Category Archives: Cameras

Shooting into the blue… (Lanzarote)

Back in June, I had the opportunity to visit Lanzarote with my girlfriend.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, having not been to the Canaries before, but I did some research and found out that the diving is supposed to be amongst the best in the North Atlantic. I therefore persuaded my girlfriend that it was time for her to learn to dive too – and promptly packed my cameras and gear for a good-old wildlife photography trip…

As you may have seen in some earlier entries on this site – underwater photography is a growing passion of mine, and one that I’m only beginning to get to grips with.  It’s still something which it is possible to make your first inroads into without spending a fortune. Indeed, I picked up one camera at the airport, a Nikon Coolpix S33, for about £70.  This little camera is officially waterproof to 10m, and in the clear waters of Lanzarote, seemed very capable.  I can also say that mine kept the water out to at least 30m, but the pressure stops the buttons working beyond about 12 to 15m.  It makes it ideal for snorkelling and beginner divers though.

Sarpa Salpa fish in the shallows while snorkelling with a Nikon Coolpix S33
Sarpa Salpa fish in the shallows while snorkelling with a Nikon Coolpix S33

Taking photos underwater often causes trouble with light, as there is nearly always a blue cast to images (which can be fixed on a computer fairly easily) – but you also want to try and catch the light the right way.  Hopefully you will be able to get yourself into a position for the light to reflect off the fish or corals, or you can shoot up with the light behind your subject.

The Nikon Coolpix S33 is ideal for snorkelling and use on shallow scuba dives.
The Nikon Coolpix S33 is ideal for snorkelling and use on shallow scuba dives.

When going a little deeper, however, I had a Panasonic DMW-MCTZ35 Lumix Marine Waterproof Case for a TZ35.  This was an excellent combination of a very effective dive house and compact superzoom camera with a specific underwater mode.  The total cost is higher at around £300 or higher – but it’s still relatively cheap for a combination capable of diving to advanced diver depths.

Young baraccudas shot with DMW-MCTZ35E Marine Case and Lumix TZ35 camera
Young baraccudas shot with DMW-MCTZ35E Marine Case and Lumix TZ35 camera

If in Lanzarote, and you get the chance to visit the dive site called the Cathedral, it is well worth a look!  Get right inside and shoot out towards the light to create a silhouette as your dive buddy swims across the mouth of the cavern.

The Cathedral
The Cathedral (La Catedral), dive site, Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote

I should put out an extra special mention for the fantastic team at Manta Diving, Lanzarote – who looked after us fantastically on our trip.  Also – please don’t think the only things to take photos of are underwater!

Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote - one of the many volcanoes in a still active region.
Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote – one of the many volcanoes in a still active region.

Lanzarote is also a great place for a spot of stargazing.

The Milky Way over Puerto Calero, Lanzarote
The Milky Way over Puerto Calero, Lanzarote

Sink or swim – the key to success under water

Perhaps you’re one of those people who watched Jaws and has decided it still isn’t safe to get back in the water, or perhaps, like me, you watched it and thought “wow that’s cool!”

If the latter is the case, you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface.  And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see (whether it’s your friends and family playing in a pool, a crab, a brightly coloured fish or jaws).  So how do you do it, and how much will it cost?$

“you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface.  And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see…”

As ever, it will cost as much as you want to spend.

It’s clear that for the very best, super-sharp and well exposed images at depth, you will need an expensive camera with high ISO (light sensitivity) capabilities.  This may be a custom designed underwater camera or a specialist, dedicated underwater housing for a DSLR.  This, though, is the realm of the scuba diver, and nearer the surface (down to around 10m) you can get by with some pretty cheap and basic gear:

Underwater shooting with zero preparation

If you’re not a regular scuba diver, the times when you’re most likely to want to take photos under water are when you’re on holiday.  You might be by the sea in Cornwall, or in the Mediterranean or on the Pacific coast.  Wherever the sea is, there is the desire to jump in it and boat on it.

However, most cameras are not waterproof. Take it from someone who knows, you don’t want to take a decent camera out, even on a boat, without protection if you want it to come back working.  Ideally, you want to think about this before you go away, so that you can get a waterproof camera or some sort of housing.   The great news is, though, even if you forget, nearly all beach resorts and shops sell disposable waterproof cameras. Some of them can even be reused!

Waterproof disposable camera
A waterproof disposable camera – everyone’s friend on holiday.

