Choosing a New Camera

With so many camera models to choose from where do you start? Well, the way I choose any new toy these days is to start at the end. What do you want it to do? Err . . . take pictures. Yes but what kind of pictures and what are you going to do with them? The other burning question is how much are you prepared to learn?

As you are reading this and have actually made it to paragraph two, I think we can assume that you are prepared to learn at least a little. So what do you want to do? Do you want something that you can keep in your pocket at all times so you can snap the kids? Do you want a camera that will allow you to take pictures in any lighting conditions from any distance (with the right gadget screwed on the front of course)? Is this going to be a hobby or just some quick snaps?

The Learning Curve

I haven’t seen any cameras on sale in recent years that do not have a fully automatic ‘point and shoot’ mode, most will automatically switch on the flash for you when it is needed so you may wonder why we need all the other manual and semi automatic modes and an instruction book to make your head spin. The answer is that, although the camera can produce good exposures most of the time, there are times when, to get the results we want, we have to apply a little knowhow and select more appropriate settings than the camera would automatically choose.

Before choosing a camera with lots of knobs and dials it is a good idea to consider whether you are ever going to bother to learn what they are all for. I’ve been around cameras for many years now, and I’m still learning what all the settings on my latest camera actually do. I never bother to learn how to do something until I need to. So there are certain obscure settings that I have yet to find a use for. Of course it would be nice if we could choose just the buttons we need and have each camera custom made for us but in the real world all we can do is choose the level of control based on how much we think we might want to get involved. Generally speaking an SLR will have more knobs, dials and menus than a compact camera which will give you more control over your pictures but will have a much steeper learning curve.

SLR or Compact?

All the cameras on the market can be categorised into a few simple groups. The most important two groups are fixed lens and interchangeable lens. The fixed lens cameras tend, with a few exceptions, to be smaller, lighter and more pocketable, therefore you are more likely to have it with you when you need it. Well that’s the theory anyway but I think we can say that you are more likely to be bothered to take it with you on that outing to the beach or the zoo.

However even with today’s zoom lenses, which are pretty wonderful, you will often find that you are too far away or too close to get the picture you want so you need to be able to change the lens for a longer telephoto or a wider angle. The other major advantage of these single lens reflex (SLR) cameras is that you are actually looking through the lens instead of a separate viewfinder so what you see is what you get, although this is less of an issue now that we can review our photos on the screen of the digital camera. The down side of these SLR cameras is that you very soon end up with quite a heavy bag of gadgets and are less likely to carry it everywhere with you. However much I yearn for a compact camera for it’s handyness I know I would be frustrated by it’s shortcomings so for me the choice is SLR every time.

Digital or Film?

Do they still make film cameras? Oh yes they do and I wouldn’t mind betting that they continue to do so for many years and I wouldn’t mind betting that at some time in the future there will be a retro backlash and a large number of ’serious’ photographers will return to the darkroom. Some will probably claim that they have never used digital at all, ever.

You might think from the remarks above that I am a diehard supporter of film. Nothing could be further from the truth actually I am now fully converted to digital and loving it. I am going to make the pros and cons a separate discussion that will be posted soon but, for now, I’ll just say that I am completely sold on digital and do not feel that I have lost anything significant by changing.

Which brand?

This, of course, is the big question that you really want an answer to and you know that nobody is going to give you one. If you ask anyone who already has a camera most will support the brand of the camera they have unless they have had some trouble with it, even then people are very forgiving. I think the reason for this is that people think that, if they have made the wrong choice it is because they have somehow failed, and they are not going to admit their failure. Back in the 1980s I had a camera shop in England and at the time a lot of people, who already owned an SLR, were buying compact cameras ‘for the wife’. They would ask me which brand was the best and, if I didn’t already know, I would discreetly try to find out which brand of SLR they owned, then I would recommend the same brand of compact camera.

Trying to sell them another brand was like telling them they had made a wrong choice when buying their old camera and was likely to lose me a sale. So I’d better have a really good reason for not recommending the Canon, Olympus, Nikon, Pentax or whatever and I didn’t have one. All of the well known brands produce similar cameras at similar prices and, by and large, you get what you pay for.

I will stick my neck out a little bit here and say that in my humble opinion the manufacturers who make the best film cameras the Japanese Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax, Minolta and the German Contax and Leica seem to make the best digital cameras. I would not be too happy to put my trust in brands whose traditional expertise is in other fields when there are such good cameras available from the traditional sources. I will probably get a lot of hate mail from people who have bought Sony cameras or Hewlett Packard and are perfectly happy with them. If I wanted a printer Hewlett Packard would be top of my list and I am a huge fan of Sony video and TV equipment but my first choice for a digital SLR would be one of the names mentioned above.

How Many Pixels?

Until recently the quality of digital cameras was measured by how many pixels they boasted. Now we have cameras that can produce tens of millions and it has ceased to be the only test of quality. In the real world the number of pixels you need depends on how big you want to print your pictures. If you mainly want postcard size or A5 then I would consider 4 million pixels to be perfectly adequate. Even at A4 size I would be hard pushed to tell the difference between my 4 million pixel camera and my 6.5 million pixel camera. Don’t forget though that your cropping in the camera may not always be perfect so you may be enlarging only a portion of the image and so only using a portion of the available pixels.

Although an adequate number of pixels is important, the quality of your picture will be greatly affected by the quality of the lens. When Canon recently updated the EOS 300D (digital rebel) with 6.5 million pixels to the EOS 350D with 8 million pixels, the general consensus amongst reviewers seemed to be that the money you needed to spend on an upgrade would be better spent on a better quality lens. So the answer to the pixel question is that we seem to have now reached a point where enough is enough.

There is also a school of thought that we have reached the limit of the number of photo sensors that we can fit on a chip and that a greater number will cause the individual cells to be too small compared to the space in between them. Usually though, when someone says something like that, the following week the boffins announce a breakthrough which makes it all nonsense. You may have seen adverts for cameras, costing many thousands, that have 16 or 20 million pixels. These have sensors that are twice the size of those in the consumer cameras, hence the price. To me, the resolution of a 6 or 8 million pixel camera with a decent lens seems good enough for most purposes and on a par with the quality I used to get from a 35mm film camera.

In the past I have spent a lot of time and money in the pursuit of ultimate quality, I have owned a 5×4inch plate camera, a Hassleblad and two Mamiya medium format cameras, every major brand of 35mm camera and in the end, I would be hard pushed to tell you which photo on the wall was taken with which camera. A fellow photographer once observed that photographers tend to smell pictures rather than look at them, by which he meant that they were more interested in the graininess and sharpness of the image than the actual image itself.