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Thursday
Jul242008

Which, And What Type Of, Digital Camera To Buy?

If you're thinking about buying a new digital camera, and want to take your Photography up to the next level, you might be a bit confused about what sort of model to buy.

In a competitive market there are hundreds of options from dozens of manufacturers, but in all the details about technical specifications maybe it's best first to think about the different Form Factors Digital Cameras come in, and which might be best for what we want to do.



Here's a nice video to explain almost everything!

VideoJug: DSLR Vs Point-And-Shoot Digital Cameras

When we start to think about which camera to buy, we need to consider the three main "types" of digital camera and their weaknesses and strengths, then ask ourselves what's best for us and our budget.

Let's start off with Compacts, or Point and Shoots, the camera that we've all probably got, or have owned in the past. The beauty of a Compact is just that, it's size. Slip it into your pocket and your camera will always be at your side, never missing a shot because you can't be bothered to lug around a big and heavy dSLR. No lens to change, no cleaning of sensors. Point and Shoot!

People won't think you're a Pro with Compact, and will just assume you're taking snap-shots, so you tend to blend into the background. People notice when you pull out a dSLR with a 200mm lens on and can get suspicious...

Video. Almost all Compacts have the ability to take video- often in very high quality, with sound. Newer models compress files into youtube friendly formats, so you can have one camera for stills and motion.

Price. With so much competition, Compact Digital Cameras can be had for a bargain price. Remember, like all cameras, their are "budget" compacts and "high-end" ones - with the features to match, but manufacturers do cram in a lot of features into Point and Shoots, you'll be amazed at what they can do.

The downsides to using a Compact are that you are limited by the lens. Small optical zoom ranges (ignore digital zoom specifications), and the fact that the lens is very close to the sensor, means your control over Depth of Field (for shots where the background is out of focus) is a lot less than a dSLR. The types of sensor used means that ultimate image quality cannot be achieved - small sensors mean more noise in low-light - but that does not mean you can't take great pictures - you just get better results from a dSLR sensor.

So if you're after a small camera, that can take video, that you can take anywhere and always have in your pocket, a Point and Shoot could be the right choice for you. Model depends on your budget - a high end Canon G9 has all the technical spec of a dSLR, in a compact size and shape - just remember that you're stuck with that lens and sensor. Many Pros carry around a High-End Compact when they can't be bothered with their heavy dSLR's - maybe that should be reason enough.

Bridge / Superzoom Cameras. The idea of this type of camera is that you can have the zoom capability of a dSLR with a long lens, and most of the controls and features, without the hassle (and cost) of lots of different lenses.

They look very similar to small dSLR's, so have a larger size and shape than compacts, so you'll be needing a camera bag too. Often they have threaded lenses so you can add filters (eg grads or polarizers), so much of the artistic benefits of a dSLR can be had too.

Larger lenses and better sensors means better picture quality and more control over depth of field, but not as much as a dSLR. Often a Bridge or Superzoom will have excellent macro ability built in, so you've got a whole range of shots - from a close-up of a flower, a nice wide-angle landscape, or you could zoom in for a portrait or detail shot.

Most Bridge Digital Cameras support video, so again you've got the one device for home movies and stills.

This type of camera is aimed at more of a serious amateur - so full manual control is at your fingertips - with controls on the body of the unit rather than hidden away in menus accessed by the view screen.

The addition of an eye-piece to most Bridge cameras make for easier use in bright conditions, it's also easier to hold your camera steady when you've got it pressed up to your face rather than at arms length.

The limits of a Bridge type camera are again that you're stuck with one lens, albeit a very flexible one. The closeness of the lens to the sensor limits your depth of field, and the sensors are often similar to those used in Compacts, so although great, ultimate image quality has to go to the dSLR's.

