|The Nikon F4s - what I consider one of the most ergonomic, easy to use and rugged cameras ever designed. It was a sheer joy to use and even ended up being my primary body when shooting film, despite owning a Nikon F100 (image from Wikipedia)
One of the reasons why sites like DPReview publish images of cameras being held is that buyers can get an idea as to size of a camera. Despite these images though, first time photographers are often still taken by surprise when they first pick a full-sized DSLR. They're positively bowled over when they pick up a pro-level DSLR like the Canon 1Dx. As I mentioned in the previous post, size becomes a strong considering point when deciding on camera. The more physical controls and function that a camera has, along with the size of the sensor are going to play a role in the final heft and girth of the camera you have to work with.
After the actual physical weight, comes the problem with actual ruggedness, or lack thereof on a great many cameras. The Canon xxxD series of camera does not fill me with confidence when it comes to camera strength and the ability to withstand the elements. In the same vein I'm skeptical of the actual ruggedness of a number of the new mirrorless cameras. Creating a rugged camera costs money, so when you buy at the lower end of the price spectrum, the body materials and weather-sealing are probably going to have suffered to keep the cost price low.
|The Pentax K-30 - a mid level fully weather-sealed camera
Build quality, needless to say, also takes into consideration the actual materials used in the construction of the camera. Magnesium allow and metals obviously make for a sturdy camera, albeit at the expense of weight. Lighter plastic composites are cheaper to manufacturer (thereby bringing the price of the camera down) but aren't necessarily as robust as their metal counterparts. There is a fallacy though that plastic cameras can't be strong. Tell that to soldiers who these days wear plastic composite helmets (Kevlar, or Poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, is a super-strong plastic basically)! Sadly, few reviewers now refer to the actual materials used in construction. At the very least though, look to see whether the camera is 'environmentally sealed' - a nice way to say that the buttons and wheels have a rubber gasket to stop ingress of water and dust (I saw a Canon 500D die purely from condensation once, and a Nikon D80 with condensation stains behind the anti-alias filter, so it's not a trivial feature).
Nikon have recently also launched the AW-1 which is basically a mirrorless J-3 camera in a a really tough waterproof shell. The camera is drop-proof and fully submersible. If 'go anywhere ruggedness' is what you crave this is the camera for you at the moment. The downside of course is small sensor, low megapixel count, no direct viewfinder (electronic or optical) and a very basic set of entry-level specifications and controls (no direct PASM for a start).
The cynic in me sees this as a clever marketing ploy. You get into photography with your entry-level DSLR, then become increasingly frustrated as you discover that the control layout slows you down, so you plump for a more expensive model which has more direct controls. Now look at Fujifilm. All their current interchangeable lens cameras have twin dials, and even a separate control for the ISO. Now look at the kind of cult status that Fuji seem to be achieving amongst their users (I don't confuse cult status with being good or commercially successful or even viable incidentally - Fujifilm is nowhere near breaking the Canikon duopoly, but their users are on a whole new level of devoted).
About that PSAM. For those new to photography these are the core modes of the camera, standing for Programme, Shutter Speed Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual Mode. A camera without these modes will not allow full user control of the image capture. A dedicated dial or button for these modes is also extremely useful. One of the biggest shortfalls with some of Nikon's 1 series mirrorless cameras is that you can only access the PSAM modes through the menu system. This is not conducive for in-the-spur-of-the-moment capture. A user-friendly design allows near instant selection without the headache of multiple button pushes.
|The Canon 550D - entry level camera with light plastic body, direct access to modes, but not all core functions. Advantage of a lower price though.
At a glance, these are the things that concern me when selecting a camera:
- How does it feel in the hand - is it comfortable to hold and operate?
- Does it have direct access to the core functions and controls that I require for my style of shooting?
- Is it capable of withstanding the type of abuse that I am likely to throw at it?
- Can I justify the cost for the features that I would like/require/need?
If you are serious about getting into photography, be careful about what the camera feels like in the hand and how it will stand up to what you have to throw at it. Despite all the new cameras out there, take a long hard look at what you need, and potentially consider the used market for an older higher level camera than an out of the box entry-level camera.
Read part II of choosing a camera at: To see or not to see, the viewfinder is the question Part 2 of selecting a new camera