How To Choose a Camera

Buying a camera for the first time can be a daunting process. Modern cameras are often expensive and come with descriptions full of technical jargon that newcomers struggle to understand. There are also many different types of camera now available, from smartphone cameras to top of the range DSLR cameras. In this lesson I will walk you through the different options and explain what exactly to look for when purchasing your new camera.

The biggest division in modern cameras is between analog and digital. Until about twenty years ago all cameras were analog – meaning that a photograph had to undergo a chemical process in order to develop it, which often meant a long time passed between taking a photograph and viewing it. Today almost every camera sold is digital. We can now take a photograph and instantly see it, analyze it and choose whether to delete it, retake it or keep it.

As a beginner your best option is to get a digital camera. Digital cameras have made photography much easier, and are much more forgiving of mistakes. They offer instant feedback and have many more tools available to help your photography. While analog cameras can offer an interesting challenge once you’ve mastered the basics of photography, at the beginning it’s best to use digital.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras
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Point and Shoot cameras offer easy photography, but are ill suited for someone who wants to take things further.

What is it? Point-and-shoot cameras (also referred to as compact cameras) are cheap, small cameras that are easy to use and offer mostly automated photography. Although the rise of the smartphone camera has made compact cameras less common, over 10 million compact cameras are still sold annually.

Why would I buy one? Point-and-shoot cameras are designed to be easy to use. They usually offer fully automated photography, making them ideal for someone who knows little about photography. However the simplicity comes at a price. Compact cameras will often take poor photographs in difficult light conditions, such as during night time or on bright days. If you want to get serious about photography a compact camera is not the best choice.

How do I judge the quality? The main selling point of compact cameras is the number of megapixels and the zoom factor. In general the more megapixels a camera has the better the quality of the pictures produced. But this is only true up until a point. In fact, for almost all uses of the photo (sharing on social media, making prints, etc), 7 megapixels will be enough. Anything more than this is only useful in certain specific cases. As almost all compact cameras today offer more than 7 megapixels this really isn’t something you should worry too much about.

The zoom factor indicates how much you can zoom in on distant objects in a photo. For example, a zoom of 20x will mean you can enlarge a distant object to look 20 times bigger through the camera. This can vary quite a lot between compact cameras, and typically a higher zoom is considered better. Think about the types of photo you expect to take, and decide whether being able to zoom in a lot is something you are interested in or not.

Finally, compact cameras often come with other features. They can offer the ability to rapidly shoot photos, which can be useful if you want to capture moving objects. They may also come with the option to shoot movies in various different qualities. More advanced compact cameras offer useful options such as manual focus, and the option to shoot RAW files (both these options are useful if you are looking to take your photography beyond the absolute basics).

Smartphone Cameras

Smartphone cameras have become a popular and powerful alternative to compact cameras.

What is it? With the rise of the smartphone many people now already carry a powerful camera in their pocket. The iPhone 6 camera has 8 megapixels and offers image stabilization and other features comparable to the better compact cameras. Although picture quality will almost certainly be better with a DSLR camera, a smartphone is still capable of taking good quality photographs, and the technology continues to improve with each new smartphone version.

Why would I buy one? Chances are you didn’t buy your smartphone just for the camera. However, as most people now own a smartphone, if you are interested in photography and don’t want to splash out on an expensive DSLR it makes sense to look at the various smartphone camera options. Smartphone cameras offer good quality photography with a range of options that typically exceed the abilities of point-and-shoot cameras. They are also highly portable and much smaller than the typical DSLR camera.

How do I judge the quality? As with compact cameras, the main marketing feature of smartphone cameras is the number of megapixels. And as with compact cameras this is less important than the marketing makes out. Typically any camera that exceeds 7 megapixels will offer sufficient quality, especially for sharing photos online.

In many ways the sensor size is more important that the number of megapixels. The sensor is the part of the camera that captures light, and the larger the sensor the better. Even if you increase the number of megapixels, without a corresponding increase in sensor size, the photo quality will not improve and may even worsen.