Like Compacts, Bridge or Superzooms come in a variety of price-points. The Fujifilm S100fs, a high-end model, has a beautiful lens, image stabilization, fold out screen and an impressive 14x zoom. That really is the point of this class of device - in one purchase you've bought a system that will cover almost all shooting possibilities. You don't have to worry about buying more lenses, and don't have to worry about changing those lenses while out in the field. I myself use a Fujifilm S5700, and I love it - it shoots everything from Macro to Wide-Angle to Zoom, all for about £100.

dSLR's. The choice of the serious Photographer. But why?

It all comes down to the ability to make choices and control how your photographs will come out. You can choose the specific lens that will give you the best results for a given setting. You can control exactly how you want the camera to behave. You're in total control.

Maybe its best to really think of dSLRs in terms of "backs" and "lenses". When you choose a particular model, it will probably come with a kit lens of medium quality. But because you can change the lens, you can then invest in better "glass" for longer zooms, closer macros, better depth of field or superior low-light performance.

dSLR's do not take video, because of the way they work, but you really wouldn't want to. With better sensors and higher resolutions, these all all about still photography.

This strength of choice is also it's weakness. You will have to buy more lenses as you out-grow the kit one supplied. This will cost you a lot of money, and mean more heavy gear to carry round, and you won't be able to "fade into the background" like you could with a compact. Hence they can be a lot more complicated too. Most come with an Auto Mode, but you'll have to delve into that manual to get the best out of your camera.

Prices vary - from just under £300 for an entry level model, to into the thousands, Lenses too, primes from as little as £50, to thousands for "fast" (wide aperture) long zooms. When considering a dSLR think about it terms of what glass you'll want to buy next year, and get a back that'll compliment it.

It's also worth mentioning that the mounts for the lenses on these cameras are all different. Once you've committed to say Canon or Nikon, you're pretty much stuck with that make, so maybe it's best to stick with the most popular brands for the most competition on price.

If you want the ultimate picture quality, and are prepared to spend a lot of money and carry around a lot of kit, a dSLR could be for you. Just remember that they are a lot bigger, and when you get one out you're telling the world you mean business! ;-)

I haven't really talked much about price or mentioned many specific models. That's because it all depends on your budget, and what "form factor" you think is best for you. What I will offer is some general advice about what I would buy.

If my budget (for a camera) was about £150 I'd get a SuperZoom / Bridge like my Fujifilm S5700.

If my budget was about £300 I'd look for a bargain dSLR, perhaps an end-of line model that had been reduced to clear it before the replacement arrived, like the old Nikon d40 or d40x.

Looking in the £500 range I'd be torn between a top of the range Bridge, like the Fujifilm S100fs, or a better dSLR, say a Nikon D60 with a nice lens.

Anything above that and you're in dSLR territory for me, so it would be a nice Nikon or Canon with some good lenses.

Brands? Bridge it has to be Fuji, for dSLR's probably Nikon due to their better lens compatibility, but any new dSLR is going to have fantastic image quality, so it's a moot point really.

Features to look out for are image-stabilised lenses (or bodies), for better hand-held shots, auto bracketing for easier HDR's, and spot metering for more control over exposure.

Why Am I The Only One Here?With all this talk about different camera types, always remember that with the right technique you'll take great pictures no matter which camera you have, or choose to buy. Don't get lost in a sea of technical specifications.

What matters is what subjects you choose to photograph, how you compose those shots, and what the light is like. (Hey, don't I do a Podcast about that?!!)



Further Reading:

Podcast that includes discussion about different camera types.

DPReview - The finest collection of digital camera reviews on the web.

Shutterbug. More reviews.

Flickr. Search for groups specific for the camera you're interested in, then check out the images to see if they're up to the quality you want. (EG Nikon D40 Group, Fujifilm S100fs Group).

Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com - The user reviews give you a great insight into what actual users think, not professional reviews. Discard the "best" and "worst" reviews, then see what you can come up with.

Thanks for reading, hope it's given you plenty of food for thought, thanks, Rob.

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