The goal of this tutorial is to take some of the mystery out of choosing a camera. I will be focusing on features needed for getting clean photos specifically to be used in creating films and comics, however, you should end up with a camera that is good for "normal" use like vacations and such as well.
What Kinds of Cameras are there?
There are quite a few different types of cameras available. Most likely anyone reading this has at least one of these and I'm willing to bet most of us have more than one. Before we talk about what to look for in a camera, I'm going to explain the different types and you'll see why the rest of this article will not be focused on the first three in this list.
What does that leave us with?
Well, now we have "Compact", "Advanced Compact" and "dSLR". In all honesty, if you can't afford at least a "Compact" camera, you should really start a plan to save the money for one. Anything lower than that will just mean you have to work harder and will most likely never get to the quality of photos that you want. It's a harsh reality, but sometimes we must spend money on the gear.
Let's have a look at price ranges, they vary quite a bit depending on brand and features. It's going to be up to you to decide what features and price you are willing to handle. I'll be covering the most important features after this. I'm covering price first because if you don't decide on at least a price range first, you may get stuck in trying to get the "best" and end up not buying anything at all.
I do want to make one thing very clear: Do Not Buy Based on Brand. No brand is worth your loyalty, you need to pick a camera with the features, feel, and price point for YOU not because your friends use Canon or you use to have a Sony or you heard Nikon is the best from Ashton Kutcher.
Let's Talk Features
Photographing for either Brick Flicks or Comics all comes down to taking still images of LEGO scenes. Luckily that means we don't have to consider different features for each thing. Right, so there are a lot of features of modern digital cameras. I'm going to create this list with the "Most Important" features for our purposes at the top, moving down to the "Least Important". I will not cover every possible feature of a camera because, honestly, most features that are hyped by advertisers do not matter at all for what we are doing here.
When considering cameras, you can find most of these feature details for the camera on Digital Photography Review as well as staff and user reviews, sample photos, and lots of comments.
Number One, you need to be able to turn off the flash. A bare flash with LEGO elements always results in sub-par photos. Having a "hot shoe" is also very helpful for adding an external flash and for other uses such as holding "flags" and "reflectors".
Unless you really enjoy cropping photos, you'll want to get close to your figures. Take a look at the "minimum focus distance" in the features list for the camera you are considering. The smaller the better, I would stay away from anything over 10 inches though.
Most of these types of cameras will have a manual mode of some sort, but not all are created equal. If the controls for manual aperture and shutter are buried in menus, stay away from the camera. You will have nothing but frustrations with these, it's much better if you can find a camera with these controls on a dial or a combination of dials. One of the other things to look for is true manual control for ISO, which should always be set at it's lowest setting but auto mode likes to set it high). Being able to control the aperture and shutter and ISO manually is also very important for getting a consistent image and avoiding "blinkies" when editing your images together in an animation.
This can be handled a few different ways. With anything under dSLR, it is unlikely you'll get a true manual focus (like manual on the lens or even choosing a very precise focus point). However, some advanced compact cameras do have the ability to choose a focus point. This is very useful because (as discussed in the Depth of Field lesson) sometimes we want to give focus to only one item in the scene and we don't want to always have that object in the dead center of the frame or the "closest" to the camera. When looking up specs for the camera, look for keywords like "Manual Focus", "Multipoint Focus", and "Selective single-point" (the last one is the very best).
With a dSLR, you'll be able to put filters right on the lens. This can be very useful for in-camera effects (like using a star filter) and for corrections (such as Circular Polarizer). The more you can do in-camera, the less you have to fight with in editing. For compact and advanced compact cameras, the manual and tech specs should tell you if it is possible to use filters - usually this will require an adapter collar (sometimes even included with the camera).
This is dangerous ground. It's a huge selling point for many cameras, touting more and more MP. The thing is that the size of the sensor isn't getting any bigger, so they are cramming more and more pixels on the same size sensor. What does this mean to you? It means that the more pixels that are packed on that tiny sensor, the more likely you are to get "noise" or "grain" in your images. When looking at the reviews for the camera you are considering, take a close look at the "High ISO" and "ISO" performance, there are usually 100% crop images in this section of the review. The thing you want to understand about noise in your images is that it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get a clean background removal. So if you want to drop in a digital background, something like that, you'll need to start with the cleanest photo possible.
Another thing to consider with MP is that for this type of work you don't really need more than 8MP. For the most part, we are only displaying these things online and even then they are cropped down to no more than 1MP in actual use (not always, but usually). Even if you were printing a page of your comic, you are still looking at each image in the page being very small relatively speaking.
The ability to mount your camera on a tripod is extremely helpful, especially in the case of animations. I'd say most of the cameras in this range will have a tripod mount, but if it comes down to one that does and one that doesn't, pick the one that does even if it costs a bit more.
Well that about covers the features that are important for our purposes. It will take some research to find the right camera, but if you take the time to do it right you will be much happier. The more work you can get done in camera the better. I'd rather spend 30 minutes setting up a shot and 5 minutes in post to crop it than spend 5 minutes setting up a shot and 2 hours in post fixing it, but that does take a camera with certain minimum of features.
If you have any questions regarding this tutorial, please ask in the Q&A thread.