We know very well that the first thing any new photographer is confronted with is the hard task of selecting the necessary equipment. It is not easy for anyone to make sense of the vast number of digital camera brands and models that we have been flooded with over the past years. Perhaps the greatest difficulty comes from the fact that the consumers themselves do not know exactly what they need. Is there a perfect camera? It is hardly possible to give a simple answer to that question… You are more likely to find out that the only correct answer is ‘Each task in photography requires a certain type of camera’. On the one hand, super compact digital cameras have the advantage of being everywhere with us, conveniently carried around in an inner pocket or a handbag. They are user-friendly, low maintenance and do not draw too much attention while offering very good quality under favourable light conditions. At the same time, they are not suitable for low light conditions as their lenses have poor light power and small-size sensors with low sensitivity to light. They also tend to produce flatter images and especially when it comes to portrait photography it is hard to make the subject stand out from the background using defocus. This type of camera is suitable for a family camera or a second, complimentary camera. Modern smart phones have in recent years almost entirely replaced the compact digital camera class.
Ultra zoom models use the small sensor which is typical of the more compact models, but they are also equipped with high-quality inbuilt optics and a greater focal length range. They are particularly suitable for people who do not want to invest in expensive single-lens reflex models and optics but still appreciate the advantages which come with a greater focal length range and image stabilisation and with the possibility to use some additional accessories typical for the single-lens reflex models.
DSLR cameras with interchangeable optics offer unparalleled range of opportunities, high sensitivity and the possibility to work with a huge number of lenses, flashes, filters and other special accessories. On the other hand, they are heavier and less convenient to carry around and it costs a lot of money to have a full set of good lenses. This type of camera is designed with the more advanced amateur photographers and professionals in mind who may wish to develop their skills or invest in expanding their equipment.
In the last few years we saw the emergence of a new ‘middle option’ – the so called ‘Hybrid’ cameras or mirrorless models. These are cameras with interchangeable optics and a large sensor in a smaller body which may, with a suitable lens, fit comfortably into the pocket of your jacket or a small purse. The new hybrid models are a strong and successful competitor of single-lens reflex cameras and are an increasingly attractive alternative even to professionals.
There is no universal camera. Just like there is no universal car. The different types and classes of cameras have their strengths in one respect and their weaknesses in another. However, the size of the sensor is one of the most important features in a camera.
- A compact camera or a smart phone
If you have already decided that the sophisticated and expensive systems with interchangeable optics are not for you, that you would like your future camera to fit easily into your pocket and be in the light-weight category, then the best choice for you is a compact digital camera or a smart phone.
- What brand should I choose? This is one of the questions which many people ask before they proceed with buying their future camera. Our advice is that it is a safe bet to select from the products of well-known producers, whose cameras are sold at many locations and which provide warranty service across the country. Avoid unknown or doubtful names, despite their aggressive marketing.
- Sturdiness of the body. This type of cameras typically feature light-weight plastic bodies but some models within this range come with sturdy aluminium or magnesium bodies. In recent years some producers released special water and shock resistant models. If you love extreme or water sports and you want your camera to be with you always, it is logical to consider such models. This type of water resistant cameras and telephones are particularly suitable for family photos on holidays. The emotional experience is guaranteed and it comes without any worry that water may enter into your camera/telephone and without any awkward additional protective cases. The pictures below were taken with small water and weather sealed cameras Olympus and Pentax:
- Sensor size and resolution. Modern phones have almost entirely replaced compact cameras but you should still keep in mind that the camera in your phone most frequently comes with a small sensor – 1/2.3 ” This is the reason for higher noise levels in low light conditions.
It should be noted that sometimes more pixels in a very small sensor does not necessarily mean higher image quality. If, however, you have decided to choose a compact camera, you should look for models with a relatively big sensor – 1”. Such a camera, in combination with a lens with good light power and an option for manual settings, will render much higher quality than a much more expensive phone. If this is definitely your choice, it will be more cost-effective to buy a less expensive smart phone and a small pocket-sized camera with a 1” sensor. If, however, you do not want to carry two devices around, look for a smart phone with the largest possible sensor (1/1.8 ” is a good option) and options for shooting in RAW format with manual settings.
