It’s happened to us all before. We’ve popped into our local camera shop to buy one as a gift and been confounded by a baffling array of jargon and numbers that make no sense! I’m sure many of you are planning to buy a camera either for yourself or someone else this Christmas and so I have put together this jargon-buster of camera features that you might want to consider when making a purchase.
I’ll start with the “techy” stuff and work through to items you may already be familiar with or have heard of previously. The first three: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO all work together in a kind of Trinity, the Exposure Triangle. Don’t worry about this just yet but if you want to learn to use your new camera in Manual Mode, just be aware that when you adjust one of these, the other two need to be adjusted as well.
This is the size of the hole in the lens through which light passes to reach the camera’s sensor. You will typically see it written as a number with a “f” in front of it eg f2.8 - f22. f2.8 is the largest hole the lens allows, which lets in a lot of light and gives a nice blurry background; a fast shutter speed will help get the right exposure when you have the aperture open wide. f22 is a much smaller hole which lets in less light, meaning you will need a slower shutter speed and everything in the image from foreground to background will be in sharp focus.
How fast or slow the shutter opens and closes when a photograph is taken. For quick moving sports action in daylight you will need at least 1/1000 shutter speed or 1/4000 for low light or indoors. When you have the camera on a tripod you will need something around 1/80 or less, long exposures such as car light trails or star trails can require up to 30 seconds. Some cameras offer what is called a Bulb mode which means the shutter can be open for as long as you need! However you may want to set the camera on timer or buy a separate remote control to press the shutter button to avoid camera shake.
NB: your camera may have various shooting modes, like sports, portraits, etc, but it may also have Aperture and Shutter Modes. Pick one, put it to the setting you require and the camera will adjust the other for you.
This refers to how sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light. The bigger the number, the better the camera “sees” in low light conditions. Bright sunlight will only require ISO 100 but a dark room or concert hall will need ISO 64,000 or higher. Be aware that putting the ISO to its highest settings usually makes the image look a lot more grainy, unless you are going for a top of the range model!
This is not as big a deal as you would imagine. If you are using it around the house it will more than likely just wash everyone’s face out and give everyone red-eye and if you take it to a football stadium or concert hall it simply won’t reach as far as you would like. My Canon 5D has no flash and I hardly notice.
What is the screen on the camera like? Is it big, bright, easy to see? Does it flip and tilt out to different angles? The last question won’t be a dealbreaker but it does make it easier to take low-down and high up shots.
A small but significant thing to look out for. As well as a decent sized screen on the back, does it have a viewfinder for your eye to look through when you take a picture? We all know what it’s like trying to take a photo on your phone’s camera in bright daylight when you can’t make out what it is you are actually trying to take a photo of! A viewfinder makes all the difference.
Size and Weight
This is more important that you would think! I own a Canon 5D MKIII as my “professional” camera, and while it produces beautiful images and I love it to pieces it is a brick of a camera. Add on top smaller bricks for the lenses and I can end up carrying a house on my back like a snail. Its large grip and spread out buttons are ideal for someone with big hands who doesn’t mind lugging heavy gear around. However if you are small and petite like me you won’t enjoy it very much. I also have a small mirrorless Canon M3 which fits into my dinky shoulder bag with room to spare for an extra lens plus my purse and card holder. It’s small, light and I am much more likely to grab that one to take on a day’s sightseeing (I’m even considering taking it to New Zealand next year over my 5D!).
Considering how many megapixels you require from your camera depends on a few things. What are you going to be doing with the images? For simple computer viewing and sharing online, you only require 2-3MPs. Printing photos to a 10x8” size needs around 5MPs and if you really want to go to town and have a huge 40x30” canvas on your wall you’ll need 18MPs and upwards. The megapixel also affects how much space the images take up on your computer hard drive. Do you have space for thousands of images at 13 megabytes each?
Having said all that, good luck with your camera shopping! I hope you find a camera that fits you and your lifestyle and accompanies you on many happy journeys and life events. No matter what make, model or megapixel you go for, the best camera is the one you always have with you.
One last thing:
Remember the person taking the photographs is usually the one who gets left out of the photos! Even professional photographers hire other pros to make sure they get into their family portraits. How about treating someone to a gift card for a photography session?
My £250 card covers my session fee including a consultation and presentation session and gets you a 16x12” canvas, 10 digital images to share on social media and five 7x5” prints to give to friends and family. Ideal for the family with a bit wall space to fill and who need extra gifts for the grandparents!