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How to Choose the Right Digital Camera
by Harry Cutting

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I'm often asked what camera I would recommend. I always wince a little. There are a lot of very good cameras and lenses, and even though it's great fun to try them out, analyze and research them, you'd be fine choosing almost any brand. All the major camera makers, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, etcPhoto of young boy on man's shoulders, parade, holding flag make high quality equipment. The brand's not that important. Or the camera either for that matter. After all, the camera just does what its told - the photographer actually makes the picture.

What you need is to find the digital camera that suits you so you can concentrate on improving your photography. Developing your photo skills is what will make you a better photographer, not your equipment. But using photo equipment that's not suited to you can make your photography a complicated mess instead of the elegant form of self-expression that it is. Photo details > picture at right

In this tutorial section I'll try to guide you toward a sensible camera choice that's right for you. This section is not meant for professional photographers. It's aimed at beginners and advanced photographers; those either just starting out or those needing to upgrade their equipment. One last thing: for clarity I've tried to keep things simple. Forgive me if it's too much so. I've also included more numbers and specs than I'd like. I hope you can forgive that too. Photo details > picture below


Photo of Mom and son walking hand in handDIGITAL PHOTO EQUIPMENT TOPICS COVERED:

> A Confession
> Camera Types; SLR and Point and Shoot
> Choosing the Right Camera Type
- Point and Shoot Features
- SLR Features
- Lenses

> Camera Selection Tips, including:
- Handling
- Controls
- Shutter lag


Believe me, during three decades of photography I've made every equipment mistake in the book. I've wasted lots of money. I've been needlessly frustrated. I've wasted time. Mostly this Photo of two horses running in fieldwas caused by plain old confusion. Early on I believed that equipment was my salvation and I proceeded to acquire as much of it as I could afford (plus a little more than that). Then I tried to learn how to use all the equipment that I'd bought. And I succeeded in mastering all that gear. I became an excellent equipment technician. Meanwhile, years had passed and my photography was going nowhere. Slowly it dawned on me that I had it backwards. Skills and vision come first. Whatever photo equipment you may need later will naturally follow. What I had needed during that expensive time was simply a camera that suited me and a lens or two. Photo details > picture above

That's what most people need; something simple and suitable. A camera that's right for them. Those of you that aspire to more advanced photography will eventually settle on a more complex digital SLR system, or have already; others who need a camera mostly for family or vacation snapshots will likely be fine with a modern digital Point and Shoot (P&S). But your choice of camera type doesn't necessarily have to work out this way. SLR's can be heavy, bulky, complicated and too inconvenient to lug around; modern P&S's are pocketable, simple and can do amazing work. Keep an open mind.


For our purposes, modern day cameras are classified as either SLR's (Single Lens Reflex) or (P&S) Point and Shoot.

Photo of two African American boysSLR's are fairly large, more fully featured cameras that permit you to change lenses according to the situation. They also allow use of powerful add-on flash units, offer more controls and more accessories. Also, importantly, you focus, compose and meter exposure using the picture taking lens with an SLR. This allows great accuracy in composing and metering. SLR's are ideal for sports, wildlife and nature photography. They are also a good choice for people photography because they are fast and have good lens choices. I use a digital Olympus SLR system mostly and a film Nikon SLR system occasionally. They both do great work. Photo details

On the downside, SLR's and their accessories are heavy to carry. They are bulky. They can be complicated. And they can be quite expensive.

Point and shoot cameras are everything SLR's are not: they are small and light, mostly simple to use and inexpensive. Modern digital P&S cameras are rich in features such as exposure compensation, high quality fill flash, white balance settings and metering choices. Lens quality is usually very high. I have used P&S cameras for years, both as family snap cameras and in my professional work. I use several digital Olympus P&S's and a Ricoh film point and shoot.

On the minus side, P&S cameras don't allow you to change lenses, have fairly weak on-board flashes and usually do not permit add-on flash. They offer more limited exposure and metering choices than SLR's. You compose through a separate lens resulting in some inaccuracy with close-in subjects; your picture will be slightly to the left/right, or up/down from the way you composed it (with close-in subjects).


First you need to decide whether you need an SLR or a P&S at this stage of your photography. Selecting a nice digital SLR camera system might seem like the way to go at first. You'll have lens andPhoto of music teacher assisting boy playing violin accessory options you can add later. You'll be covering your bases. This is all true. But SLR's are heavy and bulky and expensive. If you're an advanced photographer you probably already know you need an SLR. But if you're a beginner just finding your way make sure and visualize yourself carrying that heavy gear everywhere before you take the plunge. A quality P&S will make more sense if your highest priorities are mobility and convenience. Photo details

Also, by buying into an SLR system you become entrenched in that system. The lenses and accessories only operate with that manufacturer's system. If later on you change your mind, sure, you can change SLR systems, but that's an expensive switch.

