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Getting the Right Camera for Your Trip

When you take a leisure trip, good photos are important part of the experience. They help to remind you of the places visited, the people who traveled with you, and the wonderful times you enjoyed. If you have concerns about taking along the right camera, especially in this digital age, this section offers information to help you make the right choices.

Film or digital?

With photography heading towards a digital world, you face the question about whether or not to ditch an older old film camera for a hi-tech new digital model. If you own a cheap point and shoot film camera, the answer is a definite Yes. Old point and shoots give poor to medium quality prints because of lower grade lenses. Also a lack of flexibility limits what you can do (poor shots in low light, not good for action scenes, etc.).

But if you own a good quality 35mm SLR (single lens reflex) film camera, think twice before dropping a camera that has served you well, especially since you know how to operate all the controls and you’ll have a learning curve with a new digital model. Film cameras, especially when using 35mm slide film, still take the best pictures. Professional photographers continue to use them for the best outdoors shots, warm face tones and especially when they want to blow up a picture beyond a standard 11” x 14”. To match 35mm film quality, a digital camera needs a 25 mega pixel rating, with a cost of $25,000 and up for a professional model. And, for the cost of upgrading to a good consumer digital model, you can take and process a lot of pictures.

Nevertheless, the wave of the future is unquestionably digital. It offers many conveniences. No loading of film—just insert a tiny card (chip) that can take several hundred photos without reloading. And you can send photos home while you’re on your trip. Erase all bad shots to save memory for more good shots. Edit your pictures with in-camera features or especially with several external software programs (Adobe Photoshop Elements is the most popular) to get rid of redeye, crop the photo to create more interest, and get more contrast between a blue sky and white clouds.

And you can save your pictures onto a CD for up to 300 years of protection from fading and to put them in place safe from fire, burglaries and natural disasters. These advantages seem too good to ignore. So, if you are borderline in your thinking, now may be a good time to take the plunge to digital or to upgrade your digital equipment. Improvements in consumer digital cameras have been dramatic in the last couple of years and price drops make them more affordable.

Which type of digital camera?

Walk into any good camera store, and you’ll find countless good choices from several manufacturers. Your first choice will be what type of digital camera should you buy—a subcompact, compact, near DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex), or a full featured DSLR. Subcompacts are very small flat cameras, about the size of a deck of cards and are the least expensive (often around $100 or less). They fit easily in a shirt pocket which means you’ll probably have it with you whenever you come across a scene you would like to photograph. Many offer up to 6 or 7 mega-pixels, zoom lenses, adapters to plug directly into your computer and more. They take good pictures in small print sizes (4 x 6) but are more fragile, zoom length is more limited, and they lack some features of their bigger cousins, the compacts.

Therefore, you might want to consider a compact, most of which will still fit in a purse or pants pocket, provide better optics and an extended zoom range (always look for optical zoom, not digital or “overall” zoom). And not all mega-pixels are created equal. Compacts are more likely to have better sensors which give clearer pictures even with fewer mega-pixels. Most important, shutter delay can be up to two seconds on some models of subcompacts and compacts, meaning that you have a delay after you press the shutter button until the camera takes the picture. If you are considering a pocket size camera, try out several in a camera store before buying to see if shutter response time is acceptable.

Another disadvantage of these cameras is that most of them now have viewing screens only and lack a traditional (peephole) reflex view finder. Screens require you to hold the camera at arms length and can become very faint in bright sunlight. Look for models with large viewing screens (2 inches or more) and brighter images.

Near DSLR cameras look very much like true DSLRs, only somewhat smaller. But they lack a number of important features such as very fast shutter speeds, better optics, and better sensors for point and shoot photography. Given that their price is typically only $100 to $200 less of than full featured DSLRs, you’re usually better off upgrading to a true DSLR because there’s little size advantage and you’ll use the camera for a long time. True DSLRs offer many advantages. These include image stabilization to counteract the “shakes” when shooting in low light or sports photography (some compacts offer this, but not of the same quality), better lenses with a greater zoom range, in camera photo editing, easier to use auto-focusing, more accurate metering, and the ability to switch to lenses of different focal lengths.

Which camera brand?

With so many good choices and strong competition among manufacturers, you almost can’t go wrong. Virtually all name manufacturers offer compacts, even some lesser players in the digital market such as Casio, HP and Fujifilm. The top brands all design excellent cameras with state of the art technology, built-in flash, auto-focus as a common feature, even for compacts, and Kodak offers an EasyShare system that allows you to print your photos from a wireless docking station.

