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Camera ponderings - Nathan
September 7th, 2007
06:58 pm
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Camera ponderings
I'm thinking about buying myself a new camera. My current camera is OK (Canon S230), but I think I'd like to move into SLR territory. I know that some of you have done this or researched it, so I'd appreciate some thoughts on the various issues of kitting up.

The biggest question is brand and body. As a SLR newbie, I'm not even in a good position to lust after the more "professional" cameras, or really to have a good sense of the advantages they confer, so I'm definitely thinking of the more amateur/consumer/entry-level models. The Canon Digital Rebel line seems to be the most common among people I know, and I'm certainly familiar with and reasonably happy with their pocket cameras. The obvious thing to do, then, would be to pick up the XTi and be done with it. However, I know that there's the whole rest of the world out there. Are there particular reasons to look - or thoroughly ignore - the lines from Nikon, Pentax, Panasonic, Sony, or others? Recommendations for specific models or lines there would help, since I don't know as much about them (the Nikon D40X seems like the immediate competitor). I don't currently have any lenses, and I'm not aware of a secret stash of great old lenses I'm about to inherit or something.

Next is the lens question. DSLRs all seem to have the option of coming with a stock zoom lens (18-50mm or so) or without it, and I've seen arguments (like this one) that the zoom lens isn't great and a prime lens is better, both in terms of the pictures that result and developing photographic skill. At least in the Canon universe, there's a 50mm f/1.8 that is about the same cost as the stock zoom lens (though reportedly quite fragile), so that's an interesting possibility. Any thoughts on which way is good to go, or if they're cheap enough that one should have both a vanilla zoom and a cheap prime lens? (Also, I'm a bit on how the third-party lens ecosystem works these days - notes about how that affects brand would be helpful). Are there any other "seriously consider this for starting out" lenses, or should I just wait and see?

Flash - I know the least about this area, except that having a "real flash" is supposed to be a serious advantage, but I don't know what the spectrum is like, or what I should be looking for. Any advice here would be helpful. I assume the world has changed enough that the old Focal DA-2000 flash that goes with my old film camera isn't relevant to anything.

Other kit - any other critical accessories I don't know about or don't know the importance of? A spare battery seems key. Lens filters? Hoods? Tripod widgets? (I'm sure the limitations of my current crappy tripod will become quickly apparent if I actually have a reason to use it)

And finally, the reality check. Should I bother? Should I not get into another set of expensive toys of limited utility? This is really a question for the other DSLR owners - has it been worth it, particularly if you haven't set out to Do Photography?

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From:gorgo
Date:September 7th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)
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Thoughts:

I've used a couple of Sony's higher-end digital cameras, and have been pretty disappointed. Their first 8MP "prosumer" camera had a great laser-based focusing system that let it focus very quickly even in complete darkness, but the images it generated weren't impressive. A more recent one I used was disappointingly slow to focus, and not enough smaller than my Canon SLR to really justify ever carrying it. I haven't used their new SLR line, but my previous experience doesn't make me real inclined to try it out.

I've been pretty happy with the Canon DSLRs I've owned. Focus tends to be very fast, pictures are very good, wide range of lenses available. Speed is a big difference I've noticed between the DSLRs and other digital cameras. The DSLRs focus very fast and have enough internal memory to take several shots before they need to wait while data gets written out to the flash card. Depending on what you expect to be photographing, this can be either very important or totally irrelevant. I really like the speed, because I find it very frustrating to miss someone's expression or actions, but if you concentrate on still-lifes you won't care. I haven't used the Nikons, so have no comment there.

Lenses: This is something where opinions vary wildly. I have two of Canon's higher-end zooms, a 35-80 and a 80-300 if I remember the numbers right, and I find that the two of them do a pretty darn good job for the way I use the camera. OTOH, pretty much all of my pictures are taken while traveling, so getting the most flexibility out of the amount of baggage volume I can afford to dedicate to camera stuff is important. Also, I have a much higher tolerance for lugging heavy objects than many people, and big hands, which makes a difference. You can definitely get good lenses cheaper if you go for prime lenses, which may or may not be practical for you depending on where you take pictures. Phil Greenspun's rule of thumb that you should expect to spend several times more on lenses than you do on a camera body seems fairly valid, though.

Flash: IMO, you really want an external flash to get the flash far enough off-axis that you don't get red-eye. Flashes that let you change the angle of the flash are way useful, particularly ones that rotate in two dimensions if you tend to rotate the camera.

Lens filters: I haven't worked much with these, though I keep a simple UV filter on all of my lenses to protect against scratches.
From:gmpe
Date:September 8th, 2007 01:09 am (UTC)
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We found a polarizing filter useful for a lot of outdoor shots.

