I take a lot of photos. It is my hobby and my passion. I am lucky enough to be able to earn a small amount of money from my hobby and passion, which although very small does kind of make me semi-professional. A status that I quite enjoy giving myself. Why do I take photographs? The simple answer is I can’t draw or paint. I am artistic with artistic tendencies and a creative mind but I need a camera to produce my art for me. I started with my first SLR camera (Single Lens Reflex) and a tiny black and white dark room in my coal shed back home in the UK 33 years ago, and I have been with digital cameras ever since they became available. I sold my first picture at the age of 16. It was taken at a car racing circuit in Oxfordshire where I was lucky enough to get access to the centre of the track as an official photographer. Since then I have specialised in Equestrian Photography, undertaken studio work, been the official photographer for a magazine and undertaken many private commissions as well as selling plenty of images to stock photo library’s such as Getty Images.
Now with 33 years of semi-professional professional photography behind me, it is not uncommon for people to ask me what camera I would recommend for them. Which is a question that needs to be qualified with more information about what you want to use it for. However here are my thoughts:-
Size Maters. Doesn’t it?
Virtually everywhere I go I see people walking around with a DSLR (Digital SLR) hung around their neck. And as far as I can tell, the bigger the camera, the more of an enthusiast/photographer it makes them. Sitting in McDonalds I will regularly see a group of people with at least one huge DSLR owner in the group blasting away capturing images of anything and everything. DSLR’s could be used as a statement, I have a big and sometimes expensive camera, thus I am a fantastic photographer. Having that expensive looking camera is the proof that you are a photographer. Of course you are a photographer look at the size of your camera.
Why a DSLR?
A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) is the size and shape that it is for many reasons, most of them physics. Although there are smaller true DSLR’s on the market now, they still tend to maintain a sizable amount of bulk. The term SLR comes from the mechanism that allows you to look through your cameras viewfinder and see exactly what is coming through your lens. There is a mirror at a 45 degree angle directly in the path of the light coming through your lens, preventing it from hitting the digital sensor (or film as it was in the old days) at the back of your camera and bouncing it up and through your viewfinder instead. When you press your shutter button to take a picture the mirror flips up out of the way (thus your viewfinder momentarily goes blank) and allows the light to hit the sensor (or film as it was) to expose the image, then flips back down again so you can see through the lens again. And that’s why you hear that familiar click associated with DSLRs as the mirror flips up and back down again. The great thing about SLRs is that because you are looking through the lens you can zoom, focus and frame your shot while seeing exactly what will be captured when you press the shutter release. Because DSLRs tend to be bigger there is lots of room to put loads of buttons and controls. A true photographer who actually knows how to drive a camera enjoys having all these controls easily accessible to make adjustments to the image they are going to capture quickly. Going through menus takes too long selecting what you want your camera to do, so knobs, extra buttons and dials make a photographers life much easier. DSLRs can accommodate large accessories like professional grade flash guns (or strobes as they are also known), large powerful lenses, filters, battery packs etc. Basically for someone that knows what they are doing, the DSLR is the preferred tool. And all of the aforementioned DSLR benefits means it can take extraordinarily good photos. And if you are not an experienced photographer it doesn’t matter. Just make sure your DSLR is in automatic mode and 9 times out of 10 it will still capture a good quality image. All you have to do is make sure you are pointing it in the right direction, and forget all those buttons, dials and knobs exist. [A] for Automatic mode is all your dial ever needs to be set to.
