- Basic models: This term is used to describe entry-level cameras that offer few (or no) controls over exposure, focus, and so on. Smartphone and tablet cameras also fall into this category.
A basic model is perfect if you're a casual photographer. That is, you enjoy taking selfies, shooting pictures of the gang at special occasions, and sharing photos of your kids or pets online. Or perhaps your work requires photographic documentation of some sort. For example, an insurance adjuster needs to include pictures of hail damage in order to process a claim. Either way, you want your pictures to be as good as possible, but you aren't interested in taking classes or otherwise learning advanced photography techniques..
- Intermediate models: By intermediate, this means a camera that offers both automatic and manual picture-taking controls. Go this route if you want to explore photography but don't know much about the topic yet. That way, you can rely on automatic shooting modes while you're learning, and gradually step up to manual options. You can find a wide range of models in this category, some of which provide only a handful of advanced options and others that offer nearly pro-level controls.
- Advanced models: Cameras in this category are designed for photographers who want more sophisticated controls than intermediate cameras provide. For example, with some high-end cameras, you can use the built-in flash to trigger off-camera flash units, providing lighting flexibility that's often required for professional portrait photography. You also get substantially more ways to customize your camera, from tweaking autofocus performance to changing the function of camera buttons.
Often not included on cameras in this category are automatic shooting modes or other make-it-easy features that you find on basic and intermediate cameras. Some models don’t even offer a built-in flash, requiring you to buy a separate flash unit. This leads to the following caution: No matter how much the camera salesperson (or your professional photographer friend) tries to convince you to “start at the top,” don't buy an advanced camera until you master an intermediate model.The added complexity will likely overwhelm you, not to mention make a larger dent in your bank account. Step up to this level only if you start doing projects that require features not found on your intermediate-level model.
Of course, you may have multiple-photography personality, as many photographers do, and need more than one option at your disposal. For example, for wildlife and travel photography, you might lug around the large, advanced body and telephoto lens shown on the far left below. (This type of camera is called a dSLR, which stands for digital Single Lens Reflex)
You can get awesome shots with this setup, but it’s too large to carry all the time. For casual shots on the go, you can simply use your smartphone — it's great for snapping scenes that catch your eye while walking the dog, for example. As a point of reference, the phone in the image measures about 5 1/2 inches tall and about 3 inches wide.
Then there are times when you don’t need all the bells and whistles of a “big rig” but want more features than a phone provides – a zoom lens, for example, or a viewfinder that makes framing shots easier than relying on the phone’s screen, which can wash out in the sun.
For those outings, you might pick up one of the two smaller models in the image above, both of which sport intermediate-level controls. The one in the middle of the picture is a fixed-lens model (meaning you can’t swap out lenses), but it has a pretty long-range zoom lens and fits easily into a purse.
The other dSLR model (the far-right camera) isn’t really purse material, but it works with the same lenses and flash that can be attached to an advanced model, and the body is considerably smaller and lighter than my other dSLR.
All of which is to say that it's okay to put more than one camera on your next birthday wish list. In fact, it’s recommended. But you still need to make sure that each model you buy suits the type of photography you want to do.
Each image shows two variations of the same scene, both shot with an intermediate-level camera. The first image in each pair shows the result of shooting in the camera’s fully automatic shooting mode.
In Auto mode, the camera makes all the decisions for you, determining characteristics such as the brightness of the scene, whether moving objects appear sharp or blurry, and how much of the scene appears in focus. The second example in each image shows a variation that was created by switching out of Auto mode and adjusting camera settings that modify these aspects of a photo.
Here’s a brief explanation of which camera controls enabled were used to produce the variations:
- Controlling exposure (picture brightness): In the image below, the Auto mode version of the image is okay, but what the photographer had in mind was the darker, more dramatic shot on the right. To get that result, the photographer used exposure compensation, a setting that tells the camera that you want a darker or brighter picture for your next shot. Most cameras offer exposure compensation, but how much control you have over the amount of exposure shift varies, with intermediate and advanced models offering greater flexibility.
