Choosing a Digital Camera

 

Choosing a Digital Camera

Because of the inherent stability of OS X and the popularity of iOS devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad), the Mac user base continues to grow. Macs have long been a favorite of graphics professionals so it is no surprise that “Switchers” first priority is often photography. We see many questions like, “I just got my new Mac and I love it . . . What software do I need for photos?” or “How do I get my pictures from my camera into iPhoto?”, or even “I need a new camera; what should I buy?”

My goal is to address the last of these questions: “What camera should I buy?”  The answer is, of course, “That depends . . . ..”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Everyone is different, an oft repeated truism, but the truth regardless. A digital camera is not the end, but part of the path toward solving a problem, the problem of capturing and recording images for immediate use and/or posterity. Since we all have different situations, resources and needs regarding those images (photos), it shouldn’t be surprising that the best solution will be unique to each of us.

What I am saying is that most of us really don’t care about the camera. If we could look at a scene and directly transfer it from our mind to our Mac for storage and sharing we would be delighted. The camera is a vehicle, not the destination. Ultimately it comes down to getting the pictures we desire, where we want them, when we want them, and with the least cost, aggravation and effort.

Before I continue to the next section, I will say, for many people a smartphone is the best camera and the best solution. For example, the iPhone 4s produces more than acceptable images for the majority of people, is easy to use and is almost always available for use. And, it painlessly uploads those same images for later use (for those who are using iCloud and Photostreaming). But, for those wanting or needing a little more, read on.

What is a Digital Camera

A camera is a device for capturing images by optical, chemical, mechanical or electronic methods, or through a combination of all of these. I won’t go into these alternative methods here, as that is a subject for another article. Suffice it to say, that all consumer cameras use a lens (typically glass), a capture media (something to absorb and respond to the light gathered by the lens) and some controls for focusing and adjusting the amount of light exposure the capture media sees. The first commercially successful consumer cameras used photographic film as the capture media.

The first digital cameras were film cameras modified to replace the film carrier with a photosensitive chip that converted the light to digital pulses which were then electronically developed through software into a resulting image. As you can imagine these cameras were expensive, technically complex, not user friendly, fairly low resolution (i.e. poor image quality) and, again, expensive. But, as price came down and image quality improved the digital camera market took off.

Today, when someone purchases a camera we don’t even ask whether or not it is a digital camera as film photography has returned to its pre-George Eastman status, as the province of a few dedicated professionals and amateurs willing to accept the additional cost, time and effort for the specialized results they are able to obtain through use of photographic film.

 

Digital Cameras Digital cameras are commonly grouped into three categories:

1) Digital Compacts (90% of the cameras marketed and sold)

2) DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex)

3) Mirrorless (these are essentially a hybrid of the first two categories)

 

Canon Compact Digital

Nikon DSLR

 

Sony Mirrorless

 

 

 

 

 

Despite their differences, all of the cameras above incorporate the three design elements previously mentioned, 1) a lens, 2) a sensor (the capture media) and 3) controls. Having established theses basics let us turn to how each of these components factor into our choice of a digital camera.

 

The Lens, Your Camera’s Eye on the World

 

 

There is another old truism, GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out).  If you take a fantastic sensor with exceptional controls and feed it a garbage image, it is going to capture (with utmost accuracy) a garbage image.

Your photo starts with the light the lens passes into the camera. If that light is distorted or degraded the resulting photo will be as well. It is as simple as that.

The ideal lens will allow the optimum amount of light into the camera with the least distortion. Generally that equates to a relatively large expanse of high quality/high cost optical glass in a complex stack of lens elements. Lens design is a science unto itself, and I won’t even attempt to go into it here, other than to say, the lens is the most important part of any camera system, period, end of statement.

 

Interestingly, that is not the message we see in camera advertisements, or in comments and recommendations from friends. The message is that camera choice is all about the megapixels, which brings to our next section, capture media.

The Sensor – Size Does Matter After All

Megapixels, megapixels, megapixels . . . the more the better. Right?

Wrong. I will explain why, but first a brief explanation of what megapixels are and how they relate to your camera.

