Digital compact and D-SLR camera guide.

Posted by Happy Hippo on 8/26/2009 09:28:00 pm
Almost everyone likes photography, but I think every second, there is a person in the world, who gets disappointed with the pictures they took :( The most obvious problem sometimes is the equipment they use. But nowadays, the technology is getting more and more advanced, and cheaper, so more people can afford professional or semi-professional equipment, which can give better results when taking pictures and even getting creative with them. I did an AS-level in photography, which I really liked and I decided to purchase an entry-level D-SLR (Canon 400D) camera, which stands for Digital Single-lens reflex camera. The main advantage of these over portable cameras is the quality of the pictures they take due to a larger sensor, and they also allow continuous shooting (usually at least 3 frames per second). After doing that course, I worked at Jessops (UK photo-developer and camera retailer), and Currys (UK electrical shop), and I've seen and tried many other cameras. I actually wanted to write a review for my Canon 400D, with a short introduction to Digital cameras, but I it turned out to be not so short :) So I decided to make it a separate article.

First of all, after seeing many digital cameras I divide them into 5 groups:

 • Full-frame DSLR cameras: if you remember now-not-so-popular film cameras and the actual film they use, it has 27 or 36 negatives, and full-frame cameras have sensors about the same size as those negatives (also called 35 mm cameras). These cameras are the most expensive, the heaviest, professional-orientated, high-tech, wide-angle, highest image quality cameras. I would say only professional photographers would go for that type of camera. Also, the lenses for them are extremely expensive. Why? Look at the picture below:

Bigger sensors mean bigger area of light is needed after it goes through the lens, this has many consequences: the lens has to be bigger to let more light in/bigger aperture (to achieve the same magnification), more glass is needed to make it, it's a lot heavier and therefore expensive. Although APS-lenses (see below) will also work on full-frame cameras, their specifications will be very very different.
Another price consideration would be memory card capacities, because these cameras produce 20+Megapixel resolution, which would take a lot of space (especially in a very popular with professional photographers RAW format, which allows almost every setting of the camera to be corrected later on a computer). This surely can produce printed images to cover a small house, but most people probably wouldn't want that. A couple of examples of these cameras are: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Nikon D3x, Sony Alpha 900 (prices range from £2000-£5000, + lenses~ £1000, +accessories).

APS-type D-SLR cameras: these cameras have sensors about half in size compared to the full-frame ones, this reduces the quality of the images, but it also cuts the price by A LOT on both the camera, it's lenses and memory cards. Personally I think the quality they give is excellent for most things one would ever need. 10Megapixels or higher resolution allows to print A2 size photos or larger. The lenses also give higher magnification, for example 300mm lens gives about 12 times magnification, but if put on a full-frame camera, this lens will give 185mm (also called 35mm equivalent focal length), resulting in about 8 times magnification. These cameras have most manual settings that full-frame cameras have, which is ideal to get creative with your pictures ( I will also publish a few photography tutorials about different creative techniques). Most popular APS DSLRs are: Canon 400D, Canon 1000D, Canon 500D, Canon 40D.., Sony Alpha 300, Alpha 350, Alpha 700.., Nikon D40, D40X, D60, D60X (these 4 models use AF-S lenses, which basically means that the lenses don't have a motor inside them, instead it is in the camera body, which makes the lenses cheaper, but there's a limited range of them as far as I know), Nikon D3000... Pentax K10, K20..
Note: different manufacturers have different lens mounts and lens designs, so you can't interchange lenses between e.g. Nikon and Canon DSLRs.

• "Four Thirds" cameras : this is a relatively new technology developed by Olympus, Kodak and Panasonic ("Micro four thirds"), that uses a 30 to 40% smaller sensor than APS DSLRs, reducing the image quality a bit, but this technology was developed specifically for digital cameras, so it has a couple of advantages, which many people would like. I quite like some of these, but only because they are very small, and still produce a LOT higher image quality than compact cameras, have many manual settings and allow interchangeable lenses. Some examples of these are: Olympus E-420, Olympus E-520, Olympus E-30, Olympus E-3(look very similar to APS cameras, and are considered the world's lightest DSLR).

 Micro four thirds cameras are slightly different because they don't have a mirror inside and a pentaprism. And the latest E-P1 from Olympus, that looks very very nice indeed, you can read its review here. Other manufacturers have also released micro 4/3 cameras like: Panasonic LUMIX G1. High zoom lenses are not usually available due to the large sensor size. And when you see these, they look like compacts cameras, but the price tag is A LOT bigger.

