Beginner’s Digital Photography Crash Course: Choosing Your Equipment
The technical specifications of your camera often sound very impressive. On the camera box, you’ll see words like “20 megapixels on a high quality CMOS sensor.” Or “powerful VR II lens included.” Sorting through all of the jargon to understand exactly what you’re buying, might be difficult for those new to photography. How do you know if you even need all of your camera’s features? If you have a user manual, now’s a good time to open it. Then turn to the tech specs section and make sure you understand exactly what your camera can do. Or if you’re in the market for one, continue on to ensure you’re making an informed decision.
Table of Contents
Crash Course Series
- History of Digital Cameras
- Equipment and Accessories
- Types of Photography
- Exposure and Composition
- Choosing Your Equipment
- Additional Resources
Megapixel counts are probably the most misunderstood rating in terms of importance. Megapixels are how many millions of light detecting pixels your camera sensor contains. The more megapixels your camera sensor has, the higher the image resolution. Most digital cameras on the market today hold around 14 to 24 megapixels of resolution. But pixels are not all created equally. They vary in size based on brand and sensor size. If you try to put 24 megapixels onto a small sensor, they won’t perform as well as they would on a larger APS-C or full-frame sensor. Closely bunched pixels can cause interference with each other, and also gather less light due to their smaller size.
Generally speaking, it’s great to have as much resolution as you can. But most photographers need way less than you might guess. Many people show the majority of their photos on social media websites like Facebook or Twitter. If you aren’t cropping or expanding the images for large prints, 10 megapixels of resolution is plenty for clear photos. Also keep in mind, an image with more megapixels takes up more megabytes of storage space. Social media sites downgrade the image quality to conserve space after uploading. Your end result might look far worse than the 24 MP resolution it actually has. This is because the downgrading functions of these websites are not as accurate as personal computer software.
If you’ll be cropping or enlarging photos often, then you’ll want more megapixels. Otherwise, when you make these changes, the results will start to look pixelated and blurry. If you have a compact camera with a small zoom range, the higher megapixel rating can be useful. You’ll have the equivalent of digital zoom by being able to crop out portions of pictures you don’t like. Also, most digital cameras today offer Low, Normal, and High resolution modes when saving in JPEG format. This lets you use lower megapixel counts when taking photos to save space on your memory card. So don’t get too hung up on the megapixel counts and instead look at what else the camera offers.
Sensor Size and Type
Sensor type is far less confusing. The two major types are CMOS and CCD. Most consumer-level digital cameras on today’s market use a CMOS sensor. CCD sensors are older and have a few advantages, such as a slightly higher image quality. Cameras specialized for astrophotography and the medical industry still use CCD sensors. But modern CMOS sensors have almost completely replaced them for photography, as they use less power and are less noisy.
As nearly every consumer digital camera on the market today uses a CMOS sensor, there’s little point talking about which you should choose. But sensor size is definitely worth considering. The lower cost of compact cameras make them very attractive to budget shoppers. But it’s good to know that the smaller sensors of these cameras have certain limitations. The three major problems with small sensors are dynamic range, depth of field, and noise levels. And all three are due to a smaller image sensor receiving less light than a larger one. Dynamic range is the range of colors your photos display. The dynamic range of your photos will be much poorer compared to photos taken with a larger sensor.
Although aperture is the main control for depth of field, sensor size also plays a role. This is because both aperture and sensor size control how large a patch of light you have to work with. If you make that patch smaller with a small sensor, the result is similar to increasing your f/stop. And on a compact camera, the aperture often can’t open very wide, as the lenses are built to be general use. So you won’t get the shallow depth of field and blurred background of portraits taken with an interchangeable lens camera. The lowered light levels due to the size of the sensor means image noise is more of an issue as well.
Compact and smartphone cameras have the smallest sensors. The sensors of these cameras are usually around 1/3.2″ (4.54 x 3.42 mm) to 1″ (12.8 x 9.6 mm). From there, the mirrorless cameras of the Micro 4/3rds line use a 17.3 x 13 mm sensor. APS-C is next; each manufacturer is slightly different by a millimeter or so. For reference, a Canon APS-C sensor is 22.2 x 14.8 mm. Last are full-frame sensors, which are the same size as 35 mm film (35-36 x 24 mm).
Micro 4/3rds is the best starting point for sensor sizes offering high-quality photography. From there, APS-C and full-frame offer even greater improvements in dynamic range and noise control.
Image Stabilization has many names such as VR, IS, O.I.S., depending on the brand. IS is the most common abbreviation for this technology. Image Stabilization is used by cameras to counteract unwanted motions from blurring the picture the moment you snap the shutter. Motions of the photographer, clicking the shutter too hard, the shutter’s click itself, and other factors, will all shake the camera slightly. But luckily, there’s an easy to remember rule to follow. Don’t use a shutter speed slower than the focal length (zoom) of your lens. For a lens extended to 200 mm, it’s best not to use a shutter speed slower than 1/200th of a second. And so forth. The rule doesn’t quite work at very high or low focal lengths. But it’s a good rule of thumb to follow if you aren’t using IS.