- Lens. It is important for the lens to have greater light power (F1.8 – F2.8) and, where possible, image stabilization; this means that you will be able to take good photos even under unfavourable light conditions. For ultra-compact models a good light power, stabilization and large optical zoom are difficult to achieve, but there are some models, even within this range, which feature a good image stabilization system. The possibility to attach additional accessories to the lens – conversion lenses, filters, lenses, and shades, is an important advantage.
- Display. An articulating display is a good feature to have, as it gives you the opportunity to shoot from different angles and viewpoints.
- The option for full manual setting is not to be lightly overlooked, even in compact models. It gives you the opportunity to be more creative and to experiment and it is in any case an advantage to take into consideration when making your choice. The higher classes of smart phones also have manual settings.
- Sensitivity. You should keep in mind that amateur cameras within this range work best within the 50 to 400 ISO range. However, the availability of higher sensitivity is an advantage and it is practical when printing on 10×15 cm for the family album.
- Flash. All compact cameras have a small inbuilt flash and some have the option to attach an external one. Usually the range of the inbuilt flash is up to 2-3m. In addition to having a more powerful flash, it is equally important to consider how uniformly it illuminates the object and the minimum distance at which it can be used without overexposure of the entire scene.
- Macro mode. Most producers speculate with the macro function advertising the closest distance at which you can shoot. It is much more important to be able to take a good quality macro photo from a greater distance. There are cameras which can achieve greater magnification ratio in macro mode at a distance of 15-20 cm with long focal length compared to others at a 1 cm distance and wide angle lens settings.
- Software Sometimes it is good to be able to edit your photos right on the camera itself and then send them directly to the nearest photo studio for printing. Look into the options which your future model offers in this respect. Most commonly the software of the camera offers some standard options such as rotating, cropping, scaling and for some models – overlaying with certain digital effects. All smart phones now have different types of software for image editing.
- Video mode. Most new models offer very good video with high resolution and with some models you can also use the optical zoom of the lens, which is a considerable advantage over smart phones. While some may try to convince you that a camera is just a camera and that if you want video, it is best to buy a video camera…. the truth is that the video quality which modern digital cameras can offer is good enough for the needs of amateurs and, in recent years, of professionals as well, so there is no point in overlooking this extra feature. That is why we recommend that you buy a camera which can shoot videos at FULL HD or 4K, speeds of 25/50 frames/s, sound recording (if stereo, even better) and the opportunity to use optical zoom while filming.
When you shoot using such equipment it is like wearing your invisibility cloak. People around will pay no attention as you freely take photos at places where pulling out a large black camera with interchangeable lenses could cause a scandal. Museums, churches, concerts and other similar events where it is usually forbidden to take photos allow smart phones and ‘point and shoot’ cameras. It is believed that with such equipment you can only take photos for personal use, which is not always the case. This type of equipment works best when shooting static objects, which are well and relatively uniformly illuminated. It is hardest to shoot moving objects – sports, wildlife, concerts and generally it is practically impossible to take any other type of photographs which require long light optics and quick autofocus.
A more detailed analysis and many more examples of the capabilities of smart phone photography you can read in the section Photography with your phone.
2. Ultra zoom cameras
If you are intent on buying a camera with inbuilt optics and a great range of your zoom lens, allowing you to easily shoot far away objects, then you should limit your choices to some of the ultra zoom models which most of the big producers have been offering in recent years. Successful models in this category have been brought to the market by the brands Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus, Fujifilm and others.
Ultra zoom cameras have a sensor similar to the one of compact models, but before it you have an optical zoom lens with great magnification power. The largest possible sensor for this type of cameras is 1 “ in size. If good quality is important to you, avoid models with smaller sensors.
Ultrazoom Sony RX10mk4 .
What do you need to know when choosing this type of camera?
