The most frequently asked question here at BetterPhoto.com is "What kind of
camera should I buy?" And this is usually the hardest question to answer.
Let's look at what this question really entails and get you some answers.
The first thing you need to find out is what format camera will work best for your
needs. There are basically 4 different camera formats: Point and Shoot; SLR; Medium and Large Format, and Digital. Let's take a look at each.
Point and Shoot
The simplest cameras allow you to literally point the camera in the direction you are looking and push a button to shoot the picture.
These cameras are usually best suited for people who want to take pictures only occasionally. For photos of family parties, snapshots from vacations, etc. - taken with the simplest, most compact, and most foolproof camera, this is the way to go. Professionals often carry a point and shoot as a backup to their SLR or medium format camera.
There are generally very few options or controls to worry about. There is no need to manually focus, no need to make aperture and shutter speed settings, and nothing to attach. Usually, the flash will just go off automatically when the camera thinks it needs a little extra light. Point and shoot users can usually get by without ever having to open the owner's manual. These are also great for those who consider themselves technically challenged.
With all of the artistic decisions being made by the camera, point and shoots are often not the best for those interested in learning how to make creative, artistic statements. The better point and shoots offer the ability to select special modes, force the flash to go off (or not to go off, as the case may be), and utilize high quality lenses to capture much sharper, more pleasing photos.
Many point and shoots have a built-in zoom lens that will allow you to get a little closer to the subject. Even though point and shoots with zooms cost more, they are worth it; the ability to recompose your photo on the fly and fill the frame with your subject will make up for the extra cost.
Near the top of the back of these cameras lies a small window - the viewfinder - which you look through to get a rough idea of your potential photo. You do not look though the lens itself so, as you get closer to a subject, you see a slightly different area through the viewfinder than the camera sees through the lens. This often causes people to be surprised - when they get their prints back from the lab - to find that the subject of their picture is slightly off-center.
Most of these cameras use 35mm film. Very easy to find, 35mm is by far the most popular size of film available today. You can find it in almost every supermarket or convenience store.
Some use APS film (which stands for Advanced Photo System film). One added benefit to this type of point and shoot camera is that it is virtually impossible to load the film wrong. The canister that the film comes in has a slightly irregular shape which makes it possible to only fit in the camera one particular way.
Some expensive point and shoots do allow you to control aperture, shutter speed, focus, and lighting options; these are more the exception than the rule. These more expensive point and shoot cameras are popular with photographers who shoot often, need high quality, and like the simplicity and compactness of point and shoots. A good example of such a photographer might be one trying to inconspicuously get candid photos on people in the city, on a subway, etc.
This is by far the most popular camera among serious photographers. While point and shoots have the general consumer market share (because everybody can take pictures with a point and shoot), SLRs are a favorite of wildlife and nature photographers, photojournalists, sports photographers, and more. You will even see them being used more and more in weddings and portraiture - two areas previously dominated by the medium format camera.
SLR stands for 'Single Lens Reflex.' This simply means that instead of looking
through a separate window as your viewfinder, as you do with point and shoot cameras, you actually look through the lens of the camera itself. For this reason, what you see in a SLR viewfinder is much closer to what you actually get than what you might see in a point and shoot viewfinder.
This camera is best for people who want more from their photos and who can handle a bit of technical complexity. If you want to control focus so that you select which parts of the picture are in focus and which parts are blurry, this is the camera for you. Many students use SLRs to learn how aperture and shutter speed are controlled to determine exposure. You can do things like:
- Blur the brake lights of cars passing in traffic
- Get that smooth water effect with rivers and waterfalls
- Take pictures of fireworks, lightning, and other tricky subjects
You can also change lenses on an SLR to get different effects. For example, you can:
By simply switching lens, you can go from shooting an amazing little ladybug to capturing the joyous expression on your kid's face as she makes a goal in soccer. There are even more specialized lens options to chose from, such as fisheye, telescope adapters, microscope adapters, and more.
- Zoom in closer to small or distant subjects such as a little bird in the backyard
- Include a wide vista or an entire room with a wide angle lens
- Get close-up or life size photos of very tiny objects with a macro lens
You also have different options with flash, timers, multiple-exposure, studio set-ups, fast motor drives... the choices are many.
Although SLRs take a bit more hands-on work to load the film, it is still not difficult. If you can figure out how to set your VCR timer (even if you never have actually set it), you will have no problem working with an SLR. The SLR can furthermore be set on an easy, basic program mode while you learn to make more challenging photographs. This way, your early photo shoots won't all be frustrating experiences; you can come home with satisfying pictures, learning and mastering advanced features as you go.
You can shoot quickly with an SLR, making it ideal for wildlife and sports photographers. Most of the time, you can successfully shoot while hand-holding the camera, although a tripod often helps get the best pictures.
SLRs are fantastic cameras and very appropriate for people who want to learn more about the artistic side of photography or try to start making a little bit of money through their photographic endeavors. Most professional photographers use this sort of camera because it so successfully balances versatility and general ease of use.
Medium and Large Format
These cameras appeal to those who want to have even more artistic flexibility and greater clarity in big enlargements. They are a bit more challenging to use. If SLRs are for people who can set their VCR clock, medium and large format cameras are for those who actually do set their clock.
Medium format cameras use much larger size film than 35mm SLRs and point and shoots. The larger size films appeal to people who want to be able to have their photographs enlarged 8" x 10" and larger. With this bigger film format, photographers can make bigger enlargements with a tight grain and satisfying clarity of detail.
