A few of the most common things I hear when posting my pictures or talking about my photography is one of two things. The first is usually along the lines of, wow those pictures are great, you must have a really good camera. The fact is that I started taking pictures with a $60 point and shoot, and my current camera was a used 2 year old discount model that cost me <$300. This ties into the second question I get a lot, which is what camera should I buy if I want to get into photography? If you ask that question to 100 different people you will probably get told 100 different answers. The answer I think is the most useful in the end is to get the camera you will take pictures with. Sure you can get a $5000 camera that weights 12 lbs and is capable of taking any picture you could possibly imagine, but if you don’t know how to use it, if you are scared it will break and don’t take it, or if you think it is too heavy and leave it behind, then what good is it? Buy the camera you will actually use!
That’s great you say, but it doesn’t help me pick out which one I should get from the hundreds of options before me. In order to narrow down what camera you will use the most, and therefore which one you should actually buy, you should ask yourself a few basic questions first. What exactly do you plan one taking pictures of? Do you want something to take with you everywhere or for specific outings? Will you focus on photos or videos? Is this going to be a passing hobby you do once a month or something you want to get out and do every day? And of course the thing on peoples’ minds the most, what is your budget? In order to figure out what camera best suits your needs it is first best to understand what your options are and how they differ.
A camera system is made up of a few important parts. The camera itself is essentially a sensor, an auto-focus module, a viewfinder, and a shutter. These are the things you are paying for when you buy a camera and we will take a look at each one of these briefly, but much more in depth in later posts if you are interested. However when picking your camera I would say the camera itself is not the most important part. Yep you heard that right the most important part of buying a camera for photography is not the camera. The biggest difference between shooting pictures on your cell phone and shooting that award winning once in a lifetime shot is the glass you purchase. You can have the most expensive camera on the market, but if you put a terrible lens on it you will get an ok photo at best. The most important part of buying a camera is to see what lens system you are buying into. Thankfully with our modern consumer society and tough competition every major brand has a full lineup of capable lenses that can build a great system. Canon and Nikon have the most diverse and numerous lenses, with canon having just recently passed the 110 million lenses produced mark. However in recent years Sony and Olympus have really stepped up their game and started making better quality and a wider variety of lenses as well.
Additionally, with the modern capabilities of mass production even the basic kit lenses that come with introductory cameras are high quality and capable of producing excellent images, so don’t feel like you need to go out and buy a $1000 lens right off the bat. It will be more important to learn the basics of photography before investing significant money into a system. I mention all of this as it is something to keep in mind when deciding on a system. If you start buying a camera from Nikon and then buy a few lenses then decide to buy the newest Sony camera, well now all your lenses are useless with your new camera. This is one of the reasons you see such aggressive brand loyalty in photographers. They’ve sometimes spent $10,000+ on lenses for one brand and they will defend that investment with everything they’ve got since switching isn’t really a viable option at that point. If you run across what I call brand Nazi’s don’t pay them much mind, every camera system on the market is capable of producing award winning photographs, it is the person behind the camera that matters the most, not what brand you shoot with.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way we will take a look at cameras themselves. Currently there are three categories of cameras that I would recommend for aspiring photographers. The first and most economic option are large sensor bridge cameras. These cameras, such as the Sony RX10 III offer larger sensors than point and shoot cameras, full manual control and a very large zoom range. These are great for people just starting out as they don’t require the purchase of any lenses; they are a highly capable sensor and are generally smaller than DSLR’s. The downside is that the sensor is smaller than that of a DSLR and thus the image quality is slightly lower and the lens is not interchangeable so it cannot be upgraded or swapped out for more specific purposes. If you are looking for a good all around travel camera without having to invest heavily into lenses then I would look no further.
