John Hultgren Photography Guides

Selecting a Camera

December 27, 2017

A question I am frequently asked is: "What camera should I buy?"

There are different types of cameras to choose from. This is a good thing because each of our individual needs and interests are different. Just as buying a car requires some understanding of your goals (do you really want a two-seater sports car if you have six children?), along with some common sense, selecting a camera also requires some common sense and an understanding of your goals.

Because there are so many cameras available on the market, there is most likely a camera available that you will be very happy owning and using. But before you select your perfect camera you first need to decide what type of camera will work best for you.

There are a few things you will need to understand before we get into our discussion about camera types:

  • Digital Sensor Size: Sensor size has a major impact on the quality of the photograph. The digital sensor is the camera component that captures the focused light inside the camera that the picture is made from (the sensor takes the place of film in older cameras). Larger sensors tend to produce a higher-quality image than smaller sensors, just like film did. That's not saying that small sensors produce low-quality images — it depends on what lens is included with the camera and how big you want to print your photographs. Some photographers will be happy with a small sensor, but others who want a higher quality image won't. We will discuss sensor size as we describe camera types below.
  • Shutter Responsiveness: Some types of cameras take the photograph the moment that you press the shutter button, while other types experience a brief delay. Shutter responsiveness isn't important for many photographs, but it can cause you to miss a certain moment in action shots or candid shots.
  • "Depth-of-Field:" Also called "focus range," depth-of-field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image. Many point-and-shoot cameras already have a large depth-of-field and do not allow you to vary it (and in my experience, most amateur photographers don't care about depth-of-field — they simply want a photograph where everything appears in focus). Serious photographers, however, may want some control over the depth of field because this can be a critical component of composition. When viewing a photograph our eyes are automatically drawn to what is in focus — what's in focus is the first thing we see. So being able to take a photograph with your subject sharp but with anything that just happens to be there but which is not critical to the photograph left slightly out of focus can be an important composition tool for some photographers.
  • Shutter Speed: Some cameras allow you to select how fast or slow a photograph is recorded. This isn't important to everyone but could be a composition tool that is important to others. Being able to freeze the action in a fast moving soccer game, or slow the shutter to allow water cascading over a waterfall to blur, is another composition tool that may be important to some photographers.
  • Type of Graphic File Produced: Most cameras will save photos to the camera's memory card as a JPEG file. This is convenient because, when you upload a photo to a social media site (or to a service that will print your photo for you), a JPEG is what you need. However, if you want to take your best photos and edit them (perhaps to adjust the exposure or improve the color), then a JPEG is probably too compressed (JPEGs compress the data so that the file sizes are smaller for storage) to allow much editing. For example, if you give your aunt a nice magenta sweater for Christmas and take a close-up photograph of her when she puts the sweater on, and then let the camera process the photo and save it as a JPEG, you may not be too happy with the photo (the camera will probably assume that the color balance was off because there is too much magenta and will color correct the photo, making your aunt's skin tones look unnatural). Some photographers will want an uncompressed file that contains more original color information that hasn't already been color corrected by the camera so that they can finish processing the photograph manually (while others will simply say "It's just Aunt Peg, she'll be fine").

When you start shopping for a new camera, it is helpful to have an understanding of what types of photographs you want to take along with an understanding of how you are going to use those photographs and how much time you want to spend processing and editing your photographs. (Yes, even digital photographs require some processing and editing.) Most cameras will process photographs automatically after you press the shutter, but many of us will want to process at least some of our photographs manually.

