Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Definitions: What I mean by "Casual Photographer", "Non-photographer" and "Enthusiastic Amateur"

Casual Photographer

This is someone who enjoys making photographs of a few particular types of things that interest them such as their children, the places they go on vacation or their hobbies, but don't particularly want to invest a lot of time in photography for its own sake. They may be interested in investing modest amounts of time and money into improving their photography so that their picture look better and the act of making them is less frustrating, but not becoming obsessed with it.


I personally consider any person who has ever taken even one photograph to be a photographer. But many people start out any conversation about photography: "Well, I'm not a photographer..." So the advice tagged with this term is for them.

These may be people who are not really interested in learning anything about photography, they may find the actual process of taking photographs to be frustrating or unpleasant but feel pressure from relatives to share at least a few snapshots of their children. Or perhaps they need to take pictures for their job.

I believe that it is possible for those people to make or have access to photographs which satisfy their needs even if they do not want to learn anything about photography. So some of my posts will be directed towards helping them.

The fact that you are not interested in learning more about photography or investing large amounts of time and money in it does not mean that you should not be able to have decent photographs of your family and the things that you care about.

One of the wonderful things about photography is that there are as many ways of enjoying it as there are people in the world.

And if you enjoy the end result of looking at photos but not the act of creating them, I will have advice for you here on how you can get more out of photography with as little investment of time and money possible. Just click on the category "non-photographer" or search on that term in the search box to see articles written for you.

Enthusiastic Amateur

This is the category I see myself in. "Amateur Photographer" is such a broad category that it is difficult to to direct advice to that whole group. The term "amateur" has also gotten a bad rap in the past few decades. Its original meaning was a person who does something simply for the love of doing it and I want to reclaim that meaning here.

But there is a subset of that group who are truly enthusiastic in their love of photography. They enjoy photography just for its own sake. They enjoy making photographs even if they do not have any particular subject they need to depict. They enjoy learning about and exploring many different aspects of photography and desire to increase their knowledge of all things photographic throughout their whole life.

Although some of these enthusiastic amateurs may at some point decide to become professional photographers and some may just fall into a circumstance where they start making money from some of their photographs, my remarks here will be directed towards them purely as amateurs, not as prospective professionals, as I believe that those groups have very different needs and one of my main goals here is to address the needs of amateurs that are different from professionals or prospective professionals.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Camera Selection for Casual Photographers and Non-Photographers, Part 4

It is difficult to recommend specific cameras between $150 and $400 because there are so many good cameras in that range.You could probably buy any new camera in that range and it would work fine for any casual photographer.

But there are several features that I believe can help make your photos better while making life easier for you, so here are a few cameras which include most of these features. Unfortunately there is not one camera which has every single one of these features so you will need to choose between them based on your own photographic needs.


Samsung Tl500


Fast Lens

A fast lens is one that lets more light in, making it easier to take pictures in darker places without a flash. Usually this is noted on the lens of each camera with an "f" in front of it and the smaller the number is, the more light it lets in. The Samsung Tl500 has an f1.8 to 2.4 lens which is very fast. It lets several times more light in than the usual compact camera which is generally about f3.5 at the wide end of the zoom range and f5.6 at the narrow end. I would recommend any compact camera that has a lens of f2.8 or lower over a camera with a slower lens.

Tilting viewscreen

The Tl500 also has a viewscreen that tilts and swivels so you can hold the camera over your head to take pictures of performers, zoo animals, etc. which are obscured by a crowd in front of you or hold it down close to the ground so you can take pictures of flowers, small children or pets without having to crawl on your belly.

Optical image stabilization

When you are taking pictures in dim light or of things far away, the shake of your hands holding the camera can make your pictures blurry. Optical image stabilization uses tiny motors in the camera to move the lens or other parts in the opposite direction of that shake to minimize the blur. I recommend that you only buy a camera that has optical image stabilization. Note, however, that "digital image stabilization" which is advertised on some cameras is not the same thing and is usually pretty useless.

Moderately small size

Unless you really need the absolute smallest camera, I generally recommend buying something a step or two up in size. Although the Samsung Tl500 will not fit comfortably in a pants pocket, it should fit easily in a coat pocket or purse and the extra size makes the controls larger and easier to use as well as giving room for a larger viewscreen.

