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The all-in-one camera guide

By Kushan Mitra     September 25, 2007

It’s always a good idea to start at the beginning; so we begin by pointing out the various functions and bells and whistles in Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras.

Almost all SLR cameras will have more or less similar features and functions, though the exact placement will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model.

Familiarising yourself with these should be the first point on your learning curve. Of course, we cannot teach you photography, but the idea is to provide you with a DIY start-off kit from where you can feel your way forward. So, happy shooting.

WHY ARE SLRS CONSIDERED BETTER THAN NON-SLR CAMERAS?

The answer, to put it simply, is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). In other words, the image you see in the viewfinder is also what the camera “sees” through the main lens. This gives a parallax-free image. In non-SLR cameras, the image you see is captured by an “off-axis” viewfinder.

Back view of a Nikon

And although this is not a problem for most photographs, images shot from very close or very far can display “parallax error”; i.e., the image you “capture” may be slightly to the left or right of the view you thought you were capturing.

Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras are the weapon of choice for professional photographers, but because of increasing affordability and technology advancements—prosumer SLRs like Canon’s 400D (Rs 45,000) or Nikon’s D80 (Rs 40,000) have placed advanced camera technology in the hands of informed amateurs as well. However, despite the relatively lightweight bodies of these two cameras, they are a handful.

Small automatic digital cameras have also come a long way. New ones from manufacturers like Sony, Pentax, Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Kodak, Samsung and Minolta are all very small, some even coming in form factors that put mobile phones to shame—such as the Sony Cybershot DSC T100 (Rs 15,170) or Pentax Optio S10 (Rs 10,250).

The price of a good 7-8 megapixel camera with zoom functionality are also coming down—example: cameras like the Canon IXUS 900Ti (Rs 25,000), Nikon Coolpix P5000 (Rs 27,237) and the Samsung L700 (Rs 13,990).

THE BASICS OF PHOTOGRAPHY

The word photography, literally “writing with light” is derived from the Greek roots phos or phot meaning light and graphos, meaning writing.

The amount of light entering your camera and reaching the sensor (in a digital camera) or film (in an analogue one), defines the quality of your photograph.

MANIPULATING YOUR CAMERA

  • You can manipulate the amount of light entering your camera by adjusting the shutter speed (measured in fractions of a second) and aperture, or the size of the lens opening (measured in "stops” or "f-stops").
  • Most point-and-shoot cameras, which don't allow you to play with these two parameters, are pre-set at an aperture reading of f8, a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second and a focal length of 13 ft.
  • This setting allows you to shoot most scenes in normal light and give fairly clear "near-to-infinite" views. However, such cameras cannot capture fast action (such as a speeding car or a running dog), resulting in a visual blur.
  • The way out? Increase the shutter speed to, say 500 (or 1/500th of a second), or 1000 (1/1000th of a second) and compensate for the shorter duration of the "open" shutter by allowing in greater amounts of light. How? By setting your aperture to f4 in the first instance and f2.8 in the second.
  • Remember, the smaller the f-stop number, the larger the aperture opening. For the same light conditions, you have to increase the aperture opening by one notch for every notch you increase the shutter speed.

TAKING CARE OF YOUR CAMERA AND LENS

You must ensure your lens stays dry at all times and extra care needs to be taken in dusty, sandy and salty areas, which are quite common in India..

Keep away from heat: India is a hot country, so keep your lens away from excessive heat, which can break down the lubricating grease in the lens barrel and ruin its ability to focus. Never, ever, oil your lens. If you are shooting in really hot and sunny conditions, cover your camera with a light cloth or aluiminium foil.

Front view of a Nikon

Avoid temperature fluctuations: In the cold, keep your camera warm by keeping it under your coat or in its bag as much as possible. Prevent condensation on humid days — especially when you move in and out of air-conditioned rooms by keeping your camera inside a bag or cover for a few minutes. Condensation can lead to fungus forming on the sensor.

Use a filter: Always use a clear filter or lens hood to protect the front element; it is far less expensive to change a filter than it is to change the lens.

Clean sparingly: Clean the lens only when absolutely necessary, because a little dust will not impact the image. When cleaning, use a soft brush and a blower. Also remove fingerprints on the lens as soon as you spot one using a lens cleaning tissue with a drop of lens cleaning fluid on it.

Store carefully: Always store your camera and lens in a cool, dry place. Do not store it near other electronic devices and strong magnetic fields. If you will not be using the camera for a long time, remove the batteries and memory cards and keep a silica gel pouch inside the bag.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

SENSORS

There are two different types of sensors used in digital cameras: Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) and Charge-Couple Device (CCD). The latter is considered the superior technology, but is also much more expensive and will only be seen on higher-end automatics and DSLRs. CMOS technology has also been improved dramatically with the introduction of Active Pixel Sensors (APS) on high-end cameras.

MEGAPIXELS

Essentially the number of pixels in a photograph—the length multiplied by the height. This is not the all-important criteria for choosing a camera. The image quality depends more on the size, quality and type of sensor as well as the camera’s internal image processing ability.

COLOUR TEMPERATURE

Digital camera sensors very often tend to overcompensate for light and, therefore, photographs tend to have areas “burnt out” by strong white light. To get around this problem, you can adjust the light exposure settings on your camera. However, some lowend sensors might still display this problem.