A camera sensor is an integrated circuit (IC) chip that has the property of reacting to light by responding with an output voltage which is interpreted by the camera’s internal image processor as a digital one or zero. Each photo-reactive site on the chip is called a pixel. The more pixels, the more information about the image the sensor is able to record. This is similar to the pixels used on LCD screens and to a lesser extent the ink dots printed on paper by modern ink-jet printers. In general the more dots, or pixels and the closer they are together, the greater resolution (quality and accuracy) of the resulting image we perceive.

In an ideal universe the only thing we would need to consider is the number or megapixels. But, as we all know, the universe is not ideal. In addition to number, we also need to consider the pixel spacing or density and sensitivity.

As this is intended to be a primer on cameras, I will leave the topic of sensor sensitivity for another time (if ever).

Pixel density, or how many photo-sites are crowded into how small of a space, is a major factor in sensor performance. The problem is one of noise.

Think in terms of moving from the suburbs into a cheap apartment. Inside the isolation of your house your neighbors might as well be on the moon for all the impact they normally would have upon you. But, one of the joys of apartment dwelling is that you get to hear everything that happens next door and above and below you. The noise or cross-talk is communicated from apartment to apartment due to the close quarters and poor insulation (sound deadening).

The same thing happens in camera sensors. Squeezing a large number of pixels into a small sensor chip means that every pixel hears and is influenced by what is going on at the neighbor’s. Modern cameras utilize sophisticated computer algorithms and circuitry to combat this noise problem, but it remains a problem, a problem that becomes more and more prevalent as exposure conditions become less ideal i.e. in low light scenes.

For this reason, with all else being equal, when it comes to camera sensors, the bigger the better.

The picture below compares some common sensor sizes. Full frame (35mm) refers to the most common size of photographic film image. As previously mentioned, the first digital cameras simply replace the film with a similarly sized photo sensor. The small frames shown, 1/1.8”, 1/1.6” etc are sensor sizes that are commonly used in compact digital cameras as opposed to the larger sensors (Full Frame, APS-C and Four Thirds) commonly used in DSLRs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Megapixel for megapixel a larger sensor will produce a better, lower noise image and allow higher sensitivities than a small sensor.

 

And Last - It’s a Matter of Self Control

If you always took pictures of exactly the same things, in the same environment and wanting the exact same resultant photographs, you would really need only one control.  A button to push when you wanted a picture.  Obviously that scenario doesn’t fit the overwhelming majority of us.

We take pictures indoors and out, in full sunlight and in shadow, of objects moving and still.  And, we desire different perspectives on those same photos, from intimate closeups for portraits to stark almost surrealistic vistas for imposing landscapes, and many variants in between.

To allow you to accomplish these goals the modern camera is equipped with a sophisticated control system to monitor and manage several factors, the most predominant and commonly discussed of which are:

1) Shutter Speed — this is the length of time (normally in fractions of a second) that the shutter will be open, allowing light to shine on the camera sensor.

2) Aperture — think of the pupil of your eye, expanding and contracting with changing light levels and you have a good idea.  Aperture relates directly to the ability of the lens to allow light to pass through to strike the sensor. (see the diagram below)

3) ISO (sensor sensitivity) — I said I wouldn’t be discussing this, but I lied (sort of). I will only touch this at a very high and simplistic level.

In the beginning, all of these control decisions were made and implemented manually. You have probably seen reenactments of 19th century photographers telling their subjects to smile and then removing a lens cap by hand and counting or watching a clock, before covering the lens again.  No wonder the old time portraits looked so stiff! People had to literally grit their teeth and hold their breath to keep from blurring pictures due to the long exposure times used. Long exposures that were needed because the photographic media was relatively insensitive (Low ISO) and the apertures were fairly small (small diameter lenses and lens openings) which meant not much of the available light striking the capture media; in this case chemical films on glass or tin plates.

Again, this has been a very brief overview of camera basics. I plan on covering some of these topics in greater depth in later articles, time and reader interest permitting. Now, I will turn our attention to the most important part of the camera, the part attached to the shutter button, which of course is YOU.

