This is my personal thoughts, opinions and musings place. I will also rant about things, especially politically-correct things that irritate me. And sci-fi. Did I mention sci-fi? There'll be lots of sci-fi stuff here. And movies, too. Mmmmm... Movies

Monday, April 11, 2005

Choosing a digital camera

As some of you know, one of my hobbies is photography, and I've decided to put together a little guide on choosing digital cameras. I'm going to specifically exclude film cameras.

There are many reasons why you might want a camera. You may be looking for a hobby, to document a vacation, to have a record of your kids growing up, to share your lives with your friends and family, or any combination of the above and many others I haven't listed or even thought of. As with many other things, people take pictures for variety of reasons that are important to them and may be meaningless to others. So how do you know which camera is the best for you?

For one thing, there is no such thing as the best camera, even if it's only best for you. Whatever camera you choose, there'll always be one with more and better features, if not now, then in about a month. If you waited for the perfect camera, you'd never take any pictures at all. So, how do you choose one?

Let's look at the types of digital cameras out there. Just like with film cameras, there are point-and-shoot type digital cameras and there are SLR-type digital camera. SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex. Point-and-shoot(P/S) cameras are light and compact, and have really amazing features. SLR cameras are large and bulky and offer far more flexibility and useability than do the P/S type cameras.

Digital cameras, like their film forefathers before them, are composed of two things: the lens and the body. In the olden days of film, the quality of the lens was far more important than the body. So long as you had a working body without a great deal of features and you had a high-quality sharp lens, you could take excellent quality pictures. The light-sensitive material in film cameras wasn't embedded in the camera body, but rather in the film itself; if you didn't like the results from one type of film type, you could always switch to another. In digital cameras, the situation is totally different. The light-sensitive material is built right into the camera body and cannot removed or changed. So, in digital cameras, both the body and the lens are very important.

The lens is what captures the light in your scenes, focuses it and projects unto the light-sensitive material called the “sensor”. The better quality the lens is, the better your picture will be, all other aspects of photography being equal. Lenses used in P/S-type digital cameras are not the best quality, though they are very good nonentheless. One aspect of the lens that is always advertised is the F-factor. Your camera may be equipped with an F2.8 lens, or maybe an F3.5 or an F4 lens. Remember, though, that the smaller numbers are better.

Unimportant techno-babble:

In theory, the F-factor determines the speed of your lens, or how much light it
gathers. The faster the lens, the more flexibility you have in shooting under
different conditions. In practice, however, this is not the case, because the
F-factor is an indication of ratio of the apperture width to the length of the
lens barrel. This is why an F2.8 lens on a P/S-type camera gathers much less
light than(aka slower than) an F2.8 lens on an SLR-type camera. There is another
number, called the T-factor(I think) that determines that absolute amount of
light gathered by the lens, but this number is never shown to the average
consumer.


The sensor built into your camera's body is as important as the lens itself. One thing you should keep in mind is that when I refer to the sensor, I include all the data processing the camera's computer has to do to the data that it retrieves from the sensor. The better the algorithms, the better your pictures, all other things being equal. There are two types: the CCD and the CMOS. Most cameras, especially most P/S-type cameras, use the CCD sensor. Some of the higher-end digital SLR-type cameras are now shipping with a CMOS sensor, which is supposed to produce better results than the CCD, but they are much more expensive than their CCD brothers. CCDs also come in different sizes. In general, the larger CCDs produce better results.

Next comes a concept relevant mostly to P/S-type cameras: the zoom factor. It is usually expressed as an 'X' factor, 3X zoom, 5X zoom, 10X zoom. In SLR-type digital camera, the zoom factor is part of the lens, which is replaceable. When looking zoom factors, disregard references to digital zoom and look only at optical zoom. Optical zoom is the only thing that matters.

