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Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Matters in a Camera, DSLR edition

This is a follow up to my rant about megapixels. After ragging on sensor resolution, I thought I should provide some insight into what does matter when choosing a camera. I'll split this into two posts, one for DSLR's, one for point n shoots, since they're pretty different animals.

First off, let me say that choosing a camera is a very personal decision. There is no one camera out there for everyone, as you can tell by the huge lineup of cameras available on the market. People with different styles of shooting require different things from their camera, so some of this might not apply to what you do (and I might miss some things that you think are very important). So, in no particular order, here's my take on various camera features:

Price. This is probably the most important consideration, since all the amazing features in the world won't matter if you can't afford them. Establish a budget and try to stick to it. In general, the camera manufacturers have 4 tiers of camera - entry level (around $500), consumer ($800-1100), prosumer ($1300-2500), and professional ($4k+). You can generally tell what tier a camera falls into by the price, which helps you cut through the often confusing numbering scheme. Remember that there are additional costs involved with buying a camera, especially a DSLR - accessories like memory cards, bags, tripods, lenses, filters, etc. Look for gently used or refurbished gear to save some money. Go back a generation or two of camera to get some top tier features at a middle tier price.

Ergonomics/controls. If you can, go to a store and pick up the camera you're interested in buying. How does it feel in your hand? Are the menus easy to access and intuitive? Are there a lot of dials and buttons on the body to quickly change camera settings? The important ones should be easily accessible without moving your hands from the shooting position. Size also matters. If you have big hands, a small entry-level DSLR may feel overly light and cramped to you. Go back a generation and get a bigger camera, you'll be much happier holding it in your hand and that will motivate you to shoot more. (The converse is also true, obviously).

Video. The latest batch of DSLRs can all record HD video. If video is something that interests you, it might be worth stepping down a tier so that you'll have money left over for the needed accessories (lighting, tripod/fluid head, some sort of shoulder rig, audio recording, microphones, large capacity memory cards, etc).

High ISO performance. This is especially important if you do a lot of shooting indoors (weddings, events, theater, indoor sports). An extra stop or two of usable ISO can be the difference between a sharp shot and a blurry shot, or allow you to handhold instead of lugging a tripod or monopod around with you.

Frames-per-second (FPS). If you shoot a lot of bursts (sports shooters, I'm looking at you), you'll want to consider a camera with a higher FPS and a bigger buffer for longer bursts (the two usually go hand in hand). Most consumer DSLRs shoot around 3FPS, but the pro bodies top out around 8-9FPS. Some prosumer level cameras have a frame rate boost when you add a battery grip, so make sure to check that option before buying.

Lenses. Here is where the true magic happens. It's better to skimp a bit on the body and put the money toward better glass, because the optics are what truly make your images (and the technology will last decades rather than a few years before being outdated). A fast prime or two and a fixed aperture zoom will bring that extra wow factor to your shots, and cut down on the amount of processing necessary to make your images pop. Plus, having wider apertures available gives you more creative tools (shallower depth of field). Like I said, a good lens will last you a long time, and will hold its resale value well if you ever decide to upgrade.

Exposure bracketing. If you're into HDR images, you're going to want a camera that will do exposure bracketing for you. Some cameras allow you to bracket from 3-7 shots, usually at up to 2 stop intervals. I believe that the Nikon cameras have more bracketing options than Canon at the moment, at least from the grumbling that I've read on the interwebs, so keep that in mind.

What your friends/family shoot. This may seem like a strange one, but it's important, especially when you're first starting out. If you have family or friends that own a DSLR, seriously consider sticking with the same brand they have. That way they can help you learn the layout of the camera, and you can swap lenses and other accessories.

Hope this helps somewhat. The point n shoot edition should be out soon.


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