Ultimate guide to cameras: Tips for buying the best
10 essential tips for buying the best
Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30
Many people are considering a good camera for the holidays. But there's a lot to think about. Which brand is best? Will my camera be future-proof? What kind of lens do I really need? And should I know anything about stuff like photo-editing software? Here are the 10 things you really need to know.
1 What's the main difference between the brands?
Is it better to buy one brand over another? Not really: the top marques all keep up when it comes to optical quality and under-hood technology. At the high end, most people plump for Canon or Nikon, because they have the most developed range of lenses (and third-party manufacturers making lenses for them, also). But other brands such as Olympus or Pentax are also highly rated, while Sony has made significant ground in its DSLR range. Panasonic has a massive range of lenses for its 'mini-DSLR' cameras, while Fuji has some very critically-acclaimed models. Boutique, classic brands such as Leica are excellent but very, very pricey.
2 Where should I store photos?
It's worth buying a dedicated external hard drive (€60 will get you a decent 500GB model from Iomega or Toshiba or Western Digital) as a backup. It is also worth having a Flickr account, as you get 1,000GB of free online storage there.
3 Do I need photo-editing software? If so, which is the best?
While serious photographers get into deep photo-editing, most of us only need the ability to brighten, sharpen, crop or straighten photos. If you have an Apple MacBook, iPhoto does this in a simple way. Free online tools such as Google's Picasa also does this fairly well. If you're more ambitious, it's hard to see past either Photoshop or Lightroom, both from Adobe. However, these take a bit of getting used to.
4 Should I invest in other lenses? Which ones do I really need?
In general, the lens is more important to the quality of the shot than the camera. So while an entry-level DSLR's 18-55mm kit lens will do the job, those wanting to move up a gear should think of an additional lens. There are (literally) hundreds to choose from. As a rule, 'wide' lenses (under 30mm) are best for landscape scenery shots. And lenses between 28mm and 70mm are generally considered best for 'portrait' (people) shots.
The lower the 'F' number, the better the light-allowance and the more expensive the lens will be. For example, a zoom lens that goes as low as F2.8 will far more expensive than a zoom lens that stops at F4, because it lets more light in. Some of these lenses cost over €2,000. One exception is the 50mm F1.8 lens for Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras that costs under €150: this is a must-buy in my view.
5 Memory cards: are they all the same?
No. If you want to take single snaps, a basic 'class 6' memory card (you'll get a 16GB card for around €15) will do fine. But if you want to take rapid shots or use your camera's video function to its potential, you may need a faster 'class 10' memory card (this will cost around €35 for a 16GB card. The key is the speed at which the camera can 'write' images to the card.
6 Where is the best place to print photos?
Pharmacy photo-booths produce limited quality and sizes. I find professional photo developers are well worth the extra few cents per shot. I often use Conn's Photolab (connsphotolab.com) which offers a decent service via email. Online services such as photobox.ie and snapfish.ie offer low-cost prints but you have to 'sign up' to membership via online registration forms, which I find irritating.
7Are dedicated photo-printers worth buying?
For affordable (below €200) models from Canon and Epson, the quality is just about acceptable and constrained to 6x4 prints or smaller. But you will need to replace inks and other materials from time to time. More expensive dedicated photo-printers produce great results with more flexible sizes but cost over €500 and are fussy to use.
8 Are 'cashback' offers genuine?
Yes, but they take a lot of form-filling. You need to find the right part of the website, enter lots of details (such as your banking 'Iban', 'Bic' and other jargonish terms) and wait for 'approval' for a bank transfer. A valid question might be: why doesn't the manufacturer just reduce the headline price? A cynic might suspect that a large percentage of people never successfully complete the 'cashback' form.
9 Should I get a separate flash?
Some people regard flash photography as ugly and cheap-looking. But sometimes you need one. And it's not just for nighttime parties. Sunny days can create unseemly shadows on faces, which can be banished by a decent flash. It's a very marginal call, though, and flashes start at around €100.
So it might be an expensive, rarely-used luxury.
10 Is buying online better value?
It's marginally cheaper to buy online, but you really have to know what you're looking for.
