Recently a friend asked me on a recommendation on camera, which lead me to write this post. Now I’ll be clear, this will not tell you what camera to buy, that’s almost impossible, but it will give you an insight in the difference between the cameras out there and what you should be aware of. I’m no pro, let me get that out of the way. I’m I guess what you can call an amateur photographer. I don’t pretend to know what all the buttons and settings on my camera do, but I’m learning, and I’m very interested doing so.
First, for this article to make sense, we have to remember how cameras work. Let’s go back to film cameras. Film cameras work by exposing a very quick burst of light through the shutter of a lens to a section of light-sensitive film. When you press the button to take a photo the shutter opens very quickly, allowing light into the lens, which then exposes the film loaded in the camera. This creates a negative photo the film which must go through a chemical process before you can see the final (positive) photo, usually in the form of prints on paper. Digital cameras work in a similar way, however instead of light shining onto film, it shines onto a digital sensor. This sensor is part of a mini-computer inside your camera which processes and displays this image on the screen. So in the simplest form, the better the lens and the sensor of your camera, the better results you’ll have with your photos.
Now, back to my friend. They wanted a quick shutter speed to capture crisp photos, something which their current camera didn’t do so well. This made me think a lot, there are hundreds of options to choose from. Simple “point and shoot” (P&S) cameras all the way to DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex) models. What is the right one? Would a Point and shoot be best, or a DSLR? Well this post will go into some of my thoughts. Granted these are simply my thoughts and you should always do your own research when buying a big purchase, which a camera can be. Talk to friends, relatives, or even post on your Facebook page – gather some information and see what works best for you.
Take things slow and research. The internet makes it easy, but start locally. Does a friend have a newer camera? Take it for a test drive! Like shopping for a car, it’s best to try it before you buy it. See if anyone you know has a digital camera. If nobody has a camera that you let most electronic stores, like Best Buy (or even Target or Walmart), will let you play around with a camera in-store (even if it’s tethered to a display stand). Places like Best Buy may even open up a camera from the box and hand it to you for some thether-free, hands on experience. Something I learned, some in-store models do not have a memory card, so if you have an SD card, bring it yourself to try it out (copy all your photos off and erase it before you do!).
Make a mental list or jot down some notes. What camera did you try? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like. This may seem like something you can skip, however, shopping for cameras can be confusing. With so many similar models and styles, you can easily confuse yourself.
No matter what camera you choose remember this… if you don’t learn how to use it properly, your results will suffer! Things like lighting, the type of lens you are using, the camera’s settings and the speed of your memory card are all factors in getting the perfect shot. Yes you can spend $1,000 on a new DSLR camera and lens, but if you leave it on “Auto” mode you’re kind of only using half the camera.
A brief history of my experience with Digital Cameras
My first digital camera was a fixed-focus-lens (which is thankfully a thing of the past) HP photosmart camera in the early 2000’s. Comparing that camera to today’s tech I can say (without exaggerating) that most cameras in a cell phone would blow it out of the water. My next camera was a big step up, a Canon PowerShot A620, which I loved! It required four AA batteries and had a memory card limit of 2GB, however, it had a nice 4X Optical Zoom and took some beautiful photos due to it’s oversized image sensor. I would use this camera for many, many years to come.
Eventually I yearned for higher quality photos and high definition video recording capabilities, (and one that didn’t have the limitations of my old camera… like bulky batteries and a memory card size limit) this led me to the Canon PowerShot SX40 HS. While not a DSLR, this camera had a massive 35X lens and was pretty good all around, especially when on sale. However, what I realized was that while the SX40 HS was nice, comparing my photos to photos taken by a friend’s DSLR there was a big difference in quality. Maybe not in all of the shots, but you can tell if you look closely.
Fast forward last year when I purchased my current camera, a Canon 60 DSLR. I got it used, but wow, what a camera! You can tell by picking it up that it means business. It was a learning experience and I still haven’t touched all of the settings, but it’s a great camera.
So what’s the big difference between a Point & Shoot camera and a DSLR camera?
To explain the difference we’re going to have to dive into some details. In short Point and Shoot cameras are meant for consumers to easily take photos without touching too many buttons or settings. DSLR cameras are meant for advanced users who want more control in their photos and aren’t afraid of learning about their camera or reading the manual. There is one other type of camera that I won’t cover too much, and that is the “pro-sumer” cameras. These are basically point and shoot cameras on steroids, designed to try and steal away some marketshare from people looking to buy DSLR cameras. They may offer some options that a DSLR does, but they may lack the ability to change lenses and skimp on a lot of features. Unless you’re on a tight budget, I would avoid them, in the long run a DSLR will give you more for your money.