One thing which I wish was different on the Tl500 is the way that you look at pictures that you have already shot. To look at those picture, you press a button on the back of the camera. If you hand the camera to a friend so that they can look at your photos, if they bump into the shutter button or some of the other buttons on the camera, it will put the camera back into picture taking mode which is rather annoying. I prefer cameras which have a setting on the knob on top of the camera which sets this function so there is no way you can accidentally switch off of it.

Another is the lack of an optical viewfinder which may make it hard to take pictures when it is very sunny outside but the extra-bright viewscreen may help to make up for that.


Nikon Coolpix S1100pj

This camera has one unique feature which may make it the best choice for certain photographers. It has a built-in projector so if being able to share your photos with friends and relatives when you are away from home is important to you, this might be a good choice.

The projector is not very bright so it is probably only good for a relatively small image in a room where the lights can be dimmed somewhat, but it still might be useful to some. It has optical image stabilization and is a pretty nice camera overall but it does not have a very fast lens and its controls do not look terribly intuitive.


Olympus Stylus Tough 6020

If you or your children like swimming or snorkeling, this waterproof camera may be the perfect camera for you. You can hand it to the kids to take have fun taking pictures in the pool and you don't have to be as concerned about them dropping it because it is also shockproof.

And even if you don't go in the water at all, it is a great camera to take to the beach or out in the woods. Since it is sealed, you don't have the problem of sand and dirt getting inside of it.

If you like taking a camera out to nightclubs or concerts but don't want to worry about it getting bumped into or dropped, this camera is also a better choice than most since it is shockproof and since its lens does not extend out of the camera. The worst damage that can happen to a digital compact camera is dropping it or banging it into something when the lens is extended, as that is usually the most sensitive part of the camera.


Canon Powershot SD1300

Although I recommend slightly larger cameras for casual photographers, if you really need to have a very small camera, the Canon Powershot SD line are very nice in that respect. They are small and good looking but fairly rugged cameras. The SD1300 is once of the most affordable in this line. It also has a decent sized 2.7" viewscreen and optical image stabilization.


PowerShot A800

At $89, this is pretty close to the lowest price you can find for a digital camera from a name brand manufacturer and about the lowest I would recommend to a casual photographer. I have always found the Canon "A" series cameras (A800, A1200, etc. ) to be a very good value for the money. They are slightly larger than the very smallest Canons but other than that you usually get more features for the money than with the smaller cameras.

The A800 has a decent sized 2.5" viewscreen and, as with many Canons, it has an optical viewfinder. It also runs on AA batteries which is kind of nice since you can buy more anywhere if your rechargeables run out. It does not have many of the features that the higher priced cameras do, but for the price, it is quite a nice little camera.

Under $80

Although you may find a few digital cameras under $80, I would be very cautious about them as there are many off-brand cameras in this range which are not very good at all. I also would not recommend that casual photographers and non-photographers buy used digital cameras. Modern electronic cameras are much more fragile than cameras used to be and, unless you really know what you are looking for, it is very possible to buy a digital camera which appears to work but has been damaged.

If you really can't afford to spend more than $80, I would suggest buying a film camera and having your photo developer make a CD of your images or post them online when you have them developed.

Even a disposable film camera can actually make some quite nice images if you use it carefully and work within its limitations. I'll write about how to do this in future posts.

And some of the nicer compact film cameras can give great photos. Often you can find these at rummage sales of flea markets or get them for free from relatives or friends who are moving to digital cameras.

I have always found the Olympus Stylus Epic series of cameras to be very good although there are many other compact film cameras from other name brands that are just as good. If you get one that looks like it has been carefully taken care of, it is more likely to work just fine than a used digital camera.

Until next time, have fun!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Camera Selection for Casual Photographers and Non-Photographers, Part 3

Although I think it is most important for you to find the camera that works best for you personally, here are a few that I think work well for casual photographers and non-photographers. As well as giving recommendations for these specific cameras, I will also be using the discussion of each camera to highlight some of the features I think are important in camera selection in general. So even if you are not planning to buy a camera in a particular price range, I would recommend reading that section for those general topics.

