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Zooming In on the Right Digital SLR Camera

You are ready to purchase your dream SLR (single-lens reflex) digital camera, and like most people, you are unsure where to start. If you want to maximize your fun and creativity, capturing images that will make your family, your friends, and yourself proud, it is crucial you conduct the proper research before making the investment. You are thinking about comparing hundreds of online product reviews, but you know that may very well become tiring and ultimately be unhelpful. You must first have a good understanding of how your hobbies or profession relate to your photography needs.

Questions you will need to ask yourself should include the following:

  • Am I going to be capturing a great deal of action?
  • Am I going to be shooting from long distances?
  • How will the lighting be?
  • Will I have trouble holding the camera still?
  • Do I plan on enlarging my images?

Once these questions are answered, you will have put yourself on path to shop for the perfect SLR digital camera with the features, accessories, and budget that fit your lifestyle.

1. The Pixel Question

What Are Pixels?

Think of pixels as the thousands of tiny cells that make up a spreadsheet. The more tiny cells the camera is able to capture, the greater the detail and resolution the image is going to be. The amount of pixels the camera can reproduce is expressed as “megapixels” (MP). For example, a 3MP camera has 2,048 (horizontal) by 1,536 (vertical) pixels, or 3,145,728 pixels.

How Many Megapixels Do I Need?

Since SLR digital cameras have increased in popularity and affordability since 2003, manufacturers have been able to steadily increase the number of megapixels in cameras while lowering their prices. Don’t let this trend incline you to buy a camera with more than 10MP, unless you plan on printing larger than 12×16 photos. In comparing two cameras with all the same features, except camera #1’s 10MP is trumped by camera #2’s 14MP, expect to make more sacrifices than just a price increase.

Since more megapixels = larger file size, you will need to consider the following options:

  • Purchasing a 4GB SDHC (secure digital high capacity) memory card or larger
  • Waiting longer while transferring photos from your memory card to your computer
  • Adding/clearing space on your computer’s hard drive
  • Using a powerful computer to edit and organize your photo library
  • Significantly shrinking the photos’ resolutions when sending or posting them online

2. LCD Screen and Image Preview

What Is an LCD Screen?

LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display. LCDs on most of today’s digital SLRs usually range between 1.5 inches to 3 inches. Depending on how much you like to review your images and edit/organize them, a larger LCD screen will be more desirable. For outdoors photographers, you can reduce the glare from the sunlight with an LCD hood on Amazon.

Is a Live View LCD Screen for Me?

Although all of today’s compact digital cameras display a live image preview visualization, many SLRs are designed to reflect the image through the manual viewfinder. SLRs are traditionally designed to pass light through the lens, reflecting off a mirror that sits in front of the optical recording sensor. This mirror ricochets the light upward into a pentaprism, which in turn reflects the image seen through the viewfinder.

If you think you’ll want a break from pressing your face up against your viewfinder and you like to capture some odd-angled photos, then a live view LCD is something to take into consideration when buying your SLR. If you don’t mind using the traditional viewfinder and plan on taking a good deal of action shots, then don’t worry about your SLR having a live view LCD.

3. The Lens

What should I know before buying my SLR lens?

Before buying both your digital SLR and lens, be aware that there is no cross-breeding between the brand of your digital SLR and the brand of your lens. The lens mount of a Sony SLR lens is made to connect only with a Sony camera — not a Canon, not a Nikon, etc.

If spending a week’s salary on a lens is not what you’re looking to do, consider a lens from a third party. Tamron, Tokina, and Sigma are the three major manufacturers of third-party lenses that connect to cameras of different manufacturers. When it comes to lenses, you get the quality you pay for; however, a first-party lens may not suit all your photography needs. Not only is the quality of third-party lenses catching up with first-party lenses (especially with Canon and Nikon cameras), third-party lenses may offer more attractive features while saving you money.

What Are the Differences Between the Types of SLR Lenses?Lens TypeFocal LengthDesigned to CaptureExamplesWide angle28 mm or lowerEverything visible in front of youInteriors and landscapesStandard35mm-85mmImages to appear in perspective to original scenePortraitsTelephoto100mm-300mmUp-close and personal shots with long-range subjectsPortraits and sports

4. Image Management

Depending on what kind of photography you plan on doing with your new digital SLR, you want to consider several image management features.

