There are a lot of sites offering a lot more and better information than anything I can post here, but there are several posts in the forums - between the links to jewellers - asking for help. My aim is to start a thread about the general similarities and differences between cameras before going on to more detailed and technical sites (such as dpreview.com).
I hope other PB members add to this thread to make up for my ignorance, but I ask you not to make specific endorsements or criticisms of specific makes or models. Not because your opinion isn’t valid, but because it would only confuse people looking for simple information before making a choice.
The dividing line between still photographs and camcorders (video) is getting very blurry. As PB posts only jpgs, I’m going to ignore video functions. If video is an important part of your purchasing decision, my part of this post won’t help you. Again, I would refer you to dpreview.com, which does a good job reviewing video functionality in the latest cameras. All the millionnaires reading this will also be wasting their time; medium format and high-end rangefinders get short shrift here because either you know what you’re doing (and therefore don’t need this) or you have more money than sense. For (almost) the same reason, I’m excluding film. The person I’m writing for wants a digital camera and has a budget ranging between $300 and $3000 for a complete solution.
I’m a Canon owner, although I have had Nikon film cameras and still use an Olympus Pen2. I’ll try to be impartial!
The extra stuff people forget
If you’re reading this, I assume you have a computer. If you access this at work and don’t have a home computer, buy a compact with pictbridge functions. Digital photography really needs a computer to work on images, to which must be added image editing software and, possibly, a printer. To make things simple, most common inkjet printers do a decent job up to A4 sze prints. In my experience, small photo printers are more trouble than they’re worth. There are also on-line print service providers.
All digital cameras come with some form of image-editing software. Alternatively, you can try free image, downloadable editors like Gimp and Picasa. Windows Gallery and the mac’s iPhoto offer very basic image editing and management.
You can also pay for software. Photoshop Elements (under $100) is well regarded and meets most needs. Alternatives include Apple Aperture (mac only) and a wide range of Windows-compatible programs. An important part of the photography experience is how you manage the hundreds/thousands of pictures on your hard disk. Further up the price scale and feature-scale are image editors such as Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop (with Bridge) which allow you to rank, sort and manage your images using various key words, filters, etc. Another important addition is an external hard disk. It is very important to keep a safe back-up on an external drive.
The first thing you need to buy with your camera is a memory card. This rarely comes with the camera. A 4 gigbayte card is usually enough, because it can store more shots than your camera’s battery can shoot on one charge.
Although cameras come in different shapes and sizes, the most important factor is the size of the sensor, not the number of pixels. Vendors telling you that more pxiels means better photos are misinformed and/or lying.
Image resolution is measured as the number of PIcture Elements (“pixels”, like dots) by row and column and amounts to millions. Anything abve 8 MP (million pixels) is fine for all prints up to and including A4 (larger than US letter) size. More pixels don’t mean sharper pictures - that depends on the lens - and can sometimes mean worse image quality. Today’s standard at 10 MP is fine. Only some digital SLRs (see below) offer better quality with a higher pixel count.
Why? Because film has been replaced by a sensor which in most cameras is smaller than the film it replaced. The sensor has millions of photosites (mini-sensors). Stick too many on a small sensor and problems happen.
The base line is standard 24x36 mm film. This is the measurement used for focal lengths of lenses. Digital cameras with sensors this size are called “full frame”. At present, only high-end DSLRs offer this size. Anything larger is called “medium” or “large” format and comes with a price tag in the tens of thousands of US$.
Next down are digital SLRs. Sensor size varies from 1.3 to 2 x smaller than “full frame”. They all have a pentaprism mechanism (a series of mirrors) that allows you to see “through the lens” in a viewfinder. These tend to be larger, bulkier cameras with interchangeable lenses.
Just afterwards is a new variety pioneered by Panasonic Lumix and Olympus which is called the “mirrorless, interchangeable lens” system (TIPA calls them “compact system cameras”, whatever that means). Samsung and Sony have both announced rival systems as of May 2010. The viewfinder is the LCD or an electronic viewfinder and the camera is smaller, but you can buy different lenses (such as wide-angle, macro or telephoto). Sensor size is between 1.5 and 2x as small as full-frame.
