With the London 2012 Olympics almost upon us it’s time for the talking to stop and the competition to begin. And, of course, for anyone lucky enough to have tickets it’s also an opportunity to witness sporting history in the making. All the more reason to ensure you’ve got the right camera with you then. Ideally it’ll be something that can keep up with the action and capture great quality images of all the best moments – whether it’s the opening ceremony, the 100m final or the women’s beach volleyball tournament. With that in mind here are four key things to think about when selecting the ideal Olympic camera:
1) Zoom range
While many compacts and superzooms come with fixed zoom lenses that offer a reasonably versatile focal length range, compact system cameras (CSCs) and Digital SLRs use interchangeable lenses that tend to offer much narrower focal ranges. So if you’re looking to buy a DSLR or CSC try to leave enough room in your budget for a telephoto zoom - something like a 70-200mm - otherwise you may well find that your 18-55mm kit zoom ends up making the athletes look more like ants.
As for going with a compact camera of some description, the ones to look out for are the so called ‘travel compacts’ or superzooms. Superzooms do exactly what they say on the tin, although their 30x (and beyond) zooms often result in a camera of almost DSLR-like proportions, without the DSLR image quality. If you want something smaller then a typical travel compact will pack a 20x zoom into a camera not much bigger than a regular pocket compact.
Want to get this close to the action? Make sure you're camera or lens can stretch far enough.
2) Continuous shooting speed
Professional photographers at the Games will almost all be using top-of-the-range DLSRs (primarily Nikon D4 and Canon 1Dx models) with continuous shooting speeds of 10-14fps. While you probably don’t need quite that much speed, having a camera that can record a quick-fire burst of consecutive images could make all the difference between capturing the perfect moment and just missing it.
Given how in sport things tend to happen in the blink of an eye, you’ll ideally want something that can manage around 4-5fps, if not more, at its highest quality setting. There are of course exceptions, although as a rule cameras that use sensors with higher resolutions tend to shoot slower than cameras sporting lower resolution sensors. That said, image processors have come a long way in recent years, with some of the best examples now able to process large file sizes very quickly.
Also look out for cameras, like the Nikon 1 range, that offer a pre-record function where the camera starts taking snaps (or video) before you even press the button.
3) AF performance
Having a camera with speedy AutoFocus performance gives you a much better chance of capturing the moment before it’s gone. If, on the other hand, you’re watching your camera zoom in and out of focus as the AF module struggles to lock on chances are you’ll either miss the action completely or get impatient, press the shutter release before the camera’s properly focused and end up with a set of blurred images. And you really don’t want that.
Because compacts, superzooms and CSCs contain no internal mirror or optical pentaprism they have to use contrast-detect AF technology. Until recently this was considered slower than the phase-detection AF technology employed by DSLRs. In recent years however some CSC manufacturers (we’re thinking primarily of Olympus and Panasonic/Lumix) have challenged this with some very speedy contrast-detect cameras indeed. Sony too has upped the ante with its Single Lens Translucent (SLT) technology that essentially splits the light entering the camera into two with part going to a dedicated AF sensor and part going to the main imaging sensor.
Want to capture the right person at the right moment? You'll need top notch AF performance to do the job.
4) Movie modes
While taking a great photo is still the best way to capture a scene in the most detailed and emotional way, it's only with video that you can truly relive those moments. For this reason you’ll find HD video recording comes as standard on just about all cameras – even budget compacts.
What’s important though is to understand that not all HD is the same, with the lesser 720p HD found on cheaper compacts bettered by 1080p Full HD. Watch out for framerates too; a higher framerate will capture fast action much smoother than a low one.
In addition to HD movie recording, one additional feature that might be worth looking out for is High-speed movie recording. This basically enables you to shoot movies at a super high framerate (think 60, 120, or even 240fps), which can then be played back in slow motion. You do have to compromise on image quality and resolution (often as low as 320 x 240pixels) but if you want to learn the technique secrets of your favourite athletes, there's no better way.
Podium Contenders – Five Cameras To Look Out For
This nifty little travel compact offers a 20x optical zoom and plenty of useful shooting features into a camera body that’s not much bigger than a regular compact.
The HS30 massive 30x optical zoom offers a huge focal range equivalent to 24-720mm in 35mm terms. In addition it also comes with Fuji’s useful EXR exposure modes and High-speed movie recording.
Able to shoot at speeds of up to 60fps the J1’s Hybrid AF system is also one of the fastest around, and you get that pre-rec function. Pair it up with the 30-110mm zoom to get a nice long zoom range.
£1000 with 18-55mm lens
The A77 uses Sony’s pioneering single lens translucent technology to deliver blisteringly fast AF performance and a class-topping 12fps continuous shooting speed. Pair it up with a 200mm telephoto lens and you’ll be snapping like a pro.
The OM-D E5 is a super stylish CSC that comes with a rich feature set and delivers great image quality. In addition, it also offers class-leading AF performance and zippy continuous shooting, so you’ll never miss a moment.