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How to decide on which type of digital photography camera and features are best for you.
There are basically 4 types of digital photography cameras that a Photographer may purchase. This article will explain the differences with the camera types, the pros and cons, and the cost range for each. The 4 types are: Point and shoot, compact point and shoot, super zoom & Single lens reflex (SLR) which is the most expensive and would be more for the advanced amateur or professional wedding or portrait photographer. All of today’s digital cameras can also shoot video as well. The quality of the video recorded will vary with the type of digital camera. All of the below cameras have replaceable digital media. SD, compact flash, XD and memory stick duo pro are the types of media that these cameras record on. All of the below camera types have built in flashes only the SLR can use a separate more powerful on camera flash. I will also cover Flip cameras, which are essentially hybrids of photo and inexpensive video cameras. I will also explain all of the features that all these digital cameras have so you can make the wisest decision on what digital camera to buy.
The point and shoot cameras “PAS”
The point and shoot “PAS” camera is by far the most popular type of digital photography camera. They are also the least expensive ($45 to $300) and they give you the largest bang for the buck. These cameras have a permanently attached zoom lens that ranges from 3x to 5x (the number before the x means how many times the image is zoomed in from the widest setting on the zoom) so they are great for general photography purposes. The size of these cameras is small enough for a coat pocket but a little snug for a pants pocket because the zoom lens retracts into the camera. This mechanical telescoping zoom makes it hard to make a very thin camera (.7 inches) and if you want a camera that is thin enough for pants pocket consider the compact point and shoot “CPAS”. The sensor/lens size averages to about 1/3 to 1/ 2.3 of an inch, the larger the sensor and lens the better the pictures quality regardless of mega pixels. “PAS” are between zoom cameras and compact point and shoot in size and weight (about 4.5 ounces on average). These cameras have only an LCD on the back of the camera for a viewfinder; these cameras are not equipped with an optical viewfinder. There are the full mega pixel range represented with “PAS” cameras from 8 to 18 megapixels. Thease cameras are for general photographic use where objects are reasonably close to the photographer. This is a great kind of camera to bring to photograph a wedding.
Pros. Large enough to take great photos, small enough to take everywhere you go. Best selection and price offerings. The sensor and lens size is much larger than for the compact point and shoots. Better ergonomics and photo quality than compact point and shoots. Power zoom. Cons. Much thicker and larger than compact point and shoots. Annoying shutter lag between pressing the shutter and taking the photo. No way to change the lens or its zoom ratio. The motorized mechanical lens that telescopes out of the camera when the camera is turned on can be a major place that may need service in the future. No optical viewfinder.
Compact Point and shoot “CPAS”
The compact Point and shoot “CPAS” camera is very popular because of its portability, robustness and compactness. “CPAS” cameras have all the advantages that regular “PAS” cameras have except they are 40% thinner and are lighter as well. The price range is about the same as “PAS” cameras except these cameras usually have fewer features than a similarly priced “PAS” camera. The major difference is ‘CPAS” cameras have a smaller lens and image sensor so there is no mechanism that moves the lens telescope out from the camera, like on a “PAS” camera. There is usually a sliding cover that protects the lens that also turn on the ‘CPAS” camera. Having a non-telescoping zoom makes the zoom more reliable because it moves internally and can’t be broken during the telescoping process. The trade off is the lens is smaller in diameter and the imaging chip is also a little smaller too. Having smaller lens diameter and chip makes the camera worse in low light and the picture will have more noise regardless of the mega-pixels of the camera. Because these cameras have simpler optical systems, waterproof and underwater variants are available for underwater shooting with a “CPAS”. These cameras have improved over the years, although they are optically inferior to “PAS” cameras with their telescoping lenses, some of these cameras have as large of a sensor as a “PAS camera (1/ 2.3”). These cameras are for general photographic use but are better when the photographer needs to keep the camera portable and robust. I-phones and cell phone cameras are in this category.
PROS. Smallest cameras available and also the most robust. The lack of a telescoping zoom makes for a more reliable zoom lens. Some of these cameras are waterproof. CONS: Worse picture quality and less low light ability than other types of cameras. Less camera features than “PAS” cameras Less of a zoom ratio than “PAS” cameras. No optical viewfinder. CPAS get an annoying shutter lag when taking a photo.
