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Parenting the camera was never ever "required", it just simplifies and facilitates specific camera animation types. Any basic rigging tutorial for 3D programs teaches you that. The magic word is "gimbal lock" (and how to avoid it by building hierarchies to decouple rotations).
ok, I'm going to have to google that up a bit;
I wonder if turning off auto-orientation for the camera may help with some of these issues? would this eliminate the need to use a null parent?
I always think of the camera in AE as I would think of a camera in the real world. If you're going to film large heavy things, then it's easier to mover the camera. If you are dealing with actors that have some kind of business to do, it's easier to move the actors. On a set, things get very complicated very quickly when you move both the actors and the camera. This takes careful blocking and rehearsals. If I'm on a set with actors that are moving and a camera that's moving I always try and get the camera on a dolly, jib, or crane. That's what you're doing when you attach AE's camera to a null. You've essentially put it on a dolly and it's much easier to get it to point where you want it to point when you want it to point there than if you just move the camera around on it's own and try and adjust the point of interest or rotation/orientation values. It's easier because the movement of the camera is separated from where the camera is pointed.
It's exactly the same in AE. If you are doing something like a dynamic text animation, or a video wall, (a bunch of heavy things that are hard to move around) then it's easiest to set all of your elements on the stage and move the camera. If you are just flying in a title or a logo then it's easier to animate the actor (the logo or title). The most efficient way to handle the camera depends entirely on the design.
If you're doing 3d tracking to add a CGI element to the scene then you let the 3d tracking software give you the camera movement, you place your walls, masks, and other CGI elements as 3D layers arranged in the same relative space as your tracked scene, then, if you've done all the right production planning, and you know what you're doing, you animate your actor (logo, text, other layer) so that looks right.