Buying A Camera?

A lot of people ask me about buying a new camera. Below are some things you might want to consider before parting with your hard earned pennies:

Type of camera: Compact cameras are small enough to fit in your pocket, great for casual photography and assist if you know little about photography. Bridge cameras offer more facilities but still only have the one lens to cover all functions. A DSLR system camera provides the greatest flexibility with a different lens for a each occasion, Medium Format cameras are large, heavy and expensive but offer very high quality images (useful for commercial photographers). Large plate cameras are used by traditional film photographers but they are very heavy and are for extremely competent photographers (with a darkroom).

Camera system: If you are buying a DSLR, you’ll be buying into a system. Do you need all the accessories offered by Canon, Nikon or Sony? If you already have a camera or lens, you might want to remain stay that system on reasons of cost alone.

Usage: What are you photographing? What weather conditions will you be shooting in? Does it need weather proof seals to shoot in heavy rain or are you a fair weather photographer? For nature, you might want to use a telephoto lens.

ISO: How much light do you need or how sensitive to light is your sensor? If you rarely shoot in the dark, then it’s not really something to consider. The higher the ISO number, the greater the ability to shoot in near darkness but does produce noisier images. ISO settings may run from 100 to 409600.

Size of camera: Do you have huge hands or tiny hands? You might want to physically try the camera in a camera shop. This really is a personal thing and only you can decide to the physical size of your camera.

JPG v Raw: JPGs are easy to immediately show to friends and family but once taken you have limited ability when manipulating images. Whilst RAW images cannot be directly shown to others, they do offer a greater flexibility for image manipulation. I only ever shoot in RAW.

Pixel count: The greater the pixel count, the larger print you can make. Alternatively, you can crop the image and still make a decent sized print from the remaining pixels. However, you do may need a much larger file storage system to keep all your lovely photographs. Some cameras do provide a huge 50Mb sensor though 15-18Mb is ample for many beginners.

Camera weight: For the Olympic weight-lifters out there, using a large camera isn’t an issue, however, carrying a heavy camera all day long especially with a big telephoto lens can be a burden on your shoulders.

Motor drive: If you are photographing landscapes or other subjects that barely move, motor drives aren’t that important. Fast moving subjects do demand more frames per second to increase the chance of capturing your photograph. Look at frames per second between 1fps to 16fps.

Vertical grip (VG)or not: Ability to hold the camera in a portrait position and keep your shooting arm  close to your waist. Some VGs are built in to the camera adding not only extra battery power to the motor drive & comfort whilst holding it but unfortunately also add expense too.

Built-in flash: All compact cameras feature this but they are generally only useful unto 3m (10’) from the camera. External speedlites offer greater flexibility but at an additional price.

Cost: Can you afford £5000-100000 for a top-of-the range body or just £50 for a third hand compact camera? It’s your choice!

I realise some of the above pointers may be a little brief but I hope they help you make your decision when buying a camera. I can and do offer much more advice when running workshops.

Useful Camera Features

Deciding which features you really need in a camera depends upon the type of pictures you expect to take. Here are some of the features you can expect to find on a DSLR and the purpose they serve.

Viewfinder: Allows you to look directly through-the-lens at your subject. On most DSLRs it provides useful information, such as aperture and shutter speed set, a flash ready light and under/over exposure warnings. By looking through the viewfinder you’ll see the focusing screen. In autofocus SLRs this shows one or more focusing ‘envelopes’ which should be aimed at your subject to achieve sharp focus.

LCD Panels: These are usually found on the top plate and the back of the camera and display all necessary information on exposure, film speed setting, AF mode, flash mode, etc. so you can find out at a glance what is happening.

Display Screen: Allows you to immediately review the image that you have just taken. In the good old days if film, you had to wait until the film had been developed until you saw the photograph.

Bulb Setting: Sometimes you may need to use a shutter speed outside the camera’s shutter speed range. The bulb setting makes this possible by allowing the shutter to be held open for as long as the shutter release is depressed. This should only be used with a cable release so as to prevent camera shake.

Depth-Of-Field Preview: Before pressing the shutter button, you can stop the lens down to the aperture you’re using so you can assess what is going to be in/out of focus in the final picture. It used to be a standard feature among SLRs, but is sadly missing from a lot of the basic SLRs. In stopping the aperture down, the image in the viewfinder will get progressively darker. If your aperture is set to say f/22 and you press the DOF preview button, the aperture will close and the image will be barely visible. A better alternative is to set the aperture at max, e.g. f/2.8 or f/4, press the DOF preview button to stop the aperture down (as the aperture is fully open, there will be no change in image brightness). You can then slowly adjust the aperture until you reach the desired setting. Using this method will give your eyes chance to become accustomed to the darkened image.

Exposure Compensation: Although camera meters are accurate and reliable most of the time, they can still be fooled by tricky lighting situations. For this reason the majority of cameras have some form of system that allows you to over-ride the meter and compensate the exposure to prevent error. If your scene has plenty of snow, the meter may under-expose by up to two stops so you might want to over expose by up to two stops.

Bracketing: Allows you to look take a series of images that vary in exposure, e.g. you could set the camera to take three images with say a 2 stop variation so your 3 photos would be (1) at 2 stops under exposed; (2) correctly exposed; (3) 2 stops over exposed. These photos could then be merged together for an HDR image or you could use one of them to achieve correct exposure.

Built-In-Flash: Some SLRs have a small flash unit built into the pentaprism that works in conjunction with the metering system to give perfectly exposed results. Integral flashguns are handy for taking snapshots indoors, or for fill-in flash, but the power output is low. They only work therefore on subjects relatively close to the camera.

Motordrive: This is a handy feature for ensuring you’ll (hopefully) never miss a shot and speed up the picture-taking process. Most work at a rate of three to five frames-per-second (fps), but some offer up to ten or beyond for the pro cameras. Once set, simply hold the shutter butter down and the camera will take a number of photos in quick succession. It is difficult to look through the viewfinder whilst this is taking place and you may fill the camera’s storage buffer if you take too many photos thus forcing you to wait until the camera has written the data to the storage card.

Multiple Exposure Facility: This feature allows you to take a second photo directly over the first image to create multiple exposures. A common feature on film cameras but rarely seen on DSLRs.

Eyesight Correction: Some SLRs have an adjustable viewfinder eyepiece that can be adapted to suit your eyesight. This is ideal if you wear glasses and prefer to remove them when taking photos. Other DSLRs allow a dioptre adaptor to be fitted to the viewfinder to perform the same function.