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Digital Camera Designs and Formats

Camera Design Features Explained     Which Design?     Which Format?     What Really Matters?

In this tutorial, I compare the various designs and formats of digital camera, outlining their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, if you're thinking of buying a new digital camera, I aim to address some of the popular assumptions and steer you towards your best choice.

Digital Camera Designs

I've left out range finders and formats larger than the 35mm because of their expense and more specialist applications.

DSLR

"Digital Single Lens Reflex" - the digital version of the popular 35mm film camera. It operates in much the same way but exposing a digital sensor rather than film. This type of camera has an optical viewfinder that enables you to view directly through the lens via a prism and flip-up mirror.

 
 

Recent models also have a live view LCD to supplement the optical viewfinder. The most popular formats are 35mm (Full Frame) and APS-C.

Digital SLR cameras continued from decades of gradual evolution of their film predecessors. They offer good all-round performance in a variety of photographic genres.

There are many models on the market to choose from, ranging from entry-level models at around £300 to high-end models costing thousands. And there's a vast choice of lenses available from the same manufacturers and alternative brands.

DSLRs are the most established and prolifically used cameras for serious photography, but they aren't always best for everyone.

Until the latest models of mirrorless compact system camera came on the market, DSLRs were the only design to offer fast performance, continuous focusing/ tracking and interchangeable lenses.

Mirrorless - CSC

Mirrorless / Compact System Cameras are designed to offer some, if not all, of the features of a DSLR, but in a more compact body, and with the advantage of live view.

Earlier models had contrast detect focusing, which is fine for stationary subjects but struggles with those that are moving quickly. However, some of the latest models have hybrid focusing that matches the speed of DSLRs.

These designs have advantages in size, weight and live view performance, but they aren't as established as DSLRs and don't currently have the huge choice of dedicated lenses. It's possible to adapt other lenses but in some cases you will have to focus manually.

Live view screens are supplemented by decent electronic view finders on better models.

Formats are mostly either M4/3, APS-C or 35mm. Nikon's "1" system, however, has a 1" sensor sized midway between the four thirds and 1/1.7" compact camera sensors.

SLT

"Single Lens Translucent".

These Sony cameras have an electronic viewfinder and a live view screen, so what you see is what you get. But rather than the contrast detection (or hybrid) of other live view systems, these designs feature the fast and continuous phase-detection auto focus used in DSLRs.

They generally have faster continuous frame rates than DSLRs, but the translucent mirror can give a slight ghosting effect on close inspection.

Sony's SLTs take the full range of A-mount and some Minolta lenses.

Compact

From simple "Point 'n' Shoot" only, to advanced high-end models - that latter offering RAW format and lots of control settings - these cameras can yield excellent quality images in a format that's small and lightweight.

Typically, compacts have small 1/2.3" sensors, but the high-end models have larger sensors up to M4/3. A minority have large, APS-C or full frame sensors and feature a prime lens (no zooming), which enables them to remain compact despite the larger format. Some supplement their live view screen with an electronic (or optical) viewfinder.

Most models have contrast detect focusing.

Super-Zoom (Bridge)

These cameras are basically compacts that have a larger range of lens "zooming", from wide angle to 30 x telephoto and more!

Typically, Super-Zooms are built around 1/2.3 or similar sized sensors and have a similar shape and appearance to a DSLR, albeit much lighter and smaller. They usually have a decent degree of manual control and feature both live view screens and an electronic view finder. The better ones shoot RAW, and some high-end models have larger sensors.

Phone

Phone cameras generally have very small sensors, typically 1/8th". They are the most compromised in terms of handling, operation and image quality, but as a part of your phone, they are very convenient - the handiest "with you everywhere" camera with an instant publishing option.

Which is Best?

For different reasons, all of them!

A "Professional Camera"

People often have the notion that DSLRs are "professional cameras" and are the only option for "pro quality" photos. Perhaps once, but not now.