These are followed by compact and bridge cameras. The sensor is tiny (smaller than a thumbnail). Very few have an optical (as opposed to electronic) viewfinder. You view your image on the LCD. Lenses can’t be changed, but they are relatively small and easy to use. Bridge cameras are larger than compacts because they have superzoom lenses.
There are some unusual exceptions such as the Leica X2 and the Ricoh interchangeable-lens units, but that’s a start. These cases are niche cameras, anyway.
All cameras can produce a common format: JPG, which can be viewed on any modern computer. All modern printers can also print jpg files (not always as you expected, however).
High-end compacts and DSLRs also have a RAW format. RAW is the output where the camera’s inbuilt image-editing works the least. RAW files are always bigger than JPGs (better JPGs are compressed). The advantage of RAW files is that you can modify them “non-destructively”, in other words, make a mistake and you always return to the unaltered original. RAW files also contain more information, which means you can make more alterations without losing detail. The downside is that JPGs are usually a finished product, whereas you always have to work on RAW files to get what you want. BTW, RAW means just that: raw, as in uncooked. Each manufacturer has its own RAW format. You have to wait for updates in Photoshop, etc., to be able to use the RAW files from a brand new camera that’s just come on the market.
High-end compacts and DSLRs can save both JPG and RAW files from the same shot or allow you to choose from one or the other.
Some high-end (i.e., expensive) cameras allow you to shoot in niche formats such as TIFF or DNG (a sort of son-of-RAW that everyone with Photoshop/Lightroom can read). Cameras with these formats are aimed more at professional photographers.
To post images on the web, your files should be in JPG using a colour space known as sRGB. This is the default format on your camera, anyway.
What actually happens when you take a picture?
In most modes, the camera measures the amount of light and makes decisions (some of which you can set in advance) about aperture and shutter speed.
At the same time (more or less), the camera focuses on (usually) the nearest point in autofocus mode. Compact cameras and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras use a method called ‘contrast detect’. DSLRs use a much faster and more reliable method called ‘phase detect’.
The camera records the image and applies some in-camera post-processing (specifically, sharpening and highlight/shadow correction) in JPG. In RAW, you have to do this yourself.
The camera writes the image on the memory card. RAW files are written at a slower rate and invisble “sidecar” files are added when you upload to a computer.
Pros and cons
I can’t easily post a table on PB, so you’ll have to read through this. Sorry.
Compact and bridge pros and cons:
Pros: cheaper, small, easy to use, pocketable. Some are “rugged” (water and shock proof), convenient.
Cons: in most cases, no viewfinder; you look at a screen, not your subject. Screen useless in bright sunlight, default sharpening, default saturation, default everything - you can’t correct mistakes; lenses are soft, suffer from chromatic aberration, distortion, converging parallels, fringing; limited options (in fairness, the more exotic defects [“chromatic aberration”] can’t be seen on most prints or when posted on the web); no RAW; LCD or electronic viewfinder is unreliable and slow; autofocus is slow and useless in low-light situation; in-built flash is too harsh close up, but too weak for longer shots; lenses usually “slow” and cover only the basic range (30-130 mm range). Slow (from power-up to image capture).
The shots that compacts always mess up:
Sports, moving children/animals, low-light shots, high-contrast shots, shots where the ISO setting exceeds 400.
Mirrorless inter-changeable lens cameras have more or less the same advantages and above all the same disadvantages as compacts except that image quality is higher, as is the price.
SLR pros and cons
Pros: interchangeable lenses, usually faster and more accurate auto-focus, better all-round image quality, RAW capability, adaptability, better low-light / high-ISO quality, modular.
Cons: price (but not much in many cases), size, complexity, more demanding in terms of photographer input
I’ve run out of time to complete this hideously long post. Perhaps someone can add to it? Again, I really would like to see constructive general pointers, not product endorsements and phatic statements.
