Gear

Digital Camera buying guide: What is good to know before buying one

Digital camera bying guide: what is good to know

camera buying guide: what good to know

I was asked many times what camera and/or lens I would recommend to buy in given price range, so I’ve decided to answer this question on my blog, next time I can direct people to this article.

For today this is a longest epic in my life I wrote in English and I really hope you’ll understand what i was trying to tell you:-)

My photography style is clear, crisp, precise and vivid; being a product photographer I can’t (nor I like) produce blurry, out of focus and noisy images and call them “my unique vision”. I do not understand black and white modern photography, see it more like “sorry, can’t get it done with color” thing.
Keep this in mind, as everything I would tell you here is driven by things I value most in my photo gear:
Ability to produce sharp, full of details images, and to do it fast and most effortless way. All these special features like scene modes, digital filters, face recognition, email-to-your-grandma senders or whatever manufacturer will include in your camera to attract buyers has absolute NO VALUE to me. If you read my blog, I assume you are interested in photography, therefore the  simpler camera you will operate the better you’ll understand photography process. 99% people with entry-level DSLR I know has no idea about most of these fancy features. Think twice, do you really need it?

What Camera brands are worth to consider:

There are many, many good ones. But I would recommend sticking with Canon or Nikon. Only Canon and Nikon have most consistent product line (because of experience?), and the rule what-you-pay what-you-get usually works for both of them very well. The rest brands may have good cameras, but quite often  Sony or Panasonic with large Carl Zeiss and Leica lenses, amazing specification sheets and price over $500 have problems dealing in low light situations (noisy), has  artifacts on the images, low detail, etc. Pentax? Casio?  I Do not know… I do not know people who use them. Do you?

What camera I would recommend you to buy?

It is hard to say right away, without knowing some details from you. Example: If anyone would approach you with question such as “I have $25K to spend on a car, what car would you recommend me to buy?”, what do you answer? Get a track , SUV or family sedan? Minivan? Maybe a small sport car?
Hope you see my point: It is almost impossible to recommend anything without knowing the purpose you want to buy DSLR and what kind of photography you’ll be dealing with.

Let me go through what I believe to be a most popular reasons.

1. A simple upgrade to DSLR camera.

Something what we call a “better” camera: sharper, less noisy and faster then your current point and shoot camera. You are going to shoot your life, and you need a simplest possible way to do so, still using camera “point-and-shoot” way:
Buy anything which fits in your budget (remember: Canon or Nikon). You’ll be satisfied with the kit lens, (although kit lenses not a good choice, IMO) as it will be in any case way better than your point and shoot camera. If budget allows you, better get a wider zoom range lens, something like AF-S DX VR Zoom- NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G or Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, such zoom will be useful enough for most real life situations, from wide-angle sunset shoot, architectural to fast action zoomed-in kids chase.

Remember these two lenses are made for APS-C size sensor for Canon and  DX format for Nikon.  Meaning it won’t work with Canon 5D or 1Ds line and upper Nikon models. More to read about crop-factors.

2. Special reasons to buy new DSLR:

If you need new camera because you are not just replacing the old one, but also will be doing something new in your life: shooting a sports events for a local magazine, neighbor’s kids on New Year’s Eve or planning to sell your macro-captured insects and flowers on stock, it will be a quite different approach in each case:

First of all, I encourage you to read camera reviews on dpreview.com. I know, there are so many cameras there and all these terminology and tests criteria are not really clear for you, but lets do this: go and find 2-3 cameras, Nikon or Canon within your price range (what is good in dpreview.com is that you can actually see a market price of each camera). Take a specification of each and compare. Now it is time when you’ll need to find the primary use of a camera.

  • Sport, action photography. Look for a faster continues shooting speed (frames per second). Nikons are really good for sport photography, most of them are faster shooters then Canons. Also, full frame sensor is not what you need to pay for, crop factor is a benefit because it extends your telephoto lens zoom by 1.6 (Canon, Fx Nikon) or 1.4 ( DX Nikon)
  • People (portraits), event photography (wedding). Full frame sensor Canon, even used (5D for less then $1K) would be a good choice. You’ll get extra details and resolution from full sensor, less noise is a benefit too. You won’t be able to use lenses made for a smaller sensor, but there are good selection of non-zoom lenses with outstanding resolution and sharpness available. (like Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro, Tamron 90mm f2,8 Macro, both great portrait lenses for about $400. If you are ok with slow focus though.)
  • Macro photography. Cropped sensor is a good thing here, more zoom will help you to get nice close-ups from distance. Macro lens is a must to have, it will also work very well for portrait photography.

Got an idea? Good. Now let me explain some basic rules and concepts you’ll be dealing with while considering a camera to buy.

Physical sensor size:

Bigger is better. Bigger sensor yields better resolution (not talking about megapixel). Just think about how many times you’ll be “enlarging” your sensor-size image projected by lens on a sensor. To make 8×12 inches print, on full frame camera (35 mm x 24mm sensor, Canon 5D, 1Ds) the image will be enlarged 70 times, while point and shoot camera sensor 6x4mm with the same megapixel count will be enlarged more than 2000 times. See the difference? Same difference you’ll see on a 100% crop of your photo.

