What Kind of Camera do I need?

Inquiring minds want to know….

You’ve researched the internet been to dpreview.com about a zilllion times and maybe even shopped at your local camera store and thought a few times you had finally made decision. Been there done that. As I mentioned in my previous post camera’s don’t make great photographers. So what IS the role of the camera and how do I know if I’ve got the right one. I had a conversation with a certain photo luminary about camera’s and how much more complex the selection process had become. He basically said that camera’s weren’t all that different than in the past.

I did and still do disagree with that analysis for a couple of reasons. The fundamental difference is that cameras produce images differently than they did in the film days. I guess it’s obvious we are talking about digital photography. Images are not captured on film but rather on a sensor and then processed through some software process that is beyond my technical expertise. The results of the captured image are measured in three important ways; 1) artifacts such as noise or fringing at the edges, 2) distortion or warping of the image and 3) sharpness of the image. Unless you go beyond the snapshot stage of photo taking you may not even notice these things. Probably the one area that is most noticeable to the average photographer is noise. That grainy appearance you get from low light situations. This happens when the iso is bumped up to a higher number to compensate for low light conditions. This is what I would consider part one of the camera selection process.

Next we look at camera operation. To be honest this is one of the most difficult areas because there are so many variations and options. Here are a few “features” that you want to look at; manual/auto control, or both, white balance, iso settings [sensitivity], raw or jpg mode and battery life. These are only a few of the seemingly endless combination of options. The only way to determine if these fit your needs is to prioritize those things that really mean something to you. In the price range that most of us can afford there is always going to be some compromise. If you want the perfect set of specs prepare to write a very large check :-).

But what about the lens? This lens question falls into two categories, fixed lens and digital SLR cameras where you can change lens for different situations. The fixed lens cameras found on most compact digital cameras have anywhere from a 4x to 12x zoom. The longer the zoom the greater the need for anti-shake technology that helps to prevent out of focus shots. For the digital SLR that allows for interchanging of lens gives the greatest flexibility and also will cost the most. Some telephoto lens can easily cost more than the camera itself. The choice of lenses is a involved process and too large to cover in this short piece. Perhaps in future posts we can take up some the basics of choosing a lens.

The last and equally important aspect of camera selection is the camera itself and it’s operation. This is sort of obvious but this is where specs give way to practicality. How does the thing feel in your hand? Are the controls easy to reach and operate? Do the menus make sense and how many screens do you have to step through to make the setting you want? When you want to grab that special shot, you don’t want to be fumbling with the controls while your subject moves on. Another missed shot. No matter how good your lens is, if you can’t make your settings quickly you don’t get the shot. A lens that won’t focus, a awkward control results in missed opportunity or poor results.

Beyond all this camera spec stuff is the issue of purpose. If large images, extremely sharp are your goal then you need a camera that supports that. In other words let the tool fit the job. Most of us don’t need the camera with the perfect specs. The first task is to be able to see the shot and take it and next step is to have a camera that fits the kind of output that the shot demands. In the next installment we will take a look at what is involved in getting the shot. Till then.

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