Monday, March 12, 2012

Photography for Beginners: How to Buy a Camera (Part 1)

The consumer camera space has exploded in diversity since the fall of film (and Kodak).  With so many choices it can be very confusing for consumers who just need something to capture fun family moments and post them to Facebook.  When I worked in the photography department at Circuit City my job was to try to guide people to the camera that would best fit their needs for the lowest cost.  That's what I'm going to try to do here.

In this guide I'll walk you though the different classes of cameras, and try to help you determine what type of camera you should look into.  In the near future, I'll try to write a buyers guide for each type of camera.  In those posts I'll go through the specs that matter, and let you know what to look out for.  As I finish those posts, I'll add links to them here, so this can be a central hub for all of my Camera Buyer's Guide posts.

That's enough explaining what I'm going to do.  Here we go.

Camera Phone

  - Free (if you already have one)
  - Ultra portable
  - Extremely easy to share pictures

  - Lower resolution (small sensor)
  - Bad in low light
  - No optical zoom
  - Usually little manual control

This one might seem silly, but the way smartphone cameras have progressed, there might not be a reason for you to buy a separate camera (provided you already have a smartphone).  Many smartphone cameras are now around 6 to 8 megapixels in resolution, which is more than enough for making standard sized prints or uploading to the internet.  

The obvious huge advantage to using your camera phone is that it's always on you.  Most smartphones also make the process of sharing your pictures painless.  If you have a Android smartphone and use Google+, you can set it to automatically upload your pictures (set to private initially), as this commercial (right) for Google+ shows, this could be a life saver.  There are also Facebook apps for most phones that allows you to upload pictures.

Smartphones are not dedicated cameras however.  They have small sensors, and small lenses.  This equates to a lower resolution than most dedicated cameras, and generally very poor low light ability.  You're also not going to have any real (optical) zoom to speak of.  And usually you won't have very much control over the settings used.  I would imagine that an app could be made that gives the user more control over typical camera settings, but I haven't seen one myself.

If you are just wanting to capture events to upload to facebook and maybe print a few to put on your fridge, then your smartphone might be plenty of camera for your needs.

Point & Shoot
  - Cheap
  - Very portable
  - High resolution
  - Many cool specialized features
  - Usually easy to use
  - Many capture video as well

  - Limited zoom range
  - Poor optical quality (not great lenses)
  - Poor low light

Point & Shoot cameras originated in the film world as very simple cameras with fixed focus points, zooms, and a built in flash so that all the user had to do was simply "point" and "shoot."  Moving to digital, these cameras had a bunch of new features to help serve that same purpose.  Electronically controlled lenses allowed for autofocus.  This innovation allowed consumer friendly cameras more zooming options without worrying about pictures being out of focus.

This was actually taken with a DSLR (Seth Casteel),
 but it shows how awesome underwater photography can be.
Since moving to digital, the point & shoot market has exploded.  With so many players in the space, company's have had to find ways to differentiate themselves.  This has led to many really cool specialized features for different cameras.  Some are waterproof, dustproof, dropproof and whatever type of proof you can think of.  Others can shoot high speed video, or can even upload directly to your computer over wifi.  And most of them will shoot fairly high quality video as well.

Point & shoot cameras are going to be the cheapest digital cameras you can find.  And other than cameraphones, they are going to be the smallest cameras, many will fit right in your pocket.  The other main advantage to point & shoot cameras is that they are very simple to use.  The automatic settings on these cameras will give you adequate images almost every time.  You probably won't be blowing up these pictures to poster size, but they'll be fine for documenting your kids birthday party and posting them to Facebook.

This $179 Canon camera can shoot video at 240
frames per second. Perfect for analyzing a golf swing.

Image quality on these cameras will okay at best.  The lenses on these cameras were designed to be small first.  They sacrifice zoom range and low light ability for the sake of size (Although you will find some point & shoot cameras with huge lenses on them).  The other disadvantage, again related to size, is the sensor itself.  The smaller sensor sizes on these cameras compared to SLR's make it much more difficult to capture highly accurate low light scenes.  This means that indoor shots taken without the flash on will be very pixilated looking.

Due to the highly specialized nature of point & shoots, there could be many reasons to buy one.  If you have a pool and you want to take underwater pictures, want high speed video of your golf swing for analysis, or simply want a cheap camera to document life's events a point & shoot camera might be your best bet.  As long as you aren't looking to make really high quality pictures and don't mind giving up most of your controls to the automatic settings, you probably will be fine with a standard point & shoot camera.

This ended up being much longer (and taking much longer) than I expected, so I'm going to break it up into two parts.  In a week or so I'll release part II which will include superzoom camera's, DSLRs, and maybe I'll unravel where these new micro 4/3 cameras fit in line with the current consumer lineup.

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