Choosing a new camera

It would be great if there was a pocket-size camera that could capture any possible scene in any possible light, but, just as there is no one type of a car that is equally good for off-road driving and Formula One racing, cameras come in a variety of types and shapes and sometimes it is quite daunting to pick one off the wall of cameras. This post offers some thoughts on how different types of cameras work out for various types of photography and, hopefully, will be useful for someone who took occasional pictures with a randomly-picked camera and would like to take photography to the next level either by learning more about the existing camera or getting a new one.

Cameras range from a cell phone camera, which is always with you, but is quite limiting in its capabilities, to a DSLR that can capture just about anything, but requires some skill to operate and some upper body strength to carry around. The rest of this post describes almost everything in this range and how each choice works for specific types of photography.

Cell Phone Cameras

The biggest advantage of a cell phone camera is that it's always with you. Some will argue that it's the only advantage, but in reality it depends on how much you want to invest in learning photography basics, gear and software.

For example, many cell phone cameras offer some variation of a low-light shooting mode, which usually does a decent job even if used for hand-held shots. Cell phone manufacturers may employ advanced techniques to achieve this, such as capturing a series of underexposed shots, aligning these shots and adding their pixel brightness values together to form the final shot that looks well-exposed. Without using these tricks, the photographer would have to either use a tripod with a long exposure or to increase sensor sensitivity (ISO speed), which makes resulting shots grainier and may require additional software to reduce the grain. Those who do not want to invest time and money in learning night photography and obtain the right image editing tools still can capture a better photo using the low-light mode than if they used a more expensive camera that does not have a low-light mode.

There are two major factors that define the kind of pictures you can capture with a cell phone:

  • A wide angle lens in a cell phone camera will force you to come close to the subject, which makes it impossible to use a cell phone camera for wild life or sports photography and sometimes will limit your creativity (more on this below).
  • The small sensor in all cell phone cameras will produce more grain and color noise and may lose more detail in the darkest and brightest parts of the picture (i.e. narrow dynamic range)

A wide angle lens works great for landscapes, but won't produce very favorable portraits because of the distortions caused by the small distance to the subject - parts of the face that are closer to the camera will look bigger compared to the rest of the face, although with the advent of selfies this is quickly becoming a moot point.

Similarly, if you try to photograph sports from the side lines, you may capture a great shot if action happens right in front of you, but in most cases you will be looking at tiny dots instead of athletes on your screen.

Some other useful features to look for in a cell phone camera are listed below. What these features actually do would require a post of its own, but at least this should give you some idea:

  • Exposure compensation - it's hard to capture a good shot without exposure compensation when the light is uneven (e.g. bright back light)
  • Adjustable ISO speed - most cell phone cameras do not offer shutter speed control and the only way to ensure high shutter speed for action shots is to increase the ISO speed. Without adjustable ISO speed, you can shoot action only when there is sufficient light to drive shutter speed up naturally
  • Burst mode - some cameras allow you to capture images at a high rate of 4-8 frames per second, which works out great for action shots
  • Macro mode - in this mode the phone will try to focus on the closest detail, which is quite hard without this mode because bright background often steals focus from the closest subject.

Bottom Line

  • Good for landscapes, but will not capture too well scenes with a large brightness range. Most phones offer a so-called HDR mode that compensates for this, but pictures may look less natural, depending on the implementation.
  • Some phones will work well for macro photography
  • Not good for action photography, although you may capture some fun shots if your cell phone offers the burst mode
  • Cannot be used for any type of photography where you cannot come close to the subject, such as wild life photography
  • Will produce portrait shots that are mostly good for Facebook check-ins and selfies. Will work fine for full-height shots, though.
  • Hard to use in broad daylight because the screen is washed out
  • Really bad for flash photography
  • Have very limited sensor dynamic range and bright spots in the shot will have fewer-to-none detail than in a similar shot captured with a larger sensor
Samsung Galaxy S3

Simple Compact Cameras

A simple compact would cost you anywhere from $100 to $400 CAD.

