BitDepth 555 - December 19

Choosing the right digital camera is a big challenge...
Which camera is right for me?

Cameras I like. Sony's Cybershot DSC-H5 (starting from top left and moving clockwise) sports a 7MP chip and built in lens from Carl Zeiss with an accommodating 12X zoom range. Canon's PowerShot Pro Series S3 IS is also a prosumer model, much tinier than it looks in its pictures with a 12X zoom lens that folds flat to make for a nearly pocketable camera. Canon's PowerShot SD700, part of the company's miniscule pocket camera line, really will fit into your shirt pocket with a 6MP sensor and a 4X zoom lens. Nikon's D50 is the price-performance leader among digital SLRs with a body only price of US$450. Don't bother with Nikon's kits, get one of their premium lenses to make this camera really shine.

The other question I get asked, apart from the almost ubiquitous "which computer should I buy," is the one about cameras.
For many years, I shot with just two cameras, a Pentax for 35mm and a Mamiya for medium format. I'd occasionally buy a new lens, and that equipment remained essentially unchanged for almost two decades.
I came to full digital capture slowly, almost skittishly, seeing the rapid evolution of cameras from year to year and realising that the days of working with a camera for even half a decade were gone.
Mercifully, the most radical changes have slowed down and it's possible to think about buying a camera now which stands a good chance of not being obsolete in the time it takes to buy it and get it out of the box.

Two years ago, sales of digital cameras overtook purchases of cameras that needed film and it's safe to say that anyone who actually wants a film camera today is a hobbyist who wants to do something special with old image capture methods.
For almost everyone else, the question isn't about emulsion or pixels, it's about choosing from a dizzying array of possibilities for digital image capture.

The right camera, of course, is the one that fits comfortably in your hand and delivers images that reflect your intent without getting in your way.
The right choice, unfortunately, is more complex.
If you aren't someone who needs professional equipment, the field breaks out into simple point and shoot cameras, low-end digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR's) which look and work like pro cameras but are priced more agreeably and prosumer models that merge features and price to occupy the middle ground.

Point and shoot cameras remove the decision-making from photography and replace it with convenience. Most of today's digital compact cameras feature video LCDs, and many eschew any kind of optical viewfinder. This makes viewing in broad daylight for framing a bit of a challenge, but these cameras make up for it by automating focus and exposure quite intelligently. Being able to review what you've just shot (most can briefly display the results of your last shutter press for a second or two) makes most photography a breeze even for the unskilled snapper.
Cons: The small, pocketable size of these cameras is a trade off against photographer control and image quality. Most have a weak built in flash and use a tiny sensor which tends to deliver poorer quality images at high megapixel counts, introducing noise (a sprinkling of electronic artifacts) in weak lighting. If a point and shoot is right for your shooting style, stick with six megapixel models for now until sensors improve.

Prosumer cameras also use small sensors and add bulk to the equation. More adventurous photographers will appreciate the greater range of control available to them and the longer zooms that tend to be built into these cameras. My first three digital cameras were prosumer units and served me well. They are a great way for an ambitious amateur photographer to try the pro tools built into full professional cameras such as full manual control and RAW image editing on a budget.
Cons: Bigger camera. You'll need trench coat pockets or a small camera bag. Better image quality at high megapixel counts, but still shy of pro quality. Most lenses are fixed to the camera bodies and cannot be changed. Many of these cameras have an electronic viewfinder, which looks like the eyepiece on a regular SLR but is really a tiny, high-resolution LCD.

Low-end digital SLRs offer most of the advantages and all the problems associated with professional photography. You can change lenses (and you'll want to get rid of the cheap plastic lens that most of these models ship with), but that means you can also get dust particles on the sensor chip. You have almost complete control over how you shoot, with a range of automatic and manual modes, but that means you must make careful decisions before taking a photo. Aggressive pricing puts these cameras in the same budget range as the best prosumer digital cameras with significant advantages for photographers who want to explore photography more seriously. Fast response times, professional looking images, and equipment that makes you look as though you know what you're doing are just some of the advantages.
Cons: Bulky cameras that look just like film cameras. Lenses, particularly good ones, tend to be expensive. No preview of the image while shooting on the rear LCD, you must hold the viewfinder to your eyes to see what you're shooting.
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