Next is resolution. Resolution controls the amount of detail that appears in an image, but is not necessarily related to quality of the picture. A lower-resolution image, shot with better exposure and lens, will invariably provide a better picture than an ultra-high resolution image that's soft and blurry. These days 5 and 7Megapixel cameras are common even in the P/S-types, though 2 and 3MP cameras can still be good values.

Next is the storage media used by the camera. Most manufacturers, like Nikon and Canon, use Compact Flash media. Others, like Fujifilm, use SmartMedia and its successors. Sony uses its own standard, the Memory Stick. None of these media formats are interchangeable. You can't use the Memory Stick in a Nikon camera, and you can't use Compact Flash media in a Sony camera. One of the significant advantages of Compact Flash media is the huge capacity of the memory modules. 1GB modules are now easily available in stores, and 4GB and 8GB modules either on their way to your local store, or will be soon.

Next is viewfinders. A viewfinder is what you look through to compose your picture. On digital cameras, it can be a basic minimal-function optical viewfinder, an LCD screen, an electronic full-function viewfinder, or a combination thereof. A camera that doesn't let you compose with anything but the LCD screen will burn through batteries very quickly. Electronic viewfinders are best because they limit power usage while at the same time being as functional as the larger LCD screens. The ability to turn off the LCD and use the electronic viewfinder is very helpful. My Nikon 5700 had that feature.

Next is the useability. How well organized are the controls on the camera? How large or small is the camera? How loud is it? How fast does it start up? Are your hands too big for the camera you're looking for? It's all a matter of perspective and what you're used to. I'm a Nikon user. I started with the N-8008 film camera, then upgraded to the Nikon N-90. From there, I chose to go to the Nikon 5700 digital P/S, and finally am a proud owner of the Nikon D70 digital SLR. So for me, the Nikon control layout is both logical and easy to use. In practice, it hasn't changed much since the N-8008, even on the D70, which may seem like a drawback, but actually isn't. It hasn't changed because it works. Certainly, additional controls and displays have been added, but twirling the command dial on my D70 did the same thing on my N-8008.

Next is continuity. How easily, if at all, can leverage your investment in your current camera into your new digital purchase? How easy or difficult will it be for you to learn the new technology? This isn't really an issue if you're looking at buying a digital P/S-type camera, but it's important for buying an SLR. If you have bought a lot of lenses, backs and flash units, will you be able to use any of it in your new system? Are you willing to divest yourself of all your accessories to move into a completely new system? Those are questions that nobody but yourself can answer.

So. What kind of camera should you choose? The usual answer is “the best you can afford and are willing to spend money on”. This means that just because you can afford a $10,000 camera doesn't mean you're willing to spend it. Maybe you just don't need it. So, what kind should you buy? Depends in many ways on you're planning on doing with it. If you want to learn photography, your best bet is a digital SLR. They provide the most flexibility. If all you want is snapshots of your kids, a P/S-type camera may be appropriate. P/S-type cameras are invariably cheaper than digital SLRs, but are not as versatile or flexible.

Versatility is an important benefit of digital SLR cameras. Their lenses can be replaced for different effects and zoom factors and they usually feature the instant-on capability. When you turn a digital SLR camera on, it is available for shooting immediately; a P/S-type camera needs several seconds to power up, extend the lens barrel and activate the LCD screen. A digital SLR also has one other advantage over P/S-type cameras: it is able to shoot and focus much faster. So for fast-moving action like sports, kids or pets, a digital SLR is almost a necessity.

Where should you buy your camera? P/S-type cameras can be had at the big box stores like FutureShop, but for digital SLRs, check out your friendly neighbourhood camera store. Wherever you buy from, make sure they have good return policies.

And remember: whatever you get, use it! A camera, especially an sophisticated and expensive camera, that's sitting on a shelf gathering dust is just a waste of resources, yours and the world's. I hope you have fun with yours, and that this post was even a little bit helpful. If you'd like more information, just leave a comment and I'll answer as best I can.

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