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17Apr/09Off

"What Camera to Buy?" — A guide on choosing a D-SLR

Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Choosing the right camera to buy for yourself might seem like a difficult task, but is shouldn't be. Yes, there are a lot of options out there (which is a good thing), but with a little thought about your shooting style and needs, you'll be able to buy a camera and lens(es) that perfectly suit you.

Before we start, first let me say this: for the most part, the quality of the pictures is not the main difference between less expensive and more expensive cameras. More expensive cameras do not necessarily take better pictures. The primary difference between less expensive and more expensive cameras is the physical camera body and controls (knobs and buttons), as well as performance, which I'll talk about in this article. The #1 factor affecting picture quality for ANY camera is the quality of your lenses... not the camera. But we'll get to that in a moment...

So you're about to purchase your first Digital SLR camera, or are upgrading to a more advanced model. Firstly, congratulations. You're about to take your photography to a whole new level. DSLRs enable you to be creative in your pictures in a way that compact cameras and those without manual controls can't match. It may take some time to learn how to use your new DSLR, but the photos in the end will be well worth the effort.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

So where do you start as you decide what camera to buy? It's worth understanding the various "categories" of DSLRs. These categories generally apply to most camera brands. For this discussion, I'll use Canon in my examples, but they apply to Nikon and other brands as well.

For many brands, there are three main categories of cameras they produce (sometimes four, I'll explain that later). The primary categories are consumer, prosumer, and pro.

The first thing you should know is that all cameras in each of the categories take outstanding photos. Modern DSLRs are fantastic, and are getting better every day. Even the least expensive DSLR will take great pictures, and better than any compact camera could take. This is because the sensor in DSLRs is far larger than the sensor in compact cameras. The sensor is the chip that records the image (the equivalent of the piece of film in a film camera). Without getting into the technical details, just know that all other things being equal, the larger the sensor, the better the picture quality, especially in low light or at night. DSLRs have a significantly larger sensor than compacts.

So what's the difference between the consumer, prosumer, and pro cameras?

The "primary" difference between the three categories is the design of the camera body and controls, and the durability / ruggedness / weatherproofing of the body. That's not to say there aren't important differences that can affect picture quality -- there are. But the "primary" difference is the body.

Consumer-level cameras are the least expensive cameras in a brand's line, but don't be persuaded into believing they aren't great cameras. They are capable of taking extraordinary images. These cameras generally have smaller bodies, made of lighter material. In Canon's lineup, these cameras include the Rebel T2i / XSi /Xs (known in other countries as the 550D / 450D, etc.) In Nikon's line-up, we're talking about cameras like the D3100, D5000, D90, etc. The sensor in these cameras is often very similar or almost identical to the sensors used in the brand's more expensive cameras. That means they can take pictures that look pretty much exactly the same. Because the bodies are small and light, they are great for traveling. They're also good for people with smaller hands. Because they're lighter, they're less intimidating and easier to get used to for photographers transitioning from a compact camera. What they generally lack is the ruggedness of some of the more expensive cameras. The cameras in the brand's prosumer and pro line are built from heavier and more sturdy material, which makes them more suitable for challenging shooting conditions. Because the consumer cameras are smaller, they also lack some of the dedicated physical controls, knobs, and buttons that appear on other cameras, simply because there is no room on the back of the camera to put them. For instance, on the prosumer and pro lines, there is a dedicated wheel to change the shutter speed, and another dedicated wheel to change the aperture. On the consumer cameras, there is only one wheel and it is shared for both functions: the wheel controls shutter speed and you have to press and hold a separate button to use the same wheel to change the aperture. Because there are fewer dedicated controls, you often have to rely on navigating through on-screen menus to change settings. This actually appeals to many people, who are comfortable navigating menus and are used to using them from compact cameras. On the other hand, it is a slower process, and if you need to respond quickly to changing situations while you're shooting, having dedicated controls makes it easier. Because they are light, the consumer models may feel unbalanced if you buy heavier pro-grade lenses. The camera can feel a bit "front-heavy" when you use one of these lenses. There are other differences between the three categories that are separate from the body. These differences can broadly be categorized as "performance". For example, the autofocus speed and sensitivity (how easily it focuses on a subject), the number of autofocus points, the burst speed (the number of pictures that can be taken per second), and the burst depth (the number of pictures that can be taken in a row before the camera needs to "take a break" to pause and process the images it just took). In consumer cameras, for example, there might be nine autofocus points, and the camera can take pictures at three per second for a total of nine shots. The pro cameras might have as many as 45 autofocus points, and can take photos at ten per second. Cost-wise, consumer level cameras are "very generally" in the area of U.S. $500-900.

