Choosing a Camera—Part 1


I recently received a call for help on selecting a new camera, and I thought the process in determining the needs of the buyer and matching them to the eventual purchase might be instructive.  So, today we’ll begin Part One of a three-part series.  The advice given follows a series of questions I asked of the buyer:

Okay, so we’ve established that you’re a relative but potentially enthusiastic novice who may decide to go further with photography later.  You have some DLSR experience with a friend’s Nikon DX-series.  The upper limit of your budget is $1,000 (I’ll disregard the lower end because we shouldn’t be constrained by a lower limit if we can find something that will meet your needs below the $800 mark).  You also said that you’re willing to go higher, but only if the chosen camera will be of some benefit to you after this particular assignment.  So, with all that in mind, let’s get started.

First, let’s review the most critical need—the prom party you’ll be photographing next week.  I’m going to make some assumptions here—this is a nighttime event, probably indoors, under dim artificial lighting from multiple sources.  There will be dancing, which means potentially rapid movement, and you’ll want to capture action with minimal blurring.  You’ll probably be taking pictures of large groups of people in a confined space (or within flash distance), so you’ll want a wide angle lens of at least 24mm if you can find it (that’s measured in 35mm equivalency rather than actual focal length, so make sure you’re comparing apples to apples here).  You’ll also want some close-in portraits with a nicely defocused background, which means a telephoto equivalent of at least 105mm.  You didn’t mention the maximum size of any potential prints, so I’ll assume a maximum of 8×12 inches.  That means you’ll need a sensor with at least 4 megapixels and preferably up to around 6 megapixels (this gives you between 200 and 300 “pixels” per inch, which is plenty).  Of course, if you go with more megapixels (which you’ll be doing anyway, as anything I suggest here will have at least 10 megapixels), then you can do more aggressive cropping of the image later on a computer.

The above situation dictates the following in a camera:  A larger-size sensor for good low-light performance with minimal sensor “noise” (the digital equivalent to film “grain,”—the small, grainy botches you see in large prints of old).  You have limited experience with manual controls, so any camera will need to be program-heavy with a lot of presets (aka, “screen modes”) for various photographic situations.  It’ll also need a built-in hot-shoe for mounting an external flash to better control lighting, thus allowing you to become the master of your own photographic destiny on everything from shutter speeds to white balance (at least for closer shots of people out to about a range of thirty feet or so).  To go with that built-in hot-shoe, you’ll need flash to mount onto it, so we have to include that into the price, and on the flash you’ll want a diffuser.  Omni-Bounce makes a good, affordable one that’ll only cost you around $10 or less.

Next up:  My suggestions.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Choosing a Camera—Part 1

  1. I could’ve used this series of posts one year ago but I think I did alright with my choice of a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5. I’ve been very pleased with it especially considering it’s pretty much a point and shoot.

    Looking forward to reading your recommendations.

  2. Kevin—there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a point-and-shoot in your arsenal, and the LX5 is a darned good one with an ultra-wide, very fast 24mm f2.0 lens.

    How good are today’s point-and-shoots? I have two Panasonics that I use frequently—a ZS3 and a ZS6. There are times when a big, bulky, heavy DSLR is just too impractical to lug around, and I love having these two cameras for fall backs.

    However, the target of the advice in this three-part series has a very specific upcoming shooting problem that, unfortunately, makes a point-and-shoot pretty much impractical. He needs something that will shoot in poor lighting with minimal noise and with the added benefit of an external flash unit. That’s why this series is geared toward recommending something a bit up the photographic food chain.

    But fear not. The point-and-shoot definitely has its niche in the photographer’s bag of tricks, and I’m a huge proponent of even the most advanced photographer having one at hand.