That's a post seen
frequently in the photography forum. Camera shopping presents
a big challenge to those not familiar with photography's technical
aspects. Not only does it present a daunting new and foreign
language full of unfamiliar terms such as f-stop, megapixel
and white balance, but it also requires spending a good chunk
of change; it's enough to send anybody to the medicine cabinet
for some headache medicine. Making the best choice simply
requires a little education. Learning what some of those terms
mean will help you make a good selection, while at the same
time improving your photography.
Another big decision to be made is where to buy the camera
- we'll go over some tips to help with that decision too.
And finally, we'll discuss some accessories you might want
to purchase to help get the most out of any new camera.
Understanding Some Commonly Used Terms:
One of the first terms encountered
when shopping for a digital camera is megapixel. Pixel
is a contraction of the words "picture" and "element,"
by the way (and mega is just the Latin prefix meaning "millions").
Think of a pixel as a tiny dot which, when combined with millions
of others, forms a photograph. Resolution is another commonly
seen term - to calculate a camera's resolution, simply multiply
the number of horizontal pixels by the number of vertical
pixels; the product is its resolution, also referred to as
How many megapixels are necessary? To answer that question
first determine how big you want to make your prints. This
is the main consideration for determining what resolution
camera to buy. Most 4 megapixel cameras are easily capable
of producing high quality 8" x 10" or even 11"
x 14" prints, which are plenty big enough for most of
us. Remember, once a print is matted and framed, a typical
8" x 10" print will take up a lot of wall space.
If of the goal is to print poster-sized prints and hang them
all over the house, then look into 8mp cameras, but beware!
All sensors are not created equal. The number of megapixels
is not the only determinant of image quality. By packing the
pixels very densely manufacturers have, in some cases, achieved
a high pixel count, but at a cost of increased digital noise.
Think of digital noise as "graininess." To avoid
this, look at sample images from each camera before buying
- especially shots taken at 400 and 800 ISO.
Next to the image sensor, the lens is the camera's most important
part. This leads to a description of a pair of phrases most
prospective buyers have probably seen and wondered about:
optical and digital zoom. "Zoom" refers to the variable
focal length of this type of lens. It has a wide end and a
long, or telephoto, end. The wide end is where the lens is
zoomed all the way out and sees its largest field of view.
That end is used for landscape or whole tank (or even tank
room) images, and fits into the picture as much as possible
of what the eyes see. The long end of the lens is used to
bring the subject closer so that it appears in the frame bigger
than it seems to the eyes. In effect, the lens actually magnifies
Digital zoom occurs within the camera's electronics - the
image's center is merely cropped and enlarged to achieve greater
magnification. This image enlargement always introduces some
degradation, so it's recommended to use this feature as little
as possible. Remember, digitally zooming is a poor substitute
for poor framing of the subject. If the image is out-of-focus,
digitally zooming it will give a nicely enlarged out-of-focus
image, and should really only be used when there is no alternative.
Most cameras' digital zoom feature works in steps. Often the
first step gives decent quality; after that, however, things
go south quickly, so using that feature is not recommended
except in extreme circumstances. For instance, if Bigfoot
is spotted attacking a Grizzly down by the riverside, by all
means, zoom, zoom, zoom!
Optical zoom describes how the glass elements inside the
lens physically move to magnify the image. Lenses are specifically
and carefully designed to do this, and since they do it without
cropping and enlarging, it does not diminish the pictures'
quality. Manufacturers list the optical and digital zooms
with an x factor, which simply refers to the difference between
the lens' wide and long ends. For example, a 20-100mm zoom
lens has a 5x optical zoom because 20 goes into 100 five times.
This illustrates why the optical zoom number, by itself, has
little meaning, because it doesn't tell how wide or long the
lens is! The lens' focal length must be known also, in order
to understand how the it will perform.
As I mentioned, the wide end of the lens is good for landscape
(e.g., whole tank, full tank room) shots, while the long/telephoto
end is good for shots of individual fish or corals. Below
are some examples of images taken at various focal lengths,
to give an idea of what can be fit into the frame using the
wide end of the lens, and how close-up the shot can be with
the long end.
A wide shot, approximately 20mm.
A medium shot, approximately 50mm.