Things to ask yourself (along with some possible answers) include:

  • What do you like to photograph?
    • Flowers and close ups? Any of the types of cameras that we will discuss will work for these.
    • Your kids? A DSLR or mirrorless will work better because the shutter is more responsive.
    • Travel photos? Any of these camera types will work.
    • Nature or landscape? A DSLR or mirrorless will give you a better quality image.
    • Wildlife? A DSLR or mirrorless will allow you to use a good telephoto lens.
    • Sports? A DSLR or mirrorless will allow you to use a good telephoto lens and a faster shutter speed.
    • Portraits? A DSLR or mirrorless will allow you to obtain a higher quality photograph.
    • Things you want to share on social media? Any of these camera types will work.
    • Street photography? A point-and-shoot will be less conspicuous.
  • What is your skill level?
    • If you are a beginner, it is hard to recommend an expensive advanced camera. It will probably be too big and bulky for you to comfortably use, and it won't have some of the beginner features that will help you learn photography.. If you are a beginner, a good point-and-shoot with some manual settings or an entry-level mirrorless or DSLR would be appropriate.
    • If you are more advanced than a beginner, then you should already have a good appreciation of what features you are missing with your current camera.
  • How will you be sharing your photographs?
    • If you plan on printing large photographs (16x20 or bigger) or contributing to stock photography agencies, then you will need one of the types of cameras that have a larger sensor size.
  • Do you want more control over your photographs?
    • If you enjoy processing your digital photographs, then you will be much happier with a camera that shoots RAW files because you will have much more control over exposure, color, and photographic detail.

Let's start by looking at some of the camera types that are available. Once you decide which basic type is right for you, then you can visit your local camera store to see what they offer in the type of camera you have ultimately selected.

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Local camera stores are staffed with associates who are very knowledgeable about camera capabilities. And local camera stores are also often competitive with major on-line distributors (and frequently are willing to match a price if you ask nicely).

We are going to start with the most basic cameras and work our way up from there to the types of cameras that professionals use.

Smartphone Cameras: It's been said that the best camera is the one that you have with you at the time you see a potential picture, and this is certainly true. Since almost everyone carries a smartphone, this is a great camera to start with because you will capture good pictures and learn what you might be missing from a different type of camera (and you just might not be missing anything, so if you already own a smartphone then it won't cost you anything to start your exploring with this camera).

A smartphone that can take an 8 MP photograph ("MP," or megapixel, is a unit of graphic resolution equivalent to roughly 1 million pixels; an 8 MP camera will have roughly 8 million tiny squares of information to put together into a photograph) will allow you to take sharp, detailed photographs to use on social media or to make moderately-sized prints from. The quality of photographs taken with a smartphone are as good as photographs taken with a point-and-shoot compact camera.

However, the camera sensor is quite small in a smartphone (they are about the size of a third of your little fingernail). Consumers usually focus on megapixels, but it's actually the sensor size that limits an image's quality.

Smartphones also are not the easiest camera to hold while taking a photograph.

Many people find that their smartphone is the best camera for them because they have that camera with them all the time, allowing them to take those spontaneous photographs that they end up valuing most in the years to come.

  • Pros: Usually the camera you will always have on hand. The results can match those from a regular point-and-shoot compact camera. You can share instantly to social media.
  • Cons: In most cases you get a fixed focal length lens, preventing you from zooming in on distant objects, which is great for selfies and wide angle photographs but not necessarily for portraits. Not easy to hold. Limited control over picture settings such as shutter speed and aperture (which would allow you to manage the depth-of-field). Slight delay in taking a photograph when the shutter is pressed. Small image sensor.

Action Cameras: If you want to capture life's adventures then perhaps a camera with strong video capabilities is what you actually need. While action cameras may not be the best option for photographers who want to take still pictures (currently, action cameras produce snap-shot quality photographs), they are a good option for people more interested in videos. Action cameras are tough and simple to use. There are also a variety of mounts that can attach an action camera to most surfaces (such as a vehicle, a helmet, and even your pet).

Action cams shoot good-quality Full-HD video (and some even shoot 4K) footage through fixed focal length wide-angle lenses. Some are waterproof, while others come with waterproof housings.

Action cams are relatively inexpensive and many television production companies are now using them because they don't mind giving them a beating (and they are small enough to not get in the way).

