There are far too many choices among digital cameras today. Is a 6.1-megapixel Canon better than a 7.1-megapixel Nikon? It's simply not that easy, and, depending on your needs, either one might be a better choice than the other. Beyond megapixel capabilities, a number of features need to be considered as a major part of your buying decision.
The basic camera types are:
Point-and-Shoot Typically compact with limited capabilities, point-and-shoot cameras are designed for ease of use, which makes them ideal for ordinary professional needs. The nice thing about this camera type is its flexibility: it can be easily used as a "family snapshot" camera when it isn't taking shots for your business. Cost varies with megapixel count and other features, but most practical cameras are under $500.
Integrated Lens This camera looks like a serious professional instrument, but is actually a type of point-and-shoot with expanded capabilities. One major advantage is the ability to add wide-angle lens attachments, which are essential for interior architectural photography. Bulkier, and therefore less convenient, than point-and-shoot cameras, the integrated-lens camera is probably the best value because it tends to have a better lens than the point-and-shoot camera. Although the camera makes you look like a serious photographer, it can also be used for snapshots. Cost varies with megapixel count and other features, but most practical cameras are under $900.
Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) Digital For 50 years, film SLR cameras defined photography, and in the digital world, the concept still applies. In an SLR, the viewfinder looks through the lens, so "what you see is what you get." A principal feature is the ability to change lenses, so you can optimize the lens for the application. For instance, with a film SLR, one uses a 28mm wide-angle lens for most interior photos, and then changes to a 110mm telephoto for portraits. Many SLR cameras are sold with zoom lenses that allow casual snapshot use, but the defining advantage of an SLR is the ability to use a high-quality, fixed-focal-length lens to take the picture. Top-of-the-line digital SLRs today can generate 14 to 16 megapixels. Cost varies with megapixel count and other features, but most practical cameras (8 to 10 megapixels) are under $1,500. Professional cameras (14 to 16 megapixels) can cost $3,000 or more.
Professional Cameras Professional photographers use extreme cameras including medium format and 4x5 and 8x10 monsters with bellows, tilt-and-shift lenses, and huge film backs that take astoundingly detailed photographs. With enough money, you can get "digital backs" for these beasts, and if you have been hired to shoot the cover for a major magazine, this is the ultimate tool. Keeping in mind that a digital medium-format camera creates an original file of up to 39 megapixels, there are a very few situations where this is necessary. Cost varies, but expect to pay well over $5,000 for a camera, lens, and accessories. The Hasselblad medium-format digital camera costs a whopping $30,000!
My two personal recommendations for most lighting geeks:
Kodak V570 is a point-and-shoot camera. It is small and flat, with a big LCD display. It uses Schneider lenses, so the image quality is very good for a small camera. Its big advantage is that it has two lenses: the main lens is a standard 3x point-and-shoot zoom, with a mild telephoto and a mild wide angle; it has a second fixed-focal-length, very wide-angle lens. It has built-in flash and a long-life battery. With 5.1 megapixels of information and costing less than $400, this camera is my day-to-day workhorse.
The Nikon Coolpix 8400 is an integrated-lens camera with a native 24-85mm zoom Nikkor lens and a wide-angle (18mm) attachment, as well as macro focusing, separate LCD panels and viewfinders, and many other features. This is about as good as it gets without getting a digital SLR, and better than some of them, too. At 8 megapixels, the images are often better than a scanned 35mm photo. Shop around; a complete, factory-warranted camera with battery and other accessories should cost less than $500.
From time to time, I toy with the idea of a digital SLR, but there is one major issue. The concept behind the digital SLR is to be able to use film SLR lenses, which are mass-produced, inexpensive, and high quality. But the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) in most SLR cameras is smaller than a 35mm film image. This makes lenses behave differently. For example, a film 17mm super-wide-angle lens behaves the same as a 28mm mild-wide-angle lens when used on a compatible consumer-grade digital SLR. So before running out to buy a new digital camera body for those SLR lenses you have from your film days, keep this in mind. For a while, Kodak sold a 14-megapixel professional SLR with full-size CCD in Nikon- and Canon-mount versions. Discontinued a year ago, these fabulous cameras enabled the use of really good but cheap lenses. A brilliant idea but not a financial success. Pick up a Kodak Pro SLR/c (Canon) or SLR/n (Nikon) for about $5,000 new, and pay next to nothing for great lenses.
And then there is film. My photographer hero, Doug Salin, had been clinging to film for dear life. As Doug once said, film is forever if you keep it cool. Recently, however, at Lightfair 2006, Doug told me he was going all digital; film was too much hassle. The last of the icons has fallen.
James Benya is a professional lighting designer and principal of Benya Lighting Design in West Linn, Oregon. He is editor-at-large for A|L.