digital camera buying guide

Camera Buying Guide: What You Need to Know Before You Buy

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Another new year is here and every photographer is keen to improve on their current camera collection. You could also be looking for your first camera, probably because your wedding or graduation ceremony is fast approaching. Whatever your reason, purchasing a digital camera is always a worthy investment. However, this will only be the case if you get a digital camera that directly fits into your needs. Many people have purchased cameras only to end up tucking them deep in their wardrobes. Now you don’t want to spend $ 300 or more on a gadget you won’t use frequently. This is exactly what this digital camera buyers’ guide will help to prevent.

The joy that comes with purchasing a new digital camera doesn’t compare to most things. The reality though is that this could be one of the most demanding shopping sprees you have ever set out for. There are very many things you need to bear in mind before you dare open that purse. Without a doubt, you are looking for a camera that not only meets your current needs but also offers sustainability as and probably some aesthetic appeal. It is impossible to conclusively list all the considerations a photographer has to make before purchasing a camera. In many cases, shoppers have opted for the one that caught their eye first, or one that fits into their budget. But is this the right thing to do?

Know the Camera Types

The first question you always have to ask yourself when you set out to shop is what the market has to offer. This is no different when you are looking for a digital camera. You don’t just buy one simply because your best friend has been using it for half a decade now. First of all, you are not your best friend. In addition, what if the camera has a way improved model that sells for a cheaper price? The digital cameras in the market this day can be generally classified under these two categories:

  • dSLR cameras
  • Compact cameras

Every other type of camera can find a position within the many classifications accommodated in these two classes. It is only after you understand what these camera types are about that you will know which one best suits you.

Digital Single-Lens Reflex Cameras

If you have been in the photography scene for quite some time, you must have heard something about dSLR cameras. Unfortunately, they rank among the things everyone knows about, but only until they are asked. Digital single-lens reflex cameras, simply called dSLR cameras, are a crop of cameras that are used to take professional quality images. If you are a professional photographer who covers great events or natural scenes, this is the category for you. Below are some of the features of dSLR cameras that you might be interested in:

ü  Quality imaging: Digital SLR cameras are manufactured with refined image quality in mind. They have the ability to produce top quality images even under low natural light. This means you can take your photos indoors without requiring the flash.

ü  Optical viewfinder: these cameras are renowned for their big and bright optical viewfinders that enhances picture quality.

ü  Reliability: When it comes to reliability, SLR cameras come with robust bodies that almost never fail.

ü  Specialty lenses: With these cameras, you have the freedom to attach special lenses. These include wide angle lenses for the interiors, architecture and scenery or the long telephoto lenses that suit sports photography.

Now that you have an idea what dSLR cameras are all about, this digital cameras buyers guide will go the extra mile to break everything down for you. There are quite a number of sub-categories, each targeting a specific class of photographers. In each category, one or two leading models will be recommended so that your shopping experience can be much easier.

Budget Digital SLR Cameras

The fact that you are working on a tight budget does not mean that you will be locked out of the advanced features that have made dSLR’s extremely popular. With just a little more effort, you will discover that the market always has something for you, especially this time round. Currently, the Nikon D5100 is one of the best dSLR cameras you can get at an affordable price. This camera strikes some harmony between the beginner-friendly features of the Nikon D3100 and the rather complicated D7000. All the same, the D5100 is a camera that even the entry-level photographer will enjoy using.

Like any other digital SLR camera, the Nikon D5100 is in its own level when it comes to image quality. With a maximum resolution of 4,928 x 3,264 and 16.2 effective megapixels, coupled with 4 frames per second continuous shooting you can be sure that no detail will be left out. The other good option in this category happens to be the 12.2 megapixel Canon EOS 1100D. Other admirable features such as 3fps continuous shooting and a 22.2x CMOS sensor all come wrapped in a package whose weight and design ensure you won’t think twice about carrying it around.

Mid-Range Digital SLR Cameras

If you are willing to spend slightly more on the digital SLR cameras, you can be sure to get a camera that will turn heads wherever you pass. These come with more robust features and increased functionalities than their budget counterparts. Nikon and Canon models have always had their way when shopping for a dSLR. However, it would be very unfair to ignore the sublime features of the engineering masterpiece that is the Sony A55. With a 16 megapixel sensor, high resolution and competitive noise characteristics, the A55 easily dines with the greats in its category. It is worth mentioning that this model, like most others, comes with an articulating screen that will redefine your photography experience.