A tight shot, approximately 100mm.
article went into some detail about what white balance
is and how to get accurate colors in aquarium photos. What
white balance features are important in a camera used for
aquarium photography? Because of the extreme (in terms of
color temperature) lighting over fish and reef tanks, any
given camera may have difficulty giving accurate colors via
its automatic white balance setting, so the ability to set
the white balance manually is crucial. Aside from that, most
cameras offer a wide variety of preset white balance options
such as sunlight, incandescent lighting, flash, cloudy day
and fluorescent, so they should be fine for all other types
of standard photography. Some cameras give the user the ability
to fine-tune the white balance. This is a handy feature that
allows for small adjustments to whatever white balance setting
the camera has chosen. Finally, some cameras have an option
for setting the white balance by color temperature. If the
bulbs' color temperature is known, this can be a very useful
Most, but not all, cameras have the ability to be focused
manually. Manual focus can be very helpful for close-ups because
autofocus, on even the best cameras, sometimes has difficulty
focusing on close subjects, especially if the subject has
little or no contrast and texture. While manual focus should
not be a deal breaker, it is a nice feature to look for. A
useful trick for those times when the lens is struggling for
the right focus is to aim the camera at a nearby subject that
has good contrast, hold the shutter button halfway down to
focus on that, then while keeping the shutter button depressed
halfway, recompose the shot on the original subject, using
the LCD to make sure the shot is focused at the correct distance.
Macro focus range is another term used in camera specs. This
term refers to how close the camera can be to a subject and
still keep it in focus. The closer this is, the greater the
magnification, and high magnification is the goal for close-ups.
But this magnification equation has two sides. One is how
close the camera can focus, and the other is the focal length
of the lens (how far it can zoom in); the longer the lens
(the more it can zoom in) and the closer the focus, the better
the photo. So look for a lens that is the best compromise
for the intended types of shots.
It's Time to Shop!
Where to buy a camera? So many choices
this is where the internet really shines. Shopping on the
internet has made us all more informed consumers - we can
compare prices from dozens of stores with a click or two of
the mouse. Sources include websites such as pricegrabber.com,
nextag.com, bizrate.com, shopping.com, etc. ad infinitum.
It's likely that once a decision on what camera to buy has
finally been made, the price will seem too good to be true.
Sad to say, but it probably will be too good to be true -
many less than forthright dealers out there are willing to
take advantage of the trusting consumer. The best piece of
advice for checking up on dealers is to look them up on resellerratings.com
One of the tricks shady dealers use is to list the camera
at an extremely low price, then sell accessories at inflated
prices. Another common ploy is to sell a gray market camera
without informing the consumer. Gray market equipment comes
from overseas with no U.S. warranty, so beware! Downright
dirty dealers will even open the factory sealed camera package
and remove necessary accessories, such as the battery and
battery charger, and then try to sell them as separate items.
has been around a long time and has traditionally been the
standard for good prices. They don't have the most rock-bottom
prices but they are a great site to check first, partly because
their prices are low and partly because they are the biggest
in the business. They also are known to be among the most
The first accessory to consider purchasing is a tripod. Use
one and become a better photographer-it's as simple as that.
Of course it steadies the shots, but it also requires more
attention to the composition of the shot, since it allows
additional time for critical inspection of the frame. Sometimes
using a tripod is absolutely necessary - certain shots are
impossible without it. To better understand why tripods are
necessary, refer to the section of this
article in the November 2004 issue of Reefkeeping Magazine,
which discusses depth of field.
Close-up filters are commonly used to improve a camera's
macro performance. These filters work just like a magnifying
glass, in some cases decreasing the working distance between
lens and subject, effectively increasing the lens' magnification
substantially. Hoya and Tiffen and some other companies make
fairly inexpensive sets of close-up filters, sometimes called
diopters. The optical quality of these filters is fair - neither
great nor horrible. They are an inexpensive way to improve
a camera's capabilities. Other companies, such as Canon and
Nikon, make two element filters that are of excellent optical
quality. They cost a little more but are worthwhile options.
A back-up battery and an extra memory card are accessories
that everyone should have in his camera bag. Again, refer
before buying these accessories. Memory cards come with speed
ratings - is the fastest card available necessary? The answer
most likely is no. Speed ratings are listed with an "x"
number that tells how fast the data is processed in the camera.
Each "x" is 150KB per second, so a 40x card will
process data at approximately 6MB per second. Most cameras
cannot match that speed, which is why it's not necessary to
buy the latest, greatest memory card. Refer to the specs in
the documentation that comes with the camera to see how quickly
it processes data. In most cases a super fast card is overkill.
Where speed does come in handy is when transferring images
to a computer, assuming the use of a USB2 card reader. If
the camera itself is transferring the photos (via direct connection
to the computer), then the extra speed won't be realized.
One last suggestion before you go out and buy your new toy:
try to read as many reviews as possible, and look at sample
pictures from the cameras you are considering. The internet
has many great review sites, with unbiased and thorough reviews.
The site that I refer to most often is www.dpreview.com.
Best of luck in your shopping!