These camera suggestions are for cameras which are available at the beginning of 2011. They will probably all be available for the next year or two. When they are eventually replaced, many of the features I mention will likely be included in whatever replaces them. So when the Canon G12 stops being sold, at least some of this information will be relevant for the G13, 14, 15, etc.

Also, although I recommend several Canon cameras here, that is not meant to indicate a preference for a particular manufacturer. Those specific cameras just happen to have features that I think are particularly useful for casual photographers. Remember, choose the camera which works best for you individually, not the one that everyone else seems to be buying.

I will be posting these camera suggestions in individual posts by price range over the next few days so I can get them posted sooner.

Camera Suggestions by Price Range:

1. $400-750:

Canon G12.

The Canon G12 has several features which I think are very useful to casual photographers (as well as more dedicated photographers). Along with the usual viewscreen on the back of the camera, the G12 has a very nice big optical viewfinder. In bright daylight it is sometimes impossible to see the image on the viewscreen so an optical viewfinder is important if you think you may ever take pictures outside in full daylight. Some viewfinders can be very tiny and difficult for people with less than perfect eyesight to use. The G12's viewfinder is big and easy to use.

The viewscreen swivels and tilts, making it easy to take pictures from above your head or from very low angles. This can be useful to get a clear shot of a performer over the heads of a crowd or to capture a low-growing flower without having to crawl on your belly.

But the main feature which brings me to recommend the G12 very highly is the fact that most of the settings you need to use are easily accessible via large physical knobs and buttons so you don't have to go wading through the camera menus to adjust them. For casual photographers this most likely will determine whether you ever adjust those settings at all since finding your way through menus can be very tiresome.

I will be writing in a later post about the adjustments which I believe it is most important for you to learn how to make on your camera and why, but for now, I would just like to mention two of them which the G12 makes easy to use. The first is exposure compensation. This is an adjustment to make the picture you are taking brighter or darker. If you are taking a picture of a person with a bright light or white wall behind them, their face will likely come out completely black. Using this setting, you can make the photo brighter so that you will be able to see them. Likewise, if you take a picture of a person against a black wall, their face make end up too white to see any details and turning down this adjustment will help. The G12 puts this setting on a big, easy to see and easy to use knob on the top of the camera. For most other cameras you have to figure out which button to push to bring up that adjustment and which other buttons to use to set it.

The other big knob on the top of the G12 adjusts how sensitive the camera is to light overall, what is known as the "ISO" setting. Although most of the time you may want to leave this set to automatically adjust itself, if you are taking pictures where it is very dark, you may want to turn it up to one of its higher settings. The higher you go, the poorer the quality of the image you will get, but sometimes, if it is a choice between getting a poorer quality image or no image at all, this may be worth it. Again, most cameras hide this setting in a menu so most people will never use it but the G12 puts it on a nice big knob on the top of the camera. Just remember to turn both of these setting back to "0" or "auto" when you are done with them so the rest of your photos come out okay.

The G12 has a moderately long zoom range so for most people it should work just fine. It should go wide enough to get most of the scenery you want in your vacation photos and narrow enough to get a recognizable photo of your Aunt Edith from across the room. It wont do very well for taking pictures of birds in flight or your child's football game. But that is a topic for a later post.

It is also slightly larger than many point-and-shoot camera and will not fit too comfortably in a pants pocket but will fit just fine in a jacket pocket or a moderately sized purse. Unless you really need to have a very small camera, I would say that it is better to get a slightly larger camera that is easier to use than a tiny camera which may have some compromises.

If you prefer the way Nikon cameras work, the Nikon P-7000 is very similar to this. It does not have a swiveling screen but it does have manual knobs for exposure compensation and ISO.

Lastly, some casual photographers may find it easier to use a digital single lens reflex camera. This is a camera which uses a mirror to show you the image that is actually coming in through the lens. That feature in itself along with the speed with which such cameras perform, may make it easier for some people to take pictures. I would recommend trying out at least one of these if you think that might be an option for you. If you leave all of its setting on automatic, it is really not any more difficult than using a point-and-shoot camera. The one big consideration is that even the smallest of these are much larger and heavier than the other cameras on this list. But if you are willing to carry that extra weight, you may find that it makes your photography more enjoyable. DSLRs in this range include the Sony A390, Canon 500D, Nikon D3000, Olympus E450 and Pentax k-x .

