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The Complete Guided Tour of Camera Systems


For those of us passionate about photography, our cameras are like our roommates. We spend a lot of time with them. And no one wants to get stuck with a roommate you don't like. In this tutorial, I hope to offer advice on buying a camera so you get exactly what you want, for the price you're happy to spend. Consider this your chance to interview some potential roommates!

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in June of 2010.

Digital vs. Film

The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to shoot digital or film. This may seem like an easy decision. Digital cameras are widely available. They are simple to use, allow you to review and erase images and make it easy to share your photos over the web.

But if you're looking to get a serious camera for not a lot of money, you can't beat a used film camera. The money you save when purchasing the camera will buy you a lot of film, too. There are extra costs in the long run for processing, but more and more people are returning to film for the retro appeal and quality of equipment.

camera systems explained


When most people decide to invest in a serious camera, they buy an SLR. SLR stands for single lens reflex. All of the major camera producers make SLR cameras and lenses for this cameras. They have been used by professionals for decades.

They are available in both film and digital versions, and some companies have used the same lens mounts for both, allowing the newest camera to still use very old lenses and vise versa.

They are also available to fit almost any budget. To use the company Canon as an example, a brand new digital Rebel can cost as little as $480 USD, but their digital EOS-1Ds Mark III costs almost $6,300 USD. Both of these cameras, and all SLRs, possess some great features that make them so desirable.

camera systems explained

Interchangeable Lenses

SLRs have interchangeable lenses, meaning that they are easy to upgrade and customize to your style of shooting and budget. If you want to shoot nature photography, you can buy a telephoto lens. If you want to shoot landscapes, you can buy wide angle lens. If you want to shoot both, you can buy both lenses without having to buy two cameras.

If you choose to, you can also purchase very high quality lenses with wide apertures for shooting in low light without a flash.

Seeing Through The Lens

SLRs also use a prism and mirror to allow the photographer to see exactly the same image that the camera will see. This means that when you change lenses, the view through your camera will change. You will see the zoom.

Point-and-shoot cameras often use a viewfinder that only approximates what the camera is seeing, or they rely on a screen to show the image. Screens are usually not good enough to verify if something is really in focus and they are hard to use in bright light. The SLR doesn't have any of these problems.

Other Typical Characteristics

There are some other things that you'll notice if you purchase an SLR. They typically have little or no shutter lag. Shutter lag is a term used to describe the slight delay you experience between pressing the shutter release button and the shutter actually firing. Point-and-shoot cameras some time have a very long delay that can cause you to miss an important moment.

Another option available on SLR cameras is continuous shooting or, on film cameras, a motor drive. This means you can hold down the shutter button and the camera will keep taking photos, sometimes as fast as 8-10 frames a second. This is extremely helpful when shooting sports and other fast moving action.

The Rangefinder

I'll only talk about rangefinder camera briefly because as far as I know there are only 2 or 3 digital rangefinder cameras available. The M8 and M9 made by Leica, and the Epson RD-1. Film rangefinders are much more common and competed well with film SLR cameras.

The main difference between rangefinder and SLR cameras is the way that you frame and focus your image. Unlike the SLR, the rangefinder uses a viewfinder window and determines focus by using a triangulation method. When you look through the viewfinder of a rangefinder, you'll see a patch in the middle that shows the image you're looking at a sort of ghost image of the same view. You match up the two images to determine focus.

camera systems explained

Advantages and Disadvantages

The biggest disadvantage of rangefinder camera is not having the ability to see exactly what the photo is going to look like. Many rangefinders have interchangeable lenses, but the viewfinders may not switch to telephoto or wide angle (although so do). The viewfinder and the lens are also in different positions, so the scene you see is not exactly the same as the scene your lens will see.

But rangefinders are usually more compact and quiet than SLRs, as well as being much easier to focus in dark situations. Also when you trip the shutter of an SLR, there is a moment of blackout due to the mirror flipping up. This doesn't occur with a rangefinder.

The Point-and-Shoot

The digital age seem littered with point-and-shoot cameras. Point-and-shoot cameras are small and easy to use. They often have zoom lenses to allow you to choose from a variety of focal lengths, but they usually don't have interchangeable lenses.

