Camera advice?

Hey everyone. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m actually good at this photography stuff, or if it’s just because I post a lot of pictures online and act really arrogant about it and thus come off like I know what I’m talking about, but people ask me for advice on buying cameras on a somewhat regular basis. Spending a large pile of cash based on my dubious words of wisdom seems like a recipe for disaster to me, but hey, it’s their paycheck they’re blowing, not mine.

Recently (just now!) somebody asked me what kind of digital SLR they should look into getting. The circumstances? Enjoys taking pictures, wants to get more serious about it, perhaps taking some classes and even getting involved semi-professionally, doing wedding/event photography or otherwise. Basically, somebody that is prepared to drop a decent pile of cash on some decent quality stuff. But, somebody who is bewildered by all the options. Note that this is different from somebody who just wants a point and shoot that takes good shots, or somebody who wants to be able to take a wide variety of good pictures but doesn’t anticipate wanting to take the next step of obsession and start spending millions of dollars on interchangeable lenses. There are answers for those people too, and the text below probably isn’t it. What I’m getting at here is: camera equipment is not a one-size-fits-all kind of game. There are a zillion different choices, and a large number of them are the perfect choice for somebody. It all comes down to what you’re looking for.

Anyway, I spent a decent amount of time writing up an email to answer my friend’s questions. And I found myself saying some of the same things that I’ve found myself saying somewhat frequently lately. So, I figured all the time I spent writing up my response could actually help a wider audience, so I decided to post it here in its entirety. Everything below this paragraph is that response. Enjoy! And please feel free to share any thoughts or comments below. As much as I like to pretend I do, I definitely don’t know everything, so please feel free (no, feel like it is your DUTY) to enlighten me or set me straight. Note that I’m writing this in early May, 2010, so depending on long this stays on the website without being updated, it may be horribly out of date. That’s part of the fun! Happy reading!!


So yeah, I am a Canon guy, but what I usually tell people is that you literally cannot go wrong with a Canon or a Nikon. Obviously there are several choices available for each, but before you get TOO wrapped up in which exact model you’re looking for, just remember that you will undoubtedly be really happy with ANY of them, and which one in particular you decide on just comes down to which features you want and how price sensitive you are. Obviously, the newest ones will be the most expensive, but they will also have all the cutting edge new features, and marketing departments get paid big $$$ to make all the new features sound like stuff you can’t live without. But, believe me, you CAN live without it, and even the older models were cutting edge once.

So.. that being said.. Canon or Nikon? I think the best way to answer that question is to go to a store and play around with each. They each have different button layouts and such, so you should hold them both, see which you prefer. (Or even rent one for a couple days, that would be an even better test.) Pay attention to how it feels in your hands (the build, the weight, where the buttons are, how you would adjust various things like ISO and white balance, etc), as well as how it works (how the menus are laid out, which buttons can you reach while you’re holding the camera up to your face, how you look through pictures, etc.) Both manufacturers have spent a lot of energy trying to make them as intuitive as possible, but one may be more intuitive for how your brain works than the other.

It’s true that Canon has a larger share of the market, but there are still plenty of pros that use Nikons. I’d stay away from all the other manufacturers though. I’m sure they make some great cameras, but you’ve got to figure that once you buy your first lens, you’re stuck with the system that you picked. And, it’s just the way it is, there are FAR more lenses available for Canons and Nikons than the other guys. (both 1st party lenses – Canon and Nikon – and third party lenses, like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, etc.) Both of them have a great reputation around image quality, so I don’t believe you can say anything like “X generally makes better lenses than Y”.

So.. Once you pick your manufacturer, you still have to pick the exact model. Like I said before, that just comes down to price vs. features. Unless you’re looking at buying used, realistically only the past 1 or 2 generations will be available, and you may not be able to find THAT screamin’ of a deal on them. Buying used is a possibility, but since these are very complicated electronic devices, I would only really consider that route if you’re seriously just planning on using it to start, and you’d be buying a new camera in less than a year. Other than that, go new. You just don’t know the history otherwise, and even if it’s still got warranty coverage, warranty repair is a pain in the ass. Lenses aren’t quite the same, but then again lenses hold their value REALLY well, so you won’t be saving too much buying used vs. new.

