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Camera Advice – Part 1: What’s Available?

“What digital camera should I buy?”

Many people have asked me for digital camera buying advice. It’s a complicated question which I recently had to ask myself. The answer is not the same for everyone, but I did a ton of research on different types of cameras which I can share with you.

Hopefully this information is helpful and doesn’t add to the confusion. Since this is a complicated topic, with a lot of information to disperse, I won’t be able to fit this into one post. So this will be a multi-part guide. Enjoy!

Where to start?

Features? What are you going to do with the camera? Do you mind carrying around a big camera or do you need one to fit in your pocket? Maybe you need something in the middle? Do you want interchangeable lenses? Do you want to print 4×6 or 20×30? Do you want artistic filters built in or will you use photo editing software for the creative stuff? Do you want manual settings?

Budget? The sky is the limit when you start getting in to high end lenses and camera bodies, so you might want to figure out how much you have to spend on a camera before you get too far into the process. And don’t forget, no matter how many bells and whistles a camera has and how much money you spend on it, it’s the photographer that really makes the shot, not the camera. The camera is just a tool. While good tools can certainly make the job easier and it’s important to choose the right tool for the job, they can’t turn a poorly composed shot into a good one.

Four basic types of digital cameras

First, let’s start with what types of digital cameras are available.

Compact point and shoot. These are the smallest and most popular with a very wide range of features and price points. Almost everyone has one, even pros with high end DSLRs, because you can’t put your DSLR in your pocket. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you have one now and are either looking to replace an old or broken one or are thinking of upgrading to something a little better. They have a small sensor, about the size of a pencil eraser and rarely have an optical view finder, instead depending on the LCD screen on the back to set up your shots. They usually only have fully automatic modes and don’t give you full manual control of the camera. Instead, they depend on scene modes that tailor the settings for specific shooting conditions, like nighttime or sports modes. They often have a zoom lens that maxes out in the 3-5x range, however there are more compact cameras coming out now that offer better optical zoom in the 10-15x range. Most compact cameras use fairly small lenses, some are even made of plastic, to keep costs and weight down. Due to the small lens and small sensor their low light performance is often abysmal especially when compared to DSLRs.

Price range: $$-$$$

DSLR (digital single lens reflex). DSLRs are large bodied cameras that use an interchangeable lens system. They feature a much, much larger sensor and an optical viewfinder that uses a pentamirror (on most lower end models) or pentaprism system that allows you to see your shot through the lens. When you snap a picture there is a mirror that flips up out of the way to expose the sensor. Most DSLRs use an ASP-C sized sensor that has about 12 times the surface area of most compact point and shoot cameras, but higher end DSLRs can have 35mm full frame and larger sensors. They usually have a lot better performance in low light due to the much bigger sensor and better lenses. Most of them have more advanced auto-focus systems and also allow you to manually focus unlike most point-and-shoots. The interchangeable lens systems give DSLRs a lot of flexibility, but lenses can often be quite expensive and you often have to carry multiple lenses for different situations. Each DSLR brand has it’s own lens system, and the lenses will not work on other brands of DSLRs. Some older lenses in certain brands can’t even be used or have reduced functionality on newer DSLR bodies in the same brand. There are a few third-party lens makers that offer the same lens in several different lens mounts for the various camera brands, but for the most part, when you buy a DSLR you are basically buying into a lens system. You may want to consider what kinds of DSLRs your friends and family use if you want to be able to share/trade/borrow lenses.

Price range: $$$-$$$$

Bridge cameras. These are sort of a hybrid between a point and shoot camera and a DSLR. They are almost as big as a DSLR, and they usually have full manual, full automatic, and scene modes. Most of them have very high quality non-interchangeable lenses and some have a lot of optical zoom, up to 35x, which would be about equal to an 840mm lens in the 35mm full frame world. You would probably have to pay multi-thousands of dollars to get lenses for a DSLR to match the same range that some of the bridge cameras get in a single zoom lens. They still use the small sized sensors of the point-and-shoot, but the bigger and higher quality lenses give them an advantage over the compact cameras in both low light situations and overall image quality. Most bridge cameras have an electronic viewfinder that allows you to hold it up to your eye and look though the lens like a DSLR, which offers additional stability, but it’s basically the same as using the LCD screen on the back.