For the lovers of Canon models, there is no cause for worry as the canon T3i is a mid-range dSLR in a class of its own. This camera improves on the near perfect features of its predecessor, the T2i. Known outside the US as the 600D, the T3i comes with an 18 megapixel CMOS sensor, a three-inch tweak-and-swivel LCD screen, nine point autofocus and 3.7 frames per second continuous shooting. For these features and many more, you will have to dig deeper into your pockets and fish out almost seven hundred dollar bills.

High-End Digital SLR Cameras

So what does one buy when they are practicing photography at the highest level? This is exactly where the high-end digital SLR cameras come in. Any digital camera buyers guide will concede that this category forms the cream of the digicam world, with its extravagant features, inexhaustible functionalities and, inevitably, high prices. Calling any model a class leader in this category has never been easy. However, the Canon EOS 7D easily stands out from the rest of the crowd. This camera takes the new EOS system to the next level with its upgraded autofocus system. For pin-point precision, it ships with a totally new autofocus sensor.

If you thought that is all, think again. The 7D’s elegant design is flattered by two screens; the conventional 3-inch LCD to the rear and a minute status panel on its top side. The other high-end dSLR’s worth checking out are the Sony A900 and the Nikon D700. The latter wraps the supreme features of the Nikon D3 and D300, only this time in a lighter and smaller package that is convenient to carry around. As for the Sony A900, its unbelievable screen resolution and virgin image quality are worth writing home about. What you need to remember is that all these features can never cost you peanuts. Do not be surprised when you are asked to fork out more than a thousand dollars.

 

What photography level are you at?

You have already familiarized yourself with the various types of digital SLR cameras the market has to offer, depending on how much they are going to cost you. Unfortunately, the final decision is going to depend also on the level of photography you are in. Are you an experienced professional photographer, or is the entire business utterly new to you? Once you have answered this question, you will know whether you pass for an entry-level photographer or an enthusiast. This will help you know which dSLR will suit you best as you do not want to get lost in the menus. Here is a more in-depth look at the two types:

  • Entry-Level dSLR cameras: How embarrassing can it be when your mates pose for a photo and you just don’t know how to take the snap? As a first timer or just a casual dSLR user, it can be very frustrating to go for the more complicated models. This is why there are lots of entry-level dSLR’s out there to help induct you slowly into the system. Among the latest models, the Nikon D3100 easily trounces the competition in this category. Its admirably fast live view autofocus and other additional features such as 1080p HD video recording make it a perfect choice for any beginner on dSLR. The gadget comes with well defined menus that will help you find your way around. Even without a bulk of technical knowledge regarding photography, you will be able to manipulate its shooting settings.
  • Enthusiast dSLR cameras: If you have been in professional photography for many years now, it is perhaps time to get the best gadget the industry has to offer. The many choices that this year puts on the table are going to leave you spoilt for choice. In this category, the Nikon D700 and the Pentax K-5 are almost impossible to separate. Whereas the former has a relatively finer autofocus, the latter compensates for that with a commendable control layout. Perhaps the best news is that the D700 comes with a trademark Easy ISO to map ISO on the control wheel. The good news is that this is going to cost you a generous $ 200 less than the Pentax K-5. This difference can be explained by the in-body stabilization of the K-5, which saves more money as time goes by.

 

Full-Frame versus Crop Sensor Digital SLR Cameras

It is true that professional image quality is the biggest motivation behind dSLR cameras. However, there are many other things you can consider when shopping for these cameras. A good example is the design or additional features that come with the camera. Currently, the market has several full-frame as well as crop sensor digital SLR cameras to offer. Here is some explanation on what both types are about:

  • Full-Frame dSLR cameras: A full-frame digital SLR camera is one that has an image sensor of a similar size as the 35mm film frame. One of the advantages they offer over the smaller-sensor cameras is that their wide-angle lenses always retain the wide angle of view. One of the best full-frame cameras you can buy right now has to be the Canon 5D Mark II. Despite being in the market for two years now, not even the latest models measure up to its features. With a generous 21.1 megapixel lens, you can only imagine how your photographing experiences will change.
  • Crop sensor dSLR cameras: Crop sensor cameras generally image a smaller area that is more central to the lens compared to the full-frame models. The reasoning behind these models is that lenses will always have weaknesses away from their central regions. Crop sensors are better suited for telephoto purposes as they yield a better focus. The Canon EOS 7D is a sure class leader in this category. The 18 megapixel CMOS sensor is just one of the many extravagant features that help this camera take professional photography to the next level. The tonal range and clarity can hardly get any better than on this model.

