Many of you may be thinking about buying digital cameras this holiday season, so I thought I’d share some information about the cameras that I’ve owned, as well as some tips for purchasing cameras for yourself or someone else.
My Digital Cameras
(If you don’t have the time to read about my own digital cameras, you can just skip to the buying tips…)
This was my first digital camera. I didn’t do any research before buying it, I just walked into the store and looked at cameras and picked one that was affordable and cool looking. I owned it from from 10/21/2001 through 10/24/2003. It traveled with us on our honeymoon as well as our trip to San Francisco. It met an untimely demise on said trip to San Francisco after I left it on an airplane on our way home. Luckily, I had already offloaded all of the photos from the trip onto my laptop (which I did not lose).
The E775 was very compact and lightweight, making it very easy to tote around to various events and locales. The screen was tiny, slow to respond, and very grainy, so I often couldn’t tell how good a photo was going to be until I offloaded to the computer. The lens was also tiny, and was only 2.1 megapixels, so it didn’t produce the highest quality images. However, the images generally came out fairly sharp and in focus, and colors were usually vibrant. If I had done a little research when I purchased it, I could probably have gotten a better camera. All in all, however, it was a decent first camera.
The A70 was purchased to replace my lost Nikon E775. I owned it from 11/15/2003 – 03/12/2005, only selling it after I decided to upgrade to a more powerful camera. It traveled with us on trips to Boston and Martha’s Vineyard, among other places. This was the first camera where I had done any research prior to purchasing, and I’m glad that I did. I used DPReview.com, an excellent site with thorough reviews of all types of digital cameras. The A70 received a “Highly Recommended” rating from DPReview, which is their highest honor. It produced very sharp photos, had excellent vivid color reproduction, and an astonishing array of manual controls, including shutter and apterture priority, as well as full manual exposure mode. It had fairly quick startup and shutdown times, and also had a fairly quick shutter response time. Battery life was excellent, thanks to the fact that it used four AA batteries. Downsides included a fairly limited zoom lens, small image sensor, fairly low megapixel rating, little control over depth of field, and an insidious defect which required me to send it back to Canon for repair (covered free under the warranty, thankfully).
I ended up selling the camera to my brother-in-law Corey, who I believe is still using it today. I upgraded it to…
The FZ20 was the first “prosumer” level camera that I purchased. I owned it from 03/12/2005 until 08/26/2007. I was looking for something with a bit more power and flexibility than the A70 could give me; something with a bigger zoom, higher image quality, and more creative control of my images. The FZ20 received a “Highly Recommended” rating from DPReview.com. Notable features included a 12x optical zoom with image stabilization, 5 megapixel image sensor, high-quality Leica optics, very fast autofocus, very good depth of field, more powerful built-in flash, and a more comfortable “professional” style grip. The FZ20 proved to be a formidable and productive camera, traveling with us everywhere from Russia to Montreal to Seattle, as well as faithfully recording images from Catherine’s first day of life.
One of the FZ20’s major downsides was an extremely high noise level at ISO sensitivities of anything greater than 100. I knew this going in to the purchase, thanks to reading DPReview, but I felt that it would be worth the drawback to get the other features. The FZ20 was able to compensate somewhat by having image stabilization, which allowed me to get clearer shots at speeds where I had a low shutter speed and a low ISO setting.
The other downside was that the camera was fairly bulky, so it wasn’t the type of thing I’d toss in my pocket when I was just walking about. That made photography a bit more intentional and a bit less spontaneous, and I’m sure there were some moments that I missed due to the fact that I couldn’t lug it with me everywhere.
I eventually upgraded to a Digital SLR, and sold the FZ20 to my friend Bethany. I hope that she’s using it to get some good photos!
We bought the A530 on 04/14/2006, and are still using it today. We bought it as a second camera that was a bit more portable, less expensive, and easier to use than the FZ20. Rebecca uses it as her camera for day-to-day photos of Catherine and anything else that’s going on in her life. As such, it’s traveled with Rebecca and Catherine on their various hikes and other trips. It offers a fairly basic set of features, albeit with some useful things like shutter, aperture, and manual modes, and ISO control. Basically, it was the cheapest compact camera that Canon had to offer, but it works remarkably well for capturing those everyday moments.
