Photography? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink…

I’ve never considered myself a photographer, but I’ve always carried a camera when I’ve been out walking and I’ve generally been quite happy with quality of the shots I’ve taken over the years. I tend to end up getting one or two good shots out of every 100 I take. Not a great rate of return when you think about it.

So I’ve decided to start taking things a bit more seriously. Andy Howell’s recent photography project is an interesting read on this topic and it did stir some ambition in me to improve on my current level of competence.

I really enjoy looking back over the pictures of a walk and it’s one of the first things I do when I get back home; sometime even before the shower! I connect the camera up to the PC and download the pictures into Picassa. Normally there’s about 100 shots for a regular day walk – unless it’s been raining in which case there’s generally a lot less or if it’s been a particularly great day in which case there may be 200. Like I said, the disappointment kicks in when I find I’ve only got one or two great looking photos out of these and often I have no exceptional (in my eyes) shots at all.

So the first step was to find a half-way decent camera that I could happily carry about the hills and wouldn’t weigh me down, but at the same time would grow with me as my competence develops. It therefore had to have excellent auto features, but also provide me with full manual controls when I know what they all do. It also had to have a good long zoom and reasonably good battery life. Budget wasn’t a huge issue, but it had to represent good value for money.

Like everything I buy I researched the arse out of it – I’ve spent over 20 hours off an on over the past few days looking at different models, comparing features and prices, reading reviews and looking at hundreds of sample pictures on dozens of web sites. I initially discounted Digital SLR camera on the basis of price and weight, although these may provide the most flexibility and the most future proofing I didn’t feel they provided the necessary value for money and they are generally much heavier than non-SLR models. I also discounted 99% of the compact cameras on the basis of their zoom capability and their lack of manual controls.

This left me with camera in the “super-zoom” or “hybrid” range, their name depends on which sites you look at. These look like DSLRs but they have a fixed lens and are generally a bit smaller, lighter and have a smaller CCD. Consequently they are much cheaper than DSLRs. My shortlist came down to three different models;

Olympus SP-560UZ
Panasonic DMC-FZ18
Canon Powershot S5 IS

All had their good points and all had their bad points – it was difficult to tell which would suit me best. So I decided to speak to an expert. There’s only so far you can go with Internet research and I also wanted to see how they felt in my hands – so I toddled off to the local camera shop.

As usual you have to dodge your way past the shop junior, left at the front of shop to weed out the time-wasters – and head for the older guys at the back. Slight digression here – I felt a lot like the old guy who goes into the Hi-Fi shop in the Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch and asks for a gramophone! I was half expecting the knowing winks to pass between the assistants and the technical babble to begin – but it didn’t – which was nice.

Anyway, I told the guy what my criteria was; long zoom, light weight, good auto and manual controls etc and he held up a hand half way through my list and pulled out a Panasonic FZ28 – the replacement model to the one I had on my shortlist. He whizzed through the feature set and professed it to be one of the best cameras on the market at the moment and the best in its class. I asked him the candid question that we all think, but often don’t ask – namely “Is this the *best* camera because it’s what you’ve got in stock, or is this in stock because it’s the best camera?”. He explained that as they were a small business, he couldn’t afford to stock every type of camera and had to choose his stock very carefully – he only stocks what he considers to be quality items in each range. Good answer!

To be fair, he had the Canon in stock too, but he wasn’t very flattering about the Olympus and he didn’t stock any of their cameras. I spent about an hour in the shop trying them both and the Panasonic was streets ahead in terms of how it felt in the hand and how the buttons were located. I loved it. I made excuses about looking at other brands and left, with the full intention of going home and ordering it as cheap as possible on the web.

Mr Camera was selling it for £280 (about £60 off list price) and I managed to track it down for £240 on the web – not a bad saving for 10 minutes on Google. But then I started to feel a little guilty (not like me at all), the guy had spent an hour with me talking me through the pros and cons of the devices and it felt wrong to cut him out of the deal. But £40 is £40 – that pays for the carry case and a memory card or two – not to be sniffed at surely?

I rang Mr Camera and asked him what was the best possible deal he could do me – I explained I’d found it £40 cheaper and he said that was about right for an internet deal. He offered me £15 discount on his price, which made the difference only £25 – much more palatable. And to cut a long story short(ish) I returned to the shop and bought it. I rationalised that if everyone went to these places for advice, but never bought anything there, how long could they stay in business? The guy was very grateful – so much so that I felt embarrassed, but pleased. I left the shop with a quality camera and a warm rosy glow.

I’ve ordered the bag and two memory cards and a spare battery from Amazon – the guy in the shop was nearly £70 more expensive on those four items! He makes much better margin on accessories, but he wouldn’t move much on them. But we both ended up happy in the end.

I am now the proud owner of more camera that I can handle, a 150 page manual that I’m already bored of reading and a mammoth task ahead of me to get more au-fait with this one that I did with the compact I bought three years ago.

Here’s a picture of what I bought:


I’ll let you know how the first outing goes with it – probably at the weekend – unless the weather is awful in which case it’s staying in the house safe and sound 🙂

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