Tips from a Professional Photographer - #1: Purchasing a new compact camera.
20th May 2010
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As a professional photographer, friends and relations frequently ask me which camera they should buy.   My first response to this is always "do you really need a new camera?"    Most cameras these days are so advanced that many people do not use 80% of their functionality.   Unless you really know how to get the best out of your current camera then buying a new one is likely to lead to dissapointing results.

If we ignore mobile phone cameras, generally there are two main types of camera on the market today:

    * Compact or "Point and Shoot" cameras - these are designed to be easy to operate and carry around and produce pretty good shots in most conditions through automatic procedures.
    * SLR cameras which are larger, have interchangeable lenses and lots of extra components like external flashes that can be connected to the camera.   These are much harder to operate but can, in knowledgeable hands, produce a higher quality image than is possible from a compact camera.

I'll talk in a later posting about the issues to consider before purchasing your first SLR - this post will concentrate on the more commonly used compact cameras.

If I was choosing a new compact camera today, then these are the points that I would be putting top of my list of considerations:

§         Lens quality: Cheap digital cameras have cheap, plastic lenses made by “no name” companies without a history in the business – a cheap lens will distort light and change colours leading to soft & lifeless pictures.   Generally if you pick a camera manufactured by one of the well known names (Canon, Sony, Nikon, Kodak, Fuji etc) you wont go far wrong.

§         Autofocus ability:  Because of the way cameras work, only a proportion of the area between the camera and the distance will be in focus (or sharp).  Good cameras have intelligent autofocus mechanisms which do their best to make sure that the most important part of the image is sharp.  For example when taking a portrait, the ability of a camera to lock onto someone’s face (particularly if it’s a little dark) and bring it into focus is vital.

§         Shutter Lag:  Cheap cameras often take a second or more from the time you press down on the shutter button to the time that they actually take the picture. That second is often long enough for the critical moment to have passed.  If you are trying to capture a picture of say a bird perched on the feeder in your garden, by the time the camera takes the picture, the bird may very well have taken flight and left you with a lovely picture of an empty bird feeder.

§         Zoom lenses will help you to have the subject fill the frame  – but don’t be fooled by “digital zoom”.  All this does is to take the central area of the picture and enlarge it – this loses quality.  The phrase “Optical Zoom” is the important one to look for.

§         How does the camera work for you?   Where possible, handing the camera that you’re about to buy before you purchase it is very useful.  With a myriad of different options, cameras can be complicated things and finding one where the controls are logical to you, which fits in your hands comfortably and can be carried for extended periods of time is a really important consideration.

 Most cameras are sold with their "Megapixel count"  (the number of "digital dots" that go to make up the image) emblazoned at the top of their sales literature.  This suggests that it's the most important aspect of your potential purchase.   However technology has moved on so far that I feel this should be a minimal consideration only.  For example it is generally recognised that 5 Megapixels is enough to print a picture at A4 sized, so the difference between a 9 and 10 Megapixel is largely academic.

 I would also want to spend a little less on the camera itself to give me a little more money to buy additional batteries and memory cards.   What good is a camera that you cant take pictures with, either because the batteries have run down or there’s no space for additional pictures on the memory card?   Always have plenty of spares and there’s no excuse for running out at the vital moment.

 Keep watching this space and in the weeks and months to come I'll pass on more "tips from a pro" to make sure you get the most out of your photography.

Dan Davies



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