Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Time for a New Camera?

In the last installment of this short series we'll take a look at rangefinder, digital SLR and mirrorless cameras.

The appearance and layout of a rangefinder camera is one  familiar to folks who grew up around film cameras in the 50s, 60s and 70s.  They were the cameras most people bought as their 'all-rounder'.  They were very good solid cameras that had relatively few moving parts.  They were and still are generally a fixed lens camera at a fixed focal length.  They are discrete in size and quiet in operation.  Some of the best cameras in the world, film or digital, are rangefinders; the Leica M9 is such a camera.   They don't offer a whole lot of flexibility but the rangefinder has many unique qualities and therefore their popularity with serious photographers as held fast.  They are bigger than a point and shoot camera and often have excellent optics and sensors.  I would not suggest a rangefinder as an only camera, but definitely something to have for anyone serious about photography.

In the late 70s there was a surge in the popularity of the Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera.  Prior to this these cameras were pretty much in the hands of professional photographers only.  They were bigger than a rangefinder and they were costly.  The characteristic' bump' atop an SLR houses a prism; when you look through the view finder you're in effect looking out through the lens as the view is reflected off of a mirror placed at an angle in front of the film or sensor  When the shutter is activated the mirror swings up, the shutter opens, the image is made, the shutter closes and the mirror returns to it's at rest position.  A lot of mechanical action - and noise.

When the digital age of photography came along the dSLR was a little slow out of the gate.  Attaining the image quality to which film SLR owners were accustomed was a problem; making a sensor the size of a 35mm negative was an incredible challenge and coming up with an arrangement that enabled multiple images to be made in rapid succession was a huge obstacle - particularly since it had to be done so as to deliver a camera that people could afford to buy.  So the cropped sensor dSLR was born.  These cameras had sensors comparitive in size to the best point and shoot cameras but smaller than a 35mm negative; hence the term 'cropped sensor'.  They looked like a traditional film SLR but with the LCD screen on the back and a sensor instead of film.  The cameras cost more than the smaller point and shoot cameras but offered lens interchangeability and flash accessories.

Digital SLR's are often categorized as either consumer, prosumer or professional grade .  In the consumer category the camera will have a cropped sensor, it will be fairly light in weight and will often be sold with an entry level kit lens that you can accept as is or maybe take an upgrade.  Sometimes they are offered with a pair of lenses to get you started.  Make no mistake, these are superb cameras in every way.  They will focus quickly, offer some auto settings that are useful and take excellent photos.  They shoot both RAW and JPEG format images and there's usually software in the box that allows your to do some editing of both file types.

A prosumer camera will have a larger sensor, it will be larger and heavier and likely come with better quality kit lens.  These cameras take superb images that withstand enlarging to a good size.  You'll find an AUTO setting that lets you defer the thinking to the camera.

At the top of the range will be the pro camera; these are big, heavy monsters that are built to be used all day every day in whatever demanding circumstance you can imagine.  They are highly robust, accommodate every accessory there is and shoot at lightening fast speeds.  The have 'full frame' sensors that are roughly the size of a 35mm negative.  They are superb and the cost reflects it.  These cameras aren't offered with a lens; the expectation being that you already have one.  Or twenty.  And there's no AUTO setting on these bad boys, the assumption being that you're earning a living with the camera and you know what you're doing.

Before your buy a dSLR there is one very important thing to know - something I wish I had not had to learn the hard way.  For the cropped sensor cameras, manufacturers came up with a line of lenses that work only on their cropped sensor cameras.  These lenses will not work on a camera with a fll size sensor.  If you have acquired a few of these lenses for your trusty consumer grade dSLR and them decide to upgrade the camera you will be faced with changing the lenses too.  So if your think you'll be looking at a camera upgrade sometime in the future make sure the lenses you buy will work on the larger cameras.  It's also worth noting that the angle of view from a lens is different as the sensor size changes.  Longer focal length lenses seem to have more 'reach' on a cropped sensor camera and wide angle lenses seem not so wide.   This is an illusion of course as the lens characteristics don't change.  A larger sensor is  rather like opening the curtains wider; from the same distance back from the window you get more of a view.

On some camera store websites mirrorless cameras are grouped with the SLR's.  This is because they offer many of the same features without the prism that characterizes the SLR and dSLR.  These cameras offer high quality sensors, the ability to swap lenses and all in a reasonably compact camera.  They're a pretty cool option and may be just the answer to photographers who want take all their toys on a vacation and not have a big camera bag to pack around.

So how do you decide what camera to buy?  Go and see what's available at a good camera store.  Ask your friends.  Decide how you'll use it and how much you want to spend.  Know what features you want and those that don't care about.   And when you make your purchase do two things - start using it right away and read the manual.   Happy shooting!

Today's photo made with the iPhone 4 using the Hipstamatic app.

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