 • Bridge Cameras or high-end compacts (fixed lens): these are usually light cameras with higher than normal specifications or new technologies that make them quite unique in their kind. I think it's best if I just give you a few examples of these:
 - Nikon P80, P90, Fujifilm S1000fd, Fujifilm S100FS, Panasonic FZ18, FZ28, FZ38 : these 7 are typical examples of Bridge cameras, they are quite bulky, but still very light compared to DSLR cameras, they have a fixed lens that can be quite big at highest zoom, but they give amazing magnification, usually 10x, 18x or 24x, this is A LOT more than even high zoom DSLR lenses can give. Although the sensor on these bridge cameras in usually the same as on small compacts, so the image quality is not very good (compared to DSLRs).

 - Canon Powershot G9, G10, G11: these have quite a large sensor (1/1.7") in a quite small camera body, with optical image stabilisation and most manual settings.
 - Panasonic Lumix TZ3, TZ4, TZ5, TZ6, TZ7: good quality compact cameras with 10-12x optical zoom and high quality LEICA lenses.
 - Nikon Coolpix P6000: this one has a GPS (satnav) built-in :D Maybe someone would want that.
 - Olympus Mju 6010, 8000: waterproof, shockproof and freeze-proof cameras. Bear in mind: they are not designed to be thrown around, but they might be fine if you accidentally drop them from 1-2 meters height. Also, they are usually 2-10 meter waterproof, if you want to dive deeper, you can buy special underwater housing (about 150-300 pounds for a compact camera housing).

 • Compact cameras or point-and-shoot cameras: these are the smallest, lightest, cheapest, usually fully automatic portable cameras, which are easy to use. Most of them nowadays don't have a viewfinder. They are good for everyday photography, giving lowest image quality compared to other digital cameras due to the small sensor size (about 14 times smaller than APS sensor). I'm sure you've seen many of these in any camera shot, and probably already own one :) Very good for parties as well, if you break it, it's not a big deal and the images are good for facebook and other social networks.

There are many many different specifications for different cameras, which many be confusing for some people, or very familiar to others due to loads of adverts promoting them, but sometimes it's not clear which ones are important, and which ones are not. I decided to write a table and short explanations why I think they are importance or not (some people may have different opinion, which you are welcome to share in comments).

