From time to time, when looking to buy a camera, friends, colleagues or relatives will ask for my advice. As much as I want to offer a straightforward recommendation, in most cases it is almost impossible. The main reason I find myself in such difficulty is the fact that there is no such thing like the “perfect (or ideal) camera” – a camera that will make everybody happy in any foreseeable condition.
The process of finding a camera is probably similar with searching for the best TV, the best personal computer or the best car. We are definitely unique individuals with different preferences and personal goals; we also have certain requirements and expectations; and last but not least, we have limits imposed by budgets and lifestyle. No wonder that the perfect camera does not exist.
Before even looking for a camera, I suggest you to spend an hour or so, reading real people reviews on sites like Amazon.com or reviews.cnet.com. You will soon realize that some people will be very disappointed by their choices while others will be extremely happy and a number of people will be situated in the gray areas – i.e. part happy part not so happy. If you find a camera that everybody seems to be happy with, it is either a mistake or the number of people voting is statistically insignificant.
The Perfect Camera
While the perfect camera does not exist, I tried to imagine how such a camera would look like…
- Simple enough to operate without the need to dive into technicalities. The camera should only be as complex as needed in order to enable the creativity of the photographer without any difficulty and without compromises.
- Robust and reliable for its purpose. Photographers can operate in various conditions from harsh and extreme outdoors to friendly and comfortable indoor environment.
- Light and inconspicuous without sacrificing features and flexibility. These qualities will make the camera ideal for travel.
- Large aperture for low light photography and shallow depth of field – at least F2.8 if possible. Good for portraits, macros, still-life, pets and flowers, etc.
- Wide range of focal distances for all photographic purposes from landscape to wild life and from portraits to macro. An equivalent zoom range of at least 10´ will cover most needs.
- Low-noise sensor that produces almost noise free images in a wide range of sensitivities – ISO 100 to ISO 6400 would be great if not impossible.
- Very good quality optics – i.e. low distortions, reduced aberrations, reduced flare and high optical resolution. This will help photographers to obtain good photos right out of the box, without too much post-processing effort.
- Wide range of shutter speeds with exposure times between 1/8000 to few minutes if possible. The short exposure times will allow freezing the motion, while the long exposure times will allow low-light static photos or artistic effects like motion blur.
- Manual shooting modes (including semi-automatic modes like aperture priority or shutter priority) that will provide full control of the camera and unleash unlimited artistic possibilities.
- Different shooting modes to simplify typical situations like landscape, portrait, sports, wild life, macro, party, night photos, etc.
- Full control of the sensitivity of the sensor that will allow making the right choices when it comes to reducing the noise in certain situations.
- Fast and accurate focusing of the lens is always important: it makes the difference between a perfect sharp image and a blurred and compromised one.
- High speed burst mode (at least 3 frames/second) helps especially in sports and wild life photography when it is very little time to prepare for the capture. Taking multiple photos in a short burst increases the probability of a good and somewhat lucky capture. It may be similar to an automatic shotgun except less… lethal!
- RAW and JPEG image formats. The RAW format is similar to a (digital) negative representing the unprocessed data coming directly from the sensor – the final photos need to be obtained in the digital light room with the help of a computer and software programs that will allow the extraction of the best in the capture. JPEG format is used in virtually all existing digital cameras, the processing being done inside automatically without the possibility of any post shooting intervention (more like the film slides that provided very little for corrections and post-processing creativity).
- Easily available digital memory in reasonably large capacities. For example, SD cards of 4 to 16 GB are very common today. Always look for reputable brands and reasonably high speeds (especially, if using burst mode or taking video clips).
- Good quality viewfinder optical and/or electronic for bright light conditions when the LCD screen is not able to produce a good image because of glare and relatively low brightness.
- Large and bright LCD screen for menus, info, metering (e.g. histograms), picture review and operation. Most compact cameras use the LCD as a viewfinder; while simpler and apparently more intuitive, the lighting conditions may render the LCD unusable (see above).
- Long battery life and battery availability can be very important. Always consider additional high quality spare batteries even if they add to the total cost of your photographic gear.
- Extra features like image stabilization (for reducing the camera shaking effects and allowing longer shutter times in low-light conditions), GPS (for geo tagging), remote control, movie modes (for those wanting to record video clips), and many others.
- Reasonably low-cost and low-cost accessories. We all know this one… But the buyer should be aware: cheap stuff can lead to a lot of frustrations later. However, overpaying isn’t good either if it doesn’t bring more to the game.
I might have missed few of the attributes of the “perfect camera” but you get the idea. Obviously, many of these attributes are contradictory and impossible to achieve altogether. But one may hope…
It Is All About the Best Compromise
As you probably realized, the “perfect camera” is a choice based on:
- some research (you don’t need a lemon, do you?),
- personal preferences (what kind of photos you want to capture),
- artistic goals (if any),
- budget (we all have our limits).
It is the best compromise that will make you happy in the end.
Let’s examine some attributes and the way they interact with each other.
Simplicity is good but too simple may cripple your ability to be creative. If your goal is to capture good memories and be less artistic, you can look for simple cameras that are easy to operate. If you want to be more artistic and explore more in the world of photography, simple cameras won’t keep you happy for too long. But overly complex cameras can be overwhelming and counterproductive as well. The best complex cameras will expose both simple and advanced features in the least intrusive way, allowing you a reasonable learning curve and adapting easily to your requirements.
