Plugged In: Check list before checking out new cameras

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

What capabilities and features are actually worthwhile when buying a new camera? I had to ask that question of myself recently, when deciding what to buy my kid for Christmas.

Many readers of the Redoubt Reporter know my kid, Ray Lee, through this newspaper as a photo contest judge and writer before leaving for college. Ray’s also an accomplished photographer whose work has been accepted into six of the past seven Rarified Light statewide juried photo exhibitions.

Most often, like many readers, Ray used either an iPhone 5 or a pocketable camera, in Ray’s case a higher-end Canon S90. The S90 and its successors, the S95, S100, S110 and S120, remain among the best smaller-sensor cameras in terms of image quality and general usefulness. However, there are many times when a cellphone or a compact camera isn’t quite enough. Now that Ray’s in college, it’s time for a camera with better image quality and more versatile features. That got me thinking about what’s really important and what’s not, particularly when balanced against cost and size. Here’s my own list of capabilities and features and how I balance them when deciding what to purchase.

  • Compact size: Size counts because you’re more likely to carry — and, hence use — a smaller, more compact camera. Big and black digital SLR cameras remain the most common upper-end cameras in the U.S., apparently because they’re still associated in the popular view with high image quality and “serious” status. That’s no longer true in reality, but popular perception and inertia remain potent marketing forces. First and foremost, any camera for the younger “iPhone generation” should be compact and light. Camera size is usually dependent on the size of the internal imaging sensor — larger sensors result in not only larger camera bodies, but also require larger lenses. Cameras using traditional moving mirrors inevitably require a camera body that’s quite a bit larger. Compact system “mirrorless” cameras don’t use a moving mirror. As a result, they’re more compact for comparable image quality.
  • Cost and construction: Ideally, one should be able to find a versatile, quality camera with long-term usefulness for well under than $700, including an interchangeable kit zoom lens with magnifications from wide angle through short telephoto. Any camera in this price range should be well-built, with a rigid, largely metal-alloy body and heavy-duty plastics appropriately used. Don’t expect to find a weather-sealed body and lens in this price range, though that’s certainly handy here in coastal Alaska.
  • Viewing: Although trad-itionalist photographers, myself included, prefer using an eye-level viewfinder, most people compose images through the rear screen, as with a cellphone. A bright, good-quality rear screen is now a must, with extra points if the camera includes both a built-in or optional eyelevel viewfinder and a good rear screen that can tilt upward, downward or twist to the side. A nice additional feature is the ability to touch the screen at the point where you want to camera to expose and focus. Much to my surprise, I really like and use that touch-focus feature. Autofocus needs to be both fast and accurate. Except for some Fujifilm X-series cameras, whose autofocus remains notoriously slow, autofocus speed and accuracy are no longer a major concern. However, the continuous autofocus capabilities of Micro Four-Thirds cameras, desirable when making videos of moving subjects, tends to be ineffective.
  • Video: Almost all compact-system cameras now include usable, high-definition video capabilities, but Panasonic’s is considered to be the best and suitable for professional video usage.
  • Sensor size: This is the biggest single technical factor. Larger sensor cameras tend to have much better image quality under difficult conditions, and effortlessly so. A few interchangeable-lens cameras, including the Nikon 1 series and the Sony RX100, use “1-inch” sensors, smaller than the M 4/3 sensors used by Olympus and Panasonic. “One-inch” sensors can produce decent image quality, at least if you don’t intend to make large prints, but they’re not quite as good as larger M 4/3 and APS-C sensors overall. Both APS-C and M 4/3 sensors are suitable for compact, mirrorless camera systems. Both have their advantages. APS-C sensors are somewhat larger and, all other things being equal, that may result in slightly higher image quality but require larger lenses. Here, I would tend toward M 4/3 systems due to their generally more compact lenses.
  • Image stabilization: Image stabilization hardware is one of the most useful technical improvements in the past 25 or so years and can make a major difference when you need a slow shutter speed. In-body image stabilization hardware is more versatile and cost-effective. At this time, only Olympus uses such a system throughout its entire, interchangeable-lens compact camera range, although reserving the more effective and costly five-axis hardware for its pricy professional models. Other makers, including Sony and Panasonic, only include image-stabilization hardware in some of their compact camera lenses. Fujifilm doesn’t bother with image-stabilization hardware at all, taking a very traditionalist approach.
  • Versatility: Long-term usefulness requires the ability to interchange lenses, electronic flash attachments, optional viewfinders and other equipment. Compact cameras with fixed, single-magnification lenses are limited in their all-around usefulness, even when capable of producing high-quality images.
  • Optics: High-grade yet rationally priced interchangeable lenses are readily available for Fujifilm APS-C cameras and for M 4/3 cameras from Panasonic and Olympus. There’s a wider range of high-end optics available for M 4/3 cameras. Sony continues to lag in this crucial area.
  • Megapixels: Realistically, few nonprofessional users need a sensor larger than 16 megapixels, more than adequate even for very large and sharp prints. There’s only a barely perceptible sharpness advantage to a sensor with a higher megapixel count, and then only with very careful technique and top lenses.
  • High ISO capability: Over the past few years, digital imaging sensors have improved enough that they produce quite good photographs in very dim, near dark, light conditions and at the very high ISO sensitivities required for capturing fast athletic action and when using supertelephoto lenses for wildlife photography. Although some manufacturers advertise that their products do well at superhigh sensitivities, like ISO 6400, that’s both unlikely and usually unnecessary. Good ISO 3200 performance is more than adequate for virtually all requirements. It’s readily achievable with the Trans-X sensors used in Fujifilm’s X-series cameras and with the Sony APS-C sensors used in that company’s NEX cameras. All of Olympus’ current interchangeable-lens cameras use a similar Sony M 4/3-size sensor that performs well up to ISO 3200.
  • Dynamic range: Wide dynamic range is important because it allows some leeway for exposures that aren’t perfect, while allowing photographers to recover apparently lost shadow and highlight detail from RAW format image files. Larger sensors are usually capable of better dynamic range, although some APS-C cameras from Canon don’t do as well as they should, showing a dynamic range of only 10EV to 11EV. Similarly sized Sony APS-C sensors used in Sony and Pentax cameras often produce a much better dynamic range, between 13EV and 14.3EV. Smaller, 16-megapixel Sony sensors mounted in current Olympus M 4/3 cameras show a very usable, 12EV to 13EV dynamic range. Panasonic’s M 4/3 sensors included in its lower-end interchangeable lens cameras somewhat disappoint, with a dynamic range between 10EV and 11EV. With careful technique, a 10EV to 11EV dynamic range is adequate, but with less margin for error.
  • File format: It’s assumed that any interchangeable-lens camera with pretensions of serious use allows you to select an RAW file format, rather than confining you to lower-quality JPEG files. However, not all RAW formats are created equal. The image files produced by Fujifilm Trans-X cameras and Sigma compact cameras are not as well supported by Adobe’s standard software.
  • Modes: It’s important that a camera for all but the most knowledgeable user have both an easy-to-use, fully automatic setting, as well as manual and semimanual modes like Aperture Priority for more challenging situations. Personally, I don’t care whether lots of special-effect “art” modes are available — I find them cliched after the first few hundred times. Still, some people like them.

So, which did I choose to buy for my own kid, a serious and knowledgeable user? Tune in next week to find out.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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