This wouldn’t be a very helpful website, though, if I just said “buy a disposable camera” and everything will be alright.  If you want to get the best from your photos, things aren’t quite that simple.

The first thing to point out, is that disposable cameras aren’t that cheap.  True, to buy they’re cheaper than a digital camera, but they still tend to be over £10 and are only single use (or you will at least need to buy film to reload them) and you have to pay to get your  photos developed.

Here are a few pointers on getting the best results and best value for money:

  • So long as it works, there’s not much point worrying about brand – cheap ones tend to work just as well as more expensive ones.  They are all fixed focus and generally don’t have a flash.
  • Check the speed of the film in the camera – it’s unusual to find ISO 1600, but 800 and 400 are both common. 800 is much more useful, particularly in the sea (swimming pools tend to be better lit with higher visibility).
  • If you can get a re-loadable / re-usable one, do.  They tend to be about the same price, and you can choose to load 1600 film after the first use.  They’re also more environmentally friendly.  Make sure you’re careful with the rubber seals though.  These cameras really are cheap and low quality and not built to last!
  • Pay extra when you get your film developed for a CD with JPGs on it.  It’s only a couple of quid and is really useful because you can then get the best from your photos with some careful post-processing (see below).  If you have a negative film scanner, or know someone who does, this is just as good.
  • Always check the “use by” date.  Chemical film has a shelf life, which is a lot shorter in hot countries.  You may well find that these cameras have sat around for years in which case the film will have degraded.  If you can, get something (nearly) in date!
  • Try to remember that the ideal distance from your subject is 1m to 3m, because this is how the lens is normally set.  Trying extreme close-ups is a waste of time!
  • It’s more about the effect than image quality…

So what photos can you get?  – Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s hit and miss. Here are a few examples that (with a little care) have worked out quite well:

Fish in Thailand
Fish in Thailand – Thailand is one of the easiest place to go fish spotting, as they’re literally everywhere, and near the surface where the light is good.
Snorkelling...
These cameras are great for the snap shots of family and friends that simply aren’t possible without waterproofing.
A blue fish in Thailand
If you dive down deeper, you can still get some decent shots down a few metres, so long as there’s still some light. Close-ups are a lost cause, though.

I think we can all agree – the image quality here isn’t great, but it’s great for a personal memory.  However, these have all had their brightness, contrast and most importantly their white balance adjusted.

Disposable cameras in the sea will all have a blue colour cast which needs to be corrected or it can make a photo really disappointing.  This can be done in several free or inexpensive software programs (such as GIMP or PhotoScape) – but only if you have a digital copy of the image.

Underwater digital photos on a tight budget?

So – let’s look at options when you have had a bit of time to plan.  Just how cheaply can you take photos underwater?

Aqua bag - a cheap underwater sealed bag (with a £7 second hand camera)
Aqua bag – a cheap underwater sealed bag (with a £7 second hand camera)

Just about the cheapest way, is to use an underwater camera bag.  There are loads on Ebay and Amazon – and here is one I bought earlier this year for about £3 (including P&P).

I don’t know about you, but I would be very dubious of sticking an expensive camera in one of these and just diving into the sea.  The problem is, there’s not really a good way to test them without putting something electric in them and going for a long swim…  (If it doesn’t work, I accept no responsibility…)

Because I was worried, I bought a cheap second hand camera for £7.  It’s 7.2 MP and has since become a firm favourite.  I’ve dived with it several times and it still works!  At £10 in total this is cheaper than a disposable camera. BUT – the results can be disappointing.

The key problems are:

  • The plastic “pouch” over the lens is not flat or perfectly clear, which plays havoc with the cameras auto-focus.  Since manual focus is impossible with most cheap cameras, this is a real issue.
  • Using the cameras controls / buttons can be very difficult.
  • The bag is not well insulated, so your camera will get cold quickly, spoiling battery life.

You can get fairly good results by ensuring that the camera lens is right up against the plastic lens window.  Alternatively, you can buy a more expensive bag with a solid plastic, or better, glass, window – which if right against the lens will solve many of these problems.  The issues with battery life and accessing controls will remain the same, though.

Camera bag selfie.  a digital camera in a camera bag will get a better exposure, but focus will be a real.
Camera bag selfie. a digital camera in a camera bag will get a better exposure, but focus will be a real issue.
Alex Denny
However, if you upgrade to a bag with a proper solid glass (or good quality rigid plastic) lens window, focus and image quality get a lot better!!

