A creative hobby such as photography can not only be rewarding but can also have positive health effects.
However some people, especially complete beginners, can find it a daunting pastime to get into.
Not only are there many different types of cameras, from small compacts to DSLRs, but also a whole new lexicon to contend with. Words and phrases like ‘pixel count’ and ‘image stabiliser system’ can be off putting and a little scary if you don’t know what they mean.
The following comprehensive guide to selecting a camera will also explain the science behind key features in simple terms.
On a personal level, I have been taking photographs for many years, starting out with a simple film compact before moving onto a DSLR and now back to film photography. I hope that by sharing some of my knowledge and experience you will be able to find a camera that not only suits you but allows you to grow and develop in your new hobby, creating satisfying images for years to come.
Part 1: The Different Types Of Camera
It is a common belief amongst people embarking on photography as a hobby that an expensive camera will allow them to capture great photographs. However, as with most forms of art, this is not the case. The instrument can only do so much. The success of a photograph depends on so much more: composition, lighting, the subject etc. Basically you can have the most expensive piece of kit on the market but if you don’t know how to use it your images will be average at best.
The first part of this guide will look at the different types of camera that are available. Highlighting the pros and cons of each will help you to get a sense of what type of camera will suit you best. Also if you are interested in a certain type of photography then you may find that one camera will suit your needs far better than the others.
We will then go on to discuss the science behind the technology. Explaining how cameras work and which features will most benefit you. This should help to narrow down your choices allowing you to not only make an informed decision but to get the most out of your hobby.
Different Types Of Camera:
- Standard Compact
- Adventure Camera
- Bridge Camera
- Compact Mirrorless System
- Medium Format
Often referred to as Point and Shoots, Standard Compacts are an excellent starting point for those either just getting into photography or don’t want anything too complicated. Small, light and relatively cheap they are also reliable and, usually, fully automatic. Coming in a range of shapes and sizes you will be able to find one that feels good in your hands.
Almost all Standard Compacts come with an optical zoom lens which, when not being used, folds back into the body. A lens that stretches from 35- 105mm, or a 3-10x optical zoom, will be more than adequate for general purpose use. Lenses that start slightly smaller, around 28mm, are fine for both group shots and landscape photographs while those that stretch to 150mm will capture distance shots in great detail. This size lens means that the Standard Compact is fine for everyday photography.
With a Standard Compact the lens is permanently attached. This means that you don’t have to go to the trouble or expense of acquiring additional lenses. However some Standard Compacts do have the option of wide and telephoto converter lens add ons.
In addition to being fully automatic many Standard Compacts also offer some manual controls, such as the ability to alter the exposure settings. While beginners or less confident photographers can ignore these features, for those with a bit more experience who want to develop their skills this is a great way to start.
Another feature to look out for when considering a Standard Compact is image stabilisation. While we will discuss this in depth later in the article it is basically a means of eliminating the effects of movement, such as shaking hands or an unsteady camera, on an image. Again this is especially beneficial to nervous or new photographers. Even though the image stabilisation systems on Standard Compacts isn’t as advanced as on other options it is more than good enough to help you capture good, sharp images.
With the rise of the smartphone many people feared that Standard Compacts would become obsolete. However the quality of image you get from even a basic Standard Compact still outperforms a smartphone.
In short, a Standard Compact is good for users who prioritize portability and simplicity, while still delivering quality images.
More advanced compacts are available. These are intended for more experienced photographers who want the interaction of a DSLR without having to carry around a bulky piece of kit. Advanced Compacts allow you to control elements such as exposure and focus as well as offering features such as optical viewfinders and external flash connections.
This increased interaction makes them more expensive than Standard Compacts. While the lack of interchangeable lenses means that they are not as versatile as a DSLR.
PROS: Great portability, easy to use, affordable without compromising on quality.
CONS: A more experienced photographer may feel limited by the available options.
Largely similar to a Standard Compact. These are a robust piece of kit as they are designed to withstand the elements. As a result they tend to be waterproof, shockproof and sometimes even freeze proof.
The downside is that Adventure Cameras are not the most advanced when it comes to the features that they offer. As well as being fully automatic they usually offer a few basic controls such as manual exposure and a standard zoom lens.
Despite these limitations they are a good option if you want a basic camera that will do a reliable job in tricky conditions such as snorkeling.
Most Adventure Cameras also tend to feature a wide angle lens. This gives an immersive quality to your photographs.
While these can be tempting option unless you do a lot of extreme activities, which you intend to photograph, then you may be better opting for a Standard Compact. These are robust enough for most people.
Pros: Robust, great option for recording extreme activities.
Cons: Limited features, small sensors mean that photo quality is not good enough for larger prints, better options available for everyday use.
The the stepping stone between Compacts and DSLRs, hence the name. Otherwise known as Zoom Cameras they are similar to Compacts but benefit from a far more powerful zoom lens.