The Bad about dSLR Cameras

By now, you already can’t resist the temptation to rush for that dSLR camera. This is very much understandable, considering the sublime features that most of these cameras have. But are you ready to cope with some of the shortcomings of these models? The reality is that there are very few shortcomings of dSLR cameras. However, it is still very important that you familiarize yourself with them. To begin with, digital SLR cameras are renowned for their huge size. This really compromises portability and makes them very cumbersome to carry around. It is almost impossible to discreetly carry a dSLR camera.

Furthermore, very few dSLR’s if any offer LCD for composition. For many of them, the angles can get irritatingly wide, especially when you desire pin-point focus. In addition, these cameras hardly ever come with dust and dirt resistant properties. If you are buying the camera for its movie mode, the lower end models are never going to help you. It is worth noting that not all these shortcomings apply in every situation. For instance, a journalist or nature photographer isn’t expected to mind the size of their camera. It is only you the buyer who understands which disadvantage will affect you significantly.

Compact Digital Cameras

If size means everything to a photographer, compact cameras will always make for a good choice. Commonly referred to as point-and-shoot cameras, compact cameras are gadgets designed mainly for basic operation and personal use. If you are not into professional photography but only looking for a way to preserve your best moments in life, buying a digital SLR camera won’t do you any good. Below are the major characteristics of compact cameras:

  • Autofocus or focus free lenses are used for focusing.
  • Automatic systems are used to set the exposure options.
  • Many come with built-in flash units for use in low-light scenes.

As the name suggests, the purpose of a compact system is to reduce the size of a digital camera to as little as possible, something that has well been achieved.

There are many advantages that come with compact cameras. Most importantly, these cameras redefine portability for most photographers. It is easy to carry one around without fears that you may exceed your luggage limits at the airport. Furthermore, these models are definitely way more affordable than their professional dSLR counterparts. However, the best news is that there is very little compromise on image quality, with many of them matching up to entry-level dSLR’s. Compact cameras can also be classified into many categories depending on the advancement, cost and additional features. This digital camera buyer’s guide will walk you through some of the types and help you find the exact camera you are looking for.

Budget Compact Cameras

It is not only professional photographers who need to take photos. In many cases, you can’t even find one the very moment you need them. This is exactly why budget compact cameras are being manufactured each day. For just about $ 150, you can get a digital camera that will capture the moments you cherish most. Due to the low manufacturing cost, you can expect lots of competition in this category. However, the Canon IXUS 230 HS is easily the best deal one can find. Its 8x optical zoom and 12.1 megapixel sensor that boasts back-illumination only makes a mockery of its $ 200 price tag. This gadget has been lauded the teenagers’ choice due to its impeccable aesthetics that will surely make you stand out.

Theirs is more to this camera than just its looks. With a tech-packed interior, you are guaranteed more functionalities than you will ever require. The good news is that the camera doesn’t demand technical understanding to operate, thanks to its user-friendly interface. If you can’t find this camera, the Fujifilm FinePix Z900 EXR is a great substitute. Despite demanding $ 120 more, this is a camera that can stand its ground against the majority of the entry-level digital SLR models. Its robust design means that you get to enjoy the countless features for many years, making it more affordable than it sounds in the long run.

Mid-Range Compact Cameras

After several years with your budget compact camera, it is high time you upgraded to a more complete photographing experience. Mid-range compact cameras can also be great buys for professional photographers who need more portable gadgets for some temporary assignments. Currently, not many of the models in this category can match up to the Sony DSC-HX9V. This class leading travel-zoom camera comes with a back-illuminated 16.2 megapixel CMOS sensor and a 16x zoom lens that polish image quality.  You can also record high quality videos with its 1080p high definition video mode.

To add to its list of extravagant features, the HX9V features intelligent Sweep panoramas on a 42.9 megapixel super high resolution mode. A three-inch LCD screen and burst shooting at 10 frames per second complete what should be a near perfect model. The other latest release that comes close is none other than the Canon Powershot S95. After many complaints about the lack of HD video mode on the Canon S90, this leading digicam manufacturer was quick to make amends on the S95. The best news is perhaps the fact that you get to pay less for this model than its predecessor.

High-End Compact Cameras

If you thought the small size of compact cameras limits them in any way, high-end compact cameras will make you think again. The reality is than some of the higher-end compact cameras come packed with features that some mid-range dSLR camera users can only dream of. If you need the perfect way to capture some of the moments in your life that are simply unforgettable, there isn’t a better way to do it. These compact cameras offer a taste of professional photography, at a comparatively more affordable price and notably greater portability. The prices might be a bit steep, but you can hardly put a price to the photographing experience they provide.