  • Pros: Cheap, tough, and simple. They have good Full-HD movie quality and can be mounted on practically anything.
  • Cons: The fixed wide-angle lenses do not have zoom capability. Little control over exposure settings. Still photographs are snapshot quality only.

Point-and-Shoot Compact Cameras: If your smartphone doesn't offer the versatility that you need, then a digital camera might be right for you. Many digital cameras also create full-HD video, too.

Point-and-shoot compact cameras are relatively cheap and they come with zoom lenses. They can also give you more control over focus, exposure, depth-of-field, and color than you will get with your smartphone.

Most compact cameras' zoom lenses offers "optical zoom," which is much superior to the "digital zoom" offered on smartphones. Digital zoom is simply cropping the photo into a smaller photo (creating a photographic file with less resolution).

Compact cameras typically come with a 5X zoom so that you can fill the frame with people or subjects that are farther away. But they also go to a wider angle than smartphones, which is handy in cramped quarters.

The picture quality of compact cameras is not necessarily better than a smartphone. Cheap cameras have cheap lenses which can cause your photograph to deteriorate at the edges of the frame or at full zoom. And the image sensor size is usually not much larger than a smartphone's sensor size. Many compact cameras experience a slight delay when you press the shutter before the picture is taken.

  • Pros: Versatility of an optical zoom lens. More control over exposure, focus, color, and depth-of-field. Easier to hold. Fits in your pocket and are usually allowed in venues that prohibit professional cameras with detachable lenses.
  • Cons: The quality is not noticeably better than a smartphone (and may even be worse). There may be a slight delay in taking the photo when the shutter is pressed.

Bridge Cameras: A "bridge camera" is designed to "bridge the gap" between a compact camera and a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera). Bridge cameras are not compact and look more like a DSLR with the characteristic "fat body" and a larger grip on the right-hand side, along with dials on the top. These dials allow you to choose various exposure modes and settings.

The various exposure modes include manual (which takes more time to set up but which allows you to fully control the exposure), shutter priority (which allows you to select a shutter speed and the camera to select the aperture), aperture priority (which allows you to select the aperture and the camera to select the shutter speed), and program (which allows the camera to select everything). Some cameras also allow you to select the type of photograph you are taking, which allows the camera's computer to further adjust the shutter and aperture (such as a sporting event, which requires a faster shutter speed than a portrait).

Having control over the shutter speed and lens aperture is important to many photographers. Waterfalls are usually more spectacular with a slow shutter speed which allows the flowing water to blur while the surrounding scenery is sharp (which requires the use of a tripod). And depth-of-field (the area that is in focus before and after the subject that you have focused on), which is controlled by the aperture, can really enhance your photographs. For example, let's assume you want to take a photograph of some children in their school classroom. A large depth-of-field can make all the children in the photograph appear to be in focus, while a very narrow depth-of-field may only make one child appear in focus (and if that one child is your child, and since our brain naturally navigates to what is in focus in a photograph, this technique can help draw the viewer's attention to your child).

Shutters are usually more responsive than the shutters in compact cameras, which typically have a slight delay. This may be important if you are taking sports photographs, or candid shots of people where a slight delay might not capture that "special" moment.

Many of these cameras also produce other file types for your photographs. While JPEG is the most common type of photographic file produced by most cameras, JPEGs are heavily compressed, and other file types contain more information that you can later work with when processing your photos.

While bridge cameras typically offer monumental zoom ranges, these cameras typically use the same digital sensors that you find in smaller compact cameras. Your camera will look and feel like a DSLR, but you most likely are not going to get the same image quality (although there are exceptions, but these exceptions come at the expense of zoom range).

  • Pros: Zoom range. DSLR-style controls and features.
  • Cons: Some come with a small digital sensor that limits quality. The photographic detail can become soft at full zoom with cheaper lenses. The autofocus capabilities of bridge cameras are typically not as responsive as a DSLR.

