Choosing a digital camera

Choosing a camera these days is quite a difficult task, not because your choice is restricted, but because the number of models for sale is very extensive, terms of price and quality. These days even mobile phones have cameras of quite reasonable specification compared to the first digital consumer cameras of say 10-12 years ago. Over the years specifications have improved and the prices have come down.

When choosing a camera we will all have a price band in mind, what ever that price band is there will be quite a range of cameras to choose from.

So let’s run through the different types of cameras and look at the pros and cons of them.

Digital Compact Cameras
These are very popular these days, most people have one in their bag that they will carry with them everywhere. They offer the ability to capture images in most situations. They will have a zoom lens, which might have a limited range, but all the same it will let you compose the picture. Whilst they are cheap the picture quality reflects their price in some ways. The image sensor will be quite small, yet might still boast quite a high resolution. This is fine if you have apply light, but under low light conditions picture noise will increase due to the small image sensor size.  The built in flash will be fine for simple portraits but will not have enough power to illuminate a large group of people. The lens is integrated in to the camera, so whatever lens is fitted to the compact camera, you can not change it.

Nearly all compacts these days use the rear screen as the viewfinder. For me this is their main stumbling block. This screen is often difficult to see under outdoor sunny conditions. People will often be seen taking pictures with their arms outstretched holding the camera at arms length. To me this is the most un-natural stance to use when taking a picture; it is not the best stance for holding the camera as steady as possible when taking the picture.

Bridge Cameras
These are a further development of the compact camera. The main difference is that they have an electronic viewfinder in addition to the display on the back of the camera; you can use either to compose your picture. But the electronic viewfinder does allow you to hold the camera to your eye and hold the camera a lot steadier. The disadvantage of this sort of viewfinder is the resolution of the viewfinder can be quite low, and sometimes there’s a slight delay or lag between what you are seeing in the viewfinder and what is happening in front of the camera.

Bridge cameras often have more accurate controls for the light metering and the auto focusing of the camera lens. But the camera lens is not interchangeable, just like the compact camera.

Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras (DSLR)
DSLR’s have advanced considerably in the last 10 years, they were only affordable by professionals, but they are now quite affordable now. DSLR’s offer optical viewfinders, and the image you see is through the camera lens, so you can see exactly what will appear in the image file. The lenses are interchangeable. The metering systems are very accurate and the auto-focusing tends to be multi point and very fast.  The main difference though compared to the other types is that the size of the sensor is considerably bigger than a compact camera, this not only allows higher resolutions to be achieved, but also their low light performance will be better.

Yes they are more expensive to purchase initially, but given the improvement in performance compared to a similarly priced bridge camera or a high spec compact camera, I would have little hesitation in going for a DSLR if you are going to be serious about your photography.  With a couple of interchangeable lenses say a wide angle zoom and a telephoto zoom you would be able to tackle most subjects. I tend to leave my wide angle zoom on the camera all of the time, it is used for more than 95% of my pictures.

There are some disadvantages to DSLR’s though… they are heavier and bulkier, so you should consider some form of camera bag to carry it around in, were as a compact camera will slip in to your jeans pocket and you will hardly notice it.

General comments
When choosing any camera don’t fall in to the trap of more programs is obviously better… look at your washing machine, how many programs has it got 15, 20, 25? How many do you use on a regular basis? It’s the same with cameras, you will have lots of different options available, yet a lot of them you will not know or remember how to use them without referring to the manual! I tend to leave my own camera on one particular mode, so when I need to grab it to take a picture I know that it will be ready and all I need to do is turn it on, raise it to my eye, compose the picture and press the shutter, time is sometimes of the essence when things are happening in front of you.

So ok I’ve explained the main differences, but you are still confused about how to choose a camera in the price range you are thinking of. But help is at hand; there are a number of review sites on the Internet, which have very comprehensive reviews of most of the latest models on the market.

Digital Photography Review is one of the best sites for camera reviews; they also include user reviews as well. Their own reviews run to several pages and include sample pictures in full resolution.

Digital Photography School has reviews and tips and tutorials well.

If possible before you buy your camera try to visit a store that stocks a range of cameras to see how your chosen make/model fits in to your hands. Unfortunately I only have good enough sight in my left eye, most cameras are designed for people that use their right eye to take pictures. One particular brand of camera I had researched in great detail, but when it came to using it, I just couldn’t get on with it when using my left eye to compose the picture, my head was covering some of the important controls on the back of the camera. So I tried out another brand and that was fine.  So I’m not going to recommend specific makes and models, because you might have similar problems to me!

Once you have bought your camera, get to know it by taking plenty of pictures, go for a walk around your town and look for things big and small to photograph, the more you use your new camera the more familiar it will become and you will learn from your mistakes. If it’s a still subject, take your time, move around, what does the subject look like from different angles. Photograph them all and review your results critically when you get home.

The main thing is to enjoy taking pictures whatever camera you have. Email me if you have any specific questions I’ve not covered above.