The second category is mirrorless cameras. These are the modern version of DSLR’s, sporting the same sensor size as a DSLR, but forgoing the mirror/prism used for a viewfinder in favor of an electronic viewfinder that uses the sensor. The advantage of mirrorless cameras is that they are smaller and lighter than your standard DSLR, and can focus more accurately since they focus directly on the sensor instead of a separate auto focus module. Additionally since there is no mirror/prism to get in the way the lenses can sit closer to the sensor itself cutting down on the size of the lenses needed to produce the same field of view. This further cuts down on the size of your system by having a smaller camera as well as smaller lenses. These cameras will be larger than bridge cameras in general but give you full control over what lenses you buy and use. The downside of mirror less camera systems is that they use an electronic viewfinder which reads directly from the sensor. This means that instead of viewing the scene directly you are viewing it as the camera sees it on a small display inside the viewfinder. Modern technology has advanced these screens to be very similar to what we see in real life, but for fast moving scenes or scenes with a large range of light they are still lagging behind. The autofocus system of focusing directly on the camera is also much slower than having a dedicated autofocus module, though technology is slowly closing that gap. Additionally they drain the battery since they have to actively light the viewfinder instead of passively collecting light. However these concerns are minor for the size and weight savings you can achieve. It should be noted that only Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, and Fuji have really invested heavily into these systems with the Sony A7 series, the Olympus micro 4/3’s, the Panasonic Lumix series, and the Fuji X series. Nikon and Canon have promised to develop this technology further but currently they are focused on their lenses and DSLR systems.
The final and most traditional choice is a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. When you think of a “professional” camera this is probably the camera you picture. These cameras have a mirror or prism in front of the sensor to direct light partially to your viewfinder and partially to your autofocus module. You see directly through the viewfinder what you are capturing and the dedicated autofocus module provides fast and accurate lens focusing. When you go to take a picture the mirror/prism flips up out of the way and the light goes directly to the sensor, exposing your picture. Like mirrorless cameras these systems have large sensors of two variants, either APS-C or Full Frame. We won’t go over the details of those for now, but for a starter camera you will want to get an APS-C sensor which is what all introductory models are. Since you have a dedicated AF module and view the scene directly with available light the camera only uses power to focus the lens and take the picture. This means you generally get very long battery life as compared to other systems. It is not uncommon to get 1000+ pictures out of one charge. Since these are the most popular and well established systems they are also the cheapest to get in introductory models. If you buy the previous year’s model it is not uncommon to be able to get the camera with two lenses for under $600.
So which of these systems should you buy? Well if you are just getting into photography and not sure it is something you will do regularly, or if you just want a good all around camera without too much fuss then go for the bridge cameras. They are capable, reliable and easy to use. If you know you like photography and want to get into it more regularly or take your current skills to the next level then go for either a mirrorless or DSLR. DSLR’s are more well established and better for people with larger hands, while mirrorless are good for people who want a more discrete system or something more compact for on the go.
As for specific models I will recommend a few that I know are reliable from each category as well as a link (click on camera name) to a review. In the DSLR category I will recommend two starter cameras, one from Nikon and one from Canon. From Nikon the D7100 is probably the best introductory camera on the market. It offers impressive specs and performance and a reasonable price. If you are looking for something cheaper, the previous model, the D7000 is also a good option. On the canon side of things their T lineup is also great. I personally shoot with a T3i, but the latest model is the T6s which offers some much more impressive specs. Again if you are looking for a cheaper option look for deals on older models such as the T5i.
On the mirror less side there are a number of options, a few of which are the Fuji X-T10 , the Olympus E-M10 II, the Sony A6300, or the Panasonic GX80. All of these are capable with minor differences, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them for a starter camera.
Finally we get to the bridge cameras, which are almost too numerous to count. I have not personally shot with any of these, so I will not give you my uninformed review. I will instead direct you over to tech radar that reviewed many of these cameras and picked out their top 10 for 2016 here: http://www.techradar.com/us/news/photography-video-capture/cameras/best-bridge-camera-1259503.
Well that concludes this rather long post. I hope you are one step closer to picking out the camera of your dreams and going out to take pictures. Just remember, pick the camera you will take with you!
Niagara falls at sunrise. Choosing the correct shutter speed and aperture allowed me to show motion in the water and have the whole image in focus at once.
Before going into long discussions of the physics of photography or describing the technical aspects of some of my best pictures or telling you how to get the best picture possible it is important to understand the basics of photography. 95% of people taking pictures do so with their camera on auto mode, letting the camera decide what kind of picture to take. If you are just trying to get snapshots of memories then this works rather well. The camera has a very intelligent system for picking settings and will get you a decent picture 90% of the time. However the best you will most likely do is snapshots, whether you have a cell phone camera or $10,000 in equipment the result will be the same. In order to understand how to take your pictures from good to great to amazing first we need to get that camera off of auto mode and learn what all those buttons and dials actually do!
The Holy Camera Trinity
Taking a picture comes down to three important aspects in a technical sense. Those three parameters are shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. We will take each of these separately first and then talk about how they interact with each other to give you a final picture. This technical aspect of photography is often overlooked when you have a good eye and a highly trained artistic look on the world, but in order to take a picture from concept to reality you need to know how to master the technical as well as the artistic side of photography.
