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What to look for in a camera

March 11, 2009

This is probably going to be a very different set of rules than most other articles on this subject. So, in a nutshell:

  • I’m not a camera expert
  • I’m certainly not a pro
  • I do own a lot of cameras with radically different specs
  • I’m not endorsing any camera I mention…some I own, some are highly-recognizable brands or classics…they are only used to illustrate points
  • And I expect my viewpoint to change as I continue to learn, so this isn’t ‘gospel’

I can remember spamming the department where I worked for advice on getting a camera, not having a clue what any of the buttons actually did. I still have the replies sitting on a CD somewhere. Writing this has been a little surreal. I’m sure I’m missing things, have a few things slightly wrong, and probably have a lot of advice some pros may really object to.

Remember that it’s just advice. Buy what you feel is right for you.

First things first

I’m making a few assumptions here:

  • You’ve chosen 35mm or it’s digital equivalent
  • You’re actually interested in learning how the camera works…maybe not right away, but eventually.

You need to make some decisions before you begin to plan a feature list. There is no single camera anywhere that can ‘do everything.’ But there are quite a few that can cover a fairly large range of common subject matter, and that’s what I’m going to cover here.

What are you planning to photograph most often?

You do not take a Leica into a mosh pit. And you don’t shoot your sister’s birthday with a Hasselblad. You could, but in the former you’re going to end up with a $7,000 vomit-encrusted paperweight, and in the latter, you’re going to miss 95% of the shots while you fiddle with dials.

There are some fairly broad categories of photography you may want to get in to:

  • snapshots & family memories (everybody does this, to a certain extant)
  • artistic (for this, you need a pro or semi-pro camera and a reasonable amount of equipment)
  • fun, weird, and alternative (plastic and toy cameras, pinhole, macro, panorama, anamorphic, instant, and alternative printing/processing fall into this category)

And there are a lot of sub-categories that span the above:

  • macro (hope you like spending money…and insects)
  • sports (hope you really, really like spending money)
  • nature
  • extreme nature (underwater, desert, jungle, arctic, volcanoes, etc)
  • portraits (clothed and unclothed)
  • studio\magazine work (just give the camera shop your bank book and start pointing)
  • astrophotography
  • product photography
  • photojournalism
  • and the list goes on and on and on

Figure out what broad range of photographic activities you want to engage in, and then match the camera to your interests.

You also want to decide what you’re going to do with your photos once you’ve taken them: post online, digitally enhance, print snapshots, print larger (from legal to poster-size), or make art prints (different sizes on archival paper, or using a traditional process like silver or cyanotype). This will effect how much quality you need the camera to produce from a photograph, and how large your negative needs to be.

You will not be able, if you’re just starting out, to make all these decisions in detail up-front. But at least have a feeling for what direction you want your photography to take in the future.

Film or digital?

You can sort all the world’s camera into these two categories, and they will effect how much money you spend, your workflow, and your attitude towards the camera in your hands as you take pictures. For me, the differences really boil down to:

  • Film cameras are cheaper (in general) to buy than digital, and give you access to a (although this is shrinking) wide range of film for different effects. There are still certain things that are hard or impossible with most digital cameras: very long exposures (measured in hours), infrared, and very large negative sizes. However, you will, in the long run, spend a lot of money on obtaining and processing film, which will spoil if you don’t use it within a specific amount of time. You have less latitude to fix mistakes with film, so you must get the shot as right as you can in-camera (Photoshop will only help you so much). Well-made film cameras that are well-maintained will last a very long time.
  • Digital cameras are very expensive (in general) compared to film cameras, and the sensor’s capabilities are fixed (you can’t swap out films with different capabilities). Digital cameras that shoot in RAW format allow you to do a lot more post-processing than film, with the ability to change almost everything with the right software. You will also need to shell out for a good computer, graphics software, and storage (DVD or hard drive). However, once you’ve bought what you need, you have virtually no further costs, unless you are printing your photos. I say no further costs with a small caveat: once you’re go digital, you will be on the upgrade treadmill like everyone else who owns a computer, ipod, blackberry, or any other digital device, so you will need to factor into the initial investment how long you plan to keep your equipment and how much you plan to spend when you upgrade.

How much?

Once you’ve decided what you want to do with the camera and made the film/digital choice, the last step before features is deciding on a price range.

This is a very important step. There are cameras and lens on the market that cost more than $10,000. These are ‘pro’ cameras, but not specialty cameras…you can find them in larger cameras stores, just waiting for you to bankrupt yourself. When you factor in all the other equipment these stores are willing to sell you, the price can become astronomical.

It is not necessarily a cheap hobby. Budget your purchase based on what you realistically want to use the camera for: snapshots do not require more than a good point-and-shoot; photojournalism needs more horsepower.