A “proper” waterproof compact camera

Of course, there are a whole range of custom-designed waterproof cameras out there, and after years of being prohibitively expensive, costs of some have now come down to below £100 in many cases (though well known brands are still more expensive).  In truth, these cameras don’t tend to stand up well against similarly priced regular (i.e. not waterproof) cameras on dry land.  Image quality and optical zoom both tend to be limited. But in the water they are generally much better than other cheap options.

Again, you will want to make sure that you know how to edit your photos once taken.  A lack of light and poor white balance are classic trouble-makers with these cheap cameras, though you would be amazed the level of detail you retrieve…

Fish before and after
Before and After – A carp in poor visibility in a lake in Kent. A lot of detail can be retrieved using GIMP or Photoshop.

A key point about dedicated underwater cameras is that they have autofocus mechanisms that will work, and a quirk of underwater photography is that water is magnifying (so you can get better close-up shots).

If you get close enough... then a dedicated underwater camera is likely to expose and focus better (even if it's a cheap model).
If you get close enough… then a dedicated underwater camera is likely to expose and focus better (even if it’s a cheap model).

As a final thought (though not strictly underwater) – if you have a waterproof camera with you and quick reflexes, you may one day get a picture like this.

The £200 challenge… A full DSLR kit for a range of situations, for the same cost as a bridge camera?

A friend of mine recently asked me the simple question: “What sort of camera should I buy?

I looked at him a blankly and was initially very unhelpful.  Not deliberately, mind you.  It’s just that there are so many different types of camera out there, with different advantages and disadvantages, prices and sizes.  After a few minutes I managed to ask him what sort of photos he wanted to take, and what he wanted his camera for.

Everything.” He said.

Now, I love a challenge, and I got to thinking about what sort of cameras you can use for everything – or at least what sort of camera you can use in the majority of situations.  Obviously, budget has to be a consideration, so I asked him how much money he had to spend, and he decided that about £200 was a good figure to settle on.

To a lot of people (me included!) £200 is a lot of money to lay out in one go, and a lot of people would never dream of spending so much on a camera (me not included). But as high-end professional cameras can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, clearly some compromises need to be made somewhere when coming up with our solution to “everything” for £200.

My first suggestion was therefore a bridge camera which tend to be “good all-rounders”. There are some very powerful options available for around £200 either used or new, with zooms in the 30x to 50x range.  (Particular favorites of mine would be the Fuji Finepix HS range, with manual focus and zoom rings, like a DSLR, but there are great options out there from all of the major camera manufacturers).

Nearly all of these new superzoom bridge cameras have DSLR-like controls for Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO etc., and will come with an electronic viewfinder.  However, they tend to have smaller maximum apertures and smaller sensors, so they are not as good for beautiful soft, out-of-focus backgrounds and their lenses tend to struggle at long focal lengths in difficult lighting conditions.

But is there another option?  Is it even possible to get a DSLR, with a set of additional lenses, to give you the versatility of a bridge camera for the same price?

The challenge

I should set some rules out for this challenge before I get it underway, because there are clearly going to be differences in the overall specifications and results achievable between  Bridge Cameras and second hand DSLRs, the point is, though, that the ultimate quality of the end image must be acceptable.  Here are my ground rules for the challenge:

  • The equipment bought/identified does not have to be new (since the cheapest DSLRs are commonly more than £200 with a kit lens new).
  • The equipment does have to be in fully working condition (cosmetic ware is fine, but no scratched lenses, or broken screens etc.)
  • The final kit does not have to take up as little space as a bridge camera – but it does have to be portable, and transportable in a single bag.
  • The final kit must be capable of taking photos of at least 10.1MP (considered the minimum for proper “photo quality” A4 / 8″ x 12″ photographic prints).
  • The final kit must be capable of at least ISO 6400 (which is at least faster than traditional film, though not much to shout about compared to some modern Bridge cameras).
  • The final kit must be capable of a wide-angle to super-telephoto zoom (ideally of over 30X).
  • Evidence of the availability of the item at that price (as at September / October 2014) should be shown – no open ebay bids!
  • The kit must be capable of macro.

So here goes…

Apologies to any Nikon fanatics out there – but I have plumped for Canon in this test for two reasons.  Second hand Canon gear tends to be a bit cheaper, and because I am a Canon user myself, I can vouch for how well the items mentioned here work.

