Digigraphica

Picking the Right Viewfinder Camera

Lenses and Lens Speed

Dan Knight - September 2002, revised

Know Your Style

The most important thing in choosing a viewfinder camera is knowing your style. Do you want to take wide vistas, shoot outdoor sports, or just make snapshots at the next family reunion? And do you want the camera to do all the work for you, or do you want to be able to make your own settings?

Most of you will pick a compact, modestly priced, autoexposure, autofocus, autowind, autorewind, autoflash film camera, although the selection had declined in recent years due to digital photography. They're incredibly convenient and do a very nice job, especially in good light, and most include a zoom lens that lets you crop your pictures right in the camera.

A minority of you will want something more serious and less automatic, such as a Leica rangefinder or Contax autofocus model with interchangeable lenses. We'll cover those later on, but for now we're concentrating on point-and-shoot models.

Point-and-Shoot

Some people use the term point-and-shoot disparagingly, and in comparison to the more sophisticated SLR cameras, they are much simpler to operate. However, the point-and-shoot models go after a different market, people who are primarily interested in taking a picture to capture a memory, and these compact viewfinder cameras excel for that kind of photography.

Point-and-shoot cameras run the range from single-use cameras with absolutely no options to models with long zooms, remote controls, and red-eye reduction.

All About Lenses

The most important part of the camera is the lens. These range from inexpensive all-plastic lenses in disposable cameras to complex zooms and moderately fast lenses for poor light.

Focal Length

The "normal" lens on a 35mm SLR camera is 50mm, but on point-and-shoot models, a lens in the 35-40mm range is pretty typical. Benefits of the shorter lens include greater coverage, less critical focus, and more compact size. Back in the day of "guess focus" cameras, which have pretty much vanished these days, it wasn't uncommon to have a viewfinder camera with three focus settings: really far away, about 10', and 5' or so.

You'll find most disposable cameras make no mention of focal length. There have been a few wide-angle and tele models over the years, but focal length is generally not an issue.

When we look at zoom lenses, the emphasis seems to be on zoom range (2x, 3x, etc.) and maximum reach, and those longer focal lengths are pretty good for shooting outdoor sports. In fact, you'll find the vast majority of model numbers tie into the longest focal length the camera offers. That has its place, and in general the greater the zoom range, the more versatile the camera will be.

What the focus on zoom range and maximum focal length ignores is the short end - just how wide an expanse can you take in? Even more important, when taking photos indoors, how much of the room or group of people can you fit into the picture?

The way I look at it, the short end is the more important end. You can often zoom in on part of a picture when you print it if you couldn't get close enough, but you can't put more into a photo than was there when you shot it. Because of this, I tend to recommend zooms that offer wider coverage on the low end instead of pushing for more reach on the top end.

Looking at specific models (Sept. 2002), the Canon SureShot Z90W; Fujifilm Zoom Date 1000 and 1300; Konica Lexio 70; Minolta FX Explorer EX; Olympus Stylus Zoom 80 Wide DLX; Pentax IQ Zoom 928, 105SW, and 120SW; Rollei Prego 100WA and Giro 70WA; Samsung Evoca 90W Neo QD; and Yashica Zoomate 110W offer 28mm coverage at the short end, which is much better than the 38mm short end on the vast majority of 35mm point-and-shoot cameras. The Fuji 1000 and Pentax 105 are personal favorites.

The long end for point-and-shoot models is 200mm, but if you need that much reach, you really should be looking at a 35mm SLR camera for more precise framing, faster and more accurate focus, lots more lens options, and better lens speed. In fact, if you think you need more than about 120-130mm of reach, you'd probably be better served by an Olympus IS-5 Deluxe (or IS-50) or a full-fledged SLR with a 28-200 or 28-300 zoom.

Lens Speed

We've mentioned lens speed in passing. Sometimes called an aperture or f-stop, this number indicates how much light the lens transmits.

An aperture is an opening. The larger the aperture, the more light goes through it, whether we're dealing with a window or a camera lens. All things being equal, a larger opening will let you shoot at a higher shutter speed, thus stopping action and reducing camera shake. A smaller aperture will provide a greater range of sharpness (depth of field) in your photograph but require a slower shutter speed.

Here's where it gets confusing: The smaller the f-stop, the larger the aperture. That's because the f-stop (which could be marked as f/3.5, f:3.5, or 1:3.5) is a ratio between the diameter of the opening and the focal length of the lens. This is a reciprocal - the smaller the number, the wider the opening.

Further, because the aperture is two dimensional, to double the amount of light allowed through it, the diameter must increase by the square root of 2 (approximately 1.4). This explains the f-stop scale: 2.0, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, etc.

You'll see other f-stop numbers that are usually often the halfway point between full f-stop settings, such as f/2.4, 3.5, 4.5, 6.3, etc. These are generally called half-stops.

F-stops are simple math, but they tend to trip up new users. Just remember that the numbers seem backwards - a smaller number means a bigger opening and lets through more light - and you've go the most important concept down.

Unless you're looking at a point-and-shoot 35mm camera that doesn't have a zoom lens, you're not going to see apertures like f/2.4 or 2.8. Although it wasn't uncommon to find rangefinder models in the 1970s with f/1.7 or 1.8 lenses (old timers will remember that Kodacolor was an 80 speed print film), the advent of autofocus, zoom lenses, and faster films pretty much wiped out point-and-shoot models with good low light capabilities.

The zoom lenses on today's autofocus point-and-shoots may be as fast as f/3.5 on the short end - or as slow as f/7. As these lenses zoom out, they transmit even less light, so they may be anywhere from f/7.6 to f/13.8 at maximum zoom.

There are many reasons for this, but mostly it boils down to cost. It's less costly to build a slower lens, and the autofocus system doesn't have to be as precise with slower lenses because they have greater depth of field (the range of sharpness in your photo). Further, it's easier to market zoom range, maximum reach, compact size, and price than lens speed.

You'll generally find the literature on point-and-shoot cameras makes little (if any) mention of lens speed, and you'll typically find camera sales staff pretty uninformed on this topic. The emphasis will be on the lens coverage; lens speed may never be mentioned.

I'm indebted to Popular Photography's annual roundup of autofocus point-and-shoot models for clearly noting details such as lens speed and shutter speed range, which is a topic we'll be covering soon.

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