Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Digital Photography 101 (part 2)

Choosing the Right Camera
Some people say the camera is only as good as the person using it. Although that may have been true in the days of manual film cameras, the amount of new technology crammed into modern digital cameras helps even mediocre photographers look like pros. Unfortunately, technology can't break the laws of physics yet, so you still need to understand what physical limitations your camera has.

Function over Form
Go to any big box electronic retail store and ask the sales guy what's the most important feature customers are looking for in a camera and they will say that it's the style and look of the camera not the kind of picture it produces. Since we are all price conscious consumers, this has led manufacturers to make two types of cameras: stylish cameras that take bad pictures, and ugly cameras that take stylish pictures. Therefore, chances are, if your camera comes in four designer colors like in the picture to the right, it's probably time to be shopping for a new camera.

Compactness Has its Usefulness
I'm not saying that you should be throwing away your compact, portable cameras. Often times, their portability means you can always have them around to take shot whenever you see something interesting. Also these small cameras are often inexpensive, making them suitable for places where your more expensive equipment might get damaged or stolen. Since almost everyone has one of these cameras nowadays, I won't go into them any further.

Fixed Lens vs DSLR
High performance cameras fall into two main groups: Fixed lens (or standard digital camera) or DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). As you can guess the biggest difference between these two is that DSLR's are designed with interchangeable lenses in mind. Your fixed lens camera should have a decent optical zoom range and aperture size. Most "prosumer" models have attachments that go over the fixed lens to increase the zoom or increase the field of view however if you are planning to go that route it would be better to jump directly to the DSLR since any lens you buy is likely to remain compatible with the cameras you buy in the future (provided you stay with the same camera company).

Must Have Features
  • Manual shutter speed, aperture, ISO control - Lets you control the exposure. Be sure that there is a way to manually set all of these at the same time.
  • Little or no shutter lag - Shutter lag is the time between when you press the button to take a shot and when the camera actually takes the shot. Anything that takes longer than a split second on a sunny day is too long in my book.
  • A low noise/high ISO capable sensor is a big help in low light situations when you need a higher shutter speed
  • A Shutter timer lets you press the shutter button, but the camera wont take the shot until a few seconds have passed. This is invaluable for taking those long exposure shots where the shake from pressing the button will cause motion blur.
  • RAW file format - If you're willing to deal with larger image files and post-processing software, then being able to shoot in the camera's "raw" format (instead of Jpeg) is the only way to go. Raw formats usually contain much more image data especially in the dynamic range, allowing you to recover hidden detail even with a badly exposed image.
  • Adjustable autofocus points and/or manual focus - Often times what you want to focus on isn't exactly in the middle of the shot.
Nice to Haves
  • Hot shoe for flash - if you need a flash, you must use an external flash simply because no built-in flash can provide even diffuse lighting if its shining straight at the subject inline with the camera.
  • White Balance metering - Not necessary if you shoot in raw, but if you're not, then this will ensure that your images show up with the right colors.
  • Image Stabilization - This will allow you to take some shots that you couldn't without a tripod. It only helps if you are moving, not so much if the subject is moving. On DSLR's this is sometimes implemented in the body and other times its in the lens.
Since the price of entry level DSLR's have been plummetting I will recommend that you get a DSLR if at all possible. There's really no substitute to the flexibility of attaching different lenses to your camera. Plus there is no single lens that is good at everything so its unlikely that the lens on a fixed camera will suffice for all your needs. In my next article I'll delve more into the specifics of shopping for a DSLR so you can make an informed decision.

No comments: