanced SLRs have a mirror lock up function.

DSLRs tend to have a lot of features, too many to describe here. The latest generation features HD video (usually now 1080p) and Live View, stereo sound and much more. While some photographers snub it, they become quite usuable video cameras – though for pro shoots you are likely to need a lot of expensive accessories. One episode of the TV series “House” was shot with a Canon 5D Mk II!

EVILs

No they are not bad seed, EVIL stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens. More recently, they are usually referred to as “mirrorless”, alluding to the fact that they are almost SLRs. It started with Panasonic and Olympus, which had produced so called 4/3″ cameras which had sensors 1/4th the area size of 35mm (crop factor 2x).

Olympus E-P2, courtesy of Kyle Lam/Wikimedia Commons

In additon, Olympus I think was teh first company to introduce “Live View” to SLRs (Live view requires constant recording of light, that is an open shutter, which bring along its own set of problems. Many older DSLR used CCD sensors that are not capable of live view, but CMOS sensors are, and significant improvement in that technology made it possible. Most DSLRS and all mirrorless, now have CMOS sensors.

Why not take such a sensor, put it in a housing WITHOUT a mirror, attach a electronic viewfinder (EVF) or just a big screen in the back, and get the benefit of high quality interchangeable lenses as well as better image quality than the compacts, but make the camera much smaller than a DSLR? And as a bonus, because the distance between the lens and the sensor is shorter than on any other camera (compact excluded), almost every interchangeable lens ever made by any manufacturer can be used with the appropriate adapter?

Within the last 2-3 years this segment of the market has exploded, with Panasonic (“G line”), Olympus (“E-P” line) and Sony (“NEX”, which uses a 1.5x crop sensor) taking the lead. The latest iteration of theses cameras are very good and Sony will come out with the NEX-7 that promises a 24 MP sensor, a built in EVF and adapters to use some of the best camera lenses ever made, such as Leica and Zeiss.

These camera’s aren’t cheap (the NEX-7 will cost $1199 body only), but basically as good as consumer level DSLRs. They still are plagued with lack of superb lenses of their own, which you need if you want autofocus, although that is changing, too. Sony will have a presumably superb 24mm f1.8 lens on the shelf in December ($999.)

Samsung now also has a line of EVILs, Pentax just announced the Pentax Q, which uses a compact size sensor (no one got that) and Nikon is rumored to come out with their own camera any day now.

I am a fan of this type of gadget. My next purchase may be a NEX-7…….

Others

There are of course other types of camera which I’ll briefly mention. Leica has a digital version of their 1950 rangefinder design, the M9, a superb camera and my favorite, for a mere $6995. And older version, the M8, may be had for $2000 used but you’ll still spend over $1,500, and up to $10,000 on any NEW Leica lens, and you’ll probbaly wann get 2-3 of those, as there are no zooms (there are other manufacturers that are cheaper.) There are a number of medium format digital cameras, really made for highly paid pros, ranging from $10,000 to $60,000, lenses are extra. Sigma’s DP-1 and DP-2 were in a way precursors to the mirrorless sector, with fixed focal lengths and a large sensor, but seem pretty dead now.

Two cameras warrant further elaboration.

The Fujifilm X100 is a camera that looks like a old school rangefinder (Leica M), has a 1.5x crop sensor, a 35mm “equivalent” lens and got rave reviews. I played with it briefly at B&H in New York and I was impressed, but it is a niche camera like the Sigma DP-1 and DP-2. It just got a small brother, the X10, which has a zoom lens and a compact sensor, but the price of an EVIL.

The Ricoh GXR is an interesting concept. There is a base unit,which takes several modules that are interchangeable. For example, there are compact modules, a 28mm and 50mm “equivalent” module on a 1.5 crop sensor and lately a module that takes Leica M lenses (also on a crop sensor). The system is pretty pricey, too, with the base unit at $349, $250 to $350 for the compact modules, while the larger lens modules cost $649. In the same breath, I should mention the Ricoh GR IV, the newest digital version of Ricoh’s once popular 28mm fixed lens film P&S, a line that has developed somewhat of a cult following.

#2 What camera is for me?

Only you you will know that, in the end. I think it is most helpful if I describe what I think the best camera is for a few scenarios, and you can make up your mind which best described you. Just one caveat: there is an illness called “gear acquisition syndrome” that people like me are prone to. While you cannot have too man cameras, you definitely can have too much debt and clutter. So proceed with caution….

“I want to take pictures of our family vacation”

If you want to just document your, your kids and your spouse’s vacation, get the snap shot in from of the Eiffel Tower etc, a P&S will do. I would get one that suits your needs. If you do water sports, hike up cold mountains or ski, you may want to consider a waterproof camera such as an Olympus Tough or the new Nikon AW100. If you dive or snorkel, maybe a SEA&SEA will suit you better. You’ll see great scenery? Make sure you have a wide angle. Safari? Get a long zoom!

“I want to take picture of my kid playing (insert sport here)”

This also includes toddlers doing about anything! You’ll probably need a DSLR, preferably a crop sensor with at least a 200mm zoom. You’ll just need WYSIWYG and instant shutter release. If you shoot a P&S, your kid will be at the other end of the soccer field by the time you snap the picture. Many “superzooms” are available, going from wise angle 18 mm up to 200, 250 or even 270 mm. While these are not razor sharp pro lenses, they are great all around and you may not need another lens (though you’ll probably want one).