Combining the flexibility of a wide focal range with a compact body they also tend to be slightly larger and more robust than regular Compacts. Like Advanced Compacts these also allow you to manually alter the exposure and focus settings. This gives you far more control over the image that you produce.
The key to a good Bridge Camera lies with its image stabilisation system. We will discuss in depth the science behind this later in the article but it basically means that when shooting at longer focal lengths it is difficult to keep the image stable. An image stabilisation system, as the name suggests, helps the camera to achieve this, allowing you to take crystal clear photographs.
Another popular Bridge Camera feature is the articulated LCD screen. This allows you to comfortably shoot subjects at awkward angles. It can also be utilised to minimise glare when taking photographs in bright conditions.
Many models also offer HD video recording as well as other bonus features such as GPS for automatic geotagging. This is a great feature if you are planning on using the camera while travelling.
Many see Bridges as being neither here nor there. They are not as convenient as Standard Compacts and are not as advanced as DSLRs. As they cater to a slightly more specialised market they also tend to be slightly more expensive than Standard Compacts. However despite their limitations however they remain a popular choice.
Pros: Robust, powerful zoom, allows the photographer a degree of control over their images, great for outdoor activities and travel.
Cons: No interchangeable lenses, slightly bulkier than a regular compact.
Compact Mirrorless System
A relative newcomer to the market these combine the capabilities and features of the DSLR with the portability and affordability of the Compact. Seen by some as the future of photography the Compact Mirrorless System is rapidly growing in popularity.
As the name suggests these cameras don’t have the internal mirror which is a standard feature of DSLRs. This means that they are can be significantly smaller than DSLRs, often only slightly bigger than a Standard Compact. The downside is that they also lack the optical viewfinder of DSLRs. However the presence of an electronic viewfinder compensates for this somewhat.
Unlike a Standard Compact or Bridge Camera the Compact Mirrorless System has interchangeable lenses, which are often lighter and more portable than those that come with DSLRs. This offers the photographer more versatility and control over their image, as well as better portability when compared to a DSLR. However as they are newer to the scene there are not as many compatible lenses available when compared to a DSLR.
Despite these limitations they are growing in popularity as an option and the better quality Compact Mirrorless Systems are slowly being adopted by professional photographers. A good quality option will also come with all the mod cons such as image stabilisation, wireless capabilities and video recording.
Pros: Good image quality, lightweight, good range of features, cheaper than a DSLR, versatile relatively portable.
Cons: Limited lens options, DSLRs can offer more depth/ range.
These are the established choice for both professionals and serious hobbyists.
DSLRs are similar to old school film SLRs. If you have lenses from a film SLR then they might be compatible with a DSLR. This can save you money when purchasing your camera and allows you to quickly increase your photographic range.
Remember that if you are purchasing an interchangeable lens camera such as a DSLR then you will be confined to the brand. Generally lenses aren’t interchangeable across brands because they use specific mounts.
By using either APS-C or full frame image sensors, which we will explain later on, DSLRs give you great image quality. Autofocus and general photographic performance are both also, usually, excellent. A good quality DSLR will give you a good degree of creative control over your photographs. To see what options are on offer you can view our guide to the best DSLRs here.
The downside is that what you gain in quality you lose in portability. DSLRs can be bulky and difficult to transport if you are also carrying multiple lenses. Additionally, because of the mirror, burst shooting speeds are limited. In some models the video function can also seem more of an afterthought than a fully integrated feature.
Pros: Superb image quality, creative features, great range of accessories and lenses.
Cons: Bulky, heavy to carry around, can be expensive- especially if you buy a lot of lenses straight away.
Medium Formats are the ultimate camera. A step up from the full-frame DSLR they have large image sensors which allow for higher image resolution. This allows you to take excellent quality images.
However quality isn’t cheap. They are expensive to purchase and can be heavy and bulky. While they do produce excellent images unless you are incredibly serious about photography a good quality DSLR will give you just as much satisfaction without the bad back.
Pros: Excellent picture quality.
Cons: Very expensive, bulky, heavy.
So far the options that we have discussed have been largely general purpose pieces of kit. In other words they are versatile enough that can be used in most situations.
However there are also more specialist options available. These include things such as the 360 degree camera, waterproof cameras as well as polaroid and traditional film cameras that, like vinyl records, are currently undergoing something of a resurgence in popularity.
As these are for specific branches of photography these can be either more expensive or seem restrictive. Sometimes they require the user to have knowledge of what they are doing and how the camera operates. Unless you have a strong interest in a certain branch of photography these are probably best avoided.
Now that we have explored the various options that are available to you, you should have a better idea of what sort of camera will best suit you.
Part 2: The Science Behind The Camera
The second part of this guide will move on to look at the science behind the camera, explaining many of the technical terms and features and how, if at all, they can benefit you. An understanding of this, however basic, will ultimately allow you to not only make an informed decision when it comes time to purchase your camera but will also allow you to get the most out of your photography.
