Do you want something really small and light? Are different shapes more or less appealing? There may be a lot of complicated controls and small buttons, with menus displayed on a small LCD screen on the back. Can you just live in "auto-everything" default mode? It's worth playing with various cameras to see how they fit physically, and how the control systems work.
There's often a real tradeoff between portability and versatility. I've owned a range of cameras (see later articles), and I've enjoyed both the extreme portability and un-obtrusiveness of really compact cameras, and also the versatility and quality of digital SLR's, even at the cost of carrying around the traditional bag of interchangeable lenses, etc.
Sometimes a lack of control can be annoying and a limitation; sometimes it can be a virtue: I've sometimes been surprised at being in the wrong "mode" after forgetting that I changed something, and I've seen more casual users completely confused by a control dial accidentally shifting into panorama mode, or what have you.
First, I should mention that I stick to Canon. It's partly a matter of loyalty (my first "good" camera was a second-hand Canon FX back in the 70s as a teenager) and I've always been generally satisfied with their products. And it's partly to simplify my life.
On the one hand, when I'm choosing equipment it limits the decisions I need to make. And there's more of a chance that accessories like batteries and chargers will work on multiple models.
Canon is also one the premier brands that makes a wide range of models and seems to have a serious long-term commitment to both the amateur and professional markets. This is especially a consideration if one buys into an interchangeable lens system, since this is a large and long-term investment.
One could say all the above of the other premier brands as well, of course, notably Nikon.
First a Canon S100. This was definitely on the tiny, convenient side, rather than high functionality/capacity. My considerations were that I would probably end up with other, more capable digital cameras over time (as anyone who's seen my film camera collection can attest!), so this was an initial rather than ultimate choice. I thought I'd start on the smaller/cheaper end at first. It's a 2MB, 2x zoom camera that's more than adequate for web photos. Its tiny size and weight meant that I could carry it everywhere, and in a bit over a year, I had over 1,300 images to show for it, including the London, Norway, and Barcelona trips of 2001. It does take Compact Flash cards, which are convenient for me to transfer onto my laptop. And I've always been a Canon fan, so that was one way to winnow down the vast array of choices. I did buy a larger-capacity memory card, an extra battery, and a case up front.
I've since upgraded in this category to a Canon SD800. It has vastly better specs: 7 MB, 4x zoom (starting at 28mm equivalent, so a little wider than typical, which is nice), with image stabilization, a much larger rear LCD screen, and much better battery life. It takes SD cards, which are pretty standard for smaller cameras these days. It's my standard "business trip" camera, and fits nicely into a pants or jacket pocket and my hand.
I've got a 2 GB SD card in it, which will hold over 500 highest-quality images. Its tiny battery also lasts an amazingly long time, though again if one is going to take pictures all day, then it's wise to charge the battery up every night beforehand. One limitation: no RAW mode, so one is stuck with 8-bit JPEG. And of course the small sensor means that one shouldn't push too hard for high speed or exposure latitude. Image Stabilization is a valuable feature, enabling hand-held no-flash shots in less light. The relatively huge screen, covering much of the back surface, is a delight.
Then after about a year I moved up to a Canon G2. This is a much more capable camera than the S100, with a 4MB sensor, 3x zoom, and manual controls if desired. I've been impressed with the additional quality, which extends to subtler areas like better color balance, requiring less correction. I initially had a 340 MB Microdrive with it, and burned through the whole thing in a weekend taking pictures at my sister's wedding! In a bit over a year, I shot over 2,400 images, including 2002's France trip. The G2 is bulkier, though, and doesn't have that wonderful pocketable, hide-it-in-your-hand quality of the sub-compacts.
After the G2, I moved up again to a Canon EOS 10D. This is a single-lens reflex (SLR) that takes the same EF lenses as EOS film-based cameras. Since I already had an EOS A2 with some nice EF lenses, this was a natural choice. Most people would not want to consider this kind of camera. It's more expensive, and quite a bit bigger and heavier. In some ways, it actually offers less capabilities than "consumer" digital cameras! For instance, because of the mirror viewing system, the LCD screen is only active after a shot has been taken, for review.
Also, this breed of somewhat-more-affordable digital SLRs has a less-than-full-frame sensor, which means you only get the middle part of the image the lens is capable of producing. This is equivalent to a focal-length multiplier, in this case 1.6x. So a "standard" 50mm f/1.4 lens becomes an 80/1.4 fast portrait lens, which is very nice. And an 80/1.8 short telephoto becomes a 128/1.8, also very nice, considering how much Canon's 135/2 costs.
But an expensive 28-70/2.8 "L" (high-end) wide-to-short-telephoto zoom becomes a 45-112/2.8, which is not very wide-angle at all. Canon has a new 17-40/4.0 which becomes a 27-64/4.0, which is not bad, and quite versatile in practice; it became my standard "walking around" lens with this camera.