Observations on Point and Shoots
Point and shoot cameras can almost be compared to the camera in your smartphone. They have a lot of features and rely on hardware and software tricks to give you a good photo. Where a DSLR may have a lot of manual controls and settings, some point and shoots have very limited settings, restricting you on lighting options and photo settings. Most decent point and shoot cameras will beat a smartphone of course. For example, smarphones often don’t have the ability to use optical zoom and often don’t have a good flash.
But the big difference is the lens and the sensor. The lens of a point and shoot is not removable. You may think “big whoop I don’t need another lens”, well that’s not all of it. Because the lens can’t be removed, the camera can compromise on how the photo is actually taken. The process is very technical, however, in short the image is taken by a digital sensor. This sensor may have a lot of megapixels (which is how many dots make up the image), but that doesn’t make up for a lower quality lens or sensor. Most point and shoot models have a sensor that is 5% or less than a full-frame DSLR sensor. This isn’t to say a point and shoot cant’ take a good photo however. (See the image above, taken with my old Canon A620 point and shoot camera)
Speaking of zoom, if you are going with a point and shoot camera, avoid Digital Zoom-only models. Some digital cameras without an optical zoom will have an outrageous claim on their box like “10 x zoom!” on the box where in fact it’s actually a digital zoom. The difference? A HUGE one! An optical zoom is a true zoom where as digital zoom is a cheap trick. If the camera offers an optical zoom and a digital zoom that’s okay (for example a camera may offer a 4x optical and 10x digital zoom), you can usually disable the digital zoom in the settings.
Think of an optical zoom like looking through binoculars, the image is enlarged optically via glass lenses. Where as digital zoom is like opening an image on your PC and clicking the “zoom in” or “magnify” button. Digital zoom just artificially zooms in and shows you every blocky pixel of your image. One actually gives you an actual zoom which is handy to use, while the other is almost useless. You’ll never find this feature on any self-respecting DSLR.
Observations on DSLRs
A DSLR camera is composed of two parts, the body and the lens. Not a lot has changed from film SLRs, except instead of film the camera uses a memory card thanks to a digital image sensor. The body is the camera itself with the lens removed. Most companies will sell the camera body itself and/or bundled with a lens. This is because a lot of photographers may prefer to use existing compatible lens or purchase their own. This is a cost saver. For example, if you have a Canon 35mm SLR, chances are the lenses are compatible with a DSLR like the Canon 60D. Therefore, you only need to purchase the Canon 60D body, since you will be supplying your own lenses. This also makes it less painless to upgrade cameras in the future. The downside is lenses are usually very expensive, with the cheapest usually being around $100-200. But you get what you pay for, these are seriously nice lenses. The one disadvantage of a DSLR is that you need to stop and change lenses if you want a different type of shot.
Focus and speed are king with a DSLR. They generally focus very quickly and can take multiple shots per second. Some cameras can exceed taking up to 10 photos per second. Think of the sports photos you may see on TV or in the newspaper, that’s taken by a DSLR, the only camera capable of capturing some quick action with minimal blurring.
This photo was taken with a 2006 Canon Rebel XT DSLR camera. Although the rabbits are in motion (they’re quick!), notice how sharp and in-focus the photo is. It would be difficult to capture this shot with a point and shot camera due to the amount of motion.
A JPEG is a digital file that digital cameras use to store the photos you take. JPEGs aren’t bad, but they also aren’t the best. DSLR cameras (and some prosumer P&S cameras) gain the important ability of taking photos in JPEG as well as a superior format called RAW. RAW images are uncompressed high-quailty files which are known for their editing capabilities and color accuracy. They are not compressed like JPEG images, which leads to better quality, but also larger file sizes. You can always convert a RAW image to a JPEG, and most DSLR cameras have a neat feature that shoots in a “dual” format. Giving you two files for each shot, one high-quality RAW file, and one compressed JPEG image ready for Facebook or email.
A DSLR is also different because of the way you view photos. Point and shoot cameras may have a see-through viewfinder or solely rely on a digital screen which may not be a 100% accurate representation of the photo you want to snap. With a DSLR the viewfinder is always looking directly through the lens, so what you see is what you get.
Options, options and more options! While today’s DSLRs try to be more consumer friendly with an “Easy” or “Auto” mode, the real power of the DSRL is options. You will want to review the camera manual for some basics and understand what buttons do what before going on a photo session. You should get serious about learning some photography skills, because you have a great camera at your disposal capable of great things just waiting to be unlocked.
What camera should you choose?
If you’re in the market for a camera, and can afford it, a DSLR is a better choice – by far. Yes the initial cost is more expensive, but it’s a better investment and will last longer. Point and shoot cameras are consumer-focused products and are not meant to last forever. DSLR cameras are more rugged, designed to last, and retain their resale value well.