- Size and Weight
- Live View Monitor
- Pixel Count
- Image Sensors
- Image Stabilisation
- Shutter Speed
- Lens Compatibility
- Flash Systems
- Video Recording
- Battery Life
- Other Things To Consider
Size and Weight
One of the most important things to take into account when selecting a camera is how it feels in your hands.
This applies not only when you are taking photographs but also when you are carrying it around. For example taking a DSLR out with you, as well as a selection of lenses, is a far bigger commitment than simply slipping a Standard Compact into your pocket.
The size and weight of a camera does not dictate how well your photographs will turn out. If you opt for the bulkier option just because it looks more impressive you may find that, once the novelty wears off, you end up leaving it at home to gather dust not memories.
The only way you will know for sure what is right for you is to visit a couple of photography shops and try a few cameras out. This will also allow you to get a feel of the buttons and a sense of how easy the various models are to operate. For a nervous or novice photographer a light, easy to use camera will be a far more enjoyable experience than something cumbersome and complicated.
The viewfinder is the little thing that you look through when taking a picture. Using a viewfinder allows you to see, at eye-level, the image that you are about to take.
There are two types of optical viewfinder system, the pentaprism and the pentamirror. Both of these work in a similar manner.
When you line up a photograph the lens vertically and laterally reverses the image that you are focusing on. The reflex mirror, found in the camera body, re-inverts this image meaning that it is now just laterally reversed. The viewfinder then corrects this inversion so that the image you see is presented correctly, as you see it away from the viewfinder.
A pentaprism viewfinder is most commonly found in advanced DSLRs. It is a single-lens, angled piece of solid glass. When the inverted image is viewed through the pentaprism viewfinder the angles of the pentaprism work to correct the image, presenting it the right way round.
A bonus of the pentaprism viewfinder is that the glass surface offers better “light gathering” abilities and focus than a pentamirror system. This means that the pentaprism viewfinder produces a lighter and clearer image than a pentamirror viewfinder.
The second system, the pentamirror viewfinder, is more common amongst entry-level cameras. Instead of a solid block of glass the pentamirror viewfinder is comprised of 3 mirrors which are angled to correct the inversion of the image. This is a cheaper and lighter option. It is also a more compact viewfinder system than the pentaprism.
While this article will explain more about the science of viewfinders unless you are absolutely serious about photography you don’t really need to worry about the science behind pentamirror and pentaprism viewfinders.
When reading about viewfinders you may come across references to their size. Basically the larger the viewfinder the clearer the view.
To find size of the viewfinder size you need to look out for two numbers, coverage and magnification.
Coverage is how much of the image the viewfinder shows. The optical viewfinder on a typical DSLR will have around 95% linear coverage. This means that you see 95% of the frame width and 95% of the frame height.
Magnification refers to the amount of magnification you would get with a 50mm lens. If you were to hold a camera with a 1x magnification up to one eye and keep the other eye open both eyes would see an object at the same size. The greater the magnification the larger the image appears.
It is good to be aware of the different types of viewfinder and the benefits of each but it is not the most important factor to consider. In truth there will be little noticeable difference between cameras in similar price ranges. As long as you feel comfortable looking through the viewfinder, and it gives you a clear view of the image that you are focusing on, then it will serve you well. The best way to find out is to try as many different types of camera as you can and find out what you feel comfortable with.
Live View Monitor
The live view monitor is the LCD screen which is located on the back of the camera.
It is important that you are able to easily see the live view monitor. Today even standard DSLRs come with a 3-inch monitor with sharper and better resolution. Like the viewfinder It is important that you are comfortable with the size of the Live View screen. This is because it is not only used for reviewing images but also as the means of navigating the various menus and altering the settings of the camera. You don’t want to select something that you find too small and tricky to easily use .
Increasingly manufacturers are fitting touch-sensitive screens like the ones that you find on smartphones. However these can push up the price and aren’t yet worth the cost.
On some cameras live view monitors can be disconnected from the body to create a better viewing angle. This means that it can be used as a viewfinder when lining up subjects at awkward angles. For many photographers the best feature of live view monitors is their ability to focus on various objects. With the touch of a button you can zoom in on an object, this helps to enhance the focus of your photograph.
Much like a viewfinder the most important thing to consider when looking at live view monitors is whether you feel comfortable using it. The happier you are interacting with the monitor the more you will use it and the more you will, therefore, get out of your camera.
Many people, when selecting a digital camera, fall into the trap of thinking the more megapixels the better. However this is not the case.
A high megapixel count does not necessarily guarantee good image quality.
Without getting too bogged down in the science of pixels it is useful to think of a digital photograph as being like a mosaic. Both the digital photograph and the mosaic are made up of many tiny squares. In digital photography these squares are called pixels.
A megapixel is 1 million pixels. The only thing that megapixels tell you is how large your image can be. The more megapixels the bigger the picture.
The quality of your digital image is affected not by the megapixels but by the image sensors. A small image sensor with lots of pixels crammed onto it will produce a poorer quality image than a sensor of the same size containing fewer pixels.
