Tips for Buying Cameras as Gifts

Photo by Wayne Bierbaum.

By Wayne Bierbaum

Last Monday, I went to a Digital Photography Club of Annapolis meeting where Burke Seim, the owner of Service Photo, presented new trends in photography. Service Photo is Maryland’s only full-service professional photography store. His presentation solidified what I had already read and witnessed. Cameras are going through another significant change.

Many years ago, when I started selling cameras and taking photos, they were all film cameras. Some were range finders with parallax focusing and some were single-lens reflex cameras (SLR). In an SLR, the image goes through the lens, bounces off a mirror into a prism, and then to an eyepiece where you see what the lens sees. The photographer focuses and composes the image through the eyepiece. The film is behind the mirror and when the shutter button is pushed, the mirror flips up and a shutter screen opens to expose the film.

After decades of using film and a darkroom, digital cameras entered the market. They quickly evolved to include digital SLRs (DSLRs). In a DSLR, an image sensor is behind the mirror rather than film. The sensor can be the same size as a 35mm film frame, called a full-frame sensor, or a crop sensor, which is smaller and is exposed to the central section of the transmitted lens image.

To understand the different sensor sizes, the full-frame sensor can be thought of as a 6×9 postcard, and the crop sensor would be as if an inch or more were trimmed away all around that postcard and then what is left is expanded in a computer to fill the postcard. A crop sensor acts like a magnifier or multiplier to the lens.

In Canon cameras, an APS-C crop sensor, like that on the 7D camera, multiplies the size of the image by 1.6 so a 100mm lens effectively becomes a 160mm lens. There are disadvantages to a crop sensor that I will address later.

Because the lenses can be changed, the DSLR became the go-to camera over a fixed-lens compact digital camera. After the arrival of the DSLR, camera companies and lens manufacturers produced thousands of them and their lenses. Many styles, sizes, and price points of DSLRs were produced. But now there is another shift in the market.

The biggest three camera companies—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—are now moving into a new camera system called a mirrorless camera. Fujifilm was the first in this market and has great cameras and lenses but these Big Three are now fully committed and are starting to phase out their DSLR cameras and lenses.

The mirrorless camera replaces the mirror, shutter, and prism with a sensor that is close to the lens and an electronic viewfinder screen, and/or a back-of-the-camera screen. The shutter is now an electronic shutter that simply turns the sensor on and off for a specific period to control the exposure.

The advantages of this system are obvious. These mirrorless cameras are easier to manufacture and are less fragile because they have no moving parts. The delicate mirror system is gone. Most mirrorless cameras are also lighter and smaller than comparable DSLRs. But the biggest advantage seems to be that what you see in the viewfinder is what is captured on the memory card. With the older DSLRs, the proper exposure is more or less a guess.

I think that the camera companies are quite aware that cell phones are being used increasingly for photos than cameras. “The best camera is the one that you carry.”

The result is that the mirrorless cameras appear to be at a “prosumer” level, meaning they are more complex and expensive. All have some form of artificial intelligence. They can identify and track eyes, even animals. They can even track the photographer’s eye for improved focus.

Unfortunately, the new camera’s sensor position requires a different style of lens and lens mount. The new lenses can be shorter in length and therefore lighter. The newer lenses are said to be sharper, faster focusing, and quieter than the older models. Fortunately, adapters are being made available for older DSLR lenses to work on the new mirrorless cameras.

Besides having to buy new lenses or an expensive adapter, another disadvantage to the new mirrorless cameras is that they use a lot of battery power to function. The camera needs to be ‘on’ for the lens to work because what you are looking at is a video screen.

Nikon has a mirrorless camera, the Z9 ($5,500), that uses an extra large battery and a newly developed memory card. The camera’s “on” time is much longer but all that new stuff makes it quite heavy and a spare battery ($220) or card ($240) is expensive. The camera works well and is considered one of the best cameras available.

Canon’s top-of-the-line R3 ($6,000) has a mechanical and electronic shutter and is also pretty heavy. Sony’s A1 ($6,500) is slightly lighter and smaller than the other two. It takes wonderful images.

The Big Three camera companies offer smaller sensor cameras and mirrorless cameras with only a rotating back screen display. They are small and light and are considered great for online content.

The most common question that I get about cameras concerns the sensors. Pixel density, light sensitivity, and sensor noise are common topics. A 24MP sensor may be much better than a 56MP sensor because each of the sensor dots in the 24MP is larger than in the 56MP. That means it grabs more light and is less likely to have sensor noise. Sensor noise occurs in dark low-light areas when sensor dots spontaneously send out signals like the hiss you hear in a stereo. The more light they see, the less they “hiss”. In bright light, a 56MP camera will have more detail but will have worse detail and more noise at low light than a 24MP camera.

What is the bottom line?

  1. DSLRs are still available and will work for years. The prices are dropping for new and used cameras, equipment and lenses. It is a good time to purchase this excellent, but fading, technology.
  2. Mirrorless cameras do have special features and are less fragile than DSLRs. Adapters are available for most DSLR lenses but dedicated mirrorless lenses will be lighter and work slightly better. Conversion to mirrorless will be expensive.
  3. Full frame sensors work better in low light but APS-C sensors magnify the image coming from the lens.
  4. High-density sensors (high MPs) are not automatically better than lower-density sensors.
  5. When considering a camera, do research at a site like DPReview or visit Service Photo in Baltimore to handle one you are interested in.
  6. The impact and quality of a photograph are really less about the equipment and more about the vision of the photographer.
A family of mergansers. Photo by Wayne Bierbaum.