Choosing The Right Digital Camera For You
Wading through all the sales hype and technical jargon
Let's get something straight right out of the box. If you're looking to buy a new digital camera, you don't really have to be an expert in pixels and mega pixels and all that kind of stuff. If you expect to find that kind of deep technical discussion here, you're in the wrong place.
Actually, there's a whole lot of stuff you don't really need to know before tackling the daunting task of choosing the right digital camera for you.
First of all, forget all the high-tech jargon. It's mostly a lot of sales hype anyway. Choosing a good unit is pretty simple really...pretty much all you have to remember is that the higher the mega pixel rating on the front of the camera, the bigger picture you can make without it breaking up into little chunks (called pixels) and most likely the more cash it's likely going to pry out of your pocket. Each model has an array of techno-widgets that go by different names but they all have the same basic focus, to help you take a better picture.
I have a quick (and admittedly simplistic) overview of the pixel story. The shot on the left on my web page
is one I took with a high pixel rating and the one on the right was with a much lower rating. They've been enlarged way beyond what you would normally do, but I do have a point to make here. If you look carefully you can see there's a terrific difference in the way they look or, in the 'resolution'. The image on the right has already broken up into small pieces (pixels) (I hope) you can readily see. The picture on the left was magnified several times more than the one on the right which should give you an idea of how big you can enlarge it and still retain a fairly decent result. By the way, these shots are of a very, very small piece of a picture I took of snapdragons in our front yard.
A camera with a 5.0 mega pixel rating or higher can produce a decent 16X20 print but one with a 2.0 mega pixel rating or lower should be restricted to a maximum of 4X6 prints. For the most part, you won't be happy with pictures any larger than 4X6 from the lower rated camera.
Okay, Let's Pick A Camera...
Well, I have my favorites and my not-so favorites.
When I looked at all the digital cameras available, I was more than a little astounded at the vast selection of available equipment. It seems that every company that's ever heard the word "computer" has jumped on the bandwagon. It seems they lay their hands on some lenses, wrap a computerized box around them, added a few techno-widgets and bingo, instant digital camera! What can you say...it's money in the bank!
Where did I start looking? Well, I went back to my tried and true method of buying a film camera that I talk about later. It's always worked for me and didn't let me down this time either.
My personal digital camera finally wound up to be an Olympus C-5050. By the way, in my opinion Olympus didn't do themselves or their customers any favors by dumping the f 1.8 lens on the C-5060.
I chose this camera for the fast f 1.8 lens and ease of use. I'm lazy at best and wanted a unit that's going to do most of the work for me while leaving me with the option of doing what I want to do when I want to do it.
This unit has all the automatic features I'll ever need but I also have the ability to set up the camera completely manually. I can still do minimum depth-of-field work among other things. I never want to completely lose control to a mindless computer although they do have their uses at times.
The first thing I did after I opened the box was print off the user manual - all 265 pages of it! I figured I had done my duty by it and promptly ignored it.
After very quickly killing my first two sets of "high-capacity" alkaline batteries, I sprung for a couple sets of Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) rechargeables. Not only did they last longer but it was a heck of a lot cheaper than replacing the alkalines every darn time I picked up the camera.
It boils me to have to admit this but I actually had to go back to the user manual. I wasn't getting the results I wanted and there was also some 'stuff' on the camera I had no clue about using. The moral of this story is that you're gonna have to at least have a nodding acquaintance with your user manual. Sorry, but that's just the way it is.
Back to choosing a camera...
Throughout the years I've learned that if a camera 'fit' my hand it worked well for me. It may sound a little strange at first but just think about it. If you're handling something that feels awkward, your results are going to look like it. I had a Mamiya RB-67 for a lot of years. It was a big, ungainly unit but it was a good 'fit' for me and produced a great image. I also used a Hasselblad for quite a while but I much preferred the Mamiya and it gave me better results than the Hasselblad. (Don't tell Hasselblad lovers I said this, they'll kill me!)
So, rule of thumb...if it fits your hand nicely, if the main controls are handy to your fingers, if it has the mega pixel number you want and falls within your budget, you can be pretty confident this will do the job you want it to do. Oh yes, if it's a brand you've never heard of before, be very, very wary. It may work well and it may not. If it doesn't, there may not be any tech backup for you to be able to access.
The major camera companies spend lots of money developing new photo technologies. Although the latest techno-widgets go by different names, they all have the same goal, to make your pictures look as good as possible.
Pretty well every company in the world that has even come close to producing a good digital camera has gotten into the "SLR Wars".
Single lens reflex cameras dominated the photo market for years until digital technology hit the market. Because of design and price limitations, SLR technology has not been widely available in the non-professional digital cameras until the last year or so.
The furious pace of technological developments has completely overtaken the market and even professional photographers are being boggled trying to keep up.
Remember the old Nikon F2? It was the major link in the Nikon chain of professional cameras for over 10 years! This was pretty much the norm until the computer hit the photographic industry big time.
