The time has come: you are getting a new camera! But once you start looking and see the current market situation you will probably get intimidated and confused: there are so many models and it’s so unclear which one is the best bang for your buck!
Not to worry. This quick guide should help orient you in the modern overflowing market of digital cameras. So, without further delay let’s begin!
Like with anything else, the most important thing is to ask the right questions. And among those the question why you need a camera in the first place is probably the most important one. Do you need a camera for casual snapshots or would you like to take beautiful landscapes? Do you want it to be able to go wherever you go or is amazing image quality more important to you? Will you be shooting in low light situations? What about sporting events? These are the questions you best have thought through before going shopping.
Chances are, you’re probably using some kind of camera already, and most likely it’s your smartphone camera you use to capture the moments you want to keep forever. And, in all honesty, modern smartphone cameras are great for most situations, but let’s leave this topic for the next time. So, let’s assume that you like the pictures that you are already capturing, however, you are interested in taking it to the next level. No problem! There are cameras that can help you with this. But first let’s understand what photography is about and which specifications you should pay attention to while shopping for a camera.
Photography is all about the light. Really, the most critical thing a camera does (whether it’s the web cam in your laptop or that really fancy camera you saw the other day hanging from someone’s shoulder) is capture light. That’s it. And every digital camera capture light with it's sensor, so the first most important characteristic you should pay attention to is the…
The sensor size is probably the only instance where the good old rule of “the bigger the better” applies in the modern photography world. Technical details aside, a bigger sensor allows you to capture more light and thus means a better IQ (image quality) overall. It also means that you will get less noise at the same ISO settings.
In today’s world there are several sensor sizes. The most widely used by the pros are “full frame” sensors which are based on the size of, the now almost extinct, 36 mm film frame and mimics it's dimensions. But if you’re about to go to the nearest store and buy a camera with such a sensor, be should prepare yourself to pay a hefty price: there’s no camera with this sensor size available for under $1300. This is because the sensor (along with the lenses) is the most expensive component of the camera today.
So, the best value for your money lays a step below with APS-C and Micro Four Third sensors being the best value (ASP-H is also not bad but they are rare as only Canon uses them in a few of their models). Now, these are considerably smaller then Full Frame sensors but they offer the best value for your money without compromising on IQ. Indeed, the image quality of a good APS-C at low ISO setting will be almost identical to that of Full Frame one but at half of the cost! Now, where the Full Frame sensor is still the best is at ISOs higher than 1200 and in very high megapixel count cameras.
Also, bear in mind that the size is not the single characteristic of the sensor you should pay attention to. The generation of the sensor is also almost as important. The newer the generation – the better, as new technological processes in manufacturing and new processors’ algorithms in cameras allow you to get better results at high ISOs.
The good resource to check how good a camera’s sensor is at: www.dxomark.com
This is probably the most common misconception an untutored buyer will have - going after the higher megapixel number. There has been a lot of advertising telling people that the more megapixels you have, the better your photos will be. This was true for some time, but today, that is no longer the case. Truth be told, 8 MP (megapixels) is more than enough for everybody but real pros. That is because of what a pixel is – it’s a point that has (in case of monitor) or records (in case of camera) a specific color.
Every image consists of such dots. With 8MP sensor you have 8 million of these dots or 3264 by horizontal and 2448 by vertical which added together will make a final image. Now, let’s put it into perspective. Your screen probably is a Full HD one, which means it has the resolution of 1920 by 1080 - so that 8MP image is 2.2 times as big as your screen! You can enlarge it by a factor of 2 without any decrease in quality whatsoever. Now, this changes with 4k and retina displays, which have much higher resolutions, coming to masses, so you finally will be able to see your 8MP image in it’s true size. Also, in the physical world, 8MP means that you can print your image 10 inches (25 centimeters) wide at good quality setting (300 dpi) or 45 inches (114 cm) at moderate quality (72 dpi). And indeed, I had a personal experience printing a poster from an iPhone 5 shot at 72 cm wide photo-paper and it came out great! So for now it should be fairly obvious to you that you shouldn’t pay extra for megapixel count unless you want to print really huge images.
