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6 Things to Keep in Mind When Buying a Camera

Variety of Old Camera

With almost limitless options when it comes to cameras, it's important to choose the one that's best for you.  You can start by asking yourself what you want to do with it.  Where will it take you?  Will you be walking around taking pictures in the streets?  Hiking perhaps?  Or will you be posted up in the stands of a sporting event?  Although many cameras are fairly well rounded, it's good to know what your intentions are, it'll save you loads of time down the road and ensure you don't need to get any additional equipment unexpectedly.  

We've listed some key features that are worth looking into.  We'll dive right in to each component below.

  • Megapixels
  • Sensor type and size
  • Body size and weight
  • Lens mount and interchangeability 
  • Continuous Shooting
  • Weatherproofing

If you're not feeling up for a read, don't worry, we didn't forget about you.  There's a TL;DR at the begining of each topic.

Megapixels

TL;DR  If you want to print your pictures the size of posters or larger, you need to pay attention to the amount of megapixels.  The more megapixels, the larger you can print.  They play an important role in image quality, but certainly aren't the only factor.

Digital cameras capture images as a series of pixels that work together similarly to a mosaic, forming a larger image.  Just like the pixel itself, a megapixel is a unit of graphic measurement.  One megapixel represents about a million pixels or 1,048,576 if you want to be precise.  Since digital images are made up of millions and millions of these pixels, we assign a larger unit of measurement to simplify things, much like when referring to large file sizes in bytes, we instead use megabytes.  

If you only plan on printing 4"x6" photos, megabytes won't influence your decision nearly as much.  Enlargements like posters is when they really come into play. 

A 10MP camera has the capability of taking a picture with around 10 million pixels.  A 20MP camera can take a picture with about 20 million pixels.  Let's assume that both cameras have the same sensor type (we'll get into that later).  Although each take the same 'size' of photo the 20MP camera's photo has more pixels, so therefore each pixel is smaller than the pixels on the 10MP photo.  

Smaller pixels?  When it comes to enlargements, smaller pixels are generally better.  The 20MP photo can tolerate much larger printing since while it is being enlarged, the pixels remain at a visually acceptable size for much longer than the 10MP photo.    

Sensors

TL;DR  Sensors are important.  Unless you've got some money to burn an APS-C is probably a great fit.  It's mostly megapixels to look out for at this point.

Sensors are a big deal.  The sensor is the surface that will absorb the light resulting in a photo.  Essentially, it's where the light is recorded, converting what you see in the viewfinder into the digital image on your memory card, much like a old school film.  The sensor is arguably the most influential part of a camera in regards to it's ability to perform.  Sensors are described by two variables.  Sensor size, described in megapixels, and sensor type. 

With sensors, size matters.  A larger sensor is able to hold more pixels.  More pixels means the image itself will have a higher definition; in turn resulting in the ability to print the pictures considerably larger.  Additional pixels aren't the only benefit of a larger sensor.  Larger sensors have more surface area, allowing them to capture more light; resulting in considerably better low light performance.

Two sensor types you'll see most are CCD and CMOS.  The Charged Coupled Device, or CCD sensor has been around for ages, and is common in many devices.  CCD images are resistant to noise, while the CMOS has traditionally been more susceptible.  Due to the way that a CMOS sensor and it's transistors are constructed, it generally tends to have a lower light sensitivity. 

The sensors aren't just about photo quality either, they'll play a large role in how many photos you can take by consuming one of your most valuable resources; battery life.  CCD and CMOS sensors consumes considerably different amounts of power.  CCDs eat battery life with a vengeance, while CMOS sensors are often reported to consume nearly 100 times less power.  If you plan on running a CCD sensor, a few extra batteries is never a bad idea.  

Of course, price is always a factor.  Since CMOS sensors can be manufactured fairly easily on almost any silicon production line, they've become quite prevalent, driving their price down.  CCD sensors haven't advanced the same way with their older style of technology, so their costs often remain much higher; however their long history of use has resulted in a higher quality product, with more consistent reliability.  

Throughout much of history, the CCD sensor has provided far superior quality against the CMOS.  Technology moves quickly though, especially in recent years.  Advancements have brought the quality to near par, or greater in some circumstances, giving the long loved CCD a run for it's money.  