Super zoom cameras or “SZC”
Super zoom cameras or “SZC” and (“SLR like” cameras that can change lenses) are a growing and changing category of digital photography cameras. Super zoom cameras are essentially a Point and shoot camera with a beefed up zoom lens. These cameras are much less portable and more expensive than “PAS” cameras ($180 to $475) because instead of having a zoom that simply telescopes out, the lens is always out and bigger than the rest of the camera. These cameras have a zoom ratio that ranges from 5x to 36x for extreme close-ups and wider wide shots. Most (but not all) of these cameras have permanently attached zoom lenses that dominate the camera body and form factor of the camera. These cameras also have a larger image sensor so they get better image quality and low light ability than the point and shoot cameras. These cameras usually have 2 different viewfinders, one with a 2.7” to 3.0” LCD like on the “PAS” camera and one with an eyepiece electronic viewfinder that is a .24” lcd with a diopter for adjusting for your vision. This eyepiece electronic viewfinder differs from a SLR digital camera viewfinder because on an SLR, the eyepiece is actually looking through a mirror and prism to see directly through the lens. The “SZC” is less precise in focusing and is less responsive and less expensive than a digital SLR camera. Some SLR “like” cameras have interchangeable lenses but they still have an electronic eyepiece instead of seeing directly out of the SLR’s lens. These proprietary interchangeable lenses are not compatible with other lens systems from the same manufacturer. This would be a great type of camera to bring to photograph a wedding where you can’t get close enough to the subject to get a good close shot.
PROS: Better zoom ration and picture quality than less expensive “PAS” cameras. More responsive, better video recording and better features than “PAS” cameras. The power zoom makes for different shots when shooting video. “SZC” cameras have the best zoom ratio because SLR lenses are more expensive and can’t zoom in as much. Less shutter lag than “PAS” cameras CONS: The lack of seeing through the lens makes these cameras less precise for focus than SLRs. More shutter lag than SLR cameras (but less then “PAS” cameras). Most cameras don’t allow change of lenses. These cameras are much less portable than “PAS” and “CPAS” cameras.
Single lens reflex cameras “SLR”
Single lens reflex cameras are the largest, most sophisticated and most expensive type of digital camera. Range from ($500 to $8,000) SLRs are different from the previous type of camera “SZC” because they have an optical viewfinder (not electronic) that has an internal mirror that flips out of the way during the exposure and a prism that rights the image for the photographer to see the actual image going trough the lens. When the Professional photographer or advanced amateur takes a photo, when he presses the shutter release the mirror that is reflecting the image into the optical viewfinder flips up and simultaneously a mechanical shutter exposes the larger imaging chip to light and creating the exposure. This action of moving a mirror and having a mechanical shutter makes a SLR camera much more complicated than other digital cameras that don’t have a mechanical shutter or mirror flipping mechanism. This extra mechanism burns up batteries and makes the SLR a little less reliable than other types of digital cameras. Because of the more precise optical viewfinder and the instant shutter response. and the ability to change lenses, makes SLR’s the only choice for professional photographers. Also the size of the sensor is many times larger than all of the other types of cameras. One comparison is that an older SLR with only 6 megapixels can take better pictures than a newer“PAS” camera with 18 megapixels, because the sensor size is many times larger on the digital SLR. One other feature, although all the other camera types have built in flashes, most SLRs also have a built in flip up flash. SLRs also have the ability to add a larger on camera flash that is 10 times more powerfull than the built in flash. One new feature of SLR cameras of late is the ability for the camera to show the image on the LCD instead of on the optical eyepiece called “live view”. This makes the SLR operate like a point and shoot camera for certain shots where your eye can’t reach the eyepiece. The other addition to the features of SLRs is the ability to shoot high definition video with the same Digital SLRs. The superior quality of the larger chip with a SLR and the larger format lens makes SLR’s get a better picture quality than conventional 3-chip video cameras. The draw back of SLR’s shooting video is that the record time is only 10 to 20 minutes as opposed to the 60 or 90 minute record time on a conventional video camcorder. SLRs are what professional portrait and sports photographers would shoot with.
PROS: Best quality photos, best quality video, most precise for focus, iris, shutter speed. The ability to change lenses & add a professional on camera flash. There is almost no shutter lag with an SLR. The most complicated to use, but the best ability to do a manual setting. Professional wedding photographers use SLRs exclusively. These cameras can shoot in camera RAW for better looking photos that are uncompressed. CONS: Most expensive, least portable, worst battery drain, the mechanical shutter makes noise, the mechanical shutter and mirror flipper makes this type of camera less reliable. You need to buy extra lenses for this camera and you will need several to do every type of professional shot that a professional Chicago wedding photographer can do. The zoom is manual not powered so it is tough to do an on camera zoom when in video mode.