Everything we said about choosing a compact camera is also completely relevant in this case, but we need to add some specific details related to the particular features of this type of cameras.
- A key parameter is the range of the zoom lens. There are models offering 8, 10, 12 or even 15, 20, 20x optical zoom. Most commonly the lower end of the range varies between 24 and 35 mm, while the higher end varies between 350 – 600 mm and in the last year up to 1000mm 35mm film equivalent focal length.
- Quality of the optics. It is very important in this case, since it is not so easy to create a lens offering such a wide range of focal lengths. You can never go wrong if your lens sports brand names like Leica, Carl-Zeiss, Canon, Nikkor, Fujifilm…
- Do not underestimate the importance of good light-gathering power. When you shoot with long focal lengths, you need higher shutter speeds. At the same time, as we mentioned before, the sensitivity of cameras with small-sized sensors is greatly limited. A good light-gathering power of your lens will allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds and thus avoid blurry images as a result of a shaky hand and to freeze the motion of the wild animals and birds you shoot. Look for models with light-gathering power from 2.8 to 4 at the longer end of the optical zoom lens. The smaller this number, the better.
- Image stabilisation I would say that it is an absolute must when it comes to ultra zoom models and it is an indispensable aid when taking photos with your optics in ‘telephoto’ position.
- AF speed At the longer end of the optical zoom lens the autofocus is not stable. A quick and precise AF is a huge advantage when we want to seize the moment.
- RAW format The option to extract the raw data from the sensor of the camera is an indisputable advantage, especially under more complex light conditions, as this is the only way to extract the full information captured by the sensor.
- Quality of the electronic viewfinder In addition to the display, ultra zoom models have an electronic viewfinder which is invaluable when shooting under a bright sun. It also helps to a great extent with stabilising the camera while shooting, as it provides additional support when we press our eye against it. Look for a model with a large and bright electronic viewfinder with high resolution.
- Manual focus Manual focus is not very popular in models in inbuilt optics as the sharpness of the image is judged only through the electronic display / viewfinder. Still, there are some models on the market which offer good manual focus which is adjusted using a ring on the lens. It can come in particularly handy in some cases, such as when taking macro photographs or when there is an extensive and complex web of objects or branches around the main object.
Ultra zoom cameras are an excellent choice for tourism. The three photographs below were taken from one and the same place using Sony RX10mk4 at equivalent focal lengths of 24, 150 and 600mm. The full manual settings, a quick AF and RAW format option, combined with a 1” sensor make this camera an efficient tool to be used for different tasks.
The following three photographs are at 24mm, 600mm and crop after x2 magnification (crop 2) from the second frame, equivalent to 1200mm. The photographs were taken from one and the same place. In fact this type of ultra zoom cameras can also be used as a powerful digital binocular, giving you the chance to recognise the faces of the people sitting in the boat under that faraway bridge. .
3. Selecting an interchangeable lens camera (ILC)
This type of camera can be single-lens reflex cameras (DSLR) or mirrorless. DSLR cameras are the direct successors of film single-lens reflex cameras. In the DSLR design the film has been replaced by an electronic sensor, hardware and software. Mirrorless models have gradually entered the market over the last 10 years. The pioneers in the field were Olympus and Panasonic with their Pen and G/GF models, followed by Sony, Pentax, Nikon, Fuji and Canon. These models have large sensors similarly to DSLR cameras and therefore offer the same image quality, but unlike DSLRs, they have much smaller body size. This is due to the fact that there are no mirrors, prisms and respective cavities where the whole of this mechanical optical unit is located. At the same time, the focal distance is considerably reduced from 42 mm for DSLRs to 16-20mm for mirrorless models. This decreased focal distance facilitates the development of more compact inexpensive quality wide-angle lenses. The disadvantages of this system lay until recently mainly in the speed of the AF, but the latest models already offer very fast and precise autofocus, tracking auto focus, eye detection auto focus, and selection of auto focus areas with the help of a touch display, which has gradually turned them into the preferred choice when compared to DSLR cameras, both among amateurs and professionals. Sony was the first producer to release a full-frame 24x36mm sensor model, leading the remarkable progress of mirrorless cameras.
