So, you’re on the hunt for a camera – maybe for an upcoming holiday? Maybe photography’s going to a new hobby? Whatever your intent, you have a number of choices when it comes to buying a digital camera.
At the most basic, least sophisticated end of the camera buying spectrum, there are the compact cameras, with fixed lenses that you point at your target subject(s) and then click the shutter button to take your photo (hence why they’re often referred to as “point-and-click” or “point-and-shoot” cameras). If you have a camera in your smart phone, this is essentially a compact, point-and-shoot camera – you wave your phone in someone’s face and, if they haven’t lamped you into the next millennium, you press a button, take their photo, and probably upload it instantly to Twitter or Facebook.
At the most complex, most sophisticated (and more expensive) end of the camera buying spectrum, you have the DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras. They essentially function in the same way as a compact camera, in that you point the lens towards your subject and then press the shutter button to take the photo. However, it’s the lenses that also help to differentiate DSLRs from your humble compact cameras. When you go to purchase a DSLR, you’re having to make at least TWO purchases – one for the camera body and one for a lens to fit in front of the digital image sensor. Even if you find a “deal” where you can purchase a DSLR with a lens, they’re still two separate units that you connect together to make a fully functioning camera.
DSLR lenses come in various formats or types and they can be just as expensive (or colossally more expensive) to purchase than the camera body – the unit that houses the light sensitive image sensor and all the technological gubbins to turn what you’re pointing the lens at into a nicely replicated digital photograph when you press the shutter button to take the picture. When I bought my Panasonic GH4 DSLR, the body alone cost just under £900 (US$1,290 approx.). The lens, a Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm f2.8, one of the most technologically advanced lenses available from Panasonic, cost £790 (US$1,135 approx). So, quite an investment, but worth it for the potential to create better quality photos.
The benefit of using a DSLR, over a typical compact camera, is greater creative control over how you can craft your photos:
- You can adjust how much light can enter the lens, by varying the aperture of the lens, in order to make background elements more blurred, which helps to make your target foreground subject stand out more clearly (maybe you have an ugly background that you want to blur out? With the right lens, you can do this with a wider aperture). Conversely, you can narrow the aperture and bring more elements in your scene into greater clarity (this is a good thing for landscape photos, where you typically want to see everything clearly, from the subjects in the foreground, all the way to the horizon or as far as the eye can see).
- You can adjust how fast the shutter opens and closes, in order to create different effects in your stills photos. For instance, a longer shutter speed will give the image sensor more time to record the light data that’s coming in through the lens. This can be used to help brighten images in low light conditions; it can also be used to smooth out choppy water or capture the movement of all sorts of subjects, such as car headlights or the journey of the stars across the night’s sky. Or, you can go the other way and use a faster shutter speed in order to freeze movement, such as the beating of a bird’s wings in flight.
- You can purchase a variety of interchangeable lenses that give you different results. Fish Eye lenses take a distorted wide angle view, which can make an ordinary boring photo into something more intriguing. Ordinary Wide Angle lenses are great for landscape photography, as they give you a wider view of the scenery. Zoom and Telescope lenses are great for photographing wild animals in their natural habitat, as they allow you to stay far enough away from subjects that might get spooked easily if you get too close. And then there are Macro Lenses, which are popular with plant and insect lovers alike, as they allow you fill the frame with your subject and take close-up photos in astounding detail.
- You can purchase filters that go over your lens and create a variety of different effects. Polarizing filters help to cut through haze and glare from the rays of the sun, making colors more rich and vibrant. Ultra dark Neutral Density filters (such as Hoya’s 10-Stop ND) provides extra light reduction, enabling you to keep the shutter open for longer, exposing the camera’s sensor to the constant motion of moving things, such as water and clouds, resulting in motion blur. Water can appear silky smooth, and clouds can look like they’re whooshing through the sky in your image. Then there’s Hoya’s special magenta colored “FLW” filter, which is magnificent for creating silhouetted shots against stunning sunsets or sunrises.
Now, there are benefits to using a compact camera, rather than a more sophisticated DSLR camera. The clue is in the name: they’re compact; they fit in your jacket pocket and weigh next to nothing, when compared with the bulky DSLRs. And you probably don’t need me to tell you how ultra convenient it is to have a high megapixel camera integrated into a handy-sized smart phone. More often, these days, really interesting, spontaneous photos are captured on camera smart phones, rather than on sophisticated DSLRs, simply because more people are carrying a camera around with them more of the time. You may here photographer’s quip that “the best camera to have is the one that’s always with you”, or something like that. There is more than a small grain of truth to that stock phrase.
One of the problems with compact cameras, including the ones in smart phones, is that the image sensors are so small that they don’t work all that well in low light conditions; by comparison, the larger sensor DSLRs have less of a problem. Another problem is typically how all the photos end up being compressed – you’re unable to separate foreground subjects from what’s going on in the background and this can lead to some rather cluttered, chaotic photos.
There was a time when your options were limited to either making do with a simple compact camera, or spending both time and money to learn how to use a DSLR camera to try and take more interesting photos. But then along came a new type of camera, one that was aimed at bridging the transition from owning a compact camera, to owning a DSLR. Step forward, then, the imaginatively titled Bridge Cameras. For the most part, these cameras have some of the more sophisticated DSLR features (such as being able to switch the camera into different modes, such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or full Manual mode), but still had most of the simplicity of a point-and-shoot compact camera, where you didn’t have to fuss with interchangeable lenses – the lens systems on Bridge Cameras are fixed and you cannot change them. You could just as easily put the camera into fully automatic mode, let the camera’s algorithms calculate the most appropriate settings, point the lens at your target subject(s) and then press the button to take the photo.
One such Bridge Camera, that I know very well (because I bought one), is the Panasonic FZ1000. This was the first “big”, “sophisticated” and “expensive” camera that I’d ever owned. It has pretty much all of the features that you’d find in any high end DSLR camera: a variety of different modes; ability to attach different filters for different effects; ability to control the Shutter Speed; Aperture; ISO (adjust the image sensor’s sensitivity to light, which can be a good thing in low light conditions and when you don’t want to use a flash); and White Balance. You can set it to shoot in “Burst Mode”, which is great for capturing fast moving subjects; and you have the option of switching it to “Bracketing Mode”, which allows you to press the shutter button once and the camera takes a number of different photos, one at the correct exposure, some lighter, some darker, and then you can use a piece of computer software, such as Photomatix, to combine the photos into what is known as a single High Dynamic Range (HDR) image, which combines the best light and detail from at series of images to produce a single, stunning image that not even the most sophisticated DSLR camera can generate when taking a single photograph.