Which Comes First: The Camera or The Photograph

Here is another installment to continue the discussion on questions to ask when buying a camera.

While waiting for a basketball game to start, a man asked me if I could help him set his camera so he could take photographs of the game. It was the same digital SLR body that I was using and he mentioned he picked it because it took more frames per second than another camera body he was considering.

I believe in the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So to take advantage of teaching moment I talked with him about some of the ingredients in taking photos of sports such as a high shutter speed and lenses that allow more light into the camera. In response I got a blank look and a statement that his friend had set his camera for him and he just wanted to know if the settings were good enough for him.

I realised I had made an error and should have asked iif he wanted to learn how to use his camera. Instead he just wanted reassurance the settings were good enough to get pictures in the low light of a high school gym.

I imagine he told his friend or a salesman at the local camera store that he wanted to get photograph of his daughter playing sports and was pointed down the digital SLR path because it can produce good photographs and can take a lot of pictures in a little bit of time in low light. In reality though he didn’t want to learn how to use the camera. He just wanted good photographs.

One of the first questions I ask when someone asks for a suggestion on a camera to buy is how much do they know about photography and how much are they willing to learn. To me this is the defining point. If they know very little and have no desire to learn then they will be infinitely better off getting a point and shoot (P&S) camera. If they want to learn photography then I would point them towards a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera because having all the options and features will be of value as they learn shutter speeds, f stops, ISO, panning, rule of thirds, etc. Sure they can use the automatic settings but they will want to take a step beyond the basics to produce better photographs on a more reliable basis.

Perhaps when he went to buy a camera he initially browsed the Point & Shoot aisle but was told he needed to take lots of photos per second to take good photographs. I have heard this argument from a salesman at local camera store. It takes patience not speed to take good photographs. Probably one of the hardest things I have learned and still learn to this day is that I can stomp on the shutter button as much as I want but if I’m not patient for the photograph to come then I won’t be ready for it when it does.

If the person is willing to learn about photography then I would ask what is the intended use for the camera. Is his intention to take a good photograph of his daughter or six photographs of his daughter in one second. A modern P&S camera can do about 2 to 3 FPS (frames per second). Where the pro-sumer level DSLR cameras can do about 6 or 7 frames per second and the professional level gear can double or triple that.

I know the sound of a shutter clicking in rapid succession leads many to produce guttural grunts and base satisfied vocalizations (think Tim Taylor from Tim The Toolman tv show) but FPS means nothing more than that you can take lots of photos in rapid succession. It doesn’t guarantee quality or a usable photograph.

Taking more photos in a second than you can with a P&S may help capture that Defining Moment that Henri-Cartier Bresson spoke about, but laying on the shutter button without knowing what you are trying to produce is not likely to get that Defining Moment. After all even shooting 15 frames per second at 1/500th of a second only covers 3% of that one second of time as a basket is made or the winning goal sneaks past the goalie. That leaves 97% of that second un-photographed where the right moment could be hiding. Those aren’t very good odds.

I would also ask how close or far away is the subject you are trying to photograph but todays P&S’s and DSLR’s don’t have a lot of difference unless you are talking about extremes. Many of today’s P&S cameras allow for optical zooms up to 10x, 15x or 26x, but I honestly could not tell you how far a 26x zoom goes. Sounds far though doesn’t it? At least farther than 10x. Take a look here for a deeper explanation of how to calculate it.

Oh and by the way if you are looking at P&S cameras and are wowed by the advertising touting an additional 3x or 5x digital zoom beyond the optical zoom. Run. Run fast and run far away. All that digital zoom does is crop into the photograph you are taking and then scales that photograph to its original dimensions. This just lowers the quality of the final image, and you would be better doing the cropping in a photo editing program.

Probably one of the main reasons to buy a DSLR over a P&S  is because of the lenses, but not because you can put a long telephoto or extremely wide angle lens on it. But because you can change lenses that have superior optical quality.

The Nikon Coolpix has a 26x zoom which according to the specs at Bhphotovideo.com has a Nikor lens equivalent to 26-678mm. I could shoot 95% of my regular assignments with a lens that zooms from wide angle to telephoto like that until I take a a couple things into consideration. That lens doesn’t allow as much light to hit the sensor, isn’t as fast at focusing, and may not be as sharp or color consistent as professional lenses. However it would work just fine for taking photographs of my family on a daily basis and I would be willing to use it on a professional assignment knowing that it has some limitations and was used for a specific purpose.

The Strobist, who is a great photographer to learn off camera lighting from, has talked about using a Canon G9 for an assignment or two because it gives him something specific that his professional gear doesn't such as higher shutter speeds with off camera flash or taking photographs of very small objects.

What type of light do you normally takes pictures in and are you willing to pay for the expensive lenses to allow you to photograph in low light? Anyone shooting photographs for a living will tell you if you put a cheap lens on a great camera body, your photos won’t be as nice as putting a good quality lens on a cheap camera body. Most professionals will sink their money into good lenses before worrying about having the newest camera bodies. Why? Because they know they can always get a better camera body, but the lens is the true investment for years to come.

The final question I would ask is do you want a DSLR or a P&S? People have been almost bread to believe a P&S cannot be as good as a DSLR camera so their natural belief is that DSLR means better. In some ways this is true, it offers a lot more functionality and a wider range of options than a camera with a fixed lens and few controls.

But buying a DSLR means learning how to use it to achieve the desired photographic results. It will require more work on your part than a P&S. If you are going to spend $1,500 on a camera body and another $1000 on a lens, then you should invest time in learning to use it. After all you wouldn’t spend your hard earned money on a car, if you had no intention of driving it. And you wouldn’t buy a high priced sound system for your living room, if all you were going to do is listen to talk radio.

In the end all the answers from these questions comes down to a few basics. If all you want is to have a camera around to shoot the odd moment with, use your camera phone or a cheap P&S. If you want to take some good photographs of family events, get a decent P&S. If you want to take photographs and invest time and money in photography, then get a DSLR, read the manual and learn to use the camera. Don’t buy the Ferrari and let it sit in the driveway.



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