For Canon, that means you’re basically looking at the XS or XSi at the lower-ish end, and the T1i or T2i at the higher-ish end. (Although that’s really mid-end, aka sub-$1000. Good enough for everything you’d be shooting, and even good enough for pro wedding or event photography I’d say – that applies to all 4, not just the T1i and T2i.) I’d stay away from the XS unless you’re REALLY price sensitive, because the other three have a bigger screen that’s REALLY nice, as well as better high-ISO performance, so for those benefits the money (less than $100 I think) you’d save on the XS isn’t worth it.

The choice between the XSi and the T1i is the big one. The two big differences there are a higher resolution screen (same size, just more pixels on the T1i), and the T1i shoots movies, the XSi doesn’t. The T1i has a very slight advantage in high-ISO quality, but it’s barely discernible. It’s totally a toss-up depending on how much you want those features and whether they’re worth the cost. I’m not that clear on the differences between the T1i and the T2i, but I haven’t seen anything to justify the extra $150 or whatever you’d be spending, so stick to the XSi or the T1i.

As far as lenses, I think the Canon equivalent pro-necessity would be the 28-125 or something. But definitely don’t go there until you know you need it. For now, stick with the kit lens (Canon comes with an 18-55) and maybe pick up a cheap ($100-$250) telephoto (like a 70-300). As you use them, you may find yourself getting frustrated at one aspect or another of your setup, then depending on what the frustration is, you can figure out what you need to do to overcome it. For example, maybe you hate carrying multiple lenses and swapping them out. Then a superzoom like an 18-200 or a 28-300 may be the way to go. But remember that there’s always a trade-off, with a superzoom you’ll be sacrificing some image quality. They do everything okay but nothing great. If you find yourself wanting sharper images, then you can buy higher quality optics. If you want to be able to take pictures in lower light, you can look at getting a “faster” lens. If you want to be able to take wide angle shots, you can look at a wide angle lens. Get where I’m going with this? I can’t tell you what kind of shots you’ll find yourself wanting to take, so I can’t recommend the best lens for taking them. But, with both Canon and Nikon, the kit lenses tend to be very very good lenses, so you’re not really sacrificing anything while you figure out what lens you want to buy next. Personally, my go-to lens is the Tamron 17-50 (available on both Canon and Nikon mounts), but since you don’t know how the kit lens performs in your kind of shots, you won’t appreciate the difference, and you probably won’t be confident that it was $450 well-spent. Plus, while 17-50 is the perfect range for most of the shots that I take, to do wedding photography you’ll probably want to get closer in than that, so a 28-70 or a 28-125 may be better. See where I’m going again? That you’ll have to decide from experience where your equipment is holding you back, and you’ll have to research what the right thing is to buy to remove the roadblock. For now, start with the kit lens, and maybe a telephoto.

One thing you’ll DEFINITELY need if you’re thinking about wedding photography and whatnot is an external flash, but if you take a class I’m sure you’ll figure that one out. For indoor people pictures, it’s ALL about the lighting. 😉

Hopefully that’s helpful. I think I’m going to cut and paste this all into a page on my blog, this much effort deserves to have a wider audience. :)

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7 Comments

  1. avatar
    Reply
    Mike December 24, 2010

    What do you think about external flash?
    Is the $120 basic one that takes 2 AA batteries and only rotates in one direction fine, or should I get the larger, heavier, $230 version that can swivel in 2 dimensions, but takes 4 AA batteries?

    :-)

  2. avatar
    Reply
    Gerry March 23, 2011

    Hi, I can also submit an opinion on Canon Cameras/lenses. I have been a Canon user from day 1. I used my father’s Canon A-1 35mm FILM camera and took amazing shots with a Tokina zoom and a Soligor 80-200mm macro zoom. Rarely even in low light did I ever get blurred shots.

    It is now 20 years later and I’m of course shooting digital. I tried Several Sony “prosumer” cameras with Zeiss lenses attached. The lens was better than the sensor in the 3 megapixel model, and the 8MP articulated lens model was much better in image quality but poor in low light despite a 2.8f aperture.