The D80 is my current photographic pride and joy. I’ve owned it since the end of August this year. It is a Digital SLR, which makes it different from all of the previous cameras I’ve owned in many important ways: it responds much more quickly when I need to take a photo, it supports a series of interchangeable lenses for additional flexibility, and it has a crystal-clear viewfinder which actually looks directly through the lens, as opposed to simply being a window on top of the camera. It also supports the RAW image format, which allows 100% of the information from the camera’s sensor to be captured and then processed on the computer, almost as though you were digitally “developing” the photo yourself. It has a 10 megapixel sensor, to provide for extremely high resolution (and large sized) prints, and came with a 18-135mm zoom lens, which would be considered a 7.5x zoom on compact cameras. It really feels and acts like a high-caliber tool for taking photos, from the responsiveness of the shutter to the heft and configuration of the camera in your hand, to cool features like control over Auto ISO (most cameras either let you pick one ISO setting, or have a camera-controlled Auto ISO – the D80 lets the user specify how Auto ISO should work, in terms of the maximum ISO to be used and the minimum shutter speed desired). Having a large sensor and a large lens, the D80 is able to achieve incredible depth of field. It is also able to take photos at high ISO settings with very little noise, making it very usable in low-light situations.
One big drawback is its size – it’s very heavy, and definitely not pocketable. So it generally doesn’t come with me on trips to the store. Also, since it doesn’t have image stabilization built-in, I would need to buy an expensive “VR” (vibration reduction) lens from Nikon to take better hand-held shots with slower shutter speeds. On the whole, though, I find that it allows me to take excellent photos. It has many features which I’ve only begun to explore, and I hope to expand my knowledge of its capabilities in the years to come.
So, you want to buy a digital camera of your own? Here are my tips:
- Do research at Digital Photography Review. They have very good, in-depth reviews. I’d focus mainly on the full-length editorial reviews by Phil Askey and the other staff members. There are also reader-provided reviews, but they tend to be fairly short and not terribly professional.
- Go to a camera store and actually try out a camera before you buy it. You can read all the reviews you want, but ultimately if you buy a camera and it doesn’t feel good in your hands or look the way you expected it to, you’ll be disappointed. When trying out a camera in-store, be sure to check these things:
- Screen quality: Does the LCD screen show a sharp, clear, colorful image? Is it large enough to view details? Can it zoom in to give you a closer look at images you’ve taken? Is it bright enough to be viewable under any condition? It’s hard to know if you’ve taken a good photo if your screen isn’t very good.
- Weight and Size: If the camera is too heavy or too bulky, you’re unlikely to want to carry it around, and won’t capture as many moments.
- Handling: If the camera is difficult to hold securely, you might not be able to get steady shots. If the grip is uncomfortable, you might not want to hold it for long periods of time.
- Response time: How long does it take for the camera to go from “off” to “on and ready to take a photo”? How long does it take between the camera taking one photo and the camera being ready to take another photo? Does the viewfinder or LCD refresh instantaneously as you move the camera around, or is there a “lag” between what you see on screen and what you see with your eyes? These are important if you want to capture fast moving action, like kids, sports, and pets. They are also important factors for capturing unexpected or spontaneous moments.
- Durability: Does the camera seem to be well-built, or is it built with cheaper, lightweight plastics? This is important if you’re going to be bringing it with you everywhere.
- Make sure you research this camera’s battery life. Most cameras either take standard AA batteries or their own brand of proprietary batteries, usually of the rechargeable Lithium-Ion type. Some cameras are known to be incredible battery hogs. DPReview.com includes battery life testing in its full reviews, so check that out before you buy. There’s nothing worse than picking up your camera and discovering that the batteries are dead, or running out of batteries during an important event. Either way, it’s a good idea to buy an extra set of batteries for your camera.
- Consider the features that are important to you. Some useful features include:
- Face-detection. This feature in many new cameras allows the camera to figure out if there are faces in your photo. This will then allow the camera to ensure that the faces are properly exposed and in focus, particularly the eyes.
- Image stabilization. This feature goes by various names depending on the brand, including Image Stabilization (“IS”), Vibration Reduction (“VR”), Optical Image Stabilization (“OIS”), or Anti-Shake. This feature detects movement in the camera, and adjusts the lenses or mirrors accordingly in order to minimize blur. This can allow you to take photos with slower shutter speeds, which is useful when there isn’t as much light in a given situation, or when you want to use a slow shutter speed for artistic effect. Without image stabilization, you’d need to use a very high ISO (which can introduce noise into the image) or else use a tripod to avoid blur.
- Once you’ve decided on a camera, shop around to find the best price. Use sites like Pricegrabber to compare prices for an item at multiple stores. Pricegrabber includes stores like Circuit City and Best Buy, which have local outlets.
You can always feel free to contact me if you have any questions about digital cameras. If you live in the Danvers area, I’d even be up for taking a trip to the camera store with you to help make a decision, or just getting together to talk about cameras.