Price Range: $$$

Mirrorless interchange lens cameras. This is another newer variation of a hybrid between a point-and-shoot and DSLR, but these are a bit closer to the DSLR. They have a sensor that falls between the compact cameras and the DSLR. They are several different sensor standards depending on the brand. The first and most common so far, is the micro four/thirds sized sensor. This sensor is about 8 times as large as the standard compact camera and about 2/3 the size of an APS-C sensor. They do not have a mirror system with an optical view finder, so they can be much more compact and lighter than a standard DSLR. These mirrorless cameras do have interchangeable lenses and because of the smaller sensor they only need about half the focal length of an equivalent 35mm camera, so a 14mm micro 4/3 is about same as 28mm in 35mm equivalent. The shorter focal length also makes a micro 4/3 lens lighter and more compact than the comparable DSLR lens. Some of the brands, like Panasonic and Olympus even share a standard lens mount, which increases the number of choices available to those cameras. The micro 4/3 system is fairly new and hasn’t completely caught on yet, but there is a lot growth potential. The compact size is a big selling factor for people looking to take a step up in photo quality but don’t want to lug around a bigger camera.

Update (October, 10, 2012): These cameras have taken off like a rocket. Almost every major brand is the mirrorless game now.

Price range: $$$-$$$$

Others. There are also some oddball cameras out there that don’t fit any of these categories, like compact cameras with APS-C or full frame sensors, but they are not very common. If you’re interested in one of those you probably aren’t asking me for camera buying advice.

Price Range: $$$$

Sensor size comparison

A comparison of sensor sizes, to scale, but not actual size. (Image borrowed from Wikipedia.) Most current compact point and shoot style cameras use the 1/2.5″ sensor size.

Brief Camera History

I’m on my third digital camera now (not counting my wife’s two, or camera phones). Here’s a brief history:

  1. Olympus C-4000 Zoom (2002)
  2. Olympus C-7070 Wide Zoom (2006)
  3. Canon T2i/550D (2011)

I got the Olympus C-4000 in 2002 I think. It was a great camera. It took really nice pictures for the time, and I took a lot with it. It died some time in 2005. Suddenly the motor that moved the lens in and out when you turned it on failed. I even tried taking it apart to see if I could fix it, but no luck, it was dead.

I went without one for around a year or so until I picked up the Olympus C-7070 circa 2006. It was also a great camera and still takes really nice pictures, better than most of the newer compact cameras. It has a articulated screen, which was not available on most cameras at the time. It allowed you to use it as sort of a periscope and take cool crowd shots.

Bourbon Street, One week before Katrina

Just a few weeks ago I bought a Canon T2i/550D. After Andrew was born and I realized how many pictures we were taking, I thought upgrading to a new camera might be a good idea. I was taking a lot pictures just with my iPhone 4 because the Canon 1200 we had just wasn’t that much better and the C-7070 was showing it’s age. So I researched the crap out of all the different options; Micro 4/3, Bridge/Super Zooms, DSLRs, Nikon vs. Canon, etc, etc. (Ask Angie!) I finally decided on a refurbished Canon T2i to get the most bang for the buck. I love it! Especially when it’s paired with the 50mm F/1.8 lens I’ve been taking some great photos. It’s really a great camera, but I’m already coveting the upgraded features of the 60D. I’ll stick with the T2i for a while though. Both have the same sensor, so I should be able to get the same shots for the most part.

AndrewJohn Deere Baby!

I’m learning a ton about photography and having a lot of fun taking cool photos. It definitely helps to have the “Cutest Baby in the World” around to take pictures of. 😉