Compact cameras come in a huge variety of models and features, but, as a general rule, they are a step-up from a cell phone camera, although there are exceptions to this rule. I saw some Nikon compacts that didn't provide the ISO speed control and offered very little benefit, compared to a cell phone camera. These are the things to look for or be beware of with simple compacts:

  • Stay away from compacts without the ISO speed control
  • Stay away from compacts without the exposure compensation control
  • Beware that when a manufacturer says that some camera features x10 zoom, it's not x10 magnification, but rather the range from the widest angle of the lens to the most zoomed in position (e.g. 10mm to 100mm).

You will often see a compact camera's zoom described in terms of a 35mm equivalent. This number shows you the kind of lens you would have to attach to a 35mm camera to see the same frame contents as you see with the current camera. For example, for some compacts the lens may have 50mm focal length, but it will show you the same magnification as if you attached a 300mm lens to a 35mm camera. This number is important when you want to know how close you can get to your subject.

Bottom Line

  • Good for landscapes, but will not capture too well scenes with a large brightness range. Many compact cameras also offer the HDR mode.
  • Most will work well for macro photography
  • Not good for action photography - it's close to impossible to track a moving subject by keeping them within the LCD and even less so to focus on the subject
  • Cameras with a good zoom range are good for still wild life photography (e.g. sitting or moderately active birds, large animals, etc). The minimum 35mm equivalent lens you need for wild life is 300mm.
  • Not very good for flash photography
  • Will work for portrait photography
  • Hard to use in broad daylight because the screen is washed out
Panasonic DMC-ZS1 • f4.9 • 1/80 • ISO 200 • 49.2 mm

High-End Compact Cameras

A high-end compact would cost you from about $600 to $1200 CAD.

High-end compact cameras offer additional photographic controls, so you can control your ISO speed, aperture, shutter speed, flash power, storage format, etc. Most of what is described for simple compact cameras applies to high-end cameras, with some additional points described below.

Bottom Line

  • Some compact cameras offer better control over the built-in flash and will allow you to capture such shots as a person in front of a sunset or in a dimly-lit room without making it look like a floating head. Some will even allow you to attach an external flash, although that is fairly rare.
  • Some will allow you to capture images in the RAW format, which captures much more data than JPEG and offers much better image editing capabilities, usually at the cost of reduced capture frame rate and decreased storage capacity. Such cameras will produce better images just by the virtue of having more data in each image.
  • Some compacts offer huge zoom, to the 35mm equivalent of 400-500mm. A real lens with this focal length for an SLR would cost you thousands upon thousands, so these cameras are really good for wild life.
  • Some compacts feature electronic viewfinders, which make it much easier to capture action and wild life shots
  • If you intend to invest into a high-end compact, you will most likely need some 3rd-party software to edit your photos.
Canon S95 • f2 • 1/2 • ISO 100 • 6 mm

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras

A mirrorless interchangeable lens camera start from around $500-600 CAD for the body and a kit lens.

Interchangeable lens cameras allow you to switch lenses, which makes it easier to switch the type of photography you want to do without having to buy another camera. These cameras do not have a mirror inside, which keeps them smaller, but also makes them slower in auto-focusing.

These cameras offer same benefits high-end compact cameras provide, or even some DSLRs, depending on the size of their sensor, with the exception of the extended zoom capabilities. Their sensors are usually larger than those in compact cameras and, consequently, longer lenses cost much more and are larger in size, sometimes to the point when the lens will be much larger than the camera itself, which makes them not quite as pocketable as compact cameras.

