A camera primer

I’m often asked about what’s best brand of camera to get. I know a lot of people are brand conscious but the truth is that they all work just fine, despite what the camera companies may say. What’s more important is the type of camera and how it suits your needs.

The majority of people use a smartphone to take their photos and that’s fine. The main advantage is that they’re convenient. They’re small, lightweight and nearly all of us have our phones with us nearly all the time. And you can’t beat a cell phone for connectivity. One can post a picture to social media in mere seconds after it was taken.

Early cell phone cameras were rudimentary and the resulting pictures were, at best, passable. Today’s phones have made great strides in improving sharpness and image quality. However, a disadvantage is their small sensor size. While resolutions have increased, sometimes matching some “bigger” cameras (which is a good thing), the sensors remain small. Most phone sensors are in the neighborhood of 6.17mm x 4.55 mm (there are some that are bigger, but not by much). Packing in a large amount of pixels onto a small sensor can cause problems with image noise especially at low light. It’s better for picture quality to have a larger sensor.

The next step up is the point-and-shoot or compact digital camera. Although some cheaper cameras have sensors that are not much bigger than a phone camera, most have larger ones, which is the one of two advantages of a point-and-shoot camera. The other edge that they have is an optical zoom. Most phone cameras have fixed lenses and don’t zoom. If they do, it’s a digital zoom, which may sound impressive but all it does is crop out a smaller portion of an already small sensor, adversely affecting resolution. Point-and-shoots have lenses that mechanically zoom in and out to change the angle of view without sacrificing image quality.

In general, they’re bigger and bulkier than smartphones and they can’t match the phones’ connectivity (though a few haves started including Wi-Fi capability). Compact cameras have a slightly greater degree of control than the phone camera with more options available in their menus. However, if you think that there’s not much of an improvement over a cell phone camera, you’re not the only one. Over the last few years, sales of compact digital cameras have dropped precipitously in favor of the smartphone.

Both smartphone and compact cameras are good for those who don’t want to be burdened with a large bulky camera to tote around. While they have limitations, they can still make some pretty good pictures with some practice and thought.

The top of the heap of digital camera is the DSLR camera. I usually recommend a one to those who want to go beyond causal picture taking and learn more about photography. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. Their designs are based on the film Single Lens Reflex cameras, which have two main characteristics: They have interchangeable lenses and pentaprisms and mirrors (the bulge at the top of the camera) to allow the user to view through the lens.

The DSLR just trades out most the mechanical film bits for electronic digital ones. The top of the line is the full-frame camera, which has a sensor the same size as a frame of 35mm film (36mm x 24mm). Generally, the larger sensor means a bulkier and more expensive the camera.

Most DSLR cameras sold have what’s known as an APS-C sensor, which is about ½ the size of a full frame one (23.6mm x 15.6mm). The overall sizes of these cameras are more manageable for most people than a full-frame one.

The newest format for a DSLR is the Micro Four Thirds (17.5mm x 13mm), which is about ½ as big as the APS-C sensor. While smaller yet than the full-frame and APS cameras they’re still bigger than the compact cameras.

If someone wants to move up from a smartphone or compact camera but doesn’t want the bulk of a DSLR then a relatively new type of camera may be of use. Mirrorless cameras, as their name indicates, forgo the mirror of a DSLR and project their images directly onto he sensor, which are viewed on a monitor on the back of the camera. They have interchangeable lenses like a DSLR but their size, weight and handling are much like a point-and-shoot camera. Sensor sizes run the gamut from compact to full frame.

When I’m asked by people looking to upgrade their camera on what kind they should get, my first questions to them are “what kind of camera do they have now” and “what do they use it for.” Then I’ll ask if they plan to change how and what they shoot with that new camera. If they plan to expand their picture taking abilities, a new camera may be in order. But if they plan just to take photos the way they did with their current camera and things are going fine with that, well, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? However, if their device isn’t keeping up with what they want to do or if they want to change how they approach photography, then a new camera may the right choice for them.

Contact photographer Clifford Oto at (209) 546-8263 or coto@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/otoblog.

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