One important thing to remember is what you want from your camera now and what you think you’ll expect to do in the (near) future. If you can be clear about that, you’ll find the right model, from the underwater-take-birthday-party-pics compact to the fashion model mega-tool.
Great thread; really useful info.
Of course there's so much more to photography than just the camera. I can remember feeling quite bewildered when we first got a DSLR at the range of stuff the shop assistant tried to flog us, and being left with a feeling that I didn't know whether I was being genuinely helped or just fleeced as a mug punter. With hindsight, I'd say it was probably a bit of both.
Here's a few notes from my experience. Though, I also have a disclaimer: I am by no means an expert. What is written here reflects what works for me - and what all too frequently – hasn't. I'm sure there are for more qualified people here on Photoblog who will be able to add to this.
Memory Cards: Some cameras come with them, others don't. Either way you'll want to buy one. In my experiece the cards that come as part of camera packages are specifically designed to be frustratingly small. I know there's a debate on here somewhere as to what the best size of card is; I honestly don't know. I mostly use a 4gb card and that's fine for me. If you are going to be rapid shooting or if you are very impatient about upload speeds you'll want to get a quick one – the more MB/s the better. If you're just going to be taking a few portraits or landscapes I'd suggest that this really doesn't matter. Cards are usually considerably cheaper on the internet than in the shops.
Batteries: It can be very handy to have a spare battery – especially if you're going on holiday, but you probably won't need to buy a second one straight away. Copies are considerably cheaper than original brands. In my experience the cheaper ones work absolutely fine at first, but after a while they cease to hold their charge as well. I still reckon you'd be pay less buying 2 or 3 cheap ones over a period of time than just one branded one but it is more hassle and you are taking a risk.
Lenses: The first consideration is what type of lens do you want. It pays to have a clear idea of what sort of photography you are doing. Longer lenses for wildlife and sport; shorter for landscapes.
If you can only afford one lens, it is worth paying a bit extra to get one with a range of lengths to give more flexibility. However, if you're buying more than one or know that you'll soon be back for the second you may prefer to get one which will have a more limited range as the quality is likely to be better. There's no getting away from it lenses can be very expensive, but I think you generally get what you pay for. The best advice though is to try before you buy. And remember, the lenses that come with kit cameras tend to be at the bottom end of the range. You might get a bargain, but equally you might end up paying for a lens that doesn't do your camera justice.
Bags: You'll definitely need a bag. In fact, If you're getting a DSLR I'd recommend two (see – I should have worked in a camera shop): One that will hold your camera with just one lens attached and a larger one for a selction of lenses and other bits. There's a lot of them about, but none are cheap. It's worth getting a proper camera bag though for two reasons – they are well padded to protect your camera. They tend to have lots of handy pouches designed just for the sort of equipment you'll be carrying. That said, most of them do stand out as being camera bags – I sometimes put my bag in a bag to deter any would be tea-leafs. Avoid bags where the lid/flap part closes with a single clip – especially if the carrying handle is also attached to this rather than to the body of the bag.
Tripod: You probably wont need one from day one. But they are fantastically useful. Never buy a shop one – get an established brand and read up on the model that will suit you before purchasing.
UV Filter: For me, this was probably the least necessary purchase first time out. UV filters as their name suggest block out UV light. If you live in a high altitude situation you might find it maks a useful difference to your pics. If like me, you live at sea level, you're more likely to find that UV isn't a problem. That said they can act as protection to to your lens. I saw a camera dropped front end down. The filter was completely smashed, but the lens was fine. Perhaps the lens would have been ok anyway, but I'm sure it must have been cushioned a bit.
As usual, very helpful and informative thread, and as usual I'd like to stick my two cents here:
Revenant: "4 gigbayte card is usually enough, because it can store more shots than your camera’s battery can shoot on one charge."
Disagree. 4 gig is enough for compact point-and-shoot cameras, however if you have 15 or more megapixel DSLR and shoot raw, it is highly recommended to have at least 8 gigs. If you plan to use your DSLR to shoot 1080p HD video - 16 gig is a must.
Revenant: "They all have a pentaprism mechanism (a series of mirrors) that allows you to see “through the lens” in a viewfinder."