Back in the days of film cameras before the advent of the digital age. Smaller cameras didn’t have room to accommodate the SLR mechanism. So instead of your viewfinder looking through the lens and seeing what will hit the film at the back of the camera when you click, there was a smaller lens next to the main lens built into the camera body that you would look through. Now the problem with that is that the small lens you were looking through was not necessarily seeing what your main lens was seeing. So you may think you have just taken a great shot of the bride and groom at the wedding you are attending, but when you got your prints back from the chemist, you find the top of their heads missing and instead of being in the centre of the image where you thought you had put them, they are over to the left possibly with an arm missing as well. With digital cameras came the LCD screen on the back. What a massive evolutionary jump in camera design this was. Now you can see through your lens at all times. When you press the shutter button you capture exactly what was on the your LCD screen at the time. No need for big clumsy DSLRs, now even the smallest of cameras can enjoy the same benefits of seeing what your lens sees. So why do I still need the big DSLR? Well for a number of reasons and one of the main ones that I have not discussed yet is the larger digital sensor normally found in DSLRs. So as well as the extra buttons, knobs, accessories and huge lens capability, the DSLR normally also comes with a physically larger sensor because there is plenty of room to put one in there. Sensor size is quite a big issue, and one that I am not going to go into too much detail about here because it deserves a chapter not a paragraph to explain it. But here is the main bits; Photography is all about capturing light. The larger the surface area of your sensor, the more light it can capture. Yes there is also that megapixel thingy to take into consideration. But more megapixels doesn’t always equal clearer pictures. Sometimes manufactures pile loads of megapixels onto a tiny sensor to make it sound better than one of its competitors on paper, but the image it captures may not be as good as a camera with less megapixels but with a larger sensor and a better lens. So megapixels aren’t the only thing to look at when buying a camera. There is a lot more to it than that. The larger sensor found in DSLRs will deliver colour saturated, detailed crisper images than the smaller sensors found in most compact cameras. Thus if image quality is your primary concern, a DSLR may be heading towards the top of your shopping list right now.
If you want to know more about sensor sizes, here is a nice easy to read guide for you: Gizmag
Do you want to take up photography, or just take good photos?
So back to the subject of which camera you should buy. If you intend to take up photography as a hobby, then you will definitely benefit from the DSLR’s extra features and you won’t mind the extra bulk. However many people buy a DSLR with good intentions but then start leaving it at home because it is too much hassle to carry it around. One or two weeks of enthusiasm and then the DSLR is left in a closet somewhere waiting for the next birthday before it will come out again. So what was the point of buying it? Is this you? Are you really prepared to lug that beast of a camera around? Are you prepared to babysit it while out, ensuring it doesn’t get stolen while you are eating at a restaurant or knocked and damaged while travelling? The reality is most people think they need a DSLR when in fact they don’t. What they need is a good quality easy to use compact camera that they don’t mind taking out with them when they go. A camera is only of use if you have it with you and it’s not back home in the closet feeling lonely and missing all of the action. I have two cameras. I have a big meaty Sony a77 with loads of extras for when I know I am going on a shoot. I carry it in a backpack along with lenses, filters, flash etc etc. It is heavy to carry (10kg) and not something I want to take everywhere with me. The Sony a77 is a large DSLR and when combined with the battery grip which gives me more hours of shooting, extra controls and an extra portrait grip is almost as big as the biggest DSLRs on the market today. I love using it, it takes great pictures and it does everything I want. But I hate carrying it around with me. Going on vacation with this means I am in photographer mode everywhere I go, and the camera is a major consideration in everything I do. This I find actually detracts from the vacation, and although I come back with some great images I feel the camera detracted from certain aspects of my holiday because I was constantly having to babysit and lug the thing around. I feel I would have enjoyed my vacation more without it. Also when you have a DSLR on you, you look like a stereotypical tourist which I hate, and also some people get nervous or shy when you start pointing it at them. My second camera is the love of my life. It’s another Sony, the DSC-RX100 which is so small it fits in my pocket. I carry it everywhere with me and boy does it take an amazing photograph. It has the ability to be controlled manually for when I want to be creative with it, but most of the time it is an Auto Mode and is ready to come out and grab a shot at short notice.
This is exactly the type of camera I think most people need. If you can do without the status symbol of having a DSLR around your neck, go for the best compact camera your budget will allow. Pick one that will travel with you easily, one that has a large sensor to soak up all of that important light and one that doesn’t make people run for the hills and hide when you point it at them. I find I get much better shots of people with this little chap because I can hide it in my hand and use it at waist level getting candid shots of people unaware they are even being photographed which gives lovely natural looking images. I don’t get thrown out of shopping malls (where security hate cameras that look like cameras) and you are allowed to take compact cameras into events that DSLRs would never be allowed into like concerts or circuses etc. So if you are thinking of getting yourself a decent camera, please think twice about a DSLR. Unless you are truly going to take up photography as a pastime, go for a camera you will use, one you won’t mind taking out with you for a social gathering or a walk along the Corniche, and one that will deliver near DSLR performance giving you quality memories of quality moments.