It Is All About You After All

A sad but unavoidable reality is that you can’t buy good photography, only good equipment. Ultimately the quality of your photos depends far more on you, your photographic eye, knowledge and technique than it does the camera you use.

Ansel Adams, possibly the greatest landscape photographer of the twentieth century, began his creative career with a camera like this one.

 

Kodak Brownie Box Camera

 

As the caption indicates, the camera was essentially a lightproof box with a lens, shutter mechanism, and a film spool. The brass key on top of the box was for advancing the film between shots.

Later he graduated to more sophisticated equipment such as the view camera shown in the photograph below.

 

 

Despite working with what we would consider primitive equipment today, he was able to capture stunning images that most of us only wish we could produce. I include myself in this group of hopefuls.

But, this is not an article on technique. I mention it here in passing to show why when it comes to camera selection, it truly is important to “Know thyself”. To pick your best camera you need to understand your abilities and desires as it relates to the science and art of photography.

What Type of Photographer are You?

The first step is to determine where you are right now, and as important, where do you want to go. Most people have no real desire to learn photography. They want good pictures, the process of acquiring them is unimportant and uninteresting.

This is a completely fine position to take. And if that is you, you fit solidly into group number one below. Look at this list and find which best describes you.

1. Point and Shoot – I want to click the shutter, save and share my pictures and be done.

2. Point and Shoot, but wanting more – There are times I wish I could take that special picture.

3. Aspiring Enthusiast – I’m ready to take the next step and really learn how this works.

4. Enthusiast to Expert – You don’t need my help, so go someplace and shoot some Rad Pics.

If you fall into the first two categories above, camera selection becomes fairly easy. What you are looking for is a good quality Compact Digital Camera. Spend a little time on the Internet reading reviews and lists of recommended cameras, then go to your local camera store, big box store, or practically any store of your choice and play with the demo models. What you are looking for is one that feels “right” in your hands, with a lens appropriate to your typical subject.

Focus on a nearby object, then zoom the lens through its range. Pick a more distant object and repeat. Make sure the zoom control falls easily under your finger and it smoothly covers the range of subjects YOU typically are interested in shooting. If you rarely, if ever take pictures of junior out in left field, eagles soaring over the mountains, or squirrels perched in the top of trees you don’t need a Super-zoom. A one to eight (8X zoom or less) is probably adequate, and considerably more compact.

Take some time and access the menu and if you can, take a few trial pictures. I always carry an SD Card (Memory Card) with me when I am out looking at cameras so I can look at the results afterwards. Admittedly, this is probably overkill for shoppers in this category, but it doesn’t hurt to take the extra effort.

Ignore the hype on megapixels, special features yadda, yadda, yadda. Practically any modern Compact Digital Camera will produce exceptional photos with practice and decent photographic composition and technique. What you are seeking is handling, comfort, convenience and suitability to your subject matter (adequate zoom range) and ease of use. When you find a camera you like, buy it and enjoy.

For those of you in category two, much of the above applies, but add to that an emphasis on trying the menu and controls. I invite you to read through the advice for the next category, those who are “Aspiring Enthusiasts”, as it will help explain what you are looking for here and why.

If you are a “Point and Shoot” photographer, but really want to take control, instead of just relying on the camera to do its business, you will probably want a more advanced Digital Compact Camera. The designations here can be at confusing best, but a few things to look for typically distinguish cameras in this range.

Things you will typically find on more advanced models:

1) Better Optics (lens). Visually the lens will often be larger and the f number printed on the lens (and in the brochures) will be smaller. Typical offerings for advanced digital cameras are lenses with f numbers 2.8 and below. The smaller the f number, the larger the maximum Aperture, and the more light the lens is capable of capturing. (See the section for Aspiring Enthusiasts for more on this subject)

2) Optical Viewfinder. Whether this is important or not depends upon you (until you try to take pics in full sun in the desert while using the LCD display on the back of your camera). Most enthusiasts find an optical viewfinder to be a significant asset .