Reliability and robustness are attributes that have more to do with your budget, lifestyle and photographic environment. If you like to spend more time in the wilderness or other harsh environment, robustness, weatherproofing, reliability are qualities that are very important and you should be ready to pay a premium for them. But if you work in the city or around your house with simple cameras that you like to update every few years, these qualities are probably less important.
Lenses with large apertures (fast lenses) are desired by many, but they always come at a cost. They tend to be large and heavy (especially for large sensors) and they cost a lot of money if you want very good optical quality. A small sensor will allow a large aperture lens to be smaller and lighter, but small sensors are noisy and require an even higher optical quality. If you don’t intend to work in low light conditions, a maximum aperture of F3.5 (even F4) may be just what you need.
Zoom lenses are the norm our days. We see zoom cameras with 30´ optical zoom or higher (the “ultra zoom” cameras). Such a large range of focal distances seem to offer the ideal tool for any occasion. Well, not so fast! Ultra zoom lenses are made by compromising a lot in optical quality, especially around the extremes. Usually, these lenses will provide a reasonably large aperture (F2.8 to F3.3) for a limited focal range (mostly in the wide angle area). At maximum telephoto these lenses have small apertures (F5.6 to F6.3) that may require high sensitivities (e.g. ISO 800 and higher, introducing the risk of high noise) and long exposure times (not very good for freezing the motion or eliminating the shaking blur).
If you are more of a landscape photographer, a medium zoom lens (around 5´) of a good optical quality and sharpness with a constant and large aperture may be your best option. The occasional photographer interested in preserving personal memories may be attracted by this kind of lens as well.
There is a category of lenses (and sometimes cameras) that provide only one focal distance – prime lenses; they are relatively small but sporting a large aperture (fast lenses) and high optical quality. These lenses are probably less attractive for many of us because of the fixed focal length that seems to be too restrictive. If you know exactly the kind of subjects you will shoot and want to obtain the highest resolution and sharpness together with the ability to operate in low light and get the best results, a prime lens camera (or a prime lens for your DSLR) may be the answer.
Sports and wild life require long tele-zoom or tele-photo (prime) lenses. Usually, large, heavy and providing smaller apertures than the other lenses they cost more. If you are looking for a compact camera for sports and wild life the choices are limited and disappointing: most of the “ultra-zoom” or “super-zoom” cameras can fit in part the needs but with a lot of drawbacks. Such devices are designed to operate as general purpose cameras with an extended range: their lenses are designed with enough compromises to make their construction possible. Cameras with interchangeable lenses and special tele-zooms or tele-photos are the solution but with an increased cost, weight and size.
The sensor size and resolution is another important feature. Be careful with sales persons that want to sell you the highest resolution camera without telling you the other side of the story. Read my posts regarding the sensors, especially the “Photo Sensors – Part 2 (Resolution)”, for more details. Try to find the pixel density first: the more pixels packed per mm2, the higher the chances that the noise will cripple your photos in low-light (sometimes even those taken in slightly better light will suffer). The only real advantage of a small sensor is the reduced physical size (and weight) of your camera. If you are only interested in taking photos in good light, this feature may be less important than you think. Eventually, read reviews and study sample photos taken with the camera in different conditions before you make a decision. This is one of the main reasons of disappointment and frustration for a lot of people.
Shooting modes are a convenience for those unwilling to spend time understanding how the camera works. If you read my posts regarding aperture, exposure time, sensitivity and shooting, you will soon realize that you would want to have more control. It is the moment when your creativity begins to develop and you start to think out of the box.
Modern digital cameras are “smart” enough to make a reasonably good choice in many situations and most people are happy with this. Will you? If you answered “yes”, manual and semi-manual (or creative) modes are not for you. If not, look for those cameras that will give you the freedom to make your choices; these cameras are just a bit more expensive because these features don’t cost the manufacturer – it is just the perception of a more advanced camera that will cost you more (most digital cameras are perfectly capable to operate in these creative modes if they are exposed by the manufacturer).
The picture formats require a separate discussion. It is enough to know that all digital cameras are able to produce an image in a viewable format: JPEG is the norm today. Some cameras can also provide the raw image (or the “digital negative”) as obtained directly from the sensor; such formats allow a much better post-processing but with additional effort. If you really care about the best of your capture, ignoring the “developing” effort, look for cameras capable to provide images in RAW format as well. Like in the case of creative modes, the RAW format is just a feature involving no real cost for the manufacturer. Unfortunately, the lack of education and probably the current viewable formats that are so popular today are responsible for the absence of this format in most compact cameras (especially the low-end ones). The only reason I would suppress the RAW format would be the lack of digital memory space (capacity) – RAW files are large; but I would keep it as an option under the photographer’s control.
Shutter speeds, short lag time, short on/off times and fast burst shooting are desired and, apparently easy to obtain. The reality is somewhat different. Imagine that a camera is a computer acquiring and processing images and writing files on the digital media. As with any computer, speed implies faster components and a higher cost. Modern cameras are faster than ever but we ask more and more from them as well. Be prepared to pay a premium for a faster camera.
The rest of the features are important too but compromising in the area of battery, viewfinder, LCD screen and extra features seems a bit more acceptable. Well… not always. Once I upgraded my DSLR (and paid a hefty price) because the LCD was too small for my eyes. Do you think this wasn’t serious enough? We will talk later when you’ll get at my age and objects in your close proximity will begin to look smaller and blurred.
In the mean time, just think of you really want from a camera. Write it down and start prioritizing the features you put more price on. I will continue this discussion in the next posts and come with real life examples. I would also recommend the expert reviews from dpreview.com that will give you enough information about a lot of cameras without searching all over the Internet.
Have fun gathering information!