This is the parameter people are most familiar with and also where we will start. The shutter speed is how long the camera sensor is exposed to the light. This can vary from 1/4000th of a second to up to hour long exposures. The faster the shutter the less light gets in and the more “frozen” the scene appears. For faster shutter speeds of about 1/100 s and faster you will essentially freeze the scene. This will vary depend on how fast the thing you are trying to photograph is moving. Generally we use fast shutters to stop the motion in a photograph and make everything appear sharp and in focus. If you want to convey a sense of motion in the picture you can use a slower shutter speed to give a motion blur effect. Longer exposures/shutter speeds are needed when there is not enough light or you want to convey motion in a slow moving object. Things like the Milky Way are very dim and require longer shutter speeds to capture. The picture below was taken in Arches National Park in Utah.
This area is one of the darkest in the world, letting you see an unimaginable amount of stars. Since the sky and surrounding area is so dark a long shutter speed only collects the light of the stars, revealing them to the camera. A 30 second exposure allowed me to capture the stars but avoid any motion blur. Since the earth is rotating, motion blur is still a consideration when photographing the stars since the earth is moving relative to the stars. After about 30 seconds the stars would start to trail due to the earth’s rotation. If you want to try having semi-control over your camera's shutter speed try the T or Tv mode which allows you to set the shutter speed and let the camera adjust the other settings automatically for the correct exposure.
The aperture setting provides two distinct yet equally important aspects to your photograph. The aperture itself is the opening at the back of your lens that lets the light into the camera itself. This opening can be opened or closed down to let in more or less light. Whenever you buy a camera lens it will come with an aperture rating. For instance most Kit lenses that come with the camera are labeled as 18-55 f/3.5-5.6. The second part after the f/ is where we will focus now. In order to understand aperture it is important to know what that f/ means. This designation is called the f-number of the lens. The f-number of a lens is determined by the focal length of a lens divided by the diameter of the aperture opening. For instance a 50 mm lens with a maximum aperture opening of 27.78 mm would be f/1.8. A 50 mm lens with an opening of 17.85 mm would be an f/2.8 lens. As you can see the smaller the f-number the BIGGER the opening, and therefore the MORE light the lens can collect. When buying lenses, the lens will be labeled with the biggest the aperture can go, not the smallest. All lenses can be “stopped down” where the size of the aperture is decreased for the picture. Generally any lens can go down to f/22 which indicates a very small opening for the light.
You may be wondering, why would you want to close the aperture to a smaller size? There are two reasons to do this. The first brings us back to shutter speed. Say we want a slow shutter speed to capture some motion blur on the thing we are photographing. If we keep the aperture the same but just change the shutter speed then a longer exposure means that more light goes to the camera and thus the picture is brighter. In order to keep the same brightness level for a longer exposure we must decrease the size of the aperture in order to let less light into the camera. The other reason relates to Depth of Field (DoF), which is the amount of the picture that is in focus. We will talk about the specifics and physics of depth of field in a later post, but for now we will keep is simple. The smaller the aperture opening the more of the picture will be in focus. If we are photographing a sweeping landscape where we want everything from the close blades of grass to the furthest reaching mountains to be in focus then we would want a small aperture such as f/11 or more to get everything into focus at once.
Instead if we want to have something really stand out in a picture and be separated from the background then we will want to use a really big aperture such as f/2.8 or wider. When you see “professional” pictures where the people really POP and the background is a smooth blur this is because the person taking the picture used a wide open aperture setting of f/2.8 or larger. Small compact cameras such as cell phone cameras have a very small lens which does not open very wide, meaning you cannot get the large aperture sizes of a DSLR. Aperture is a very powerful tool in creating the picture you want, and one you should experiment with extensively to understand how it works. Most cameras these days have a setting called Av or A which stands for Aperture Priority mode. If you learn to use one mode outside of auto this should be it. What this mode does is allows you to set the aperture to a size of your choosing and then the camera changes all the other settings to get you the correct exposure. This allows you to control the DoF of the image and take either stunning landscapes or professional looking portraits. This is the setting I personally use for probably 60-70% of my pictures as it provides powerful control while still letting the camera do most of the thinking.
Just remember a BIG number is a SMALL opening and a SMALL number is a BIG opening!