Also, smaller sensor will also result more pixel density, which leads to increased pixel noise, especially noticeable at higher ISO.
Even though some cameras may have better then other noise suppression algorithm, which may equalize the difference, the rule remains unchanged: bigger sensor with lower pixel density is better. Notice what canon is doing now? They use lower resolution sensor in newest cameras: Canon G11 has 10 megapixel, G10 has 14.  Pixel density is 23 MP/cm² and 34 MP/cm² respectively, as physical sensor size remains unchanged. Why they are doing this? More people start paying attention on actual image quality instead of buying more-then-yours megapixel noise machines.

Lens aperture and zoom:

Aperture, or f-stop number. The first figure of f-stop lens number is representing how wide aperture (the whole in the middle of the lens;-) can be opened, meaning how much light can pass through a lens to a camera’s sensor. Smaller number is better: you’ll be able to use this lens with shorter shutter speed in given lighting condition. Which is good, right? Unless you are shooting architecture with tripod, you should always try to shoot on higher shutter speed. Speaking of aperture, shutter speed and zoom, the main rule is on a hand held camera shutter speed number (fraction of a second) should be not less than focal distance of the lens.

Example: My zoom lens was set on 50mm, shutter speed should not more then 1/50 of a second. 300mm lens -> shutter speed 1/300 of a second, or shorter: 1/500 will be even safer. If you follow this rule you won’t have problems with motion blur on the images. Do not have enough light to set desired shutter speed? Get a tripod! It helps a lot :-)

Zoom is a very nice modern feature of the lens, very useful, as one zoom lens will substitute you 3-4 non-zoom lenses, but think about this: non-zoom lens within the same price range always produce better results then zoom one. More zoom range the lens has, the worse pictures it will produce. You won’t find any professional grade lens (Canon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS is somewhere in between pro and consumer) with zoom range 28-200mm. Why? Because results won’t be acceptable, even if such lens will cost $10.000. I remember when a friend of mine asked me to test his new Sigma 28-200 f3.5-5.6 lens. I brought my old Sigma 105mm F2.8, the closest lens in price range I have, and we test both on his Canon Rebel. It was such a disappointment! I couldn’t believe the lens can be so blurry and has so low resolution, compared to the same price non-zoom one.

So, here is my advice: get 2 lens instead of one, if you care about image quality (there is an alternative opinion).
Have at least one fixed focal length (non-zoom) lens, preferably macro: fun with little bugs and flowers , plus exceptionally good quality for portraits. However, if you have no ambitions for image quality, and 99.9% of the time all your photos end up in online albums, re-sized by picasa or facebook, buy one ultra zoom lens – you’ll be fine. No one will deny usability of ultra zoom.

Camera is responsible only for 30% of the theoretical image quality, the rest 70% is the lens.

I always smile when I see people shooting with 500$ DSLR (body only price) with a kit lens, which cost somewhere between $50-$100.. They won’t even know how sharp and detailed images they can have with the camera, simply because the lens can’t produce such sharp and detailed image!

The lens is a key, it is an eye of any camera system, while camera body is only a sensor, with some features which makes capturing process more convenient. If you want to get the best from your gear, plan your camera purchase budget like this: 30% for a camera body, 70% for a lens.

I am talking  about single lens here, your “prime”, everyday lens. You might need to have one more lens, like telephoto, macro, or wide angle. Which also will cost 3 times or more than camera body to be able match camera capturing capabilities.. As an example, if I put $150 lens on $3000 Canon 5D Mark II , and the same lens on a $400 Canon Rebel XSi, the result will be the same! But if I use similar focal length “L” grade lens on a  little Rebel, the result will be close to a Mark II with the same lens (assuming only RAW used). In this case we’ll reach our camera limits, and it is much better to be limited by camera, then by a lens.

Think about this: 8-9 years ago professional DSLR (like Canon 1D and 1Ds cost between $5000 and $9000, but most today’s DSLR do have better sensors, image processor and capable of producing much better image quality. However, back to 2002, these old times delivered professional quality photographs, still unreachable by modern consumer DSLR cameras. Why? because of  the lens: Pro shooters used  pro-grade lens back in 2002,  and now, while regular consumer uses crappy lens.  Put the same professional lens on today’s Rebel, and it will put shame on 2002 Canon 1Ds.

Please, do not save on a lens. Better get older prosumer camera (like used Canon 5D for $900 off eBay) and buy a good lens.*

Below is a several lenses and cameras both DSLR and point and shoot which I know are good. I do not know Nikon, can’t really recommend anything from their product line.

Prime (everyday) lens: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (review) .
Very solid, fast and amazingly sharp lens from F2.8 toF16:

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM

I use it in 50% of shots I do outside, never had anything to complain about. It has unusual zoom design: when you zoom out, it becomes longer, front element expands forward. Opposite when you zoom in, it becomes shorter. Works really well with fixed hood position. Lens cost around $1300, which is not bad at all for such nice performer.

