Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Starting From Scratch In Digital Photography

I've had a number of emails over the last year asking about what type of camera the user should buy. If I want to answer that question properly, I have ask myself what I would do if I were starting in digital photography today. I'll discuss what cameras I'd buy, based on a set budget, and why.

What I would do if I was moving from a basic point and shoot or cell phone camera to something with better image quality? In some ways this is a hard question to answer, because there are more options today then went I started to get serious about photography back in 2008. Back then you had two choices, which made the decision a lot easier, there were only point and shoots and DSLRs. That dynamic has changed somewhat over the last three and half years, today can now choose from point and shoots, fixed lens compacts with larger image sensors (Sigma DP1/2 or the Fuji X100 for example), along with various interchangeable lens compacts, from Olympus/Panasonic (M4/3s), Sony NEX, and Samsung NX. Last but not least you can still choose to step into the DSLR ranger, whether it be crop sensor or (35mm) full frame sensor. So this begs a second question, how do I choose the camera system that best suites my needs and budget as a amateur photographer?

The answer to that question will determine the camera/lens choices that you use for years to come, unless you don't mind throwing away your money by trying different systems. I think the first thing you want to get out of your head is that you need to buy a DSLR in order to get better image quality. For many years that was the case, but today's ILC (interchangeable lens compacts) provide excellent image quality, since most of them have larger image sensors that point and shoot cameras. They type of camera you need will, as always, depend on what, and how you shoot as a photographer. Your choice may also be affected by how much weight your are willing to carry around with you. For example, if the idea of carrying 5-15 pounds of gear is not overly appealing, a DSLR may not be right for you.

Advanced Compacts:
Advanced compacts are a step up from your average point and shoots, but still have relatively small sensors. Cameras that fall into this range would be the Nikon P300, P7000, P7100, Canon S95, S100, G12, Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic LX-5. Not only do these cameras offer slightly larger image sensors than standard compacts they also give the user more control over how the camera takes pictures. These cameras are a good choice for several types of photographers, first those who want a camera that has advanced shooting controls and better than average optics without the hassle of having to change lenses. The second group would be enthusiast photographers on a tight budget. Thirdly, photographers who have a DSLR, but want something compact to shoot with when carrying the higher end gear is impractical. These cameras give the user the controls needed to make great images, so if you fit into one of the categories above, one of these cameras might be right for you.

Interchangeable Lens Compacts:
This category of ILC cameras is seeing the most growth in several areas, first in terms of the number of cameras and lenses available, and secondly in terms of market position. Although these cameras are not very popular in North America yet, 'bigger is always better' still seems to be the motto here, they are becoming very popular in Asia and Europe. These cameras have larger sensors, than advanced compacts, and add the ability to shoot with different types of lenses. Some cameras in this category include the Olympus E-PL3, Panasonic GF3, Sony NEX-C3, Samsung NX200 and Pentax Q. These cameras could have an appeal to multipal groups of photographers, with the first being advanced amateurs that would like a small camera, but who also want the superior optics provided by an interchangeable lens system. The second group would be photographers with a DSLR who want a small interchangeable lens camera for when carrying their primary system is impractical. Most of these cameras ILC cameras have similar or equal performance to crop sensor DSLRs, which makes them a viable option for many photographers. As a result it would be unwise to ignore them when making a decision on which camera system to choose.

Crop Sensor Digital Single Len Reflex (Crop Sensor DSLR):
For the better part of the last ten years crop sensor Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras have been the first choice of anyone who wanted to step up from a point and shoot camera. These crop sensor DSLRs offer a great deal of improvement over point and shoots, but that comes at the cost of size and weight. Crop sensor DSLRs are best for demanding amateur photographers, due to their robust feature sets and the wide range of lenses available. These cameras will appeal to a broader range of people than just demanding amateurs, such as parents who want to take photos of their children's sports games, for or taking photos of active children. Those types of photography situations could tax even the best point and shoot cameras. Although these cameras do have the downside of being somewhat bulky, they should not be overlooked because they do offer outstanding image quality, outstanding lenses, and a great deal of control. Cameras in this range include the Nikon D3100, D5100, D7000, Canon T2i, T3, T3i, 60D, 7D, Pentax K-r, and K-7.

Sony offers a new range of cameras that I'm putting into this group and they are SLT (Single Lens Translucent) cameras. These cameras share the same crop factor and interchangeable lens capabilities of standard DSLRs, but they are different. In many ways they are very much like DSLRs, but there is no reflex mirror that moves (the translucent mirror is fixed in place). Cameras in this group are the Sony Alpha A65 and A77.  These SLT cameras have some advantages over regular DSLRs, because they do not have a moving mirror, which allows them to track moving subjects better (in theory) and shoot at high speeds (up to 14FPS in the case of the A77). They use electronic, rather than optical viewfinders, which is another feature that separates them and DSLRs.

Full Frame Digital Single Lens Reflex (35mm Frame DSLR):
Full frame DSLRs are targeted primarily at professional photographers, which becomes rather obvious once you look at their feature sets and price. Amateurs who shoot in extremely low light, or harsh conditions may also find these cameras appealing. Generally speaking these cameras are big, heavy and extremely robust. Of course that comes at  the cost of requiring high quality lenses to support the larger image frame, and in some cases the high resolution. To build a decent kit with a full frame camera body and several high quality lenses would cost well in excess of $4000-5000, so not something the average amateur can justify or for that matter, afford. Cameras in this range include the Nikon D800, D600, D4, D3x, Canon 6D, 5D MkIII, Canon 1D X, and Sony A99.

I hope you found this introduction to the different types of camera systems available useful. If you have, come back and read the second part of this series of posts, which will come in the next week.