Additionally in some cases, such as photographing images in low light, lots of megapixels can be detrimental to the image quality.
For someone who simply wants a ‘point and shoot’ to take snapshots and either post them online or print out standard size photographs, certainly nothing larger than an A4 sized image, then you will be fine with a 3 or 4 megapixels. If you are starting to take your photography more seriously then a 5 or 6 megapixel camera should be not only able to handle your needs but will also come with some other advanced options and settings. This will keep things interesting and give you room to develop as a photographer.
While you can produce great images with a surprisingly low megapixel count today even entry level cameras offer far more megapixels than you will probably ever need.
Suggested number of megapixels for common print sizes:
Maximum Print Size
Minimum Amount Of Megapixels Required
4 x 6 inches
1600 x 1200
5 x 7 inches
2048 x 1536
8 x 10 inches
2560 x 1920
11 x 14 inches
2816 x 2112
16 x 20 inches
3264 x 2468
One thing to bear in mind is that megapixel heavy images will also take up more room on your memory card.
As we have already touched on the size of the image sensors is far more significant than the megapixel count.
To make the science behind this as simple as possible (but if you want a detailed explanation one can be found here) bigger image sensors contain more pixels, or photosites as they are sometimes called. The more of these that the image sensor can comfortably accommodate the better the detail of the image. A large sensor also allows for a more dynamic range and a better low light performance.
While large image sensors are great, cameras with smaller image sensors are more affordable. They are also, usually, easier to use and more comfortable to carry around with you. As you would expect, a bigger sensor means a bigger lens.
Smaller image sensors also work well with all types of lenses. If your interest lies in a specific branch of photography such as macro photography then you may even be better off with a smaller image sensor. However, as with all specific branches of photography it will pay to do some specific research into the subject, and what sort of camera will suit it best, before spending your money.
The two most common types of image sensor are CCD and CMOS.
To again break the science down as much as possible CMOS stands for Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor. CCD stands for Charge Coupled Device. This second type of sensor has traditionally been more common and popular as it offers good, reliable image quality.
Until recently CMOS sensors have offered lower quality, resolution and sensitivity when compared to CCD sensors. However today the science behind CMOS sensors has significantly improved allowing the gap to be narrowed to the point where there is little to differentiate between the two. The added bonus of a CMOS sensor is that they also tend to be cheaper and have a better battery life.
Sensor Format Guide:
Sometimes referred to simply as format here is a brief breakdown of the most commonly used different sensors sizes, which cameras and manufacturers use them and, if you are an old fashioned photographer, how they correspond to film sizes:
- The Full Frame DSLR comes with a sensor which is the same size as 35mm film, 36x24mm. These are not the most common format and are usually used in high end cameras.
- APS-H corresponds to the H format of APS film and is also not a common format size. Some Canons as well as Leicas use this format.
- APS-C sensors are roughly the same size as the old APS C format film, 15.6mm x 23.7mm for Nikon and 15mm x 22.5mm in Canon. The majority of DSLRs use this sensor size with the exception of Olympus.
- Four-Thirds is a 13.5/18mm sensor. It is the smallest sensor used in DSLRs and is used by Olympus and Panasonic. As well as having a smaller sensor it also has a different aspect ratio, 3:4 against 2:3.
While the rule is generally that the larger the format the better the image this doesn’t really apply. All these formats can produce great quality images of 11x14”. This is about as large a print as most people, certainly amateurs and hobbyists, will ever want to produce.
Note that some lenses are designed only to cover the APS-C format. If they are mounted onto a full frame camera it will result in images with dark corners and low edge quality. Of course the image can be cropped and some brands even include a built in crop mode.
Also Canon’s APS-C format lenses are designated “EF-S” rather then “EF”, which is the designation for full frame lenses. In the Canon system EF-S lenses cannot be physically mounted onto a full frame or APS-H body. This gets around the problem of dark corners in a far less helpful way.
Third party APS-C coverage lenses can be used on Canon full frame bodies. If you choose to do this the images must then be manually cropped to to eliminate vignetting. You will also have to guess or estimate the composition as the viewfinder does not have the markings to show is in an APS-C sized frame.
While it is something to bear in mind you shouldn’t let the type of sensor or its size rule your decision making. Even though the size of the sensor doesn’t overly affect the quality of the image that you take a larger sensor can give you more creative freedom. Despite this unless you are investing huge amounts in your camera the format choice will be between APS-C and Four-Thirds. While the former is slightly larger there is no really discernable difference in quality and ultimately there are more important things to consider.
All digital images have noise. It is similar to how all photographs taken on film have grain.
The science behind noise is complicated. It can be produced by a number of different sources. These include the digital sensors as well as all the electronics which work to collect the analog signal from the sensor and convert it into a digital image.
Generally speaking however the larger the pixels the less noise is generated. This can be seen by comparing images from DSLRs with Compacts. Typically the pixels found in a DSLR sensor are 10x to 20x times larger than those found in Standard Compacts. This means that the DSLR is able to produce images with less noise.