Besides tripods and monopods, IS comes in three major forms. The first is software or digital image stabilization. Software on the camera analyzes the resulting image to try and counteract motion blur. The second is in-lens image stabilization. The lens has components that work to stabilize the image and reduce the effect of shaky motions. The third is in-body image stabilization. There are many different ways to do in-body image stabilization, but they all have the same goal, negating motion blur.
Image stabilization is sometimes rated in “stops” of light, which is very easy to understand. All you need to do is look at the progression of shutter speed. A stop of light is a halving or doubling of the amount of light entering the camera. Each movement up or down the shutter speed scale is a stop of light. Say you’re shooting a scene handheld where you start to get motion blur at 1/250th of a second. Or maybe you’re on a boat and there’s slight movement. If you activate two stops of IS from your lens, then you could shoot at 1/60th of a second with the same chances of motion blur. If you keep your shutter speed at 1/250ths of a second, you’ll have much better results thanks to IS.
Image stabilization isn’t a perfect system because shaking and unwanted motion are chaotic and unpredictable. The click of a shutter is not equal to taking pictures while driving on a bumpy road. So you may still see some blur even if you have multiple sources of IS.
Any type of Image Stabilization is a good feature to have. The more the better, as they will usually work together. Say you have two stops of in-lens IS, and three stops of in-body IS. As long as both lens and camera are the same brand, you should end up with five stops of IS. Five stops of IS lets you shoot up to 1/30th of a second while a photographer without it needs at least 1/1000ths of a second. You and the other photographer both would have the same chance of motion blur thanks to IS.
Image stabilization does have a few downsides. It can add costs, complexity, and size to camera and lenses. In-body IS can also use additional battery power, so make sure you can turn it off when it’s not needed. But as a whole, image stabilization is useful and essential for any photographer that shoots handheld.
There are two major types of autofocus for digital cameras. Contrast detection is found in compact cameras, mirrorless cameras, and some DSLRs. Smartphones usually use contrast detection as well. As the name suggests, the sensor looks for the highest color contrast in the image it’s creating. An image with blurry borders has less contrast than one with clean, sharp lines. The system will pan in-and-out to try and find the sharpest image before the photo is taken. Contrast detection is slower than phase detection, the second type, but generally more accurate.
Phase detection is much different and more complex. It is used in DSLRs, premium smartphones, and many mirrorless cameras. To simplify as much as possible, phase detection uses two sensors for every phase detection autofocus point. The autofocus system analyzes how the wavelengths of light reaching both sensors compare to each other. If they don’t match properly, then the system adjusts the lens’s focus until the wavelengths of light match up. Phase detection is not as accurate as contrast detection, but it’s very fast and often accurate enough.
If you have a newer mirrorless camera, you might have a hybrid AF system. They come in many different designs but they all combine elements of both contrast and phase detection. The amount of improved speed and accuracy depends entirely on the camera.
Unless you specialize in a single type of photography, the system you choose is not that important. The action photographer will want a good phase detection or hybrid system for autofocus tracking speed. For anything else, contrast detection will be fast enough for most users. And phase detection, while not as accurate, will be hard for most photographers to find problems with. The portrait photographer will certainly prefer contrast detection for perfect accuracy on faces and eyes. But contrast detection also has more issues in low light settings than phase detection. Still, either system will serve you well.
The number of autofocus points is more important to think about. The more points you have, the more locations you have to place the focus of your image. Low budget digital cameras sometimes have only one point right in the center of the frame for focusing on a subject. Higher end models may have hundreds of selectable points. You might decide to photograph a person off-center. Having the option to choose exactly which part of the picture you want to keep in focus is very handy. The more points you have, the greater creative control you have available.
ISO is your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light, as discussed previously. It is sometimes on the box because it’s a big, impressive looking collection of numbers. “Astounding low-light performance with ISO 100-102,400 equivalent.” But ISO isn’t something we want to max as high as possible. We generally want the lowest ISO we can manage, to avoid noise in our images.
ISO 102,400 would give us images in extremely dark settings that might look interesting. But many of the cameras that shoot that range only give black and white, noisy images. And why would you want pictures like that? Cheaper compact cameras sometimes max out at around ISO 1600. Anything less than shade on a sunny day will challenge their sensors somewhat. A good ISO range is useful, but it’s much better to understand all three elements of the Exposure Triangle. Of the three, ISO is the setting you’ll be adjusting the least.
Anything greater than 6400-12,800 is a bonus feature, but you should rarely go beyond these levels. Shutter speed and aperture are much more useful adjustments to make for low lighting. If you like night photography, a higher ISO range can be useful. However, you’re still going to spend more time adjusting the other parts of the Exposure Triangle. Focus instead on how slow of a shutter speed you can achieve if you’re often in low light or darkness. Or make sure to buy lenses that have wide open apertures for good exposure. Combining these with proper flash use should ensure you never have to use extreme ISO values.
