Friday, 3 August 2012

Questions about life and cameras

It's funny how often the same old questions crop up in life.

Why are you still single?

Why don't you drive?

What new camera should I buy?

Mostly, the same stock answers will suffice. For example:

Because I'm married to my camera (and never have trouble turning her on).


It's better for the environment (and all pedestrians everywhere if I don't).

But boy oh boy, that third one really does take some answering.

I'm always happy to help people with it (I adore new cameras), but any personal advice of this type given to friends comes with great responsibility. If the camera doesn't work out for whatever reason, I end up feeling guilty about it and you can only avoid people for so long.

Therefore, nowadays I'll just raise some general points to consider and possibly offer one or two examples of specific makes and models that may fit the bill, but very much leave the enquirer to make the final decision.

I don't have direct experience of the majority of cameras out there. I might have read about their technical specs and reviews of what other people think, but nothing can beat the evaluation that the comes from spending time with a camera yourself and putting it through its paces.

The experience I've had with my own purchasing decisions is that no matter how much research you do into it, there is never one clear overriding candidate that is head and shoulders above the rest. Often there will be several that would do the job perfectly well, so the final selection criterion comes down to the best value for money offer from that range.

Some people swear by one particular manufacturer over all others. There are many who appear to choose 'Team Canon' or 'Team Nikon', cheering them loudly above all overs. From one point of view, I can understand this, especially if you have bought a camera with interchangeable lenses. Once you have bought even just a couple of extra lenses for your camera body, you will inevitably have committed at least several hundred pounds into equipment that will work only on the equipment of one particular manufacturer.

However, overall I have real difficulty in understanding why some people insist that my Canon is better than your Nikon, just for the sake of argument. It reminds me of being a teenager again where kids would argue that their Spectrum was better than your Commodore, or their Chopper is better than your Grifter (ah! the whiff of nostalgia). I guess the desire to choose a side is partly down to our inherent tribalism and even more so due to our insecurities.

The truth is both Canon and Nikon make really great cameras and lenses. As do Sony, Pentax and Olympus etc. If you have invested in or have easy access to the lenses of one of these manufacturers, then it'd probably make sense to stick with that system. But otherwise, please don't get caught up in the brand arguments some fanboys and girls get involved with.

One of the headline specifications that have been used to market digital cameras since they first emerged as a choice for the average consumer back in the latter years of last century, is the megapixel count. I remember the first digital camera I bought (manufactured by Epson!), had a spec of a whopping 1 megapixels. Soon potential buyers were being lured with higher and higher resolutions that rocketed into double figures before too long. Although in the very early days, this figure generally meant there was an improvement in I picture quality, there a became a point of diminishing returns and image quality improvement either remained unnoticeable or even actually got worse, especially in cameras with a smaller sensor size.

In fact it's this sensor size that is actually crucial in determining what kind of picture quality can be expected. Although it is a prominent feature mentioned in the tech specs (and one of the first things a camera enthusiast will look for when hearing of a new model), it was never as headline grabbing as megapixel count and therefore is only gradually seeping into the mind of the average customer when considering a new purchase.

Now, I'm no technical expert in anything at all, so my explanation about the workings of sensors and megapixels may horrendously offend you if you have a good grasp of digital imaging mechanics. But, if you're happy enough to know the general principles without full details, then let me enlighten you with the very basic principles.

Basically the larger the size of an image sensor, the better the potential image quality is. The megapixels are housed within this sensor, so if you have a small image sensor with 16 megapixels crammed on there, you will most likely get less satisfactory results than if they are spread over a larger sensor. Here they have more room to breathe, allowing more light to be captured by each. This is why some cameras with only a 10 or 12 megapixel count take a cleaner, crisper image than those with a 16 or 18 rate. Magical sunbeams and pixie-rainbows are also involved but I'll save those for another time.

The best, pro-level digital cameras have what is known as a full-frame sensor (which is the biggest you can get in a digital SLR) whilst a typical compact camera only has a teeny weeny one. As well as amazingly resolved pictures, another advantage of a larger sensor is that you can more easily achieve a really nice out of focus background when taking a portrait for example. The exact same settings on a compact would produce very different, less impressive results.

To me, the most important feature in a camera is the image quality it will produce. Although other bells and whistles can be fun, the underlying reason you're using a camera is to take photographs. Many compact cameras offer some amazing features such as zooms that may range from 24mm right up to 1000mm! Although this is very impressive in some respects and undoubtedly convenient, it inevitably represents a compromise on how good the pictures will look.

Personally I'd say it's better to have a more basic, bulkier digital camera with a fixed or limited zoom lens and a good sized sensor-versus-pixel-count rather than some amazingly versatile, pocket-sized piece of kit that theoretically does everything, but in practice, produces pictures with inferior image quality.

This is where it gets tricky though. I'm a photographer. I want to produce the very best images possible. But I appreciate that some people are happy to take snaps of their family. Or some people want something that slips into their pocket and don't want the inconvenience that sometimes comes with using interchangeable lenses. Even so, I always try and recommend that people forego the gimmicks and choose a camera with solid image performance above everything else.

I'd also always suggest that you look one step upwards from where you think you want to be. That's because if you're serious about taking nice pictures, it won't be long before you find yourself wanting to push on and try some equipment that's a touch better.

So if you're thinking of getting a compact camera, take a look at the range of compact system cameras instead (larger sensors with interchangeable lenses, but still small bodies). If you're thinking of getting a CSC, maybe look at the next model up in that range or consider a digital SLR instead.

Cost is also an important factor, but shop round and you can find some amazing price discrepancies between various retailers, leading to some really great bargains. I'd advise you to invest as much as you can afford, but depending on your budget, don't blow it all on the camera itself. A cheaper model with a better lens will probably produce better results than a better camera but with the standard kit lens.

In summary, there's no easy answer to a question about which camera to buy. I'm hoping that this post may have given you something to think about if you are in the market for some new kit. If you have any questions about a purchasing decision, by all means get in touch. But don't be surprised if my answer is a series of points to think about rather than a clear cut recommendation!

P.S. I always like to include a photo in every post, so given the subject, it would seem appropriate that it's one of me with my camera (caught in the headlight of a Harley):


  1. I'm unlikely to be using this info to purchase any "kit", but I did learn some useful information about the sensor/megapixel ratio!
    What I really want to 'focus' on ( ;-) ) is that in my opinion the Grifter was far superior to the Chopper. The Grifter was well loved down on the farm, as in rough terrain its chunky tyres and well padded seat were second to none. Of course this may be different for the city slickers out there.
    Ru xx

  2. I must make a confession - I never managed to successfully ride a chopper [ooh matron etc]. I always manged to fall off and impale myself on the centrally located gearshift. I would have loved to have had a Grifter, but alas I only ever got a cheap clone. It was very well loved though and helped fulfill my CHiPs fantasies admirably :-) xx