Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Digital Camera Buyer's Guide: Part 1

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In the world of digital photography, there are a huge number of choices. For someone new to digital photography, or coming from film, they can seem overwhelming. However with a little knowledge of the basics of digital photography, and the choices available, you can be comfortable in your ability to select the right digital camera. So whether you have shot film for years, are completely new to digital, or are just looking for your next upgrade, this guide will cover the basics of all the options available, and help anyone to determine what type of camera they need.

The first choice you have to make is on the size and capability that you want. There are now several formats to consider:
1. Point and Shoot, Compacts
• Regular Zoom
• Long Zoom
2. Detachable Lens
• DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex)
• Micro Four Thirds DL

Point & Shoot
Point and Shoot, Regular Zoom
If you are on a limited budget, require a compact camera, or just want something inexpensive and easy to use, buying a point and shoot model is definitely the way to go. The good news is you can get excellent pictures, even take HD videos in many models. There are several major brands to choose from, and any combination of picture resolution (megapixels), optical zoom, video formats, and cool software features at price points from $89-$499 available. Note that a micro four thirds detachable lens model gives you most of the quality available in an entry level DSLR camera, at only a small sacrifice in added size (more about this below). Point & Shoot Regular Zoom Cameras .

Point and Shoot, Long Zoom
If you need to get a picture from a distance, such as catching a kid from across the playing field, or say, getting a good view of the far side of the Grand Canyon, you should consider a long zoom camera, (more than 7x optical zoom). If your budget can swing it, and you can see yourself using the feature at any time, the longer zoom is definitely worth the modest additional investment. If you are thinking of using one of these cameras to take a lot of action or sports photos, choose one with a high frames per second capability or step up to a detachable lens (DL) camera with fast shutter response to make sure you get every picture. Point & Shoot Long Zoom Cameras.

Detachable Lens (DL)
There are now more choices available for the customer wanting a major step up in quality from a P&S camera. And make no mistake, whatever your abilities as a photographer you will take better pictures with a detachable lens camera. This is because of the larger size of the sensor used vs. P&S (the sensor is the key piece of technology which captures the image), and the improved size and quality of the lenses that come with these cameras. DL cameras also generally allow you to take more pictures per second. This give you higher odds of catching that one, unique picture if your subject is moving. With the recent introduction of the four thirds and micro four thirds format DL cameras, the selection process gets a little more complicated, but also makes the world of better pictures attractive to a wider range of customers, for reasons we will explore below.

Digital SLR Cameras (DSLR)
Most DL cameras in use and available today are DSLR’s, and they come in a wide range of costs and capabilities. The entry level cameras produce pictures superior to point and shoots, with the same potential for ease of use (when in auto mode). On top of the improved quality of pictures the DSLR produces, the user has the flexibility of adding lenses (for longer zoom, specialty effects, portraits, etc.) and improved flashes, or learning how to use the manual modes, to shoot like a pro. Among DSLR’s, there are APS-C and full frame cameras. The lower priced cameras are APS-C format models, with a somewhat smaller sensor than the full frame models. All Digital SLRS's.

APS-C DLSR Cameras
The APS-C format DSLR’s are attractively priced and offer the user virtually all of the capabilities and flexibility of use that the more expensive, pro-level full frame models have. Even the entry level models can take fantastic pictures, in full automatic mode (for those who aren’t interested in mastering the manual modes) or the ability to tailor the shot to one’s exact tastes using the manual settings. Many models come with HD video capability and live view (older DSLR’s required a viewfinder). Users tend to step up to a pro level camera when they want the added optical quality, durability, and lightning fast shutter releases those cameras have. All of these are great, but come at a price, and are not the best option for everyone.

Full Frame DSLR cameras
These are the kinds of cameras that you see on the sidelines at pro sporting events, or being used by your local school photographers. They offer superior durability, better quality sensors and components, fast shutter speeds, all of which allow the pro to take even higher quality images and capture just the one they want. There is no reason for the enthusiast not to covet the results available to them from these cameras, and many choose to buy them so they have all the technology available to them that the true pros use. If that appeals to you, take a look at these technological marvels.

Micro Four Thirds DL Cameras
Olympus and Panasonic have recently introduced a series of cameras called micro four-thirds cameras. The name refers to the size of the image sensor, which, while smaller than full frame or two thirds sensor SLR’s they are larger than that of a point and shoot. The size of the image sensor is directly related to how fine the detail is in the photo, how accurate exposure and color are, and how well the camera performs in low light. The micro four thirds system offers a great combination of compact size, and lens selection. The bodies of the cameras are much smaller than DSLR bodies, and some lenses are so small that the size and weight is less than that of the larger superzooms. This is accomplished by removing the mirror and prism (such is used in a DSLR). The micro four thirds cameras offer a great compromise between the versatility of the SLR cameras, and the smaller size of the compacts and superzooms. With the right lens adapters, they also offer many options and combinations of optics to give you exactly the range you need, in a smaller package than a traditional SLR. Micro 4/3 cameras.

All this really just scratches the surface, but its a good starting point for anyone looking for a new camera. Next week, we'll delve into some of the key features to ask about and explain more about what each of them means.