Buying DSLR cameras

When purchasing a camera with, or without professional aspirations in mind, there are a few things you need to consider in order to prevent unnecessary expense, or inadequate robustness.
Except where size and/or weight criteria is extremely tight, digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR) are the most common preference for professional users. Although high-end gear over 80 MP is available in DSLR camera formats—bringing them into the medium format range, they are in fact dedicated DSLR cameras with medium format digital backs attached.

Technology is improving all the time. It is likely that soon a 35mm equivalent (a full-frame digital SLR) that is much smaller than the medium format size, will surpass 80 MP, currently only available in medium format size. Medium format digital cameras are currently very expensive. (http://www.dpreview.com/news/0998933437/phase-one-launches-100mp-medium-format-camera-co-developed-with-sony)

DSLR cameras generally have larger sensors than compact digital cameras, giving much clearer, cleaner noise free images. This is even more pronounced in lower light situations. They are usually more repairable as well, with many compact digital cameras considered as throwaway when they breakdown.

However there are situations where a DSLR camera is overkill! If your work is not destined to be printed any larger than post card size and will mostly be saved on disks for electronic viewing on websites, TV sets, or mobile devices, then a good compact camera with manual setting options will be all you need. Similarly if you want to be discrete, or carry a camera around in your pocket everywhere, again a good compact camera is the perfect choice. The problems start to arise when you want this convenience, but expect to print off some large prints at professional magazine image quality like posters! The only solution is to own more than one camera, each for the specific application you have in mind. Of course if you are not ready to spend these amounts, you would probably want to limit your professional aspirations a bit!

Whether you have professional aspirations or not, if you wish to be more creative, or are a more creative photographer from the past looking to purchase a new camera, the most important consideration would be the manual options available on it. For example, to create smooth misty like coastal wave action, or waterfalls in daylight, you will need to be able to set a very slow shutter speed. Something you can’t do without a degree of manual control on the camera. In this example you will also need to attach a very dense neutral density filter to the camera to block out much of the daylight. So the camera or lens must have provision to attach filters. While a number of higher-end digital compact cameras do have manual mode options, they may not have any provisions to attach filters. This is not the case with DSLR cameras, so in this example a DSLR camera is probably going to be the best option here.

There is a new breed of camera on the market as a compromise between the DSLR and a compact. They are mirrorless hybrids of a DSLR and a compact digital camera body (http://www.dpreview.com/tag/mirrorless). If the price is acceptable they have their place. While not up to the challenge of rapid action shooting photography against the full DSLR, they do match the quality of image and win in area’s where discretion, small size and light weight are a premium. They hold their own in covering crowded indoor functions for both stills and video.

A good digital compact camera with manual options will save you a few hundred dollars over most DSLR cameras and you can take it everywhere in your pocket. But for those willing to spend extra money to get a DSLR camera, you have further choices to make!

  • Are you going to be exposing the camera to the elements, lugging it around a lot on field trips, or primarily using it around town or in a studio environment?
  • Would you lean more toward sport, action, or event type photography, or architecture, landscape, portraiture or product photography?
  • Will this be your only camera?
  • Is weight a consideration?
  • Do you think you can get by with the accessories commonly available for all brands, or might you already have a need for harder to find accessories like power or battery grips, or manual focusing screens?
  • Do you want HD video functionality built-in?

Apart from the medium format DSLR cameras mentioned earlier, DSLR cameras can be divided into either full frame (35 mm equivalent size) sensors or smaller ones commonly referred to as APS-C sized sensors. APS-C is only about 40% the size of a full frame sensor. Compact cameras (with sensors referred to as four thirds) are commonly only 26% the size of a full frame sensor—they are going to be visually noisier, especially in low light situations! (It is picture noise I refer to here, not audio noise).

The sensor size influences the optical magnification factor of the image through a given lens. A full frame sensor sets the standard at 1x magnification, while the same lens used on an APS-C body increases the optical magnification by around 1.5x by comparison. So smaller sensors are better where telephoto applications are required and larger ones better for wide-angle applications. A 300 mm lens put onto an APS-C body would equate to 300 x 1.5 = 450 mm. A 24 mm lens on an APS-C body would equate to 24 mm x 1.5 = 36 mm.

To get the equivalent of a 24 mm lens from a 35 mm camera on an APS-C body you will need to fit a 16 mm lens. Most lens manufactures have added new lenses to their range specifically for this APS-C sensor body. It is cheaper to make these lenses than the conventional full frame ones because of the smaller diameter glass needed. While all lenses work with the APS-C bodies, only the conventional full frame ones should be used with full frame bodies.

