Sunday, July 28, 2013

Canon vs. Nikon - Or, thoughts on choosing a camera.

Mesa Arch by Moonlight

One of the most common questions I'm asked is "What camera should I get?" Most people are probably expecting me to say something specific like "Get the Canon XYZ-5."  But my first response is always - what kind of images do you want to capture and what are you going to do with them?  The purpose of the images is probably the most important question to answer.  If all you ever do with them is post to facebook, then a cell phone camera might be all you need.  If you plan to print them as 4 foot long fine art images, then the camera will need to be capable of  high resolution and low noise.  Most current point and shoot cameras as well as many cell phone cameras will capture images of sufficient quality to post online or print up to 8x10 inch images.  If the images will be made into large prints then it's necessary to have a camera with a high quality sensor.  The digital SLR cameras (those with interchangeable lenses and mirrors that flip up during an image capture) have those types of sensors.  However, those cameras tend to be bigger and bulkier and tend to be the most expensive because they also require a selection of different lenses to cover wide angle to telephoto ranges.

Fortunately advances in camera technology do provide a few options to a digital SLR.  A new class of camera called "mirrorless" can have an excellent sensor in a much smaller body that uses smaller and lighter lenses.  I recently used a Canon EOS M on a trip.  It has the same sensor found in one of the top Canon SLR cameras but the body is about 1/4 the size as are the dedicated lenses.  It was very easy to carry and the images are superb.  Downsides though are shorter battery life and a much slower autofocus.  Another option is what I call the "professional backup camera point and shoot" which have fixed zoom lenses that cover wide angle to moderate zoom and can capture in RAW format which allows you much more latitude to adjust the image later with photo editing software than with JPEG captures.  These cameras (example Canon G15, Canon G1X) have bigger, higher quality sensors than the average point and shoot as well as almost all of the controls that are found on digital SLRs.  Some pro's have them as a backup in case disaster befalls their regular camera or for those times when you want a good camera but don't want to carry around a big SLR body and 3 lenses.

What you plan to photograph is important in choosing a camera as well.  If you want to take pictures of sporting events or young children (they are rarely still!) the camera needs a fast autofocus or you miss the moment.  You can test this out in a store by seeing how fast the camera focuses on other customers walking around.  If you will photograph indoor sporting events a flash won't help so you need a camera with low noise at higher ISO settings and the ability to use ISO's of 3200 and above.  ISO in a digital camera is the setting which allows faster shutter speeds in less light and in effect multiplies the sensitivity of the sensor but introduces noise (a grainy, unsharp look) to an image. For those cameras with fixed lenses, the bigger the opening of the lens (f stop, smaller f number is bigger opening) the faster the shutter speed and the lower the ISO that is necessary in low light situations.  Outdoor vacation photos and family gatherings are handled well by almost all cameras.  I frequently photograph at night using light from the moon or just starlight, as seen in the photo above.  Night photography requires a high ISO low noise camera and lenses with small f stops.

My final advice about choosing a camera is that the camera that you can just pick up and make work without reading the instructions is often the best one for you.  There are so many digital devices that people use every day that it's difficult to remember the fine points of how to operate any of them that you don't use frequently.  So if the camera feels good in your hand and the buttons and dials make sense to you right away, get that one.  After all, you won't get the photography if you can't work the camera!  And who walks around with an instruction manual...

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