The Camera: Either a Canon EOS 400D or Canon EOS 1000D.  Both available for around £100 – £120, including a 18-55mm kit lens:

Canon EOS 400D
Canon EOS 400D – The evidence, listed on Gum Tree for £100 with a Mk II 18-55mm kit lens (the type with no image stabilization, but one I own and have used a lot).
Canon EOS 1000D
Canon EOS 1000D also with an 18-55mm kit lens (the first DSLR I ever owned!) – this one is £120, though I have seen them on sale for less occasionally.  They are available for around £80 without the lens on gumtree today.

The Lenses and adapters:

  • Canon 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens (free with body) – a wide angle to portrait length zoom lens – which can be found from as little as £25 without Image Stabilization, if you buy the camera body separately, such as the 1000D, available for £80.
    Canon 18-55mm
  • Canon 75-300mm F/4.5-5.6 Lens, £45 (inc P&P):

    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6
    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6 Lens – available for around £45 (or less if you have patience bidding on ebay).  Also look out for the excellent Tamron 70-300mm lens.
  • Jessops 2x teleconverter (Canon Fit) – £40 (also available from Kenko and similar brands).  WARNING!! These can be very variable in price, so you will need to do a lot of searching to find a bargain!  Also do not buy a screw fit, filter ring type. They do not do the same thing, and they do not work anything like as well! They’re frankly rubbish.

    2x teleconverter
    Jessops 2x teleconverter
  • Set of 4 macro / close-up lenses – £7.50.  In this case, for a 58mm filter ring size – which will therefore work with both the 18-55mm and 75-300mm Canon lenses.  If you were to, instead, buy something like the Tamron 70-300mm lens, you would want a 62mm thread size and a step-up ring for the 18-55mm lens.

    Diopter lenses
    Set of four Diopter lenses (+1, +2, +4, +10)
  • 0.45x fisheye / wide angle conversion lens – £8.75, (also 58mm thread size)

    0.45x Wide Angle lens
    0.45x Wide Angle lens for use with the 18-55mm lens.

So, that gives us:

  • Camera and 18-55mm kit lens – £100
  • 75-300mm lens – £39.50
  • 2x teleconverter – £40
  • Macro lenses – £7.29
  • Wide Angle lens – £8.75

Total Cost: £195.54

The kit has a focal range of 8.1mm to 600mm (technically a 74X magnification from widest angle to longest focal length) – and a 35mm equivalent range of 13mm to 960mm focal lengths.

But how much space does it take up? Does it fit in a bag?

Yes it does (just!):

The full kit - for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).
The full kit – for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).

But is it any good?

Well – I think it is!  A lot of this is equipment which I use pretty regularly in the tests throughout this site.  There are a number of macro images already online, so I won’t dwell on these – but the full extent of the 600mm zoom hasn’t been demonstrated before.  Sure, there is some chromatic aberration, but it would be much worse on a bridge camera:

Red Robin
Shot with at 600mm on a Canon EOS APS-C sensor camera, which gives a 35mm equivalent focal of a whopping 960mm. This was achieved with a cheap 75-300mm tele zoom and a 2x teleconverter

Then at the extreme wide angle end things look like this – which is wider than can be achieved on a bridge camera without a similar converter:

Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse – which is too big and surrounded by trees to be conveniently shot without a fisheye – in this case a cheap 58mm screw-fit adapter on an 18-55mm kit lens.

To the moon (on an economy ticket)

There’s a truism about photographers who like to try different types of shots, just to see how well they can pull them off.  And that’s that everyone needs a good moon shot.

It’s probably not surprising that so many people have tried to take photos of the moon, after all, you can see it from every continent on Earth and it’s easily the most noticeable object in the night sky.  But while nearly all photographers try to take photos of the moon at some point, many find it difficult to get a really satisfying result.

“Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think.”

Having tried several different approaches to photographing the moon, I’ve realised there are two areas which need some consideration – exposure and equipment (in that order).

Exposure

Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think, and brighter than just about everything else in the night sky.  It is an object bathed in (and reflecting) direct sunlight, and your exposure should account for this.

Normally, to take shots of stars, you need a wide aperture and high ISO to gather enough light to get a useable exposure, without creating long star trails or without a some kind of tracking/rotating mechanism to account for the earth’s rotation.  For the moon, however, this sort of setup would massively over-expose the moon, creating a burned out homogenous blob.  For this reason, when shooting the moon, if properly exposed no stars will be visible in the same exposure (though some shots can be combined very effectively).

