Buying a New Camera – Getting Past the Jargon

Dealing with the terminology (jargon) present in the media and on the sales floor can be confusing. Point and shoot, DSLR, pocket camera, ISO, f-stop, shutter speed and more and more. Be careful, the terms are not always mutually exclusive. The idea that point and shoot cameras are low-end is mostly a fabrication. It is a terminology applied to the low-end of the spectrum ($) of cameras.  Typically these cameras have limited capability for the photographer to control the photographic process.  You just set the “Mode”, point the camera and take the picture.

In a broader sense, point and shoot refers to a method of shooting photos, not a style of camera. If the camera has an “Auto” and/or “Program (P)” ”Mode” , all the user has to do is turn the camera on, select  a preset  “Mode”, aim at his/her subject and push the shutter control button. “Point and Shoot”. The idea is that the photographer takes care of the artistic aspects of taking the picture and the camera takes care of the technical aspects.  Higher end cameras allow the photographer to change the “Mode” from “Auto”, swap out lenses and adjust sensor sensitivity (ISO) to more closely control  the photographic process.

Other terms of note include Mode.  Mode is usually set by a dial on  the top of the camera or by selecting it from a menu on the display.  Mode is used to tell the camera what type of shooting condition the camera is being used in.  At a minimum the camera should allow for Scenic, Portrait, Sport, Flower (close-up), and Night.  Many more modes are generally available for even moderately priced cameras.  As you move up the camera ladder into  the non-point and shoot mode types, the following Modes will appear. “A” (aperture control), “T” or “S” (shutter speed control) and “M” (both aperture and shutter speed control which allow the photographer to pre-select these setting  rather than letting the camera control them.

The ISO number.  This is a calibrated rating related to a standard set by the International Standards Committee (ISO) to rate the sensitivity of film and now applied to the sensor in sensitivity of digital cameras.  Unlike with film, the ISO value can be changed throughout a range of values for the digital camera.  The maximum ISO rating for a camera is important when choosing a camera.

Aperture or f-Stop range of the camera is another important piece of information to acquire even if the cameras you are choosing don’t specifically allow control of  the aperture for that camera.  f-Stop refers to the size of the lens opening the camera is set to.  The maximum and minimum f-Stop (size) is another important reason for selecting a camera as it has a bearing on the shooting conditions under which the camera will work satisfactorily.

Shutter speed relates the speed with which the shutter opens and closes.  This set of numbers is important as it also determines to some extent under what conditions that camera will work satisfactorily.  Low speeds ( 1/15th, 1/30th, 1/60th) allow for shooting in “Night Mode” and faster shutter speeds (1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000) allow for shooting in bright light conditions (Scenic Mode) and high activity situations (Sports Mode, Children Mode).

Another common misunderstanding is the idea that you need a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) to get interchangeable lenses. Most manufacturers now have a line of non-reflex cameras that accept a variety of lenses. Some share a common lens set with a DSLR from the same manufacturer. The recent emergence of micro 4/3rds systems provides lenses and camera bodies from several manufacturers that may be interchanged.

There are a lot more terms that you will hear as you get involved in photography.  Some will become important to you as your level of involvement with photography grows.  For the purpose of selecting a camera the above should be of help.  Do a little homework and don’t let the sales person oversell you.

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One thought on “Buying a New Camera – Getting Past the Jargon”

  1. When choosing a camera, is there a numeric value range (max & min) for ISO rating? What is the max…what is the min? Assume the higher the value, the better the camera? Am I right or wrong? Also, are their professional photographers that prefer film over digital? What would be the advantage one vs. the other, or does it matter?

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