Since the kids were born, we've mostly stopped using the SLR and have switched to the pocket-sized digital cameras that also take quick videos. Since most of our pictures are "oh, that's so cute! I must get a picture of it right now" types of shots, it's much more convenient. We're no longer doing the planned "this place is going to have some great scenery shots and we should bring the camera and tripod" type events. Oh, we did like the small travel tripods as well as a great camera accessory. There is one now that we got at REI that had segmented bendable legs so you can use it on uneven surfaces and even wrap it around a pole or tree or something. Plus, it's a great fidget toy!

Some stores will let you rent a camera. It might be worth trying out a couple to see what you like and don't like about and SLR in general and about specific ones in particular.
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From:kilroi
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:12 am (UTC)
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Have you had good experiences with the bendy leg one? I keep staring at it, but never quite felt like taking the plunge since I didn't know how well it would work (I mean, I could always return it, but I'd much rather not drop my camera in a river first or something)
From:gmpe
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:20 am (UTC)
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I don't know if we've used it with the SLR, actually. I know it's been handy with the little cameras. We definitely used the other little stiff-legged tripod with the SLR, though, so a tripod, in general is definitely a win.
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From:kilroi
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:23 am (UTC)
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Oh, I've only got a little one :) Thanks!
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From:nathanw
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:36 am (UTC)
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The bendy thing is the Gorillapod or something similar?
From:gmpe
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:47 am (UTC)
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Yeah, that's the one.
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From:avacon
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:46 am (UTC)
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It really depends on what you're taking pictures for and what you enjoy futzing with. The little Canon SDxxx cameras (and Panasonic, etc equivalents) are quite adequate for most purposes of recording memories and can take some impressive photos while being extremely portable. They also have wide zoom ranges that make them useful for 80% of the photos you want to take. Going too high in resolution may not be worth it as the optics won't keep up, however.

If you like gadgets and like futzing with photos and want to take creative pictures or the other 20% of pictures, an SLR has serious advantages (although I'd still keep a P&S around for its portability and sometimes
only bring the P&S for some types of travel).

For SLRs it tends to be fairly religious. The UIs tend to be fairly different such that the Nikon UI makes no sense to Canon people and vice-versa. There seem to be conflicting opinions on which is pulling ahead. More people we know seem to have Canons which can make loaning equipment easier. I have the original Digital Rebel and I'm planning to get the Canon 40D body soon, most likely.

Lens-wise, the 1.6 multiplier on lenses for APS-C is quite annoying for getting something wide enough. The 50mm prime lens just isn't wide enough for most indoor shooting on an APS-C camera. Similarly, even my 28-135mm lens isn't wide enough for some photos (and it makes me sad when a point-and-shoot can get wider photos that I can't get). I still haven't found an affordable walk-around lens that's wide and good enough. Nikon has an 18-200mm lens which would be very nice (but apparently usually out of stock). Right now I use a 70-300mm IS (the Image Stabilizer is really nice/necessary for 300mm), the kit lens (18--55mm), and a 28-135mm IS (my normal walk-around lens). I also have the disposable 50mm prime lens
but don't use it much. I'm thinking of selling by 28-135mm and replacing it with something more like a 18-70mm, however, but there's none that is compelling in terms of quality, price, and range. (Especially since I want a good, sharp, IS, USM, f/2.8 lens with minimal CA/flaring that is around $500. Yeah right. ;)

For accessories, you'll want a UV filter to protect all of your lenses and some will require hoods depending on flare-resistance. For flash, I'd get it after you've played some with the camera. The canon 420EX and 580EX are both nice depending on what you want. You'll also need a camera case. I'm using the Velocity7 which I like for my uses.

One nice thing in the Olympus (and some others) SLRs is that they build the image stabilizer into the body. I believe Sony recently bought (Minolta?) hence there better recent SLRs. I think Panasonic has some too now.

I'm planning to upgrade my camera body soon (original Canon Digital Rebel which is a perfectly decent camera and which I like better in some ways than the newer Rebels). When that happens, I can probably loan it to you with a lens for a few weeks for you to play with to see what you think of SLRs.
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From:katharos
Date:September 8th, 2007 02:51 am (UTC)
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I have an old Nikon D70 which I love. I don't think it matters that much whether you get a Nikon or Canon in terms of image quality, but there are user interface differences, and people with larger hands seem to prefer the grip on the Nikon. You should definitely go to a store and heft the cameras you're thinking about. Also it used to be true that the Nikons had a faster boot time, pretty much instantaneous, but Canons may be faster to turn on than they used to be, it has been a long time since I've looked.

I have a flash, but that was a recent purchase, mostly I prefer available light photography, I think it looks better.

As for lenses, what I carry is one wide range zoom, and one 35mm prime (35mm on a 1.5 crop sensor turns into a 50mm which is a 'normal' lens on a film camera). If you buy a 50mm prime you'll probably find it is too narrow a field of view to leave on all the time. I like my 35mm prime because it is fast, and I like available light photography. Also fast lenses have nice narrow depth of field (since they have wide apertures, the definition of 'fast') which makes them especially nice for portraits. I have other lenses, but those are the ones I use.