The moon also moves relatively quickly across the sky, so any exposures of more than a couple of seconds will “smudge” (how noticeable this is will depend on your focal length / magnification).  To get a really crisp shot, it’s normally best to aim for a low ISO, an optimum aperture of around f/16 and an exposure of well under a second.  Always try to use a tripod of you want things to be really sharp (though, because it is bright, it IS possible to shoot the moon handheld).

If you are using in-camera auto exposure, then you are likely to need to dial in several stops of exposure compensation, or you will need to use spot metering, as the dark mass of surrounding night sky will fool the camera into over-exposing the moon.

Equipment

To shoot the moon, you don’t need particularly expensive equipment but if you want to really get fine detailed, zoomed-in shots, you will need a lens with quite a long reach.  Most point and shoot cameras will not be sufficient (though I have seen some startlingly clear results shot with a mobile phone held up to a telescope!)

The new wave of super-zoom bridge cameras (with 42x or 50x  optical zooms) have a far enough reach to photograph the moon as the primary subject.  At these very long focal length, a tripod is pretty much essential – especially when using Bridge cameras which tend to have smaller front-elements and are therefore less good at gathering sufficient light than dedicated fixed focal length tele-lenses.  Auto-focus can also be tricky, so switch to manual focus and zoom in, in live view, if possible to get things pin sharp.

If you want to get really good images, then you will probably want to get a fixed focal length telescopic lens.  These don’t need to be really expensive, especially if you get a t-mount or M42 mount manual focus lens, such as the Photax / Optomax / Sunagor 500mm f/8 lens (or another similar design).  You can pick these up second hand for as little as £25, and coupled with a tele-converter, they provide a huge reach.  The shot below was taken with this setup and is pretty crisp and free from chromatic aberrations etc.  Manual focus is pretty easy using live view.

Waxing (Gibbous) moon
Waxing (Gibbous) moon – shot using a manual Optomax 500mm f/8 lens (at f/16) and a 2x teleconverter, on an APS-C DSLR. This gave a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1600mm. The exposure was 1/15th second.

An alternative is to use a mirror lens (a much smaller lens) such as the Opteka, Samyang or Neewer 500mm models (normally f/6.3 or f/8, fixed aperture) which can also be fairly successful.  They are virtually completely free from colour fringes, but they do not give such impressive contrast and (because of the shadow of the mirror itself) tend to need a higher ISO and therefore create a noisier image.  They can be picked up new from around £50:

Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame).  The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame). The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.

Both of these lenses are considerably cheaper than, say, a 75-300mm tele-zoom, which tend to be the cheapest entry level telefocal length lenses produced by Canon and Nikon.  While these may have the benefits of electronic aperture control and autofocus (which doesn’t always work well for the moon), they also struggle with colour fringing (which can be taken out in post-processing) and are not as sharp:

Full moon
Full moon – shot at 600mm on an APS-C camera, using a 2x teleconverter and a 75-300mm Canon zoom lens at full extension.

While this is no-where near as clear as the results achieved with the manual focus, fixed length lenses, it is a significant improvement on the results I have achieved with a bridge camera with an 18x telephoto zoom (although more powerful zooms are now available).

Tested... a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens
Tested… a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens

A final piece of advice…

No matter what camera you are using, you often get the best results photographically  when you shoot the moon in a waxing or waning phase, rather than full (or nearly full).  This is because the shadows across the craters on the moon’s surface are longer, darker and have greater contrast in the lunar twilight, between day and night (or the light and dark side’s of the moon).

Another point worth noting (given the time of year) is that some of the clearest, stillest nights come during the winter – so get your gloves on at night over the next few nights, and get out shooting!

Making the most of what you’ve got…

As winter sets in, I find that the opportunities to take photos get harder and harder to find.  The hours of daylight are shorter, and tend to be while I’m at work – and the weather conditions and lighting all get worse.  As I find it impractical to carry bulky camera equipment with me everywhere, instead, I try to carry a small compact camera with me. I can then grab a few minutes taking photos if I find a nice scene or conditions are good.

At the same time, I also like setting myself little challenges, to see how far I can push the equipment I’m using, trying to get the best from the situation with simple gear.