Autofocus Systems

Most digital SLRs have 3, 5, 9 or 11 individual autofocus points. Determining how many autofocus points will satisfy your needs depends on how much action you plan to capture with your digital SLR. If you spend your weekends spotting bluebirds soaring through the sky, look into a 9 or 11-point autofocus. If you just want to capture the family Kodak moments, settle for a 3 or 5-point autofocus.

Pay attention to whether the digital SLR has a one-shot autofocus or continuous autofocus. One-shot autofocus works great for landscape, portrait, macro, still-life work or any other time your subject gives you enough time to accurately focus. For subjects with constant motion, may it be wildlife or wild kids, continuous autofocus is the way to go.

Image Stabilization

Say you bought a mini-tripod from the French street vendor in front of the Eiffel Tower but you think you will hardly use it. If you are snapping photos in low light conditions without a flash or if you have shaky hands, you are going to either need that mini-tripod or an image stabilization system. In case you decide you want a mini-tripod to go with your new digital SLR, here are some examples of digital camera and camcorder tripods.

5. The Shutter

What Is a Shutter?

The physical device that opens and closes to let light from the scene strike the image sensor is the shutter. The quicker the shutter speed, the better you will be able freeze an object in its tracks. If you are looking to get experimental, say, with splashing water, look for an SLR that offers a 1/1,000 to 1/8,000 second shutter speed.

Burst Modes

If you are planning on using your SLR to capture some serious action, i.e., Shaun White launching himself outside the half-pipe for 3 full seconds of hang-time, burst modes are worth paying attention to. Some digital SLRs, such as some of the entry-level Nikon units can max out at around 140 continuous shots while holding down the image capture button. Some SLRs can capture more images per second for those small windows of opportunity that may arise.

6. Memory Cards

The reliability and quality of flash memory cards are extremely important. The current standard max capacity limit is 32 GB, meaning 32 GB is the level that at which the bar is set for most amount of memory that can fit on an SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity). Digital SLRs are only compatible with certain memory card formats, so make sure you don’t make the mistake of purchasing a digital SLR and an incompatible memory card. Memory card prices vary by brand, processing speed, and capacity. Here are some examples.

7. The Battery

Just as in any other well-oiled machine, your digital SLR needs its fuel — and a whole lot of it. Every time a picture is snapped, the camera opens and closes the shutter, the autofocus goes to work, the sensor captures light and color to be processed and saved onto the memory card, and the color LCD screen ices the cake on this energy-eating monster. These are just some of the basic energy-eaters to take into account before getting frustrated with how prematurely your red battery icon begins to flash on your LCD screen. Depending on how much you use the camera, rechargeable batteries typically stay alive for 1-2 weeks.

Since all digital SLRs only ship with one battery, you must have a backup plan so you don’t miss any golden moments on your vacation. Each camera does not fit every battery and they may use either a rechargeable battery, typically ranging from US$30-$50, or standard AA-size batteries. If the camera you like uses AA-size batteries, look into long-lasting rechargeable AA and AAA batteries that have the highest mAh (milliamps/hr). This is the life of the battery when fully charged.

Charging Your Batteries

Remember: NiMH batteries are not fully charged when you first buy them. It usually takes 3 to 5 recharges for them to reach full capacity. It is important that you charge your batteries correctly without overcharging them. This can be achieved with smart AA and AAA battery chargers that avoid overcharging. If overcharged, cells can become damaged, causing dangerous conditions. It is also advised that a periodic discharge once every three months to 1V/cell will help you get the most of your batteries. Be careful to not discharge your batteries less than 1V/cell though or you will run the risk of causing damage. Exercising your batteries this way will extend their life and save you money.

9. The Flash

There are hundreds of ways to light a subject and hundreds of products that can do that for you. But for those of you not looking to take professional photos in a studio or as a photographer at special events, there is no need to worry about spending too much money on external lighting.