Telephoto lens:
Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 L (IS) USM. (review)
I have IS (Image Stabilizer) version of this lens, non IS version is the same (rumors say it even sharper, but I do not believe:-) and costs $600 less then IS version ($1300 v.s $1900). There is also 70-200mm F4 version of the lens, it costs nothing (compare to f2.8 IS): $600, and it is a good lens for the money: still professional grade for a fraction of a price.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS is the best lens I have. Truly, this is the one of THE BEST Canon lenses. It is amazingly sharp at F2.8, very fast focus, and it looks very sexy:-). If you shoot portraits, pets, kids – this is your must-have lens.

Wide angle lens:

Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8 (review) Very good and useful wide angle lens, used it a lot for architecture work.

canon-16-35mm-lens

canon-16-35mm-lens

However, my favorite wide angle is Canon 14mm f2.8 ultra-wide lens (review):

canon-14mm-lens

canon-14mm-lens

The little (but heavy for its size) performer is almost distortion-free, amazingly sharp for its focal length lens. I have done so many interior and exterior photo-shoots with it, and results were astonishing! Some examples you can see on some of my interior photography and on architectural assignment.

Update:

My another favorite “Crazy” lens, Canon 8-15mm F4.0L fisheye:

Canon Fisheye 8-15mm F4.0L

Canon Fisheye 8-15mm F4.0L

This lens can do an amazing job, when used properly. Check out my G+ California Album, and this post to see examples.

 


The cameras:

I am not going to suggest you any camera in current Canon or Nikon DSLR product’s line. All of them are good in its price range, you can’t loose if you buy any of it. I’d rather tell you what you can get if go a little out of a stream, buying a used full frame DSLR:

Canon EOS 5D. First prosumer Canon full frame sensor camera,  12 megapixel. I was working with her for a several years. Very good for people, product and architectural photography. Won’t be so good for a fast action, focus relatively slow and shooting rate is not her strong point either. Now you can get 5D  for less then $800, a bargain price for such performer (I’ve paid $3500 in 2005).

Point and shoot:

Did not have any of these, but have seen how they perform in good hands:

Canon PowerShot G11.  The best point and shoot small body camera. it has everything you need to learn photography: all the manual controls, RAW format, plus, a lot of pre-defined shooting modes if you just want to push a button. Good friend of mine, who has no idea what aperture and shutter speed is and how it might be are related to Canon G11 she owns, took this photo in Puerto Rico after sunset, without any tripod:

Canon G11 camera night mode

Canon G11 camera night mode example

Great result, I must say, for point and shoot camera. And this image was not fixed in the Photshop, imagine how it will look if we’ll do our regular post-processing on it.

Canon PowerShot S90. Small pocket-size camera with large sensor (same as G11) and good lens, has manual controls and RAW format. Very nice features and image quality for its price and size.

If you have any questions or want to discuss anything, please speak out. I would be glad to hear your opinions.

(*) Must say, all this is true only for a consumer DSLR with price less then $1000. In this upper segment things are different, and even great lens cost less then camera body.

About The Author: Alex Koloskov

The lighting magician, owner of AKELstudio, Inc.


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2 comments to Digital Camera buying guide: What is good to know before buying one

  • “Sony or Panasonic with large Carl Zeiss and Leica lenses, amazing specification sheets and price over $500 have problems dealing in low light situations (noisy), has artifacts on the images, low detail, etc.”

    I very much appreciate the information you share on your site, but this is just skewed from a Canon user’s perspective – and you didn’t even mention Olympus? First, since the majority of the work shown here on the site is studio – low light shooting is not a factor for this type of photography. Next, it’s really just perpetuating “trash talking” by brand elitists IMHO. The reality is that all of the major brands sell DSLR cameras that are more than capable of high quality work.

    As point of information, I shoot the full frame 25MP Sony Alpha system and it stands up extremely well against anything the competition has to offer. Moving from Minolta film cameras with full support of even 20 year old “A Mount” lenses – and fully built in image stabilization *in body* (meaning on every lens without paying extra for it) – was just one compelling factor among dozens in my personal choice of a system.

    But on point, again – just about ANY decent semi-pro to pro DSLR can do the job these days. The talent of the photographer, quality of the lenses (agreed – very, very important) and post production skills, are the critical factors in the final outcome.

    • Karen,
      Yes, this is very skewed view: everything I was talking here is my subjective opinion:-)
      I was mentioned only the cameras I was shooting with, this is why I did not mentioned Olympus and other brands: never had any experience with them. Again, I was not trying to cover all the market.

      The Sony and Panasonic I owned before had noise issues even on a “normal” studio lighting, I never used them with ISO higher then 100.

      I am sure there are very good and competitive cameras on the market, like a Sony you’ve mentioned. And I am 100% agree with you that gear is not what makes a good photographer. I am working on the article to show what can be done with a little canon G11 point-and-shoot camera.. most of guys who is asking me “what camera/lens is good to start with” or saying “you are so lucky to have such equipment” will be surprised:-)
      Thank you, Karen!

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