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Choosing a camera

From: Shooting on the Road, from Gear to Workflow

Video: Choosing a camera

Different shooting expeditions might require different types of cameras and you may own more than one type of camera, or you may be wondering if the camera you have is right for the particular type of shoot that you are going to go on. In this movie we're not going to talk about all of the particulars of how you choose a camera. That's a very complex discussion. Instead, I am just going to give you a few questions that you may want to answer when you are thinking about the trip you are going to go on and what might serve you best photographically. There are a lot of different types of cameras, and different types of cameras have different strengths and are more appropriate to different kinds of shoots.

Choosing a camera

Different shooting expeditions might require different types of cameras and you may own more than one type of camera, or you may be wondering if the camera you have is right for the particular type of shoot that you are going to go on. In this movie we're not going to talk about all of the particulars of how you choose a camera. That's a very complex discussion. Instead, I am just going to give you a few questions that you may want to answer when you are thinking about the trip you are going to go on and what might serve you best photographically. There are a lot of different types of cameras, and different types of cameras have different strengths and are more appropriate to different kinds of shoots.

Depending on the trip you are going on, you may find that one type of camera is better than another. Now I am not saying that at the beginning of your excursion you need to go out and buy a new camera, but you may already own more than one camera and are wondering which one to take. Or you may be thinking, this camera I've got didn't work well on my last trip. I wonder if it's right for this next one. There are some kind of high-level questions you can ask yourself about what's going to serve you well on a particular trip. We are not going to get into all the details of the best way to choose a camera. That's a huge discussion. But by asking a few simple questions, you can determine if the camera you have is the right one for your next trip, or if you're trying to choose between a few different cameras, which one might work best.

First and foremost, how much are you willing to carry? Different sized cameras take up more space, weigh more. If you know you are going to be on foot a lot, if you know you've got to carry a bunch of other stuff, you might want to go with a smaller camera. However, against that, you will be constantly balancing image quality. Unfortunately it's still true that in almost every case, the bigger the camera, the better the image quality. So if you are planning on coming back and, say, blowing your images up really large, or you know that you really, really need the finest level of quality you can get, then that may inform your decision and may lead you to understand that you simply have to carry a bigger, heavier camera.

There are other things to consider. Do you need any special capabilities. Do you know, for example, that you absolutely want to be shooting in raw format. Do you need to be able to work with particular types of lenses? Maybe you're going into a situation, say, on a safari, or going to shoot a sporting event where you know you're going to want a really lens. That might require you to take a camera with interchangeable lenses with a good lens selection. Or maybe you're thinking, I am going somewhere where it's going to be difficult to get to the locations where I want to shoot, so portability is paramount, so you are going to go with a smaller camera.

These are the types of decisions you are going to be checking and balancing. And it's probably going to come down to one of about four different categories of camera that we're looking at here. First of all, the full-frame SLR. This is a Canon5D. It has a full frame sensor, meaning it's a sensor that's the size of a piece of 35 mm film. It's a large camera and a lot of the lenses that come for it are also very large. When you are considering your SLR, remember you've got to take lenses with it and those add bulk and weight to your camera bag. The great thing about the full-frame SLR is I can get a really shallow depth of field out of it, and I can get really low noise out of it.

So, if you're used to shooting with really shallow depth of field, if you are used to shooting in low light and you're already accustomed to this level of performance, it can be a little bit difficult to give it up. That's one of the things about this decision is you've got to already know the capability of your camera, to be able to intelligently compare it to other options. Down from the full-frame SLR, I have the cropped sensor SLR. This means it has a sensor that's smaller than a piece of 35 mm film. The advantage of a cropped-sensor camera is that it's just physically smaller and lighter and if I buy lenses designed specifically for the cropped sensor, those will also be smaller and lighter.

I can easily chuck a couple of pounds from my camera bag by going down from a full-frame sensor to a cropped-frame sensor. There's a new category of camera. That's the--it doesn't really have a name. I'm not really sure what to call this. There are a lot of different variations of this idea. This is a micro four-thirds camera. That's not a brand, but this particular camera is a Panasonic. Micro four thirds is a standard that has been agreed upon by a consortium of companies, including Panasonic, Olympus, and some others. What's nice about this camera is it's just physically small, much smaller than an SLR, but it still has interchangeable lenses.

