The amount of cameras available in the market is too damn high.
You’re probably here because you have a penchant for photography, but you don’t know where to start. Fear not, you have come to the right place – we’ve come up with the ABC of identifying the ideal camera to suit your needs.
First off, picking a camera is not like picking a smartphone. You need to pay attention to what’s on the inside, outside and even in between. And so I decided to poke a few people who literally live with cameras. We got in touch with some of the most popular photographers in Colombo and asked them how they would proceed about the business of buying a camera. (Photos by Ushan Gunasekara)
Know thy purpose
The first thing every photographer I came across mentioned was: “know your purpose”.
You see cameras going from the size of your palm – all the way up to huge canons (pun intended). Cameras can mainly be categorized into a few categories: the point and shoot, bridge cameras, Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLRs), and mirrorless systems.
Point and shoot cameras are the commonly seen, easy-to-use, small digital cameras. This category is the ideal pick for casual use. Say you travel a lot, meet many faces, and you need a better camera than your mobile phone, point and shoot is what you should look at. The quality of these cameras is mostly directly proportional to their Megapixel count (commonly referred to as ‘MP’), which in turn is directly proportional to its price. They are highly affordable, perform reliably and extremely easy to use; hence the name.
If you want to explore photography in more detail, you should consider an interchangeable-lens camera such as a DSLR or a mirrorless. Capturing portraits, landscapes, sports, and events require more control, and the ability to change lenses is essential. A DSLR or mirrorless has two main features over a point and shoot: the interchangeability of lenses, and the ability to manually adjust settings.
Mind you, lenses are expensive, and to fulfill your needs, you’re going to have to spend a lot. Going for a DSLR means you are either financially capable of going for something more than a point and shoot, or you are looking at a future career in photography. Unless you qualify for the above two classes, going with a less expensive point and shoot would do.
Another thing to keep in mind is the sensor’s frame. A frame, simply put is the area in which the image is captured. Cameras are often categorized as full-frame cameras and cropped-frame cameras. Full-frame cameras can capture the entire 35mm frame – 35mm being a holdover from the days of film cameras – where as a cropped-frame takes only a portion of it.
Think of it in this way: if the full-frame can capture a 10×12 area, a cropped-frame camera will capture around 6×7; a hazy analogy, but it works. Full-frames are comparatively expensive, even compared to high-end DSLRs, and even top-shot photographers use cropped-frame cameras most of the time – so don’t think of it as a low-end feature. Keep in mind; the frame of a camera is integrated in the camera’s body, which means you can’t change it from full to cropped or vice versa.
Then there’s bridge cameras, also known as superzooms. They function like a cross between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR: you can’t change the lenses, but instead they usually have a single lens that covers an extremely long zoom. By and large the advice I received from photographers was to avoid these. However, I’ve been told by tourists that bridge cameras fulfill a great niche for someone who wants to capture images, especially from far away, but wants to do it without the hassle, expense or maintenance of a DSLR.
The nuts and bolts of the camera
Let’s get geeky. It’s not enough to have money in your pocket: you need to know what to look for in a camera.
Starting off with point and shoot cameras: your main concern should be MP. But to get you up to speed, even mobile phones come with 8MP cameras. Quality varies, but looking over the tech in play, cameras in the 16MP range tend to be fairly versatile modern shooters.
Then there’s the zoom. Point and shoot cameras will restrict you permanently to what comes in the box, so it’s important that you check its zoom range before buying. You can find a Canon PowerShot A3500 IS with 8MP and x5 zoom or a Sony Cybershot W810 with 20.5MP and x6 zoom for a little over Rs. 15, 000.
As for DSLRs, more things come into play.
For starters, a good understanding about sensor size is essential. The large the sensor, the more light it captures.
Next comes ISO performance.. ISO is the level of sensitivity of the camera to the available light: think of it as your eye’s pupil: when light is less, the pupil enlarges, and vice versa. Likewise, a high ISO is needed if you’re taking pictures at night or in a dark environment. However, increasing your ISO also results in noise in your images.
Then there’s camera’s shutter speed. Shutter speed (also referred to as ‘exposure time’) is the time in which the camera’s shutter is open. The longer it is open, the more detail your camera absorbs.
