People tend to think buying a camera is a complicated business, and it really isn’t. All you have to do is know what kind of megapixel amount to go for, what the ISO range is, if it’s a phase detection system or a contrast detection system, whether it shoots RAW, or if it uses a CMOS sensor…
Actually yeah, it’s pretty complicated if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Looking at the average advert for a camera, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re talking a completely different language. Acronyms out the wazoo, capital letters everywhere, and weird lettered numbers flying about. I mean what the heck is f/3.5-5.6 18mm - 75mm VR DX supposed to mean to your average layman? 20MP CSC Zeiss RAW? WTF? Well after going over what’s available, I’ll try and explain some of these terms in actual english rather than technobabble.
Before that, cameras are broken down into four main forms. Let us have a gander at the first.
Compacts - “It’s not the size that counts.”
When people think of “just a camera”, usually it’s one of these. Tiny little rectangles with a swishy zoomy lens on the front and a big screen on the back, wielded by party animals around the world. These are compacts and their main advantage is their size. It is often said that the best camera you can have is the one that you’re carrying when the chance emerges, so for a compact that you can just slide into your pocket and whip out at any given opportunity, you can’t really beat it.
The downsides are that while most of them can be quite cheap, to get good performance you’re going to have to spend a fair amount. Take this for example:
It’s only £142, which is cheap as far as “photo money” goes. However, it’s also pretty average. The images it creates are grainy if a light even thinks about going out, the actual image size is pants compared to the competition, and it’s ability to focus on something is akin to that of a sugar-addled child. With ADHD. Now on the other hand you have this:
Oh baby. A much larger image size, which means a higher overall detail level in the image (though not always, more later), a larger and higher quality image sensor, a better system for coping with grain in low light, and it shoots in more complex file formats (again, more later). This is a beast of a camera in the compact world.
It’s also £600. Holy hell.
So yes, compacts are very useful for having out and about, but to get something rivalling the quality of other types, you’re gonna be paying a lot of wonga.
DSLRs - “Look like a pro, shoot like a newbie.”
This is the sort of camera you traditionally see professionals using, though they're seen with hobbyists and excited amateurs a lot more these days. SLR stands for “single lens reflex”, and you’ll often see DSLR thrown around too (digital single lens reflex). The name comes from the way it uses mirrors and prisms to reflect the light from the lens into a viewfinder, giving you a non-digital true to life method of seeing exactly what the camera is seeing. Overall, this will give you way more accuracy when shooting, and a lot less battery usage than you’d get from using the screen.
The main advantage to a DSLR is it’s versatility. The lens it comes with (referred to as a “kit lens”) is suitable for most everyday uses; it can handle wide angle shots, and it’ll zoom far enough for you to get a nice portrait or still life. However, if you’re going to an airshow or a zoo, you can take that lens off and replace with a lens with a better zoom level. For most of the big name cameras, you’ll find a back catalogue of hundreds of lenses you can buy to specialise in anything, though the prices can range wildly. The other advantage is that a DSLR will have a lot more manual control. If you’re following these tutorials, I’m going to talk about a lot of things that some other camera types won’t even let you touch. DSLRs will give you control of everything. They’re also chunky and modelled well to the hands, all the better to get those steady shots comfortably without worrying about dropping it in a lake.
The downsides? Well the prices can range pretty wildly, as can the quality. You’ll see DSLRs split into categories which are often denoted by the model numbers. For instance, for Nikon starters, you have the D3000 series, or the D5000 and D7000 series. As you go to the D300, D600, D700 or D800 series, you start straying into professional territory, and by the time you get to the D3 and D4, you’re shelling out an eye-watering £3000 for just the camera body. That’s without a lens! The same goes with Canon and Pentax, who have their own numbering systems.
As I shoot with Nikons, I’m kinda biased. Still, a great point to start at with DSLRs is the D3200 which will probably set you back about £300 with a kit lens, and comes with a lot of presets for you to use to get used to shooting, with manual options for when you want to get serious. The sensor is one of the newer Nikon ones so you’ll get a high quality image and it’ll shoot in RAW file format (I will explain this, trust me!) so lots of versatility when it comes to processing the picture afterwards.
Bridge Cameras - “Hybrids? What hath science wrought!”
As the name suggests, the Bridge is a crossing point between compacts and DSLRs. If anything it’s a compact that’s nicked a load of features of it’s bigger sibling but missed out on a lot of the advantages too. For instance, your average Bridge will have a “superzoom” lens that a normal compact wouldn’t be able to handle, so you’ll be able to take pictures from much further away without resorting to the highly distorting digital zoom. On the other hand, a DSLR’s zoom lenses will provide a higher quality image in most cases, with a wider aperture (hole in the lens, more next week) at the far end.
Bridges tend to come pimped out with a load of fancy presets like “moon mode” or 3D shooting, which are great for gimmicky shots but they’re a sideshow that covers up for the lack of comparative quality that a DSLR will bring to the table. On top of that, because the focusing function is entirely electronic, it tends to be quite slow on the uptake. Not too great if your kids are running around like lunatics and you’re just sat there whirring rather than getting the shots.
