By Mary Kolenick

Buying Your Digital Camera

We all love to have pictures of our cats, but getting nice non-blurry pictures of fast-moving balls of fur can be a daunting task. A professional photographer can get you great photos of your show cats, but what do you do when you want pictures of young kittens to share with potential buyers or other breeders? You have to take those photos yourself, and unless you want shots of kittens sleeping you have to have a lot of patience and more than a little luck. You also have to have a good camera. Fortunately, in the digital camera world "good" does not mean "expensive." There are dozens of inexpensive digital cameras that will take excellent pictures, but how do you choose? And what do all of those technical terms mean? By the end of this article, you will know what to look for when you go shopping for a digital camera and will be ready to fill many megapixels with photos of adorable kittens and cats.

Why Go Digital?

There are several advantages with a digital camera vs. film for the cat fancier. First - cost! Film and printing film costs quite a bit, especially when you can shoot a whole roll of film of frolicking felines and not have any be in focus. You have to pay for many bad prints. Bad digital photos cost nothing. Second - time. Unless you have your own darkroom, it could take days to see the results of shooting film. With a digital camera, you can tell very quickly using the camera's LCD whether your images are good and decide whether you need to shoot more. Third - printing. You can get decent prints of digital images on an inexpensive ink jet printer in your own home, or you can take the images to a store like Office Depot or Kinkos to make better quality enlargements. You don't even have to print digital images if you just want to put them on a website or send them in an e-mail. Usually, you have to find someone else to develop and print your film.

Sure, there are advantages to using film cameras. But those advantages are for the person trying to be the next Ansel Adams, or the photographer who uses the camera to create artistic works. Some of our professional cat photographers have already gone digital proving you can get great photos of cats without using film. A digital camera works better than film for cat fanciers who just want pictures that accurately portray their cats, and with the low cost of good cameras, the digital camera is a great tool to add to your cattery.

Now that you've realized the need to go digital, at least for photos of your cats, what kind of digital camera should you buy? When you start looking for a digital camera, you will be overwhelmed by the choices. Walk into the camera department of Best Buy and you'll see what I mean. The July 2009 issue of Consumer Reports includes an article on digital cameras and rates 54 "point-and-shoot" cameras and 23 SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras. That does not include older models that are still on the shelves or newer models released too late to make it into the article. You will have to choose from well over 100 good digital cameras, but how? The first step to choosing is to know the terms, and more importantly for us, understand the features that will help you take better pictures of your primary subject - cats.

SLR vs. Point-and-Shoot

Once you decide to buy a digital camera, your next decision is which type will best serve your needs. There are two basic types of still-image digital cameras - the SLR (Single Lens Reflex) and the Point-and-Shoot (P&S). The SLR camera uses a series of mirrors to allow the photographer to look through the viewfinder and see the scene through the lens. When the photographer clicks the shutter button, the mirrors drop out of the way and block the viewfinder allowing the sensors to capture the image. P&S is not a well-defined term for digital still-image cameras; it usually means everything but an SLR.

The common usage of P&S to describe so many non-SLR cameras is unfortunate because it is misleading. P&S means you pick up the camera, point it at the subject, and shoot the picture letting the camera pick all of the settings. But some P&S cameras have features that allow you to change the settings as with an SLR, while some SLR cameras have auto settings that make the camera act like a P&S. The real difference between the SLR and P&S (other than a huge price difference) is the use of mirrors to allow through-the-lens viewing of the scene. But non-SLR just isn't as catchy as P&S.

P&S cameras range in price from as little as $10 to $600, while SLR cameras (body only, not including a lens) range from $450 to several thousand. A moderate lens will add $150 to the price of an SLR, while a good lens will add several hundred or more. This means the easiest way to decide between the two types is by how much you are willing to spend. You can easily take great pictures with a P&S camera that costs less than $300 and just as easily take lousy pictures with an SLR camera that costs over $1000. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that buying amore expensive camera will automatically make you a better photographer.

Another big difference between a P&S and SLR camera is weight. Most SLR cameras weigh at least a pound body only and just over two pounds with lens, then add another pound for a speed flash which you will eventually want for an SLR. You need to be able to heft and hold steady two to three pounds of camera to use an SLR. Now imagine doing that with one hand while you have a cat teaser in another! Most P&S cameras weigh a few ounces and you can easily carry them in your purse or even a pocket. This is an important consideration for cat fanciers - do you really want to carry a two pound $1200 SLR to cat shows where you will have to guard it constantly, or will a lightweight $350 P&S that you can stick in your purse or pocket be easier to manage? The SLR camera does have several advantages over the P&S:

  • One advantage that should matter to the cat photographer is the faster fps rating of the SLRs. Fps is the number of frames, or pictures, per second that the camera can take (more on fps below).

  • SLR cameras are usually better in low light situations than P&S cameras, while many P&S cameras are plagued by noise issues in low light (noise refers to static or graininess in the image). Since cats are best photographed without flash, good low light capability is important.

  • The variety of focal lengths available in different lenses makes the SLR handy for people who like to shoot different subjects. Most P&S cameras come with just one built-in lens that is usually good enough for cat subjects, but subjects such as wildlife, landscapes, sports, and close-ups such as flowers all are better done with specialized lenses. You may find the single lens of the P&S very limiting.

But all of these advantages, plus several I didn't mention, make the SLR camera complicated. If you don't want to put the time into understanding some basic photography principles, you will end up using an SLR with the auto settings, which is just sad. It's like getting a Ferrari and only driving it up and down your driveway. A good P&S camera can be just as good as an SLR on auto for many types of photos, including cat photos. Some of the high-end P&S cameras eclipse the low-end SLR cameras feature-wise making high-end P&S cameras attractive to even the serious photography hobbyist. I have both types - several P&S digital cameras and two SLRs (one film and one digital) - and I pick which one I will use according to the environment where I will be shooting.

Before you buy an expensive SLR, be sure you will have the time to devote to the camera to understand how to use it, and be sure that you can lift the thing. This can be an enjoyable hobby that gives you a great creative outlet. But if you don't have that time or you just don't want to learn all the technical details of photography, you will not be happy with the SLR and should instead consider a good P&S model.

Continued ...

Reprinted with permission, CFA Online Almanac, September 2009; December 2009


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