My 04/13/08 Missoulian column
Life is easy now with a digital camera: I can take it along most anywhere and not think about buying film or about processing it and printing it later. True, I need AA batteries, and I’m tethered to my MacBook, but it’s a good tradeoff.
Interestingly, what I’ve found is I use a digital camera in a different way than I did my film camera. I’m suddenly interested in panoramas, maybe because they’re easier to shoot and the software that assembles them from a multiple of still images – the other part of digital photography equation – is very slick.
But what about the decisions involved in purchasing a digital camera? I put numerous hours into reading about and shopping for digital cameras before I made the final call. There are plenty of features to decide on – not to mention plenty to learn once you have a camera in hand – and many resources to look into.
Shopping carefully is a good idea, both in terms of finding exactly what you need and so you don’t spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out all the minute differences between the various models. If you’re a professional or working toward that, you need to put in your time – and, naturally, you’ll have different resources to draw on, such as professional photographers’ groups. But if you’re a casual shooter, you’ll find that as with film there are two types of cameras to choose from.
There are small, inexpensive digital point-and-shoot cameras and more-complex digital single-lens reflex cameras. Digital point-and-shoots are cheap and produce good photos that can be enlarged without losing image quality, but they are limited in what they can do.
DSLRs are more like the older style of film single-lens reflex cameras, with interchangeable lenses, a viewfinder and a screen. In some cases, DSLRs are compatible with older film camera lenses, so if you already have good-quality autofocus film equipment, a new digital body might all you need.
When shopping for a camera, be prepared to be overwhelmed with information. You can spend as much time looking for good information as you will actually shopping for a camera.
Good places to start are Web sites that feature product reviews, such as Digital Photography Review, Cnet.com and Consumer Reports.
On sites such as Amazon.com, readers leave their own reviews, ranging from over-the-top positive reviews possibly written by product reps to very bad reviews from users who didn’t bother to read the manual.
As you would when researching any purchase, ask around and find sources of information you trust – on the Internet, through friends, in magazines, at local stores, etc. If you look online, be sure to also look at cameras in a local store, and find out what sells the best or worst.
Next, move on to figuring out what features you want or need. Do you want to print photos right from the camera? How about video capability? Do you want a pocket-sized camera or a slightly bigger one that’s easier to hold onto? A camera that takes common AA batteries or more expensive special cells?
Manufacturers will make many of these choices for you, as they usually want to cram in as much as possible to remain competitive with the next model. Many cameras now feature zoom lenses, built-in image stabilization, video capability and screens full of controls. You’ll have to look harder for a camera with manual controls for features such as shutter speed and aperture, as the industry trends toward making things easier for the user, but they’re out there.
One feature that can be confusing is the number of megapixels you need. David Pogue at the New York Times poked holes in the myth that more megapixels is always better. His conclusion – from multiple tests with professionals – is that 5 to 8 megapixels is more than enough for average enlargements and good-quality prints. More megapixels also can slow down the camera and eat up memory card space.
A possible solution to this information and feature overload is to pick an amount of money you want to spend and stick with it. Or, pick a brand name you’ve had good luck with in the past. And remember that good lenses still matter, because that’s how light reaches to the electronic sensor that records the image. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. You might end up with more features on a camera than you need or will use, but in this high-tech age, don’t we all?