Here is a step-wise guide to narrowing your search for an ideal camera. This article deals with the general types of cameras available in the market with a description of their capabilities. The best fit for you depends on your aspirations as a photographer.
What category of photographer are you?
You like to take pictures in family events, while on a holiday or while visiting a business site. I would call you the casual documenter. Your aim is to keep a record of what is happening in your life and to reflect on it at some point later.
You are excited by all the beautiful pictures on the web and in the magazines, you want to try your hand at photography. You don't know if you have long term interests in doing it seriously but you would like to start well. You are a photo enthusiast.
You have been doing a bit of photography and are quiet serious about it. There is a place in your heart for photography but you are also sure its not going to be you career. You are an amateur photographer.
You are very very serious about photography and would like to make it a career, or at least hoping a part of your earnings will come from photography. You are an aspiring professional photographer. This article is 'not' meant for you. You should know your basics and be able to choose your equipment without this guidance
Which camera will suit your needs?
If you are a casual documenter you can get through life with any kind of point and shoot camera. They are simple to use and handy to carry around.
If you are a photo enthusiast you would prefer a high end point and shoot with some manual controls or a starting level SLR camera (Single Lens Reflex).
If you are an amateur photographer you will definitely need an SLR. They are a bit expensive but will give you the quality and versatility you need to pursue your dreams. You will be limited and frustrated by point and shoot cameras.
Point and Shoot vs SLRs (Single Lens Reflex cameras)
The digital sensor or chip is tiny in point and shoot cameras. For the same specified resolution an SLR will have a larger and better sensor that produces higher quality images compared to a compact camera. For example; if you compare the pictures from a 10-megapixel point and shoot and a 10 megapixel DSLR, the DSLR image will be vastly superior.
Point and shoots come with fixed zoom lenses that cannot be interchanged. The lenses for DSLR' s can be removed and interchanged with other lenses. This adds greater versatility to the system. The optical quality of the DSLR lenses is also superior to that of the point and Shoots
There is a small time lag between pressing the trigger and the picture being taken in point and shoot cameras. This can be irritating when you are trying to capture a precise moment. The picture is always of what happened a few milliseconds later from when you clicked. This lag is negligible in DSLRs
Mega pixel wars
The loudest line in any camera advertisement is the megapixel rating of the camera. As far as a sales-pitch goes, megapixel is used as the bench mark for better quality. However , megapixel ratings don't always directly translate into higher quality. It's a bit more complicated!
Briefly explained, one megapixel is one million pixels. Each pixel corresponds to one photo-sites (light sensitive spot) on the camera sensor. A 10 megapixel camera will have 10 million photo-sites on the sensor and will produce an image with 10 million pixels.
In terms of resolution, i.e. size of the image, higher the megapixel the better it is. Higher resolution means that one can make larger prints with the image file.
But in most cameras the size of the sensor remains the same but more and more pixels are packed into it to show an advancemet. This means the size of the photo-sites becomes smaller and smaller as more of them have to be packed into the same area. This will definitely compromise the quality of the image even though the resolution gets higher.
Point and shoot cameras
Zoom capability - for point and shoot cameras
When buying a point and shoot, one of the important characters to look for is the zoom capability of the lens. There are two parameters that are advertised. Optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom is the real zoom capacity of the lens. The lens changes in focal length from wide angle to telephoto to produce an images of different magnification. The concept of digital zoom is a bit of a deception. The truth is that once the tele-end of the optical zoom is reached , the camera starts to zoom in on the image formed on the sensor. It is very similar to zooming into an image in the computer .This means that as you digitally zoom-in the quality of the image starts to become bad and at some point, unusable.
The optical zoom capacity of the camera is written this way 3x, 10x, 20x. It means that the ratio of the wide to tele is 3 times or 10 times or 20 times. Higher the number higher the zoom capacity. Don't bother with the digital zoom rating, it is a useless parameter.
manual mode - For point and shoot cameras
A point and shoot camera which offers manual control options is useful (this means that you can change the settings if you want to. The camera is not fully automatic). This gives you more control over the image you are shooting. Completely automatic cameras are frustrating if you want to try something creative. Ideally exposure, ISO and white balance should be manually controllable. These are the critical parameters that make a picture.
Sensor size - Full Frame vs Crop Frame SLRs
SLRs can be categorized into two based on their sensor sizes. The full Frame cameras have a sensor size that has the same dimensions as a film negative (24mm x 36mm). Full frame cameras are the Pro cameras which produce stunning results. they are also on the expensive side.
Crop frame cameras have sensors that are smaller than the full frame cameras. They are usually smaller by a factor of 1.5 or 1.6 depending on the manufacturer. Crop frame cameras are less expensive and even though they might not be able to produce the same quality images as full frame cameras, they are still excellent.
what lenses ? for SLRs
If you have decided to buy an SLR the next step is to decide what lens to buy. Most SLRs come with a standard zooms lens as a part of the package. In terms of their coverage these standard lenses are very similar to that of point and shoot cameras. Standard zoom lenses are good to start off when learning photography , but you will soon find them very limiting. They are neither wide enough to cover a beautiful panaroma nor long enough to get nice closeup shots. If you are serious about getting good pictures then you should consider getting other lenses as well.
wide angle zooms
The standard zooms that come with camera are usually in the range of 28mm - 70mm on full frame cameras (or 18mm-55mm on crop frame cameras). A good wide angle supplement would be a 16mm to 35mm (10mm to 20mm on crop frame) . The wider the lens, the more expensive it gets.
If you are into nature photography or portraits you might want to consider a telephoto zoom. 80 -200mm or 75-300mm are standard combinations . Some versions of these lenses are very affordable.