Starting out and buying a new camera

29Jun08

In the past week, I’ve had two people ask for recommendation on buying a new camera. One was my sister-in-law, who’s taken an interest in photography, and another is a good friend of mine who indicated he wanted a DSLR and wanted a recommendation.

Actually, their requests doesn’t provide me with enough information to give informed advices. I thought about it a little and decided to write this entry to help steer them in the right direction.

As a caveat, let me first say that I’m not really that knowledgeable about new camera models and their capabilities. I do read a bit about what’s new, but since I already have a camera, a Nikon D200, and I’m not in the market for one (although I wouldn’t mind the D300…), I don’t read about it as much.

With that said, here are my thoughts for them:

Compact camera vs. SLR

I assume that you’re both thinking about SLR cameras, but I’d like to explore that assumption a little. Do you really need an SLR, or is a really good compact camera, such as the excellent Canon G9, sufficient? Maybe the good compact is really all you need.

There are many differences in operation between compact cameras and SLRs, such as how pictures are taken (live view with compacts vs. viewfinder with SLRs), etc. but I assume that you’ll eventually figure out how your choice works and learn to use them effectively.

Let’s explore good compact camera vs. SLR with these questions:

  1. How portable do you want it to be?
    A good compact camera, such Canon G9 with dimensions of 106.4 x 71.9 x 42.5 mm (4.2 x 2.8 x 1.7 in) and weight of 320g (9.4 oz), is more portable than even the smallest DSLR at this point, the Olympus E-420 with body dimensions of 129.5 x 91 x 53 mm (5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1 in), and a weight of 380 g (13.4 oz). The different may not be seem that big, but keep in mind that the SLR doesn’t include the lens, which could potentially double the weight of the SLR. A related question is if you have a secondary small camera as well. If you do, you can afford to carry the big gun only when you plan to concentrate on photography and carry the small one when you just need snaps. Remember, the best camera doesn’t take great photos if it’s staying at home.
  2. How much versatility do you need?
    SLRs are extremely versatile. You can change lenses, add more powerful flash, etc. But do you need those? It’s great to be able to put on a telephoto lens to bring subjects closer, but consider the cost, the weight, and the need to change the lens. Oftentimes to reduce weight, I have to plan ahead as to what kind of pictures I plan to shoot to determine which lens I should carry. Ideally, I’d carry them all, but only if they were all weightless and didn’t take up space. And note that changing lenses means that there’s a change that you’ll introduce some dust onto your camera sensor, and you’ll now need to clean it somehow. As for having a more powerful flash, how often do you think you’ll need it? Most compact cameras already have a built-in flash, and so does many SLR cameras, including my Nikon D200. In my daily use, my on-camera flash has been more than sufficient. The only times where I wish I needed a separate flash was for macro or near field photography, or when I my large-ish 17-55mm lens blocked the flash illumination at certain focal lengths. Beyond that, I’d rather not have to carry around an additional flash.
  3. How much control do you need?
    In this area, the SLR is better again. It’s generally faster to start up and more responsive overall, meaning you can take that unexpected event happening in front of you sooner, and not have to wait for certain camera lag before the shot can be taken. It’s generally designed better for total control of aperture, shutter speed, ISO setting, exposure compensation, flash compensation, metering mode, etc., although the G9 is no slouch either. If you can live with a 1-2 second delay on startup, prefocus your shots, and don’t care to always be changing settings, e.g. you normally shoot in full auto mode or even aperture priority, a compact camera might do just fine.
  4. Do you plan to take low light photography often?
    One of the best features of SLRs is that they generally produce better low light images than compact cameras. It’s mostly in the physics — the larger the size of each pixel on the imaging sensor, the more light falls on the photosite at any given light level, the better the signal-to-noise ratio, the better your image at low light. SLRs generally have bigger sensors than compact cameras. In fact, you can probably say that you can shoot at least 1-2 stops slower (1-2 ISOs higher) with an SLR than a compact camera. An SLR can probably get good quality images at 800 ISO depending on the brand, while you’re pushing it at 400 ISO with compact cameras. The trend towards more megapixels is a step in the wrong direction here, as more megapixels mean smaller pixel size, and hence higher noise, but the trend is happening in both compact and SLR territory, so it’s basically a wash. If you’re planning to take lots of low light photos without (or with very little) flash, and without support such as a tripod, you’re better off with an SLR.
  5. How much do you plan to spend?
    You can get the Canon G9 at Amazon for about $450. This gives you a built-in lens with the equivalent of 35-210mm in 35mm. To get the Canon Rebel XT with anywhere near to the equivalent range you’ll need to spend over $900. The Nikon D40 with similar lens will go for around the same. That’s at least a $500 difference in pricing. Even then, you’re likely looking at a rather blah lens if you can get close to 35-210mm for only around $450. If you want an SLR, be prepared to spend a bit, if not above a thousand clams or more.

Answering those questions should give you a pretty good idea where you stand on the compact vs. SLR camera choice. So with that out of the way…

Which camera?

