What to look for when buying a camera

smartphoneI do not have a decent camera at present and I have been trying to take photos with my cell phone. It takes inadequate photos to say the least and when I went away on some weekend breaks recently, I was seriously disappointed that I didn’t have a decent camera. I have decided that photography would be an excellent hobby but I am a complete beginner and there is so much to learn. I am on a mission to learn more but all the technical details are quite hard to absorb. In the information below, I have tried to simplify what I have learned as much as possible. Of course, those of you who already know a lot about cameras will find this very basic but as a beginner I need to start at the very beginning.

Everybody wants the best quality images possible. However, in order to produce those excellent images, the equipment can be hugely expensive as it is so specialized.  There are tons of different types of cameras, from the small point-and-shoot variety to fancy dSLRs (digital single lens reflex) cameras with removable lenses. Mirrorless cameras are another option. Before I start comparing all the different types of cameras, I realize that I need to find out more about their essential features. All the acronyms, symbols and alien terms make me want to understand which specifications are important and which ones do not matter as much.

All cameras work according to the same principles – it is basically a device which records light. The light reflecting off objects is channeled through a lens and focused on a photosensitive surface. In the past, the surface used was film but film has now been replaced by sensors. The quality of the image is largely affected by three basic settings – how long the shutter remains open (shutter speed), the sensitivity of the sensor (ISO) and the amount of light passing through the lens (aperture). In automatic mode, the camera automatically selects the shutter speed, ISO and aperture for you. In manual mode, you select these these settings yourself and have more control over how the image turns out. Automatic and semi-automatic mode is useful for a beginner but sooner or later, learning how to use manual mode is important if you are serious about photography.

Shutter – the shutter is like a curtain protecting the sensor. When the trigger is pressed, the shutter opens for a split second and exposes the sensor to the light from the lens. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second. The speed is important when it comes to exposure and a  higher speed means the period of exposure is shorter.
Sensors – the size of the sensor is important and the bigger it is, the better the images. However, the bigger sensors push up the price and also make the camera more bulky. Sensor quality is hard to quantify but the ISO basically refers to how well it responds to difficult lighting conditions. A higher ISO means the image is brighter but it  may also mean more noise – the speckled effect in low-light photos. The quality of the sensor and the ability of the camera to reduce noise are important factors to consider.
Aperture – a fancy word for the opening in the centre of the lens. It can limit the amount of light getting to the sensor and is referred to as the f-number. The lower the f-number, the wider the opening. A higher number means more light is blocked.

lensThe lens is the optical device that focuses the light rays on the sensor so it is extremely important. You can fiddle with your settings as much as you like but unless you have good lenses for the light to filter through, you are wasting your time. Lenses usually have many specs involving a whole range of numbers and symbols. The quality of material used to make a lens and its precision is one of the factors that determines the quality of an image. In cheaper cameras, the lenses are fixed and they are often made from plastic.  These can produce effective results but the best quality comes from the high end lenses made of glass.
For the best results, you need to be able to exchange lenses. This is because prime lenses with a fixed focal length tend to perform better than zoom lenses. Focal length roughly refers to the ‘zoom level’ of the lens.  It is measured in millimetres and determines the angle of view captured by the lens. A wide angle lens captures a great deal while a telephoto lens captures only a small portion.  Normal lenses are around 50mm, and these most closely resemble what the eye sees.

When you check out a potential camera, you must consider the quality of the autofocus system. When you spot a shot worth taking, you need to be able to focus as quickly and accurately as possible. If your camera is unable to do this, you will miss many great opportunities.The speed and reliability of autofocus is a factor that can make a camera stand out above its competitors.

Resolution of the image refers to the number of pixels it contains and the more pixels, the finer the detail. For a beginner photographer like myself, I discover that pixel count matters less to me than other specifications and I shouldn’t get too distracted by it. What the megapixel count tells you is how big you can make your image without having to enlarge it digitally which degrades the quality.  If you want to make huge canvases on a regular basis, you will need a higher pixel count.

Image stabilization (IS) This is a feature that reduces shakiness when shooting. The system detects small movements and compensates for them.  Sometimes the camera body or lens contain the stabilization mechanism.
Viewfinder/LCD – Optical and electronic viewfinders are used to frame the image. In cameras without a viewfinder, an LCD screen is used. If there is no viewfinder, the quality of the LCD screen is important or you will battle to frame and review photos. LCD resolution is measured in dots and the more of them the better. dSLRs have an edge in this respect as they have optical viewfinders that give immediate feedback. digital camera

Size – if you are a beginner, it is probably better to go for a smaller, lighter camera than a full size bulkier one.
Weight – there is no point in getting a camera that is so heavy you’d rather leave it at home.
Durability – some cameras are sturdier than others, with features like weather sealing and magnesium alloy internal frames. The photographs you want to take and where you want to take them will determine how important this is to you.
Menu – you want to make sure that the menu system is logical and easy to navigate.

Finding out these facts has given me a clearer idea of what camera I need to buy. I realize that the most expensive camera is not always the best one and that certain specifications matter more than others.  Ultimately, the type of photos I want to take and where I want to take them, will help determine my final choice. My next step is to evaluate the pros and cons of different types of cameras.




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