Choosing photographic equipment depends primarily on the intended aim and subjects, and of the budget. The will to improve one's abilities over time, areas of interest and possible special requirements will focus one's choice on specific families, brands and models of cameras.
Three main families of digital cameras are available on the market:
The capabilities of a camera are largely determined by these three families. The first step in choosing equipment is to determine which of these better fits one's requirements and intended uses.
A large range of companies manufacture cameras. Those which do not produced their own lenses often buy lenses made by Leica or Zeiss, which make excellent products.
If one is focusing on evolving towards a professional-level reflex system, two companies stand out: Nikon and Canon. These brands make the systems used by press photographers and often by studio photographers. Lenses for these systems are available for rental by photo shops.
Few brands are catastrophically worse or better than their competitors in a particular niche; but some brands do not occupy some niches. For instance few brands have professional cameras truly competing with the Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III, and few compete with the Leica M8.
Compact digital cameras are the heirs of the small point-and-shoot film cameras. Most offer a limited range of settings, both out of technical limitations and out of deliberate design, as they are often targeted at inexperienced photographers.
Some digital compact cameras can have a resolution on par with large professional cameras, and most modern compacts have resolutions equal to middle-range digital reflexes.
A compact camera is usually relatively inexpensive, small and light. As such, it is a good tool to carry all the time -- a little bit as the photographic equivalent of a side-arm. Indeed, professional photographers often keep a good compact camera handy at all times.
Optical and electronic parts per se are usually good to excellent quality.
Since compact cameras usually do not open like SLRs, they tend to be cleaner. One does not need to clean the sensor of a compact camera on a regular basis.
Compact cameras often have a long response time for shooting, which makes them essentially useless for action photography, sport, portrait and similar things. They also have no burst mode, which is also a liability for these applications.
Another limitation of compact cameras stems from their small size itself: the size of the sensor is naturally limited. This, coupled with the expectation of higher and higher resolutions, yields very densely packed pixels, which in turn yields a high digital noise.
The small size also has the effect that the integrated flash is close to the lens. These flashes are often fixed: they cannot be moved away from the lens, nor can they be oriented away from the view axis of the lens for indirect lightening. This tends to create terrible effects for reflections bouncing back to the lens, people having white faces, and the dreaded red eye effect. One way to temperate the problem is to use diffusion by sticking semi-transparent adhesive tape over the flash.
Initially, compacts used to be fixed-focal, fixed-focus boxes. Most compacts today focus, and some offer zooms with appreciable focal ranges.
Compact cameras are fine choices for people unwilling to invest money into complex systems, and time into learning photography. They are also fine backups to have for dedicated photographers.
They can be used profitably on fixed objects if the lighting is sufficient. They will struggle in low light and with moving subjects, but come in very handy for casual shots.
Some of the largest compacts have wide focal ranges and blur the line with their bigger brothers of the Bridge family.
- Action photography
- Casual snapshots
- Wide angle
- Photography at sea
- Macro photography
With the quick evolution of digital photography, cameras find themselves on the second-hand market two or three years after they are launched. The second-hand market might be a good opportunity to procure higher quality equipment for a fraction of the price.
Also, a good photo shop will be willing to take back used equipment when selling larger or more recent systems. Hence, money invested in a system is not entirely lost, and the hierarchy of photographic systems can be climbed like a ladder.
- The Canon G9, a larger compact, has a resolution of 12 Mpixels, out-performing the 10-Mpixel professional Canon 1D mk III on this particular aspect.
- Really good photo shops are not so much the largest photography mega-markets, than the small shops with a dedicated owner. With fewer customers, they usually have more time to devote to each, a willingness to fidelise their customers by being actually helpful, and are often photographers themselves rather than mere salesmen. Also, the fact that they survive with few customers indicates customers set on expensive equipment: these shops often have privileged relationships with professionals.