If you’ve decided on a compact camera, you can’t go wrong with the Canon G9. In fact, if I were to buy one today for myself, that’s the one I’d pick. It’s very highly rated, and from my short usage at the local camera store, seems spiffy enough and provides the controls I need in easy reach. See an excellent review here. You can even get a wide angle adapter and lens with the G9 to get as wide as 24mm.

If it’s an SLR you want, the answer gets a little trickier because of the choices. Generally I’d recommend either a Canon or a Nikon because they’re been around for a long time and seem to know what they’re doing. They also have a very large assortment of lenses to pick from, and you can get many lenses used at a much lower price point. I wouldn’t rule out Sony, which bought the Minolta line, and has excellent technology, and give a better bang for the buck than either Sony or Nikon at this point, but has less lenses to choose from. Then there is Pentax, Olympus, Sigma, and even Samsung now. I just don’t know enough about those to recommend them.

Should you buy the cheapest in the line now to see if photography is your calling first, or should you jump head first into the pool and buy a midrange or even a higher end one? That’s a hard one. Part of the answer will depend on how ambitious you are, but I’d generally recommend something lower down the line, something enough to start with and learn if you’ll be sticking with it. Also note that cameras are technological items, and technology seem to be changing quickly now. Every two years, new cameras are announced with better capabilities trickling down from the higher end models to the lower end ones. So there’s little point spending lots of money now for features that you don’t use, when you can save that money to upgrade later to a better camera with even more capabilities and imaging qualities later in a few years.

Look to the following SLR cameras for starting out with photography:

  • Canon Rebel XTi (or EOS 400 outside of America) (read review here) for about $600 body only
  • Canon Rebel XSi (or EOS 450D) (read review here) for around $800
  • Nikon D60 (read review here) for about $600. The D60 slots between the XTi and the XSi in terms of features, although the XTi has better imaging capabilities
  • Canon Rebel XS (or EOS 1000) (read preview here) for about $600. This has only been announced and isn’t out yet. It is the successor to the XSi.
  • 9th July 2008 Update: Canon updates that the XS will be available for $700 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS kit lens in the USA, and you cannot buy the body only, which is a shame. It’ll be out in August.

  • Sony Alpha 350 (read review here) for about $800. It has similar features as the XSi, and is nearly the same in imaging quality. One thing interesting about the 350 is that it has in-camera image stabilization, whereas the Canon and Nikon require lenses that have the stabilization built into the lenses themselves, which can increase cost in the long run. I’m not sure if one is superior than the other though.

I’ve not listed any of the other brands as recommendations because I’m just not familiar with them, but do your own research if you want to know more about them. The Digital Photography Review website is a great place to start to read reviews and keep up on the new camera models.

In the end, I’d strongly recommend going into a good local camera store and trying out the potential candidates. They’re all very good, and will likely exceed your capabilities for a while. I wouldn’t sweat the details too much as each brand seem to be leapfrogging the competition each time with consumers being the winners. Try out the cameras and see if they fit your hand well. Do they feel good? Is the screen too small? Can you see the screen in sunlight? See if the store will let you take it out into the street. Are the buttons easy to access? Do read the reviews listed since you’re starting out, and probably don’t know what functions you should have quick access too.

As for the lens, that can be a full article, but you might want to start with a general purpose lens that covers from about 24mm to somewhere in the 100mm range. It’ll cost a bit for a good one, but it’s worth it. If you can afford more, maybe even one of the good 18-200mm zooms. I don’t know about the Canon zoom, but I’ve used the Nikon lens and it’s especially good.

My tale

For me, my photographic journey started with cheap film point & shoots handled down from my dad a long time back. I eventually upgraded to my first SLR in a Nikon F401, then to a Nikon F601, again to the Nikon N8008s, and again to the Nikon N90s, and finally to a DSLR in the Nikon D200. As you can see, I’ve done my time with cameras that met my needs as I progressed up the food chain.

I’ve always stuck with Nikon even though I had the option to switch brands at several points. Nikons just seem to feel better in my hands. That’s where the feel of the camera comes into play. I’m happy with my choice of an SLR, as I need sharp lenses to be able to enlarge shots to 13″x19″ and beyond. I like having different lenses with different strengths at hand, such as a macro lens, a low light 50mm f/1.4 lens, and super wide angle 12-24mm lens. I like being able to use off camera flash for still life shots, and the fast response of the SLRs.

However, I sometimes wish for a compact camera that has most of the imaging qualities of an SLR (large sensor with low noise) and a sharp lens. It doesn’t even need to have a large zoom range. As I’ve paraphased, the camera with you is the best camera for the shot, and a compact is… well… compact and easier to have with you at all times.

Conclusion

I didn’t plan to write a long treatise on this topic, but I’ve seem to have done that anyway. I do hope it helps at least in getting you into the right ballpark with your final choice. Let me know what you eventually decide on.

Heck, if you can swing it, buy both.

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