The next step up from the consumer-level cameras is the prosumer category. The prosumer category sits between the "consumer" and "pro" categories, thus the name "prosumer". In Canon's line-up, the prosumer category consists of cameras like the 60D and 7D. In Nikon's line-up, it's cameras like the D300s. This is the category that many professionals use, from wedding photographers to landscapers. The prosumer cameras are generally significantly larger and heavier than the consumer models. They are sturdier and more rugged in order to handle the knocks of professional use, and are more tightly sealed against the elements. As described earlier, their larger size allows there to be more dedicated knobs, buttons, and control wheels, allowing you to quickly change settings in the field under rapidly changing photo situations. Because they are heavier and solid, they feel well balanced with the heavier pro-grade lenses. Performance-wise, they are generally more advanced and may have advantages such as greater burst speed. For example, the consumer-level Canon Rebel XSi shoots at 3.5 fps (frames per second) for 9 consecutive RAW files while the prosumer-level Canon 50D shoots at 6.3 fps for 16 consecutive RAW files. As far as image quality, the sensors used in the prosumer models are often very similar to the consumer models, so the images are quite comparable. Cost-wise, prosumer level cameras are "very generally" in the area of U.S. $900-2000.

The next step up and "top of the line" are the pro bodies. In Canon's line-up, these are currently the 1Ds Mark III and the 1D Mark IV. In Nikon's line-up, these are the D3S and D3X. These are the brands' flagships and are built extremely ruggedly to withstand the harshest conditions a pro might encounter. They generally have integrated vertical grips so you can turn them sideways to take portraits while still having a shutter button on top (giving the camera a "square" look), and they have the biggest and heaviest bodies:

Canon 1Ds Mark III

Canon 1Ds Mark III

They also have larger sensors than the consumer and prosumer models. The 1Ds Mark III, D3S and D3X all have "full-frame" sensors that are significantly larger than the sensors in the other two categories. A "full-frame" sensor is a sensor that is the same size as a piece of 35mm film. This does make for better picture quality in these models. A discussion on the advantages (and very few) disadvantages of full-frame sensors is for another article, but just know that the image quality from these sensors is often better than that of the other categories, especially in low-light situations. FYI, the 1D Mark IV has a sensor that is "in-between" the prosumer and pro categories. Performance-wise, these pro cameras are the top of the line models. They have many focus points, are capable of many frames per second (for example 10 fps for the 1D Mark IV), and they have countless options for customization. Cost-wise, pro level cameras are generally in the area of U.S. $3500 all the way up to $7000+. Note: most of these cameras do not have a built-in pop-up flash. You will need to buy a separate flash unit that fits into the top of the camera to take flash pictures. Popular flash models for Canon cameras include the 430EX II and 580EX II. Nikon has the SB-900 among others.

There is a very important "fourth category" that is worth discussing, especially since it's recently growing exponentially in popularity. This fourth category takes the full-frame sensor from the pro bodies and places it in a prosumer-level body. (Remember that a full-frame sensor is bigger than the sensor in the prosumer and consumer bodies, and all other things being equal, takes better pictures). Canon pioneered this with the introduction of the original Canon 5D several years ago. The 5D had a body very similar to something like the 50D today, but it had the full-frame sensor taken from Canon’s top-of-the-line 1D series. It took (and still takes today) amazing photographs, but was significantly less expensive than the 1D series, and was also smaller and lighter. It was one of the most popular and well-respected cameras they produced, and countless pro’s flocked to it. Today, there are several full-frame cameras available from the various brands. Nikon has introduced the D700, which is similar to the D300 but with a full-frame sensor. Sony has the Alpha A900 and A850. Canon is now producing the 5D Mark II. These cameras feature all the benefits of a full-frame sensor (better low-light performance, less noise per megapixel, true wide-angle capability with pro-grade lenses, etc.) but in less expensive, lighter, smaller bodies. Very generally, the cost of these cameras is U.S. $2600 – 3200.

So which of these categories is best for you? That of course depends on your needs. Hopefully the descriptions above about the size, weight, body ruggedness, controls (buttons / knobs), and performance will help guide you in a direction. If not, I add some more guidance at the bottom of this note to help you choose. Except for the decision about maybe buying a model with a full-frame sensor, picture quality should be less of a factor in your decision-making than some of the other factors. Speaking of picture quality, now is a good time to cover that…

In my opinion (and that of most photographers) the quality of your lenses is the #1 most important factor in the picture quality your camera produces. If you have a limited budget (which most people do!) spend your money on quality LENSES. If you were to take a great, high-quality lens and put it on one of the new inexpensive DSLRs, you can get incredible photos. On the other hand, if you take a top-of-the-line pro body and use a low-quality, cheap lens, you will not get quality results. There is nothing more bizarre to see than a guy walking around with a $7,000 camera and a $49 lens. I can assure he’s getting $49 worth of picture quality.

