Home Tech How to Choose the Right Camera: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Choose the Right Camera: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Top view of a small black camera next to a larger camera with extended lens

The first thing to know when buying a digital camera in 2024 is that it is practically impossible to buy a bad one. You probably have a great camera in your hand right now. For many people, a smartphone will be a sufficient camera, but if you want a camera separate from your phone, read on.

The current crop of digital cameras is almost universally fantastic. Everything on the market is capable of capturing great images, as long as you learn how to use your camera and understand the basics of photography: composition, light and timing. That said, you don’t want a technically good camera: you want the right camera for you.

The right camera for you depends on what you want to photograph, how you want to use it, where you are going to photograph, and a host of other questions that only you can answer. To help you out, I’ll go over the basics of every major camera component you’ll want to know, breaking down the jargon and explaining things on a practical level.

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What kind of photos do you want to take?

The first step to finding the best camera for you is knowing what you want to do with it, at least to some extent. For example, if you know you’ll be taking photos of your kids’ sports games, you’ll want to pay special attention to how good the autofocus is and how fast it can capture images (measured in frames per second, or fps). If you know you’ll want to make videos too, make sure you get something with high-quality video features, like 4K 100fps for slow-motion content and something to remove or minimize the rolling shutter. If you love astrophotography, you’ll want to pay special attention to the noise that a sensor can have.

While all cameras made today are capable of producing excellent images, some are better than others at certain specific tasks, like the examples above. Knowing the type of images you want to create will help you narrow your search. If you’re new to photography and don’t know what you’ll end up liking, that’s okay; Don’t worry about high-end niche features like ultra-fast autofocus. Instead, focus on entry-level cameras designed for the generalist, which will also save you some money. Invest that money in high quality lenses.

Glossary of camera terms

  • ME SO: ISO dates back to the days of film, when it was a standardized way of indicating how sensitive a film was to light. It was adopted in digital to maintain similar brightness levels to what people were used to in film photography. Therefore, setting your digital camera to 100 ISO should give you about the same basic levels of brightness as a film speed of 100. ISO ranges from 50 to six digits on some cameras. Your camera’s lowest ISO is sometimes called the “base ISO.” This will have the least noise. As the ISO number increases, noise increases, but so does light sensitivity. The less light you have, the higher ISO you will want to use.
  • Opening: The size of the aperture inside your lens. The wider the aperture, the more light will enter the lens. Small apertures are sometimes called “fast,” since an f/1.2 lens is fast. Narrow apertures (f/8 of/16) mean less light enters the lens. The aperture affects the depth of field (how much of the image is in focus), so the wider the aperture, the less of the image will be in focus, creating the popular “bokeh” blur effect.
  • Shutter speed: This previously referred to the mirror that was raised to expose the film or digital sensor to light. With mirrorless cameras, it has lost that meaning, but it still refers to how long the sensor is exposed to light. It is written in fractions of a second, such as 1/125, up to full seconds, depending on your camera. The longer the shutter is open, the more light will enter. This means that anything that moves while the shutter is open will become blurry; For example, water flowing over rocks takes on a smooth appearance.
  • Exposure: Exposure is how light or dark the image is. If your image is too dark, the photo is called underexposed. If it’s too bright, it’s overexposed. Exposure is controlled by using the three tools above (ISO, aperture and shutter speed) balanced to get the exposure you want.
  • White balance: This refers to the color of the light. Your eyes are good at adapting to different lights, but your camera is not. This is why sometimes your night shots have a very yellow-orange tone. White balance can be used to solve this problem by telling the camera the temperature of the light you are photographing under. Many people use the automatic setting for white balance, which is generally pretty good. I prefer to always shoot at 5500 degrees Kelvin (sunlight) and adjust the white balance as needed in the software.
  • Exposure compensation: This is a way of telling your camera to under or overexpose the image. It is useful in automatic shooting modes. It is measured in “points” of light (functions as an additional aperture), with positive numbers generating a brighter image and negative numbers generating a darker image.
  • RAW: This is a generic name for a type of image file that is simply raw data. You need RAW processing software like Adobe Lightroom, Capture One, or Darktable to view RAW images, but RAW files can be edited much more extensively than JPEGs. I highly recommend shooting in RAW. Gives you greater editing control over your photos.
  • aspect ratio: This is the relationship between width and height. It is usually 3:2, occasionally 4:3, and sometimes 16:9. Some cameras allow you to choose between these and perhaps more. Just remember that if you plan to print at a specific size, you may need to crop based on the aspect ratio. I generally shoot at 3:2, which means if I want to print at 8 X 10, I’ll have to enlarge to 8 X 12 and then crop a little.
  • Focal length: This is the length of the lens (technically, the distance in millimeters between the lens and the film or sensor). This determines the field of view and the amount of zoom, and will affect image distortion.
  • depth of field: DoF is the amount of image in focus. You can place the focus point anywhere, but regardless of where you place it, a certain amount of the image both behind and in front of that point will also be in focus. This is the depth of field. A better term would be depth of focus, but it’s called field. Depth of field is influenced by the interaction of aperture, focal length of the lens, and the position of the subjects within the scene.
  • bokeh: “Bokeh” is a word that designates the excessive use of extreme depth of field. It’s a joke. It is a Japanese word to describe the blurry quality of the out-of-focus parts of an image. You may hear a photographer say that an image has “soft bokeh.” Just nod and back away slowly. Just kidding, really. This means that the blurred part of the image is nice and smooth, without harsh circles or a jittery feeling of blur. I understand? Good, now run.

Point and shoot versus interchangeable lenses

Photography: Scott Gilbertson

If you want to upgrade from a camera phone, I suggest you skip the point-and-shoot cameras and go for an interchangeable lens system. The reason is that most point-and-shoot cameras are only moderately better than a phone. Some aren’t even as good as your phone. In many cases, you get a zoom lens, which is a step up, but not a huge step, especially for the price.

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