Nikon and Canon lead in market share among DSLRs for amateurs and pros, but you also can’t ignore Olympus, Pentax, Sony, Sigma and Samsung. Pentax offers the advantage that all earlier versions of its lenses fit on its new digital models, even screw mounts with an adapter—the only company to do this. Sony, which bought both Minolta and Konica camera companies, has compatibility with the Konica Minolta Maxxum mount (but not MX/MD mount). Nikon, Canon and Olympus allow compatibility with some of their previous lenses, but not all. Samsung owns Pentax so its digital cameras are virtually the same across brands. The advantage of compatibility with older “heritage” lenses is that you don’t have to buy an entire new set of lenses for your digital camera. But, your old lenses will shoot at a 50 percent greater focal length on a digital camera (a 35mm wide angle heritage lens will now give pictures like a 50mm lens), and auto-focus will probably not work on your new DSLR. Pentax/Samsung also offer top dust seals to help protect your camera when changing lenses, an advantage because digital electronics tend to attract dust.

All true DSLRs offer image stabilization (IS) to give get rid of the blur at slow hand-held shutter speeds and especially useful for actions sports photos. Two approaches compete in the marketplace. Nikon, Sony, and Sigma provide it in the lens, considered by pros to give somewhat better pictures because it is specific to each lens. But the lenses cost more because stabilization is specific to each lens, and the lenses are a bit bulkier and heavier. Pentax, Samsung, Olympus and Sony provide it in the camera body. In-camera IS has three advantages. Although the price of the camera body may be higher (less than $100), you save considerable money with every new lens you buy since you don’t have to pay again for IS. All older lenses also get the advantage of IS. And it uses less battery power, which brings up another point. DSLRs put a heavy drain on batteries. You want rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries, and get a spare battery pack for back-up. If you shoot a lot of pictures in one day (50 or more), you may need to switch batteries.

How many mega-pixels?

Just a few years ago, the standard for affordable consumer cameras was 2 to 3 mega-pixels. These were adequate for snapshots printed no larger than 4” x 6” but not much else. Now the consumer standard comes in at 6 to 10 mega-pixels, even for subcompact cameras. So how many mega-pixels do you really need? The pros differ on this. Some say pay a bit more to upgrade to more pixels for better quality pictures that can enlarged to 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 with good quality.

But, especially if you’re considering a DSLR, a strong argument exists to buy in the 6 to 8 mega-pixel range and use the cost savings of $100 to $200 from upgrading to a 10+ mega-pixel camera to purchase another lens. Current software can enhance picture quality up to three times, allowing you to get 11 x 14 and larger prints with sharp detail even from 6 mp cameras. The counter argument is that more mega-pixels will serve you better over the lifetime of the camera.

You’ll also hear the argument that you should buy an external mounted flash for your DSLR before you add another lens because in-camera flashes lack power to cover many needs.

New developments

In their quest to attract more consumers, camera companies are adding new features and wrinkles to their products, primarily in the subcompact and compact lines. Sony has a “smile shutter” that recognizes faces and won’t take a picture until everyone is smiling. Nice, but what if your baby doesn’t smile? Fujfilm FinePix can recognize up to 10 human faces and keep them in focus, even if trees or moving objects are nearby.

Panasonic’s Lumix camera has a whopping 18x optical zoom, too wide a range to offer top optical quality throughout its length. Casio offers a feature that will give streaming video shots based on YouTube’s specifications. Several cameras connect to HDTV to show your photos in true hi-def, a useful feature. However, most of these developments do not improve basic picture taking very much and should not affect your choice of a camera.

The bottom line

The choices may still seem a bit confusing, but let’s simplify your selection. If you don’t want the hassle of learning new technology for now, your old quality 35mm SLR camera will take incomparable photos. But if snapshots are all you want on your trip, you’ll find the convenience, quality, low price and ease of use of a compact digital camera an attractive option. On the other hand, if you hope to get some memorable shots and will be shooting in low light situations or plan to take action pictures, a true DSLR should be your choice.

Which brand to choose depends upon how each feels in your hands, the specials offered by your local camera store, and whether or not you have old lenses you’d like to use with the new camera. And, if you don’t mind spending another $150 to $200, you’ll never go wrong upgrading from a 6 to 10 mp camera. Don’t buy that second lens until you have shot enough pictures with the new camera to decide what focal length you really need.