18 July 2012 ~ 1 Comment

What Camera to Buy?

As a professional photographer I frequently get asked about recommendations for cameras. Below is a summary of my thoughts. The links are subject to immediate change…so they may not be relevant a month from now!

Factors

  1. Is the size of the camera an issue? There are three styles:
    – The smallest are “point & shoots” (P&S). Most are about as big as cell phone and will fit in a shirt pocket. Some models are a little larger which have a bigger zoom range and better optics. The thing I hate about them is there is typically a delay between when you press the release to when the photo is actually captured. I use Rebecca’s (my spouse) Canon P&S when doing outdoor stuff like cycling, hiking, backcountry skiing etc. where weight is an issue.
    – The largest are DSLRs which stands for digital single-lens reflex. They have interchangeable lenses. It seems 90% of people never buy a second lens anyway, so why both with the extra expense and bulk of a DLSR then?
    – The new (2011) mirrorless cameras & Micro 4/3s split the difference between a P&S and a DSLR. They have interchangeable lenses, but are more compact because they don’t have the bulky glass prism on top and the mirror housing (this combination is what is called “reflex”). Some of the Micro 4/3s do have a pentaprism, but the bodies are still smaller than DSLRs.
  2. What is your budget? This is like buying a car stereo system. They all look the same…but the more you pay, the better the sound quality. For $500 you can get an EOS Rebel T-3 (digital single lens reflex). It has 12 megapixels — plenty of resolution. It is one of the smaller DSLRs, but is still bulkier than the new mirrorless. If I was buying a DSLR I would get an low end or average body and spend more money on a better lens with a bigger zoom range.
  3. Do you need to shoot in dim lighting or at night? Tourists shooting inside museums without flash, night shots of the city, or taking pictures of your kids basketball game in a poorly lit gymnasium will want a “faster” lens. The speed of a lens is often ignored by amateurs as they get caught up with the big telephoto zoom ranges that are advertised. But unless you are shooting a soccer game from the other end of the field, I personally think that a faster lens with a smaller zoom range is a better investment. A faster lens is one that has a smaller number for the F-stop. F1.4 to F2.8 lenses let in more light that a “slower” lens with a higher number like a F4.0, F5.6 or even the dreadfully slow F6.3 found on some super zooms. Most zooms have an F-stop that changes as one zooms the lens in and out, which is why you will see a lens with a “F3.5-F5.6” lens—F3.5 is the f-stop at the wide angle end, changing to F5.6 at the telephoto end. In other words, as you zoom in more (making your subject bigger in the viewfinder) the lens reduces the amount of light available. Nearly all cameras, excepting a DSLR may struggle with trying to auto-focus in low light. After shooting in dim light, with a non-DSLR, it is wise to double check your focus by zooming in on your LCD image afterwards.
  4. Do you need a huge zoom range? If you are shooting wildlife (especially birds) or fast breaking sports, then generally a Micro 4/3s with a pentaprism or a DSLR is the best bet.
  5. Do you plan on making large prints? Most consumers only make 4×6″ or 8×10″ prints or post their images to Facebook. Any camera with 5 to 8 megapixels of resolution will work for that. But, if you plan to blow them up to 11×14″ or 16×20″, then a high-end mirrorless (with a large APS-C sensor), a good 4/3s, or preferable a DSLR camera will be required. Look for one with 12-18+ megapixels. The bigger then sensor, the better (which is why DLSRs offer the best quality of all cameras).
  6. Do you shoot fast action wildlife or sports? Mirrorless cameras can’t track fast subjects very well, so choose a DSLR or a 4/3s camera with a pentaprsim or SLR feature.
  7. Do you want to shoot decent video also? Most “still” or picture cameras over $400 shoot HD video now, but those with larger sensors should provide better quality.
  8. Do you need shallow depth of field? Depth of field is controlled by a combination of the lens and F-stop. For still life photos or portraits that have a nice blurry foreground and/or foreground (called selective focus), then a telephoto lens with a “fast” lens is a must, something that is rarely found on a P&S. If your P&S camera has a fast F-stop, like F2.0 to F2.8 AND you use aperture priority or manual (setting the F-stop to a smaller number) you could achieve this affect.
    These days, the iPhone app Instagram, one can achieve a very good shallow depth of field look too.

