Think More than Just Megapixels

How to Buy the Right Camera

By Rich Wagner

Photography is truly a field that has something for everyone. Whether you love gadgets and want the latest high-tech tools or you are always on-the-go and need something light-weight and easy, you can be sure there are cameras and gear out there to match your needs.

How to Buy the Right Camera: Point and Shoot vs. the SLR

Any camera - digital or film - that does not have a removable lens is technically classified as a "point and shoot". If you're just starting out, the camera you most likely already own, or the camera you'll probably buy first, will fall into this category. For the most part, these sleek little cameras are lightweight, compact, and easy to travel with.

SLRs (or single lens reflex cameras), on the other hand, have lenses that are removable and interchangeable. In addition, they usually offer many more options for controlling the camera including the use of completely manual settings.

The biggest (and probably most important) difference between a point and shoot and an SLR lies in the quality of the pictures it's capable of making. While point-and-shoot cameras have their own advantages, they cannot compete with SLRs in terms of image quality. SLRs, specifically digital SLR cameras, have much larger image sensors. This larger sensor size produces a much higher-quality image and therefore a better picture.

How to Buy the Right Camera: How to Choose Which One is Best for You

The truth is, you can take great photos with lousy cameras and lousy photos with great cameras. Your decision about what to buy rides mostly, then, on where you plan to sell the pictures your camera produces.

I, for instance, own a number of cameras -- film and digital -- and a point and shoot is among them. Point and shoots are great cameras to start learning on because they don't typically have all the bells and whistles an SLR camera has. You can master basic photography techniques without getting bogged down in the technical specifics of your camera. And they're great on trips where a bulkier camera might be more of a hindrance than a help.

The big downside to point and shoots is that they don't produce images of a high enough quality for most publications and stock agencies. If you can afford an SLR, you'll need one to break into these markets.

How to Buy the Right Camera: Digital or Film?

In my opinion, this is no longer a point of discussion. Digital is the clear choice for anyone buying a new camera today. Not only is it a great learning tool (because you can see your pictures instantly on the LCD screen on your camera and thus adjust your picture-taking habits accordingly) but these days a high-resolution digital SLR is just as competitive as scanned film. And it's becoming more widely accepted (and even preferred) by most commercial photography markets.

If you're getting advice from someone who's saying that digital is not as good as film, you're being mislead. It's that simple.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: If you already own a film camera and aren't ready to by a new one. Stick with film for now. It has done an admirable job for decades and is still capable of producing outstanding results. But if you are considering buying a new camera as you enter your new career - digital is the only way to go.]

How to Buy the Right Camera: The Megapixel Myth

We've been bombarded by megapixel mania. We've been led to believe camera quality is all about how many pixels you have. But in reality, the number of pixels you have is only half of the quality equation.

The other half is the size of the digital sensor. Larger sensors are made up of larger pixels. Larger pixels have qualities that are better than their smaller brothers. Qualities you may find out you need to enter the market that's important to you.

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Point-and-shoot cameras are almost always made with smaller sensors and thus smaller pixels (think: 1/10th the size of a 35mm negative). So while they may have a lot of pixels (8 million - or 8 megapixels -- is not uncommon) each one of those pixels is extremely tiny.

SLRs, on the other hand, are always made with a larger sensor (anywhere from 1/2 the size of, to equal to, a 35mm negative). They may even have fewer pixels than the point and shoots, but each one is significantly larger so therefore your image quality will be better.

How to Buy the Right Camera: The Ideal Kit

The truth is, there is no such thing as the "Ideal Kit". No more than there is an ideal mate, or an ideal car. It's all subjective, and all dependent on what your goals are.

While I always have at least one camera with me - I probably have a half dozen "kits" depending on what kind of shooting I plan to do that day. So here are my camera preferences. You, of course, will develop your own as you progress in your career...

My Point and Shoot I always have a point and shoot with me. My favorite is an eights megapixel about the size of a deck of cards.

While I can't make a 20"x30" fine art print with it and most print stock agencies won't accept pictures from this kind of camera, I can make beautiful 8"x12" fine art prints, and some magazines will accept the file for use up to about 1/2 page photograph (this is true for point-and-shoot cameras over five megapixels -- anything less than that isn't considered salable quality).

Since there are a lot of different (and equally great) makes and camera models out there, I'm not going to tell you mine. It was simply the one that felt best in my hand when I was at the store that day.

If you have big fingers, consider the size of the buttons when you chose a camera. If you have other equipment like a PDA, printer, or laptop that supports a certain type of memory card over others, look for cameras that use that type of memory card. If you travel a lot and want something you can put in your pocket, look at the smaller models.

I suggest you go to a store rather than order online because I think you need to hold the camera in your hand before you buy it and flip through all the screens to see if you like it.

How to Buy the Right Camera: SLRs

I have two of them. First a large Canon pro model: the 1D Mark II and a smaller Olympus E-1, about 1/2 the size and weight of the Canons.

Both are considered professional grade, which means they are ruggedly built and have a fair amount of water resistance. I've shot with each of them in the rain, sleet, and snow, and never had a problem. While the heavier Canon produces great quality digital files (and I've enlarged many shots to 30"x40") it's very heavy and not much fun to lug around. Moreover, I can never get a candid shot with this camera. If I put my telephoto lenses on, I look like the pros you see wandering the sideline at sporting events.

These days, the smaller Olympus E-1 sees most of the action. It's light enough to carry, not intimidating to bystanders, and produces a file good enough for enlargements up to about 20"x30" for fine art. Stock agency images are also fine. For me, it's kind of a "Jack of all trades, Master of none" camera. The larger Canon I reserve for studio work, sports photography, and landscapes where I have a lot of time and most shots are on a tripod.

How to Buy the Right Camera: My Advice…

It's very important to physically handle multiple cameras before you buy. It isn't enough to Google all the reviews and make your decision on the internet based on statistics. A camera is like a pair of jeans. You've got to try it on before you buy and make sure it fits. It needs to feel comfortable in your hand and the buttons need to be easy to push with your fingers.

My Epson RD1 I have one last camera that sees a lot of use. It's a type you won't hear discussed much because there is only one manufacturer and one model made in the world and not much demand from a consumer's point of view. It's an Epson RD1, referred to as a DRF, or Digital Rangefinder. If you remember the old Leica rangefinder cameras, which were the first 35mm cameras and started the whole revolution back in the 1930's, it looks just like that. It also takes interchangeable Leica lenses, and I have a nice selection of those from the "old days".

It's small, unobtrusive, light weight, and the lens-camera combination takes magnificent photos. The last time I was in Paris at the AWAI photo workshop, I had the Canon and the Epson and the Canon never made it out of the bag in 10 days of exploring the city. It also has analog controls just like an old film camera. Almost nothing is done with a menu and screen. This camera was made for zone focusing. That's what makes it such a great street shooter where speed, silence, and unobtrusiveness are required.

So which camera goes in my bag? I always take the point and shoot and the Olympus E-1 with the following exceptions...

The Canon 1D MkII is my sport shooter and often my preference for landscapes; the Epson RD1 is for "street shooting" when I want great results without being noticed.

[About the author: Professional photographer Rich Wagner began his photographic career in college as a freelance photographer for Pittsburgh newspapers. After graduation, photography remained a hobby during his 20-year career in retail, and in 1984, Rich opened a custom framing and fine art gallery. His current shop recently had the honor of being designated as one of "America's Top 100" custom framers by Décor Magazine.

To read his full biography, browse through more of his articles, and learn about AWAI programs he has contributed to, visit his bio page on thephotographerslife.com here: http://www.thephotographerslife.com/richwagner/index.php]

 


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