Until next time, have fun!!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Camera Selection for Casual Photographers and Non-Photographers, Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, I highly recommend visiting a good camera store if there is one within driving distance of you. As well as getting advice from a salesperson based on your answers to the questions in the "Basic Camera Buying Checklist", you should try out at least 3 or 4 different brands of cameras. If you don't have a good camera store near you, at least trying out cameras at a mediocre camera store or an electronics store with a camera section can be a big help. If there are no such stores near you, see if you can borrow your friends' cameras to try out.

Now you may say: "I'm not really that into photography and I don't want to invest a whole bunch of my time on it." But that is precisely why it is more important for you to find the camera which works best for you personally. You will probably keep this camera as the only one you use much longer than a more dedicated photographer might and be less willing to read the owner's manual and explore the menus than they would. So you need to select the camera whose controls make the most sense to you from the outset.

Every person is different. The controls that make the most sense to me may be completely nonsensical to you and vice-versa. So spend some time right now trying out the different brands of cameras and it will save you hours of frustration later on.

Here are some things you should try out on each camera. You only need to try one camera from each manufacturer to start since manufacturers usually use a similar menu and control layout on all of their cameras. Once you have found the brand that makes the most sense to you, you can look at the different models from that company to see which features you want and how much you want to spend. See how difficult it is to do each of these things on each camera without help from anyone else. You may find it impossible to figure out how to do some of them on your own on some of the cameras and that is okay. That tells you how easy it will be for you to use that camera once you own it.

1. Turn on the camera, zoom the lens in or out and take some pictures.

2. Turn the flash off and them back on.

3. Look at the pictures you took on the back of the camera.

4. Make the picture you are taking lighter or darker. Usually this is called: "exposure compensation".

5. See if you can get into the camera menus and explore them. Even if you plan never to actually use the menus, it is important for you to find the menu structure that works best for you, just in case you have to adjust something in the future.

Part three of this series will be longer so I am going to stop here but I recommend reading it before you choose which camera to buy.

Until next time, have fun!!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Basic Camera Selection Checklist

This first checklist is directed toward casual photographers and non-photographers, but even more advanced photographers may want to take a look at it as future checklists written for them will build upon it.
Answering these questions before you buy a camera should make it much easier to decide which one you want.
    1. What do you want to photograph?
This first checklist is for casual photographers who only want candid photos of their friends and relatives and perhaps a few picture of their favorite vacation spots. If you have any more demanding subjects that you want to photograph such as sports, wildlife or concerts, you should base your camera choice on the most demanding of them. Usually a camera selected to meet your most demanding needs will also meet your general photography needs. I’ll discuss what camera you need for more specialized areas of photography in future posts but for now lets assume that you want to photography friends, family and travel.
    2. Do you like taking pictures?
Some people do not actually like making photographs but feel that they have to because no one else in their family does, they have young children they feel it is important to have photos of or they are required to by their job. How much you like or dislike taking pictures will affect your answers to some of the questions below.
    3. Are there other photographers in your family?
If your crazy Uncle Ernie is a camera nut who is always taking zillions of pictures at every family gathering, you may only need to invest enough in photography to fill in the gaps, taking photos at times when he is not around.
This can dramatically reduce the amount that you will need to spend on a camera, the amount of time that you will need to invest in learning how to use it and the amount of thought and care that you will need to invest in ensuring that your photos turn out well.
Just make sure you get copies of his photos.
If your wife is the camera nut in the family, that may reduce your need to photograph even more. Maybe you can even just borrow her camera occasionally so that she is in some of the photos and you wont even have to buy a camera yourself.
    4. What size are the biggest prints you will ever want?
If you will never print any of your photos larger than 4x6” or never plan to print any of them, this reduces the amount that you need to invest in your camera and also reduces the amount of care you need to put in to taking each photograph. A photograph that is not perfectly sharp may look perfectly okay at 4x6” but blow it up to 11x14” and every imperfection becomes instantly noticeable. For photos 4x6” or less, virtually any current camera from a name brand company should work fine.

