It’s no secret that scouring and shopping for that shiny new camera with all the features you want can be an exciting and thrilling affair – at least for photography junkies like you and me.
And as most of us would agree, modern cameras might be magical devices but can be rather intimidating to purchase at first. Especially if you are not familiar with the technical specifications and features, the pros and cons of different types and brands, or are unsure what you really need.
What do all those symbols, letters, and numbers mean?
Worry no more, even if you know nothing about cameras but still wish to purchase one. In this guide, I will cover everything you need to know about modern cameras to help you feel confident and delightful while getting your next snapper.
Types of Cameras
There are many different types of cameras—from simplistic point-and-shoots to huge and fancy DSLRs. Our search for the ideal camera for your needs and budget starts with identifying what makes each of these cameras unique.
If you are considering buying a (semi-)pro, big and expensive camera, you are probably picturing a DSLR camera. DSLR stands for digital single lens reflect. This camera has two main parts: the body and the lens. Its most notable feature is that the lens can be removed and changed, but both parts are required to take a photo. The DSLR camera has a mirror that that you can look through while composing an image and gives a very accurate view of what the final image will look like before you take the photo.
The DSLR camera has a large sensor, typically 35mm, which provides exceptional low light noise performance as well as a better background blur. Its glass lens provides a professional-quality image capture, and this is why it is the best option for professional photographers, journalists, and serious hobbyists.
2. Mirrorless Camera
The mirrorless camera is one of the most popular cameras today. It shares many features with the DSLR, except that they are in a compact body, and without the mirror. This camera also features an interchangeable lens and can take quality pictures that rival those of DSLRs.
Today, you can find mirrorless cameras that take full-frame size pictures—just like the professional-level DSLR cameras. The major downside of the lack of a mirror is that its sensor is smaller, meaning that it cannot take as good quality in low light conditions, or register the depth of field as DSLRs. It also cannot compare with the DSLR when it comes to auto-focus speed.
What makes mirrorless cameras popular is that they are cheaper, lighter, and much smaller when compared to the DSLR. They are the best alternative for everyone—from casual hobbyists to advanced amateurs.
3. Compact Point-and-Shoot
The most popular and smallest dedicated camera, the point-and-shoot, is what most people go for when looking for a camera to take family photos, to take on occasional sight-seeing, or just to have when the need arises. Because it is very small, it can be easily carried around. This camera has a permanently attached lens that covers a wide zoom range. The lens can protrude and retract back into the camera, helping it cover a wide range while keeping it nice and small for storage.
The point-and-shoot camera has the smallest sensor, meaning that its image quality is not as good as those of mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Over the recent years, better sensor technology has led to the production of improved point-and-shoot cameras with commendable image quality.
The flipside is that some point-and-shoot cameras lack important manual control settings such as shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. It has a slow autofocus, but most people go for it because it is the least expensive option.
4. Camera Phone
Camera phones started appearing just a couple of years ago as smartphones took over the old mobile phones and miniaturisation took a new turn. The camera phone is increasingly becoming a viable option for people who want to capture great moments, or even take close to professional-quality images. These phones are built to be easy to carry and are convenient cameras to use anywhere and anytime.
Manufacturers today are coming up with phones with advanced camera features e.g. the Samsung Zoom and Nokia Lumia 1020, which appeal to both professional and amateur photographers.
Camera phones are still far behind DSLRs and mirrorless cameras when it comes to picture quality. Because they have fixed lenses, these cameras cannot zoom without reducing image quality but the newer models are coming with better sensors and creative lenses that are looking to change this.
5. Action Cam
The action cam is rugged, small, mountable camera that is designed for sporting, adventure, and outdoors photography. A photographer can go for this camera to take shots from a unique perspective by taking advantage of its mountable feature. GoPro and Sony make the most popular action cam brands. These cameras are primarily designed to capture high-quality video, but they can also capture still images and time lapse pictures.
Although they have come far since they first appeared, action cams cannot substitute a professional camera. Action cams have limited manual-adjustable settings and are often considered as a fun extra in photography rather than a primary shooting camera because they can allow you to take pictures and video in situations and places where you would not take other types of cameras.
Important Camera Features to Consider
Once you decide on the type of camera you want to go for depending on the intended use, you still have to check the technical specifics to home in on the right one depending on where you want to use it, the quality of images you expect, and your budget. Here are the important features that really matter when selecting a camera.
1. Manual Mode
If you want to take full creative control of your image’s exposure, you must get a camera with manual mode. In automatic mode, the camera’s software’s selects shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings for you. You can determine how your image turns out by adjusting these settings yourself in manual mode. Most cameras come with automatic and semi-automatic modes, which can be useful for amateur photographers just starting out.
Most cameras, especially the DSLRs, mirrorless, and micro four thirds, have manual modes, often labelled ‘M’. However, fewer point-and-shoots do. Should you choose to buy a point-and-shoot, you should give manual mode a try to ensure that it is easy to use and that you can change the settings quickly when the need arises.
The ISO controls the camera’s sensor’s sensitivity to light. Increasing the ISO value increases the sensor’s sensitivity, allowing you to shoot better photos in darker conditions, even without flash. The best cameras are those that have ISO 1600 or higher. Some professional cameras can shoot photos at ISO 25,000 to 100,000! However, note that using the ISO setting often means more noise (coloured speckles) on the image, resulting in grainier pictures.
As camera technologies improve, you can get a good camera that produces usable images even at high ISO. While shopping for a camera, go online to sample images taken at different ISOs using the camera you are considering. If the images are grainy at low ISOs, e.g. ISO 500, you should consider another camera if you intend to use it in dark conditions such as night and cloudy situations.