High-End Compact Cameras: A high-end compact camera is a quality camera small enough to fit in a pocket. High-end compacts typically don't have as powerful a zoom as bridge cameras do, but they do have a larger digital sensor, a better quality lens, and DSLR-style control and features. Some high-end compact cameras make DSLR-quality photographs.

The zoom range is on par with a regular point-and-shoot camera but because there is a larger digital sensor, a better lens, and more advanced controls, you can expect to take a higher quality photograph than you could with a smartphone or a point-and-shoot compact.

  • Pros: DSLR features and near-DSLR quality in a camera that you can carry in your pocket.
  • Cons: You cannot change lenses.

Digital SLR Cameras: DSLR cameras are most popular with "serious" photographers. The big advantage that DSLR cameras have over the cameras already discussed is that you can change lenses. Compact cameras typically are "fixed lens" cameras, and SLRs are "interchangeable lens" cameras.

Having more than one lens (such as telephoto, wide angle, and macro lenses) really makes your camera much more versatile. And DSLRs have a larger digital sensor that captures a higher-quality image than cameras with smaller sensors. You also get full camera settings controls and the ability to save your photographs as RAW files.

Digital SLRs typically have a more responsive shutter, taking the photo (or multiple photos) the moment that you depress the shutter. This helps to capture the shot. These cameras frequently have a continuous shutter mode. Imagine that your child is riding down a slide into a swimming pool. Taking the photo the moment that your child flies off the slide (but before she hits the water), and taking a couple of photos in very quick succession automatically, will probably leave you with at least one very special photo.

A RAW image data file is a file generated by digital cameras that contains uncompressed "raw" image data that can be adjusted for exposure and color later using software that supports the RAW format (very basic software is included with the camera, but there are multiple software options available for purchase). RAW files are typically stored by photographers as a "digital negative." After photographers process and edit a RAW file, they can still go back years later to the state that the photograph was originally captured and start over again if they choose to reprocess a photo.

Most cameras will capture and save the photographic image as a JPEG file (and some cameras can only save their photographs as JPEGs). Think of the process like this: You compose your beautiful photograph and press the shutter button, which lets all the beautiful light into your camera to flood the sensor. Your camera then collects this information and starts to prepare the JPEG image by compressing this information down, throwing away information it considers unnecessary as the camera creates a reasonably sized electronic file that it will store on your memory card. While doing this, your camera's computer is making decisions that can affect the color of the sky, the temperature of the light, and other things that the camera's computer judges will make the best JPEG photo that takes up the least amount of storage space (but the camera's computer may end up "throwing away" things that were a factor in your decision to take the photograph in the first place). Even when you manually set some of the settings, the camera's computer still has to make decisions as it smooshes all of that information which it collected into one little JPEG file.

You may be comfortable letting your camera's computer make all those decisions, but not everyone is that comfortable (including me, and if you are like me then you need a camera that can save RAW files).

When you shoot in RAW, the camera saves all of the information that the sensor saw (but you cannot immediately see all of this information). Yes, you can still see the photograph on the camera's display right after you take the photograph, but there is additional photographic detail stored in the file that you can't see on the camera's display. That's one of the benefits of a RAW file — a RAW file will contain additional detail that you won't be able to see on your camera's display, but during post-production on your computer you can work with this detail to make it more visible.

Digital photographs (just like older film photographs) don't have the same visual latitude that a normal eye has. While we can look with our eyes and see detail in a very shady area that is surrounded by very bright sunlight, if you capture that scene in a camera then parts of the resulting photograph are going to be too bright and/or too dark.

How we view that photograph (on a camera display, on a computer monitor, or as a print) will also have the same limitations. That's just always been a limitation of a photograph as compared to a human eye. Even color temperature is affected: If you look at a white house that is illuminated by a setting sun, you are going to see a white house, but if you take a photograph of that same scene while the sun is setting, the house is going to have a red tint because of the red light from the setting sun.