    So after reading countless reviews, visiting multiple websites, I decided the best option for me was to get the Canon 5D Mark II. It is a 21 megapixel camera. When deciding on a new camera, this is a good selling point but not the ONLY factor. The 5DM2 is a full frame sensor model. It is the same size as the shutter plane/film palette would be in a 35mm FILM camera. Because of this, there is no need to cram 21 million pixels ( 1 million=1 megapixel) into a sensor no bigger than a piece of CHICKLET gum. This is the equivalent of using a fire hose to fill shot glass !! The analogy is quite explanatory if you
    substitute light for water. Ask yourself where the excess light goes as it “spills”? Every little pixel sensor is trying to do its job but is getting rained on with light from the incoming image. These tiny sensors therefore have to “ignore” this spillage and interpret what they think is the best representation of what they just received.

    Using the same analogy, a full frame sensor is like a swimming pool, still being filled with a fire hose. There is PLENTY of room for the water to disperse and be captured. Likewise the full frame sensor can utilize BIGGER pixels NOT MORE, to do the same job. It does not need to “ignore” as much spillage as the tiny sensors do in cheap pocket cameras, cell phones, and “entry level”
    DSLRs sold in the various “X Mart” stores.

    So, what is the obvious reason to drop $2,500 on such a camera??? Image quality.
    Obviously, a cell phone cam is beat hands down even by the entry level DSLRs today, and some pocket cameras also provide good quality pictures for those who dont care to learn phototography, but need the camera to do the work and take the best picture possible. This is where it ends for entry level cameras. Mid grade cameras from Canon, Nikon in the 12mp range do a good job of taking photos that can be used for CERTAIN professional applications. I say this because as one needs to process/edit an image or enlarge an image, this is where the camera’s true attributes or faults will show. THIS IS ASSUMING THE USER truly knows what they are doing and not relying on “Auto” mode.

    Once you hit the level of the 5DM2 and its siblings the 1D series, you get higher megapixels with larger size that translates into better light sensitivity and color accuracy.
    You also get higher ISO sensitivity… a standard from film days when it essentially meant how quick the film could chemically process the light it received from the lens.
    Low ISO speeds were great for extremely well lit venues or outdoor daylight. The lower speeds from 100-400 were typical for indoor/outdoor use and had less grain in the image than faster speeds. Toward the end of film age, ISO film was rated at 1000 and higher from certain companies. This was best for dark venues or night time photography where there was little ambient light. The tradeoff was lots of grain in the image, and sometimes reduced sharpness. This carried over to the digital sensor, and while a direct comparison is not possible since film and electronics are 2 different technologies, the
    ISO standard helps one to comprehend how light affects performance in a digital environment. Instead of grain with high ISOs, you get what is reffered to as “noise”. Grain was a chemical shortcoming, noise is the electronic shortcoming. The higher the ISO, the higher the noise. The Canon D series rates very well in terms of how high you can go before you get noise in an image. It is sometimes a neglible amount and debateable.
    Othertimes it is blatently obvious and can ruin a “perfect” moment shot.

    SO back to why to spend the $$$$. I obviously need a better grade camera to avoid all the above shortcomings. You dont want grainy, blurred, pixelated or whatever photos when you do wedding photography.
    You can always go back to a vacation spot and take a photo of landscapes. You cant go back and do a wedding “DO OVER”!! Some customers prefer larger prints or even poster size portrait prints. Enlarging prints reveals faults, so the high megapixel and full frame sensor really make a difference in size variations. In “best” jpeg mode, the 5DM2 typically produces files that are 10 inches wide by 16 high and 350 pixels per inch. with such a high resolution file, you can easily boost this size to 3 feet high by 4 feet wide with little if any loss of quality. At this size you MAY be able to see the size of the dots that make up the picture but this is with a magnifying glass or with your nose touching the photo !!!

    This cannot be done with the cell phone type cameras or most entry level DSLRs.

    Now lets talk lenses. This is both an easy and hard topic to comprehend. The basics of a lens is that it mimics the human eye. As light hits our pupil there is a contraction of the pupil in response to the increase in light intensity. The pupil dilates or gets bigger when there is less light, so it can let in more AVAILABLE light. A camera lens strives to do the same thing. This is where the anology ends. Yes your eye and a camera have an IRIS as well. In lens terminology, the IRIS IS the pupil.