However, it is important to answer some key questions in determining what kind of lighting package you will need to purchase:

  • What kind of subjects will you mostly be photographing?
  • Would you like your flash attached to the camera?
  • If the flash is detached, do you want to set if off wirelessly?
  • Will your subjects static or in motion?
  • Do you want manual or automatic control of the flash’s intensity?

With this pertinent information you will be able to find a lighting package that suits your needs without overspending.

10. Video Capabilities

Two Pioneers

There are currently two digital SLRs that offer video capabilities — Nikon’s D90 and Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II. The Nikon has 12MP and only shoots 720p HD, costing less than $900, while the 21MP Canon shoots 1080p HD, costing $2,700 with no lenses.

Good news for the cinematographer/photographer enthusiast, the Canon comes with an audio jack to connect your preferred gear. The Canon’s output is MPEG-4 and records sound in stereo and puts out sound at CD quality. However, video and audio are still a whole new ball game for digital SLRs and only time will tell how soon the other brands catch on. You will find hype all over the online community about the new Canon but unless you’re in a hurry to get your hands on one of these, expect more digital SLRs to come out with video capabilities in the future.

11. Remote Features

Wireless Functionality

Wireless functionality is not yet a standard feature of digital SLRs. If you strongly wish to operate the shutter from a remote location, then give greater weight to investing in a Canon. Canon has a few wireless remote systems that can help you achieve your wireless functioning needs.

There are only a handful of few receiver-transmitter wireless remote systems on the market that may be able to assist you with your photography needs. However, since the market for SLR remote accessories is still extremely young, stay alert for new products to hit the market and become aware of positive/negative feedback.

12. Navigating the Interface

Capturing photos of landscapes, night scenes, portraits, sunsets and more are all going to require the proper settings to produce an appropriate image. Most digital SLRs have preset scene selection modes that will save you the time of learning how to adjust all of the settings for the occasion.

For beginners, an SLR with a variety of scene selection modes will be your best companion for those special occasions. Some brands navigate through scene selection modes easier than others, so make sure you allow yourself a little test run with several different cameras before making purchasing your camera.

1 Comment

  • Back in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s, while I was still a working newspaper photographer/reporter, we began hearing about digital devices referred to as ‘Digital Film". These were basically a sensor that one placed in the film plane, replacing the traditional film. They were terrible, offering low resolution, really poor battery life, cumbersome and awkward cords and such, and, they were EXPENSIVE! Only the best-healed newspaper photographers could afford to play with them.

    The good thing was, one could use really good optics, fast shutters with NO LAG, and one could always go back to film.

    What I would like to see is this idea revisited, but with today’s far better electronics. I still have several film only cameras that I would like to use more often, but just can’t afford to. With the far better lenses and zero lag time of the shutters, I think that today’s sensors could breathe new life into these film only cameras. And doing so would offer advantages: I already own the cameras and accessories. I already know how to use them. I know what to expect from them in terms of performance, optical quality, etc.

    If I could buy a reasonably priced sensor package that could be fitted to several ‘standard’ 35mm film cameras, I would but it today!

    We also have better batteries now. Back in my day, we had never heard of rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries small enough for cameras. In fact, Metal Nickle Hydride was pretty much unknown. We thought that Nicads were state of the art, and thought nothing of using SLA’s for our flashes. (Well, I used them, anyways. Heavy, yea, but they WORKED) I had a couple of Canon bodies that I could shoot up to about 3-4 frames per second with. Now, even (some) cheap kiddie cameras can do 30 fps! It’s been almost 20 years since I was in the business. The advances in cameras and related electronics boggles the mind. If we had had that back then… Shots I could have gotten that got away.. Sigh.

    I want to see a new sensor package that takes what’s good about today’s digital cameras, and make it work with what was good about yesterdays cameras. Fast, quality lenses. And, fast no-lag shutters. Battery free operation. OK, that last won’t happen, but at least all the battery juice can go to the sensor, not the entire camera. And the cameras fit the hand, had heft, which helps with shake at slower shutter speeds/low light, and had REAL tripod sockets. And real hot shoes for flashes that had some OOMPH!

    What I could do with such a combo today! Anybody listening out there in Japan, Korea, China, or wherever? Anyone else want one of these? Or AM I alone in this thinking?


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