June 13, 2012

A Tale Of Four Cameras

I don't know how he has managed it, but Tillerman has again bamboozled me into writing about something I thought I never would - the how-to's and the what-for's and the don't-even-think-about-it's of photography.

On balance, photography has treated me well. For 25 years she put a roof over my head, food on my table, and Kodachrome in my Nikons. I was a staff photographer for a now defunct wire service (it was for the most part still funct when I was there) and then a staffer for a succession of several daily newspapers. Eventually, photography led me to an even cushier job in the IT department of the last paper where I was a shooter, so she has indeed been a lady to me.

Like most ladies, though, she reveals her deepest secrets only reluctantly and to those who have wooed her with patience. There are simply no 'tips' that, if memorized, will turn your pictures into art.

Getting good at photography is like learning to sail a racing dinghy well. Get the basics down by reading or taking classes, study what the people you admire are doing, and then get your butt out there and practice, practice, practice. Compare your work with that of the pros as critically as you can or find a coach who will do that with ruthless objectivity. Getting good doesn't sound easy or like much fun at all, does it?

As in sailing, the best are in a league of their own. Have you ever watched the pros sail? They don't seem to be as focused on adjusting the sheet or outhaul or the tiller as you and I are. That all seems to happen automatically for them. They're ahead of every wave and windshift and instinctively move in the right way almost before required. The mechanics are so second nature to them, that they're free to focus on the big picture.

Photography is somewhat like that. No matter what equipment you have, don't wait until the Big Day to start learning how to use it. Carry it with you whenever you can and take pictures of everything. Familiarize yourself with all of the important controls so you don't have to fiddle with them when those Kodak moments happen.

Experiment. Discover what works and what doesn't. Take pictures on sunny days and dark ones. Take pictures with the sun behind you and in front of you. Take pictures inside with no flash and outside with flash. Find out what the 'macro' feature is and how to use it. Take pictures at night with no flash, even if you think it's too dark (digital cameras are much better at this than film cameras were). Take pictures in the rain, in the snow, in the fog, and in the nude (just checking to see if you're still paying attention).

And then, take more pictures. Unlike in the days of film, taking a lot of pictures with digital cameras costs you nothing and - still astounding to those of us who learned with film - you get to see the results instantly, while you can still correct many of your mistakes.

As others have stated in their responses to Tillerman's latest blogging challenge, which camera you choose has little to do with how good your pictures will be at first. Today's digital cameras are that good. If you can't make good pictures with a simple point and shoot camera, a $5000 SLR probably won't improve your work much.

The more elaborate (and more expensive) cameras can certainly do things that the simple ones can't, but don't worry about that too much if you're just learning. Start simple and, as you improve, you'll learn the limitations of a simple camera and what features you'll want in your next one. If you choose well, though, you won't have to throw away the simple camera when you get a better one. In some situations, the small, simple camera is a better choice than the big, expensive one.

I guess these generalities still aren't much help to the beginner overwhelmed by the vast variety of cameras available today, so I've dredged through my closet to try to make some sense of all the hardware that's out there.

Here's an overview of the four most common types of camera on the market today and what they're all about.

In the beginning, there were basically two types of digital camera - the tiny little point and shoot on the right in the photo and the big, bad SLR on the left. If all you could afford was the little, wimpy, itty-bitty camera, you made do with crappy pictures. If you were a serious, macho photo dude who wanted to impress his friends and who also maybe wanted better pictures, you sprang for the heavy iron on the left.

But things began to change and then changed some more and then kept changing. The technology of the sensor chips and their supporting electronics vastly improved in all cameras - even in the wimpy, itty-bitty ones. (The sensor chip is the digital equivalent of film - it's the small array of millions of tiny photo cells that records the light coming through the lens and converts it into an electronic image.) Today, some of those tiny (and inexpensive) point and shoot cameras make remarkably good pictures.

But other things started changing, too. A lot of those dudes who bought the big, macho SLR's and all of the big fancy lenses that go with them started having lower back problems from hauling around all of that weight. And their friends stopped inviting them to parties because they looked like such geeks with all of that stuff hung around their necks.

And some of the people who bought the little itty-bitty cameras started learning more about photography and wanted better lenses and more control over how their cameras took pictures.

So, the camera companies got smart, smelled some new potential markets, and started designing cameras that were somewhere between the itty-bitty cameras and the great big macho SLR's.

The first to come along was the 'premium' point and shoot like the smaller Lumix camera in the photo. These cameras have slightly larger sensor chips (than the smallest point and shoots), better quality and 'faster' lenses (that can take pictures in dimmer light), and more sophisticated controls.

A more recent innovation is exemplified by the larger Lumix camera pictured here. These 'mirrorless' cameras have sensors much closer in size to the ones in the big, bad SLR, but the elimination of the 'reflex' viewing system (the 'R' in SLR) and a  sensor that's still smaller than the SLR's means these cameras (and their lenses) can be made about half the size of the SLR and provide image quality very nearly as good, while retaining the chief advantage of the SLR - interchangeable lenses.

I think these mirrorless cameras are the future of digital photography for those who don't need all of the features that professional photographers do - and most of us don't, including this former pro. Since I got that Lumix mirrorless camera, my Nikon SLR sits at home on Saturday nights and hardly gets out at all anymore, sniff.

But the real surprise for me was the quality of image produced by the next smaller camera in the photo - the little Lumix LX-5. That is currently the camera I carry around the most, mainly because it's small enough to carry around.

You may notice that it has a funny little doohickey stuck on top. That's an electronic viewfinder that lets me use the camera at eye level, just like an old fashioned film camera (or a digital SLR). I'm too old school to adjust to holding a camera at arm's length. I find an eyelevel finder much easier to use, especially outside in bright sun, and bracing a camera against your head while shooting (as God intended) makes it possible to hold the camera much steadier in low light. This is an example of some of the sophisticated features being built into this class of 'premium' point and shoot cameras which aren't really 'point and shoot' anymore unless you insist on using them that way.

You may also notice that none of the cameras in this photo is a very recent model. All have been replaced by either improved models or bettered by cameras from competing camera companies. This is because I never run out and buy the latest trendy camera. I'm much too chea..., uh, sensible to do that.

Since digital camera models are phased out and upgraded on average about every 29 minutes, the best bargains are to be had by waiting for a model to be 'improved' and by then buying the hopelessly outdated previous model that was brand new just last month.

The bottom line, then, is that if you want the most versatile camera that will do everything you might possibly need in the future but will be too bulky for you to actually carry around, get the SLR. If you want something with nearly all the same features and image quality but half the size and bulk, get one of the new mirrorless cameras. If you want a camera you're more likely to always have with you, get a simple point and shoot or one of the 'premium' point and shoots. If you get serious about photography, you'll probably end up with several types anyhow, so it's hard to go wrong no matter what type you start with.

The most important point is to stop reading blogs, get off your butt, and get out there and start taking pictures.