And Bigoted DSLR users condescendingly refer to all smaller cameras as "point 'n' shoot" - even if they offer more control and better image quality than some DSLRs!

Point 'n' Shoot is a shooting mode (probably used by the same bigots), not a design or format of camera!

The term "Pro" is even used to sell cosmetics and toiletries! "Go Pro!" - Laughing

Camera Design Features Explained

Live View versus Optical

With cameras that have live view systems (rear screens and electronic viewfinders), what you see is fed from the sensor, so you can see how your photo will look before you take it and adjust exposure compensation as required. Some cameras have a live histogram which helps to optimise exposure of RAW files too.

When using the optical view finder of a DSLR, you don't see anything from the sensor until you've taken the photo. This means you have to review your image to check exposure and reshoot if required. Some people still prefer optical view finders, however, because they remain bright and clear irrespective of contrast and exposure.

Recent DSLRs do have a live view LCD function, but compared to mirrorless CSCs, the speed of operation is often very slow because of the mirror's reflex action and the phase-detection focusing system. Some models have dual sensor systems which offer faster operation but usually at a lower resolution. Also, some implementations aren't as "live" as others: Some Nikons stop down to the set aperture upon entering live view mode but don't adjust with any further changes to aperture, whilst some Canon models don't adjust to the aperture setting unless you press the DOF preview button.

Screens

Screens that tilt or articulate offer the advantage of being able to frame-up shots from all sorts of angles and positions that would be impossible using a viewfinder.

However, screens can be difficult to use in strong sunlight, so it helps to try to shade them from direct sun and light reflected from your face or clothing. Some cameras brighten their screens momentarily as you half-depress the shutter, and you could do this repeatedly to help compose a shot in bright weather and contrasty scenes if necessary. It's much easier to use a view finder in these conditions though - electronic or optical.

Format - Sensor Size

The larger the format (sensor), the greater the potential for shallow depth of field and selective focusing leaving parts of the image behind and in front of the subject, out of focus. This can be used compositionally to emphasise a feature within its context.

However, shutter speeds will be slower in the same light conditions and equivalent depth-of-field apertures. A 35mm format camera at f/11 will be just over 1 stop (EV) slower than an APS-C format camera at f/8, and 2 stops slower than M4/3 at f/5.6. As a consequence of this, you may need to use a stop or two higher ISO or to use a tripod.

Cameras with larger sensors generally yield better image quality and less noise at higher ISOs than those with smaller sensors. They can have a greater dynamic range too. But older generation sensors aren't as good as later ones in this respect. My 2010 Samsung EX1 (1/1.7" high-end compact) could out-resolve my 2007 D80 (APS-C DSLR) at the same ISO, for example.

Autofocus Systems

DSLRs and SLTs have phase detect autofocus. It's fast and can continuously track a moving subject.

Compacts mostly have contrast detect autofocus. It's not as fast to find focus, and it struggles with moving subjects.

Mirrorless CSCs have either contrast detect, or the newer hybrid autofocus. As the name suggests, hybrid autofocus is both phase detect and contrast detect. Focusing is fast, focus points cover much more of the frame than traditional phase detect autofocus and object tracking can be more intelligent.

Optical Image Stabilisation

Optical image stabilisation is a clever system that helps us to take sharp photos handheld (without a tripod) at quite low shutter speeds.

Sometimes it's lens-based and sometimes in the camera body (sensor-shift). When it's in the lens, it generally allows a stop lower shutter speed than when it's in the camera body. However, in-body stabilisation allows the use of more lenses.

I consider optical image stabilisation to be invaluable for most photographers. If a blur-free hand-holding shutter speed were 1/60s, the average 3 stop (3 EV) gain would be 1/60s/2 = 1/30s/2 = 1/15s/2 = 1/8s. Unless you have a moving subject to consider, this gives you more choice of apertures and ISOs without the constraints of a tripod in low light conditions.