The final component of the trinity is the ISO. We can have a lot of technical discussions on ISO and someday I hope we will, but for today we will stick the just the necessary parts. The ISO is the gain the camera uses to amplify the signal. Generally the base ISO is 100 where very little gain is used. As the ISO is increased the signal is amplified more and more. This is good for low light situations where you need a fast shutter speed but don’t have a lot of light to work with. Once you open up the aperture as wide as it can go, and if you want to, say, photograph a person in a dimly lit room you need a shutter speed fast enough to freeze their expression. However if the room is too dark you may be looking at shutter speeds of up to 1 second, which is much too long to both hold your hands steady as well as for the person to not move. The only option left at this point is to increase the ISO. At higher ISO you need less light for the same exposure meaning you can reach more reasonable shutter speeds, however at the trade off of more noise in your image. You are not only amplifying the light entering the camera but also the noise from various sources. This noise is what gives pictures a grainy look where the details are washed out and there are splotches of color throughout the image. In general the larger the camera sensor the better it handles noise since you are collecting more light overall and can therefore amplify it better. This is why trying to take a picture in a dimly lit bar with a cell phone usually doesn’t work very well, while a person with a DSLR might be able to get the picture with ease. In most situations I leave my ISO setting on automatic and let the camera determine what ISO I need for the shot. We will look at the interplay of these settings next.
Looking at the background you can see the grainy appearance of the picture. This shot was taken at ISO 3200 which was too high for my camera, washing out the details and giving a noisy picture. However the only way to get this picture was to increase the ISO since my aperture was fully open and I couldn't shoot at a slower shutter speed. It is better to have a slightly grainy picture then no picture at all!
Bringing the Trinity Together
Now that we’ve done a basic overview of these three important settings it is helpful to know how they interact. For this we will introduce stops of light. Each “stop” indicates a doubling or halving of the amount of light recorded by the camera. The goal of the cameras metering system is to have a well balanced where things aren’t too dark or too light. The easiest of these to understand is the shutter speed. Halving the shutter speed (say 1/100s to 1/200s or 10s to 5s) halves the amount of light and thus is a 1 stop decrease in the amount of light. This would make the picture 1 stop darker and thus underexposed. Doubling the shutter speed (2s to 4s) doubles the amount of light and thus increases the exposure by 1 stop, or makes it 1 stop overexposed. In order to compensate for this change and to make the picture the correct exposure you or the camera can change either the aperture or the ISO to compensate. ISO works in a similar way; where doubling or halving the ISO changes the stops by 1. Typical ISO values are 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, and 12800 and correspond to one stop changes. Finally you can open or close the aperture more to change the stops of light. Since these are circles but are measured using diameters the aperture changes are a little more complicated. We will start with a fully open aperture of the biggest size commonly available of f/1.4. From there full stop changes are f/1.4, f/2.0, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22.
We can use this information to find “equivalent” settings where we get the same exposure but vastly different pictures. Let’s start with a picture where the cameras metering system tells us that f/1.4 aperture, shutter speed of 1/250 and an ISO of 100 gives us the correct exposure. This will give a very shallow DoF, with no noise and very frozen scene. We can get the same exposure by using f/11 (+6 stops), shutter speed of 1/4s and ISO 100. Now we have the same exposure but with a lot of DoF and a very slow shutter speed. At this speed we would need a tripod as you cannot hold a camera steady at 1/4s without having a blurry picture. You can do a whole lot of in between settings that aren’t as extreme such as f/5.6, 1/60 and ISO 400 which is an average mix of DOF, shutter speed and ISO (these are probably the settings your camera would choose on Auto). This is where the beauty of A or Av mode comes in. You can set your aperture as you please then the camera will adjust the shutter speed and ISO automatically to keep the right exposure. In general the camera will slow down the shutter speed until it reaches ~1/focal length and then increase the ISO. The reason for this is that most people can hand hold the camera down to 1/focal length without causing blurry pictures. For instance a 100 mm lens can be hand held down to 1/100s but will need a tripod for slower shutter speeds. This is just a rough rule and your mileage will vary but it generally hold true.
Hopefully this gave you a pretty good idea of how your camera settings work together and how to start thinking about them when taking pictures. I encourage you to get your camera off of auto mode and experiment with the other modes to give you control over the settings. You will find that it may be hard to keep track of your settings at first, but as you experiment and get used to it you will quickly see an improvement in your pictures and getting the look you want.