The last question you should ask yourself here is whether this will evolve beyond a hobby in the foreseeable future. If it’s all personal, keep it within your disposable income; it it’s all biz, it’s a tax write-off, just like all your other business expenses.

Camera Features

Now that you have some idea of what you’re going to shoot, what you’re recording the shot on, and how much you’re going to spend, you can start deciding on features.

This can be very subjective. I collect cameras, so I approach it with this mentality:

  • Certain cameras I buy just to say I own one, and have taken pictures with it. Sometimes this is based on the ‘cool’ factor, sometimes on online reviews, sometimes just because. I tend to keep the money I spend on these types of cameras very low, as I often only use them once or twice, then they’re on the shelf for long periods of time. My Holga’s, Brownies, and Lomo cameras fall into these categories…I always get weird, unexpected results from them, and they are a blast to play with.
  • Other cameras I consider ‘work’ cameras…these are the things I take with me when I absolutely have to walk with away with a good shot. My Nikon D50, Canonet QL17, and Olympus OM-1 fall into this category. They are good, rugged cameras suited to a wide variety of working conditions.

General

In general, the feature list below is for ‘work’ cameras, cameras you use in a wide variety of conditions and when you absolutely want something to expose properly.

  • Shooting modes: the camera should, at minimum, offer these modes: automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual. You can have as many additional modes based on what you shoot most often, but without these four basic modes, you don’t have a lot of choice (if any) in what you capture.
  • Metering: how your camera measures light is critical. It should have matrix and spot metering at minimum, and center-weighted is a bonus.
  • Tripod and flash hot shoe mounts: many point-and-shoots don’t have these essential features, and they are essential if you want the camera to grow with your experience.
  • Automatic and manual focus: automatic focus is not always ideal, but without it, you will be fumbling during parties, concerts, and other events that move fast. Manual focus allows you to have more control during difficult shots.
  • Colour balancing: this is really only available on digital cameras; with film, you will have to adjust in-camera with filter attachments or when you scan the film. The ability to set custom colour balances will ease a lot of post-processing burdens later on.
  • A filter thread: this allows you to add filters to the front of your lens. Some effects can only be done in-camera: eliminating reflections with a polarizer is one of them. Shooting infrared can be done with both film and digital (although with digital it’s much more expensive), but you will need the IR filter on the lens.
  • Long/multiple exposures: some shots require you to keep the shutter open for more than one second, sometimes the exposure can be measured in minutes or hours. Other times you want to expose several times on a single piece of film (in digital, multiple exposures are generally done after the fact with software).
  • High ISO rating: ISO is a measure from the film world which rates how much light the film can absorb. The lower the number, the less light. For digital, you want a range that, at minimum, supports ISO 200-800, 100-1600 if you can get it. For film, there is no reason why any camera built past the early 80’s should not be able to support ISO 25-3200. There’s a catch: the higher the number, the less sharp and more grainy your shots will be. Test the camera in the store (if digital) at both low and high ISO settings to see if the camera produces acceptable quality at those speeds.
  • Negative size: the size of your film, or the size/pixelage rating of the sensor. The general rule is: the larger the negative, the larger you can make the final print (both online and an actual paper print). Quality is effected by a combination of factors: ISO, exposure, the natural light or flash, RAW vs. jpg for digital, and the amount of post-production the image is put through. For snapshots and photojournalism, 35mm is fine. For any type of landscape, architectural, or magazine photography, 120 or view cameras either help a lot or are absolutely necessary. With digital, it gets a little muddier, but most current SLR’s offer more than enough mega-pixelage for professional work, and a lot of the pro models are now ‘full-frame’ (the sensor is the same size as a 35mm frame). Most medium-format cameras (120 film) offer ‘digital backs’ (you can use either film or digital with them).
  • Bracketing: a technique where you shoot a subject several times: once at the camera’s recommended exposure, and at least one over-exposure and one under-exposure, if not several of each. This technique allows you to hedge your bets concerning the proper exposure. It also allows you to create High-Dynamic Range (HDR) shots with appropriate software later.
  • Self-timer/remote: I rarely use the self-timer, but have used the remote often. Without these, you can’t control the camera from a distance.
  • Mirror lock-up: only really necessary with SLR cameras. This basically locks the internal mirror above the lens. This will prevent you from looking through the viewfinder, but the vibrations from the mirror moving when you press the shutter can result in blurry shots when you are shooting at low shutter speeds or on a tripod.

Digital

There is stuff you’ll want on digital models that have no real analog equivalent.