3) Manual Controls. Using the Menu is all well and good, but the ability to rapidly adjust Aperture and/or Shutter Speed without having to take your eye off of your subject will often mean the difference between capturing that special picture or missing the shot entirely.

Going Beyond Point and Shoot

For the Aspiring Enthusiasts, your choices are numerous and confusing without a more thorough discussion of photography basics. So, bear with me for (hopefully ) a few paragraphs.

The first thing to understand is that your ultimate goal with your new camera isn’t to accurately capture and reproduce what the camera lens “sees”, but what your mind’s eye “sees”. Honestly, this is what shifts photography, despite the hard science behind it, into the realm of art.

The best example I can offer for what I mean is subject isolation. You are shooting a portrait of your girl friend, wife, or significant other. They and they alone are the focus (pun intended) of your photo. To achieve this you need to be able to manage Depth of Field (DOF).

Depth of Field is the range between the nearest and farthest objects in the camera view that appear to be in sharp focus. In general, the larger the lens Aperture (think small f number) and the longer the lens in focal length (200mm vs 50mm) the shallower the DOF.  Proper use of DOF allows the photographer’s subject, in this case a portrait, to be in sharp focus, while the background dissolves into a pleasing blur.

For a landscape shot it is more often desirable to achieve maximum DOF so that everything within view is in sharp focus. For this you would move toward smaller Apertures (large f number) and shorter lens focal length (typically 10-16mm for APS-C DSLRs).

Another tool in the photographer’s bag is Shutter Speed.  With it he can freeze action at a Nascar race, capture the moment of impact of a tennis ball and racket, or if he chooses, bring ocean waves to life through capturing motion blur by choosing and intentionally “too slow” shutter speed.

Sensitivity, controlled through ISO selection, gives the photographer the ability to match desired Shutter Speed to Aperture required for proper DOF. The trade off for higher sensitivity is more noise and overall degradation of the image. Higher sensitivity settings, designated by higher ISO numbers, are critical for taking pictures in extreme lighting conditions, such as low light scenes, candid shots on a city street at night, while lower ISOs better handle intense light, as in noon day desert sun conditions.

To most effectively use these tools it is often neccesary to change lenses, as an all-in-one lens that covered the full range of focal lengths desired and Apertures required would be expensive, impractical and huge (think Bazooka). There are other reasons too, such as reduced distortion and greater sharpness which are easier to achieve through lenses designed to a single fixed focal length, or to cover a smaller zoom range. If changing lenses is a factor in your decision you have basically two options; a DSLR, or a Mirrorless camera (some of which look like shrunken DSLRs).

It is possible an Advanced Compact Digital camera such as the Canon G12 or Nikon P7100 is all you really need.  Both have decent optics, manual controls, and relatively large (for a compact digital) sensors.  And either will allow you to take your photography to that next level with a minimal investment in basics and technique.

But, if you are truly wanting to take control a DSLR or Mirrorless is your choice. They offer much large sensors than are typical of Compact Digitals, with all of the advantages and disadvantages the larger sensor brings.  Also, you gain the flexibility of interchangeable lenses as well as compatibility with accessory flash units for better control and balance of subject lighting.

This enhanced flexibilty and performance is not without cost, both in dollars and size. Even the smallest DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras are too large to be considered “pocketable”.  Add to that the additional lenses and accessories and even the most compact kit of this type becomes a significant weight and space consideration when hittitng the trails.

Which of these to choose, a DSLR or Mirrorless, and especially which DSLR or Mirrorless, is a subject too extensive for an article like this.  I will only say that everything I mentioned before about handling applies in spades here. In addition, you will need to look at the total package. By this I mean available lenses and accessories. When you purchase a DSLR (or Mirrorless camera), you aren’t so much buying a camera as you are buying into a camera system.

Camera bodies wear out or are superseded by the next great thing, but good lenses go on forever. With a DSLR and with a Mirrorless camera as well, your greatest investment is in glass (lenses).

 

The Choice is Yours

I hope this has helped clear up misconceptions and prepared you to make your best choice. If nothing else, you are ready the next time a salesman approaches and says, “Its all about Megapixels!”