Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Layman's Guide to Buying a Digital Camera

I've been fielding a lot of questions about digital cameras and photography lately so I thought I'd compile the information I've collected and post it here.

I am, by no means, a professional photographer. At best, I'd call myself an enthusiastic amateur. As such, I look at lots of images and have slowly learned some the subtleties of the art of photography. This has earned me a reputation among my friends as a "camera junkie" so I am often called upon to provide advice for camera purchases.

  1. Photography is both a craft and a tool. I once heard David Carson talking about how he visually curates his world – he sees a texture he likes, he takes a picture; he sees a sign he likes, he takes a picture. At the time he was using disposable cameras so quality wasn't top of mind and he does seem to enjoy that whole "grunge" thing but that's neither here not there. The concept cemented in my head. As designers, illustrators and photographers, we should never be without the means to document and save something we find visually interesting – from a book cover to a color combination and that's where having a digital camera comes in handy. As much as I miss the idea of film cameras, for my day-to-day life, its time-consuming, expensive and takes too long to get from my camera to a form where I can view, curate and share what I see. We are required to work too fast to have to sort through envelopes of prints or negatives trying to find that "type idea". Buy a digital camera!
  2. Start small -- physically and/or financially. Something that you are comfortable carrying around and that will not bankrupt you. If you discover that you love taking pictures but need more control, more power, more flexibility, you can upgrade. If you start out with a huge Nikon D3x with battery grip and a bevvy of lenses, you will get tired of lugging everything around with you or worry that it will get scratched or damaged. Alternately, an $80 no-name brand point-n-shoot will take crap pictures that will just frustrate you or turn you off of photography altogether.
  3. Stick with the big brands. In the area of ease-of-use, I often say "Nikons are to PCs what Canons are to Macs." If you are a tinkerer by nature, then a Nikon will be a many-layered treasure for you to explore. If you like smaller and simpler, Canon may be your preferred brand. I often see the line divide between the brands based on gender as well. Not to say that Canon is girlie but I think Canon focuses its products to be smaller and sometimes that's just too hard to hold for a big guy. Nikon makes 'em big and tough and there's a reason anyone might want that (photojournalists, naturists, and sports photographers to name a few). And yes, I know there are other camera manufacturers out there and they all make good cameras but these two make up the majority of the market. Its a good way to start to narrow down an overwhelming selection. If you're buying your first digital or trying to find a daily shooter, start here. You can always branch out later.
  4. Fight the urge to think bigger. Megapixels are not the end-all be-all measure by which digital cameras should be held. Sensor size, optics, focal length or zoom range, and the purpose for which you plan to use it should precede any judgment regarding megapixels. For most, images are posted online or printed in 4x6 size which can be done with a 5MP camera perfectly well and that even leaves room for cropping.
  5. Do your homework. dpreview is my go-to for camera reviews. They have extremely thorough reviews, so much so that it took me several visits before I plumbed its depths sufficiently. Narrow your choices down to a few models then do a blanket search for that model and get some cross-reference reviews from other users, web sites and forums.
  6. Hold it in your hand. Find somewhere that will allow you to handle the cameras you're interested in purchasing, preferably without a giant brick attached to the bottom of it. You want to verify that the camera fits in your hand, is not to heavy or awkward to handle and you want to be able to play with all the buttons and controls. This might require a trip to a camera-specific store. The advantage is that there is usually more expertise at a camer store than you'll get from your local Best Buy or Costco. Often, if you've done your homework on prices, you can talk a camera shop down a bit on the price. They will charge more but they also know more and will provide you with customer service long after you've made your purchase. Remember, you get what you pay for.
  7. Buy from reliable sources. I don't order cameras or accessories from anyone online that does not also publish an ad in Popular Photography. They have a fairly strict policy that advertisers meet certain requirements regarding procedure and legitimacy that I use as a benchmark. Amazon is also a decent option but they a lot of marketplace sellers who may have dubious products so go forward cautiously.
  8. Learn how to use it. Finally, (with a shout-out to Bryan Bedell) even the most expensive, bells-and-whistles camera will produce crap results if you don't know how to use it. Practice, read the manual, experiment. Learn about lighting, ISO and exposure compensation. The great thing about digital is you can take as many pictures as you want; so do it. Just remember to edit them before you post them to Flickr.


bryan said...

So you're saying I need to learn how to use my camera? Heh.

