With so many cameras available, figuring out how all the specifications and options translate into your everyday use is complicated. For our first lesson in the Basics of Photography, we’re going to learn how cameras work and make sense of what that means in terms of choosing a camera to buy and how it affects your photographs.
Your camera is made up of many parts, but there are a few in particular that we want to look at as they are the most important. We’ll go into much more detail in a bit, but here’s a basic overview of the parts we’re going to look at:
- The body is the housing for your camera. While it has little effect on the quality of your photos, it does affect things like ease of use and comfort.
- The lens is the eye of the camera, and it’s a very complex instrument. Different lenses can provide many different features, so it’s important to know the differences between them. In future lessons, we’ll also discuss how lenses work and how that affects your photographs.
- The sensor is basically the digital equivalent of film, in the sense that—like film—the sensor is exposed to light that comes through the lens and it records that exposure. The exposure is then processed and saved to flash memory (generally an SD or Compact Flash card). The calibre and size of the sensor are also very important, as these things significantly impact the quality of your photos.
- The flash card is where you save your images, and it’s a component most people don’t think about too much when buying a camera, aside from choosing an amount of storage that suits their needs. Flash cards range in read and write speeds as well, however, and a slow card can significantly degrade your camera’s performance. We’ll take a look at what card classes mean and the minimum speed you need for different purposes.
- The battery matters in a camera just like any other electronic device. While this is a simple part to understand, we’ll dive into it a little more deeply to figure out actual, practical battery life for cameras and when cameras with less-powerful batteries may be a better option.
Size often impacts the location of buttons, dials, and other parts of the hardware you’ll need to touch and press to operate your camera. The positioning on small point-and-shoot cameras tends to be fairly simple, because there are fewer hardware controls, but the moment you step up to a smaller DSLR (such as Canon’s Rebel series) that number increases significantly. On higher-end DSLRs, the extra space tends to ensure your hands will always be able to reach and easily access the most important controls. This is a generalisation, however, and you’ll want to test them out for yourself. When you do, adjust camera settings and see what all the buttons do in manual mode (so you’re aware of their full capabilities). If it feels uncomfortable or awkward to make adjustments you’ll make often, you may want to consider a different model.
While most cameras are fairly similar, the little differences in body design can have a significant impact on their ease of use. While you can generally judge a camera’s abilities without ever using it, you’ll need to test it out yourself to make sure it feels right.[imgclear]
The next thing you want to understand is the difference between wide-angle, standard, medium, telephoto, and ultra telephoto lenses. These terms are all based on a lens’ focal length, which is a complex definition that’s beyond the scope of this lesson (if curiosity compels you, read about it on Wikipedia). What you need to know is that focal length is measured in millimeters (mm) and you can think of it like the amount of magnification. A low number is like being zoomed really far out, and a high number really far in. Here’s what you need to know about each type:
The Sensor And CPU
First of all, the size of the sensors matters. Compact point-and-shoot cameras have very small sensors and the difference in size between them is a smaller factor when choosing a camera. When it comes to cameras with interchangeable lenses, which include DSLRs and MILC/CSC/EVIL cameras (which are basically compact, mirrorless DSLR-like cameras that often—but not always—have smaller sensors), sensor size has a greater impact. Generally larger sensors provide better low-light performance, greater control over depth of field, and produce higher resolution images with less noise than a smaller sensor.
The majority of DSLRs have a sensor size most commonly known as APS-C. An APS-C sensor is about half the size of a frame of 35mm film and generally magnifies all lenses by a factor of 1.6x. This means that using a 35mm lens on a DSLR with an APS-C sensor is basically the same as using a 56mm lens on a regular 35mm camera. This is good news for telephoto lenses but bad news for wide angle, as every lens isn’t as wide as advertised when placed on an APS-C-based camera. A 10mm fish eye lens will produce photos like a 16mm wide-angle lens. It’s not a major downside for most people, but it’s important to know.
Some higher-end DSLRs contain full-frame sensors, such as the popular Canon 5D Mark II, which is equivalent to the size of a frame of 35mm film. Full-frame sensor DSLRs have the previously mentioned benefits that come with large sensors, but also are not subject to the 1.6x magnification like you’ll find with APS-C sensors. Basically, a full-frame sensor DSLR is about as close as you’re going to get to 35mm film with a digital camera.
While sensor design is very relevant to the image quality, and the only way you’re going to be able to judge that quality for certain is to see or produce sample images, you should pay attention to the sensor’s megapixel rating. In general, the more megapixels packed into a sensor the more noise you’ll find in a given image. This is why you don’t necessarily want to choose a camera with a high megapixel rating—especially when a camera has a smaller sensor. For most people, even a 6.3 megapixel camera is sufficient, but anywhere from 8-10 should be more than sufficient. The point is, don’t just buy one camera over the other because it has a higher megapixel count. It may produce noisier, less-desirable results — so you should always test first.
The Flash Card
Many DSLRs and compact cameras come with video capabilities, and writing this kind of data requires a fast flash card. Class 6 SD cards will still be enough for most point-and-shoots, but if your video-capable DSLR uses SD cards you’ll probably want a Class 10. Class 10 cards are not all created equal, however, and some are marginally faster than Class 6. In most cases any Class 10 should sufficient, and anything with a max write speed of 15MB per second be more than enough. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to get a faster card and some Class 10 SD cards are capable of write speeds twice that fast. CompactFlash cards are often used in higher-end DSLRs because they’re capable of faster speeds at a lower cost (mainly because they’re physically larger and that’s easier to achieve thanks to their size). A CompactFlash card rated 233x or higher should handle video in most any DSLR just fine, but faster cards will definitely make things run more smoothly.
With DSLRs you’ll often get a good battery but sometimes that battery will perform better in certain circumstances. DSLRs do not require the use of the LCD screen and you’ll generally take pictures through the viewfinder. The battery will last much longer when the LCD screen is not powered, so companies will often provide two ratings for the battery life: one in the number of photos you can take and one in the number of hours the battery will last. The number of hours generally refers to the amount of time the camera can be actively functioning with the LCD screen turned on and the number of photos is simply how many pictures you can expect to take without the aid of the LCD screen. When judging battery life for a particular camera, be sure you know if you plan to use it more with the LCD screen on or off first.
Your camera’s processor is also important, but most are so fast these days that it’s becoming somewhat irrelevant. If it can handle more than 7 RAW frames in succession, or 20-some JPEGs, it will never feel slow.
If your camera comes with a flash, you may want to find out how bright it is and test if the light it produces is sufficient. In most cases, it won’t be. If you really need a flash, you’re better off with an external, so don’t be discouraged if your camera doesn’t have one.
Hopefully this gives you a better idea of how the parts of your camera works and will help you to choose the right one if you’re looking to buy one. In the next lesson, we’ll dive into the settings on your camera.