This is what I’d say is the second most important characteristic of a camera after the sensor size. Because lens sharpness is what accounts for how clear and crisp your image will be. The problem with sharpness is that there’s no clear metric to measure sharpness. So, the only way to know if the lens of you camera is good is to read some reviews or see sample pictures. The general rule of thumb is that materials used to construct the lens matter! Real glass inside the lens is better than plastic.
And second rule is that prime lenses (the ones without zoom) are always sharper than their zoom counterparts. So, if your future camera has the ability to swap lenses you may want to consider purchasing lenses of several focal lengths, say 24, 50 and 75 mm, rather than one 24-100 zoom. Another thing is that kit lenses (the ones that come with your interchangeable lens camera) almost always suck.
Some good resources where you can check and compare the quality of lenses are:
There were times in the past when you frequently needed to pause and get your subject into focus before taking the picture. Now those times are gone for good and your camera can do this work for you, in most cases faster than even the fastest person. But for autofocus to be precise it needs to use some measurement points. There are two types of autofocus: contrast detection and phase detection. The latter is much better as it allows the camera to focus much faster and more precisely, especially in low light. But the type of autofocus is not all - what also has a great significance is a number of focus points available as having many focus points gives you a lot of flexibility in picking which part of the scene to focus on. Multiple focus points also give the camera a better chance of finding the right part of the scene to focus on in more automatic focus modes.
Having a viewfinder – either electronic or optical – is a pretty convenient option. Even though you can get away with using backside LCD in most cases (so make sure it’s of good quality and resolution, too) there are some situations in which it becomes unusable, for instance in bright daylight. As for which one is better, optical or electronic – it really is a matter of personal preference. However, electronic viewfinders really make use of all modern technology and offer you some extra information as well as guidance during the shooting, something that optical viewfinders simply can’t do.
Optical image stabilization
Now, this is a truly great thing to have. Image stabilization allows you to use slower shutter speeds without getting those blurry images caused by your hands shaking. It works by displacing either the sensor (built-in camera stabilization) or lens elements (lens image stabilization) in the direction opposite to camera body’s movement, so that the optical elements essentially get to stay in one place. It’s a really good feature to have, especially if you do a lot of evening photography of still subjects. Built-in camera image stabilization is better than in-lens ones both in performance and versatility as it will work with any lens you attach to the camera. Unfortunately, neither of the two most popular camera makers – Canon and Nikon – currently offer optical image stabilization in their cameras but let’s hope it changes soon.
Probably the trickiest feature of all. It really depends on what you’re after. Do you want the complete control of all the camera’s features at your fingertips or are you after a super-compact design? Maybe something in between? There is an option for any preference. Thus traditional DSLRs have a rugged feel with many buttons allowing you full control while some of the more compact cameras have only the power button and cover the rest with their touchscreen. And although having more control in your hands may seem very alluring for advanced shooters, you need to remember that it’s always a compromise with the compactness which is especially important if you travel with your camera a lot.
There are also different body styles. New trend in camera design is that vintage look of 70s models. Then there are traditional body designs of DSLRs and techno ones. The choice is all yours.
Also a good feature worth mentioning here is weather-resistance. Some cameras can be used in wet and dusty conditions (which can come in handy when shooting waterfalls, for instance) while for most it’s ill- advised.
So, as you can see there are quite a few things to pay attention to while choosing your camera. We touched on the most important of them here but there are many more. Don’t worry, nowadays it’s rather hard to get a camera that won’t take decent photos. Ultimately there are a lot of things to consider, and a lot of numbers to ignore, but the key is to figure out what kind of photographer you are.
Stay tuned as the guide to currently available models on the market with some buying advice is coming shortly!