Big online stores will typically sell a camera at between 5pc and 10pc below what a shop will charge, but this comes with a major health warning: cameras are not like laptops. Advice and guidance is much more of an issue, as is after-sales servive.
In Dublin, a number of specialist camera shops do this very well, without the kind of hard-sell pitch and divided attention you get in electronics superstores. Conns Cameras (Clarendon Street) is very good in this regard; Gunns (Camden Street) is also worth a look.
As with all tech stuff, if you know exactly what you want to buy, it will be cheapest for travellers passing through airport duty free.
Serious cameras for starters
For many, a basic DSLR camera is a good choice. These are the (predominantly black) bulky cameras which accept different lenses. You can simply choose to use them on idiot-proof 'automatic' if you like and they'll still take great shots.
Price: €400 (body only), €470 (with basic lens)
With an 18-megapixel sensor and Canon's Digic 4 processor, this is the same firepower that Canon's high-end cameras were sporting three or four years ago. So it's arguable that anything more means you're simply chasing fine margins that only a more advanced photographer would truly be able to exploit. There is no significant redesign of the camera, either: it has the same basic shape and functionality as Canon cameras four times its price. It's not as weather-sealed as pricier models and you don't get some handy features such as Wi-Fi (which lets you share from your phone immediately). But it's a solid performer.
Price: €450 (body only), €500 (with basic lens)
Nikon does very good entry-level DSLR cameras and the 24-megapixel D3200 shows why. It's a nicely designed, relatively powerful model that's quite easy to use and has a little more under its hood than Canon's 1200D, priced around the same level. Some nice extra features include continuous autofocus when shooting video and a choice of colours. It's also nice to grip. Although I tend to use Canon cameras more than Nikon ones, this probably edges Canon at the entry-level stage.
For ambitious enthusiasts
These are cameras for people who want to experiment with different styles, lenses or video formats. These cameras tend to be the most powerful you can get without going professional.
Price: €1,700 (body only)
This is one of the most affordable 'full frame' cameras you can buy and a leading choice. It gives you the most important features of Canon's high-end 5D Mark III at about €1,000 less. The 20-megapixel camera lacks some of its more expensive rival's technical features such as a flip-out screen, second memory card slot and advanced speed-shooting features. None of these will be an issue for 90pc of enthusiasts. The 6D also has instant wifi transfer to phones or laptops, which I use all the time. This is probably the best choice for someone looking to make a big step up.
Price: €3,300 with 50mm lens
This is a romantic's camera. The 16-megapixel machine is immensely powerful and takes great shots. But its main calling card is its retro-looking style with umpteen nozzles, dials and switches that make you feel like you really are 'making' a photo when you set up a shot. In short: it's the perfect camera for a closet camera nerd. Some sacrifices are made in the name of style. Principally, there is no video on offer here. That makes it very expensive compared to rivals. But it's great, great fun.
Price: €1,600 (body only)
Even though it's a 'mini-DSLR', Panasonic's new 16-megapixel GH4 is worth considering for certain types of camera enthusiasts. Most particularly, it has the best video options in its price category by a long way. Even if that's not your thing, the camera sports a tough, rugged build, oodles of manual options and excellent picture quality. It also sports blisteringly fast autofocus speeds and has some excellent effects such as built-in time lapse generators. Finally, it's about a third smaller than full-size DSLR cameras, so is slightly more portable. It has a fairly decent lens range to choose from, too.
DSLRs for hipsters
If you're looking for high-end shots and lens-flexibility in a slightly smaller frame than a traditional DSLR format, there are some superb compact lens-changers on the market.
Price: €800 (body only), €900 (with 14-42mm lens)
Panasonic's Lumix GX7 replaces its award-winning GX1, a camera I loved. Bar the full frame, the 16-megapixel GX7 has just about all of the features that give DSLR cameras their high-end quality. This includes a superb, sturdy frame that is just over half the size of most full-frame DSLR bodies. It also includes a top-end autofocus and the ability to shoot at one 8000th of a second (for sports shots). I've had the pleasure of using it with Panasonic's Leica 25mm (F1.4) Summilux lens which, truth be told, makes any photo look great. (You'll need about an extra €550 for this lens, though: the standard kit is a 14-42mm Panasonic lens.)
