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Is That New High-Tech Camera The One For You?

As Christmas approaches, some may have a new camera on their “wishlist.”  With 100’s of offerings out there, choosing a camera can be a daunting task.

I recently responded to an email from one of my friends from the Scenes of Vermont Forum. The primary board on that forum between late August and early November is the Fall Foliage Board (there is, also, a Vermont Photography Board, and we would love to have you join us and our discussions there), and not surprisingly, the conversation often goes to photography. I have made some very good friends there, and some of us correspond regularly throughout the year.

So, it is not unusual for a “group” question to happen behind the scenes about a piece of gear, or an element of photography. This email linked to a popular new, hi-tech digital camera and asked whether it might be something that would be a good camera for her. My tongue-in-cheek response: “maybe it would. But then again, maybe it would not.” And then I started thinking it might actually be a good blog topic.

Maybe it Is. But then again, maybe it’s not

As is often the case, this is not directed to advanced photographers. They will typically have been shooting long enough to know what the right gear is for them, and they generally do their own homework when it comes to researching cameras, lenses and accessories.

But there are a lot of photographers out there – some new and some who have been shooting for a long time and have over time determined they want to “get better” or “advance.” Before attempting to answer the title question, I would commend anyone considering such “advancement” to read my 6- part series of blogs last year on “Taking your photography to the next level.”

A camera is a tool; nothing more—nothing less

Just a week ago, someone looking at some of my images hanging in my office waiting area commented that I must have a “really good camera.” There was a time when I might have responded differently, but these days, I just smile and agree that I do have a really good camera (I appreciate that this is a hackneyed phrase among “seasoned” photographers, but I am still amazed how often it occurs). A camera is a tool; nothing more; nothing less. In order to get the most out of a tool, you have to have some fundamental knowledge of the art behind the tool; and some fundamental skills at using the tool. If you are going to make “really good images,” you are going to have to acquire those fundamentals at the very least.

Whenever someone asks me about a “good camera” for them, I start with the question: “what do you plan to use it for?” If you want to make snapshots and post them on the internet, or just have them on your computer for viewing, the sophistication of the “tool” doesn’t need to be as great. Indeed, for that kind of use, much of the newest, latest and greatest gear being offered today may well be overkill. You don’t need 24 megapixels for internet and computer digital images. An inexpensive camera that has “automatic” settings is probably sufficient. In that case, I would concentrate on a reasonably priced, durable camera that has a decent quality lens.

If you are going to use it as indicated above, the expensive, feature-laden camera is going to be overkill. If you want to use it to make larger, or more detailed images, large prints, or submit images for publication or sale, then you need to do some serious soul-searching about how committed you are to learning the craft. And if you are really committed, you should do that part before you buy the camera!

When looking at more “serious” equipment, it is really important to have a camera body over which you are going to be able exercise full control over the technical aspects of the image; aperture, shutter speed, and if possible, ISO. Interchangeability of lenses is also a plus (though not necessarily a requirement). After that, I would probably rate the quality of the image sensor as next most important. There are many other technical issues – all of which really relate to your intended use and shooting style. We have different equipment “priorities” as shooters. A sports/action setup will likely have different specifications than a “pure” landscape setup, for example.

You cannot “buy” good images with equipment.

For casual shooters and “point & shooters,” one issue to consider is the so-called “super-zoom” capacity. I am struck how often someone I know buys one of these cameras and remarks that “it doesn’t take good photos.” The problem is they are often not as sharp as their prior camera with a more modest zoom range. In most cases, the problem isn’t the camera. I can assure you that it “takes” just as good quality images as any other camera. The problem is more than likely user-error (I acknowledge that there is, indeed, the rare defective piece of equipment). Again, this gets back to the need to understand some fundamentals of the craft. The longer the “reach” of the lens, the more it magnifies poor user-technique. This is generally because of a combination of magnification and slower shutter speed (a lens length design issue).

When I was a much younger man, I took up the sport of golf. Those who play know it is a very humbling game, for gifted athletes and uncoordinated klutzes like me, alike. For the first 5 years or so, I bought several sets of clubs, always updating equipment, always trying to “buy” a game. It didn’t get better. When I finally gave in and began taking lessons, I learned that learning the fundamentals came before the equipment; and that the equipment followed the skills I gained, and the type of game I had. Photography is not really different. You cannot “buy” good images with equipment.

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