Lens mounts vary based on what brand and type of camera you’ve purchased. If you own a Canon DSLR, you’ll probably see “EF-mount” somewhere on the box. Or “F-mount” for a Nikon DSLR. All of these are proprietary and tell you what sort of lenses will fit onto the camera body. And you can always search the mount on the manufacturer’s website to see what sort of lenses are available. Sometimes the manufacturers come out with bodies that don’t use standard mounts. This would make your selection much smaller than you might like. Some, like the Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3rds cameras, even share mount types. This means you can buy a lens from either manufacturer and use it on your Olympus or Panasonic camera.
Lenses hold their value so it’s easy to find old or used lenses available for purchase. Many people, like pawn shop owners, assume an old lens must be worthless. This means you’ll be able to pick up those lenses for bargain prices.
Nikon’s F-mounts work on an especially versatile line of lenses. F-mount lenses were first created in 1959, and there are over a hundred different older F-mount lenses you can use with modern bodies. The lens mount is less important to be aware of than other factors, as you can find mount adapters for other lenses. But make sure you have access to most of the lens selection of the manufacturer. Or at least all of the lenses you want to use.
Picture File Format
If you are buying a DSLR or mirrorless camera, it will almost certainly show JPEG and RAW as your two available format options. These are the two single most important file types in photography. A JPEG file is used by any device with a display, such as your computer, smartphone, tablet, etc. JPEGs are readable by all of them, and are compressed, which means they have data removed to keep the file size small. The file size depends entirely on your camera’s megapixel resolution and the quality settings you preselected.
RAW is the second image file format cameras can create. RAW files are readable only by your camera and devices with special software. These files are just as important as JPEGs to a photographer, because they contain all of the original image data. They’re your “digital photo negatives.” They are not compressed files, so they take up much more storage space. RAW files are usually between 20 and 50 MB each, depending on your camera settings and resolution.
RAW files are great if you want to do any sort of photo editing on your computer after you take a picture. With software that can decode RAW, any edits you do, such as noise removal or adjusting exposure, will look much cleaner. This is because all of the original image data is being accessed and modified. Editing JPEGs isn’t as clean because it’s a compressed file. There’s less information for the software to work with, so the results don’t look quite as good. Both file types have their place; even professionals often shoot JPEG.
Sometimes you just want the picture and don’t care to do a lot of editing later. Most cameras today that shoot RAW and JPEG can even save both types at once onto the memory card. However, using this option does take up a lot of memory card space very quickly. Some compact cameras offer RAW format as a feature, but very few. Most compact cameras are marketed to a budget audience who treats photography more casually. They aren’t as likely to want the option to shoot in RAW. But if you find your camera only shoots JPEG, then remember that the images are still perfectly usable. Even if you shoot and edit a RAW image, it still needs to be converted to JPEG to be displayed on another device. It’s a matter of file size and how important high-quality image editing is to you.
Wireless and GPS features are sometimes overlooked but can be very useful. Many cameras allow the user to use Wi-Fi, NFC (Near Field Communication), or Bluetooth to sync the camera with a smart device. Smartphones and tablets are generally the smart devices most people use. At the most basic level, camera wireless features allow photos to be sent to the device without removing the memory card. Most of the major manufacturers also have apps that let you control your camera remotely. You can zoom, make adjustments to settings, and see what the camera sees. You can then take the picture with your smart device, and send the photo straight to that device.
Some cameras also offer GPS connectivity. The camera can detect the network of GPS satellites around the globe to precisely mark the location, elevation, and time a photo was taken.
For photographers that want to upload to social media as quickly as possible, wireless connectivity is almost essential. You can save the time it takes putting your memory card into your computer and having to upload from there. Even if you’re not using social media, having a free remote control for your camera is hard to beat. Taking self or group portraits becomes much easier. And removing a source of camera shake is also good if you don’t have image stabilization.
For the wildlife or landscape photographer, a camera with GPS functionality is a great purchase. Some image hosting websites like Flickr allow albums to show geotagged information. Your viewers can then see on a map exactly when and where a photo was taken. But some of the smart device apps that remotely control cameras can also use the smartphone GPS chip to geotag a photo. So if you need this feature, but the camera you want doesn’t have GPS, there are still ways to geotag photos.
When it comes to video recording, HD (High-Definition), Full HD, and 4K all sound impressive, but what do they mean? Nearly every digital camera can record in standard definition (SD), which is a 640×480 pixel recording. This is the lowest recording quality, but SD resolution also takes up the least amount of space on your memory card. High definition (HD) is the next level of quality, at 1280×720 pixels. Resolution continues to increase to Full HD, which is 1920×1080. And a growing number of cameras can record in 4K video, at 3840×2160 (and/or DCI 4K at 4069×2160).
If your TV, smartphone, or computer has a 4K screen, it can display the best video quality a consumer-level camera can create. If you don’t own one, it’s not that necessary unless you plan on recording in 4K or downgrading to Full HD from a 4K video.
Downgrading from 4K to Full HD actually creates a better Full HD video than recording natively in that resolution. That’s because the conversion software can use oversampling while going from 4K to Full HD. Oversampling ensures the extra information from the high resolution video doesn’t go to waste in the downgrade. The new video is sharper and has a slightly more accurate color profile compared to native Full HD recording. But anyone owning a 4K display should consider 4K resolution a priority if they record video often.