Recently, I came out of work and I was walking near St Paul’s cathedral in London. I spotted an opportunity to shoot the cathedral (a very over-photographed building) through an archway, to form a nice “frame within a frame”.  The camera I had on me was my ten year old Casio Exilim EX-Z120, which I recently bought second hand for £6.

Casio Exilim 7mp
A second hand camera bought for £6.

The camera itself is nothing special (though I am rather fond of it, because it has a view finder, which comes in handy on bright days, and takes pretty decent “snaps” for most casual purposes).  It is pretty limited, though, in terms of its metering capabilities, low light response and dynamic range.  It’s therefore a challenge to coax the best out of it that you can.  Here is the final shot, which I will then give a bit of background to:

St Paul's from 25 Cannon Street
St Paul’s from 25 Cannon Street

Overall, I am quite pleased with the result, but to get the photo to this state required a fair amount of post-processing (digital manipulation).

The shot, as taken, looked like this:

St Paul's unedited

You can see from the image, that the camera was not able to expose well for the darker sections of the image and the sky at the same time, lacking the dynamic range to do so.  The image also struggles because the parallel lines of the arch converge.  This could not be avoided in-camera, because it was not possible to stand any further back (my back was against the wall). I had to look up to frame the image.  Sure, it would be possible, with an expensive tilt-shift lens on a DSLR, but that would have been very impractical – so you have to rely on software, such as Photoshop elements to correct the so-called “barrel distortion” in the final image.

Similarly, the original needed quite a lot of levels adjustment to bring up the dark shadows of the early evening, and lastly it needed the sky restoring to it’ blue glory.  The sky was shot at the same time, in the same place, but correctly exposed for the sky only.  With multiple exposures, it would be possible to achieve the same or a similar effect using HDR compositing.  In my case, I simply cropped a square of sky and dropped it into the original image as a new layer and used the “darken” tool in Photoshop elements.  While some may view this kind of manipulation as cheating – all I was doing was restoring what I could see with my own eyes, but the camera was not capable of capturing directly.

Ultimately, you have to make the most of what you’ve got!

Cameras… What cameras?

…use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

As this blog is about photography, I guess it’s only right that my first proper post should be about cameras.  With all the thousands of different types of cameras out there, what on earth should you use?

The shortest and best answer I can give is – use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

I’m not saying that to be frivolous or to avoid answering the question – but after all, this blog is about doing things on a shoestring and frankly, I don’t know how long your shoestrings are.  Of course, I could recommend you a particular make or model of camera, but if I did, for some it would be too expensive, for some too complex, for others it may be too basic, or not powerful enough, or not carry the right features.  If there are any camera snobs reading this, my recommendations could even seem too “cheap” – but if you fall into that category, this blog probably isn’t for you.

Instead, I think it’s important to work our what sort of photographer you are, what sort you want to be and what sorts of cameras will best meet your needs. Note my use of plural here, as some of you may well want to use more than one type of camera depending on circumstances.- and this doesn’t need to be expensive…

A few tips on different types of camera:

Compact / Point & Click cameras:

  • Don’t write these cameras off as no good simply because they are (normally) at the cheaper end of the market – there are some excellent cameras out there.
  • Don’t get sucked in, looking for the highest number of megapixels. It is far more important to get a camera which is optically good (with a good lens) and decent response to different light conditions, than getting a high resolution JPG of an image which looks bad.
  • If you don’t mind buying second hand, you can pick older ones up really cheap. (I recently bought a 7mp camera for £6 and use it a lot).
  • Obviously, they fit in your pocket.  This is great as it means you can always have one with you; you never know when you’ll find the “perfect” photo opportunity, and kick yourself for not having a camera.
  • If you get a cheap second hand one, you can try things and take it to places you may be unwilling to take more expensive gear (out sailing, diving in a cheap plastic cover, up a mountain etc.) 
  • They normally run on AA or AAA batteries that you can replace anywhere in the world.
  • They tend not to have powerful zooms.

Look out for: Optical zoom. A decent ground glass lens. A view finder or electronic viewfinder (EVF) if you can find one. At least some level of manual control. A tripod mount. 

Avoid: Digital zoom only. Small or poorly manufactured lenses. Cameras overladen with “gimmick” features but little manual control.

Always try before you buy – and zoom in on a test photo all the way to see the sharpness of the image captured.  If you can, try the same in low light.  Often the big names, like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji etc are good bets, but they have also made some dogs!