In the ever-evolving world of photography, there are some cameras that are blurring the lines between point-and-shoot and professional (but I'll get to that later). Because of the huge variety and price of the point-and-shoots available. I want to talk about some features you'll want to look for when selecting any camera, but especially a point-and-shoot.

camera systems explained

Widest Aperture

Some of the specifications that I'm going to ask you to look for may require some online research or a glance at the owner's manual, but this one will be easy. Simply look at the front of the lens. There will be a code there. It may say 1:2.8 or 1:3.5 or 1:3.5-5.6 or something like that. These numbers indictate the widest aperture of the lens.

The wider the aperture, the more light the lens can let in, which will allow you to shoot in darker situations at better ISO settings. The numbers after the “1:" are what you need to pay attention to. 2.8 is great, 3.5 is alright, 5.6 or higher isn't very good.

When it has two numbers, like 3.5-5.6, that is showing you that when you are zoomed all the way out, the aperture is 3.5, and when you're zoom all the way in, it is 5.6. For a zoom lens, 5.6 is fine for the higher number. This logic also applies to purchasing lenses for an SLR or rangefinder.

Image Sensor Size

If you're buying a film point-and-shoot, this doesn't apply. But if you're buying digital, you'll want to know how big the sensor is. The bigger, the better. What is called a Four Thirds sensor is great for a point-and-shoot, also anything termed APS-C is a great size for a sensor.

Digital SLRs have more standard sized sensors termed DX and FX (or full frame). Don't confuse image sensor size with megapixels. The megapixels of an sensor more or less relate to the size of image and, in some ways, the detail that can be captured in the image. The sensor size relates more to the quality of the image and the performance of the camera in low-light situations.

Other Considerations

You may have noticed that I didn't mention megapixels here. Most new digital cameras have more than enough megapixels. A six megapixel camera can easily print an 11x14 inch image, and most point-and-shoot buyers don't ever print that big. Considering that many point-and-shoots are over 8 megapixels now, I think we can move beyond it.

On the other hand, manual controls are something you should definitely consider. If photography is a serious hobby for you and your budget is keeping you in the point-and-shoot range, you can still purchase a camera that allows for manual control of aperture and shutter speed.

Modern Camera Configurations

As I mentioned earlier, there are cameras that are coming out now that don't easily fit into one category. The Four Thirds camera system and Micro Four Thirds system are something I really get excited about. I feel that they are symbolize the next real stage of development for cameras.

I think that more systems like this will be developed. Once the big professional camera companies (i.e. Nikon and Canon) jump on board with a system resembling this, photographers will be in for a big treat.

The Four Thirds Model

Four Thirds is more than a camera system, it's a business model. Originally Kodak and Olympus joined forces to create a standard lens mount for the DSLR market. Using an open source business model similar to many internet companies, Four Thirds lenses and cameras are now produced by Fuji, Leica, Kodak, Olympus, Panasonic, Sanyo and Sigma. In theory, all of these cameras and lenses are compatible.

camera systems explained

Technical Specifications

The Four Thirds system uses a sensor that is half the size of the 35mm film. That means a 50mm lens mounted on a Four Thirds camera would have the same field of view as a 100mm lens on a 35mm camera.

The smaller sensor means that the cameras do have a little more noise at high ISO settings than their bigger DSLR brothers. But they are extremely compact and many sport a real SLR viewfinder with the mirror and pentaprism configuration.

But the main advantage of this open source system is the huge variety of lenses and bodies, some more focused for the consumer, some more appropriate for the professional. It's all very democratic.

The Micro Four Thirds System

The Micro Four Thirds cameras are even smaller. They can use Four Thirds lenses with an adapter, but Micro Four Thirds lenses cannot be used on Four Thirds cameras. The main difference between the two systems is that the traditional SLR mirror and prism have been eliminated.

Some Micro cameras have a digital viewfinder and some rely exclusively on a screen on the back. Unlike the Four Thirds system, the Micro system is not really open source, and is used exclusively by Panasonic and Olympus.

camera systems explained

In Conclusion

The world of cameras is constantly changing. In a couple of years, someone will have to come back and update a lot of this information!

Buying a camera can also be a big investment, but remember that there is a camera out there for every budget. A used film system can often be had for less than 100 bucks, and the top end cameras with a full run of lenses can cost more than most cars.

There are also a lot of additional bells and whistles that can distract the consumer from what they are really buying. I think if you read this, it should help you decide what type of camera is most appropriate for your style of shooting. In addition to that, you'll know how to best maximize your dollar by concentrating on the features of the camera system that are most important.

Just remember that the camera doesn't make the photos, the photographer does. Your skill and dedication are far more important than your camera. But you might as well own one you can love.

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