The Bastards Book of Photography

An open-source guide to working with light by Dan Nguyen

Choosing a Digital Camera

Among the countless technical details, here are some key things to think about

  • Exposure value: 0
  • Shutter speed: 1/25
  • F number: 2.8
  • Iso: 1000
  • Focal length: 24.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Jul 25, 2010 at 06:18 AM
Bowling at the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg

As I said in the last chapter, it’s important to realize that a great camera won’t make your photos great. And, even more critically, a great camera won’t even guarantee that you’ll use actually use it.

So before you start obsessing over technical spec sheets, reflect on how you take photos currently.

Are you frequently in situations where you take photos of swimsuit models? If not, then buying a $5,000-kit won’t change that.

Do you not carry around a bag with you everyday and everywhere? Then you should seriously consider a camera that fits in a coat pocket.

And, if you already have a great phone camera, what is it missing that prevents you from taking more satisfactory photos?

Note: If you already have a decent camera phone/simple point-and-shoot, I take it as a given that you want manual controls in your new camera. I can’t think of any good reason to buy a separate camera (and carry it around) if it doesn’t at least have manual controls.

I can’t offer you advice on specific models (go to DPReview.com for all the details you can imagine). So I’ll focus on factors that will significantly impact how much you’ll use your new camera over your perfectly fine camera phone.

These factors include: size, reliability, and operational speed. And it does not include megapixel count and fancy-sounding shooting modes.

In other words, you should care about these two things:

  1. How much better is this camera than my phone’s camera? And in what fundamental ways?
  2. How similar in usability is this camera to your phone’s camera?

Physical size

The best camera is the one you have with you. And you’ll only get better if you get used to taking photos in all occasions, not just when your friend poses for you.

So if you’re not used to carrying a separate camera as you are your camera phone, you might find it very difficult to get used to having something around your neck. Those of you who are dead-set about becoming photographers may not care. For others, the hassle may seem bearable if the tradeoff is better photos.

But keep in mind that if you’re new to photography, the photos you take with an expensive camera will likely be worse than you’ve taken with your phone (w/ Instagram filters). And much of that time will be fumbling with the camera controls.

All the while, you’re feeling like an awkward dork for carrying a camera around while everyone else is doing the patented one-handed tap-and-shoot. How long can you put up with that before you stop taking photos on a regular basis?

There are three tiers of size categories, in my estimation:

Does this fit in your jacket pocket?

Not everyone likes walking around with a giant bulge in their front pocket. But a jacket’s pocket is loose enough to contain a decently sized camera and that’s convenient enough for most people to leisurely take photos.

Very few cameras with interchangeable lenses fit in this tier. But some of the mirrorless cameras (which I’ll still refer to as “DSLR-like”), such as the Sony NEX, Panasonic Lumix DMC, Nikon 1, FujiFilm X, et. al, might qualify if you can have a pancake lens. I have a friend who loves taking photos at music concerts, but some venues won’t allow long lenses among the audience. So he gets by with disassembling the camera, so that the lens is in one pocket and the camera body is in the other.

Does this fit in your bag/purse?

This applies more to traditional women’s fashion: the carrying of purses. Most DSLR’s with reasonable lenses could fit in the average handbag. Besides the extra weight, you’re not adding something totally new to what you already carry day-to-day.

If you aren’t the type to carry a purse, some DSLRs and small lenses, when carried separately, can be squeezed into a laptop bag. I’ve been able at times to carry my ultrathin laptop and disassembled Canon 5D 2, though if the bag bumps into something, it’s probably bad for everything in the bag.

Needs an extra shoulder-strap

If the camera is big enough that you have to wear it around your neck or have a separate camera bag, then the burden of use is pretty much the same, whether that camera weighs two pounds or four pounds. It’s not the size or weight, but that you have something large dangling around your neck, that may prevent you from bringing that camera everywhere. Again, this is less of a consideration depending on where you live and what you do in everyday life.

There are some other factors to consider besides the camera’s size, including where you live and your fashion routine. But the key thing is, can you see yourself putting up with all the burden and stigma from this camera?

  • Exposure value: +1/3
  • Shutter speed: 0.3
  • F number: 2.0
  • Iso: 1250
  • Focal length: 5.2 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S100 / 5.2-26.0 mm on Feb 25, 2012 at 11:44 PM
I wish I had brought a better camera with me to St. Louis to capture the insanity that is their City Museum. I guess I should be grateful I still have all my limbs and digits attached.

Low-light performance

Every camera, even your phone camera, can take interesting, usable photos when the light is plentiful and at the right angle.

For everything else, – assuming you don’t have lighting equipment and aren’t likely to carry external light accessories – this is where expensive cameras live up to their price tag.

I’m a particular fan of night photography so this, for me, is the most critical quality measurement. Places like DPreview.com do extensive testing and demonstration of how well cameras can manage low-light imaging. There are also a few metrics to look at that relate to low-light performance: sensor size, dynamic range, and ISO range. There are plenty of guides to find more about these details, including Engadget’s Primed articles.

Shutter lag

I’m not sure how to best describe this, as everyone has a different definition. Basically, this refers to the amount of time it takes from when you press the photo-taking button to when the camera actually takes the photo.

But it’s not all apples to apples. Sometimes, cameras have sluggish response times because they have slow autofocus systems; so the shutter-lag is different in manual focus mode. Some cameras are slow to write to the memory card. Some are just mechanically slow.

Test this out at the camera shop, though shutter-lag is generally directly related to price tag. It’s rare to find an expensive camera that is sluggish. But it’s a factor to be aware of when looking at more inexpensive compact cameras.

Controls, user interface

This is tricky, because if you’re not used to using manual controls, then you don’t know what a good control scheme even is. In fact, you may not even care how clunky a camera is if you’ve tolerated the barely serviceable controls on your camera phone.

But you might as you get more demanding about your photography.

My advice is to read detailed reviews of the camera, from people who are using it in out in busy environments, not just in a studio. If there’s a lot of complaints about how hard it was to switch settings, manual mode, etc., then be careful.

Another option is to borrow a friend’s expensive camera, or go into a store and play around with them. Then try your cheaper target camera and see how closely it emulates the experience. Again, I don’t know how possible it is to do this without having real-life shooting experience, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

Other things, in no order of importance

  • Auto-focus ability
  • Ability to show in RAW format
  • Battery life
  • Articulating screen
  • Viewfinder
  • Ability to specify focal points

Things I really don’t care about (but maybe you will)

  • Megapixels
  • Number of modes (i.e. smile detection)
  • Quality of pop-up flash

About brands

There are legions of threads about Canon vs Nikon, Sony vs Fuji, etc. etc. I have nothing to say about it as I’ve tried most of the major brands at some point and have found things to like in all of them.

But you can’t ignore that if you do buy a camera, you’re also buying into the ecosystem. Still, I would’t worry too much about your future lens selection if the decision is between powerhouse brands like Canon and Sony.

I don’t mean to be cavalier about this, but excessively worrying about what you might buy in the future is putting the cart before the horse.

If you aren’t a great photographer yet, by the time you’ve become dedicated enough to buy “real” equipment, the camera technology might have advanced enough for you to consider switching systems.

And at that point, you’ll be in a much better position to understand the differences.

The bigger factor to consider is: how many people do you personally know who shoot Canon/Nikon/Sony/etc.? Because they’ll be a source of advice and equipment for borrowing.