Casio Exilim 7mp
A second hand camera bought for £6 before my last trip to Greece – it was intended for use diving in a simple plastic case (and lives to tell the tale!)

Mobile Phones / Camera Phones

  • Some purists amongst you may object to their inclusion here, but let’s be honest, we nearly all have mobile phones, and nearly all of them have cameras these days. A lot of them are really very good.  In fact, the cameras in phones have come on so far that these days, that sometimes the design is clearly more camera than phone.  (Check out the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 1020 to see what I mean).
  • Of course, top end phones and/or camera phones don’t come cheap, but a lot of you will have access to them anyway because of your mobile phone contracts – so don’t be shy about using their cameras to their full capabilities, because it’s almost a camera for free.
  • Even older phones with less high quality cameras can still be very good, especially in good light.
  • One key benefit is that you will nearly always have your mobile phone on you, so you never need to miss that golden opportunity for a shot.
  • New phones can be loaded with loads of cool (and free!) photo apps for editing and sharing on the internet.
  • Because they tend to have small sensors, they can actually be really, really good for close-up work which dedicated cameras can’t achieve without spending quite a bit of money.
  • They often only offer digital zooms, which can be a pain (though some newer models buck this trend).

Look out for: Decent low light sensitivity. A powerful flash. Macro focus mode. A reasonably wide field of view.

Avoid: Poor low light response (like the plague!!). Poor field of view. Poor autofocus.

St Paul's shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.
St Paul’s shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.

Bridge Cameras

  • Bridge Cameras are called this because they bridge the gap between Point & Click cameras and interchangeable lens cameras (DSLRs and CSCs).  They offer far greater manual control than most simple compact cameras, normally offering independent shutter and aperture controls and quite often they offer “manual” focus (thought this will be achieved digitally).
  • They normally have significantly better zooms than compact cameras, starting from around 15x from a few years ago right the way up to a whopping 50x available today.,
  • They have large ground glass lenses so their optical quality is normally much better than compact cameras (even on older models with lower pixel counts).
  • They are incredibly versatile, offering a wide range of shooting options in a single camera and lens.
  • They are therefore great travel cameras covering a wide range of situations.
  • Like compact cameras, old ones are now getting really quite cheap (though I’ve not seen one for £7 yet).  If you shop around you can start finding pretty decent ones from about £50.
  •  As you start pushing the boundaries of their capabilities, you are likely to start wanting to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera.

Look out for: A decent zoom range (anything from about 18x is pretty good for older models). Full manual controls including manual focus. RAW image capture if available. A threaded filter ring (or one capable of having a filter ring adapter added). A snug fitting lens cap. Optical Image Stabilisation. 

Avoid: Anything with a scratched lens (if buying second hand).  This is common in cameras of this type. Any versions that don’t have an EVF.

Fuji Finepix S8000fd
One of my favourite travelling companions, which has travelled pretty much everywhere with me since 2008. This little bridge camera is only 8MP and would be dirt cheap today, but it’s still got a great lens and is a real workhorse.

Interchangeable lens cameras

There’s so much to say about these, that they will need another blog entry, but they fall broadly into two types – DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and CSC (Compact System Cameras).  Both types vary greatly, and the modern high spec versions can be pretty pricey.  At the lower end, it’s much easier to find second hand DSLRs, as they have been around for a lot longer (basically since the early days of digital photography) where as CSCs are only really becoming mainstream now.  It is therefore also much easier to buy second hand lenses for DSLRs today…  

Looking at ebay today – you can buy a 6.3MP DSLR for under £50 but you would be lucky to get a decent lens with it, and the light sensitivity will not be as good as a more modern camera.

If you are really, really serious about photography, it’s likely that you will want to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera at some point because the range of different lenses you can use ultimately gives a greater range of shooting capabilities than even those offered by a Bridge camera – but it can therefore be an expensive journey to set out on.  If you’re total budget is £100, you are much better off sticking with a Bridge camera.

 

Conclusion?

I can’t tell you what to buy – I own variants of all of these, but I would suggest to anyone that a few quid on a compact camera with a decent lens can never be a waste of money… If you learn how to make the most of it, you’ll be able to get some great pictures.  If you’re a little more serious but still just getting going – an upgrade to a bridge is a massive step up in terms of the capabilities of the camera.