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What Camera Should I Buy? | Part 1


August 8, 2014

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Navigating the Camera Lingo

There is a conversation I often have with friends and family that are looking at purchasing a new digital camera. It goes something like this: “Hey Elizabeth, we’re looking into buying a new camera. We need you to tell us which one we should buy.” Now don’t go and get the idea that I’m some sort of camera expert, because I’m not. I am, however, able to guide you through the camera buying process, so that you can find the right camera for yourself. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a tutorial of sorts on buying that new camera. This advice is geared for the average shopper, so if you’re in the market for a new camera and are totally overwhelmed by all the options, this series is for you!

So Many Options…Which is the Best???

Entering the world of camera shopping can seem daunting. There are a lot of options on the market, camera lingo to decipher and if you don’t answer a few key questions before you actually get to the point of making a purchase, you can easily end up with buyer’s remorse. I am always a little amused at the camera questions when they come my way. Asking which camera to buy sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t one that I can easily answer for anyone until I ask a few questions myself. A few months ago, when I was most recently asked for camera advice by my cousin Brittany, it occurred to me that I should take the information I’ve been sharing with family and friends for years, expand on it, and turn it into a series of posts for the blog. Over the next few Fridays I’ll help you navigate the camera buying process and hopefully arm you with information to help you find a camera that you will love and that will fit with your lifestyle. Be sure to post any questions in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to answer them. Please note the advice provided here is based on my own opinions. I am not sponsored by and do not receive compensation from any of the companies mentioned in this series.

Creative Control: Do you want it? Do you need it? Why is it important?

Having control over your camera means you have control over how the image is created. Back in the day, all cameras had shutters. You loaded film into the camera and when you released the shutter, light hit your film and created a picture. How fast, or slow the shutter opened and closed, depended on your other camera settings. Today, film has been replaced by digital sensors, but the process generally works the same way. You click the button and light hits your sensor, creating a digital image. When researching cameras, you will see the following words in reference to camera technical specifications: ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed (a.k.a the Exposure Triangle). ISO, aperture and shutter speed work together to create the photo. Knowing these three terms and understanding their relationship to each other is an important part of the camera buying process. Here’s a quick overview of each:

ISO: This used to refer to the speed of film, now it’s simply a setting on your camera. ISO means how sensitive the sensor is to light. If you have a lot of light, then you will use a low ISO number (generally 100 to 400). If the light is low, then you will use a higher ISO (1000 or higher). ISO works with your aperture and shutter speed to create a photo. It is one point of the Exposure Triangle. As you increase the ISO, the amount of digital noise will increase, just as higher ISO films produced grainy photos.

How ISO relates to camera buying:

Think about what you want to take pictures of with your new camera. Will you use your camera primarily outside (at soccer games, the local park, on vacation) where there will be plenty of daylight, or inside (at a concert, your daughter’s dance recital, daily in your home) where the light will be lower? If low light capability is important, then you will want to note how high the ISO will go when you’re researching cameras. Different cameras have different maximum ISOs and some cameras will exhibit less grain at higher ISOs than others.

Shutter Speed: Shutter speed refers to how fast (or slow) the shutter opens to expose the sensor to light. Think of the shutter like a door. Picture yourself in a completely dark room. Outside it’s a bright, sunny day. If you slowly crack the door open, only a sliver of light gets inside the room. It will take longer for the person outside to clearly see what is inside the room because there is only a small amount of light. On the other hand, if you quickly swing the door wide open, you will let a lot of light into the room very quickly. The person outside will quickly see what is inside the room. Either way, you can see the inside of the room. The inside of the room is like the sensor. You have to expose it to light to create a photo. Fast shutter speeds are used to capture fast action, while slow shutter speeds are typically reserved for non-moving subjects. Shutter speed is a second point on the Exposure Triangle.

How shutter speed relates to camera buying:

Shutter speed is directly affected by ISO and aperture, but it is also affected by the presence of an actual shutter. Cameras with a true shutter will have higher maximum shutter speeds than those that do not have a true shutter (see more information on this in the next post in this series). If capturing fast moving subjects is a priority, then you will want to pay close attention to the shutter speed options, including whether or not the camera has a burst mode (i.e. taking a number of images rapidly within a few seconds of each other; also referred to as maximum fps “frames per second”).

Aperture: Aperture refers to how wide or narrow the shutter opens. Think about our analogy with the door. If the shutter is like the door, then the aperture is how wide the door is open. On the camera, how wide the aperture opens, determines how much light reaches the sensor. If the aperture is tiny, then less light can get to the shutter, so it takes longer to create the photo, meaning you will have a slower shutter speed. If the aperture is big, then more light can get to the shutter quickly, giving you a faster shutter speed and creating the photo quickly. Aperture also determines the depth of field (DOF) in a photo (i.e. how much, or little of the subject is in focus). A wider aperture (f/2.8) will have a shallower DOF than a narrower (f/8.0) aperture, which will have a deeper DOF. The ability to control DOF is another element of creative control. If all the details in the scene are important, then you will want a deep DOF, but if only a portion of the scene is important, then a shallow DOF might be desired. Aperture is the third and final point of the Exposure Triangle.

How aperture relates to camera buying:

Aperture is really associated with the lens that is on your camera, rather than the camera itself. Different lenses have different aperture ranges. You will see aperture numbers written as follows: f/2.8 or f/4.5-5.6. A single number (f/2.8) means that the lens will open to 2.8 at any focal length. So if you have 24-70mm lens that is labeled f/2.8, then 2.8 is the widest aperture you can set for that lens. A double number aperture (ex: f/4.5 to 5.6) is often seen on zoom lenses and means that the lens will open up to the lowest number (f/4.5) when it is at the wider end of the focal range (ex: 24mm) and at the highest number (f/5.6) at the longer end of the focal range (ex: 70mm). Why is this important? Wider apertures let in more light, so if you’re going to be shooting in low light, then a 2.8 lens would be preferable over a 5.6 lens. If you’re primarily going to use your camera in daylight, then a 5.6 lens might be adequate. Lenses with lower numbers (ex: 2.8, 2.0, 1.8 and 1.4) are referred to as fast lenses (because they let in a lot of light quickly).

How can all this talk about the Exposure Triangle tell you what camera to buy? Trust me, it’s important because it will help you figure out which type of camera to buy, which will be the focus of part two of the camera buying series. Be on the lookout for that post next week! In the meantime, start thinking about what types of things you’ll want to take pictures of and try to determine, based on the information above, how much creative control you want/need in a camera. Also, be sure to ask your camera lingo questions in the comments section below!

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