The links noted are to B & H Photo, a reputable place in NY that is the largest in the world and usually has the best “US” prices. Many other dealers undercut them by offering brand-x warranties (B & H also has their own warrant policy but they clear state it). The problem with a brand-x warranty is that one sometimes has to send the camera overseas for repairs, which takes forever. When possible, be sure you are getting the manufacturers genuine USA warranty.

Types of Cameras

  • Cell Phone
    One problem with cell phone cameras is the zoom range. Nearly all of them use a “digital zoom,” which is really bogus as it is merlely cropping into the image, which reduces the pixel count resolution. One is usually better off, cropping later in Photoshop. Also, since the lenses are so small, they have trouble taking good shots in poor (dark) lit conditions without blurry images do to a long exposure. Nokia has taken a revolutionary approach with their model 808, by placing a huge 41 megapixel sensor in their camera and then allowing one to crop later, without losing date, providing a “good” 5 megapixel cropped image.
  • Point & Shoot (P&S)
    Those with big zoom ranges, like the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS have a huge zoom range (24-1200mm equal) but the f-stop of that lens is F3.4–F6.5 which is “slow.” That means it is great for shooting your son in a soccer game 1/4 mile away, but lousy for shoot interiors of a dimly lit home or museum. It is a larger P&S and is also bad for “shoot your daughter in an indoor soccer game” jobs. The Canon PowerShot G15 is MUCH better for low light as the F-stop range is F1.8–F2.8. The zoom range is adequate at 28-140mm. If you looking for something very compact, then also look at the Canon PowerShot S110. It has processes RAW files too. The price on these is from $400 to $700. If you need a camera that is waterproof and shockproof, then look at Olympus or Pentax as that seems to be their niche.
    The biggest advantage of point-n-shoot cameras is that the sensor is much smaller than 4/3 or most mirrorless cameras, so consequently, they can design them with fast lenses (better for low light) that are much more compact than an equally fast lens on larger-sensored cameras like mirrorless, 4/3 and of course all DSLRs. Typically, the lenses are not interchangeable, but for most people looking at DSLR alternatives, an extra lens is a nuisance anyway.
  • Micro 4/3
    The Panasonic Lumix DMC  is a mirrorless hybrid that falls between a P&S and a DSLR and also falls into the Mirco 4/3s category. (Micro 4/3s sensors are half the size of a full frame sensor, or approx. 12 x 18mm in size and supposedly all brands of lenses are interchangeable with each other.) Panasonic has lead the way with many “pro” style focal lenses, like the 12-35mm F2.8 and 35-100 F2.8 (both excellent in low light, but have a smaller zoom range than the slower lenses). They also offer a decent “all around” lens that has good low light coverage, the 14-50mm F2.8-5.6 ($850, equal to 28-100mm on a full frame DSLR). This series has interchangeable lenses that are SMALL unlike DSLR lenses. My brother has one and has been basically happy with it (although for work photos lately he just uses his iPhone — but he doesn’t shoot kids playing soccer etc.). If you wanted to get a review on the Panasonic or others, visit this site for more info than you have to time for. Panasonic and Olympus are the leaders in providing the best lens selection for this market.
    The Nikon 1 looks very promising and has many lenses already available including the nice all around 10-100mm F4.5-5.6 (kinda lousy for night or dim lit photography however). At the time of this writing, the cheapest model is the J2 which runs about $550.
    Oddly enough Canon has avoided the whole 4/3s scene. Fujifilm and Samsung have also entered this market.
  • Mirrorless (this is where the categories getting blurry, as some Micro 4/3s are single lens reflex, while others or mirrorless!)
    The Canon mirrorless is called the Canon M and runs about $800 for a prime or non-zoom lens. Most people will want a zoom lens, so I’m not sure why they don’t package it with one up front (that is due to change I’m sure). If you own, or have family members, that have a Canon EOS DSLR system, those lenses will fit on this camera with an optional $200 adapter. Right now, they have only a few M-specific lenses available. Many mirrorless cameras have APS-C sensors which are on par with those found in most DSLRs. Some of these sensor are even larger than the Micro 4/3s cameras.
    Some of the new Micro 4/3s are also mirrorless and also fall into this category. Also check out this article on DPReview.
  • DSLR
    The big rivalry is between Canon and Nikon. As far as brands go, I have always preferred Canon, having switched from Nikon to Canon back in the late 1970s. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Nikon was king of the hill in the SLR (film) world. When Canon first introduced the EOS auto focus series, it blew away Nikon as it was so much faster. That was because they put the motors in the lens and not in the camera body. Most pros switched over to Canon, especially photojournalists and sports shooters. Nikon finally came around with decent auto focus lenses, but they had lost a lot of market share. Now things are pretty even. Some say the optics on Nikon cameras are better and that their on-camera flash and metering systems are better. Others like Canon as the new EOS mount is larger than the old Nikon standard, thus creating a stronger connection and allowing more ingenious lens designs.
    Nearly all DSLR models now shoot HD video, so any body will do the job. I would recommend getting something better than the standard “kit” lens which is usually an 18-55mm. Do not get the 28-135mm that Canon offers, unless you are getting a more expensive body with “full frame” sensor (like the Canon 6D or the Nikon D3 or D600), as you will have no wide angle range. Personally, I feel full-frame sensors are not worth the extra expense. If you can afford it, get a lens with a half-way decent zoom range, like a 17-85mm, 18–105mm or 18-135mm lens. My daughter Rose got this model instead as the lens is better for video (more range), but it is $1800. The 18-135mm lens is a sweet combination ideal for most travel photos. If you want to shoot indoor Pintrest style selective focus shots of your kids or still life shots (food or craft), when a fixed focal length or “prime” lens is fun to own. Pick a 50mm F1.4 or 85mm F1.8 lens. They are slight telephoto and good for close in shots, but not so good for group people shots inside with limited space.