However noise filtering, which is standard on most cameras, will reduce noise at ISO settings up to 800. As a result unless you are experimenting with the settings then noise is not a factor you should unduly concern yourself with. For most people who just want to leave their camera on automatic mode and “point and shoot”, noise should not really be a major consideration.
Despite this you may sometimes produce a noisy image. If that is the case then the noise can be reduced with the use of digital techniques. However these techniques also reduce the detail of the image.
ISO stands for International Standards Organization. It refers to the industry norm for the sensitivity of the film. In digital photography the ISO settings control the sensitivity of the image sensors.
By lowering the ISO settings you are able to lower the noise of an image. Without getting too bogged down in the science of the ISOs this works in a similar way to how a lower ISO film would produce photographs with a finer grain.
The ISO setting affects light sensitivity which means that a high ISO level produces a brighter image. Using a high ISO setting allows you to take clear shots in low light conditions without using a flash. However putting the ISO at a high level increases the chances of producing a noisy image.
Conversely setting the ISO at a low level produces a darker image.
Unless you are going for a specific effect you should only raise the ISO settings when you can’t brighten the photograph via shutter speed or aperture. If high ISO operation is important to you, try to look at some sample images from the cameras that you are considering and see how they compare. Not all cameras are equal.
The science behind autofocus can become a very complex subject. It is not always possible to determine how well an autofocus system will work just by looking at the specifications of the camera.
For most well composed images, particularly those comprising of an easy to see, well lit, static subject every good camera will be able to achieve excellent focus. The difference comes when trying to achieve focus on subjects that are moving, difficult to see or are in a low light setting.
While you can read about the science behind this, and all the other elements, as much as you want it is no substitute for experience. The best way to know how the different options compare, and which will suit your needs best, is to read reviews and, if you are able to, visit specialist photography shops, trying things out for yourself and speaking to people who regularly use the cameras.
While the autofocus system on Standard Compacts is perfectly fine, and will probably never let you down, DSLRs tend to operate better systems. Also, thanks to their size, DSLRs usually offer more than one Autofocus zone. Multiple autofocus zones are useful for tracking moving objects and also for photographing objects that are off centre of the frame.
Autofocus zones come in at least two types, cross and linear. The cross type is more useful as it can focus on both the horizontal and vertical detail. In contrast Linear autofocus will only focus on detail in one direction.
For the vast majority of photographs that you will take you will almost alway use the central autofocus zone. This is generally a cross type. It also tends to be the quickest and most accurate type of autofocus. However having the capability to focus quickly on off centre images is always useful.
If you like to select off centre compositions then consider a camera with multiple autofocus zones distributed widely across the image. Remember however that even cameras with multiple autofocus zones tend to concentrate the majority of them around the centre of the frame.
Metering is used to measure the brightness of a subject. By allowing the camera to measure the light levels it can then work to optimize the exposure. This is done by adjusting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity.
A development in the science behind metering has seen multi-segment metering become increasingly common. This divides the image into multiple segments. Each of these is then metered separately. An internal “smart” algorithm then analyses the data from each of these readings and configures the optimum exposure.
In theory the more metering zones the better, however this is only true to a point. Extra zones often only make a difference for a small percentage of shots, usually those taken in difficult light conditions. Unless it is something that you are particularly keen on utilising, having hundreds of metering zones should not be a deciding factor when making your final decision.
We are now going to briefly look at some of the most common metering systems. While there are other types of metering we won’t delve too deeply into them as they won’t be used by the majority of photographers. If you want to read more about the different types however this is a good article.
Center-weighted and averaging metering modes use a much simpler algorithm than multi segment modes. They are useful for photographers who like to use exposure compensation for images where a centre weighted or average reading will be wrong. Compensating for multi-segment metering can be more difficult since you can never be certain what “smart” corrections the camera has already made.
Partial and spot metering works by taking a reading from a small area of the image. Without getting too deeply into the science behind these two forms of metering spot mode takes its reading from a smaller area than partial mode.
Spot metering is useful when you want to ensure that one particular part of the image gets the correct exposure, even if it is at the expense of the rest of the image. A typical partial meter might use the center 8% to 10% of the frame, while a typical spot meter might only use 1% or 2% of the total frame area.
When it comes to metering there is little difference between the major brands. Unless you are an advanced photographer, or interested in playing with exposure and brightness levels, you will probably have no need to dabble with metering. It is far easier to allow the automatic settings to take care of this for you.
This feature stabilises the image eliminating the effects of camera shake. If it can’t eliminate movement then it greatly reduces it.
The two main contributors to image shake are shutter speed and focal length. If either are elongated beyond the normal standard it can lead to a distorted or blurred final image. Other contributors to image shake are defocusing or subject movement. Therefore the majority of photographers view a built in image stabiliser as an essential.
Lens-shift type image stabilization uses technology to alter the optics of each lens to stabilize the image. Since this form of image stabilization is lens-based, buying a DSLR that adapts to such lenses is a good choice. Most telephoto lenses come with lens-shift type image stabilization. This method also allows you to optimize the stabilization features as per your liking on each individual lens.