    So why are lenses so damn expensive if they all mimic an eye? SIMPLE…. if you could detach your eye and borrow grandma’s you might see a different level of quality. Both eyes are human and made by the same manufacturer..philosophical and religious debates aside !! Well, grandma may have cataracts or mal formed lens that degrades her visual perception. YOU are much younger and have better optic nerve response. You should see better. But with her eye in your head, you see exactly what she sees!!!!

    Well, camera lenses are sort of the same.
    Cheap builds, poor glass quality, use of PLASTIC lenses, poor sealing of the lens from dust, dirt, humidity all affect performance. MOLD can actually grow in lenses!!! Because glass is the best affordable material for making a high quality lens, it is much preferred to plastic. If made to highest standards, the glass should pass all VISIBLE wavelengths of light, with minimal if any amount of distortion, loss of light, change in color or other negative things called abberations. This high standard obviously translates into high price. Ferrari vs. Ford, or Hilton vs. Econolodge.

    The more onboard effects a lens has also increases price and hopefully performance. Camera shake compensation is built into Sony DSLRs, but is in the lens on Canon and Nikon ( not 100% sure about all Nikons). It is an OPTION not a standard. This reduces blur due to slower shutter speeds and inability to hold still enough for hand held shots. Without using a flash, blur becomes more of an issue in low light instances unless you use a mono or tripod. Lenses are also graded by “speed”.
    This is somewhat confusing in electronic lenses since there are speed issues when referring to autofocus. I AM REFFERING to
    max and minimum amount of light the lens can allow. The higher the amount of light let in, the bigger the aperture or opening. This means an fSTOP that is 3 or 2.8, 2, 1.4, 1. These f STOPS allow more light in than a lens that can at best open up to an fSTOP of 5 or 6.
    The lower the fSTOP or aperature number, the more light it can let in at its widest open setting. This means less need for a flash, ability to use LOWER ISO settings and reduce noise, and use quicker shutter speeds to reduce camera shake blur in non compensated lenses. Lastly, the auto/manual focus system is an issue. Ultrasonic motors are faster, quieter, and use less power than standard DC motors. They respond to signals to start focusing much quicker and reduce out of focus shots as a result. The CAMERA determines how many focus points you have, not the lens. The 5dM2 has 9, while its siblings in the 1D series have 12 or more. The lens’s ability to focus fast is affected also by the sensitivity of your camera. In low light, some models may “hunt” for a sharp focus point and have trouble finding it. For you the viewer, this means seeing a sluggish in and out of focus picture repeating and the noise from the motor along with it as it tries to lock on to a point it can focus on. The faster the lens in aperture terms, the less likely this hunting can occur. Changing ISO speed will also help, but remember you are asking for digital noise as you increase ISO speed.

    OK WE are down to the flash. In the olden days they used flash powder aka gun powder.
    Next came single use flash bulbs seen in cameras from the 1930s and seen in old movies from the era, right up to the early 1960s. The 70s brought flash technology into a new age with transistor based sensors and re-usable flash type bulb technology. The 80s introduced the microchip into the equation and flashes began to “talk” to the camera so they were both on the same terms. Using a flash meant light was low, and if you forgot your lens was set to f22 ( lets in the LEAST amount of light), then the flash would talk to the camera and say that it cant compensate for this, and you should REALLY change to a larger f Stop. Such was the ability of SLRS of the 80s that could compute via microchip shutter speed and aperture WITH AND WITHOUT a flash!!! Eddie Murphy spoofed an old Canon ad…so simple even ( insert celebrity name here) can use it. The ads ranged from Chris Evert and John McEnroe to Reggie Jackson. Eddie’s spoof was “so simple, even Stevie Wonder could use it!!!”

    While some considered it tasteless and cruel, one could argue that the camera was indeed that capable. The flash interface was called a “hot shoe”. This meant it was not just a mount to trigger the flash, but a port to convey information.

    Well it is the new millenium and electronics have gotten better, smaller, faster. Flash units are now microprocessor controlled as much as the camera itself. they send out infrared beams to measure distance to subject and compare it to the data the camera is reading for light amount, aperture, shutter speed,etc. and the camera and flash come to an agreement on what the “best” setting for each device is going to be BEFORE you take the picture!!

    Canon makes several flash units, and I purchased the 580 EX with a 180 degree horizontal swivel, full TTL2 logic microprocessor for fast and variable functions including red eye reduction pre flash -flash technology, autoranging, and more.
    Yes, you can still use AUTO mode on your extremely expensive camera and hope you get the best shots.

