CAMERA BUYING GUIDE

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If you are thinking of buying a digital camera, there are several things you consider.  Read our advice to give you all the information you need.

Which digital camera should I choose?

Your choice of camera will depend on three factors:

  • the types of photograph to be taken
  • how much you can afford to spend
  • the portability of the camera

If you read on you will be able to decide what type of camera will give the best results.  It's then up to you to decide how much you would like to spend and whether carrying heavy equipment is an option.

What types of camera are available?

Digital cameras fall into three main categories:

  • small compact with small optical zoom (up to 6x) - prices generally in the range £80-£250 - these can be subdivided into Point and Shoot and Enthusiast models.
  • larger compact with large optical zoom (up to 12x) - generally cost around £250-£300
  • SLR with interchangeable lenses - start at around £400 with a simple lens but further lenses and accessories can be expensive.

Point and Shoot Compact Camera

These cameras don't allow you to take full control of your photography, instead they offer you a huge range of Scene modes, from Party to Snow.

Advantages

  • Small enough to fit in a pocket

Disadvantages

  • The main disadvantage of these compacts is that you look through a viewfinder that is separate to the lens, so what you see is not exactly what you’re about to photograph. 
  • The alternative is to use the preview screen on the back of the camera (some cameras don't have a viewfinder, just this screen), where you see exactly what’s in the photograph.  The disadvantages of this are: it’s harder to keep the camera still while looking at this screen; on a bright day the screen can be hard to see; it’s difficult to judge if the part of the photo you’re interested in is clearly in focus, you can only tell after you have take the photo by zooming in on it.
  • This type of camera allows very little control over the final image, except through the often huge range of Scene modes, which are often confusing to use.
  • Due to the small optical zoom it’s difficult to get a blurred background in portrait photos. 
  • Most of the features are only accessible by going into menus which is time-consuming and fiddly.
  • Be aware that some models only take AA type batteries.  They use a lot of batteries and some of the rechargeable AA's are just not powerful enough, the camera won't function correctly.  Much better are models that take Lithium-ion batteries.  These are usually supplied with the camera and come with their own charger.

Summary

If you only plan to point and shoot, these cameras are fine, but don't expect professional looking photographs - fine for snaps. 

Enthusiast Compact Camera

These cameras allow you to take full control of your photography by setting Aperture and/or Shutter Speed.  Some produce images on a par wit many SLR cameras.

Advantages

  • Usually small enough to fit in a pocket, they can have almost as many features as an SLR, and allow the photographer to take control for predictable results.
  • Great for landscape photography and some are very good at close-ups.
  • Some will take a hot-shoe mounted flash.
  • Many offer high resolution in the region of 12MP.

Disadvantages

  • The main disadvantage of these compacts is that you look through a viewfinder that is separate to the lens, so what you see is not exactly what you’re about to photograph. 
  • The alternative is to use the preview screen on the back of the camera (some cameras don't have a viewfinder, just this screen), where you see exactly what’s in the photograph.  The disadvantages of this are: it’s harder to keep the camera still while looking at this screen; on a bright day the screen can be hard to see; it’s difficult to judge if the part of the photo you’re interested in is clearly in focus, you can only tell after you have take the photo by zooming in on it.
  • At around 3x optical zoom, it’s difficult to get a blurred background in portrait photos, models with 6x optical zoom however give very acceptable blurring 
  • The built in flash on these cameras is good as a fill-in flash outdoors, but does not produce good indoor shots, so look out for models with a hot-shoe so that you can add an external flash. 
  • Be aware that some models only take AA type batteries.  They use a lot of batteries and some of the rechargeable AA's are just not powerful enough, the camera won't function correctly.  Much better are models that take Lithium-ion batteries.  These are usually supplied with the camera and come with their own charger.

Summary

These are great cameras to have on hand at all times.  To get professional looking images every time, it's essential to take control by setting Aperture or Shutter Speed.  Look out for models where most of the features are accessible through buttons on the camera body, not hidden away in menus.  Great for landscape and close-up photographs.

Large Compact (Bridge) Camera

Advantages

  • When you look through the viewfinder, you are looking at exactly what can be seen through the lens, so overcome most of the disadvantages of the small compact.  The greater optical zoom makes them better for all types of photography, particularly close-up and slow action, e.g. children playing.
  • With many of these cameras, features can be accessed by buttons (rather than going into the menus) on the camera,  which are quick and easy to operate.
  • This type of camera takes good landscape, portrait and close-up photos and some feature a Super Macro mode, allowing you to get within a few centimetres of your subject.

Disadvantages

  • While they will capture slow action well, this type of camera does not focus fast enough and does not have a quick enough shutter speed for high-speed action.
  • On some models, you have to delve into the menus to use some features, which can be time-consuming and fiddly - look out for models that have buttons on the camera body to access the main features.

Summary

If most of the controls are on easily-accessible buttons on the body, these are great, versatile cameras.  Great for landscapes, close-ups and portrait photographs and fine for slow action, but for fast action shots you will need an SLR.
 

SLR

Ironically, SLR cameras are often much easier to use than compacts, with little reason to fiddle around in menus for most adjustments and standard modes which are easy to understand and use.
SLR’s come in two types:  1)  full-frame sensor (like 35mm SLR’s), which are better for photographing large areas such as landscapes, but are currently very expensive and usually used by professional photographers and 2)  smaller sensor, the effect is like using a telephoto lens, so your photos will not cover such a wide angle - of course this doesn't matter at all if you always use a zoom lens.  Prices start at around £400 and they produce good photos of all types, with the right lens.

Advantages

  • You can buy a lens for every purpose. 
  • Most SLR’s are also much faster to focus than compacts, and often take far more shots per second, which makes them great for action photos. 
  • You can attach separate flash units, which give much better results than built in flashes. 
  • Most of the controls are found on buttons on the camera body, so making adjustments is quick and easy. 

Disadvantages

  • Cost (although you can now buy an entry-level SLR for around £400).
  • Size.
  • Weight.
  • The cost of additional lenses, from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds.
  • The temptation to buy other accessories.
     

Lenses for SLR Cameras

The two dominant camera manufacturers, Canon and Nikon, offer a vast range of lenses for their digital cameras.  Other compatible lenses are made by Sigma and Tamron, usually at more affordable prices - the main disadvantage of these compatible lenses is that they often do not autofocus as quickly as the camera manufacturer's own lenses.   

Prime lenses

These have a fixed focal length.  Generally they produce marginally better quality images, but are best suited to photography in controlled conditions, so they can easily be used in a studio or outdoors, for example, where you are photographing animals at a feeding station, from a hide.

Zoom lenses

These have a range of focal lengths, e.g. 75mm to 300mm, giving you much more flexibility in your photography, by offering a wide range of magnification.
Keep in mind that it is very difficult to hand-hold a lens at 300mm or greater, even with image stabilisation (vibration reduction), so blurred images can be a problem.

Macro lenses

Both prime and zoom lenses can also be used for macro (close-up) work, but do check the minimum focusing distance of a lens before buying - some lenses will not focus closer than 1.5m (4.5 feet) from the subject.

High-speed action photography

All SLR's will give you the opportunity to take great photos of most stationary or slow-moving subjects.  If you wish to photograph high-speed action however, you may have to consider spending more money on lenses with faster autofocus speeds and wider apertures.

 

Jan Slack

Going Digital

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