12 Questions To Ask Before Buying A Camera – 12/22/08

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Every new iteration of digital cameras seems to be light years ahead of the previous generation. While it makes the selection of cameras much better, it doesn’t make it any easier to answer the simple question, “Which one is right for me?”

The good news is that it’s pretty difficult to choose a bad camera these days. The bad news? There are a lot of features to wade through to make sure you’re getting the ones most important to you. The key is to not only understand the features of a camera, but the benefits to you as well. Figure out what you value and choose, above all, the camera that’s right for you. Ask yourself these questions; the answers should point you toward a more perfect purchase.

What kind of a photographer am I?

A beginner, an enthusiastic amateur or an aspiring professional? Beginners likely want cameras with lots of automatic features—many point-and-shoot choices will do. Someone with a little more knowledge of photography would likely want access to manual controls, and should perhaps consider an advanced point-and-shoot or D-SLR. An aspiring professional should look for a camera with comprehensive adjustability, even in lieu of other features or conveniences, and should probably stick to D-SLRs with robust feature sets.

What do I like to shoot?

A passionate photographer may photograph almost exclusively at birthday parties, family gatherings, evenings out with friends… casual situations. That photographer probably wants a camera with not only automatic controls, but one that is compact (and easy to carry along to all of those events) and simple to use. A photographer who likes to photograph action and sports will be much happier with a camera that has a fast response time, making a D-SLR a more appropriate option. Wildlife or nature photographers may be able to use D-SLRs or point-and-shoots, but to be able to photograph animals up close will require a long telephoto lens or a point-and-shoot with a powerful 8, 10 or 12x zoom lens. A photographer less concerned with the specifics of what he or she shoots, but interested in learning to generally take better pictures, is the ideal candidate to look toward a D-SLR with interchangeable lenses that can accommodate a variety of subjects. Even entry-level D-SLRs offer the option of manual controls while maintaining comprehensive automatic feature sets.

Do I prefer to compose with the viewfinder or an LCD?

Even pro-level D-SLRs now sport huge LCDs on the camera back, and some point and shoots no longer contain a viewfinder at all. If this compositional choice is important to the way you shoot, it should factor in to your decision. A larger LCD screen, and one that rotates to multiple positions, makes composing in a variety of situations more convenient—especially if you find yourself holding your camera at arm’s length to get creative angles.

Do I want to take my camera everywhere?

If so, a big zoom may not be in the ideal camera for me since large focal lengths often mean bulkier cameras. Even though the long range of a powerful zoom may sound appealing, if you won’t use it, it would just get in the way. If you don’t want long zooms but you do want portability, consider limiting your camera to a point-and-shoot with only a 3x or 4x zoom, because they’re smaller and easier to fit in a pocket.

Am I frequently photographing in low-light situations, or with long telephoto lenses?

If the answer is yes, it’s probably wise to invest in a camera with stabilizing controls built in. Not only does image stabilization help to handhold a camera in lower light levels, it also helps to minimize the camera shake that’s amplified when using a telephoto lens. If you don’t shoot in those situations, however, you might be paying for a feature you never knew you had. And if I’m really shooting in low light a lot, regardless of the lenses I use, I want a camera with a higher maximum ISO and lower noise.

Do I want to learn more about photography?

If the answer is no, perhaps simplicity in a point-and-shoot should be your biggest draw. If the answer is yes, however, no camera without manual controls will allow you to experiment and learn as you go. A D-SLR’s comprehensive feature set may be lost on someone without the desire to learn to use it, just as an easy-to-use all-auto camera may drive a photographer crazy if he just can’t control exposures as he wants to.

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Do I want to make big prints?

Big prints require lots of megapixels; little prints don’t. There are many photographers who have little desire to enlarge anything past a 5×7 or 8×10—the size at which practically all cameras today can easily print well. But for photographers who hope to go poster-size-big with their prints, file size (and resolution) really do matter. Bigger is better in terms of enlargement, as is the ability to capture RAW image files that can upsize even better than JPEGs.

Am I a budding cinematographer?

Even if I’m not, is video an option I’m at least intrigued by? Many digital still cameras offer at least some video options. If video is on your to-do list, make this feature a priority and look to cameras that offer longer recording times and higher quality capture. For photographers totally uninterested in video, look to cameras that better align with features you’ll find more appealing and avoid hybrid cameras that offer comprehensive video tools while sacrificing some other feature you’d find of interest.

Do I want to light my shots?

If a pro wants to light with studio strobes, he needs to have a camera that can handle it. Even some D-SLRs aren’t compatible with the standard PC connection that’s common for firing studio strobes. If a serious amateur wants to add a flash to the camer

a for augmented lighting, a hot-shoe is a necessity not only to sync the two, but so the flash and camera can communicate effectively. If a point-and-shooter just wants to take pictures and do so in the dark, any old flash will likely do. But give any of these photographers a camera that won’t do what they want, and all three of them would quickly go crazy with frustration.

Am I nice to my cameras?

Some people baby every electronic device they own—putting cameras to bed in well-padded bags or boxes. Other photographers toss a camera into a bucket full of rusty tools and call it a day. Either way is fine (well, at least either way is fine as long as it’s fine for you) but be sure to identify yourself correctly. If you baby your gear, durability and rugged build may not be as high a priority as they are to those photographers who abuse their cameras. If a hard knock life is on the agenda, look to higher-quality pro D-SLRs that are built to withstand the rigors of daily use and abuse.

Is comfort important to me?

If so, big and bulky cameras may be too unwieldy to be comfortable for me. Unfortunately cameras that aren’t comfortable are all too often left unused. If feel, size, weight and other matters of form are important, value them highly in your purchase decision. No matter how great your camera may be, if it’s too cumbersome to be carried or too tiny to matter, you’re not as likely to use it as you would a camera you’re comfortable with. Leaving a great camera unused—that’s the worst photographic travesty of them all.

Is my VCR blinking 12:00?

If it is, ease of use had better be paramount in my purchasing decision. A camera that’s easy to understand (and adjust) is important for any photographer, but even more for those with little patience for learning complex menus of controls. A camera might be quite powerful and meet your needs in every other way imaginable, but if you can’t figure out how the darn thing works it’s just a waste of features. The best way to learn about how easily a camera works—as well as how it feels and how intuitively you respond to it in all aspects of performance—is to get your hands on one. In all these areas of personal preference, there’s no substitute for holding the camera in your hands. So don’t be afraid to get out there and try them before you buy them. A camera is a very personal purchase; do all the things you can to ensure you get the right one for you.