Bottom Line

  • Very good for landscapes
  • Very good for portraits
  • Many offer good flash controls and some will have a hot shoe for an external flash
  • Not very good for wild life photography because long-focal lenses will be as expensive as those for a DSLR and you will need an electronic viewfinder to use the camera in daylight
  • Not very good for action photography because most will use contrast-based focusing or in-sensor phase-detection focusing, which aren't as quick as the dedicated auto-focus used in DSLRs.
  • You will need an electronic viewfinder to track subjects in bright light
  • Small form factor makes it less comfortable to use it for prolonged time with larger lenses.
  • Most offer RAW image format, which makes these image files good for editing, but you will need 3rd-party software for most editing tasks
  • Not quite pocketable as small compact cameras

Entry-Level DSLRs

An entry-level DSLR would cost you about $700-800 for the body and a kit lens. For some types of photography, such as wild life photography, you will need to invest into a lens that would start from $700 and may go into thousands.

Digital Single Reflex Cameras (DSLR) use a semi-transparent mirror to focus using a dedicated phase detection focusing mechanism usually located at the bottom of the camera. This type of focusing is almost instantaneous and works really well for action photography and just about any other type of photography.

Bottom Line

Entry-level DSLRs are good for any type of photography, but they have some limitations, compared to their more expensive professional-grade DSLRs:.

  • Many entry-level DSLRs will shoot continuously at a lower rate of 3-5 frames per second, compared to 8-10 frames per second for more expensive cameras
  • All entry-level DSLRs have a hot shoe for an external flash, but are limited in their capabilities, such as not being able to control multiple external flash units
  • The number of auto-focus points is usually around 9-12 for entry-level DSLs, compared to 19-50+ for more expensive cameras
  • Some photographers who bought their first DSLR after having used compact cameras for a while are unpleasantly surprised by the lack of built-in image processing capabilities in some of these cameras. DSLRs are designed for more advanced photographers and it is often assumed that such photographers already have software that can do a better job than what a camera manufacturer can burn into the hardware.
Canon EOS 500D • f8 • 1/5 • ISO 100 • 300 mm

Professional Grade DSLRs

A new professional-grade DSLR camera will start from around $1700 CAD.

Well, the sky is the limit with these cameras, but having spent a few thousand dollars on your photo gear and software, it would be a waste of money not to invest into learning some skills. Professional-grade cameras offer very few in-camera processing modes and are meant to be used by people who know what they are doing. Some of them do offer a mode for beginners, but if you intend to use this mode, you will be better off buying an entry-level DSLR or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.

Some of the reasons why you would want a professional-grade DSLR:

  • If you are into action photography, shooting at 8-10 frames per second makes a lot of difference, compared to 4-5 frames per second of entry-level DSLRs.
  • Unlike some interchangeable lens and compact cameras that can also shoot at high frame rates, professional-grade DSLRs keep focusing and metering while shooting at these frame rates.
  • Having additional auto-focus (AF) points makes it easier to keep a moving subject in the right part of the frame (e.g. if you want to leave some space in front of a runner)
  • Having better camera controls makes it easier to adjust your settings and review images. For example, some high-end DSLRs will offer a little joystick to move the active AF point, compared to having to cycle through all of them in entry-level DSLRs.
  • Many high-end DSLRs offer advanced flash control capabilities, such as being able to control multiple flash units from the camera. This works well for many types of flash photography, such as action or portraiture.
  • Some high-end DSLRs, but not all, will offer a larger, full-frame sensor (refers to a 35mm film frame), which produces images of better quality, sometimes at the cost of reduced frame rate. These cameras are less suitable for action photography, but are very good for any other type of photography.
Canon EOS 7D • f7.1 • 1/2500 • ISO 800 • 250 mm

Final Word

Before investing a lot of money in any photo gear, ask yourself what kind of photography you would like to do. For example, if you want to capture interesting places in your travels, you will benefit from being able to carry a small high-end compact camera with you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy photographing your children playing sports, you need a DSLR to be able to capture action with confidence.

If you are not sure what kind of photography you are interested in, the simplest approach is to buy a not very expensive camera and start using it. Chances are, it will fulfill all of your photographic needs, but if you run into some limitations, this is where you will know that you need a better camera and know exactly what kind of camera you want.

Happy shooting!