Saturday, June 14, 2008

Which camera should I buy?

I get asked this a lot so I thought I’d put together a little unofficial guide to buying a camera. The following are just my opinion and none of my brand endorsements are paid for by any of the manufacturers. Even though this is titled “which camera” I’m not going to talk too much about specific models. They change all the time and I don’t have time or desire to keep up on them. I don’t really use point and shoot cameras but I’ll try to write some things to think about. Also, I’m going to use a handful of photo terms. If you don’t know what they mean, please check Google. It will be a great first step in your photographic journey.

First things first
You need to ask yourself a couple of questions, and because you’re most likely on a budget you need to prioritize the list.
  • What do you most want to do with the camera? Probably lots, but will you be crushed if you can’t get good landscapes or good sports shots? Do you want to do low light work or portraits or just have something durable?
  • How often do you see yourself using it?
  • How much room for growth do you want?
  • How much do you want the camera to think for you?

As you think about what you want to do, here are a couple of general guidelines that I follow;
  • A brand I haven’t heard of is a brand I won’t consider.
  • Often above a certain price point and within a general range anything you buy will be of comparable quality so it comes down to features and personal preference. 
  • I like Canon, I’ve shot with them professionally for a while now and their product and service is great. If you’re a pro or semi pro you must enroll in the CPS (Canon Professional Services) program, it rocks. That said, Nikon makes good cameras too and if your choice comes down to Canon or Nikon you’re in good territory, either will be good.

Things that are important to me for point and shoot cameras
  • How fast does the thing start up 
  • What is the shutter lag. If you want to do sports you need as short of a shutter lag time as you can get (the time between pushing the button and the camera actually taking the photo)
  • What is the widest wide shot you can get? Many PS cameras have the equivalent of a 35mm or greater wide angle - not that wide at all. If you want to take landscapes and sunsets you need a wide angle.
  • What is the optical zoom factor? Many will advertise a 8x optical and 140x digital zoom. Throw the digital zoom out the window, it’s not a number you want to make a decision on
  • Is the lens protected when not in use? Does the camera have unnecessary moving parts to protect the lens? I prefer a lens cap to a mechanical shutter, one less thing to break in my pack.
  • Can I have full manual control? This is a deal breaker for me. I don’t want a camera that won’t let me control my exposure. 
  • Can I attach an external (hot shoe) flash? The flashes in PS cameras are crap, I want to use my own or have that option for growth in the future.
  • What is the battery life like and if this is a “travel” camera how easy is it to get replacement batteries in remote locations. I prefer a PS camera that runs on AA rechargeable batteries, I can get replacement AA’s anywhere.
  • Who made the lens? PS cameras can have some pretty crap-tacular lenses. Consider ones made by Leica and other reputable manufacturers.
  • How fast does it focus (measure camera against camera in your hand, stats aren’t nearly as important as your in-store experience). If you’re trying to catch Bigfoot you need a camera that focuses fast in daylight AND dim conditions.
  • How much noise does the camera introduce at higher ISO speeds? I’ve seen a lot of PS cameras with a wide ISO range but the high speed ones are so noisy that they’re unusable. This can ruin your ability to get good photos in low light.

When considering a DSLR
  • I should first say that for me the only considerations here are feature based. You should be considering a Canon or Nikon and making the choice between the two on fit and features. Canon and Nikon are so far ahead of anyone else that it just isn’t worth it to look elsewhere. 
  • What’s the ISO range? Check both ends. I’ve seen some cameras lately where the low end is ISO 200, which is just retarded to me. That means that on bright days you can’t have a shallow depth of field and low-ish shutter speed. At the time of this writing I believe Canon to be the hands down winner in high speed, low noise photos across the board.
  • What’s the magnification factor of the chip? This is really only a question for those of you with some money to spend, but I believe that lower magnification is generally better. If your camera has a 1.6 magnification factor (as many consumer models do) then your 28mm “wide angle” lens becomes a 44mm lens and you’ll never get the landscape shots you want with that. If, however, you’re wanting to shoot wildlife and sports you may find the magnification factor to be helpful.
  • What’s the battery life like? This is mostly something to think about between the decision to buy newer or older models. I’m floored by how much better the battery life is in the Canon 20D from the 10D. 
  • What’s the sync speed for external flashes? In my opinion faster is better, always. Canon, if you’re reading this I really really really want 1/500th…is that so much to ask for?
  • How is the TTL metering for hot-shoe flashes? This is something you’ll want to google and test for yourself.
If you made it this far, congrats, you're not the typical web reader. If you buy something, leave a comment and let me/us know how it's working for you. 

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