Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cameras: An Incomplete Introduction

A few days back, a friend asked me for a bit of advice on selecting a new camera as a means to get into the art of photography. In my opinion, it was a question that could not be answered without (obviously!) asking a few questions of my own. I've had similar requests before, and I think it is about time I write down a basic introduction to cameras and related gear, so that I can use it for my own reference, as well as point others to it.

Please note that this article is simply the way I view the different cameras out there and how I would possibly use them. Also note that this is written from an enthusiast photographer's perspective. I'll keep updating this post from time to time. Feel free to point out any corrections. If you have anything to contribute to this post, let me know and I'll consider adding it in.

Some terms used in this article may not make sense unless the reader is acquainted with photography terminology. Questions are more than welcome, ask in the comments section!

So without further ado, let us get started...


Cameras can be classified into two main groups, Fixed-Lens cameras and Interchangeable-Lens cameras. The former group, as the name implies, have lenses that cannot be detached/changed/replaced, while the latter group enjoys the flexibility of using a variety of lenses for different purposes.

The Fixed-Lens group can be divided into three further groups: Basic Point & Shoot, Bridge/Prosumer and Advanced Compact.

Basic Point & Shoot Cameras

These cameras offer the user the most basic of photo-taking features. Most are small, light, and easily pocketable. Besides a number of effects presets and scene modes, these cameras offer the user few manual options, if any. A few are outfitted with special features, such as water and shock proofing.

P&S cameras are usually equipped with a zoom lens within a 24-150mm (35mm equivalent) range. They may have a minimum focus distance as low as 2cm (5cm seems to be the norm, according to the random camera specs I checked). Prices are usually $65 and above, depending on features.

If you have a decent camera-phone, a Point & Shoot can potentially give you a better lens with optical zoom, but does not offer major image quality improvements (unless you start pixel peeping). I used to be a firm believer in the idea that camera-phones could not match dedicated cameras - until I got an HTC One S. Now my Panasonic Lumix FX150 barely sees any use, unless I need it for some of its special talents.

There is a rather large variety of P&S cameras to choose from. Examples would include the budget Sony Cybershot WX50 and the water-and-shock-proof Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS. There are also other cameras which sit on the fence and may have enough features to stray into the bridge camera or the advanced compact territory (such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ1 or the Canon Powershot S110).

Bridge (aka Prosumer) Cameras

Bridge (also known as prosumer) cameras occupy the ground between P&S cameras and interchangeable lens systems (hence the name, bridge). They are sized accordingly; most are smaller than traditional DSLRs. Generally, these cameras offer the user more than a fair bit of manual control over exposure (aperture, shutter, ISO), and higher-end models may offer extra customization options and controls.

Bridge cameras usually offer an all-rounder lens with both wide-angle and telephoto features. Some are known as "ultra-zooms" since they are equipped with lenses having a very wide focal length range (optical zoom). To my knowledge, the Canon Powershot SX50 HS currently offers the highest zoom ratio; a 24-1200mm (35mm equivalent) lens, 50X. Such high zoom ratios are achieved by using smaller sensors (the digital equivalent of film) compared to most interchangeable lens systems.

In my opinion, bridge cameras were more relevant in the days when there was little variety among DSLRs (not to mention that they were super expensive). However, with the advent of cheap entry-level DSLRs (and lenses), I would recommend bridge cameras for people not interested in investing in a system and want a camera that can (in general) cater to all occasions.

A few bridge cameras in the market today: Sony Cybershot HX200VPanasonic Lumix LZ20Nikon Coolpix P510.

Advanced Compacts

Of all the fixed lens cameras, advanced compacts are my personal favorite. What makes them so enticing is their (often) larger sensors, abundant manual controls, and, relatively fast lenses, all inside a compact and flat package. Most (if not all) can shoot in a RAW format, which allows for more flexibility and control in the editing process.

Advanced compacts are mostly equipped with a fast zoom lens, such as the Canon Powershot G15 with its (35mm equivalent) 28-140mm f/1.8-2.8 lens. A few specialized cameras have fixed focal length lenses, like the new Sony Cybershot RX1 or the Sigma DP1 Merrill. Some of them are also equipped with a hotshoe for accessories such as flash units or wireless flash triggers.

When looking for an advanced compact, the main feature I would ponder over is the size of the sensor. To give an idea, here's a picture of sensor sizes overlaid, courtesy of Wikipedia. To put things in a bit of a perspective, most P&S and bridge cameras have a 1/2.3" sensor.

Sensor Size Comparison - Courtesy of Wikipedia

Some time ago, the advanced compact category was dominated by the Canon G-Series, with the only other option (as I recall) being one of the Panasonic LX cameras. However, the past couple of years have seen more manufacturers jumping in the fray, so now, there are quite a few options to choose from Some advanced compacts and their sensor sizes (sorted by ascending Sensor Size):

Canon Powershot S110 - 1/1.7"
Canon Powershot G15 - 1/1.7"
Nikon Coolpix P7700 - 1/1.7"
Panasonic Lumix LX7 - 1/1.7"
Olympus XZ-2 iHS - 1/1.7"
Fujifilm X10 - 2/3"
Sony Cybershot RX100 - 1"
Canon Powershot G1X - APS-C
Fujifilm X100 - APS-C
Sigma DP1 Merrill - APS-C
Sony Cybershot RX1 - Full Frame

With the plethora of features available to them, advanced compacts can generally handle most photographic scenarios within the "normal" focal length range. In my opinion, they are best for enthusiasts looking for high-end features in a compact package, or system camera users looking for a backup camera (for those events where you just can't lug around your camera gear!)

(Coming Soon)

Mirrorless Cameras
(Coming Soon)

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