“I want to shoot birds/shy large animals”

You need patience. And a lot of cash. A better DSLR (such as the Nikon D7000) is probably a must, as are long zooms. Unless you have mounts of money, you may want to look into the Sigma 150-500, or Tamron 200-500. If money is not an issue, get the Sigma 300-800 f5.6 ($8k) or 200-500 f2.8 ($25k), or any brand name as the aforementioned Nikon 200-400 f4.

“I want to shoot little critters/flowers (or baby feet)”

Actually P&S work pretty well for that, they usually have a 1cm macro function where you get close, but the better option may be a DSLR with a dedicated macro lens. Critters are usually not stationary – nor are toddlers for that matter, at least when they are awake). For flowers, a 60mm macro will probably do, for insect and the like, consider a 100mm or longer lens.

“I like landscapes”

So do I. Do you want to produce FIne Art Prints of them? Unless you want to shoot film, you probably should consider a high end DSLR with a few wide angle lenses or a good wide angle zoom. The Canon 5D Mk II comes to mind, or the Nikon D3x. While usually 12 MP is good enough for a 11×14 print, if you want to go bigger and have plenty of detail, you’ll probably need the extra MP. You also want full frame to get the most out of your wide angle lenses. There are some superb zooms, such as the Nikon 17-35mm, or Canon 17-40L. If your ambitions are more moderate, here is where an EVIL may come in handy.

“Architecture is sexy”

Again one of these things where the right equipment may make a difference. Both Canon and Nikon produce a set of specialty lenses for “perspective control”. The bad news? They work better with full frame DSLRs. The good news? Those lenses start at ~ $1,800.

“Portraiture”

Depending on how ambitious your are, you can probably use almost any camera. The “classic” portraits lenses are between 85 and 135mm on 35mm film, but you can capture the essence of a person with any lens. Fashion photographers sometimes use very long lenses (300 mm, 400 mm), as they compress the facial features (no big noses, ever). If you love the look where the background is creamy and blurred, you’ll need a lens with a wide aperture, such as a 85mm f1.2 or f1.4, or a 105 mm f2 or f2.5. For environmental portraits, consider something wider, like a 35mm lens. For group shots I usually use my 24-70mm zoom.

“I want to be a wedding photographer”

If you want to run with the big boys, you need the best equipment. You do NOT want to miss any shot that will never come again. Two pro or at least semi pro camera bodies, plus maybe one for backup, powerful flash, pro lenses covering wide angle to telephoto, sturdy tripod, maybe external strobes on light stands and lots of practice. Your up front investment is $10,000 easy. YOu can use of course a Canon Rebel and a kit lens, but while you can produce excellent images with it, you chances of messing up are much higher (can you say “Bridezilla?”).

“Taking it TO the street”

Street photography is not for everyone, and everyone doing it has a slightly different approach. It is about capturing the “decisive momet”, the fleeting fraction of time where something happens, and catch its essence. Long zooms are usually frowned upon by serious street shooters, and they are not very subtle, either. Usually focals length between 28mm and 50mm “equivalent” are used. The shorter the focal length, the closer you need to get. The “classic” street shooters are rangefinders, but you can use a DSLR, an EVIL, a medium format film camera…. Any camera with a quick shutter release will do – the rest is up to you.

“I am a gear head and a pixel peeper” (this is the autobiographical part)

Clearly you are a lost cause. You’ll buy a lot of compacts and sell them because they do not satisfy your need for noise free sharp pictures. You’ll always upgrade to the latest camera and buy the best lenses. You look at every image at 100% magnification, even if that would equate a 3×4 foot high quality print you’ll never make. Your end up gear rich and talent poor and spent hours writing about photography gear on your blog……

CONCLUSION

If you want to keep you options open, you probably won’t go wrong with a DSLR. The only thing you lose is portability. There are good (Olympus E-Ps. Panasonic GF’s, NEX-7) and very capable and more portable solutions, but you still lose some things, like upgrading to pro-lenses that can autofocus, and these cameras are not necessarily cheaper. The only two scenarios where I would recommend a P&S is when you need the small size of a pocketable camera, or you really are just taking vacation snapshots.

Anyway, here is a list of my recommendations, not necessarily all inclusive:

PLEASE, BUY LOCALLY (e.g Bangor Photo), or from a reputable online dealer. There are a lot of scammer out there. If the price sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. I recommend B&H Photo or Adorama. Big Box stores often have higher prices or bad service.

Point and Shoot with long zoom*: Panasonic ZS-8 and others, I have not really shot any

Enthusiast P&S: Panasonic LX-5**

Best all around P&S: Canon S95

Water proof P&S: Olympus Tough 8010 (there is a newer version, TG-810, but the 8010 has an underwaterhousing for $260 an dyou can take it down to 130 feet)

Entry level DSLR: Nikon D3100

Mid Level DSLR: D7000

Pro-level DSLR: Nikon D700*** or Canon 5D Mk II

EVIL: I would wait for the NEX-7 to come out and see if it up to what is promised. Otherwise, NEX-5N, Olympus E-P3 or, smaller, the E-PL3

*the longer the zoom , the more compromises you make. There are now 36x zooms available, but image IMHO they are not very useful.

** the samle camrea is available as a Leica for $400 more, you get the prestigous red dot and it al least used to come with a copy of Lightroom 3 for photo editing, a $250 value.

*** probably will be replaced soon.

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next up (coming soon): #102, a Primer on Lenses

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