The third factor you should look into is the aperture. The aperture affects a lot of things – including the amount of light your camera takes it – but it indicates the depth of field you can achieve. Aperture levels reach from f/1.4 – the lowest to f/8 – the highest. When the aperture level is lower you have less depth of field, and hence more of that “blur” that we see in professional photography, particularly in products, and is useful for close-range work. A higher level is more useful when you want to capture details in the background.
Hence, it becomes highly relative. What do you intend to do with the camera? If it’s low-light photography, you’d need something that does well at high ISO settings, with a large sensor and shutter than can be slowed down quite a bit. Wildlife? In that case, you’d be better off investing in a set of zoom lenses. Sports photography? You need an insanely fast shutter. Different photographers and different situations require different lenses.
“Remember, it’s all about the lens. Buy a Nikon D3200 or a Canon 600D and stick a 50mm 1.8 lens on it, and you’ll have some brilliant images – after you learn to use it. “
It’s always a good idea to Google the model and the lenses you’re planning. We haven’t covered sensors or image stabilization fully here, because that’s a topic for another day – a discussion in sensor tech in itself is a whole mountain of data. Also remember that getting a photo out of a DSLR and onto your Facebook page may take more work than you expect, especially if you shoot in RAW. Again, a whole other minefield.
Big names to match your budget
Now for the big debate of “Nikon is better than Canon” and “Sony all the way!”
“Nikon’s bodies are generally far more feature rich, with better color depth and image quality, but Canon makes up for it with super focusing systems and far cheaper lenses.”
Ah, yes. This is where even professionals lose their objectivity. It’s the same as iOS versus Android – but there are tons of Windows users as well. Likewise, brands are merely your preference; they have their differences, but serve the same purpose at the end. So let’s not get biased here. By now, you might have a fair idea about your purpose of buying a camera: make your choice based on your budget.
Which brings us to money. A point-and-shoot camera makes life simple. Even in a tight budget, you can get your hands on a low MP camera for under LKR 10,000. You can go for a very fine point and shoot if you can afford around Rs. 30,000. Above that point generally come the bridge camera, all the way up to 60,000 or more – and again, there are some fine cameras in this range. The choice is yours. More expensive is generally better.
Going with a brand new camera along with a kit lens (starter level lens) can start from Rs. 45, 000 upwards. If you don’t mind going for a used camera, you can even go for a Nikon D3200 or a Canon 550D/600D for that price.
Where things get expensive are the lenses. Again, there’s a lot of brand choice here. Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tamron are some of the most popular.
That’s just a start. Like all electronic devices, cameras outdate fast. Once again, going for a DSLR means you have hopes to be a photographer, and that means you’ll need future-proof gear. Picking up a camera like Nikon D3100 or Canon 1100D for Rs. 50, 000 may be suitable if you’d sell quickly – it may depreciate to half the value under a year’s time. Expensive cameras – like Canon EOS 7D means you’re all geared up and secured for quite a long time.
The design and ergonomics
It’s quite important that you find your camera comfortable. Try holding multiple cameras, check whether your fingers are ready to click fast, and see multiple brands as they have different designs rather than going entirely for a name: each brand, and often each model, has its own button layout.
Also, you need to know what kind of photography you’re going to do – and what kind of situation you’re going to do it in. Point and shoot cameras are all almost the same. They’re slim and portable, easily stowed in a pocket, and few people would look askance at someone taking out a little camera in public and snapping away. Bridge cameras look like DSLRs, and therefore they’re quite noticeable.
DSLRs are a different ballgame: since you’ll be carrying around a fair bit of equipment, including lenses, flashlights and extra batteries, expect to have to saddle yourself with a whole bag of equipment.
As an option, you can look at lens filters. They can provide adjustments – especially in how your camera percieves light and colour -without changing your lens. These are niche, so we’re not going to talk about them here: most people just use Adobe Lightroom.
That’s that: we’ve covered – in brief – all the essentials you should consider when picking a camera. Once again, know your purpose of buying a camera. A Rs. 50,000 investment to take pictures of flowers is surely not a wise choice unless you’re planning to go into floral photography.
Not everybody needs a DSLR: indeed, sometimes even your smartphone would do perfectly well. Take a moment to identify your needs, think a few years ahead, and see whether you’d need a big, bulky camera or an easily pocketable point and shoot.
Good luck and happy clicking!