LCD VIEWFINDER

Many cameras, particularly automatic ones, do not have optical viewfinders any more and only have a digital LCD screens. New cameras come with large LCD screens, but many screens may not represent the final picture quality accurately. Also, keeping your viewfinder on all the time always can be detrimental to battery life.

MEMORY CARDS

Most automatic digital cameras use Secure Digital (SD) cards. While these are not the speediest cards around, they are small and relatively cheap—a one gigabyte card coming for around Rs 750. High-end DSLR machines use the speedier Compact-Flash (CF) storage format; CF cards are slightly more expensive but can also be bought at various speeds for high-speed photography.

SHUTTER-LAG

Not a major problem in newer digital cameras from major brands, this can be a serious issue on mobile phones. This is the time taken between the time you click the button to the time the camera “resolves” the image. This also depends on how full your memory card is. Therefore, at the end of day’s photography, shutter-lag can be more pronounced than at the start of the day.

FULL-FRAME

The size of the sensor; a full-frame camera has a sensor size equivalent to a 35mm film (36mm x 24mm) and can take proper 35mm images without a cropfactor. Only the highest-end DSLR machines have full-frame sensors. Other DSLRs have a “crop factor” which signifies the amount of additional lens power needed to take a 35mm “equivalent” shot.

AND THEN THERE ARE LENSES

If you do put the money down for a fancy DSLR camera, you must remember that such cameras rarely ship with a lens.

A lens, if any, will be a 28-50mm or 28-80mm one, which is good enough for basic applications, but it is always a good idea to invest in some good lenses if you really want to take advantage of your camera.

TYPES OF LENSES

STANDARD:

Every photographer needs to have a good standard lens. Some manufacturers ship these 28-50mm lenses with the body. However, the standard lens sold today is a 28mm-80mm, which gives you a degree of zoom functionality. This also helps you stretch your lens budget.Zoom and telephoto lens

ZOOM/TELEPHOTO:

A telephoto brings objects far in the distance into focus. They come in various focal lengths from 200mm to 600mm for most professional cameras. The higher the focal length, the more distant your subject can be.

WHAT IS A TELECONVERTER?

A teleconverter sits between the lens and the camera body and is another set of lenses that enhances the zooming ability of the lens. These devices also help to counter the effect of smaller sensors such as the APS.

However, teleconverters also reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor, so, to get the desired effect, you might want to use a higher film speed (ISO setting) or a slower shutter speed. With teleconverters in particular, spending money is important as the quality of glass is crucial.

Should you buy a lens from an independent manufacturer? Lenses from Nikor (for Nikon) and Canon for their DSLR cameras are very expensive. A 70-200mm f2.8 from one of these manufacturers costs close to Rs 1 lakh. A lens from reputed independent maker Sigma costs about half of that.

While photographers still swear by the quality of original lenses, Sigma lenses in particular are considered very good.

WIDE ANGLE:

These are popular with landscape photographers because they give “depth” to a picture by bringing to sharp focus images in the foreground. The most popular wide-angled lenses are 24-28mm for full-frame devices.

FISH EYE LENS:

This lens is so called because of the way it looks — and it gives a complete 180-degree angle of view. Images taken by such lenses are distorted in the sense that the edges seem to be much farther apart than they actually are, while the centre of the image is a lot closer, almost like a sphere.

These lenses are usually 16mm, but to get an equivalent image on an APS camera you need a 10.5mm lens.

WHICH CAMERA SHOULD YOU BUY?

Well, that depends, among other things, but most importantly, on your budget. Here, we feature the best-in-class cameras in three price bands — about Rs 25,000, Rs 75,000-1,00,000, and price no bar.

TOP END

Canon 1Ds Mark III

21.1 megapixel/ 100 MB/ 100-1600 ISO spectrum

The camera sports a full-frame sensor and can take images at an incredible speed—five shots per second and a burst rate of up to 12 RAW images at its native 21.1 megapixel resolution. The image quality is further enhanced by the device’s two on-board Digic III processors, which incorporate Canon’s proprietary technology— and with 45 autofocus points, this camera will never take an image that feels out of kilter. This is easily one of the best digital cameras out in the wild.

PRICE: Rs 3,27,959 (body only)

MID-RANGE

Canon EOS 40D

10.1 megapixel/ 100 MB/ 100-1600 ISO spectrum

The EOS 40D is Canon’s sixth prosumer digital SLR and is a successor to and a huge improvement over the EOS 30D. It is 10.1 MP, compared to 8.2 MP for its predecessor and the camera comes with the improved DIGICIII processor. The EOS 40D allows for high speed continuous shooting of 6.5 frames per second and has six image composition modes—standard, portrait, landscape, neutral, faithful and monochrome.

PRICE: Rs 75,000 (including 18-55mm lens)

BUDGET

Canon IXUS 900Ti

10 megapixel/ 3x optical zoom/ 2.5 inch LCD screen

You can’t really say too many negative things about Canon’s compact cameras and they are quickly becoming the iPods of the digital camera space—efficient, well-designed and reliable. This camera has a high-grade Titanium finish and Canon’s ‘Perpetual Curve’ design. It also features a nice, wide LCD, and the ability to shoot in very low light without a flash. The only negative—alack of image stabilisation.

PRICE: Rs 26,158


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