Recycled Computing

How to Choose Your Next Camera

- 2011.04.06

I'm going to take a little break from computers to talk about cameras from my perspective as a former camera store manager. Granted, it was back in film era, but still, cameras are cameras.

What do you want to use the camera for? What are you going to take pictures of? If you don't answer these sort of questions yourself, the salesperson will ask you. This process is known as "qualifying" the customer and is used most often when a customer has no idea what camera they want to buy.

The more research you have done prior to going into the store, the more pleasant your buying experience will be. There are more than enough brands and models to confuse even the salesperson. A good salesperson is not a brand nazi, someone who owns Nikon or Canon equipment and tries to sell every customer that brand of camera.

It is a fair question to ask a salesperson what camera they own and why they own it. It is also fair to ask if they are on commission and if there is a special commission on the camera they are trying to sell you. The manufacturer will sometimes offer sales staff a commission on a particular item in their line. Sometimes the store management will offer commissions (known as "spiffs" back in the day) of their own or on top of the manufacturer's spiff.

Salesman on commission are hard closers, and you may feel that it is less stressful working with an hourly employee. However, if you think that working with Del at Walmart is a picnic, remember that Del doesn't care if you buy a camera or not, and for him, one camera is pretty much like any other.

A salesperson on commission wants to (very much wants to) sell you a camera and is willing to find out the exact camera that will fit your needs. This sort of salesman knows the differences between cameras and can explain (in detail) why the features of one camera are better for the type of photography that you are going to be doing.

While there are folks who buy cheap cameras that will disappoint them, it is more likely that folks will purchase too much camera for their needs. I suppose you could use a Leica to photograph your family, your pets, and Aunt Betty's birthday, but I'm thinking that since a Leica costs around $6,000, it might be a waste of money.

There is a big dividing line in my mind that separates the camera buying public.

Interchangeable Lenses

Some cameras have a built-in lens (usually a zoom lens) and a more compact size than a camera that has a mount for interchangeable lenses. Customers who need a less expensive camera that can record the major events in their lives typically do not need a camera with the ability to change lenses. I refer to this type of camera as a point-and-shoot,* since that is what the camera is designed to do. Don't get me wrong, there are some very high quality point and shoot cameras out there, but they are designed for a customer who wants to take pictures and not have to worry about the process.

Let's compare this type of camera to the flood of mobile computing devices that are now entering the computer market. Smartphones, iPods, tablets, and netbooks all do computer-y things, but for maximum versatility, you need a PC. Mobile devices are designed to put a lot of PC features into a portable device, but they can't duplicate a traditional PC. Similarly, a point-and-shoot camera has a lot of the features of high-end cameras, but not all of them, and, most importantly, it doesn't allow you to change lenses.

I use interchangeable lenses so that I can photograph sports or wildlife (extreme telephoto lens). I use a wide-angle lens to photograph the exterior and interior of buildings. And I use a macro lens to photograph objects at life-size.

A point-and-shoot camera allows you to eat a snack, but the interchangeable lens camera allows you to eat the whole banquet.

I'm speaking in generalities, but when buying a camera, everyone has different needs. Just like when you buy a computer, you should concentrate on buying a camera that will suit you and not your friends, fashion, or the salesman's preferences. In a technical field, the more education you have in the field, the better. A truly knowledgeable salesperson is very helpful, but don't be afraid to try different stores to find one. LEM

* Publisher's note: Like John, I've been a photo enthusiast for a long time (since the early 1970s) and have spent a lot of time behind the counter. His comment on point-and-shoot cameras brings to mind an old Kodak slogan: You Press the Button, We Do the Rest. This is widely regarded as one of the best ad slogans in history because George Eastman understood that most people just want to take pictures; they are not interested in the process. dk

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