Which Design is Right for You?

Consider a DSLR if most of the following apply:

  • You don't mind the size and weight of the body and required lenses
  • You prefer the handling of a larger camera
  • You may wish to shoot moving subjects
  • You prefer using an optical view finder which remains bright in contrasty situations
  • You want a vast range of lens options - different focal lengths, applications and brands

Consider a mirrorless compact system camera if most of the following apply:

  • You prefer smaller, lightweight cameras
  • You prefer a dedicated live view system - what you see is what you get and quick exposure optimisation with a live histogram
  • You may wish to shoot moving objects - if so, choose a model with well implemented hybrid autofocus

Consider a super zoom / bridge camera if most of the following apply:

  • You wish to pursue genres involving focal ranges from wide angle to long telephoto with mainly static subjects
  • You prefer small, lightweight cameras and don't wish to carry lenses and change them
  • You don't wish to shoot subjects that move quickly

Consider a compact camera if most of the following apply:

  • You prefer small, lightweight camera
  • You only wish to pursue genres requiring wide-angle to short telephoto
  • You don't wish to shoot subjects that move quickly

What Format is Right for You

Consider 35mm if most of the following apply:

  • You don't mind the extra size and weight of the camera bodies and lenses
  • Selective focusing and out-of-focus background is very important to you
  • You regularly make very large prints
  • You don't mind using a tripod in low light

Consider APS-C if most of the following apply:

  • You don't like the extra size, weight and cost of 35mm camera bodies and lenses
  • Selective focus and out-of-focus background is quite important to you
  • You might want to make very large prints
  • You want faster shutter speeds in low light so you don't have to use a tripod during the day

Consider M4/3 if most of the following apply:

  • You want a smallish camera with a large choice of smallish, lenses including quality primes
  • Selective focus and out-of-focus background is less important to you
  • You might want to print large, but not huge
  • You want much faster shutter speeds in low light so you don't have to use a tripod during the day

Consider 1" or smaller if most of the following apply:

  • You really want a small, lightweight camera as a priority
  • Selective focus and out-of-focus background is not important to you
  • You don't to print larger than half a metre wide

What Really Matters?

What really matters is choosing a camera that suits your requirements and learning how to use it to its full potential.

More equipment, megapixels and marketed features won't improve your photos.

Manufacturers and magazines are trying to sell you cameras and equipment. Their agendas aren't photography itself.

Prioritise

Think of the genres of photography that are most important to you and prioritise: Don't carry a range of lenses (or other bulky and heavy equipment) that you rarely use. Doing so can slow you down and you may miss photo opportunities.

Optimise

Once you've chosen a suitable camera, go through the menus and set it up for maximum performance:

You want the largest, best quality JPEG, or RAW.

Keep ISOs low (especially for small sensor cameras). Auto ISO sounds good in theory, but it often increases the sensitivity before necessary and degrades the image quality, as a result - especially with image stabilisation which allows slower shutter speeds to be used successfully. Test it, and if it cuts in too soon, ignore auto ISO and set it manually.

Familiarise

Familiarise yourself with your camera so that, once set-up, you have fast access to settings you wish to change (using any available customisable buttons and quick menus).

Settings you may want to change regularly include the following:

  • Exposure Compensation
  • Exposure lock (AEL), back-button focus or a selectable auto-focus point. Either of these will allow you to optimise depth of field by focusing at the hyperfocal distance whilst maintaining the correct exposure for the composition.
  • ISO - If setting manually, leave this at the base (usually lowest) number, and only raise it to get the required shutter speed.
  • Focus Mode - quickly swap from AF-S one shot focusing to AF-C continuous focusing
  • Single shot, continuous shooting, bracketed or timer etc

Practice!

When you've done all this, get out there, look, visualise, compose, optimise exposure, set focus and take the photo.

Keep doing this, and your photos will improve with your dedication and experience.

It's about photography, not cameras.