With artistic flexibility and larger film size comes a more challenging complexity and higher sticker price. More expensive than the other choices, these cameras also require more patience and persistence in learning how to take good photos with them. The controls and film loading are generally manual, so you have to be willing to work harder and take longer to set up the camera. While some (much more expensive) options recently introduced to the market handle autofocus, most are manual.
If you find medium format challenging, large format photography will knock the wind out of your lungs. Large format photographers often take a half hour or more just to set up one shot! These cameras are big boxes, usually on wooden tripods; these photographers are the ones under the black cloth as the make the exposure. There are two main varieties: 4" x 5" and 8" x 10", each corresponding to the size of the film used.
So why do people bother with these cameras? They can take amazing photos. The color, sharpness, and ability to capture light and detail is wonderful. When you see those huge photographs by professional photographers in the art galleries, they are often shot with large or medium format cameras.
The latest and greatest in camera technology is the digital camera. With these cameras you'll never have to worry about film again.
Instead of using film, these cameras hold the pictures in computer memory - either in a little, removable card or hard-wired into the camera itself. As soon as you take the picture, you can transfer photos right onto your computer where you can email it, post it to a Web site, or print it off on your computer printer.
Most digital cameras are similar to point and shoot cameras. You look through a separate viewfinder to compose your subject; you use one lens - whether it be a fixed lens or a zoom lens; and most models have an automatic, built-in flash.
Along these lines, digital cameras are about as easy to operate as a point and shoot. It helps, of course, to read the owner's manual to use the camera to it's full potential. The main differences between operating a 35mm point and shoot and operating a digital camera have to do with high-tech issues such as resolution, file formats, transfer rates, etc. People who are not afraid of their computers are usually thrilled with digital cameras.
Digital cameras often have a lot of handy options, such as a small screen in the camera to view the picture you've just taken. As you are shooting, you get immediate feedback, knowing right away if the picture did not turn out. As you are photographing portraits, for example, you can share your photos with the people in them and erase poor photos with the push of a button.
Another big advantage is not having to take film into a lab. Not having to scan in photographs or film can be even more attractive. If you know you want to share your photos online - either in email or on the Web - digital cameras can be extremely convenient.
The two most common complaints about this type of camera are:
So these cameras are usually not the best for taking pictures of fast-moving subjects such as dolphins or for those who hate to deal with computers.
- There is a slight delay when you push the button to take a picture - so if you are taking a picture of a dolphin jumping out of the water, you'll have to anticipate the jump to catch the picture. If you push the button while the dolphin is in mid-jump (or even just popping its head out of the water), you've already missed it.
- If you intend to print the picture, you'll need a good color printer and good software to manipulate the images on your computer before you can print them successfully. It can be a little intimidating finding one's way among all the high-tech choices.
More expensive digital cameras (in the $5000 - $30000 price range) combine the cool features of digital imaging with SLR camera body types, allowing you to change lenses, take pictures quickly, and use sophisticated external lighting set-ups.
Once you've picked the camera format that sounds most appealing to you, the next step is to look at price range. Ask yourself what you feel comfortable spending.
Buying a camera can be compared to buying a musical instrument or a computer. You can invest in a top of the line model and have it for the rest of your life or buy a student grade model, knowing that you won't be out much if you decide to upgrade. You may also find it beneficial to look for last year's hottest model, instead of overspending on this year's top camera. Digital may be the exception to this rule; since these cameras are growing so quickly, you may want to get the latest and greatest, even if it costs a bit more. In any case, save up and get what you really want; go for the highest quality you can afford.
Point and shoot cameras range from less than $100 to $1000 or more, the most common models being about $150-$300. The difference is usually in the quality of materials in both the body and the lens; the high-end point and shoot will have a better quality lens and generally take a sharper image. Some will offer manual controls, a very handy feature for photographic artists.
SLR cameras - as a kit with one lens - range in price from about $400 to over $3000. For a professional SLR camera with a variety of lenses, several thousand dollars can be easily spent.
A set of many lenses is what can put an SLR package way up in cost. One basic rule to live by when buying multiple lenses: pick only two or three to start. While the highest quality lenses (always the most expensive) do make a huge difference, it may not be necessary to buy the most expensive lenses if you are beginner just starting out. Start simple and get to know what size lenses you like to work with. You may find that 90% of your work is macro - therefore a macro lens would be more appropriate for your shooting preferences than a super telephoto. You can always graduate to the next level after you master the art of making a good photo with one lens.
Medium and large format cameras generally start at around $2000 for just the body and go up from there. While a used medium format package - a camera body with one lens and one film back - might cost about $1000, a new autofocus medium format package could easily set you back $5500 or more.
Decent digital cameras start around $500. You can get cheaper models for $100-$300 but these usually produce poor results and lack many features. SLR-style digital cameras cost $5000 and up.
Brand and Model
Once you've picked a format and you know your price range, the next step is to choose a brand and model of camera. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, Kodak... all have good reputations. Ask for personal recommendations from friends and family.
Go to the camera store and ask to try various models out. Don't depend on the salesperson's opinion unless you've had experience with them and trust them.
Instead, take the camera for a test drive. Pick it up and feel its weight. Do you like how heavy or light it is and how it feels in your hands? Fiddle with the buttons and attachments. Are they easy to read and move?
Before purchasing, see if there is a pro camera shop in your area that rents the camera so you can shoot with it for a weekend. A roll or two of film is a small price to pay for knowing first-hand if you like how it works. Far too many people buy a camera flippantly only to put it in a drawer after a few frustrating experiences. By trying it out ahead of time, you won't be surprised by things you don't like about it.
We'd love to hear your comments on your favorite cameras and experiences buying the best camera. To share your impressions on particular models, go to the BetterPhoto Reviews section, find your camera, and write your review. Good luck, and happy camera buying!