Keep in mind, too, that for very precise exposure control, you may need access to other options not available on basic cameras, such as the choice to enable or disable flash.
- Controlling motion blur: You can determine whether moving subjects appear frozen in place or blurry. The waterfall below offers an example. The look of the water changes depending on shutter speed. The slower the shutter speed, the more moving objects blur. Now you know how photographers achieve the misty water effect shown in the right example. For that shot, a shutter speed of 1/30 second was used. For the left image, a much faster shutter speed of 1/125 second was used.
Basic cameras don’t offer control over shutter speed; however, some offer a “blur motion” mode designed to automatically choose a slower than usual shutter speed. Still, you rarely can set a specific shutter speed on basic models, so you can’t alter the amount of blur the camera produces. You can also add blur in a photo editor.
- Controlling depth of field: Depth of field refers to the distance over which objects in a photo appear to be sharply focused. You can decide whether you want objects in front of and behind your subject to appear sharp, as you see below, or blurry, as in the right image. For the right photo, the focus was set on the boat in the front of the picture. In Auto mode, the camera typically tries to keep as much of the scene in focus as possible, as shown in the left example. For the right image, the camera controls were adjusted to shorten depth of field. Notice how the scene gets progressively blurrier toward the back of the frame in the right example. (The difference is most visible in the tall palm tree.)With the right camera controls, you can specify whether you want the entire scene to appear in sharp focus (left) or for the background to blur (right).
There are various ways to manipulate depth of field: You can adjust the lens aperture, or f-stop setting; change the lens focal length; or get closer or farther away from your subject. If you want the greatest control over depth of field, you need all these options at your disposal. Unfortunately, control over aperture (f-stop) and focal length aren’t common with smartphone and tablet cameras, although some new devices give you at least a little input over both settings.
So how do you find such a camera? Start by checking out the table below, which lists the top ten features for photographers interested in fully exploring the artistic side of photography. Please don't freak out about the photography lingo found in the table — shutter speed, aperture, focal length, blah blah blah. Those are easy enough to learn about for any budding photographer. If you’re a beginner, just use the table as a handy reference when you’re looking at camera specs.
|Advanced shooting modes
|Look for these modes: aperture-priority autoexposure, shutter-priority autoexposure, and manual exposure. These modes let you fine-tune exposure and manipulate depth of field (through the aperture setting) and motion blur (through shutter speed).
|Also called burst mode, this shutter-release mode captures a series of photos with one press of the shutter button, which is especially critical for shooting action. Check the frame rate to find out how many pictures you can capture per second; higher is better.
|A built-in flash or a way to attach an external flash is a must, as are options that let you control whether the flash fires, select which flash mode is used (such as red-eye compensation and slow-sync flash), and adjust flash output (often called flash exposure compensation).
|For autofocusing, choose a model that lets you select a specific focus point, use continuous autofocusing (tracks a moving subject), and decide when to lock focus. Also note the number of focus points; the more, the better. Because autofocusing isn’t always foolproof, the option to set focus manually is also essential.
|ISO settings control the camera’s light sensitivity. Choose a camera that offers both automatic and manual control over ISO and delivers good image quality at high ISO settings.
|Lens focal length and quality
|Focal length determines how much of a scene you can capture in one shot and plays a role in depth of field. The quality of the lens glass makes a huge difference in the sharpness of your images.
|For more control in the editing room and the ability to capture a wider range of colors, choose a model that offers Raw capture as well as the traditional JPEG format.
|Without a viewfinder, you’re forced to compose shots on the camera monitor, which is difficult in bright sunlight.
|White Balance adjustments
|White balance affects color accuracy. Look for options that enable you to fine-tune White Balance and create custom white-balance settings.
|Metering mode choices
|A camera’s metering mode determines which part of the frame is analyzed when exposure is set. Choose a model that offers a choice of metering modes: whole frame, spot, and center-weighted, for example.