There are quite a number of sleek high-end compact cameras in the stores today. That notwithstanding, you can never get it wrong with the Fujifilm FinePix X100. This state of the art gadget is packaged in a retro design that earns it an enviable blend of old and new. If you are looking for a balance between the cutting edge features of modern day gadgets and a traditional control system, your search ends with the X100. It boasts a fixed focal length 23mm lens, a new Hybrid viewfinder and a 12.3 megapixel sensor. For these features and many more, you have to be ready to pay slightly more than a thousand dollars. The good news is that you will get value for every dollar you pay.

Compact Zoom Cameras

The zoom has always been a major consideration when scouting for a camera. It helps you switch from wide to pin-point view, making your gadget more versatile. It is very important to consider the zoom, especially when purchasing compact cameras. Despite their small size, you will still be able to capture wider fields of view. You can also focus on an object or subject that is quite some distance away. There are several compact zoom cameras that will guarantee you value for money. However, the Canon SX230 HS easily stands out as the leader in this category. Most conspicuously, this gadget comes with a 12.1 megapixel sensor that equals that of high end ELPH models.

Several compact zoom cameras guarantee better image quality, more diverse features and even longer zooms. However, every single one of them has a flaw that stands out. The Canon SX230 HS therefore tops the class especially because it gets everything right. For professional still photographers, the Fujifilm F550 EXR has the best still-image quality as well as manual control. On the other hand, the Nikon S9100 offers an unmatched 18x zoom and refined low-light imaging. Despite the stiff competition from these other models, the Canon SX230 is sure to appeal to the highest number of photographers. Note that you don’t just have to go for the longest zoom while ignoring other important features.

Compact Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras are slowly being accepted as a superb alternative to the conventional entry-level and mid-range digital SLR cameras. This class of digital cameras features an interchangeable lens mount. However, unlike dSLR cameras with similar lens mounts, they do not feature a mirror based viewfinder. The purpose of these cameras is to provide an image quality similar to digital SLR cameras, albeit with a small body. This makes them a perfect buy for a traveler desiring top quality images, especially because they are extremely portable. There aren’t many of them in the market, with just about ten models available in 2011.

Of the few models in the market, the Sony NEX series has always dominated the market. However, the Olympus PEN E-PL2 currently doesn’t have a match. Despite stiff competition from the Panasonic GF2, the PEN steals the plaudits especially because it can handle dynamic range better. The PEN also boasts in-body stabilization that will reduce your lens expenses in the long run. Despite this, it still manages to sell at a lower price. The GF2 makes for a perfect street companion with its more compact design and solid build quality. If you are keen on getting a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera, the Panasonic GH2 will never let you down. Its refined still shooting abilities make it a worthy runner up.

Creative Compact Cameras

If portability and control are what you desire, creative compact cameras are your best bet. Despite not being much bigger than ordinary compact models, these cameras have way more user control. To begin with, their lenses are heavier and bigger, but this only gives them higher optical quality. The majority of these models give you the option to store images in RAW format. Such formats are easier to send to a friend, upload to the web or even print. Unfortunately, these cameras are not the easiest to use. You ought to be ready to sacrifice some of your time perusing through the manual so as to master each setting. This is the only way to ensure you enjoy more functionality than with an ordinary compact camera.

There are not so many creative compact models in the market today. This is because they have slowly become less popular among photographers. However, with lots of dedication from leading manufacturers such as Canon and Panasonic, it won’t take long before you get your dream camera. The small but perfectly designed Panasonic Lumix LX3 is without doubt a great choice here. With unmatched dSLR features like RAW capture, pocket-sized design and full exposure control, it is difficult to stare at a different direction. If you have a little more to spend, the Canon Powershot G11 also offers dSLR-like features and handling. It drops its predecessor’s pixel count from 14.7 mp to 10 mp so as to focus more on quality imaging even under low light.

The Verdict

After going through the most comprehensive digital camera buyers’ guide you have ever come across, you are probably more confused that you started off. However, things can get much easier if everything is summarized in a way you can remember. If you skim through the guide keenly, you will notice that there aren’t many factors you need to weigh. Here are the key things you ought to look at:

  • Expertise: The camera you purchase depends on whether you are a beginner or professional/enthusiast photographer.
  • Image quality: Digital SLR cameras generally guarantee professional quality images.
  • Size: When portability is really critical, a small compact camera will do.
  • Body: Waterproof bodies will be a better choice for an outdoor camera.
  • Additional features: At times, additional features such as an articulating screen and photo editing make all the difference.
  • Cost: Needless to say, you can only purchase a camera that won’t stretch your budget too much.

Lastly, you also need to consider the accessories that complement the camera you purchase. The most common accessory is a memory card. You have to find out the maximum capacity a camera can support, and whether that meets your needs. With such a digital cameras buyers guide, getting the very camera you need shouldn’t take long.

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