So what lens or lenses to get? Well this depends on what subjects you shoot and what you like to photograph. Certainly if you’re a sports or wildlife shooter, you’re going to be more interested in telephoto lenses than wide-angles. If you’re a landscape or architectural shooter, you’re probably more interested in wide-angles than telephotos. My recommendation would be to start with one lens (maybe two) and then acquire additional lenses over time as you feel out your shooting style and determine more concretely what you really need.

Most cameras can be purchased either as “body-only” or with a lens, commonly called the “kit lens” because the lens is bundled with the body as a kit. Nowadays, the kit lenses are getting better and better, many even including high-tech features such as image stabilization. The kit lenses when purchased with the body are generally very inexpensive vs. if you purchased it separately. If you know you will use the lens that comes with the kit, then by all means, purchase the kit. If you’re just getting started and want a general purpose “walk around’ lens for a variety of subjects, the kit lens can be a good choice to start out with. With focal lengths generally from 18mm to 55mm, they provide moderately wide coverage and a little bit of telephoto reach. Sometimes you might see an “alternate kit” which has a different lens (sometimes a little higher quality or with a wider focal range), also at a discount. Here are some examples of some lens options in the “walk-around” focal range (you'd buy just one of these): let’s say you’re buying a new Canon Rebel T2i (550D). You can buy it with the included Canon 18-55mm IS lens and you'd have a great general-purpose package. If you wanted more telephoto reach but still keeping the wide-angle, you could skip the kit lens and instead buy the 17-85mm IS. If you wanted a wider aperture for low-light shooting, you could buy the 17-55mm F2.8 IS. If you didn't care as much about the wide end and wanted a longer reach, you could buy the 28-135mm IS.

Outside of the “walk-around” focal range lenses, are some of the more specialty lenses:

If you don’t want to buy many lenses but still want to cover a very wide range, or you just want one lens so you don’t have to ever change lenses, you could go with an 18-200mm lens.

For telephoto, there are many lenses in the 70-200 and 70-300 range that would be great for sports and wildlife.

Canon 70-200 F4L

Canon 70-200 F4L

Coupled with a walk-around lens like the 18-55 or 17-85, the addition of a 70-200 creates a great range of focal lengths from the wide angle at 18mm to the telephoto at 200mm.

For super-wide-angle coverage for landscapes or architecture, look to something in the 10-22mm focal range (for consumer and prosumer bodies).

Then there are the wide-aperture lenses. These are sometimes fixed focal length (non-zooming) and include lenses like Canon’s spectacular 50mm F1.8, which is extremely inexpensive but takes razor-sharp photos and is great in low-light or when you need to blur the background. It’s fantastic for portraits as well. Most people who own a Canon DSLR eventually get this lens -- it's around $100.

For Macro shooters who want to get *really* close up to flowers, insects, seashells, or anything else, there are a series of macro lenses you can look at. These are generally fixed-focal-length lenses with wide apertures. They can be found in versions at 60mm, 100mm, 180mm, etc. Keep in mind the longer the focal length, the less close you need to be to a subject, so you can avoid scaring things off if you take pictures of live subjects. On the other hand, if you want to be close to your subject so you can reach out with your hand to make adjustments to a flower petal, then a shorter-focal length might be for you. Also keep in mind that these lenses are not just good for macro. They are fantastic for portraits as the wide apertures are great for blurring backgrounds. Perhaps more importantly, because they are fixed focal length and because of their design, they are preposterously sharp. In my personal opinion, they are the sharpest of all lenses that can be purchased. Canon's 100mm F2.8 macro is so sharp that I sometimes cannot believe my eyes. I actually use mine much more for portraits than for macro.

Then there are the really specialized lenses. These include Tilt / Shift lenses and fisheyes, etc. Tilt / Shift lenses are lenses that physically tilt around and swivel while attached to the camera:

Canon 17mm Tilt / Shift lens

Canon 17mm Tilt / Shift lens

The two "main" purposes, among others, are to fix slanted buildings when taking pictures of architecture (point a camera with a regular lens upward at a skyscraper and take a picture -- you'll see it looks like a pyramid! Tilt / Shift lenses fix this). The other purpose is to control depth-of-field, allowing you to get much more of the picture in-focus front-to-back, or to limit focus, no matter what aperture you're using. Fisheyes are ultra-wide-angle and are used creatively to capture an entire scene, and often can capture a full 180 degrees around you (including your feet, so be careful!)

