Select Equipment

One theme of this site is that a good photographer can make good pictures with minimal equipment. The main reason for emphasizing minimal equipment, like a pocket camera, is mere convenience. Most people will rarely use a camera that is too large to carry around conveniently. This does not mean that having a better camera or more elaborate equipment is foolish. It is only foolish if you don't use it. Professional photographers carry a lot of expensive equipment and, most importantly, they use it to get the best photos. The more enthusiastic we amateurs are, the more likely we are to put up with inconvenience in pursuit of our hobby.

I now mainly use two cameras. I carry a pocket camera nearly everywhere. If I am traveling by car or going to an especially photogenic environs I take a large single lens reflex digital camera fitted with a 10mm to 20mm zoom.  (Equivalent to about 15 mm to 30 mm on a 35 mm camera)  I carry an 18 mm to 55 mm zoom lens as well, although I use it less often. (Recently I have been trying to learn how take video, and that is a major pain, because a tripod is required.) You have to be serious about the hobby to adopt a multi-camera strategy. Modern pocket cameras are so versatile that they will suit most people's purposes.

We will start the equipment rundown here with a discussion of pocket cameras, then move on to other choices.

Carry two cameras unless you are traveling light

View Camera
I have had this Calumet view camera for nearly 40 years, but I now use something more portable. It used 4" x 5" sheet film is assembled on a 22 inch grooved rod. The film plain and lens mount swing and tilt to control the plain of focus and perspective.
Graflex camera
Clark Kent's favorite camera uses 4" x 5" film and has lens swings and tilt. It folds up for convenient transport. The two round "eyes" on top comprise a manual optical rangefinder.
Noblex and Nikon D80
The Noblex on the left is rotating lens camera. A slit in the drum sweeps out a 135 degree image on film. It can be hand held if you are careful to keep it level. Here is a Noblex image. The Nikon D80 with 10 - 20 mm zoom is my current favorite for a non-pocketable camera.
Pocket cameras
The Olympus Stylus (left) is quite compact, but the lens is soft and the LCD viewfinder difficult to see in sunlight. I like the Canon A570IS (right). The lens telescopes to make it pocketable and it has an optical as well as LCD finder.
Travel cases
Ready to go: the view camera in its fiberboard case and the Noblex and D80 in a heavy-duty foam-lined Pelican case.

Most-Important Features

Cameras go out of date quickly, so a recommended model will soon be gone from the market.  There are many web sites devoted to equipment reviews, so I will cover the features to look for.  Here is my short list of most  important features:
  • A sharp lens with a large aperture
  • A macro (closeup capability)
  • Good sensitivity for low-light photography
  • An anti-shake mechanism
  • A wide angle lens
A large aperture lens is at least f2.8 when the zoom is at the widest angle. The lower the aperture number, the better the ability to take pictures in dim light. F2.8 is better than f3.5, for example.  The pocket camera I have been using has an f2.6 lens when zoomed out, and that seems to be about the best one can do with a pocket camera. Interchangeable lens cameras offer f2 and f1.4 lenses.  Years ago, one camera was available with an f0.95 lens. Films were slow then, so people were desparate.

The sensitivity of the sensor is comparable to film speed. Sensitivity is measured in ASA numbers, and the larger the number the more sensitive the sensor and the better the ability to take pictures in low light.  The number corresponds to the expose in bright sun. An ASA of 200 means that the normal exposure in bright sun is f16 at 1/200 second.  Some cameras boast good sensitivity but produce images with too much noise. It is best to read camera reviews on the web to see if the quality stacks up well.  The reviews are also helpful with respect to lens sharpness.

The purpose of having a large aperture lens and good sensitivity is to be able to take pictures in low light without a flash. Ambient light produces much nicer images. The last feature relevant to that goal is an anti-shake mechanism.  The mechanism compensates for the camera being moved by a small amount during the exposure. An anti-shake mechanism allows acceptable sharp images to be taken at about 1/15 second. Without it the limit is around 1/30. That is a significant improvement.

A macro capability allows the camera to focus on objects as close as seven inches, or even closer.  The feature is not hard to find, but be sure to check. There are many uses for close up photography and it would be a shame to preclude them when the feature is so readily available. You may have a hobby like collecting coins or tying flies for fly fishing where the ability to go as close as a few inches would be useful. Check the camera specifications.

wide angle capability is an important feature not standard in pocket camera.  Here are some pocket cameras that zoom out to a respectable 28 mm equivalent:
I stress wide angle and low light photography for reasons explained at length on this site. However, you may have interests that differ. If you want to photograph sports, the telephoto capability will be more important than wide angle.  If you rarely take pictures indoors, then aperture and sensitivity can be sacrificed in favor of telephoto capability.

Less-Important Features

The second tier of features includes, in my view:
  • A bright viewfinder
  • Long-lasting batteries
  • High pixel resolution
The problem with LCD view screens is that they can be washed out by bright sunlight. Knowing where the camera is pointed is a powerful aid to good photography. (You can quote me on that.)  Some pocket cameras have an alternate optical viewfinder, and that is the best solution. The optical viewfinder must be coupled to the zoom lens so the viewfinder image size tracks the zoom. That costs something and increases the camera size a little, so the trend seems to be to omit the optical finder. Next best is to get an LCD display that is at least fairly bright. In direct sun, it will still be necessary to cup your hand around the LCD panel to see the image, but it will be easier to do.

Batteries and Memory Cards

By all means get rechargeable batteries for your camera. It is much more likely that you will run out of power than fill up the memory card that holds the images. (Often the memory card that comes with the camera is token storage. Buy a larger card, say 2GB, when you buy the camera. If you plan on using the pocket camera to also take video, the camera may require a more expensive high speed memory card.)  I like the block-type of battery for convenience, but rechargeable AA batteries are fine too. AA has the advantage that you can buy disposable batteries on the road if you run out of juice.. Get high quality batteries and charger. The type of battery that charges very quickly seems to have much capacity than the kind that charges more slowly. You want Ni-MH batteries, not alkaline. There are low and high capacity NiMH batteries, high capacity batteries like the ones from Sony last about three times longer. Battery technology is improving, so the main guideline is to investigate the issue when you purchase.

High pixel resolution is well down on the list.  You can easily obtain 5 megapixels, and that is more than adequate for most needs. If you plan on making prints larger than 8" x 10" frequently, you might be concerned.  For e-mail and web posting, only one megapixel is needed. Having more allows for cropping of the images.  It is a mistake to give up lens sharpness or lack of sensor noise at low light levels for high pixel resolution. since people are more aware of  pixel resolution, manufacturers sometimes cut corners on the lens and noise characteristics to provide resolution that people want but don't really need.

Unimportant Features

There are some features that are nearly useless. One is face recognition. The idea is that the camera will recognize faces and focus on the faces rather than on something else.  Like what else?  The people will usually be filling the frame so there is nothing else to focus on. The people are so far away that they are a small part of the scene, then focusing on anything distant will do.  The feature does no harm, however. It sees faces in bowls of noodles and just about everything, but it doesn't matter so long as it is at the distance of the subject.

The panoramic mode on cameras is also useless. Better panoramas can be obtained without it. It does no harm because you do not have to use it.