5. Do you really need a small camera?

Unless you have a real need to have the very smallest camera available, I would advise buying something that is at least a little bit bigger. The biggest disadvantages of very small cameras is that they usually do not have viewfinders, you can’t adjust them as much, you have to wade through menus to get to many adjustments and they are more expensive for the same features than larger cameras. 

6. Do you need a viewfinder?

If you will ever take photos outside in bright daylight I would recommend a camera with a viewfinder. Almost all view screens are very hard to see in bright daylight.

7. Do you want professional quality photos or are average snapshots okay?

Most people do not need to make professional quality photographs. Unless you are a professional, an aspiring professional or an enthusiastic amateur with a strong desire to create the very best quality, many reasonably priced cameras may be sufficient for your needs.

8. How much time and money are you willing to invest in your photography?

For many casual or amateur photographers, there are really great cameras in the $2-500 range that will do everything you need to do and may be the best choice for you. But some people, especially those who don’t consider themselves photographers, think this is too much to spend on a camera. If you are absolutely certain that $100 or $150 dollars is as much as you would ever want to spend on a camera then you may need to decide whether you want to buy an inexpensive digital camera or a film camera.
I personally believe that just about every person can benefit from having a digital camera but for some people it might not make enough sense to justify the cost. If you never take more than 50 photos in a year and don't want to or can't afford to spend a hundred dollars on a digital camera, you can get surprisingly good photographs out of some very inexpensive cameras. A small point and shoot film camera, a used film SLR or even a disposable film camera can make great photos if you know its limits.
If you do decide to go with even a disposable film camera, I would highly recommend having your photo lab make a CD of the photos you take with it or post them to their web site when you have them developed. Even if you do not use a computer yourself, it is very likely that one of your relatives who does might want copies of some of your photos and this is a very easy way to share them.
I would be very careful looking at digital cameras under about $80. Most of them give very poor quality images and are hard to use. If what you can afford is less than this, film might be a better choice.

9. How rough are you on equipment and do you have small children?

This is another place where you really have to be honest with yourself. If you are very careful with your possessions, you can buy pretty much any camera and it will last as long as you want. If you sometimes drop cameras, stick them in your pocket without a case, bump into things with them, etc., you may want to look into buying a waterproof/shockproof camera. These are also useful if you have young children who like to swim or if you like underwater activities. Most of these camera can be taken in the pool or out snorkeling. If you only want to have one camera to take on vacation, I would highly recommend looking at these.

So there you have it. Spend some time thinking about these questions and deciding what your answers to them are. If you have a decent camera store near you, go there and discuss your own particular needs with a sales person. It should help them identify which camera is best for you. If you do go to a camera store, by all means, buy your camera there. Even if it is a few bucks more than buying it online, the service they can provide you now and in the future is worth keeping them in existence.
In upcoming posts I will recommend a few current cameras which might work for each of the needs identified above.

Until next time, have fun!!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why another photography blog?

The purpose of this site is to give photography advice to enthusiastic amateurs, casual photographers and non-photographers to help them get more enjoyment out of whatever type of photography they are interested in.

There are many terrific weblogs created by professional photographers for professionals and aspiring professionals. I will be talking about some of my favorites in future posts and I encourage you to read some of them if you are interested in improving your photography.

But the advice on those sites is oriented towards the needs of professional photographers and aspiring professionals. Equipment recommendations for example, are oriented towards providing the very best image quality and the flexibility which is needed by those who make a living from their photography. Not every person who takes photographs needs to buy a $5000 digital SLR or carry a large bag of lenses and gear.

The goal of this site is to help you determine for yourself what equipment, training and investment of time is best for what you personally want to get out of your photography,  whatever your level of interest.

I consider myself an enthusiastic amateur and have enjoyed making photographs for the past 35 years or so. Many of my friends and relatives come to me for photographic advise and part of my day job is to advise university staff and faculty on the best presentation and production equipment to use for their particular needs.

I look forward to helping you to get what you want out of photography and I assume that through discussion and friendly debate here I will also learn many things that will help me get what more of what I want out of photography.

Until next time, have fun!!