The next decision is harder. What model camera do I get, what brand? I can’t tell you what camera to buy, but I can help you in your search. There are a few popular brands that have a good reputation in the camera world, Canon and Nikon are probably the most vocal. Then Sony, Olympus, FujiFilm and Panasonic (in no particular order). This is where you have to do your research. Look up reviews on Amazon, Google the camera model with the words “problem” or “defect” or “recall”. See what people are saying. Search for the camera model on DPreview (a great camera review site). It will take you a few days or weeks, but it’ll be worth it. Remember to keep track of what year the camera was released, if it’s an older model you may be able to find it on sale, or used. In addition, new models may be on the verge of coming out, which will usually send older model prices down. My Canon 60D came out in 2010, but I bought in 2014 simply because it was still an awesome camera.
Some Canon DSLR Models Available
I like my Canon 60D DSLR camera, so I would recommend it, but it may not be the best for your needs. There are tons of models out there, so do your research. The chart at the bottom of this Wikipedia page is embeded below as an image. My Camera is the Canon 60D. By looking at the chart you can see it’s in the Enthusiast class, and was introduced in the 2nd quarter of 2010. Why did I get such an old camera last year? Because it’s a great camera, even if it is 5 years old. Often new camera models will add features, but that doesn’t mean the old ones should be ignored. Not at all!
Some popular Canon models, as shown below are the Rebel T4i, Rebel T5i, and 70D. Of course the T3i and 60D are older models, but still are great choices depending on your needs. Wikipedia in general is a great resource for looking up camera models and their features.
Important Things to Remember When Buying a Camera:
You’ll need a few accessories with your camera. Today most cameras will not come with a memory card, so you’ll have to buy your own.
- Memory Cards – You don’t need to spend a fortune, but you can get a good sized card for under $20. Most DSLR cameras take the “SD” memory card formats. These cards sometimes use a class rating system that can be a bit misleading. You’re better off reading the reviews than relying on packaging. However, here is a PNY 32GB SD memory card which is enhanced for high-speed DSLR cameras. I use this card and I love it, in fact I bought a second, and then bought a 3rd, but this time in a larger size. Either way, this card will let you store thousands of photos and a lot of video. [Amazon Link]
- Lenses – If you are buying a “body-only” camera you will need to supply your own lens. Do your research, not all Canon lens work on all Canon cameras. Also, different brand lenses won’t work on other manufacture’s cameras (A Sony lens won’t work on a Nikon camera, etc). I’m not an expert, but usually a good zoom lens is a good place to start. This will give you some range and options to play around with. As always do your research and see what people are saying.
- Carrying Case – If you’re spending a few hundred dollars on a nice camera, you’re going to want to have a good case to protect it as well. Here is an example of a small DSLR case by CaseLogic [Amazon Link]. Keep in mind, if you’re going to be carrying around accessories, spare batteries, and lenses, you’ll want a bigger bag, or maybe a padded backpack.
- Battery Charger and Additional Batteries – A DSLR camera will come with a battery charger and a rechargeable battery, but what happens when your battery dies just as you’re lining up the perfect shot? Having a spare battery is essential! Order a second battery as soon as you can, it won’t hurt to get a 2nd charger too. While some people may disagree with me, I use non-OEM/ Third Party batteries and they work great. Canon and other camera companies may warn you and say the batteries may harm your camera, but as long as you don’t get a cheap knock-off brand, you should be fine. Part of me thinks they just want to sell their own overpriced batteries. I’ve had good luck with batteries from third party companies such as Wasabi and Opteka, you can find them being sold on Amazon. Be the judge and read the reviews yourself before purchasing.
- Cleaning Cloth or Lens Cleaning Kit – Especially with the large lens of a DSLR you’re going to need to take care of it and clean it. Amazon has plenty of cleaning kits available.
- Please Remember to Backup your photos! – I can’t let you go without saying this. Do this from the start, don’t be lazy! I lost a memory card and lost photos before, it’s not fun! With film cameras there was always the negative if you lost your prints. But with digital cameras, it’s all on a memory card, or then your computer. Everything breaks, even memory cards and hard drives. They can get lost or damaged. Use an external hard drive to backup your photos to. Or better yet, use an online backup service like BackBlaze or CrashPlan to backup your previous memories. Because its likely only you will have the original copies. Another idea is to burn CDs or DVDs and share them with family and friends as a backup. Set a calendar reminder on your email or smartphone and backup at least one a month or so.
Further reading and resources:
I don’t know it all, these are some awesome sites and resource for you to review!
- A good comparison article on Point & Shoot VS DSLR https://photographylife.com/dslr-vs-point-and-shoot-camera
- A great Digital Camera Review site http://www.dpreview.com
- How does a DSLR camera work? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XR_AdKkFX94