When choosing a camera...

February 18, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

© 2010, updated 2016, by Terry Mercer
The Rule of P's fits well in the world of photography. Whether you are trying to get the right angle or position, or setting... or you are looking to buy your first or fiftieth camera.


If you put some thought into it first, I promise you'll save yourself a whole lot of headaches, heartaches, and money. Most professional photographers have at least 2 dSLR cameras... plus usually at least 1 point & shoot. Here are some tips you might want to consider when purchasing your camera.

Batteries: The problem with many cameras is that they don't use 'regular' (AA or AAA) batteries, therefore are somewhat impractical for occasional use or traveling without power charging handy, or having massive extra batteries). If the batteries are proprietary, always plan on buying 1, 2, 3, or more extra batteries (usually off eBay, where they are less expensive... and usually include an extra charger... be aware, you often 'get what you pay for' especially with the off-brand and knock-offs). Nothing is worse than traveling, not having power, having an awesome camera, a great opportunity for a unique shot, but no damn battery! And no way to get any within a timely manner.

I highly suggest having at least one camera that takes STANDARD BATTERIES if you do much traveling, even if it's a point & shoot. Personally, when I'm traveling I take about a dozen pre-charged batteries, AND my vertical grip on my big cameras - which allows me to use AA's in my dSLR, plus I take my point & shoot (usually with the underwater housing, because there's almost always something under, around, or in the water that is worth capturing), just in case. A small solar charger, external battery backup/charger, can also help when traveling away from standard power outlets being readily available (fore sure).

Next, memory card - try to stick with NORMAL - CF (Compact Flash) or SD (Secure Digital)... they are common, inexpensive, powerful, and work well. Most computers have SD readers built in, and high speed USB readers are common place. Try to pay attention to the 'class' (the higher the number, the faster the card's ability to read & write (i.e., save & copy files, your photos from the camera to the card, and the card to the computer). Class 4 is slow & cheap, and will bottle neck many modern cameras. Class 8 is the minimum recommendation for most cameras, class 10 if you plan to shoot much video or plan to use burst mode shooting much. If money is no object, the 1,000x (150mb/s) class 12 is the fastest and hottest card on the market today, but over kill for the majority of cameras on the market because they aren't capable of writing as fast as the card allows. However, the time to upload to your computer, from a faster card, is definitely noticed if you have a bunch of images or much HD video.

The basics - megapixels... and sensor size inside camera. The larger the sensor, the better, but more expensive. If you plan to print stuff above 8x10, then senor size becomes a lot more important. ASK what the crop factor is - or the capture ratio. IT MATTERS to images you print above 8.5x11, or plan to crop by 50% or more. In general, the Canon Ti & D series bodies uses a 1.6 crop factor sensor, and Nikon's crop sensor dSLR's are 1.5. Point & shoots, cell phones, and other brands use different sensor sizes, different crop factors (usually much smaller, more subject to noise in low light, less detail in the shades and shadows, and range of colors. Basic rule: Try to stay away from the tiny sensors if you can.

ISO - the higher potential the better, for low light (indoor) without flash or distance shooting. 3200 to 6400 is pretty much a standard for low light indoor & evening photography. Some cameras have much higher, but then sensor size and processor determines the amount of noise (pixelation) within the finished print. Some makes & models are clearly better than others at the higher ISO's. PAY ATTENTION, if you'll be doing much low light photography; try to see if you can see samples of the TYPE OF SHOTS you are most likely going to be shooting... from the camera you're looking at, using the lens you'll most likely be able to afford. There is a pretty drastic difference between what you'll get out of a 70-200 f/4, and the 70-200 f/2.8... and even the 70-200 f/2.8is. The three different lenses will allow three different ISO settings, with the same lighting, and shutter speed. Remember the 'Exposure Triangle' - ISO is one of the key points in that triangle (aperture & shutter speed are the other two). The lower the ISO, generally, the less noise; but not all cameras are created equal. Some are extraordinarily clean at ISO's higher than 6400, and in 2016 they announced one that is capable of shooting at 512,000 ISO (in nearly 0 Lux, i.e., pitch black - no lighting at all).

Shutter Speed is pretty meaningless unless you are shooting MOTION & MOVEMENT - like birds in flight, 'sports action' or other high speed stuff, or wanting to do really long shutter speeds (like 30 seconds or hours - for night sky & IR (infra red) stuff). The average rule of thumb for 'freehand' photography is the slowest shutter speed equals 'one over the focal length' before blur sets in. So, if you are at 150mm, then 1/160th of a second is the slowest recommended shutter speed (the aperture or ISO changes to add or subtract the needed lighting for the exposure). Few people can freehand shoot below 1/60th of a second without IS, and I don't know but a couple people that can shoot slower than half a second consistently without a tripod; and very few that can (without a tripod) shoot at 1 second or slower. 99% of the 'automatic' point and shoot cameras try to keep the shutter speed between 1/80th and 1/2000th of a second (the higher the number, the faster).

