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Photographic Image Quality:
Equipment comparison

Whether you are looking for your first camera or your 20th, it's a confusing task. The manufacturers and their advertising agencies don't help—major camera series frequently have counter-intuitive names, and this year's flagship "Mark II" model is sure to be replaced within a year by an "improved" (more expensive) Mark III. With one exception, I've purposely excluded specific model names from this discussion.

My advice: study the major online retailers' Web sites. Read online reviews of equipment that interests you. This is just to see what's available now, and to narrow your alternates to a reasonable number. Then take your short list to the local bricks-and-mortar store expert to talk about what's best for you. And please, as I said on the first page, purchase it locally (even if they have to order it for you).

All of these systems will produce excellent quality images. Working on the latest 27" iMac, with its ultra-high-resolution screen, I can't see much difference between them—from the highest-end FF to the compact ultra-zoom—until I enlarge even the enlargement. See for yourself by clicking the "High resolution" button under each picture.

Full frame

Baldwin 2-6-2 locomotive
(image opens in new large window) • Baldwin 2-6-2, Orange Empire Railway Museum, Perris CA, 2010.

Until recently, almost all digital full frame cameras used the single-lens reflex (DSLR) design, with a mirror sending the image to an optical viewfinder and popping up out of the sensor's way when the shutter was pressed. After Sony introduced a mirrorless version (with electronic viewfinder), Canon, Nikon, and most other manufacturers have followed suit. It now seems likely that the DSLR will appeal to a smaller and more specialized audience. (I've used both.)

What's to like: Spectacular giant prints. Huge selection of high quality lenses, including special-purpose ones such as tilt-shift and macro. Mirrorless bodies nearly the same size and weight of MFT. Designed for professional use; some models weather-resistent.

What's not so much to like: Expensive bodies and lenses. Large, heavy lenses (needed for large sensor). Larger, heavier SLR bodies.

Micro four-thirds

Fiesta Noche dancers
(image opens in new large window) • Fiesta Noche del Rio, San Antonio TX, 2013

Only Olympus and Panasonic offer MFT systems (all mirrorless); lenses are interchangeable between them with some differences in image stabilization. Camera bodies are available in "SLR-like" form (viewfinder pyramid at top), or smaller rectangular form. I've purposely skipped over APS-C sensor cameras here, since they fall in between FF and MFT, with no clear advantage over either one.

What's to like: Small, fast, sharp prime lenses. Pro-level (constant max aperture) zooms at half the size, weight, and cost of FF equivalent. Flip-up-and-down LCD screen. Ultra-sharp prints to 18"×24" or more.

What's not so much to like: Smaller rectangular models not as capable as SLR style. Cheaper zooms (variable max aperture) not as sharp.

Compact ultra-zoom

Campus pool wide view
FF=24mm, lens at its widest setting.

Campus pool telephoto view
FF=720mm, from same spot, longest setting.

Both images taken at the student center of CSU Long Beach; hand-held but steadied against a stairway railing. There are so many cameras in this class, with so many variations in physical size, zoom range, and other features, that I'll identify this one specifically as the Sony DSC-HX90V. (It took a lot of comparison shopping to find it.)

What's to like: Literally fits in your jacket pocket. Amazing zoom range. Excellent prints at 8"×10".

What's not so much to like: Tiny, hard-to-use control buttons on back.

Mobile phones

Wayne at the computer
• Prof. Wayne Dick with large text on screen

John rafting
• From Facebook, thanks to John Sweet (at right)

This technology is moving so quickly, and competition is so fierce, that any description of mobile phone cameras will be outdated before it's written.

What's to like: Always with you. In-camera editing. Easy to share images on social media. High quality images for the Internet.

What's not so much to like: Can be hard to hold steady. Can be hard to see screen in bright light. Not as useful in low light (except for some very recent models).