What you get isn't important compared to what you do with it though. I think most of the DSLRs take great pictures, but they are big and heavy, and if you aren't going to carry it with you it doesn't matter how nice a picture it takes. :-)

My favorite photo review site is dpreview.com - If you are going to obsess about image quality they do a good job comparing camera bodies with standard tests.

You should get a cheap UV filter for the front of each of your lenses to protect them, unless you are a careful person who never scratches their sunglasses. I'm not, I'm pretty hard on my gear. I have a tripod, but I almost never use it, it lives in the closet, not my bag. I count on a fast lens, leaning against a wall, and pushing the ISO speed up when necessary, and my current zoom lens has optical image stabilization.

Should you bother? Would you consider photography to be one of your hobbies? Do you take lots of pictures, and take the time to catalog them or upload them? Are you happy enough with the image quality on your current camera? I love taking pictures, so for me it was a good investment.
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From:nathanw
Date:September 8th, 2007 03:07 am (UTC)
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Ah, the 35mm/50mm point is a good one. I think that was even at the end of the article I read, but it got swept out somewhere in the flood of information I'm trying to absorb on this subject.

I've been using dpreview for a while, but they're better for specs and particular detail comparisons than a sense of the overall product ecosystem, which seems like the big question for starting out in this space. They do seem to think that both the current Nikon and Canon have nearly-instant (<0.1s) first-shot times, even if it takes the menu and stuff another second to wake up.

And nearly everyone agrees on cheap UV filters. I'm glad that there's consensus on at least one point :)

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From:rifmeister
Date:September 8th, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)
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My personal advice to you, based on what you wrote, but not myself being an expert in photography, is to skip the SLR and go with a newer Canon Powershot, unless you are planning to make photography a quite serious hobby. I argue that not only will you save money, but you are likely to end up with more and better pictures.

Since the S230, point-and-shoots have gotten continuously better at a ridiculous clip. We have an SD700 IS, and it's really an amazing device. The image stabilization really seems to help. The camera is tiny, and it takes fantastic pictures.

What kinds of pictures is an SLR better at? Very low light, long exposure pictures. Extreme action shots, although this requires a lot of skill. Photographing tiny things close up with macro lenses. Landscape shots that you want to blow up to truly enormous sizes. Shots that for whatever other reason require a LOT of control.

Most people don't take these photos anyways. The critical thing about a camera is that you can't take any pictures if you're not carrying it. The powershots take terrific pictures, and they fit in your pocket, and there's nothing to muck with. If you have an SLR but just use the auto settings, you won't really get better much better pictures than with a p&s. If you want to do manual control, you have a lot of learning ahead of you, and it sounds from your post like that's not your goal right now.

You might find this article by Philip Greenspun useful. Also dpreview.com is a great camera review site.
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From:nathanw
Date:September 8th, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC)
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alphacygni has a SD700IS, so I've gotten to use that a fair bit. It's absolutely true that it would save a ton of money to go that direction. However, I've found that even with that and my current camera around, I don't slip them into my pocket unless I'm already planning to take pictures - my cell phone camera has become the "with me at all times" tool, and it's almost as good as my first real digital camera. So I'm not sure if that would really make me take more pictures than I do now. Also, I find myself using the viewfinder more than the LCD on both, and particularly on the SD700 as compared to the S230, the viewfinder is tiny and hard to use. That's part of what has led me to considering SLRs. But you make a good point, and I'll try carrying that around more before I make a decision about creating an entire new accounting category for SLR gadgetry.
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From:alphacygni
Date:September 8th, 2007 04:17 pm (UTC)
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Actually, I've been having a bit of dissatisfaction with my SD700 IS, and I'm wondering if it's just me. Every single picture I've taken with a flash with that camera has been terrible. Absolutely terrible. Worse than I recall flash pictures being on my older digital cameras. Have you noticed that?

On the other hand, with IS, I've been able to take almost everything I wanted without the flash, and those come out great (which begs the question of why the camera thinks the flash should be going off in those cases). But it means I have to remember to turn off the flash every time I turn the camera on (actually, I should see if there's a way to change the default behavior - that would help), and sometimes a great and transient shot that would've been wonderful is ruined by the flash going off.
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From:alphacygni
Date:September 8th, 2007 04:19 pm (UTC)
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The option to have flash off my default does not seem to exist. Grr.
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From:rifmeister
Date:September 8th, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
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I have not found the flash on the 700 IS to be particularly poor, but point and shoot on camera flashes are never good. Can't you just turn off flash by default by pushing the little flash icon on the circular bar (around "Func Set") a couple of times?
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From:alphacygni
Date:September 9th, 2007 04:37 am (UTC)
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Doing that only works until you turn the camera off and then on again. When you do that, it goes back to flash auto.
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