    NOW as far as power to power all the gadgets goes, there is no better way at this time than Lithium Ion batteries. Forget ANY camera or device that requires regular batteries like AA, AAA etc. Now the CANON flashes do use AA slots, but can use the equivalent Lithium Ion AA rechargeables. Yes, but what about Nicad batteries and NiMH ( nickel metal hyrdride )??
    They have longer recharge times, less charge/use time, and lose charge quicker even when not in use. Nicad and niMH also have an issue with charge memory. Unless you use the battery till its dead, any remaining power left will become the NEW ending point when being charged. So the battery thinks it still has a lot of charge in it and tells this to the charger who graciously obeys. The charger then gets a signal when the battery says its fully charged.
    back to the water analogy. An 8 ounce glass is your battery, the charger is a water faucet.
    Logic would dictate that an empty 8 ounce glass would require 8ozs of water to fill it!!
    But put a paper towel in that glass and absorb 4 ounces, the only space left is above the paper towel wad and lets say its 4 ounces of volume left. Well, now the faucet only needs to let out 4 ounces of water and TECHNICALLY THE GLASS IS FULLY, but try and drink ALL the water !!!! The camera is you trying to drink all 8 ounces, but only getting four before it “APPEARS” empty. You essentially get only the 4 ounces of faucet water to operate with, even though the glass thought it was full!! This obviously translates to less operating time for both camera and flash. Camera and flashes that use Lithium Ion technology, avoid this phenomenon and have actual charge time until the battery loses ALL stored charge. Sony calls its batteries INFO Lithium and its a great name. It means that the battery has a chip in it that stores data such as charge time remaining to both useable time in hours or minutes, and complete or full charge.
    Canon just uses a number like Li-5, where 5 is the SIZE of the battery for specific cameras NOT the charge level.

    Everything else about picture quality, dave already covered in his article so I wont reitterate. But keep in mind price versus performance and YOUR NEEDS. A cell phone cam is great when you need a spontaneous shot and you otherwise have no camera.
    Entry level point and shoot cameras are great for taking 4×6 photos and internet email photos for Facebook etc. Midrange DSLRs are ok for what you would normally have used a good 35MM camera for back in the days of film. Depending on sensor size, megapixels, and other features, they can take dependable and good image quality photos.

    For professional use, or for those with money to burn and have a highly discriminating eye for quality, then high end DSLRs are the choice.

    Hope this helps all !!!
    P.S. I am saving for a Canon L series lens which uses higher grades of glass, and special chemical coatings to reduce or eliminate glare, or color abnormalities and produces better and usually sharper images than the non L series. Currently I am using a Tamron 28-75DX f 2.8 lens.

  3. avatar
    Reply
    Kunal July 19, 2011

    Re- Post (just found your camera advice section. 😉

    Hi I think your website will be very valuable to me since I have just bought the tokina 11-16 after much debate… I think your pics posts are great. Have you got any advice for me about the lens? Can I ask you if you used any filters to shoot the landscapes.. to get good overall exposure… thanks

  4. avatar
    Reply
    Edinéia April 9, 2012

    i came across your blog just to look, but i had to leave this comment to say how much i appreciate your work. thanks for the help.http://www.porcelanatoportinari.com

  5. avatar
    Reply
    Photog July 12, 2013

    If you’re a wedding photographer and you show up to a wedding with anything less than a Canon 60D (I don’t know the Nikon equivalent), you’re a joke.

    It’s not to say you can’t get nice photos with a lesser quality Canon DSLR, but it’s about the professional look you give. I work at a post production company, and it’s the same way. We own top of the line equipment, not just because we’re pros and not just because it works better, but also because when we show up to a shoot with our expensive looking, hi-tech equipment, it screams SERIOUS PROFESSIONALS. It screams ‘you’re going to get not just a good, but an amazing result from our products. It’s a guarantee.’

    That said, most serious professional wedding photographers use a Canon 5D Mark 2 or 3. Yeah, it’s a few $1000 bucks, but your equipment is an investment in your business, your professional look, and consequently in your payback.

  6. avatar
    Reply
    Edna April 27, 2014

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like
    you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could
    do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of
    that, this is excellent blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

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