Changes used to come slowly and deliberately and it wasn't hard to keep up with the latest and greatest when major new developments came along only two or three times in a decade. The battle now is to produce digital cameras that operate faster, can be sold cheaper and will produce a better picture. Severe competition even exists within the same corporate structure where teams of developers do their utmost to 'outgun' other camera designers who work in the same building as they do!
Nikon has a distinct advantage over many of the other manufacturers in that owners of some of the older series of Nikon lenses can use them with the new digital bodies, a tremendous dollar saving to the photographer.
Most of this rapid development is focused on the professional photographer. But, with technology changing as rapidly as it is, a camera technology that sells for several thousands of dollars today will undoubtedly become available to people like you and me in the next couple of years for a whole lot less money.
One of the hardest jobs a new camera buyer will have is determine which of the new techno-widgets does the best job and is the best value.
One thing to keep in mind about camera features…they all have the same job and that's to help you take a better photo.
Picture this if you will. If you lined up 10 cameras from different manufacturers, each with similar basic features, took the same picture with each, I think even the camera manufacturers would have a tough time picking out which of the resulting photos came from their units.
Getting feedback from all kinds of users is one very excellent use of newsgroups. Serious photographers, amateur and professional both, love to talk about their latest 'toys'. This is a good way to spend time and a good place to ask questions and (sometimes) get intelligent answers.
Don't wait until you've made the investment to start doing your homework.
Another rule of thumb, if you're happy with a particular brand name already, my suggestion is to stick with it. You'll probably be more satisfied in the long run.
Now, having said all that, there are currently five search engine 'favorite' companies among the people looking for information on the Internet, Sony, Canon, Olympus, Kodak and Nikon in this order of popularity. Of this group, Sony is the only one with no prior experience in camera building before digital.
Understanding how to set your camera's resolution is absolutely vital. There's no shortcut and there's no way around it. This is the core of taking a good, reproducible photograph. If, for instance, your camera is set for 240X360, you can forget making any kind of decent print above a 'thumbnail' size.
The low-end cameras are not a bargain if you're looking for good photo reproduction. Labs are constantly arguing with customers who submit low resolution digital images from a cheap camera for printing and then aren't happy with the results. They simply don't understand why the pictures from their brand new digital camera are so lousy. Lenses and the type of digital image recording technology are also critical factors.
I won't get into the technical details of why but I will suggest you consider spending in the $250 to $400 range if you want something that will satisfy you.
Let's spend a few minutes on lenses. Pretty well all of the digital cameras these days have a form of zoom lens. Most of the higher-end cameras have the capability for the user to add either an external telephoto or wide-angle lens. Depending on the type of photography you want to do will determine whether or not this is of value to you.
One thing to watch out for. The higher end cameras have very good glass lenses. It's part of what you're paying for. The lower-end units have progressively less expensive lenses and consequently, a lower image definition.
There are both optical and digital zoom capabilities on digital cameras. The term "optical zoom" simply means you're using the glass lenses to do the magnification. "Digital zoom" on the other hand simply increases the size of the pixels to make the image larger. For reasons of image clarity, the optical zoom is a far better way to go.
One last note - if you run across the "best deal in town" on a very low-priced name brand camera, check to make sure it isn't badly out-dated. Buying well-priced clearance stock is okay if it isn't too old. In this computer age, pretty well anything over a year old is considered 'old technology'. As new technologies are developed the price keeps going down so you could actually be money ahead by investing in the 'latest and greatest'.
Always keep in mind the old adage that 'you usually get what you pay for.
If you go to a 'box' store looking for the best price, don't expect service. The folks there simply don't know what they're selling. Their job is to move as much merchandise as they can as quickly as possible. It's not to give you advice.
Go to the Internet to get the latest data directly from the manufacturers. It changes very, very quickly. When you do this, try to climb through all the sales hype to get to the 'meat' of what the cameras are all about. Newsgroups can also a very excellent source of advice for 'newbies'.
Most people will be very happy to give you their personal opinion of what you should buy. Just remember, they won't usually tell you what the downside to their purchase is. They don't want to look less than 'expert' in your eyes. Do your own homework. This is an investment you probably won't repeat for several years.
A specialty camera store on the other hand gives the buyer both service and product and usually very well. Keep in mind that the specialty store personnel are quite often very highly trained and will probably be well prepared to help you find the best equipment for you and will also give you a 'leg-up' in getting started using it.
We need to spend a couple of moments on storage media. Whatever size media card you stick in your camera will determine the number of pictures you can take and store. It's like a roll of film, the bigger the roll the more pictures you can take. Digital images are no different. The greater the number of available megabytes (Mb), the higher the number of pictures you can take.
A word of caution - never, never, never leave your media card in a photo lab. The incidence of loss is high and most labs won't replace lost cards. Quite frankly, I don't blame them. Far, far too many false claims have been made and labs now refuse to take any responsibility for your memory cards.
That's it for now. Keep your film dry your lenses clean!
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About the Author
Gordon's 30-year plus photo career has involved everything from taking photographs as a full-time professional to managing his own and other full-service photo labs and installing and managing one-hour photo labs. You can see more at http://www.great-nature-photography.com/gordon.html
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