Flip style video and photo cameras
Flip style video and photo cameras are quite popular now. Flip cameras (flip is a brand name, but there are many imitators that are similar) cost from $100 to $200 and they usually have the media built in. They have 4 Gigabites or 8 Gigabites depending on if it is a 1 hour or 2 hour unit. Instead of using replaceable Compact Flash and SD cards, these cameras have built in memory and a flip out USB 2 interface to get video out of the camera. These cameras have a vertical form factor (as opposed to a horizontal form factor for still cameras). They also have a thumb zoom control to operate the measly 2x digital zoom. The type of video compression that these use is H264, which is more, advanced than Motion Jpeg (that the less expensive digital photo cameras record on). These cameras have a simple video-editing program built into the system so you can do simple editing right on the flip camera. The problem with these cameras they have no optical zoom and they shoot still photos at a mere 1 megapixel. Most cell phone cameras shoot at 3 megapixels. I also don’t like the fact that these cameras can’t change media, so once you filled the memory, the camera can’t record more without deleting or downloading.
PROS: Great video compression like SLR video using the more advanced H264 for high definition quality. These cameras have built in editing software so you can edit a finished video right in the camera. This camera is very easy to use. High definition video CONS: Only 1 megapixel stills makes it a video camera only. No optical zoom means you have to he close to the action to get the subject a decent size in the frame. I would not shoot a wedding where the wedding videographer is restricted on where he can go. The fact that you can’t replace the media, once you shot the full memory of the camera you can’t shoot anything else without deleting or downloading. The 2” screen is smaller than most digital cameras.
Some digital camera features explained
LCD size: The larger the LCD screen the better. These screens range from 2 inch to 3.5 inch diagonal. A larger LCD can indicate a problem with a photo that was taken. The better resolution and size of the LCD will enable the photographer to make better corrections in the field. Most cameras can zoom into the image on the LCD to see if a photo is in focus and to see it there is any blur caused by motion and a too slow shutter speed. There is a hugh difference between a 2” lcd and a 3” lcd because when you double the hypotenuse of a right triangle you quadruple the surface area of the screen. So a 2” LCD is 1/4th the size of a 4” lcd screen.
Optical stabilization: This feature has a jelly filled lens that optically counteracts any camera shake that is picked up by a sensor that senses camera shake. This feature fixes shaky video footage and can enable the photographer or videographer to shoot at a lower shutter speeds for still photos. This makes still pictures have less camera shake than without optical stabilizers. This feature runs down the battery more than not using this feature, however with electronic stabilization the picture zooms in by 20% which affects the picture quality of the finished product.
Face detection: This enables cameras to recognize a human face and this enables the camera to know what is where the human face is, and makes exposure and focus adjustments based on the human face being the subject of the photo. This feature does not work well when shooting a face in profile because the artificial intelligence of the camera only sees one eye.
Optical Zoom Ratio: Zoom ratio shown with a number like 12x means how many times closer a camera can get to the subject with just the onboard zoom. The wideness of a zoom before the camera zooms in is also an issue because the wider a lens, the less you have to back up to include a large group of people. Zoom ratio is shown in both optical, which optically makes things closer. Electronic zoom is a virtual way to zoom into an object but electronic zoom loses picture quality based on how much you are zoomed in. Electronic zoom should be avoided because it makes for worse picture quality.
Scene modes: Most cameras have preset settings for specific situations for photography. IE for a fast moving sports mode, the camera would automatically use a faster shutter speed. A mode for shooting sunsets would make the camera better in low light and would turn off the flash because the sunset is out of range of the flash. Scene modes are more of a consumer feature than a feature for a professional photographer.
In camera Effects modes: Is an in-camera feature that enables the photographer to do Photoshop type effects right in the camera. This enables the amateur photographer to do professional effects and print them remotely without needing or using the computer.
Movie Mode: This is a great feature of most all-digital photography cameras. Shooting video on most cameras is lower quality than most video cameras but it just great for the Internet. This means the decision to buy a photo or video camera is less of a decision today. I have found that digital still cameras do a better job of shooting video, than dedicated video cameras do at shooting still photos. Today’s high tech high end Digital SLRs actually shoot better video than video cameras. These SLRs include the Canon 5D mark II and the Nikon D5100 and D7000 that can shoot incredible looking high definition video. The record time of photo cameras has been limited to under 30 minutes for import tax reasons.
Burst Mode: This is a mode on a camera that can shoot many photos quickly so you can capture an important scene with as many photos as possible. The more burst photos a camera can do the better.
