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Lesson number 1: how to buy a camera body

When I bought my first SLR camera, I had absolutely no idea how it really worked and what to do with it. I soon worked out that just pointing an expensive lens at something and pressing a button did not automatically generate a work of art. This was a major blow for me, as I am fairly lazy and like things to work out first time. However I persevered and with time, I got to grips with my camera.

The main obstacles I faced were the huge choice and range of equipment and a lack of some of the very basic knowledge required to operate an SLR camera. What I could have done with was someone sitting down with me and explaining in simple English what each button and setting did and telling me how to actually take a half-decent photo. This would have saved me from taking some fairly bad ones early on.

Granted, most of the people who use dreamstime know exactly how to use an SLR camera (and so will tire of this blog pretty quickly), but there must be a fair few users out there who are starting out like I did; by deciding to be a photographer and wanting to sell stock, then buying a camera, and only then figuring out how to actually use it.

So with these people in mind, I have put what I learnt into a series of lessons, deliberately covering some of the really basic stuff – stuff that I wish someone had told me the same day I bought my camera. I will post these lessons on the dreamstime blog periodically. The lessons will take you step by step from the extreme basics through to more complex techniques in photography.

So here is my first lesson. Take what I say with a pinch of salt and please post comments liberally, with differing opinions very welcome.

Lesson 1: Buying A Camera Body

I’m not going to compare all the different cameras out there. Instead I want to summarise the different things that are worth thinking about when choosing a camera.

The choice in brands is overwhelming; Canon, Sony, Pentax, Nikon... each have their own fans that will defend their favourite brand on forums to their dying breath. So who’s right? Who cares! My advice is don’t waste much time trying to choose between brands. There are more important things to think about, and the differences are not worth getting caught up in. I went for canon because I found a good deal on a second hand one on ebay at the time I was looking to buy, simple as that.

Your camera will be made up of a ‘camera body’, and the lens. Ultimately the lens quality will determine the quality of your photos, and this is where you will end up spending more money over time. In terms of the body, the more you spend the more features you get, although these won’t all improve photographic quality, and won’t necessarily give you a camera that fits your needs. For example if you spend more money you may get:

• A fold out screen – great for taking photos at ground level and getting those candid shots

• The ability to take a greater number of shots per second in burst mode – useful for photographing a bird as it takes off, for example.

• Less noise at higher ISO speeds – important in low light conditions (all to be explained in future lessons)

• Bigger LCD screen and a live display

• Better quality sensor (this does impact the quality of a photo).

• Larger sensor

• More rugged, dustproof, weatherproof construction

• HD video capability.

• Bigger size of camera body

• More megapixels

Before I go on let me explain sensor size in a bit more detail. This is something that really confused me. So here is a basic explanation for anyone who is similarly confused. Remember the old days of film cameras with 35 mm film with perforated edges? In those days the size of a section of film on which the photo was taken was 35 mm in width. This would produce a negative from which the photo was made.

In a digital camera this film is replaced by a digital sensor. If this sensor is 35 mm in width then it is referred to as full-framed. The camera can be referred to as a full-framed camera.

My camera (a canon 350D) has what is known as a cropped frame i.e. its sensor is smaller than 35 mm. You may hear the term crop factor used. This refers to the extent to which a sensor is smaller than 35 mm. My sensor is 22.2 mm × 14.8mm in size. It has a crop factor of 1.5... so it is cropped in size by a factor of 1.5.

So now you know there are bigger sensors and smaller sensors. What’s the difference? Here is a summary.

1. Full sized sensors live in more expensive cameras. For example the canon range of single digit D cameras (1D, 5D etc) have a full sized sensor inside. They are more expensive. The double and triple digit D cameras (eg Canon 60D or 600D) have the smaller sensors.

2. A bigger sensor produces less noise for the same number of pixels (see explanation below)

3. If you fit the same lens to a camera with a bigger sensor, it will produce a wider angled photo (more zoomed-out) than the same lens fitted onto a camera with a smaller sensor. Just for the sake of it, here is a wide angled shot:

You want to know a bit more about this noise business? Here goes. You need to know it for future lessons anyway. Imagine you have an 8 megapixel camera. This means that your sensor comprises 8 million pixels. Each one of these pixels is a light detector. Expose these pixels to light and stick the results of each one together and you have yourself a photo.

These pixels aren’t perfect though. When a pixel fires it can sometimes trigger a neighbouring pixel to fire. This pixel will then produce a result that doesn’t correspond to real light that hit it. This is noise. The closer pixels are packed together, the more likely they are to trigger each other. So if your 8 million pixels are in an area of 22.2 mm × 14.8 they will be packed closer than if they were in an area of 24 x 36 mm. So the smaller sensor will suffer more from noise than the larger sensor. Hopefully that makes some sense.

I have summarised very quickly and simply the important factors in choosing a camera, and described some of the very basic knowledge which will assist you in making a wise choice, without going into detail and mathematics and all the rest of it.

Think about your budget, and think about what you actually need. For example I wasn’t interested in video capability so I didn’t choose a camera capable of this. I had a limited budget so I was never going to go for a full frame camera. However if you intent to shoot wildlife and will be frequently zooming in, then you will get more zoom for your lens with a cropped sensor and so this might actually be better than a full frame camera. I also like to take my camera all over - I have even had it strapped to a climbing harness in the French alps. So for me a smaller camera was ideal. More expensive does not necessarily mean best for your needs! You don’t have to spend a fortune! And then there is the whole mega pixel issue. Are you sure you need to spend money on an 18 mega pixel sensor? Perhaps if you want to blow up prints into gigantic posters then you do. Conversely, the extra resulting noise might be a reason not to fork out the extra cash. I do wish that I had chosen a camera with a larger LCD display, and one that folded out.

I was never too bothered about brand – I played around with a few different ones and the layout of controls were reasonable on all of them, and all did similar things. Think about these factors and shop wisely!

Please check out my fledgling portfolio, and browse some more of my photos at my site

Photo credits: Kim Deadman.

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June 25, 2012


Thanks Bradcalkins for the extra details and seawatch1 one for the nice comments. I will be posting further articles very soon.

June 24, 2012


Nice article. Well thought out. I agree that brand matters less than how you use it. Hope to read more. You have a nice way of explaining things.

June 21, 2012


A bit more detail on the whole 35mm thing. 35mm film used to run vertically in movie cameras, and 35mm is the 'width' of the film including the perforations. In a camera, the file runs the other way so the 'height' when taking a landscape orientation photo is 35mm. In that direction, the actual negative is only 24mm high, and the camera advances the film an arbitrary length to get a frame (38mm to get a gap between 36mm wide images). Thus, 24x36mm is the image size. In digital cameras there is really no longer anything related to the 35mm dimension, yet the name persists :)

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