Price: €520 (with 16-50mm lens)
Despite coming with most mod cons you could imagine -- including a flip-out 'selfie' screen and instant photo transfer to phones and tablets (via an app) -- Sony's 20-megapixel a5000 takes some really excellent photos. Part of this is down to the (detachable) 16mm-50mm lens, which gives a lovely range for landscape and portrait shots. But some of the credit goes to the impressive sensor the camera uses. The fact that you can also upgrade to a big zoom lens if you want is nice, too. Sony's menu system is also very user-friendly.
'Fixed lens' cameras
Some people want powerful, rich photos without messing around between lenses. There are some excellent options here, even if they do limit your flexibility a little.
People who want the convenience of a high-end fixed lens camera often have to sacrifice zoom ranges. Or else they have to trade down to an entry-level 'bridge' camera. Sony's 20-megapixel RX10 is an excellent solution to this. It's a high-end camera with a large sensor and a fixed 24-200mm lens that can stay at F2.8 while zooming. This is actually quite a big deal: no one has made a fixed-lens camera that can do this before. The results are very impressive: this camera takes some great shots. It also has jacks for external microphones and headphones and wifi for photo-sharing. The only quibble is an electronic zoom, which is a little slow.
Nikon Coolpix A
The Coolpix A is a nicely designed metal machine housing a large, decent 16-megapixel sensor that matches the sensor size of much larger, bulkier Nikon cameras. This results in very sharp, detailed photos. The 28mm (equivalent) lens goes to F2.8, which is fast enough to capture quite a lot of low-light scenarios without a flash, while also giving reasonable depth of field. Other than the quality of the images, the most impressive feature of this camera is its speed: I zipped through photos, while starting it up takes less than a second. This is crucial, given what the camera is supposed to be for (capturing quality photos quickly).
This is a brilliant camera on a number of levels. For novices looking to understand the process of controlling photographs, its array of knobs, dials and buttons seduces you into manually controlling the photo set-up where most other cameras slack off, allowing you to use automatic the whole time. It also has ultra-chic retro looks, making it a serious object of desire. The 16-megapixel camera, which has a fixed 23mm lens and a nice big APS-C sensor, does have some limits, such as how long you can keep the shutter open for long exposures. But this is great fun and well worth the money.
What to buy for DSLR beginners
Want to get a little more involved in photography without spending thousands? The best starters' kit is an entry-level DSLR camera with one or two lenses.
Canon (EOS 1200D) and Nikon (D3200) both have good models for around €400 which have almost everything you need to make great, high-end photos.
The key is the lens: a basic DSLR camera with a good lens will take a much better photo than an expensive, gadget-rich camera with a modest lens. Most people opt for a zoom lens, like the basic 18-55mm model (which comes with the camera) or an extended 18mm-135mm model (around €200). But for best quality, a very good option is the 50mm lens, which only costs €125 for both Canon and Nikon cameras. Although it has no zoom, it takes superb photos, especially portrait shots of family and friends. For Canon users, a fun, budget-friendly additional lens is the 75mm-300mm model (€200). This has a huge zoom that lets you capture far-away things, such as wildlife or players on a sports field. The point to remember with lenses is that the more light they let in (usually indicated by the 'F' range), the more expensive they cost. (Lenses can differ in cost by thousands of euro.)
For most people high-end cameraphones have knocked out the need for relatively basic compact cameras. But some are still handy, mostly because of their superior zooms. All of the main camera manufacturers (Canon, Panasonic, Nikon, Sony, Samsung and others) still sell these machines, although they're starting to fade away.
A very basic option, such as Fujifilm's 16-megapixel JZ250 (€60), will still give you better results than most cameraphones. It has an 8x zoom and a rechargeable battery (to keep it slim). it also records in high definition (at the lower 720p standard) and a 2.7-inch LCD display on the back gives you a good view of what it is you've shot. If you spend a bit more, the quality goes up. For example, Canon's 12-megapixel Powershot SX270 (€250) has an optical zoom that extends to 20x. Panasonic's Lumix range is well worth looking at here, too.