All good points. If I may:

2. While it's a good idea to start small, the manual features on a smaller camera are a drag to learn and use. If you're fairly serious about getting into photography, the "Prosumer" category or a low-end dSLR is a good start, though you're right, it's good to keep it with you at all times, and a dSLR is bad for that. "Prosumer" P&Ses are the Henri Cartier-Bresson Leicas of today, and it's a good experience to learn to milk as much as you can from one before you go dSLR. (The Canon G-series is my personal favorite)

3. I see Canon vs Nikon as Vespa vs Lambretta, you're gonna meet people who won't shut up about how one is better than the other, and the truth is they're both better than you deserve. It's just personal preference.

4. So true. I've shot billboards on a 8mp camera. 10 or 12 mp is nice for some flexibility, after that, you're just wasting hard drive space.

5. dpreview is a gift from God. And Phil Askey is our God, worship him.

7. Totally, there are LOTS of scam artists out there. I stick to B&H usually, I've been really happy with them. If a price seems too good to be true, it is.

8. Right, a lot of people with perfectly good cameras just don't know how to use 'em. Not all cameras are good for everything, but there's always more performance to be milked, and that's great experience for when you step up to a better camera.

One more tip, there are lots of great forums out there, it's a waste of time to ask for comparison advice there, they're biased and if you can't decide, they can't either, but once you have a camera, it's a good place to talk to other users about your model and learn how to make the most out of it. Also, most have weekly photo competitions that keep you busy shooting and critiquing your work and seeing what other people are doing with your camera. (oh READ THE MANUAL first though, or you'll not make many friends.)

And another: don't waste $60 on a glossy color "how-to" book about digital photography, you can find older, much cheaper books with better advice. Even an old library book from the pre-digital era will explain the fundamentals of composition and exposure just fine (ignore the parts about mixing fixer and agitating film).

bryan said...

(I'll shut up soon!) I'm a designer, too, not a 'pro photographer.' Whenever you meet someone who brags about how "pro" they are, they'll tell you you need a better camera and more equipment, and such.

There are lots of cruddy self-taught designers out there, but there are good ones, too. Same goes with photography. You're "pro" if people are paying you to take pictures and you're doing good work. Gear doesn't make the photographer, a good sense of composition and a good understanding of exposure make the photographer. I know plenty of folks that bought tens of thousands of bucks on gear that aren't half the photographer I am, and I'm not a very good photographer. : )

Bresson should be your hero. Be sure to bring him up every time someone tells you that you need a better camera. A great photographer with a pinhole camera can outshoot a hack with a Canon 1D. Having good tools helps, but it doesn't make you a better carpenter.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback, Bryan!

Your input is great. I totally agree about the glossy photo how-to books. Skip it. There are much better books, web sites, tutorials and even the web sites of the camera manufacturer will provide more information than the Digital Photography for Dummies will.

I totally agree that most compacts can be too simplified to really have great control, until I discovered the Canon Elph. I am now a freakin' street preacher for the Elph. Most controls are within two clicks, it can be set to "manual" mode which is comparable to the "P" mode on most dSLRs. This allows for exposure compensation, ISO control, etc. Yes, it still bites above 400 ISO but for $150, it can't be beat -- and I speak from some authority, my second Elph is held together with tape. And, it fits in the smallest shirt pocket or jacket.

Just so you know that I've done my homework, Ken Rockwell did a comparison of the G10 (which for the record I love!) and the SD880 ( For the money, he favored the SD880. The G-series is gorgeous, with all the controls where you want them to be and then Canon stabs you in the heart with the price! Damn you, Canon!

Amen, Bresson was the man! I also worship at the alter of Robert Frank who chucked his exposed film in the trunk of his car. His editor would have to shake sand and grit out of each roll and he made amazing images!

Anonymous said...

I protest the content of this post in outcry of film cameras everywhere. And I do so anonymously.

Ezra said...

Great tips bit I disagree with your point on the Canon vs. Nikon wars. I think each brand is quite equal. From the cameras I have experimented with on both the canon (xts, 40D, 5D, 5D Marks II) and the nikon side (D40x, D80, D90, D300) I can say that neither brand is neither girl or guy oriented due to size. Of course this only applies when you compare cameras on either side in the same price category.

Your point that Nikon "makes 'em big and tough" can also be applied to the canon brand. I can't specifically point out many nature canon shooters but there are certainly many sports and photojournalist photographers out there who shoot canon. Just look at any event and you will see the white L lenses intermingle with the nikon shooters.

Cammy said...

It's a matter of preference really. But in my opinion Nikon -landscape, Canon - fashion - Lucia (blogger for digital camera review)

Anonymous said...

what camera would be best for artwork that is not flat but with depth and detail. something for someone willing to learn.