The second type of image stabilization, sensor-shift image stabilization, places the image sensors that reduce shake and movement located inside the camera body as opposed to inside the lens. This form of image stabilization allows you to attach any type of lens that you want to the body and the lens will then take control of the built-in stabilization. This is a simpler system as there is no need to optimize or adjust the settings as you would in lens-shift image stabilization systems.
If you are working to a budget sensor-shift type image stabilization is probably the better choice. Lenses with image stabilisation are more expensive and, if you are on a budget, an unnecessary expense. If you are still worried about shake, particularly if you are investing in a DSLR, then consider a more manual solution: tripods. They may not be the latest thing in scientific equipment but there is a reason that thousands of photographers still use them.
When taking a picture the camera shutter remains open for a specific amount of time. This is known as the shutter speed. It is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds.
The most common shutter speed is 1/60 as this allows the sensors to capture the scene perfectly before shutting. Choosing the correct shutter speed will allow you to capture the image that you want without unwanted blurring. While even most entry-level cameras will automatically set the shutter speed based on the shooting environment you can always make manual adjustments if you wish to experiment.
If you are planning on allowing the shutter to be open for a longer period of time it is recommended that the camera is placed on a flat surface or a tripod. This prevents unwanted blurring.
Here’s what you need to consider when altering the shutter speed:
- Movement: If you’re capturing fast-moving objects such as trains or streams, you must decide whether you want to “freeze” the movement in the image or somehow portray the movement. This usually results in a blurry projection of the train or river and is called “motion blur”.
Mastering the art of motion blur takes some practice and experimentation with various shutter speeds.
- Focal length: The focal length functions according to the shutter speed settings. If you’re setting fast shutter speeds, a longer focal length with proper image stabilization will result in a fantastic shot. Without image stabilization, opting for a higher shutter speed than focal length is essential.
Most cameras come with a burst mode, also known as continuous mode or sports mode. Sometimes it is referred to as continuous capture rate.
Burst mode freezes fast moving objects. This allows you to take multiple fast-action shots for as long as you hold down the shutter button. It is particularly useful for sports and nature photography. In this mode the shutter speed is set to the lowest measure allowing for the capture of multiple images.
Sometimes pressing the shutter button can cause a slight movement that may result in a blurry photograph. So using the self-timer mode for fast-action shots is a good way to avoid unnecessary movement. This is especially true if you do not want to miss a one off opportunity such as a passing train or a goal being scored.
With the help of a tripod to keep the camera steady you can set the burst mode and, for example, a 8 second timer. This allows you to capture an image 8 seconds after you press the shutter button.
Some DSLRs also come with a continuous self-timer feature. This means that you can take multiple shots a certain number of seconds after you press the shutter button.
The number of consecutive shots you can take at the maximum rate, before the camera must slow down, is known as the buffer size. Most DSLRs range from 2.5 fps (frames per second) to 10 fps. Unless you are intending to shoot action sequences 2.5 fps will do the job for the vast majority of photographers.
For someone new to photography burst mode is a great starting point to explore various shutter speeds and the effects that they can create.
Even if you plan on sticking to the automatic modes aperture is a useful thing to understand. Aperture affects exposure. Altering the aperture allows you to brighten or darken an image.
Without using the too many scientific terms aperture is the hole in the lens which lets light into the camera body. Making the aperture smaller allows less light into the body. Making it larger allows more light in. The more light, the brighter the image.
In bright conditions you will generally use a small aperture and in darker conditions a larger aperture.
Aperture can also affect the depth of field. If an image has a “thin” or “shallow” depth of field the background will be out of focus. A “large” or “deep” depth of field can have both the foreground and background in focus.
Aperture can be expressed as a number. This is known as an “f number” or sometimes an “f stop”. The aperture value appears after the letter, either expressed as f/8 or f6. Some manufacturers write the aperture with a colon rather than a slash.The smaller the number the larger the aperture and the less light getting into your image.
While aperture can be controlled automatically many photographers like to alter the setting manually.
There are two ways of doing this. “A” or “Av” is Aperture priority mode. “M” is manual mode. The former lets you select the aperture while the camera selects the shutter speed. The latter allows you to control both. If this is important to you make sure your camera has these different modes.
Remember as well that, if you are using a DSLR, the lens you use will also have a limit over the size of the aperture it can cope with. The lens specifications will tell you the limits of the lens.
The minimum aperture is not so important, almost all lenses are at least f/16 which is fine for everyday photography. The maximum aperture is more important. A lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.6 will be faster than a f/3.8 lens. A faster lens lets more light in than a slower lens. Faster lenses usually cost more. So important is the maximum aperture that it is included in the name of the lens.
Finally you might notice that on some zoom lenses the maximum aperture decreases as you zoom out. More expensive lenses maintain a constant maximum aperture throughout their zoom range.
