I’m going to start by saying this: this is a fantastic time to be a photographer, particularly in the digital realm. Prices are plummeting, choices are skyrocketing, accessories are multiplying, sensors are growing, details are sharpening, knowledge is spreading, and it’s all happening at a breakneck pace that can make keeping up with things a little difficult at times. Whether you want to go small with a pocket point and shooter, mid-range with a so-called “prosumer” P&S, entry-level DSLR (digital single lens reflex), or full-fledged full-frame monstrosities, you’ve got choices heaped upon options all vying to take your money.
While this isn’t intended to be a buyers’ guide of any kind, I will be explaining in a little detail the various options and settings you might see on a wide variety of these cameras and how to use them. From there, you can decide both whether these options are important to you and at what ranges you’d consider acceptable. Hopefully, armed with this information, you can then make a more informed purchase for yourself.
Given the wide range of camera types I mentioned above, I’m going to try to keep this discussion on a broader level in order to cater to as wide a reader base as possible, but I’ll give some specific examples as references from my current camera of choice, the Canon 30D. That said, shall we dive in?
A Quick Classification
First, let’s clarify some of those acronyms I’ve already thrown at you. Cameras can generally be thrown into one of two groupings: point and shoot (P&S) or single lens reflex (SLR). The major distinguishing characteristic between the two is the lens situation: most P&S cameras have a single lens that isn’t interchangeable, while SLRs are built to swap lenses to allow you more creative control and freedom. The other difference between the two is how the pre-shot view occurs; most point and shoot models (and some of the new digital SLRs) use the camera sensors to pick up the view and transfer it to the LCD on the back of the camera.
This can be useful, as you don’t have to use the viewfinder to see your subject matter, but depending on the quality of the LCD and the compression used to send the image there, the colors and details shown on the screen might not be accurately represented in an actual print. SLRs, on the other hand, use a system of mirrors to send light down the lens barrel directly to the viewfinder. Thanks to the optics used in SLRs, the image you see in the viewfinder will be exactly what you see on the print. Traditionally, this requires that you must use the viewfinder – there’s no option to use the LCD because the sensor doesn’t pick up the light until the shot’s being taken. Some companies have, more recently, come out with so-called “live view” LCD SLRs where you can use the LCD for the viewfinder, but many SLRs on the market still don’t use it.
Whether you’ve got a point and shoot or an SLR, many of the options talked about here will be available to varying degrees on all modern cameras. Let’s get started!
All cameras, from the smallest 2-megapixel (MP) shooter to the largest full-frame body you can find, have an auto mode, also known as the set-and-forget option. Set the camera to this setting, and it will automatically meter the lighting conditions, determine the focus, and set the aperture and shutter speed. This is where the term “point and shoot” comes into play; all you have to do is aim at your subject and click away. The shots may not be perfect every time, but they’re certainly close and almost always usable. Similarly, there’s a simple no-flash mode allowing you to suppress the camera’s flash. When this option is selected in an area where flash is needed, the camera will attempt to get the best picture another way.
Beyond that, you’ll likely have other setting options, the most common of which are scene modes and manual modes. The scene mode options will have little icons to try and tell you what they’re “optimized” for: stars to indicate a night mode, a person’s head to indicate portrait mode, mountains to indicate landscape mode, a runner to indicate sports or action mode, etc. Perhaps the least intuitive mode on P&S cameras is the “flower” icon, or macro mode. Macro mode gives the user the ability to take very detailed pictures of objects from very close distance. The Canon S3 IS, for instance, has a macro mode that will let the camera focus on something that’s actually touching the front lens element.
These scene modes change various operating aspects of the camera: the shutter speed and aperture for night modes, the color warmth for portrait modes, and the focal distance for macro modes. They’re designed to quickly and easily get the camera prepared for the type of activity at hand with minimal fuss, no checking and changing settings needed. Manual mode, on the other hand, is where you adjust the settings on your own for the situation and shot you want to get. I’ll get into these settings below, as they could use some elaboration.