A balanced camera system

People often come to me for advice about buying digital cameras. It is not surprising that many looking for a camera feel overwhelmed with the amount of choices they face:

  • Camera types: Digital Single Lens Reflex, Micro Four Thirds, Compacts, and Bridge cameras that fill the gap between the DSLRs and point-and-shoots.
  • A variety of brands: Canon, Nikon Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung, Sony etc.
  • Different camera models within each type and brand category.

After listening to the kinds of photos they intend to take and the amount of “camera weight/bulk” they are willing to carry, I typically recommend a good compact or a super zoom to the majority of people. But for others who want the highest quality and versatility and are willing to invest some effort, time and money, I recommend a Digital Single Lens Reflex or a Micro Four Thirds camera (also known as EVIL: Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens). For those who decide to get a DSLR or EVIL camera, I emphasize the need for a “balanced system”.

Pillars of a balanced camera system

To understand what a balanced system is we first need to understand how a photo is created. What are the key aspects that work together to create a photo?

1- Good source of light

Light is the source of everything we see and this is the starting point of any photo. When there is not enough light we barely see with our eyes and our camera sees even less.

Have you ever wondered why the photos you took at that evening party did not come out as well as you wished? They are often blurred and graininess (noise) is visible in the final image. The reason for these problems is that there was not enough light and your camera struggled as a result.

So the first important attribute of a “balanced camera system” is a good external source of light that illuminates the subject, especially for inside shots. I don’t mean the built-in flash found on most cameras since they are usually too weak because of their small size. In addition, their close proximity to the camera creates harsh shadows and truly unpleasant photos.

A good source of light is a versatile external flash that attaches to the camera hot shoe. With a larger flash head and the ability to tilt and bounce light off a ceiling or wall, an external flash creates softer light that compliments and flatters subjects, making them look more natural.

2- Quality lens

The light that illuminates the subject goes through the camera lens. Here we come across the second pillar of a “balanced system”.

The lens you use has the ability to impact the quality of your photos more than anything else. Compared to cheaper lenses, more expensive lenses give amazingly clear, sharp photos that are rich in colors.

Good lenses have high quality glass and several, known as a fast lens, have wider apertures (F1.8, F2, F2.8). Some apertures are constant in that they do not change as you zoom the lens. This allows more light into your camera, making it possible to use faster shutter speeds and take better photos in low light conditions. Using wider apertures also give more depth of field that enables you to blur the background, making a subject more prominent.

A good starting point for an amateur is a “kit” lens, a relatively inexpensive lens often sold along with entry-level cameras. If on a tight budget, save up some money as you’ll most likely want to invest in better lenses in the future. Once you master the basics of your camera, you will be amazed by the improvement a lens upgrade can make to photos.

3. Sensor

The final pillar of a “balanced system” is the sensor that captures the light from the subject that has passes through the lens. The larger sensors found in interchangeable lens cameras receive more light than smaller sensors in compacts. As a result they produce better images, particularly in low light.

Creating a balanced camera system

Now that you know the pillars of a balanced camera system, spend your money accordingly to get the best results. I have seen people buy an expensive camera body with a kit lens and later wonder why their photos don’t exhibit the quality they expected. You would be far better investing in a balanced system consisting of an adequate body, good lens and external flash.

Although camera manufacturers would like you think otherwise, a sensor of six megapixels in resolution is more than enough to make large prints (8 x 10″ or larger). The same is true for ISO performance.

Beware of marketing hype

Almost all newer interchangeable lens cameras perform equally well in the 100-800 ISO range. With a balanced camera system, you rarely need to shoot at anything higher than ISO 800.

What you hear about ever increasing megapixel count and higher ISO numbers are, in my opinion, marketing hype targeted at making you spend more money on a camera body than needed. So don’t get caught up in the hype and make your decisions carefully.

Where to invest your money

When buying a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera keep the three pillars in mind. Here are my suggestions for investing and allocating your money:

  • Lenses (50%)
  • Camera body (40%)
  • External flash (10%)

Remember camera bodies come and go. This year’s model may become outdated when the next year’s model comes to market. However, lenses and external flashes last a lifetime and can on as many camera bodies as you wish.

Bottom line: when you understand the three pillars of a balanced digital camera system, and invest in such a system, you will get much better results for your effort/time/money.

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