If you have chosen to invest in a DSLR then it will almost certainly come with a basic lens. While this is perfectly functional and will be great for everyday photography it will lack many of the features that more advanced options enjoy.
If you do decide to invest in something a little bit more advanced you will be delighted to learn that there are many types of lenses to consider. While some are general purpose lenses others are more suited to specific types of photography. For example a lens suited to macro photography will offer you a different photographic experience to a wide angle lens.
Here are some of the more commonly used lenses and the reasons why you might want to consider investing in them:
- Standard lenses: These range from between 35 to 85mm in frame and capture what the human eye sees when looking through the viewfinder of the camera. They are good for capturing natural and subtle images. They are also good for portrait photography. This is a good, multi-purpose lense for beginners.
- Wide angle lenses: ranging from 18 to 30mm in frame. Wide angle lenses offer better depth of field and “light gathering” capabilities than the standard lens. Particularly useful for large group shots or panoramic landscapes.
If you do opt to invest in a wide angle lens then pick a good quality one. Cheaper lenses don’t produce the same quality of image as more expensive options.
More expensive wide angle lenses correct the inward angle. Often when looking through a cheaper wide angle lens straight lines such as walls on a landscape will curve slightly inwards on the frame. This effect will transfer to your image and can distort your photograph. While the problem can be corrected in Photoshop a good quality lens should completely negate the issue.
- Fisheye lenses: 12mm or less in frame. These lenses produce images with exaggerated depth of field and detail. Fisheye lenses are popular amongst bloggers and offer a distinctive image which can be both practical and minimalistic.
- Telephoto lenses: Between 100 to 300mm frame. These allow you to take close up pictures of objects or people that are a great distance away. They produce images with a flat depth of field without compromising on image quality and resolution.
Larger and more expensive than the other lenses that we have looked at telephoto lenses are often favoured by wildlife photographers as well as the paparazzi. Always remember to take a tripod with you as a telephoto lens can start to feel heavy and bulky after some time.
If you already own an old SLR or SLR lenses then remember that the DSLR bodies of most of the major camera brands, Canon, Nikon etc are fully compatible with their SLR lenses. Other lenses, including those made by 3rd party manufacturers, can be mounted onto a DSLR however you may have to buy a special mount. It is always worth checking with the seller or manufacturer before purchasing. Or, to make it easier, stick to one brand.
Also if you are investing in lenses along with a DSLR it is worth the time learning how to look after them and keep them clean.
If you intend to do a lot of flash photography then take some time to explore all the available flash systems and accessories. Unlike other aspects there is no universal standard here. Some manufactures make DSLRs with a built in flash which can act as a wireless controller for an off camera flash. Others require you to mount the flash or a flash controller. This means that you will have to buy the flash separately.
Finally some manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon also offer special flash systems designed for macro photography. Because of this variation, and if it is something that is important to you, it is worth doing some research before you commit to buying a camera.
The vast majority of digital cameras store their pictures on removable memory cards. While there are many different types available the most common formats are CompactFlash and Secure Digital or SD for short.
Of the two SD is increasingly becoming the preferred option, especially amongst Standard Compacts. There are many reasons for this. Firstly SD cards are small and relatively cheap. Despite their small stature they are capable of holding many hundred of photographs.
A 4GB SD card may not seem very large but in a 5 megapixel camera it will hold over 2600 photographs. In a 10 megapixel camera the same sized memory card will hold just over 1300 images. Basically the more megapixels the fewer images you will get on a memory card. While for many people a 4GB memory card will be plenty, larger cards are also available.
Another thing in favour of SD cards is that increasingly laptops and other devices come with built-in SD card slots. This makes transferring and accessing your pictures even easier.
This is not to say that CompactFlash cards are something to be avoided. Larger than SD cards they are reliable, fast and, like SD cards, are capable of holding large amounts of photographs. Generally CompactFlash cards are used in DSLRs, especially professional level cameras.
One advantage CompactFlash cards have over SD cards is that they are slightly larger and therefore easier to handle. This is particularly useful if you are swapping cards over in a hurry or, like me, you are a little bit clumsy.
CompactFlash cards are also slightly faster than SD cards. While many use this to argue in favour of CompactFlash cards, improvements in the science behind the various types of memory cards means that today the difference is not really noticeable.
Almost all digital cameras come with video recording capabilities. Today even entry level DSLRs come with the ability to record in HD 1920 x 1080.
This makes it easy for photographers to edit, crop and publish HD videos online. Some DSLRs and Compacts will also offer fast video transfers either with a USB cable or a SD card slot. Others come with a HDMI input for direct video linking. Additionally you will find that many options also come with microphone and headphone jacks for better recording and playback.
While all these features are attractive if video recording is important to you a more important aspect to base your decision on than its video recording capabilities is the camera’s ability to correct recording and focusing issues. For example recording HD videos in low light can cause excessive noise distortion. More advanced DSLRs come with intelligent video recording features that help you control exposure, light sensitivity and audio whilst recording. If you want more control and performance in your video recording then opt for a DSLR with a manual focus functionality.