Summary

Most people are looking for a good “street” or all around “tourist” camera with one lens. Here’s some choices….if cost were no object, and I wanted a very compact camera for making decent quality big prints, then I would consider the mirrorless Panasonic DMC-GF5 (or similar model) with the Leica 14-50mm F2.8-3.5 lens. This zoom range is pretty limited, but it is pretty good in low light. If low light shooting is not an issue, and you wanted a more telephoto reach, then choose the less expensive 14-150mm F3.5-F5.6 lens. It would not be particularly good for sports photography however. If you wanted a smaller device, but were less concerned about making jumbo prints, then the Canon G15 would be a good choice as a mid-sized point and shoot camera. If you must have the smallest thing around (i.e. for backpacking or trail running), then look at the Canon S110. I like this model as it shoots in RAW, something many P&Ss don’t do.

What do I own? I own a Canon 7D DLSR (APS-C sensor size) with numerous lenses. Ironically, I don’t have one all-purpose “street lens.” Instead, I end up bringing two: a 10-22mm F3.5-F4.5 super wide angle and a 24-105mm L-series F4.0 as my all purpose lens combo (i.e. my 2011 trip to Europe). If I were to purchase one all purpose “tourist and family shots” lens, it would be the Canon EF 18-135mm F3.5-5.6. Another two-lens choice I have looked at would be the EF 15-88mm F3.5-F5.6 (a bit wider for interiors than the 18-135), supplemented by a fast, medium teleph0to prime (fixed focal length) like a 100mm F2.0 or 135mm F2.0 lens. Either of those telephotos would provide killer selective focus shots due to their big aperture and conversion factor when used with a smaller than full frame APS-C sensor.

2014 Quick Update

Check out this overview written in December of 2013. In particular, look at the Canon Powershot G16 with it’s super fast lens (good for available light, something most DSLR “kit” lenses don’ even offer).

Last Updated: Feb. 2014

One Response to “What Camera to Buy?”

  1. Joe 3 August 2012 at 4:44 pm Permalink

    I love my Fujifilm X100 but I may take a look at Canon’s entry into mirrorless. I like the retro look Fuji but you get access to a bigger ecosystem with Canon.