Important or not?
Not very
If the resolution is above 10M, it’s enough to print A2 size pictures (the size of four A4 sheets together) in high quality. Bigger resolution is useful if you want to crop it later (you never know) and still be able to print large-size photos.
Optical zoom
Very important
This determines the magnification you can achieve without losing any quality. But optical zoom is actually a vague term, because if your camera has a wide angle lens, and the advertisement say 5x optical zoom, this actually means that if you start from wide angle, you can magnify it 5 times. One would expect to see 5 times magnification starting from no-zoom, so check this as well (or rely on lens properties in mm).
Focal length (DSLR jargon)
Very important
This basically determines the zooming properties of the lens:
·         Wide angle (10mm-24mm) in APS equivalent, or 16-38mm for 35mm (full-frame) equivalent cameras)
·          Standard zoom (25-105mm APS), doesn’t give a lot of magnification or wideness.
·          Telephoto zoom (105-500mm APS),  gives you good  magnification. 300mm is about 12x optical zoom.
Sensitivity of the sensor (ISO range)
Quite important
ISO is another quite technical specification that tells you how sensitive your sensor is in low light. On my DSLR the range is 100-1600, which is quite standard I think. You probably don’t need more than that (the higher the number, the more sensitive it is to light, BUT on high ISO you start to get NOISE)
Rechargeable lithium batter
Very important
You definitely want a rechargeable lithium battery in your camera.  And maybe should consider buying a spare one (they are cheap on ebay)
LCD Screen size
Not important
This takes most of the batter power, the bigger the screen, the lower the battery life. And if you have an optical viewfinder, you’ll only need it to review your pictures. Unless your vision is not great and you can’t see anything on a small screen.
Optical viewfinder
This can save a lot of battery power, and allows you to take better pictures in bright sunlight, when you can’t see the LCD screen. Most DSLR cameras use this as the only way to see your picture before you take it. Compact cameras use “live preview”,  meaning that the LCD screen shows your picture before you take it.
Extremely important
If you are a newbie in digital camera world, let me just give you some examples of the weight of some professional cameras (without the lens): Canon 1Ds :1.3kg , Canon 5D: 0.8kg, Canon 400D, 450D, 500D : about 0.5kg, Nikon D3x: 1.2kg, Nikon D300: 820g etc. And some lenses: Canon EF 28-300 f/3.5-5.6L IS USM: 1.7kg, Sigma 200-500mm f2.8 APO EX DG: 15.7kg !!!!(and costing 24 thousand pounds)
Quite important
The size is usually related to weight, although for example bridge cameras are quite light, but still quite bulky, because they were designed for extremely high zoom.
Continuous Shooting (FPS or frames per second)
Very important
I think every photograph uses this feature quite a lot, whether it’s sports or wildlife or something moving fast, sometimes you want to take a few pictures of this brief moment.
Video recording
Not important
Most DSLRs don’t record video, although many portable cameras do, but it’s usually low quality, not good for anything, except social networks.  I’d recommend getting a camcorder with high definition format (even cheap 720p Sanyo Xacti HD2 is excellent)
RAW format support
Can be important
RAW format is the raw information received from the sensor, without any compression. It occupies about 6 times more space on your memory card than JPEGs, but allows almost any setting to be edited with special software (e.g. Photoshop) on your computer later. For example, if you overexpose an image, and save it as a JPEG, and later just change the brightness, overexposed areas will just look like white blobs, but If saved in RAW format, you can get back all the detail in overexposed area. (and loads of other tweaks)
Leica/Carl Zeiss lens (portable cameras)
These two makes  are very well known for their quality lenses, which improve the picture quality quite a bit, making the pictures sharper and the colours are more saturated. Read more here. Of course other manufacturers also produce high quality lenses, you need to look on the internet and read reviews about different models of cameras before buying it.
Sensor cleaning system (DSLR)
Very important
It’s inevitable that dust and small particles go into the camera body when you change lenses, and in older days cameras had to be cleaned by professionals, but nowadays with built-in sensor cleaning system, a camera can last for years without any cleaning
Noise (sound)
Not very important
DSLR cameras produce a characteristic noise when taking pictures, because the mirror moves inside the camera, also when the lens autofocuses the motor produces a lot of noise, which can be an issue for some people, or if you want to creep up on a bird or something. Go to a shop and test a particular camera or lens (or read reviews) if you want to make sure it suits your needs.
Digital zoom
Absolutely not important
This is basically cropping your picture inside your camera, you can do it on any computer.
Some people may want a cool-looking camera, and other want a camera that feels good in their big hands, you just need to go to a shop and try it (don’t listen to the friendly salesman though, and don't buy 1st camera you see, a shop across the street may have it at a lower price for example )
Image stabilization
Very important
Almost in every situation, where you don’t use a tripod, image stabilization will be useful, because your hands always shake a little bit, even if you don’t notice it. For low magnification, this is not hugely important, but if you go over 5x zoom, every small camera movement adds A LOT of blur, it’s even worse on 10x+ magnification. In some DSLRs the image stabilizer is built in the lens (Canon), so you have to look for specific “IS” lenses (“OS” on sigma), and some like Olympus have the image stabilizer in the camera body, this is worth checking before you buy your camera. Because for example there is no way to get image stabilization on Olympus E-410 (it’s not built in the body, and Olympus doesn’t produce ”IS” lenses). Bear in mind, some cameras offer “digital image stabilization” (or other names), which is nothing :( the camera just digitally sharpens your image, but does not stabilize the actual camera shake (so it's ot important, and usually found on cheap cameras, that seem to have everything: stabilisation, digital zoom etc, which is just digital manipulation available on any computer).
Memory card format
It seems that most manufacturers are switching to very popular SD or SDHC (secure digital high capacity) memory cards. So they are getting cheaper, and smaller. I’d go for one of those.
Face detection/Smile detection
Can be important
If you want a camera that automatically focuses on peoples’ faces or takes a picture when someone smiles, then you may want this technology.
Picture Bridge technology
Can be important
This technology allows you to print picture by connecting your camera directly to a “picture bridge” compatible printer, without a computer. Some cameras also allow the pictures to be edited in the camera.

Of course this article does not cover all aspects of how to choose a digital camera, and in general describes my personal opinion, you may have a different opinion on some stuff :) Which you can express in comments. Also, if you have any questions or think something is wrong or misleading, you can add a comment, or contact me via message box on the right =>  (you may need to scroll up or down to see it). Thanks for reading! If you like this article, sign up for updates from this blog! there will be many more!

P.S. A longer DSLR guide is here: http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-buy-a-dslr-camera/comment-page-2


the best camera ? i'm afraid that it hasn't been created (yet). in the meanwhile you should find the best camera for your needs, and your pocket.
2 online resources the helped me choosing my Canon are :

1) Digital camera buyer's guide -
A guide that help you figure out what to look in a camera according to your needs,

2) Digital cameras review -
Allow you to compare cameras side by side, and combined with the previous resource you will get as close as possible to actually find the right camera for you

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