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!!

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