My latest upgrade is to a Canon EOS 5D full-frame SLR. The larger 24x36 mm sensor means that lenses have their original effective focal length, which is especially nice to wide-angle lenses. The 17-40 becomes a very wide-angle zoom, and the 24-105/4.0 L lens is my new standard "walking around" lens.
Canon now makes several levels of digital SLRs, with in general the less digits the better. So there are four-digit entry-level models, three-digit mid-level models, two-digit advanced-amateur models, one-digit professional models, with "1" reserved for the very top.
Most models are 1.6x crop models like my 10D. These days (unlike my 10D), they also take lenses with an alternate mount, EF-S lenses, which do not cover full-frame. This allows smaller, lighter lenses, including an interested 10-22mm zoom lens which is a very wide-angle zoom. Other vendors do similar things.
Olympus and some other vendors support a smaller-than-full-frame "4/3" format which they intend to be a new standard. This seems like a pretty reasonable idea, and may end up making full-frame cameras, which now cost a couple thousand dollars up, the new "medium format" (i.e. a larger format for professional, very high-quality use). On the other hand, I can recall how half-frame (18x24mm) format film-based camers went through various eras of fashionableness, but never caught on permanently. Anyone who has seen or used the Olympus Pen F half-frame SLR's of the 1960's can attest to the attractiveness of the idea, given the wonderfully small and light cameras and lenses. (Of course, a new format means buying new lenses...)
So why buy a digital SLR? There are two ways to compare. First, against my previous digital cameras, especially the G2, and against my film-based cameras, especially the EOS A2. The G2 has two main frustrations and limitations, which apply to any camera in its range. The first is in "action" scenarios, such as candids and sports. The lag time to "boot up", between shutter-press to actually taking the picture, and from shot to shot really get in the way of getting the picture. The zoom control is also not conducive to rapid action, taking a while to get from one end to the other, and often requiring some searching back-and-forth to get to the right focal length. The second is the limitations of the non-interchangeable lens. The 3x zoom is equivalent to a 35-105/2-2.5. This works pretty well most of the time, and is quite fast. F/2.5 at the telephoto end is especially impressive against much of the competition. And while optical quality is generally quite high, there are some compromises, such as significant barrel distortion at the wide end.
Digital SLRs are more expensive, and cater to a more advanced or even professional market, and so benefit from more expensive electronics that are faster and higher-capacity. The interchangeable lenses have specialized, more powerful auto-focus motors and actuators. This all means that these cameras are much more responsive, with shorter lag times, and more rapid and longer "burst" capabilities. It's much more like using a film-based SLR: the zoom lenses zoom quickly and positively, and I just love having the SLR viewing image back again. (I've noticed that point-and-shoot film-based cameras can also be quite slow, especially to auto-focus.)
And as for lenses, with the EOS 10D and the 17-40 zoom I can get as wide as a 28mm equivalent at very high quality (on the one hand only at f/4.0, on the other hand the larger 10D sensor will go to higher speeds and retain image quality). These days one can use the EF-S lenses on similar cameras, and of course with the full-frame EOS 5D, I have full wide-angle capability.
At the telephoto end, the sky is more-or-less the limit, with my light and compact 85/1.8 providing me with a very fast 128mm equivalent, and if I'm willing to lug my 70-200/2.8L lens around, I get up to 320mm, which is very effective for nature photography, especially at f/2.8. Of course, all this does mean going back to carrying a full camera bag around, which I'm only willing to do in certain circumstances. And it also means the shallower depth of field of longer focal length, faster lenses, which can be both good and bad.
There are other formats of digital camera available:
I could just stick to my film-based cameras when I want to use their interchangeable lenses and so on. But then there are the basic advantages of a digital camera: hugely higher image capacity at no marginal cost, and instant image review. This is particularly valuable in difficult lighting situations. My most extreme experience was at a fireworks display, where it was invaluable to be able to try different speeds and exposure settings and immediately see their effect.
For now, I'll only revert to film to enjoy a different experience for the sake of it, such as a Leica M rangefinder. (Yes, even there Leica has gone digital with the M8, but that's ferociously expensive.)
I've enjoyed my foray into digital photography immensely, and I hope you do too! I continue to use my film cameras from time-to-time, though now I typically get negatives scanned onto CD at the time of processing, and I still have a large back-log of older negatives to scan myself. My web site has become my primary medium for arranging and showing pictures. It's hard to imagine buying another film-based camera for primary use.
www.dpreview.com has amazing in-depth reviews, along with news and discussion forums. www.cnet.com is more consumer-oriented, and has useful price comparisons. Photo store personnel are a mixed bag. In larger stores most are probably commission-oriented sales-critters, with a few more-knowledgeable enthusiasts out there, particularly in smaller stores. But if you do go to a store and get good advice, please buy there. The prices will probably be a bit higher, but how else is that good advice going to survive?
There are also sites that offer a lot of photographic and general software and hardware advice. One particularly rich one is Norman Koren's site. And Bob Atkins' site is particular good for Canon users.
Copyright Richard Schooler, 2001-2008 firstname.lastname@example.org