Shutter lag (response time) is also important. How long does it take for the shutter to respond to your push of the button? The cheaper the camera, the slower the reaction time (the cameras, not necessarily yours). And, as I found out back in 2001, a slow reaction time meant that I had to 'time' my action shots by ANTICIPATING the action, and clicking 1/2 to 1 second BEFORE IT REALLY HAPPENED. Clearly not a good choice for sports action, and a higher 'bad shot' ratio than I usually have with a camera that clicks instantly (thousandths of milliseconds). The faster, the better. Few things suck worse than saying smile, and having a delay for the photo of what seems like an eternity before the click happens. I can not say it enough, but this really matters to any type of motion & action photography. Note: automatic face focusing & 'smile awareness' focusing sounds cool, but often delays the shutter reaction time... and in low light, can delay it to the point an opportunity for an image is lost (or has to be repeated, when that's even possible).

Aperture - the lower the number the better (less light is required), and the better the DoF (Depth of Field) or purposeful blur of the background, and background control.

Next would be mm of focal length. Ideally, you'd want from 10mm to about 200mm to cover most normal family and vacation type snap shots & photos. The smaller this number, the wider the angle it can capture. The higher, the more it zooms. When dealing with point & shoots, and fixed lens cameras, this is the ultimate limitation; and often masked with a x-times zoom factor. 10x is meaningless unless you know WHERE IT STARTS. If the majority of your shots will be within 30 feet of less (unless a landscape), then you'll want about 35mm (or less) to about 100mm equivalency. Many of the less expensive cameras don't have 'exact' mm listings, they have 'zoom factors' - in which case you need to determine what numbers are OPTICAL by figuring out the STARTING mm, and then there is often a DIGITAL zoom factor on top of the optical (note: optical zoom uses the glass, and is better, cleaner, faster... digital zoom uses software within the camera to enlarge the image (often causing some pixelation or data loss) to 'create' the digital zoom factor. Most P&S (Point & Shoots) have a 'digital' zoom, dSLR's don't. The 'digital zoom' looks great on the little screen, and in 4x6's, but tends to show a lot of noise in print sizes larger than 8x10 usually. Optical zoom is generally better, less noise, more sharp, higher quality, but usually carries a higher cost. Know that MANY P&S cameras today allow the user to screw on EXTERNAL LENS adapters (barrels, other lenses, and even filters), which is honestly a pretty great feature if your budget is low but have a high desire for the best quality that camera is capable of.

IS - Image Stabilization, for less blurred photos. Usually only available on those cameras starting at the $300+ price tag. Depending on how the camera does it, determines if it's going to lag (delay) the shutter reaction time. So, BE AWARE. Make sure the feature can be turned on & off... and that you can deal with the lag it might create. (Nikon uses VR, vibration reduction, other brands use different terms). Canon's technology is IN THE LENS. Sony tends to be IN THE CAMERA (not the lens). The end goal and results are the same, but the differences in 'glass' price and weight are huge. Personally, I prefer the 'in the lens' stabilization... but that's what I've been using, and have, for nearly 15 years.

Type of file the picture matters... jpg is most common, easiest, and best for 99% of the snap shots... but RAW is a great option as your photography skills improve and the shot matters more to you (but RAW DOES require larger memory card, as well as post processing in another software program on your computer, more hard drive space for the files, and actually a 'conversion' (to jpg) so other people can see & use the files. Shooting jpg doesn't require any post processing, are smaller files, but contain less information within the image... fewer colors, fewer shadows, and have limited editing capability. Most people don't want to mess with RAW images... but that type will always allow for the absolute best image potential.

Another point is ability to use EXTERNAL FLASH - if you think you'll want or need one, make sure there is a hot shoe or cable connector possible. These are important for fill flashes, and more controlled shoots. Flashes do more than just 'add light' - especially 'off-camera flashes.' They are useful. allowing bounce & fill, more shadow control; and more creativity. However, some venues (sports, concerts, live events, even museums) often ban the use of flashes (built in or external). Which means photographers have to work within the limitations of the environment, and in low light settings... with no lighting control, there are ONLY two options: a) high ISO (in camera - film speed or sensor sensitivity, which effectively allows a photo to be brighter BUT adds 'noise' and graininess usually), and b) 'fast glass' (low f/stop) is important; the lower the number (f/stop) the more light is allowed through the wider opening. However, fast glass isn't cheap (with the exception of the 'Nifty Fifty' - the 50mm f1:1.8 - which is usually available for around $100 for most camera brands).

