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Buying a Camera

by Rolf Lockwood

Part 1 of this series

You don't need a $5000 Nikon kit to take good pictures. Most people will do fine with a little 'point and shoot' 35mm rangefinder camera with auto focus, auto exposure, auto flash, etc. It'll set you back anywhere from $100 to $1000, or even beyond that. About $500 will also bring you into single-lens reflex (SLR) territory with interchangeable lenses and more control over exposure and the like.

What about digital cameras? They're mighty cool and very handy, but if you want to make decent 8x10 prints you'll need to spend $1500 or more. And that assumes you already have a competent computer and high-quality inkjet printer.

And APS cameras? The so-called Advanced Photo System may appeal to some of you because the cameras are interesting and you get some film features. You can load film very easily and change it in mid-roll, plus you get an 'index' print that shows you all the shots you took with that roll on one sheet, which is very useful. The downside is a small negative (24mm instead of 35mm), which limits the size of the enlargement you can make. Nor is there much variety in films available.

The cameras really are neat, led by Canon's Elph series, some of them impossibly small. Cost: from $200 to well over $1000, generally more expensive than a 35mm equivalent.

Point 'n Shoot

There's an astonishing array of good 35mm cameras in this category, all of them pretty much automatic, with many different price points. You can't go wrong with old standby makes like Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax, but there are others too.

You do get what you pay for, especially in terms of reliability and robustness. Cheaper models will skimp on features too, but you're mostly OK even at the $100-150 level. You'll lose control and flexibility, but that may be fine for you. Spend $250 or so and you'll do much better.

One very good choice is the Olympus Stylus Epic, for example, usually about $180 - with a good all-glass (as opposed to plastic, which is common) 35mm lens. It fits in a shirt pocket with room to spare. Zoom-lens versions are also available.

Yashica's little T4, just a tad bigger and about $100 more expensive, is a legendary camera that professionals tuck away in a pocket for that grab shot they might otherwise miss. It has a first-class 35mm glass lens and it's even weatherproof. Zoom-lens versions don't have the same reputation.

You won't get many of these in a $100 camera, but useful features include:

  • a lens at least as wide as 35mm, preferably 28mm (they're rare)
  • if it's a zoom lens, the ideal range is from 28 to about 80mm. You don't need anything longer than 80, but you do need something as wide as 28.
  • a built-in flash that can be turned off, preferably with a 'fill' setting (allows you to light faces or other subjects in shadow)
  • the ability to lock in or adjust your exposure somehow
  • automatic film-speed setting with the ability to do it manually (a sneaky way to adjust exposure)
  • the ability to lock in focus
  • a tripod socket on the camera's base

The SLRs

You can get an almost foolproof autofocus SLR camera with 28-80 zoom lens for little more than the better point-and-shoots - between $500 and $600. They'll have tons of features plus the ability to change lenses. Example: the Canon Rebel G kit with 28-90 Canon lens and built-in flash for $499 at Vistek in Toronto.

The downside? The temptation to buy lenses. Seriously, the urge may be overwhelming, and the effect on your wallet will be awful. But mainly it's a matter of bulk. Whereas you can stick that little Olympus in a pocket, you'll need a bag to carry your SLR and the 'stuff' you'll collect.

You don't have to buy an auto-everything camera, though the choices in manual are few. Canon, for example, doesn't make one at all. Nikon offers a few pricey ones, plus the inexpensive FM10, at $425 or so with a 35-70mm zoom lens included. Olympus has a version of the exact same camera, the OM10. A good learning tool, it's made for both companies by Cosina.

If you bought an SLR with a 28-80mm lens, you don't need much else. That's considered a 'normal' lens these days, replacing the old 50mm standard. Should you buy a zoom in the first place? Sure, certainly if you're getting an autofocus camera. They're not as sharp as a single-focal-length lens, but they don't compromise much.

My own preference is a 28-105. It's more expensive than the 28-80 ($650 vs about $250 for the Nikon versions) but I find the extra stretch useful. And it replaces five single-focal-length lenses - the 105, 85, 50, 35, and 28. For me, 28mm isn't wide enough so I also carry a 24 and a 17. The 24 is great - compact but just wide enough for trucks - and the expensive ultra-wide 17 delivers interesting perspectives.

Another popular choice is a 28-200, especially the one made by independent lens-maker Tamron (about $450, vs $825 for Nikon's own version). That's a heck of a wide focal-length spread but newer optical technology means it's a good performer and not very big.

Should you buy used equipment? Absolutely, at least with the better SLR brands, but deal with reputable stores that offer a warranty.

One more thing: if you've got a 30-year-old Pentax Spotmatic or Canon FTb or whatever, should you upgrade? If you're like me, with lousy eyes, the switch to autofocus would be a serious gain. The latest cameras also offer amazing automatic light-metering capabilities. But if your pictures are good using what you've got, save your money and buy a 24mm lens, a sturdy tripod, or a polarizing filter instead. I call those three items essential.

Happy shooting!

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