The Right Digital Camera for the

With all the digital camera choices available on the market now, which one is best for the nature photographer? To be honest, there really isn't a correct answer. Just like film cameras, digital cameras come in all sorts of flavors, and your personal tastes will dictate a lot of the choices you'll make. There are professionals out there who will only work with high-end professional digital cameras, such as the Canon EOS IDs Mark II with its speed of four frames per second (4 fps) and its full-frame 1 6.7-megapixel sensor, while others are happy with compact digital "point and shoot" cameras.

Other nature photographers, like me, use a number of different digital cameras. I carry into the field my digital SLR and accompanying lenses, plus a compact digital camera. Actually, I like the idea of carrying a compact digital camera everywhere I go. Additionally, a small "pocketable" compact, such as the Nikon Coolpix 7900 digital camera, gives you the ability to shoot some great macro shots, which is something I do often while I'm out shooting other nature scenes. I carry this camera wherever I go, shooting nature or just as an everyday walking-around camera.

Some high-end users and professional nature photographers will only shoot with professional equipment, such as the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II.
Carrying a small, compact digital camera, such as the Nikon Coolpix 7900, has its advantages, like shooting great macro images. These high-quality compact digital cameras boast great lenses and adequate megapixel sensors, and they're a great everyday carry-around camera.

Before graduating to digital SLRs, I used prosumer (professional-consumer grade) digital cameras. A prosumer digital camera contains excellent wide-angle-to-zoom lenses and equally excellent image sensors. These prosumer models just keep getting better, with many models now including vibration reduction, which allows you to take sharp photos by eliminating vibration when you're taking the picture. Examples of these "all-in-one" cameras are the Nikon Coolpix 8800, the Canon PowerShot Pro1, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30. Recent models of this class of cameras come equipped with professional-quality lenses, vibration reduction (on some models), and 8-megapixel sensors or larger.

The fastest growing segment of digital cameras is the now-affordable digital SLR. In the past few years, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, and Sigma have all come out with their versions of the digital SLR. Only a few years ago, purchasing a digital SLR wasn't within the reach of most hobbyists or advanced amateurs. The digital SLRs on the market were only aimed at the professional, with price tags matching those of gas-guzzling SUVs. Now for the same price as the top prosumer models, you can obtain a digital SLR with a lens.

Prosumer digital cameras offer all-in-one packages that include highmegapixel sensors, vibration reduction, and wide-angle telephoto lenses. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 offers an 8-megapixel sensor with an excellent Leica 35mm to 420mm lens with MEGA Optical Image Stabilizer, a great combo for nature and wildlife photographers.

Prosumer digital cameras offer all-in-one packages that include highmegapixel sensors, vibration reduction, and wide-angle telephoto lenses. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 offers an 8-megapixel sensor with an excellent Leica 35mm to 420mm lens with MEGA Optical Image Stabilizer, a great combo for nature and wildlife photographers.

The Nikon D50 with a kit lens costs about the same as many compact or prosumer digital cameras. Digital SLRs are becoming more and more affordable to nature photographers who want to upgrade.

Digital SLRs appeal to film shooters who have already invested in lenses for their particular models. Purchasing a digital SLR from the same manufacturer as your film system makes sense because you can still use the lenses in which you have invested. When choosing a digital SLR, keep in mind that you are also locking yourself into a "system," because each manufacturer has proprietary lenses and accessories that only work on their brand of camera.

Besides impressing friends and other photographers, advantages to a digital SLR include:

■ Interchangeability of lenses and accessories. When you buy into a digital SLR, you're buying into a system. If you already own a Nikon F100 film SLR, the lenses and accessories you already have will probably work on your new Nikon digital SLR. In turn, when you purchase a new digital SLR, any lenses or accessories you purchase along with it will probably be compatible with additional digital SLRs you might purchase from the same manufacturer in the future. Many professional nature photographers who used Canon or Nikon film SLRs have remained loyal to the same manufacturers for their digital equipment, mainly because of the thousands of dollars worth of lenses they had already invested in that manufacturer's system.

Additionally, for nature photographers, nothing can beat the effects you can get from interchangeable lenses. The quality and range of lenses manufactured for SLRs often can't be duplicated in a compact or prosumer digital camera. Yes, you can get consistent excellent results with these digital cameras, but the advantage and quality of choices in a digital SLR lens lineup can be noticeable in the images a knowledgeable photographer can produce with good gear.

■ Better image quality. Digital SLRs often come equipped with advanced image sensors, often physically larger than those found in compact digital cameras. The result of having larger image sensors is that the manufacturer isn't "cramming" pixels into a smaller space like with their compact digital counterparts. For instance, a six-megapixel sensor on a digital SLR is physically larger than a six-megapixel sensor on a compact digital camera. The result of larger sensors is sharper images with less image noise and "blooming," an effect of purple fringing in detail areas of images.

■ Lens crop factor. On many digital SLRs, you have an effect of lens cropping. Lens cropping occurs when you have a lens on a film SLR that's rated at 200mm, but when you use it on a digital SLR, it becomes a 300mm lens! The crop factor occurs because the image sensor is smaller than a 35mm frame, thus the image is focused into a smaller area, resulting in better reach of your telephoto lenses. The downside is that you lose crop factor on the wide-angle end of the lens range. A 20mm wide-angle lens on a film camera would have the effect of a 30mm lens on a digital SLR with a 1.5x crop factor. Some digital SLRs—high-end models such as the Canon EOS 1 Ds Mark II—have full-frame image sensors with no crop factor at all. The image sensor is so large that it's the same size as its 35mm film frame!

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