Now if I look inside the camera into what should be the mirror chamber, I can see that there's no mirror here. That's because this camera does not have an actual optical viewfinder; it doesn't actually need a mirror. Instead I just have to use the LCD screen on the back. By eliminating the mirror, I can get the lens closer to the sensor, and that's partly what makes it possible to make this camera smaller. So the big advantage here is less weight, smaller size, still get my interchangeable lenses, and I can get very good image quality. The downside is I don't have an optical viewfinder.

I have to just use the LCD screen, and personally I really don't like shooting that way. And I do take an image-quality hit. It's a very small sensor compared to an SLR, and at the moment, I just can't get lenses that are as good as what I can get with my higher-end SLR lenses. There are other options to the micro four-thirds system. Fuji has a system. Nikon has a system. As I said, there's no real name for this category yet. Some people are calling these compact interchangeable lens cameras; others are calling them mirrorless cameras.

But they're worth considering if you really need to get your weight down and you still want lens flexibility. Finally, there are point-and-shoot cameras and you may think, well, there's no way I'd use that point-and-shoot camera seriously; that's just kind of a toy thing isn't it? And it--that would have been true a few years ago, but these days there are some very, very good point-and-shoot cameras, point-and- shoot cameras that can shoot in raw format that have extremely high-quality, very fast lenses, point-and-shoot cameras that do very, very well in low light at high ISO. The great advantage of a point- and-shoot camera is it's tiny.

You can carry it anywhere. It's not going to weigh you down if you're trying to get into a difficult place. It's not going to add a lot of bulk. The disadvantage is you're still going to take an image-quality hit over pretty much any of these other formats. And also, it's going be slower to operate. I don't mean that the burst speed is going to be slow. It's just, it's going to take it longer to write to the card. There might be a little shutter lag. It's going to take it longer to auto focus. If you are moving into a really dynamic situation, if you're used shooting in a really dynamic way, then a point-and-shoot camera may not be for you. As with the micro four-thirds camera here, most point-and-shoot cameras do not have an optical viewfinder; they just have the LCD screen.

So these are a bunch of different factors that I'm balancing here. Well, I want image quality, but I do want it to be too heavy, but I want a real viewfinder, but I like interchangeable lenses, but I've got to shoot raw, but I know I am going to be shooting in low light. Obviously the way that I begin to balance all of these and pare them down is to really think about where I'm going and what I am going to be shooting. If I am going on safari, I can figure well I am going to be sitting in a safari vehicle most of the times, so weight isn't going to bother me that much. And I know that I want a long reach and I know that I want to be able to work quickly. So maybe I'll go ahead and take my larger SLR.

If I'm going to be hiking with a heavy backpack through difficult terrain, then I might think I am actually not going to be shooting that much on the go, I am going to--but I really want to keep my weight down, I am going to go with a smaller camera. These are simply the types of decisions you are going to have to make. I typically take two cameras. I take an SLR and I take a point-and-shoot. The point-and-shoot is great for those days when I'm thinking I just want to go out and enjoy myself, I don't want to have to mug a bunch of gear, but I still might want to take a picture, so I'll bring along my small point-and-shoot. I also like point-and- shoots for shooting video.

I typically don't go out to shoot professional-grade video when I am out; I am just wanting to document something. And shooting video with a point-and-shoot is much easier, less cumbersome than shooting it with an SLR. Another option, finally, is sometimes I take something of a specialty camera, and there are a lot of variations on these. This is a little helmet camera. This is an HD video camera that can be mounted to a helmet or to the side of a car or something like that. It doesn't weigh very much. And if I'm going out somewhere where I know I am going to be in a car a lot, or riding a motorcycle or something like that, these can be really fun way of getting some video that I might not get with a normal camera.

What's great is they are small and light, easy to toss in a bag along with something else. And you might find--you'll find there are lot of variations of helmet cameras. You might find some other specialty type cameras that don't add a lot to your camera bag but that are still worth having with you. And last but not least, there is your cell phone. And again, like point-and-shoot cameras a few years ago, a cell phone would never have been a reasonable alternative for any kind of serious shooting, but they are getting better and better. I think of my cell phone as just my documentation camera. Whether I've got my SLR with me or not, sometimes if I just know oh, there is the thing that I want to show somebody, I'll shoot it with my cell phone.

The great thing about shooting with my cell phone is immediately I can get it from there out of the phone and into the net via email or however. So of course that's a good option. It's not really a substitute for real camera. So these are some of the questions you need to ask yourself. It's a balancing act what the right choice is. And if you're going with an SLR, you are going to have the additional consideration of lenses, and we are going to talk about those next.

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Shooting on the Road, from Gear to Workflow

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