Regardless of whether you are a general or specialty photographer (see Part 1), your camera will only keep you happy if you get the images you want. For that every camera has to be adjustable to meet your need. You need to consider the following.
Low light without flash – you must be able to adjust the ISO on your camera. This is a measure of the sensitivity of the sensor to light: the higher the number the more sensitive. Evening wedding banquets, indoor sports arenas, inside offices – light will be dimmer than you think (your eyes see better than your camera). You need to be able to adjust your camera at least up to ISO 1600.
This image was taken inside Hoover Dam, where as you can imagine the lighting is not very bright. I had to hand-hold the camera (no tripods allowed) so in order to get a fast enough shutter speed I ran the ISO up to 1600.
Higher ISO settings do increase the “noise” in your image – speckles that hurt fine details and become visible in the picture. The picture on the left below was made at ISO 3200 because the sun had not come up yet and I needed a shutter speed fast enough to hand-hold the camera. The enlargement on the right shows the ‘noise’ in the image.
Check camera reviews to find out which cameras keep noise down at high ISO. By the way, smaller sensors get “noisier” at lower ISO settings so for this size does matter.
Freezing action – you must be able to adjust the shutter speed on your camera. Stopping runners at a track meet, birds in flight, people dancing – the faster the shutter speed the more action you can stop. Fortunately most cameras now go up to 1/2000 second (some higher) which is pretty fast. Of more importance is how easy is it to adjust the shutter speed. Flipping through several screens in a menu to find a fast shutter speed while your bald eagle flies away can be frustrating. Look for a thumbwheel you can easily and quickly turn to get the speed you need.
Depth of field – you want to be able to easily adjust the aperture on your camera. Say you want a photograph of your daughter playing in a field of flowers where she is in focus and the flowers (or bulldozer) behind her is blurred. Nice art look to bring attention to the subject of the photograph and eliminate all that distracting background. Depth of field is controlled by the camera’s aperture, usually called the f/stops. Smaller f/stops (f/4, f/5.6) mean narrow depth of field to keep your daughter in focus and the background not. Higher f/stops (f/16, f/22) mean wide depth of field to keep your family and the Grand Canyon they are standing next to all in focus.
As with shutter speed, you want to be able to adjust this quickly. Look for a thumbwheel or fast-action buttons.
Beyond these basics there are probably hundreds of features offered and the list can drive you crazy if you let it. Want to shoot video? Will it be 720 or 1080? Want art filters to process your images in the camera instead of computer? What kind of storage do you want to use – CF, SD, etc.? What about battery life? Will you be using the RAW or JPG format to save files? [RAW is unprocessed right out of the sensor and JPG lets the camera process the image for you - the former results in larger files than the latter, meaning fewer images on your storage device.] Do you want a viewfinder or are you OK with holding the camera at arm’s length to compose? How big a screen on the back (which is where you’ll see your pictures most often)? Each of these features brings with it benefits that may be of value to you – something you have to determine for your type of photography. Just don’t let the features get in the way of your understanding of the basic controls of the camera and how to change settings to get what you want.
And remember ergonomics – is the camera a joy to hold or a pain to wrap your fingers around? Can you get a good grip on it or does it feel like you’re holding on with your fingertips? Are the controls easily accessed and in a logical layout? Those basic functions you want to control – are they assigned to specific buttons, do you have to push several buttons or are they buried in a menu tree? How much weight are you willing to lug around all day?
Gets complicated fast. Still, it’s just a tool you want to fit you, not the other way around. Keep in mind the vast majority of features on cameras lie unused, either because they don’t help the photography process or because users don’t know they are there. Don’t get dazzled by all the bells and whistles. Photography is a pretty mature technology where you control the amount of light going into a box so an image is focused and captured for future viewing. The basic controls haven’t changed in over 100 years – everything else is just fancy wrapping.