Correction: pentaprism is literally five-sided prism.
Revenant: "RAW means just that: raw, as in uncooked."
Addendum - depends on the manufacturer. Unfortunately some of them (e.g. Panasonic) like to cook raw files more than you would like.
Revenant: "Mirrorless inter-changeable lens cameras have more or less the same advantages and above all the same disadvantages as compacts except that image quality is higher, as is the price."
Strongly disagree. Apart from the "no viewfinder" point, all the rest (soft lenses, slow autofocus, bad ISO, etc.) are not valid.
Jarvo: UV Filters.
Addendum - if you're going to buy a UV filter, stick with high quality brands (like B+W), as cheap chinese filters add flair, decrease contrast and might ruin your image.
Addendum - do not be tempted by "super ultra mega zoom" lenses like 18-200mm or even 18-270mm as the image quality will be mediocre at best. Or at least get one of those cheap primes like 50mm f/1.8, it might save you in the situations where "ultra-zoom" fails miserably.
Thanks to both of you for filling in some huge gaps. I hope more PB members can add to this thread, if only to correct my assumptions and more importantly, to assist all those who post messages asking for help.
Just to correct two "corrections: I didn't describe what a pentaprism is; I offered a summary description of what it does.
And I feel I must qualify Rokas's strong disagreement about mirrorless inter-changeable lens cameras. I have an Oly EP2, so I speak with some experience. Just about every review I've read of MFT pancakes and other compatible lenses does fault them for softness compared to the equivalent on a standard SLR. The EP1, EP2, EPL, etc., all use contrast-detect AF and have had firmware upgrades in an attempt to make it faster. Even the Lumix model is rated as slow as a starter DSLR. I refer you to the dpreview reports on all models mentioned. As for ISO, I can compare only Canon 5DII and Canon 7D models against my EP2, which is a bit like comparing a Porsche with a Beetle for speed (i.e., unfair and practically invalid), but the general rule is that noise is significantly more noticeable on lower-end cameras above ISO 400, and none of the reviews or my experience with them contradict this rule.
And here's a final word (from me, at least, you'll be glad to hear) about "mega zoom" lenses:
It's very tempting to go for "one size fits all" lenses with a focal range of 10X or more (i.e., for example, a lens that covers 24 mm to 280 mm, as opposed to a 24-70 mm, a 50-150 mm, et cetera). In every case, mega zooms suffer from more distortion, more chromatic aberration, more corner and centre softness than shorter focal length zooms and especially prime (fixed focal length) lenses. It's the price you pay for the convenience. There are other drawbacks: lens "creep" (lens extends unless there is a lock), dust can be sucked inside the lens from the extending barrel, and the lens can hunt for focus if it doesn't feature distance limiters. There are no doubt more, but I've traded in all my superzooms except for a 100-400 L, which is referred to, appropriately enough, as the 'dust pumper'.
Mmmm, in that case I guess it largely depends on your personal experience. For instance, I love my Panasonic GF1 with 20mm 1.7 pancake, none of compact cameras I had before come even remotely close to it, this little bugger definitely plays in the DSLR league.
I do agree that comparing it with the full frame camera feels like comparing Porsche with a Beetle, however if you take any 4/3 based DSLR (e.g. Olympus), difference suddenly becomes not so obvious. Also, a 4/3 sensor is roughly one step behind the APS-C sensor in terms of light sensitivity, and in this case pancake lens helps massively allowing you to keep ISO on much lower setting than f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, which typically comes with similar priced DSLR.
I'm not saying that it suppose to replace full scale DSLR camera, however if we get back to your car comparison, let's say I see the full frame camera as a porsche, compact point-and-shoot as a bicycle and m4/3 camera - as a 600cc motorbike
And the whole point of this thread - to continue the analogy - is that you can do the weekly shopping at the supermarket in a Ferrari, a Beetle and, at a pinch, on a motorbike, but some vehicles are more suitable than others. With any luck, people reading this thread will realise that Ferraris aren't necessarily the ideal choice for doing the weekly shopping...