Bottom line: if you're seriously interested in nature, sports or close-up photography you'll be well suited with an SLR system. You'll need the SLR's versatility: to change lenses, add flash units, use higher shutter speeds and so on. If you're mostly concerned with family, vacation and personal pictures then a P&S is a good choice. The right P&S will be a joy to use for almost any situation. Light, fast, simple, inexpensive, sharp pictures and you can carry it in your purse or pocket.

And finally, if you go the SLR route, make sure you invest in a good P&S also. Having a camera with you at all always trumps having left the "big camera" at home because it's too inconvenient.

Features That Matter In a P&S: are a large viewing screen for composing and viewing your photos. High capacity picture storage capabilities. Rechargeable battery and possibly disposable battery capable, too. Enough metering choices. Flash capable to ten feet. Acceptable zoom range and lens speed; a zoom of about 3:1 (widest setting is about one third of the longest setting) is a good range and keeps the lens speed fairly fast. You'll need a wide setting of at least 35-40 mm (film equivalent), wider if possible, for good indoor coverage. A five to eight megapixel model is enough. (See Selection Tips below). Photo details

African American teen girl photo close upFeatures That Matter In an SLR: are tougher to nail down in the short space of this article and mostly depend on the photographer's taste. As I mentioned earlier, all the major camera brands are good. Generally though an eight to ten megapixel model is enough for most advanced (or even professional) photographers. SLR's don't vary as wildly in their features as P&S's and so choosing an SLR camera system depends more on the selection tips mentioned below, namely; handling, clear controls and low shutter lag.

SLR Lenses: Beware lenses: choose them carefully. Lenses are what really make your pictures - and drain your cash. Generally the faster lenses (lower max f-stop number) are the most worthy, and the most expensive. Their brighter view makes for easier focussing and composing. This is a major benefit over slower optics. Also they are generally sharper at wider apertures than slower glass if for no other reason than they are wider to begin with. Let me explain. Most lenses are sharpest beginning at about two stops from maximum aperture. So a wider lens will be sharper at a wider setting than a slower one. If you're filming wildlife or sports there are huge benefits to using a super-sharp wider aperture: you're able to use faster shutter speeds to freeze action and mitigate camera shake, and you can isolate your subject by adding more out of focus blur to the background with wider apertures. The downside is fast lenses are more costly, especially long lenses, so you may need to hike down to a middle ground depending on your finances.

You may be just fine with a relatively slow long optic, a rugged tripod and the widest, sharpest aperture setting for that lens. Slower lenses are often just as sharp (at their optimum aperture settings) as faster ones. I'd recommend at least starting with an affordable slower long lens unless you have a genuine compelling reason to spring for more expensive glass. If later you need a faster lens you'll be all the wiser to make a smart upgrade. It's often possible, and a good idea, to rent or borrow a lens for "pre-purchase" evaluation. Some photo retailers allow customers to try out a lens for no or low charge. Ask nicely. And spend your money there. The key to melting their heart and walking out with a loaner lens is being their customer to begin with.


When choosing a camera, whether an SLR or P&S, consider the following qualities; they can be more important than anything else and are frequently overlooked:

Good Handling: No matter what camera you end up with make sure it handles well. Make sure it fitsAsian teenage girl looking out window your hands and that the controls are large enough for you. Everyone is different. Just because you see so many Canon cameras at sporting events doesn't mean they'll fit your particular hands and handle smoothly for you. To me, how a camera handles is the most important criteria for evaluating a camera purchase.

Clear Controls: Your camera choice should have clear, logical controls. They should operate as intuitively as possible for you. This can vary by model within the same manufacturer. Sometimes you'll find really well thought out controls on one model and such awful controls on a nearly identical model that it's hard to believe it's from the same manufacturer. This is why it's so important to pick up and use the exact model you're considering buying. Spend hours and hours trying them out at the camera store. Photo details

Low Shutter Lag: A big problem with some digital camera models, especially P&S's, is "shutter lag". That's the time between when you press the shutter and when the camera actually makes the picture. Several things happen when you press the shutter button: pressing it halfway starts the focussing process and sets the exposure; then pressing it all the way "trips the shutter" and the picture is made. The camera can delay too much for your taste at each (or all) these stages but the most annoying is the last stage when, after you've set the focus and exposure, and recomposed your shot, and you finally press the shutter at the exact right moment, and - long long pause - the picture is made. Long shutter lags can be a disaster when filming nearly any subject. To paraphrase Mark Twain: the difference between the right picture and almost the right picture is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Check the camera specs for shutter lag though they'll be only minimally useful, if you find them at all. Manufacturers are not very forthcoming with these numbers and there are no real standardized methods to measure shutter lag either. Dig through the internet for current information anyway. A good source of photo equipment information is http://www.dpreview.com/ Also, you can judge for yourself by test firing the cameras at the photo store. Make sure to set the ISO to 400 or higher and pre-focus on something first. Your tests will be totally subjective but you'll get a real world idea of whether that particular model has a low enough shutter lag for you.


Okay, now you know. The camera brand doesn't matter. How the camera suits you does matter. You need a good point and shoot camera in addition to whatever else you use. Now it's time to do your research and get out the plastic.

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