What Camera should I buy?

I recently had cause to investigate today’s camera offering’s in consideration of a new holiday camera. It’s been at least 8 years since I updated my compact camera which at 10 MP is still quite adequate for general shooting but I know chip sensitivities have improved vastly in the intervening years so I wanted to see what was on offer. what camera should I buy?

Being a professional photographer I generally know quite a bit about camera operation, usage and how to get the picture I want but that doesn’t mean I keep up with every new model type and what they do apart from in the SLR variations, the professional cameras I use and then generally only on the system brand that I use which in my case is Nikon.

How anyone with limited photographic knowledge can make a decision on the multitude of versions and makes available I don’t know. So here’s a simple run through of some of the features of cameras to help you make up your mind.

All the manufacturers headline pixel count as the major factor of the quality of the output. 12mp, 16mp and 18 mp (mega pixel) ratings are commonly seen these days and these can apply to DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex camera), Bridge and Compact cameras so what’s going on? Is an 18mp compact camera better than a 12mp DSLR? If so why is the DSLR so much more expensive?

The answer is the MP figure is only half the story. In the same way that the size of the bucket mouth doesn’t dictate the volume of water a bucket can hold – it could be a deep or shallow bucket, the MP figure is only the number of pixels used to capture light – the other important other factor is the size of the chip.

Just in the same way as in the old film days where we had 35mm SLR’s a film size of 24x36mm(what’s often referred to as full fame today), two and a quarter square cameras (that’s in inches) and 5×4 plate cameras (again in inches) the larger the film sheet used to capture an image the more detail that was resolved. Today the larger the chip size the greater the dynamic range and detail that is resolved.

So what’s the choice of chip sizes today? At this point I was going to list the basic chip sizes in millimetres to illustrate the basic sorts but even within types of camera like bridge or compact there are variations in chip sizes and the manufacturers tends to try and hide those figures.

Keeping it simple, many phones these days have chips the same size or larger than a compact camera. So the compact cameras have had to up the game to compete by adding not only extra pixels within the sensor size but also extra features and shooting modes to make them more attractive. The compact camera also tends to normally have a much greater range of zoom on it’s lens than a camera phone so there is still a place for it.

The compact’s decline lead to the development of the Bridge camera, using the same size chips as the compact cameras but in a bigger body the bridge camera enabled manufacturers to increase the zoom range of the fixed lens giving equivalent zoom ranges on a 35mm of 24-1200mm with some even going up to 1500mm. These are mega zooms capable of reaching across stadiums to capture your favourite sat from a far!

These are lens lengths on a 35mm DSLR that would cost many thousands of pounds and would be impossible to get a clear sharp shot from hand held. But with the smaller chip cameras and inbuilt stabilising software fairly sharp images can still be had.

The bridge camera has some great advantages of a smaller body than a DSLR and a fixed lens with a zoom range beyond anything the average punter could ever require. But to get that long zoom range size has been sacrificed not necessarily in the body size but in the basic physics of lens design – a long zoom on a small chipped camera will still stick out as far as a small zoom on a DSLR. We have gone passed pocket size convenience now.

The next step change in chip design was the cameras called Micro four thirds cameras. A bigger chip yet again in a small body and generally with interchangeable lenses. These chips are getting on for half the size of a full frame DSLR and some even have the equal of the DSLR DX range which use a two thirds full frame chip. The problem being we are getting back into the lens sizes needed for a full frame camera

Lastly we have the DX format DSLR’s and the full frame DSLR which are physically the equivalent of the olds 35mm film cameras. There are bigger chipped medium format and plate style cameras but these are for the professionals alone, often with starting prices above £12-15,000.

So, nothing is clear simple and easily comparable these days. We need to look at other factors to influence your decision. The bigger the chip and format the bigger the lens needed to cover the face of the chip. The higher the cost generally and the bulkier the overall equipment. So back to the question, What camera should I buy? It’s always a compromise unfortunatly, there is less of a certain answer today than thee was 10 years ago. Perhaps you should be pleased because it means there is a range and cross over of choice available that makes no choices simple.

But what are you actually going to do with your pictures? View them on your computer? Print small copies up to perhaps a maximum of 8×6 inches? If so you actually don’t really need a file size bigger than about 12 MP.  Perhaps you don’t need the quality of the DSLR or the micro four thirds cameras. It’s quite possible the bridge cameras or even the compacts will be more than sufficient. I’d also stick to a name you know, Nikon, Cannon and the like will always be producing equipment at the cutting edge of technology.

If you want to make photography your hobby and you want to grow to know how it all works, to understand how to use your camera in manual mode to achieve the results you want from any given situation then probably holding out for the larger formats might be your choice especially if you plan on joining a camera club and want to produce large prints for display but if you are a traveller, a holiday maker with a keen eye to record your trips with little or no complication then perhaps the compact or bridge cameras are your starting point.

One thing is certain, all cameras are improving. We’ll probably never see compact full frame cameras with large zoom ranges but we will continue to see developments to make the camera more desirable, the smaller chip sized cameras even better quality. Wifi enabled, GPS information recorded, instant linking with other devices like ipads and phones to make digital sharing of images easy. All these things are available now even on the smaller formats. What more will come – who knows!


Brian Russell

Copyright October 2014.