Monday, April 8, 2013

Types of Cameras- Pros and Cons

A million dollar question for most of us. In my opinion, most of us have unnecessarily made it a million dollar question. In reality, it shouldn't be. Canon or Nikon- they start wars among their fans. Sony lovers will swear by Sony and so will Pentax lovers. Having used verity of cameras, I can say that most modern day cameras are very capable. Most of us spend hours and days in deciding which camera to buy and we read variety of reviews to justify our purchase but the unfortunate fact is that that most of us don't even use 20% of the features/capabilities most modern cameras offer. I am serious. A reviewer may say Nikon 5100 is horrible or Canon T4i sucks but it is possible he may be using the camera in low light or only in Auto mode. Most cameras fail in low light. Unless you take over and learn to use camera properly, you may get disappointed with any camera. Now if you mostly shoot in good natural light, a $100 camera will please you and you would find instances when your camera takes better landscape photos than an expensive Canon Mark II. Besides a camera, the light is one thing that crucially determines the quality of your photos. If you have light on your side, any camera will work. If you don't have enough light, more expensive cameras will do better as light level goes down.
Let me give  you some tips so you can decide what kind of camera is right for you.

These days digital cameras are grouped based on the size:
1)      Sub-compact, or Ultra-compact cameras- very easy to carry around, can be easily carried in most pockets. Have 3-5x optical zoom lens. Very easy to carry around and use.
2)      Compact cameras- Slightly bigger than Sub-compact cameras. Better lens and better cameras. Have up to 10x optical zoom lens. Still easy to carry but you really need bigger pockets if you want to keep in a pocket. Portability and easy of use are main benefits. They are generally better than sub-compact cameras.
3)      Mega Zoom cameras- Not sure you can still call them compacts but they have optical zoom from 15x to up to 40x. They are more versatile and generally have better sensors and optics than compact and sub-compact cameras. These cameras can be used in wide range of situations as you can take wide angle indoor photos as well use zoom in to capture wild life, birds, far-away photos or to take photos of the top of a hill or only part of a building. These cameras are very useful travel cameras.
4)      Hybrid or Mirror less interchangeable lens cameras. They are usually small in size but have capabilities of bulky SLR camera. They take better photos but size is still not as big as SLRs. These days you can buy tiny lenses too like Panasonic PZ series. These cameras work much better in indoor or in low light. However they are a bit inconvenient as you have to change lenses if you want to use in wide range of situations. They are however a good compromize between dSLR and fixed lens compact cameras.
5)      SLR Cameras- Big in size because of a mirror and large sized sensor inside. Normally, they do better job compared to compact digital cameras.

So ask yourself if camera size really matters for you. If yes, what size of camera you would like to carry around.

Real factor in deciding which camera to buy in my opinion is how much you want to learn and help your camera so you have better photos most of the time. You can use a camera only in AUTO mode and your camera will take nice photos 60-70% of the time but other times, the photos may frustrate you. This is a reality if you don't want to use your brain and rely solely on camera. Now if you want to take better photos most of the time, there will be times when you will have to help your camera a little bit. You don't need to take photography classes or read thick books. You just need to learn basic stuff to help your camera take better photos. So in my opinion, it comes down to how much you want to control on your camera and help it out when it struggles to take a nice photo. Keeping this in mind, I like to divide cameras in to different groups based on flexibility in shooting or access to change settings.
1.      Auto-Only Cameras (AOC): These are normally tiny sub-compact or phone cameras. They have few options or buttons. Many have only shutter release button and a button for photo preview or viewing.
This type of cameras, like all other cameras, have their own mind but they don’t let you mess with them. You have to take what they capture. You can’t do much if you don’t like a photo it took.
Recommendation: Avoid these cameras if you want to be able to take better photos. If you don’t like this advice, please stop reading this book and use your time somewhere else.
2.      Semi-Flexible Cameras (SFC): These cameras have all the functionality of an Auto-only camera but beyond that, they also have Scene Modes, Exposure Control, Time buttons etc. These cameras give you options to change exposure with Exposure Compensation but they don’t let you choose Aperture, Shutter speed and/or ISO.
With these cameras, you do benefit from Camera’s brain and capabilities but you can also help Camera by telling it about the photo that it is going to capture. You can use the Scene Modes to set it to Landscape, Portrait, Beach-Snow, Macro mode etc. You can set the mode to Sports/or Fast Moving Object, and tell camera that we are shooting a soccer game in which kids are moving faster. This helps camera’s brain to set shutter fast enough to avoid blur. Or, by setting camera to Portrait mode, you are telling many things to the Camera that you need the subject to stand out vs background, that nice skin tones are important, that the person is not moving as fast as a kid playing some sport. This helps a big way to camera to use its capabilities for the specific situation it is taking photo in. So in this collaboration mode, between human and machine, the picture quality improves significantly.
Recommendation: If possible, try to buy a camera in this category. If the camera didn’t take a good photo, at least, there is something you can try to take a better photo in the next shot.
3.      Flexible Cameras (FC): The cameras that fall in this category are flexible. You can use them in fully Auto mode, in Scene mode or in fully Manual mode where you can choose the Aperture value, or Shutter speed and/or ISO. You have full freedom to tell the camera what settings to use. These cameras have Av, Tv, S, M modes where can set various values. When used in Manual mode, camera doesn’t need to use its intelligence in guessing what is in front of the lens. It simply opens up the shutter for the time you want it to open, to open the lens as wide or as narrow as you want and when Shutter Release button is pressed, it simple captures the light on the sensor and give you a photo.
Now with FC cameras, you can do anything but now it is a sort of war between man and machine. The machine has brain of several engineers and photographers behind it. It has lot of logic and expertize programmed into it. Man, I mean you, on the other hand, is probably still learning. One day, you can sure do better than the machine but in the beginning, aperture values and shutter speed adjustments can ruin many of your photos. You have to pay your price before you get better than the camera.
4.       Fully-Flexible Cameras: These cameras, not only offer you full control over the functionality but you can also add more hardware on it. You can change the lens on the camera, or use an external flash unit. You can do auto trigger on it or you can also add an external mic for better sound recording. This type of cameras are for serious hobbyists or professionals.
So what type of camera should you buy? It depends on how deep your pocket is and how serious you are to take better photos. In low light and in some extreme situations, an expensive or bulky camera does help you. However for most day-to-day shooting, you should be fine with SFC cameras.
Summary:  If you are just the AUTO button loving person, buy any camera that has minimum buttons. Pick something that is rated well by other users. If you like to take over camera function sometimes, buy an SFC or FC camera. If you want the full control but don't want to go for a bulky camera, go for an FC camera. Now if you are serious about photography, you should go for FFCs. Many times, what some lenses can do can never be done just aby and AOC, SFC or FC camera.
To get the most out of your camera, I would recommend you to buy one that has at least all of the following options. This will improve odds for better photos significantly. 
·         Ability to set Picture or Scene Mode:  This will let you tell your camera what kind of picture is being taken. Is it a Landscape, a Portrait, a Sports or moving object photo or is a, Night Scenery. The more options the camera has the better.
·         Timer: Most cameras these days have it. This is a very useful feature.
·         Exposure Compensation: 
·         Multiple Shots (rapid fire shots)
·         Flash: