Photography 101 – what’s the best camera for you?

Well it’s ‘tech week’ (or ‘geek week’ as the operations team calls it!) here at Peregrine so the ‘techies’ up in marketing have asked me (Steve Wroe, Destination Manager for Peregrine India and Nepal) to write something ‘technical’ on photography. So, I’m going to talk about camera choice. And because this is tech week, I’m only going to talk about digital cameras.  

Leaving camera phones aside, there are three basic types of digital camera: SLR, advanced digital (or ‘prosumer’) and compact digital (or ‘point and shoot’). Each camera has its place, and I have owned all three types. I currently have a digital SLR (DSLR) and a ‘point and shoot’ (compact).

In case you don’t know this already, digital cameras have a ‘sensor’ covered in pixels. The sensor has basically taken the place of film – capturing the image. It then goes through a processor and blah blah but I’m not going into that!

Let’s look at each type of camera.  

 
Compact ‘point and shoot’ cameras have the obvious benefits of being small and easy to use. These days you can get very good compact cameras – the technology has increased dramatically over the last five years or so. They are unobtrusive (pointing a Canon 1Ds SLR with a massive zoom lens on the front can freak people out – especially if you’re in developing countries). Compacts are also easy to carry around.

However, the lens on these cameras is very small compared to a bigger camera so image quality is compromised. This is particularly noticeable if you use the zoom. The lens’ ability to magnify the image is poor (I’m referring to optical zoom here, not digital). Compacts are hopeless for wildlife, but work fine in a market in Asia or the streets of Rajasthan. They also tend to perform poorly in low light (unless you use the flash) although the high-end ones are a bit better. If you’re serious about photography, you will rarely use a flash, especially the little flash units you get in compact cameras.

However, there are a few compact cameras that have pretty good lenses and do a good job. I think that this is one of the best: Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5.

It has a Leica lens (Leica is the ‘Rolls Royce’ of camera makers) and has a 24-90mm lens. Many compact cameras won’t go as wide as 24mm and 35mm is often the maximum width on cheaper cameras.  The lower the number of mm, the more you fit in the frame.  Wide angle lenses allow you to get much more in the frame and are great for shooting in markets and the like. 

This Panasonic is not cheap, but takes very, very good pictures.  If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, the cheaper Panasonic compacts are fine, as are the usual suspects: Canon, Nikon etc.

Prices for compact cameras vary between about US$250-$750. You get what you pay for. Here is a good article on higher end compacts.

Mid-level, advanced digital cameras such as the Canon G12 above offer a happy medium for a lot of people. The lenses are much better than you get on compact cameras and are sometimes interchangeable (you might have several different lenses you can attach). Sometimes they have one lens that has a huge focal length range – from wide (24mm or so) to super zoom (300mm).

They also have more manual controls for people whose skills are more advanced and they want more creative control (or want to learn). You can often attach filters such as polarisers and an external flash. Image quality is very good.  

They are bulkier than compact cameras but a lot smaller, lighter and easier to handle than most SLRs.  They’re a good option if you don’t want to carry a bulky camera and fiddle around with changing lenses, but do want to improve your photographic skills.

A few good ones to consider are:
Canon Powershot G12 (I like these)
Olympis E-PL2


SLR stands for ‘Single Lens Reflex’ and if you love photography and want to get the best image, this is what you want. The lenses are interchangeable, so as your skills or interest in photography changes, you can upgrade lenses, or buy a range of lenses to suit different situations. The variety of lenses available is huge. Digital SLRs are called DSLRs.

If you’re starting out, I think you should get a couple of zoom lenses. One wide angle zoom (say 17-40mm or 24-70mm) and one mid-range zoom (70-200mm). Purists and professionals often prefer fixed focal length lenses e.g. 100mm, 24mm etc etc. The reason for this is that the image quality is slightly better as there are fewer pieces of glass in the lens body (zooms need several pieces of glass inside the lens in order to cope with the range of focal lengths). But pros often have the luxury of taking the time to set up a shot whereas we mortals have to work quickly and don’t have the time, confidence or authority to set things up. That’s where a zoom comes in handy.

Now this is where things get slightly complicated because there are (simplistically) two types of digital SLR. The first (and more expensive) will have a ‘full frame’ sensor. A full frame sensor (remember the sensor is the thing that ‘captures’ the image) is the same size as a bit of 35mm film.  

The other type of DSLR has a smaller sensor, about 24mm. Because smaller sensors are cheaper and easier to produce, they are usually the more popular entry-mid level cameras. However, because the sensor is smaller or ‘cropped’, it effectively magnifies the image coming through the lens. So, a 100mm lens will work like a 160mm lens in most cases.

This article explains it pretty well: Full frame sensor vs crop sensor – which is right for you?

This image helps demonstrate the difference too - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nifmus/3079184353/

I use a Canon DSLR so let’s look at those to keep things simple. The budget-mid range cameras such as 550D, 600D, 1000D, 1100D, 50D, 7D etc etc have the cropped sensor. Canon makes EFS lenses that are designed to work with these smaller sensors. If you use a Canon EF 24-70mm on these lower-end cameras, it will function like a 38-112mm lens because of the magnification factor. The EFS equivalent of the 24-70m is the 15-85mm (with the magnification it’s like a 24-136mm actually). Most lower-mid range Canons will come with an 18-55mm which equates to 29-88mm.

I hope I haven’t lost you – it’s difficult to explain!

I like the look of the Canon 7D as a mid-range DSLR, the 60D is a bit cheaper and still good and at the budget end the 600D is fine. More than adequate if you’re starting out. All of these have a cropped sensor.

If you’re looking at a higher-end DSLR, I absolutely love my 5D Mark II and highly recommend it. It has a full frame sensor, more mega pixels than you will ever realistically need, beautiful tone and colour rendition. My sister-in-law is a professional photographer and she and many of her colleagues choose the 5D Mark II instead of the very expensive (and bulky) 1Ds Mark IV.

As for lenses, I have a few but my main two are:
Canon EF 70-200 f4 IS
Canon EF 24-70 f.2.8

My third most-used is the trusty EF 17-40mm f4.

If you’re still reading and haven’t fallen asleep... for keen photographers out there… I use the 70-200 f4 IS because I found the f2.8 IS too heavy to carry around all day. It is a fantastic lens and although you lose a stop and the depth of field isn’t as shallow, I’m happy to make that sacrifice.

If you’re keen on a high-end DSLR, this buyer guide is very good and worth a read: Buying a digital SLR

In case you haven’t noticed, I think dpreveiw.com is a great site for unbiased reviews of all sorts of cameras, by professionals.

I also like this consumer review site http://www.photographyreview.com/

Other great sites are:

- http://photo.net
- http://www.fredmiranda.com
- http://www.the-digital-picture.com

Good luck and enjoy your photography.

Steve

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