If anything, I’d see it as a stepping stone from people using compacts and progressing up the food chain. You start to see more of the amateur features that more expensive cameras have, even in rudimentary forms, but for a lot less cash. The Nikon Coolpix P600 pictured above has an average megapixel amount (the denomination used to measure image size), isn’t too great in low light situations, but has a 60x zoom (roughly translating to a 1440mm zoom lens) which is hella far and has a minimum zoom range of apparently 1cm. Amazing for up close and personal shots then! Not the best camera ever, but for £250 it’s cheap as hell as cameras go.
Mirrorless Cameras - “Tiny lenses, thousands of ‘em.”
Bridge camera’s little brother Mirrorless took the genetics of it’s DSLR and compact parents and went a completely different direction with it. Opting for the size of a compact with the versatility of interchangeable lenses that a DSLR brings, it comes out of the deal pretty well. The name refers to the mirror inside a DSLR that allows the optical viewfinder to work; it covers the sensor until the shutter is activated, which flips it out of the way and pops it back when the picture is taken. Mirrorless cameras (surprise surprise) don’t have a mirror, which means it’s quieter and generates less grain due to the vibrations of the mirror shifting when you shoot. Unfortunately, this also means you can’t have an optical viewfinder either, which means you’re relying on the screen to focus with, and that can be sloooooow.
The prices can vary pretty wildly, but tend to hover between £200 and a grand. There’s some insane outliers like the Leica M Type that costs £5000 but generally speaking you can pick up a decent Mirrorless system for about £300, like the Sony Alpha A5000 above. The problem you’re going to run into though is the same problem DSLR users have; once you pick a brand, you’re stuck with it. If you’re using that Sony camera, it’s only going to accept lenses with a specific fitting (a Sony E mount in this case). Those lenses won’t work with any camera that has a different fitting, which means unless you want a bunch of useless lenses, you need to stay in the Sony family. Also, the lenses tend to be as expensive as the camera body was. An average Sony E Mount lens will set you back between £150 and £600 depending on how specialised it is, so while you’ll get much better results from a specialised lens, it’s gonna set you back a bob or two.
So what the heck did any of that mean?
The zoom distance of a lens, usually measured in millimetres. An 18mm focal length would be a wide angle shot, whereas anything above 200mm would be considered a “telezoom”, which gets you up close and personal with anything stood a fair distance away.
The sensor is the part of the camera that recieves the light and converts it into a picture. The larger the sensor, the more data it can take in and the bigger the image size. CMOS sensors generally refer to small sized sensors found in compacts and low level DSLRs, where as “full format” is used to refer to the larger sensors found in professional level cameras.
It sounds like a geeky metal band, but it’s the numerical figure given to the amount of pixels an image will contain. If a camera has 3.1MP, then your picture will contain roughly 3,100,000 pixels. The more pixels you have, the bigger the image size and generally speaking the more detailed it will be. Detail has a lot of different factors though so don’t use this as a cast-iron guarantee that a 30MP camera will be mindblowing.
These are the holy trinity in the camera world and vital to know them if you’re going to get anywhere. This is why I’m not going to talk about them here and instead dedicate an entire post to them. Be patient!
This can refer to a number of things, but generally it’s whatever function the camera or lens uses to counteract your shaky hands. This can be Vibration Reduction found in some lenses, Sensor Shift technology which actively alters the position of the image in the sensor to adjust for movement, Optical Image Stabilisation found in Bridges. Vital in low-light situations and times when you’re zoomed to maximum and the slightest movement can smudge everything up.
Your average camera will shoot in JPEG format. This is a fully processed image that you can then do anything with from whacking it up on Facebook to printing out a top notch lab. However, you may see the term RAW popping up from time to time. A RAW image is the unprocessed data from the camera’s sensor, before the camera does anything with it to finish it off. You won’t be able to use a RAW by itself, but when you put it through post-processing software like Photoshop or Lightroom, you’ll find a whole new world of fun. With it being raw data, you can mess about with it anyway you like. Too dark? Pump up the exposure and bring out all that detail! Colour balance is a bit off? Wham, you can fix that in five seconds. Then you can get onto more complex stuff like adjusting curves and levels, dynamic range, split-toning, etc. You can do this with JPEGs but the more you process them, the more the image quality degrades; kind of like reheating a meal seven times over in the microwave and wondering why it now tastes like rubber.
There’s a few different types of focus systems that I’ve mentioned here. Phase detection focusing is used by DSLRs and is a complex method using two beams of light and then comparing the results. This means it can generally work out how far away the focal point is and adapt, focusing ahead of an object that is moving towards the camera for instance.
Contrast detection uses the sensor to detect the maximum level of contrast and uses that to bring things into focus. The downside there is that since the method doesn’t take distance into consideration, it can’t figure out which way things are moving like phase detection does, so it really struggles with moving objects. Not recommended for primary school sports day or hyperactive toddlers.
Is there anything here I’ve missed that you’re not too clear on? Heard some technobabble that I haven’t explained? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add it in.
Next time: the holy trinity and image exposure - getting the right amount and type of light into your camera!