The megapixel (MP) is the measure of the camera’s resolution. The higher the resolution or megapixels in the image the camera takes, the clearer and sharper the photo you can print. This essentially means that there are more picture elements in a square inch of the photograph.
While you may not need a camera with huge megapixels, a typical 4MP camera can give a good image printed on a 4×6 inch or 5×7 inch photo paper. An 8MP camera can take great photos that can print clearly on an 8×10 inch paper while a 20MP photo is a super high-quality image for a 12×18 inch print.
The megapixel value is a part of what makes a camera great, but it should not distract you from other features. Consider what you need the photographs for, and remember that the larger the megapixels in an image, the larger the file size.
One of the most important considerations for many when buying a camera is its physical design, how it feels on your hands, and how easy it is to store and carry. Ergonomically speaking, the important considerations to look at are:
- Size: Does the camera feel comfortable in your hands? Can you reach all the buttons easily? Can it fit in your favourite backpack snugly? How does the camera feel when it is close to your face? To figure these out, go to the store and actually hold and try out the camera in person.
- Weight: Cameras in similar classes general weigh about the same. If you are an amateur or casual photographer, you may want to consider a light camera that you can take anywhere. A heavy camera is not easy to carry around, and can be easily dropped accidentally.
- Durability: The ruggedness of the camera determines how sturdy it is. Some cameras feature a magnesium alloy internal frame and are weather-sealed. Most camera phones are water resistant and can be used underwater, but action cams are the most durable and rugged of all.
- Menu System: Ensure that a camera’s menu system is straightforward and easy to use before purchasing it. Every camera is different, but you should be able to navigate the settings and menu system without pulling out the manual every time.
Some cameras can record images in JPEG as well as RAW formats. Most are limited to JPEG. The advantage of storing images in RAW format is that all the information the sensor captures is stored, allowing for flexibility and error correction during post-processing. JPEG, on the other hand, discards this data when the image is compressed into a small file.
Most DSLRs, mirrorless, and Micro Four Thirds can shoot images in RAW format besides JPEG. Camera phones too are increasingly incorporating this feature, but point-and-shoots are mostly limited to JPEG. If you take photography seriously, you should consider getting a camera with the RAW feature.
Proper focus is one of the most important things in photography. Focus is what draws the viewer’s eye to the price spot on the image where you want them to look. Poor camera focus ruins even a great photo shot. While shopping for a camera, seriously consider the quality of the autofocus system.
It is important that you test out a camera to determine how accurate and how fast the focusing system is before buying the camera. When you need to capture something you see quickly, an accurate and fast autofocus is what will determine whether you can capture a great moment in a good picture or miss it entirely while your camera readjusts the focus.
Optional Camera Features
Most cameras today come with nifty but handy features and accessories that can make add flexibility and convenience to the use of the camera, and even improve the quality of moments and images you capture. These features and accessories that you should consider while shopping for a camera include:
1. Panorama Mode
This feature takes multiple images in a scene then automatically stitches them together into a panoramic shot. It is a common feature in mirrorless, camera phones, and point-and-shoot cameras but less common in DSLRs.
2. Image Stabilisation
You’ve probably already come across this term being thrown around of late, particularly after the advent of camera phones. It’s basically a feature that reduces shakiness and vibration when shooting, thereby eliminating blurriness in poor lighting conditions. The best cameras feature an optical image stabilisation feature on the camera body or lens itself.
3. Video Recording
Almost all camera types today feature video recording capabilities. The standard is high definition quality (HD) at 1080p, which most camera phones and point-and-shoots are capable of. If you intend to record video a lot, find a camera that offers manual video settings control.
4. Frames Per Second
Frames per second (fps) is the number of photos the camera can take in a second. The higher the fps, the better the camera for shooting fast action scenes. While choosing a camera for video recording, check to make sure it can record at least 30 or 60fps at full HD resolution.
5. Automatic Sensor Cleaning
Yet another beneficial feature that many cameras have. It is designed to shake off the dust from the camera’s sensor through ultrasonic vibrations. However, note that it does not always work perfectly in getting rid of dust particles.
6. Liquid Crystal Display
Check the quality of the camera’s LCD (liquid crystal display) when choosing your camera. The higher the LCD resolution and contrast, the better. The display is often used as a viewfinder, allowing you to preview the scene before capturing it.
The viewfinder in a camera is what you look at while composing the image. With DSLRs, you can look right through the lens, thanks to the mirror. For other camera types, you will use an LCD or LED screen at the back of the camera. Some may have an electronic viewfinder.
8. Wi-Fi & Near-Field Connectivity (NFC)
Many cameras today come with advanced connectivity features. This means that uploading your photos, upgrading software, downloading apps, and linking your camera with a phone is easier, convenient, and faster.
9. Global Positioning System
Some cameras have GPS chips that geotag images to make it possible to track where the photos were taken. This is a handy feature, especially when using a camera while travelling or when on an adventure in the wild.
Despite what a salesperson may try to convince you, you do not actually need every camera accessory your camera can have. Do not be pressured into purchasing a ton of gizmos you may never need. Understand what each does, and depending on what you need the camera for, you can choose to get it or not. The most notable add-on accessories include:
- Memory Cards
- Spare Batteries
- Camera Bag
- Memory Card Reader
- Tripod Stand
- Battery Grip
- External Flash
- Remote Controller
- Hard Drive
We hope that this guide helps you find the ideal camera that suits your needs and meets your budget. Before making a final decision, do your research and have fun discovering other important factors that we may not have covered here. Good luck.