Lots of factors affect battery life. Cold weathers, consistent shooting, and using advanced settings can all drain the battery faster than usual. If you are concerned then a weather-sealed DSLR with durable housing can save you from cold weather troubles.
Little tricks such as turning off the wireless connections, turning down brightness of the LCD screen and powering off the camera between shots can all help to conserve the battery. Additionally DSLRs offer better battery life when compared to Mirrorless Cameras.
However battery life should not be a deciding factor. If it is a concern then you can always invest in a second battery pack or even a portable battery pack.
Other Things To ConsiderOther Features
Many digital cameras, especially DSLRs will come with features that you have either never heard of or, even if you have, will probably never use. If you don’t think that you will use these features, however attractive they initially sound, then don’t allow them to sway your decision. Instead work out which features are important to you, ones that you will regularly use when taking photographs, and search for a camera that has these.
Don’t assume that all cameras have all functions. Take the time and do your research. For the amount of money you will be investing it is worth the effort.
The basic, and most commonly used features are flash options, red eye fix, a self timer and various shooting modes such as Black and White or Sepia. To many photographers the optical zoom level is also an important consideration. Manufacturers often publicise the zoom as being “30X”. Often this actually means 10X Optical multiplied by 3X digital. So really you only have 10X zoom. While this level of zoom is still more than useable it is nowhere near as good as 30x zoom.
In addition to memory cards, an extra battery pack, tripods and, if you are buying a DSLR, lenses then you may want to invest in other accessories. An external SSD drive can serve as a portable backup for your memory cards. This means that in the unlikely event that the card should fail you won’t lose all your precious photographs.
Another popular accessory is a sturdy and padded camera case. Whenever you are out and about you will want something to keep you kit safe. While many people opt for rucksacks or specialist camera cases other prefer a trendy messenger bag. There is no rule to follow here, just pick something that you are comfortable carrying and will protect your camera.
When purchasing your camera find out if there is software for sorting and minor image manipulation included. This helps to ease the process of moving your photographs from the camera to the computer. While some people opt to upgrade to Photoshop or similar programs if you don’t intend on doing much image manipulation then the free software will be just fine.
Durability and Warranty
You can never be too careful, especially when it comes to expensive electronics. It is better to prepare for the worst and never need to use your warranty than drop your camera and be left without any support. While this may mean having to pay a little more when purchasing your camera try to view it as an investment. You wouldn’t drive without insurance so why would you risk your camera?
Almost all officially purchased cameras are accompanied by a one year warranty that covers manufacturing defects. Moreover, most warranties are valid worldwide but make sure that you check the terms when you are making your purchase.
Price is obviously a major factor in any camera purchase decision. Once you have a rough idea of what sort of camera you want, look around to see what options are in your budget range before narrowing the choice down further.
Bear in mind that the range of features that a camera comes with will also push the price up. If you want a camera with all the features it will cost you more than a basic option. However if you don’t intend on using all the features, and simply want a point and shoot style camera, then don’t be swayed by all the bells and whistles. If you don’t think that you’ll use them then it is probably a waste of money.
As with anything if you see a camera that is incredibly cheap then it is probably too good to be true. While quality does cost money there are, if you look around, plenty of deals to be had.
Also remember that if you are investing in a DSLR you will also need to invest in lenses. Most photographers will spend more on lenses than on the camera body itself- it would be silly and a complete waste of money to use cheap lenses on an expensive body. Before committing to your purchase balance your budget between your camera and the lenses that you wish to use.
Finally remember that newer models are not always the best option. Now that you are aware of the science of the camera you will be able to compare the features of the latest models with slightly older models.
You may find that for your needs there is little difference between the newer models and last years version. In this case opting for a slightly older but less expensive camera may be the better choice. Just because the camera is old doesn’t mean it can’t take good photographs. This saving may also allow you to invest in better lenses or other pieces of kit.
This rule also applies to second hand cameras. As long as they are working and suit your needs then they can be a great option. Especially if you want to jump straight in with a DSLR.
Whether you choose a Standard Compact or DSLR your camera should be one that feels good in your hands and that you are comfortable using. These two things are far more important than wi-fi or other added features. If you are comfortable using your camera and aware of what it can and can’t do you are well on the way to taking great images.
Remember that while it may be time consuming it is a good idea to visit one or more camera shops. Try different models out, looking for one that feels good in your hands. Also make sure that the screen is bright and sharp enough for you and that you are able to use the controls comfortably. These are factors that you simply can’t find out from online reviews.
If you are still undecided camera reviews are everywhere. As well as reading review websites and dedicated magazines, photography forums are welcoming places which are packed with people who will have experience of the cameras you are considering and will be more than happy to answer your questions.
Finding the camera that is right for you takes both time and effort. However once you understand the science behind them, which hopefully this guide has helped to explain, and know what you want from your photography, you are well on the way to finding the camera for you.
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.