View Finder vs JUST a view screen - I know that more of the point & shoot cameras are shipping without any view finder, and if you only plan on taking a few snap shots, that is fine about 90% of the time. However, the view screen won't allow you to focus as precisely, won't work easily in bright sun light, and eats batteries. When ever possible, try to have a view finder... particularly one that demonstrates what you'll see through the lens, so you can focus better, see in all types of lighting, and won't waste battery life powering a large LCD or LED screen. PLUS, many view finders allow 'fine tuning' to YOUR EYE SIGHT, with a 'diopter' that allows for better focusing without glasses on.

REMOTE SHUTTER option - this is particularly important for low light (night, cave, fire works) type shots, and helpful for self-portraits (beats shooting in the bath room mirror). Most camera's have self-timers, which help... but aren't functional for 'lightening' and other types of necessary photography.

WiFi is another option on some of the cameras... BE AWARE, and make sure HOW this works, and determine if you will really use it. Because it can be a costly & challenging add-on (today). PLUS it has the potential to open your photos up to those that can 'capture' your signal.

GPS is available on some... and if you are a world traveler, is sweet, because it logs the longitude & latitude of your shot in the meta data of the photo. Down side, if you post immediately to your social networking, it tells people where you are, and that you are away from home. (OR where you were, which you might not want others knowing your 'special' shoot spots). So use it carefully and knowingly.

Ultimately, you need to determine the type of shooting (all of) that you'll want to do, and how often you'll do it, and what your budget is. Quality photos can be taken on $100 cameras, if one pays attention... to $2000 cameras... to $50,000 cameras (yes, they really exist - the 200Megapixel Medium Format Hasselblad with a couple fast lens used in high end fashion & portraits can easily top that cost). Some of my best, most widely distributed & published photographs were taken with point & shoots that cost under $400. So remember, it's not the word processing software or computer that creates the best selling novel... it's the creator! But having the right tools does make it easier.

Filters: In general, there are only two 'should have' filters - a UV (Ultraviolet) which helps protect the actual lens from dust, dirt, pollen, scratches, bumps, etc. And the CP (Circular Polarizer) which is like awesome fishing glasses, allowing you to reduce (or add) reflections (seeing through glare, or creating a 'mirror'). The next most useful, for outdoors would be the NDG (Neutral Density Gradient). Plastic filters require more caution in the cleaning, as they scratch easier. Glass is good, multi-coated glass is much better. All of my expensive lens have a UV on them 99.999% of the time.

Buy intelligently, buy with a plan, and buy what you really need to shoot what you are needing to shoot and that allows you to add to your equipment list, not constantly having to replace it. Same thing if you are buying a gift... get something that WILL GET USED, not just shelved out of frustration in a few days or weeks.

Need some help, suggestions, constructive criticism, and honest feed back on your photography? You can look up my blog posts, Terry Mercer Photography. And, consider investing in a website that is specific to photographer's of all levels: like Flickr which costs $25 per year, for unlimited uploads. Millions of photos are uploaded every day, from total novice to OMG blow your socks off creations to long time traditional photographers. The benefit are the groups and feed back (constructive criticism) available PER PHOTO... it can really help you think & see your photography a bit differently (different perspectives & eye & skills). It's kinda sorta like 'facebook for photographers' generally focused on photography... not religion, politics, or such.

I can't think of anything more at this point... any questions, suggestions, additions, or corrections... please feel free to comment or message me.


Terry Mercer,  A Camera Guy

If you want to actually sell your images, try Zenfolio for free, they have a 30-day Free Trial... you can use the  Referral Code: GX4-8PM-5SC for a discount. If you think you will ever (really) want to 'sell' photos on the internet they are one of the absolute best (and most cost-effective) options I've found (and I've tried the top dozen from winter 2012/ spring 2013, when smugmug doubled their yearly membership fee on all existing members).


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If you have any questions about photography, please feel free to ask. I might not know the answer off the top of my head, but odds are I can either help you find the answer or know someone that knows the answer. After nearly 45 years of playing with hundreds of different cameras, both film and digital, I probably don't know specific 'make and model' info... but I UNDERSTAND PHOTOGRAPHY, and the PRINCIPLES & CONCEPTS of capturing and creating good to great images.
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