Megapixels: The more the megapixels the better for taking great quality photos. 6 megapixels is equivalent to 400 asa film in grain and resolution. I have seen cameras for consumers that are as much as 18 megapixels. This is misleading, because the size of the imaging chip has as more effect on the picture quality than the megapixels. After all, a 6 megapixel SLR with a 1.3 inch sensor can get a much better picture quality than a 18 megapixel camera that has only a 1/3 inch sensor. Remember don’t pay too much for a lot of megapixels on a consumer camera that has smaller imaging chips. Bigger chips always improve picture quality.
Battery type: Some cameras take proprietary batteries that only work in that camera. This is good but you have to have spare batteries for the chance of running out of power. Some cameras take double AA rechargeable batteries. These cameras can have an advantage because once the AA rechargeable batteries die, you can just use regular alkaline AA batteries that are either disposable or rechargeable. Cameras that take AA rechargeable batteries can be more versatile than the others that take special batteries.
Professional external hot shoe Flash: All SLR’s and a few super zoom cameras has the ability to add a more powerful professional flash onto the hot shoe of the camera. This is a good idea because most pop-up flashes and SLRs and “SZCs” are pretty underpowered and can’t really properly expose something over 12 feet. The Canon or Nikon Professional flashes run about $300 to $500 depending on power and features of the external flash.
Power Zoom: Most digital cameras that are not SLR’s do have a power zoom. This means you just push a zoom in button to zoom in or out. This makes it harder to get a perfect focal length as you have to stop exactly where you like the focal length. With SLR’s the lens has a manual twist control for zoom. The zoom on an SLR is more exacting, but since there is no motor, when you are shooing video, the zoom speed may be choppy. A power zoom on a non SLR camera is nice for shooting video because you can do a smoother zoom than by rotating the lens barrel on an SLR.
Live view (for SLRs): This has been a feature for all digital cameras except for SLRs since the beginning. The consumer can actually view the live moving images on the back LCD screen while framing the photo. This was not the case for SLR’s because they have a mechanical shutter AND a mirror that flips up to enable the photographer to see right through the lens. With the advent of Live view for SLR’s the SLR actually locks up the mirror and the shutter and enables the photographer to frame the photo while watching a live image on the back LCD screen. Because the mirror and the shutter is locked up, you can’t use the optical eyepiece viewfinder until the camera goes out of “live view” mode. Live view on SLR’s makes shooting video possible on these incredible SLR cameras. SLRs can sometimes get a much better picture than conventional video camcorders.
Waterproof- Water resistant: This feature will enable the photographer to shoot photos and or video either underwater or near the water. These cameras are usually compact point and shoot cameras that do not have complicated telescoping lenses. This feature will enable the photo enthusiast to easily take underwater photos that used to take a lot of equipment to shoot underwater.
Shock proof: This a great feature too, similar to above, the camera is a “CPAS” type camera that is made to take shock and abuse. Many shockproof cameras are also waterproof. These cameras can take the abuse needed to get these cameras into the field and the photographer does not have to worry about ruining his equipment when taking his equipment into hostile environments.
Dust reduction: This is a feature of SLR’s only. Only SLR’s can change the lens and this makes it possible to get dust on the exposed sensor while changing lenses. This sensor needs to be cleaned to keep the dust from making black spots on the finished Jpeg file. When the professional photographer notices a problem with dust collecting on the sensor. He opens the lens and hits the sensor cleaning button. The camera will vibrate and or spray air on the sensor to self clean the sensor in the field. Cleaning a sensor manually is too much work to do in the field. That is why this newer feature is so important
Ergonomics: The way a camera feels in the hand, how easy is it to work the controls. This us one of those things that is different for every person. Make sure the camera works easy for you. I once bought a camera that was designed for the index finger to work the zoom, however the camera also was designed for the same index finger to hit the shutter AND the autofocus. This made the camera hard to work for me because the index finger was doing all the work with the thumb doing nothing. I returned the camera and got one where the thumb was controlling the zoom and the separate index finger presses the shutter and auto focus. Always try out a camera in your hand before decideing on which camera is right for you, your hand and your eyes.
I hope now the consumer has a better idea of what type of camera to purchase and what features are important to you. This guide does not claim one brand over another, yet I feel that Nikon, Canon and Sony are the leading companies that make great cameras that are updating all the time. Try a camera in the store and see how if feels in your hand. Once you have decided which is best for you it is time to go online and see who has the best price who won’t rip you off. I have had nothing but good luck with B&H camera and video who is the largest camera seller in the USA.
This article is written by Bob Busch, he is a professional wedding photographer with 26 years experience and he has sold consumer electronics and has advised many of the purchase of consumer photographic equipment.
Copyright Robert M. Busch and Milestone Photo and video. 2011 all rights reserved. No part of this article may be used without direct written permission from Robert M. Busch.