You've probably been hearing a lot of talk around APS-C sensors.  APC initializes Active Pixel Sensor, Type-C.  APS-C refers to the size of a sensor.  The APS-C usually lines up to be roughly the same size as a "classic" negative, 25.1×16.7 mm, with an aspect ratio of 3:2.  It's worth mentioning that although this size and aspect ratio is common, there is often variation between each manufacturer, and even between each model.  Since the APS-C sensor is smaller than the standard 35mm, it is referred to as a cropped frame. 

If the APS-C is a cropped frame, what's a full frame sensor?  Full frame sensors are referred to as exactly that, full frame. The sensor is the size of traditional 35mm film, 36mm x 24mm.  Since the APS-C we mentioned earlier often measures around 24mm x 16mm, the full frame sensor provides more than twice the surface area to record light.  As we learned earlier, more surface area equals a higher definition photo, and better low light performance. 

Cropped frames become especially noticeable when shooting with a 35mm lens; only a portion of the image shown within the lens frame will be recorded on the sensor.  One of the great things about a full frame sensor is 35mm lenses will record the image onto the sensor exactly as you see it, so you won't need to be mindful of the sensors crop factor (or lack thereof) while you're out shooting.  This can be save you time recreating edges when taking group shots that could be near the edge of the crop.   

Some camera manufacturers add a symbol or initial to denote what type of sensor is used in their camera.  Nikon for example, refers to their line full frame sensors with an FX and their cropped frame with a DX.  

The sensor type and size will no doubt be reflected in the price of the camera, so it's worth knowing when and where you can make tradeoffs.  For a full frame DSLR, you're probably looking at a starting range of around two grand.  So unless you plan to make a dedicated career of it, the cropped frame sensor will likely do just fine.  

Body Size and Weight

TL;DR  Don't pick something too heavy or bulky if you plan to carry it around a lot.  Does it fit in your camera bag?  Be practical.

This definitely breaks down to your own personal preference.  What will you be doing with your camera?  Long treks on foot through town?  Going to be holding your camera up for extended periods of time? 

You'll want to make sure you won't get overly fatigued by raising your camera up and down.  A good backpack or shoulder bag is essential for adventures.  If you'll be shooting in a studio environment, often with a tripod, a heavier, chunkier camera wouldn't cause much trouble.  

It's a good idea to hold the camera you intend to purchase a few times before you go through with it.  The shape of the body varies greatly from camera to camera.  Be sure the grip is right for you and that it fits the size of your hands properly.    

Lens Mount and Interchangeability

TL;DR  Cameras come in all shapes and sizes.  Check the mount type of some lenses you might be interested in and make sure they're compatible with your camera body.  

The ability to swap out your lenses can add a huge amount of variability to your photography game.  If you already have some ideas for lenses in mind, it's worth taking a look into what type of mounts they have.  In the past, Nikon lenses dominated the market, but in recent years Canon has surpassed them in lenses sold per year.  While Canon cameras and lenses may seem more prevalent now, you may be able to get a great deal on some older and widespread Nikon gear.  

Some camera lines, like the Nikon1, have proprietary lenses that are not interchangeable with other mount types.  To address these issues, many manufacturers have produced lens mount adapters that fit between the lens and camera body.  Even though these adapters exist, we wouldn't recommend disregarding the importance of lens mount type when selecting a camera.  

Continuous Shooting

TL;DR  If you plan on shooting anything that can't be easily recreated, you'll want a decent continuous shooting mode.  A good start would be +4 FPS.  

Just about every DSLR is going to offer a fairly decent continuous shooting option, but if you're shooting fast moving objects continuous shooting can quickly become your new best friend.  The continuous shooting capability is described in FPS or Frames Per Second.  

Imagine while standing on the edge of a highway, taking a picture of the driver or passenger of a car as they fly past you; it would be a shame if you only had one photo from that moment, and for that split second when the shutter opened the driver was blinking, resulting in a photo with closed eyes.  

Weatherproofing

TL;DR  Weatherproofing isn't necessary, but can provide nice piece of mind.  Can you handle packing up early when it starts to drizzle?

If adventure photography is your style, weatherproofing is definitely something you should look for in a camera. Water, humidity, and cold are a cameras worth enemies.  Weatherproofing is a way to safeguard your investment for years to come.  Cameras will be marked as weatherproof in the manufacturer description.  Be sure to check which elements the weatherproofing resists, and what the tolerance of those elements are.  A weatherproofed camera will ease your nerves when you're deep in the woods or high on a mountain and the weather begins to deteriorate.  

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