I want to make one important note about lenses as you start to think about what you might like to buy. There are two types of lenses: lenses that are compatible with ALL the cameras in a brand's line and lenses that are specifically made ONLY for the consumer and prosumer categories I mentioned above. In Canon's lineup, for example, any lens that has "EF" in the name will fit on every camera in Canon's lineup. However, lenses with "EF-S" (vs. "EF") will NOT fit on Canon's Pro-category cameras (the 1D-series) or full-frame category (5D) cameras. Why is this important? Because someday you may upgrade your camera and find out that your lenses don't work with the new camera. For example, if you were buying a Canon Rebel T2i or Canon 60D, you might choose to purchase the Canon 60mm EF-S Macro lens to use with it. If someday in the future you decide to upgrade your camera and purchase a Canon 5D Mark II or one of the pro cameras, your 60mm EF-S lens will not work on the new camera, and you will have to replace it. So...if you think there is any chance that you might be upgrading cameras in a few years, then keep this note in mind and make sure that whenever possible you buy EF lenses so that you "future-proof" yourself. Now, I say "whenever possible" because sometimes you don't have a choice if you have one of the consumer or prosumer cameras and you want a certain focal length -- for example, if you want a super-wide angle for your 60D, the only Canon option in the 10mm range is the Canon 10-22mm EF-S lens. For technical design reasons, they simply don't make an EF version in that zoom range. This may not be a problem at all -- when you upgrade you may choose to keep the other camera anyway and all its lenses. I did this because I love the XTi and it's great for traveling. Or...you may choose to upgrade from the consumer line (T2i) to the prosumer line (60D), in which case your EF-S lenses will still work. They only won't work on the Pro line and the 5D series. Other brands also have lenses that only work on their consumer and prosumer lines, so always ask before you buy.

Alright, so which camera should you buy... you probably just want to know the answer to that one question. Here's the short(ish) answer:

If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, and are interested in taking up photography as a serious hobby and getting some outstanding shots, buy something like the Canon Rebel T2i or XSi or a Nikon D5000 or D90, provided it's not too small for your hands and you don't plan on shooting in "adventurous" conditions or in the rain or dust. If you're not sure exactly what subjects you like to shoot, stick with the 18-55mm lens that comes with it, play around a little, and see how many times you wish you could go "a little wider" vs. how many times you wish you could have "zoomed in a little more." Based on the answer to that last question, you can buy your next lens at some point in the future, which will either be a wide-angle or a telephoto.

If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, or you already have a film or other DSLR, and your intent is to get serious about photography, maybe make some money on the side, potentially shoot a friend's wedding on occasion or some travel photography for advertisements, then you might want to move right to the prosumer-level category and get something like the Canon 60D or 7D or a Nikon D300S. These are also a wise choice if you plan on taking your camera into more adventurous conditions where it might get banged around a bit, or get a little wet. Choose your lenses carefully because you may have them for a long time, and remember, it's ultimately the quality of your lenses that affects the quality of the pictures.

If your intention is to take photography very seriously, go pro (either part-time or full-time), then you can either go with something from the prosumer line or the pro line. If you want the very best quality in really low light, get a full-frame model from the pro line (Canon 1Ds Mark III or Nikon D3S or D3X) or one of the models with a full-frame sensor in a prosumer body (Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D700, etc). If you intend on making massive prints, then get one with a high megapixel count... the 1Ds Mark III, 5D Mark II, and D3X all have over 20 megapixels for huge prints.

Two quick comments before I start to wrap up. I've used examples from Canon and Nikon (and a little of Sony), but all the brands make outstanding cameras. For the most part, these categories, lens types, etc. all apply to Pentax, Olympus, and Sony. If you already have lenses from one of the other brands and you're looking for a new camera, or you've had good experiences with their point-and-shoots and want to stick with the brand, you can always ask a salesperson to tell you which of the Canons or Nikons is comparable so you'll know which model to look at. So if reading this, you decide that a camera "in the category" of a Canon Rebel T2i is what's for you, then just ask the salesperson to show you the Pentax equivalent of the T2i and they'll help you out.

My final comment, which by now will be very (and purposely!) repetitive: it is the lenses that determine the picture quality! Don't skimp. You will always do better buying a lesser camera and better lenses.

I've created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

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Best,
Paul

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