We will classify cameras in 5 somewhat arbitrary groups: compacts, Mirrorless, DSLRs, big stuff and exotics. For practical purposes, you can forget about the last two categories, as anyone using those shouldn’t need an introduction class.
Compact cameras, sometimes also called point-and-shoot probably were your first camera. They are very convenient: cheap, small, light and fool proof. As the name suggests, just point it in the general direction of the subject and press the button. The camera does the rest.
Their main advantages, as said, is their low profile. They are so small and unobtrusive that you are likely to carry them all the time, and to have them handy when you need them. After all, even the crappiest camera you have with you beats the amazing one you left at home. Their small size is also an advantage when you want to be discreet. Most people will assume you are just a tourist and won’t give you a second look, whereas even a small DSLR will attract attention.
Unfortunately, the downsides are many, as this type of camera will make many – too many – compromises. In particular, the sensor will be very small. This means that low light capabilities are very bad, and images are often unusable from ISO 400 due to noise. Another consequence is that depth of field (the total area in focus, more on this in another lesson) is always huge, which is sometimes a good thing but limits the ability to separate a subject from its background. Except in high-end compacts, lenses tend to be of rather mediocre quality and with limited maximal apertures, which has an impact on image quality, among other things.
Because they do not use a mirror system like DSLRs, compact cameras use the LCD screen almost exclusively for framing, which is a problem in bright light and is also less pleasant than an optical viewfinder. One of the most annoying characteristics of compacts, however, is the infamous shutter lag – the delay between pressing the trigger and the photo actually being recorded, which varies from half a second to several seconds! It has much to do with the autofocus system being slow, and the situation has gradually been improving, but it still remains one of the main reasons people want to switch to DSLRs, as it is far too easy to miss shots because of it (and is plain frustrating).
Another annoying thing about compacts is that their designers generally assume the photographer wants the camera to take all the decisions. It is often difficult and impractical, if not impossible, to gain manual control of the various camera settings. Few cameras in particular offer PASM modes instead of scene modes. Many controls are also hidden deep in the menus, making them impossible to modify on the fly.
It should be noted, however, that this type of camera is feeling pressure from the cellphones, so there are now a number of point and shoot cameras with advanced features and larger sensors, with which it’s possible to get great results. 2014 examples include the Canon G16 and Sony RX100 III.
Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (DSLRs) are the “serious” camera of choice these days. Though this comes at the price of a serious increase in weight and bulk (and, well, price), they are also much more uncomprimising on everything that matters. In particular, they have interchangeable lenses which allows you to always have the best lens for the occasion. Even APS-C (DX) cameras have big enough sensors to allow shallow depth of field and good low light/dynamic range quality. There is an optical viewfinder, which allows framing in the worst light conditions and is generally more responsive than any electronic screen.
The annoyances of compact cameras are also gone: shutter lag is virtually unknown, autofocus generally very fast (though this depends on the lens) and even entry-level cameras provide full manual control along with their scene modes.
There are several different sensor sizes, commonly called “cropped sensor”, “APS-C” or “DX” for the smaller versions, and “full frame” or “FX” for the bigger ones, which correspond exactly to the size of 35mm film. High end cameras tend to use FX for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with image quality in difficult light conditions. Concretely, the main difference has to do with the crop factor, which we will cover in tomorrow’s lesson.
In short, as long as you remember to actually bring it with you, a DSLR will be better than a compact in every respect.
There are DSLRs at all price points, from the entry level to full featured pro beasts. In 2014, entry level models would be the Canon T5i and Nikon D3200, while more advanced models are the Canon 7D and the Nikon D7100.
Mirrorless (or EVIL, for Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lenses) cameras are new hybrids which started appearing in 2008. There are different standards: Sony has NEX, Panasonic and Olympus use micro-4/3 and Fuji has the X-series. The concept is to remove the bulky mirror and pentaprism necessary for the optical viewfinder of a DSLR, but to keep the other capabilities, in particular large sensors and interchangeable lenses. This allows for a drastic reduction in size, putting them closer to compacts than DSLRs. Whether the sacrifice of the optical viewfinder in exchange for a smaller size is worthwhile will be an entirely personal choice.
The big stuff refers to bigger than 35mm cameras, which in the digital world means medium format backs. The cheapest start at 10-15k$, without lenses, but their resolution and image quality is hard to beat. They have little interest if you are not printing big, as the difference from high-end DSLRs will be hardly noticeable. They are mostly used by commercial shooters and (rich) landscape photographers.
Finally, exotics is everything else, including, sadly, all film cameras. Let’s take a small tour:
- Large format cameras, the wooden box with bellows and a black cloth to hide the photographer. Their resolution can even beat that of MF digital backs but the large negative size makes everything harder, from buying film to developing and scanning or printing it. They are also a mild pain in the ass to use, though there is a zen side to it. For instance the Toyo 45CF 4×5.
- Rangefinders are another alternative to DSLRs, where the optical viewfinder does not pass through the lens. This permits a smart manual focus system based on split screens. The most famous of these cameras are the Leica M family, and the last iteration, the M Monochrome, is one of the best digital cameras money can buy. Photojournalists and street shooters love them, but their learning curve is steep. A cheaper alternative is the Voigtlander Bessa.
- Holgas/Lomos are very popular for playing with. Former soviet crappy, light leaking, plastic film bodies with next to no control. They produce images that are technically terrible but have a special look that many people love. They are relatively cheap and fun to play with, so you might be tempted to pick one up.
- Phone cameras – you have them with you all the time, and their quality is getting better and better every year. Soon they will completely replace the point and shoot market.