  • Ability to save pictures in RAW format: the RAW format allows you to capture information about the light hitting each pixel on your sensor, which allows you to adjust more things than you could ever possibly adjust with a jpeg. There are point-and-shoots on the market that support RAW.
  • Battery and charger form factor: you will probably buy at least one extra battery if you use your camera often. If you take the camera on vacation, you need a charger that can fit in your bag and plug into and accept the current coming from the wall. Make sure you see the battery and its charger, and the price for replacing them. A huge influence on my first digital camera purchase, a Canon SD300, was the fact the charger was as small as the camera. Most film cameras use batteries that are standard sizes you can find in any store, like AA’s, so the camera will not come with a charger.
  • Storage media: choose a camera that supports removable media that you can plug directly into your computer, and is generally well-supported by the computing community. I’ve standardized on SD cards, but Sony Memory Sticks and other formats are just as acceptable if that’s what the rest of your devices use. Speed is better than capacity: media that can record faster will allow you to take more shots in less time, and it sucks if you have 600 shots on an 8 gig SD card that dies in your camera.
  • Video: generally, video on digital cameras sucks large. If all you want is snapshots and family memories, it’s mostly acceptable. If you’re looking to shoot video for production, buy a camcorder instead.

Film

A few things to look for in a film camera.

  • Ability to rewind mid-roll: a lot of fully-automatic cameras will force you to finish the roll before you can rewind. Sometimes, you want to get the film out early, or want to reload the film into another camera for multiple-exposure goodness.

The lens

The most important part of your camera. Nothing effects the quality of the shot more, aside from choice of film or sensor.

  • If your camera does not have a detachable lens: you will need to pack as much firepower as you can into that lens. It has to be a zoom lens. You don’t need to be able to shoot a close-up of a squirrel’s face from fifty feet away (only papparazzi and stalkers use these lens). It should support macro. It needs to have the lowest f-stop you can get. The f-stop is a measure of how much light the lens will let in (the lower the number, the more light). The lens should, before you’ve zoomed in on anything (f-stops on zoom cameras generally get higher the more you zoom in on anything), go as low as you can get (f/2.8 at least, f/2 or f/1.8 if you can get it). Without a low f-stop, the only way you take pictures at night, in clubs/concerts, or dimly-lit spaces is with a flash.
  • If you can choose the lens: start with one good zoom and one good prime (a lens that doesn’t zoom) lens. On 35mm cameras, how close you can zoom in on something is measured in millimeters. The prime lens I use on my Nikon D50 is a 50mm/f1.8 lens; the camera came with an 18-55mm/f3.5-5.6 zoom lens. The lower the mm rating, the wider the lens (the more you can fit into the shot). The higher the mm rating, the longer the lens (the closer you can zoom into a subject farther away. Choosing a good set of lens can be the toughest (and most expensive) decision you make. One piece of advice I’ve seen crop up over and over is to buy a 50mm lens with an f-stop of 1.8 or lower. This is good advice. They are cheap, sharp, and love low-light. One wide-angle (between 18 and 40mm) and one telephoto (between 70 and 200mm) will give you a very basic but flexible kit. If you can only afford one lens, get a zoom between 30 and 100mm with as low an f-stop as you can afford.

Stuff you get with your camera

  • A real manual: written in the language you read, with all the details concerning your camera. This will not always happen when you buy used, so you do need to check.
  • Camera strap, lens cap, and body cap: if the camera can take different lens, it has to have a body cap. It is the only way to keep dust out of the camera, short of duct tape. There are tons of third-party companies that make these products if you lose them or buy the camera without them. You don’t have to use the strap, but you can’t complain when the camera smashes on the floor when you drop it (and you will).
  • Lens care: keep a lens cloth with you; don’t use your sleeve (that’s gross). Some photographers swear by and some loathe the thought of having a UV filter in front of the lens. Either way, the inescapable fact is that it will help protect the lens against damage.

Aesthetics

The most important feature of all. If you don’t like your camera, don’t like how it looks, or feel uncomfortable about it using it in public, you will never take pictures. The money spent is wasted. After everything else is said and done, take a good look at the camera on the showroom floor and ask yourself whether or not it turns your crank. If it doesn’t, it won’t matter how many other features if satisfies; it’s a lemon. Don’t buy it.

That’s a big list

Yeah. Phew. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Every camera manufacturer has thousands of features spread across dozens of cameras and hundreds of lens. Always decide what you want to do with the camera, how long you plan to keep it, and how much money you realistically part with before purchasing. Discuss this with salespeople from at least two different stores (I recommend 2-5 stores) and keep notes before sliding your debit card across the table.

You may also want to pick up a book or two. I have a (very) short list in a previous posting. I’m not making money off the links, and I’m not affiliated with any company or brand…I’ve read these, and like them.

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