Smartphone cameras also often offer a feature called “optical image stabilization”. This is a technique that reduces the effect of vibrations on your photographs, and allows for sharper photography. This is a useful feature for smartphone cameras as they are typically more prone to vibration and shaking.  Increasingly smartphones are offering more and more ways of manipulating images through software.  As smartphones cannot offer the best optical hardware (due to their limited size), the quality of the software used can have a big impact on the images produced.

The final (and possibly most important) feature of smartphone cameras is aperture. This is something that we will go into in much more depth in a later lesson. For now it suffices to state that a smartphone camera has a fixed aperture, and the larger the aperture the better. Rather confusingly aperture is shown using something called an f-stop, and the smaller the f-stop number the larger the aperture. So for example a smartphone camera with aperture f/2 will be better than a camera with aperture f/8. Look for a smaller f-stop number when choosing a smartphone camera.

DSLR Cameras
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A DSLR camera is the best option for serious photography

What is it? A DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera is the most commonly used camera by serious amateurs and professional photographers. DSLR cameras offer a huge range of features and give the photographer much more freedom to compose and create a photograph than smartphone or compact cameras.

Why would I buy one? If you want maximum flexibility and control over your photography a DSLR camera is a must. Although modern smartphone cameras can come close to DSLR photograph quality under good light conditions, in more difficult conditions a DSLR is the clear winner. DSLR cameras also allow a much greater ability to manipulate the image seen by the camera, and this gives the photographer many more options when composing a photograph. The main disadvantage of a DSLR camera is its size, and for everyday photography a smartphone camera is much more portable.

How do I judge the quality? DSLR cameras come with many different features and this can make it difficult for a beginner to choose the right one. One key point to understand is that the camera body and the camera lens can be separated in a DSLR. This means that both lenses and camera bodies can be purchased individually. For a first time buyer it is typical to get a removable 18-55mm lens included with the camera body.

DSLR cameras are usually marketed in different categories, targeting amateur photographers, more serious photographers and finally professional photographers. Each of the big manufacturers offers cameras that fit into one of these categories. If you are looking to buy your first camera it makes sense to get a low end DSLR, not just because it is cheaper, but because you will probably not use or benefit from most of the additional features offered on higher end DSLR cameras.  Examples of low end DSLRs are the Nikon D3400, the Canon EOS 800D, and the Pentax K-70.

Other Types

Bridge Compacts
Bridge compact cameras fit somewhere between point-and-shoot compact cameras and DSLR cameras. Bridge cameras have a much wider feature set than the typical compact camera, and this means the photographer has much more ability to control the photograph. However, bridge cameras are less flexible, particularly as they usually do not allow you to change lenses. They also have smaller digital sensors, which can affect their performance in low light level conditions.

Mirrorless Cameras
Mirrorless cameras are also a kind of compact DSLR. The key difference is that mirrorless cameras lack a mirror – and this means there is no viewfinder. While composing the photograph you use the LCD display instead. Mirrorless cameras (at least at the DSLR level) are also fairly new, and until now there has been relatively little adoption of them.

Brands

One very important point to take into consideration when first buying a DSLR camera is which brand to go for. Camera brands each sell their own model of camera body, lenses and other accessories. As each of these items is individually expensive and normally incompatible with other manufacturer’s equipment, once you have started building up a collection of photography accessories you will usually have to stick with one brand. For this reason it’s good to have an understanding of the differences between each brand before buying your first camera.

The three biggest brands are Nikon, Canon and Sony. Sony is sometimes considered as the outlier here as they produce much more than just cameras. Nikon and Canon are both Japanese companies focused on the development of optical devices like cameras. However all three brands produce good quality DSLRs, and offer a range of lenses and other accessories. There are many, many articles out there discussing the relative merits for each, and I would advise you to read a few of them before making a final decision.

 

Photograph Attribution:
Point and Shoot camera: By Medvedev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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