Has it been a while since you bought a camera? Buy with confidence after brushing up on a few simple terms!
Buying a new camera should be fun. There are so many different camera makers vying to put their camera in our bag, the intense competition between them has created a bunch of awesome cameras to choose from with tons of different features. The consumer truly is the winner here! That said, if I learned one thing while working in a camera store, it was that buying a camera was often overwhelming and intimidating for a lot of people because of all the options out there!
The problem is, with all these different cameras and different features, comes a whole boatload of different terms, often technical and only meaningful to people “in the know”. So, in this article, I want to break down the most common terms you’ll run into when buying a new camera so that you can go into the store (or website) more comfortable and informed, which will ultimately lead to you finding the perfect camera for your needs. I’ve tried to list them in an order of importance while also keeping similar terms grouped together. This should give you a general idea of which features will impact your purchase the most. Ok, let’s get into it!
A mirrorless camera utilizes an electronic viewfinder as opposed to the traditional optical viewfinder that is found in a typical DSLR. Because of this, a mirrorless camera also does not have a mirror inside which reflects the image into the eyepiece, allowing for the camera to be smaller.
A DSLR employs a mirror mechanism which reflects the image coming in through the lens to the viewfinder. The biggest practical difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera are their viewfinders, mirrorless being electronic, and DSLR being optical. DSLRs tend to be larger by nature.
Electronic viewfinder, or EVF
An EVF allows for a screen readout of the image in real time. Its advantage is it allows you to see your exposure and white balance (image color) before you take a picture.
Optical viewfinder, or OVF
An optical viewfinder is your traditional viewfinder. You see the real, live image through the lens of the camera. Its advantages have gotten smaller over time as EVFs have advanced, though many still prefer a traditional OVF.
The sensor in the camera is what records the image. When light enters the camera through the lens, it hits the sensor, and the image is recorded.
Full frame or FX
Full frame refers to a 36 mm x 24 mm sensor. If you’re trying to imagine what that looks like, it is the size of a 35 mm film negative. Yup, even though back in the day 35 mm film was considered small format, in the digital world, it is now considered to be large format or “full frame”. You may also see the term FX, which is how Nikon refers to their full frame sensor cameras.
APS-C or DX
APS-C refers to an approximately 23.5 mm x 15.6 mm sensor. I say approximately because the true size varies slightly between the camera makers, though minimally. You may also see the term DX, which is how Nikon refers to their APS-C sized sensor cameras.
Micro Four Thirds
Micro Four Thirds refers to an 18 mm x 13.5 mm sensor. For reference, this sensor is half the size of a full frame sensor.
1-inch sensors refer to a 12 mm x 9 mm sensor or smaller. For reference, this sensor is about an eighth the size of a full frame sensor.
This refers to anything smaller than a full frame sensor. You may hear cameras referred to as “crop sensor”.
1.5 x crop, or 2 x crop
This refers to the “crop” or amount of punch in that you will see when using an aps-c or micro four thirds camera in comparison to a full frame camera. Let’s look at an example with each so you can see what I mean, using a 50 mm lens as an example. On a full frame camera, a 50 mm lens will give you a particular field of view, not too wide angle, and not too telephoto. If you put that same 50 mm lens on an aps-c camera, because the sensor is smaller, the image will be cropped in by 1.5. So since 50 x 1.5 = 75, that means that a 50 mm lens on an aps-c camera will give you the field of view of a 75 mm lens on a full frame camera. Why does this matter? It doesn’t. It really only matters because full frame has become a standard when thinking about lenses and field of view, so it is only important as you will most certainly come across people talking about crops and equivalencies. So to give another example using micro four thirds, which have a 2 x crop, if you take that same 50 mm lens and mount it to a micro four thirds camera, it will give you the equivalent field of view of a 100 mm lens on a full frame camera, since 50 x 2 = 100. Again, this doesn’t really matter when you are using any of these systems, BUT, you will definitely run into people talking about crops and equivalencies, so it’s important to know what they are referring to.
Aperture refers to the opening in the lens that light passes through to the sensor in the camera. The aperture can be opened which makes it larger and closed down which makes the opening in the lens smaller. The larger the aperture, the more light is able to hit the sensor. The smaller the aperture, the less light hits the sensor.
Fast vs Slow Lenses
A fast lens refers to a lens that can open up to a wide aperture, like 1.8 or 1.4. A slow lens describes the opposite, or a lens in which the widest aperture is still fairly small, like 3.5 or 5.6.
Megapixel refers to the amount of pixels on a sensor. The job of the pixels is to gather information or record the picture. If you’re just looking to know how many your new camera should have, any camera between 16-24 megapixels will do just great, and I would say almost 100% of photographers do not need any more than that, and most of us could easily use less than that even. A camera with an ultra-high amount of megapixels will require a lot of storage space for the photos, however, the advantage is that it allows the photographer to crop in to anywhere on their picture with little to no reduction in quality. That said, a 16-24 megapixel camera still easily allows for minor cropping with little to no photo degradation. I will also add that typically cameras with fewer megapixels perform better in low light conditions as the pixels are larger and therefore have more surface area for light gathering.
Bokeh refers to the out of focus, or blurry background of photos. Bokeh can be achieved by using a fast lens set to a wide aperture. You will see this term used all the time when looking at different lenses.
I know you know what autofocus is, but when you start looking at cameras, you’ll soon find they all employ different methods of autofocus. Sony uses phase detect autofocus, Canon uses duel pixel autofocus, and Panasonic (Lumix) uses depth from defocus autofocus, for example. Though these all work incredibly well, as you would expect for a modern camera, Sony’s phase detection autofocus takes the first place trophy in speed and accuracy when it comes to both photo and video, though Canon’s duel pixel is a very close second. Panasonic, while great for photo, does suffer with video, so this can be a dealbreaker for some.
There is a curtain in each camera in front of the sensor that opens and closes when you push the button to take a picture. The shutter speed describes how long the curtain is open, letting light through to the sensor. A fast shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second lets very little light through, while a slower shutter speed of 1/50 of a second lets a lot more light hit the sensor. If you want to take pictures in the bright sun, using a wide aperture, then you will want to purchase a camera that is capable of a fast shutter speed.
ISO simply describes how sensitive the sensor is to light at that particular ISO setting. For example, an ISO of 100 will make the sensor less sensitive to the light hitting it versus an ISO of 6400. If you are shooting on film, the ISO, or sensitivity of the film, is “baked” into the film, whereas with digital it can be changed at the photographer’s whim from picture to picture. As with both digital and analog, typically the lower the ISO, the cleaner and less grainy the image. If you are often taking pictures indoors and in poor lighting conditions, you may want to look for a camera with a larger sensor which can produce a cleaner, less grainy image at any given ISO.
Color science refers to the color preferences that are “baked” into the sensor. Some cameras lean magenta, others a bit green. This isn’t as important if you edit your pictures afterwards on your computer, though, each camera can give you a vastly different starting point. FujiFilm cameras are famous for their color science and offer different color film profiles which give you a beautifully edited picture right out of the camera.
There you have it! This just about covers every term you might run into when shopping for a new camera system and trying to navigate the differences between the numerous options. Now hopefully you can shop with a bit more confidence, and of course, if you run into a term that you don’t understand, you can always ask one of our staff photographers who will be more than happy to help!