How To Buy A Camera

This Article Features Photo Zoom

“Which camera should I buy?” When you’re an editor of a photo magazine, you get this question a lot. The asker wants you to respond with a specific make and model (as if there’s only one “good” camera that insiders know) and is disappointed when you answer the question with more questions.

What do you shoot? How often? How will you use the photos? Buying a camera is a lot like buying a car. There are several classes of cameras to consider, and cross-over between the classes can blur the lines. The first questions to answer really are about yourself, before you start comparing specifications.

Do you need an SLR?
There’s no question that interchangeable-lens cameras are the best choice for speed, creative control and image quality. You’ll notice the speed difference right away. With most compact cameras, you’ll wait a few seconds on startup for the lens to extend; interchangeable-lens cameras don’t have this delay—just take off the lens cap and you’re ready to shoot.

Another speed difference is shutter lag: the time between when you push the shutter release and when the image actually is taken. A pro SLR will have a shutter lag of around 16 milliseconds, or about 1?60 of a second. Compare that to a typical compact camera, which can have a lag of 1?4 of a second or more—15 times longer. If you’re shooting still subjects, like landscapes or posed portraits, this may not be a problem; but for sports-action and candid photography, where capturing the “decisive moment” is essential, you have a much better chance with an SLR.

Part of the speed difference is in the autofocus system. Almost all compact cameras use contrast-detection AF. With this method, the imaging sensor also serves as the autofocus sensor. The system evaluates the contrast of the scene, finds the focus point where it detects the greatest contrast and locks focus there. This process requires multiple readings.

SLRs typically use phase-detection AF (except when in Live View mode). Phase-detection AF employs an additional sensor dedicated to focusing. A portion of the light coming through the lens is reflected, then split into two separate beams that strike the AF sensor. The sensor can immediately determine correct focus based on how the two beams strike it. Since only a single reading is needed, these systems are much faster than contrast-detection AF.

So, if speed really is important for your photography, an SLR is the better choice. It’s also the more adaptable camera type, thanks to the ability to swap lenses. Most compact cameras today offer decent optical zooms, but their range usually is moderately wide to moderately telephoto. For ultrawide and extreme-tele range, or specialty lenses like tilt/shift and macro, an SLR gives you access to a bigger world of creative options.


This Article Features Photo Zoom

A Camera You Actually Use
Despite the performance advantages of the typical SLR compared to a compact camera, there’s one overriding question you have to answer honestly: “What am I willing to carry?”

The right camera is the one you take with you. If you don’t see yourself carrying an SLR—and maybe an extra lens or two—then you’re better off with a camera you’ll find more comfortable. Most SLR photographers we know have a compact camera, too, for those occasions when carrying an SLR isn’t practical.

Between pocket cameras and SLRs are advanced compacts that typically offer a big-range zoom lens and improved performance compared to pocket cameras. These cameras try to bridge the gap between portability and performance. They’re larger than pocket cameras, though still smaller than most SLRs, and eliminate the need to carry multiple lenses.

What About Video?
HD video is the hot feature in SLRs this year. We expect to see it become increasingly common and find its way into more fixed-lens cameras, as well.

Should this be a deciding factor for you? Maybe. If your primary focus is to capture still images, then the HD video feature in a still camera is a nice extra when you want to grab some motion; but unless video is a big part of what you do, you ought not rule out an otherwise ideal SLR because it lacks this capability.

Don’t think of this feature as a real alternative to a camcorder—at least not at this point in the technology. Clip lengths are relatively limited, focusing is typically manual, and usability, while it varies among models, is generally not as straightforward as what you’ll get with a camcorder. When your goal is great video, use a camcorder. Most can capture multimegapixel still images, too.

How Will You Use The Photos?
Your photos deserve to be displayed. It’s really gratifying to see your images, professionally framed and matted, printed on canvas or made into a coffee-table book. Most cameras today offer more than enough resolution to make big, detailed prints.

Consider, though, that big files mean bigger storage needs and more time spent downloading, sorting and organizing images. If y
our photos are destined for the web, resolution isn’t your primary concern. Same goes for displaying on your TV.

There’s something else you should know about resolution: More doesn’t necessarily mean better image quality. In fact, the converse may be true. The physical size of each pixel directly affects the quality of the final image because larger pixels collect light better. Cramming more pixels onto the same-sized sensor means making the pixels themselves smaller, which tends to lessen overall image quality.

Weigh all of these factors—speed, lens options, creative controls, portability, resolution—with your personal photography habits and choose a camera that strikes a balance. Don’t feel that you must buy a particular camera simply because your friend has one or because it received a glowing review. Choose a camera that suits your individual needs, and you’ll be more likely to enjoy using it.

Pros Vs. Cons
•?Best speed and performance
•?Interchangeable lenses
•?Most options for control

•?Larger and heavier than other options
•?Can seem complicated at first
•?Bigger investment

Advanced Compacts
•?Good mix of size and performance
•?Typically less expensive than an SLR
•?Big zoom ranges cover most needs

•?Less responsive than an SLR
•?Limitations of a fixed lens
•?Fewer accessory options

Pocket Cameras
•?Ultimate in portability
•?Easy for the whole family to use
•?Very affordable

•?Slowest response times
•?Limitations of a fixed lens
•?Fewer options for manual control

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