But by doing some work on your computer you can overcome many of these limitations and make the photograph look more like it actually looked when you pressed the shutter. A RAW file really isn't an image: it's just all of the information that was captured by your camera's sensor that has been saved in a data file. During post- production we have control over all of that information that was captured and saved with a wider latitude than we would normally be able to see in a photograph, and we can pull some of that hidden detail out (or tone-down some of the overpowering detail). Once you get used to it, it doesn't take a lot of work or a lot of time, and you will be able to save many photos that just couldn't be captured the way you saw it on the scene with your eyes.

Also, since RAW files record what the camera's sensor saw, they don't include some other adjustments that cameras typically make when they save your photograph to the memory card as a JPEG, such as sharpening. All photographs need sharpening (sharpening really doesn't make the image sharper — it just increases the contrast around edges, making the image appear sharper) and some of us prefer to add sharpening to different photographs in varying amounts, depending on the image, and we prefer to do this ourselves instead of letting the camera make the decision about that adjustment.

DSLRs also have an optical viewfinder that lets you view your potential photograph that you will be taking through the camera's lens, viewing your image exactly as your sensor will see the image. When you press the shutter button, a mirror used to view the scene through the lens moves up and out of the way so that the lens' view can be captured on the camera's sensor. This way you are able to see exactly what the sensor will see, and this view is typically brighter and clearer than what you will see on a monitor screen or electronic viewfinder that smaller cameras offer.

  • Pros: Interchangeable lenses. Full manual control. RAW files. Larger APS-C sensor for a better quality.
  • Cons: Big and bulky compared to compact cameras. Prohibited by many venues which prohibit "professional cameras."

Mirrorless Compact Cameras: Mirrorless cameras are a larger compact camera that offers interchangeable lenses and larger camera sensors. Without the mirror that DSLRs have, the cameras can be made smaller and lighter. While through-the-lens focusing is an advantage with DSLRs (it's more responsive), the latest mirrorless cameras have a more sophisticated autofocus system that is comparable with DSLRs.

It doesn't appear that a DSLR or a mirrorless camera is better than the other, so it really comes down to what type you prefer.

  • Pros: Small and light. Mechanically simpler than DSLRs.
  • Cons: Some models don't have an optical viewfinder (electronic viewfinders lack the clarity of optical viewfinders). The range of lenses available is currently limited but that is expected to change over time.

Full-Frame DSLRs: Most amateur DSLRs use APS-C size sensors. While these are significantly larger than the sensors found in smartphones and compact cameras, and produce a higher quality photograph, some photographers prefer a full-frame sensor (a full-frame sensor is the same size as old 35 mm film). A full-frame sensor is twice as large as an APS-C sensor and delivers a further improvement in image quality (but it's not generally considered twice as good).

Full frame cameras also have the highest resolution available.

  • Pros: Maximum quality.
  • Cons: Expensive. Full-frame lenses are also more expensive. Pro-models are bulky and heavy. May not be allowed in all venues that prohibit "professional cameras with detachable lenses."

Choosing a camera all depends on what you want to take pictures of, how you want to manipulate the image that you will capture, and what you want to do with those photographs later. Many amateur photographers won't be happy if they have to put a lot of "work" into their photographs after a day of shooting, and they may ultimately be happier with a simpler and cheaper camera that still produces a good-quality photograph. Others will want a more complex camera that will allow them to be more creative or create higher-quality photographs.

Selecting that perfect camera that is just right for you is really a very personal decision, and you first have to identify your needs and then identify what type of camera is most likely to suit those needs. Hopefully I have given you some information that will help you answer that question.


John Hultgren
John Hultgren

  

I am a fine art and conservation photographer from Louisville, Kentucky, who uses photography to advocate for conservation outcomes, protecting nature and improving the natural environment. Conservation photography furthers environmental conservation, wildlife conservation, habitat conservation and cultural conservation by expanding public awareness of issues and stimulating remedial action. You can see more of my work at www.hultgren.org.


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