Choosing the right interchangeable lens camera (ILC) is not an easy task. Usually the consumers who are considering such type of camera tend to have greater requirements. It is worth knowing that buying such a camera will not make you a better photographer. This system has its indisputable advantages when compared to the compact cameras category in terms of image quality, dynamics, noise, speed and efficient performance under poor light conditions. At the same time it has its disadvantages related to the high price of good lenses, which will be needed to make the utmost of the high quality sensor, as well as to the considerable weight, bulk, etc. At the moment there are nine big companies offering interchangeable lens cameras – Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Sigma, Leica, Panasonic and Fuji.
The first thing you need to know when buying an ILC is that you will most certainly need additional resources for lenses. The so-called kit lenses cameras are usually sold together with normally do not have particularly good characteristics and pretty soon you will want to change them. For this reason it is important to look into what lenses can be found on the market for the model you have selected and what their respective price is. It is also worth noting that all of the above-mentioned brands have lenses developed for them also by other major manufacturers specialising mainly in that field. Such manufacturers are Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and others. The majority of their lenses have very goof optical characteristics and are at much lower prices, which makes them an attractive alternative for people with a limited budget. For example, if Sony is your camera of choice, you can by a Tamron lens, but it must be compatible with Sony. When buying, make sure that the lens can operate with your camera. With the help of special adapters you can achieve compatibility even if a lens is not compatible by design, but sometimes there may be problems with autofocus precision, speed, etc.
Mirrorless models do not have an optical viewfinder. The latest generation electronic viewfinders generally offer high quality, but in some situations, particularly when shooting moving objects or in series, they are not an adequate substitute for optical viewfinders. At the same time, an electronic viewfinder has certain advantages – a quick AF in video mode, a ‘peaking’ system for a precise manual focus and most importantly – you see what the photo will look like before you press the shutter button and you can easily make adjustments.
The size of the sensor is also important The larger physical dimensions of the sensor and of the photocells respectively ensure lower noise levels at high sensitivity settings, better dynamics and last but not least – greater plasticity of the image. The higher class of ILC cameras have sensor dimensions of 24x36mm, while the lower class have 1.5 or 2 times smaller sides respectively.
The speed and precision of the autofocus is extremely important for ILC cameras. For some models in the lower price range there are often problems with autofocus precision when shooting at maximum aperture settings. It is a good idea to test your future camera with a lens featuring apertures ranging somewhere between 1.4, 1.8 or 2.0 and to make sure that it focuses exactly as desired.
Most contemporary DSLR cameras, as well as some mirrorless models, shoot good quality HD and 4K videos with a plastic cinematic look, when you use lenses with high light power. There is no reason why you should deprive yourself of this extra, so check the capacities of your future camera in this respect.
Some additional extras can also be useful. Recently a great number of manufacturers offer protection against moisture, self-cleaning sensors, options for attaching an additional battery grip for a vertical shutter button, options for remote control, inbuilt RAW converter and others. A particularly useful innovation is the sensor stabilisation system which is a feature the mirrorless models of many brands and some DSLR models offer. With the help of this system all lenses for the camera (even including old models for M42 lens mount) are now stabilised, which can save you a considerable amount of money.
Last but not least – you should keep in mind that buying an ILC camera is a serious investment. You should look into the question of warranty and post-warranty service in your country, as well as general availability of lenses, batteries and other accessories for the selected model. This is crucially important as digital ILC cameras are not just a camera, but a sophisticated system comprised of a multitude of interconnected elements. Before you make your final choice on what camera model to buy, you should search the internet for full-sized photographs taken with that camera and read reviews by users and specialists. When the time for buying comes, ask to test and compare several cameras and then look at the photos you made on a computer in the shop or at home. It is always good to have a camera which suits and appeals to you in terms of ergonomy,,design, viewfinder, shutter sound and all the rest.