Saturday, May 05, 2012

Camera quick clicks - categorization & recommendations

As a photographer, friends ask me on occasion for camera recommendations.  There are many online camera reviews (of which I'll link you to a few), but for those people who'd like my personal comments, I thought I'd collect my thoughts here.  This first post is an intro, to collect a few salient points after visiting with a out-of-town friend who's interested in a new camera.

I own 3 digital cameras and an iPhone 4S that subs in for candids and in-the-moment shots very frequently.  My primary camera is a Nikon D80 which I've had since 2008 and its shutter has fired over 47,000 times. (I have to say, the D80 is actually my wife's camera, which is a perfect excuse to say I'm due for an SLR of my own !).  

As a business person who presents technology to customers, I like to start by reviewing the customer's (your) requirements.  What are you looking for in a camera ?  I'll go out on a limb here, and group cameras in the following categories.

  1. Capturing everyday moments
  2. Capturing everyday moments but may find yourself in non-ideal lighting situations
  3. Capturing everyday moments but like sports and nature photography
  4. You know what an f-stop / aperture is and/or don't mind carrying around a camera bag
  5. You want to make money as a photographer
As you can image, along with price, the cameras that typically align with these categories increase in size from 1 to 5.  I'd consider myself a 4 who wants to be a 5, and carry a 1-3 when space as at a premium or camera restrictions are in effect (e.g. SLRs are not normally allowed for concerts in arena venues).

You may have noticed that I'm preferring the acronym SLR, rather than DSLR.  I read a while back that we should now be ok dropping the D since close to 99% of photography is digital these days.

So, if you're #1 - you're probably not reading this article.  For me, the golden rule of photography is always have a camera with you and today that is as simple as having your mobile phone with you.  Otherwise, any camera will do.  My #1 camera is my iPhone 4S.

The vast majority of the photography market is for people in category #2.  The key here is that the cameras have a flash and are able to automatically (or manually) adjust exposure (usually thru variable ISO settings).  Some smart phones fall into this category, but the vast majority are what I call compact point-and-shoot cameras.  My #2 camera is a Fuji Finepix and I would consider Panasonic, Nikon and Canon as a potential replacement in the future.  If you're looking for a camera in this category you have hundreds of choices.  My simple recommendation is to pick a name brand and read the online reviews.  If you're in this category you're wanting good quality, but you still want the camera to be easy to use, so things like menu navigation would be important.  If you can play with a working version of the camera or ask a sales person to show you the basics it should help you make a decision.  A few other features to consider, optical zoom range, ISO range and startup time (a spec that may be hard to find, but easy to see if you're holding a working camera).

CNET is a decent starting spot for consumer reviews, but their categorization didn't align too well with mine, but I think CNET write some good material, incl. videos: CNET's best compact digital cameras and CNET's best budget digital cameras.

Google also returned the following interesting charts from TopTenReviews.  I haven't used this web site before, but there's lots of info and nice side-by-side specs: TopTenREVIEWS' point and shoot camera comparisons and reviews and TopTenREVIEWS' compare best compact digital cameras.

Category #3 is probably the most confusing category and covers quite a wide range of cameras, some of which may be classified as point-and-shoot cameras.  The difference here is primarily the amount of control you have with the settings, good optical zoom range and perhaps even interchangeable lenses.  These last two features get you into superzoom and compact camera system sub-categories of cameras. These cameras can get as costly as SLR camera, which confuses the decision even more.  The difference is normally size, a camera in this category will for the most part be smaller and lighter than an SLR.  I'd put my first digital camera, a Canon Powershot in this category as it has quite a few manual controls, a decent zoom and a very convenient flip out LCD screen (which I'd call an advanced feature).  There are some very good cameras in this category and the highly innovative Nikon 1 would be high on my potential replacement list.

SLRs are my 4th category.  What I'd say distinguishes these cameras is the size, cost and the wide variety of interchangeable lenses.  Nikon and Canon share a huge part of this market and owner loyalties to one or the other run deep.  Therefore, I'd say it's quite difficult to find an accurate, unbiased side by side review of these types of cameras.  I have a D80 and in the past, I had a Nikon film SLR camera, therefore I'm biased toward Nikon SLRs.  I can pick up the cheapest or the most expensive Nikon SLR and I'd know how to use it because the controls are almost identical thru the entire product set.  So for me, an easy recommendation for someone about to buy their first digital SLR, would be the Nikon D5100.  If you're upgrading, then the D7000 is a superb camera (and fills by dream hours).  I also keep close eyes on a blog called Nikon Rumors for news on what Nikon treats are coming (e.g. a new entry level SLR has just been released called the D3200).  For me I like quick access to common controls and a nice feature that I'd really like would be quickly switching between a couple of user presets.  The other big thing to get excited about in this category is high ISO performance.  Who needs a flash or a f1.8 lens when you can comfortably shoot at ISO 6400.

It's only fair that I should make some mention of Canon SLRs at this point.  I did a little research and I have to say that the EOS 60D would be high on my list if I could rewire my brain and exchange all my Nikon mount lenses.  Like my D80 it features an LCD for setting on the top side of the camera which is my preference when adjusting settings.  Canon also has the more robust 7D - these two Canons are compared to the Nikon D7000 here.

Which leaves the 5th category, one set aside for professionals, aspiring semi-professionals or for people with a lot of money.  Interestingly Nikon have two top models that differ by thousands of dollars, but are very close in performance.  The lower priced Nikon D800 is the one getting all the attention and may be the best SLR for the money.

DPS have a few handy lists of favourites, incl lenses at : Digital Photography School - popular digital cameras and gear.

Another site I go to a lot for SLR and lens reviews is Ken Rockwell (mostly Nikon, but I've learnt from his deep analysis).

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