As well as the choice of sensor size (full frame or APS-C), you also get a choice of entry-level, mid level, pro consumer, or full professional quality, based on budget. There are no full frame sensor models available (2011) in the entry and mid level ranges and the full professional models are often an odd size if not full frame. Canon’s non-full frame professional model is known as APS-H (larger than APS-C, but smaller than full frame). Smaller sensors generally have faster processing times, so you can get a higher, longer sustained burst rate in rapid fire mode. This is demonstrated between the Canon 7D APS-C camera and the Canon 5D II full frame camera. Both are models of the pro consumer category.

The 7D can fire at around 8 fps, twice that of the 5D, however the 5D carries all the other advantages of full frame quality. One will be more appropriate for landscapes and panoramas (5D), the other for fast action shooting such as sport and photojournalism (7D). In 2016 the 5Ds was released, with vast improvements of the 5D, 5D II & 5D III. The 7D has also been improved and released as the 7D II.

Manufactures produce a range of models to cover the whole market. They have divided the market into these four groups mentioned above and priced their cameras accordingly. Although price seems to dictate which class they belong in, quality of design, build and features determine price. Entry-level models are built smaller, lighter and usually of various plastics, without the use of extra weather seals around buttons, dials and cover openings. They may also be a little more limited in the extremes of their settings ranges. Their life expectancy based on the number of shutter releases over their lifetime is usually half that of the mid level range, which itself might be half that of the full professional range based on Canon specifications. So you get what you pay for.

Although most people will look after their investment, professional use can often be rigorous and in rugged environments that will take its’ toll on equipment. While for a professional this might all be accounted for in billing, or sales of work with equipment replaced more frequently, professionals do require maximum reliability in these harsher environments and that is what you pay for at the pro consumer and full professional end of the range—not so much features, but robustness and durability.

If you are an enthusiast rather than one of these professionals then you have a huge range of makes and models to choose from. Most professionals choose Canon or Nikon pro consumer and full professional gear as their preferred brands and pay the premium price to get them. These brands are leaders in quality, performance, robustness and the range of quality lenses and accessories available for them at a professional level. However an enthusiast will never put their gear through this harsh life and will not benefit from that extra image quality that only shows in poster sized or larger prints anyway, so there is really no need to spend that sort of money.

Following is a table of DSLR camera makes and models and where they fit on the classification table according to their own promotional literature, not price. The prices are what you might expect to pay for gear in that class as of 2012, so could indicate bargains—or the reverse!

Model market classification

Class: Entry level Mid level Pro consumer Full Professional
Price Range (Body only): < $800 $801-$1200 $1201-$3300 $3301 +
Canon EOS: 750D, 1300D 50D, 60D, 70D, 80D 5D, 7D (mk 3 & 2) 5Ds 1D models
Nikon: D3300 D5500, D7200 D750, D810 D5, D4s
Sony: A68 A55, A65 A77II, A7II A7RII A7s11, A99
Pentax: K50, KX2 K-7, K-5, K-3 K-1 N/A

These models will be superseded as time passes. To view the latest offerings visit: http://www.dpreview.com/products/cameras also check out http://www.gizmag.com/2015-enthusiast-dslr-comparison/40523/

You have to make a decision at the entry-level—budget or required specification! There is not much one camera can do that another can’t. Apart from durability and lens quality, the main difference is in how easy it is to operate. Some of the specifications that one camera has an advantage in over others are in areas of operation of importance that might be quite irrelevant to most enthusiasts. If you are not aiming at professional markets for your work, or don’t intend putting it through post-production (the digital darkroom using software like Photoshop), it makes good budget-sense to stick to budget rather than specification. After all you might end up selling your gear again if you lose interest in it after twelve months! As time goes by you might end up selling it again anyway as you upgrade to newer technology. You may lose too much if you were too ambitious with your purchases in the first place.

However you should purchase good quality lenses, as they will retain their value and can be kept for the new camera body anyway—assuming you are going to stick with the same brand! It might be worth noting that there is a subtle difference between creative photography, documentary photography and photographic art! Creative photography is based on intuitive interpretation of concepts, not post-production manipulation using editing software, and usually requires high image quality equipment to satisfy customers of your work and competition adjudicators for those aiming at top-level competitions. Work that is manipulated in post-production using software for creativity comes under the banner of photographic art and often does not require such quality of equipment. The final pictures of post-production art techniques are often meant to simulate surface textures and painted rendering, so sharpness, real colour and contrast are going to be deliberately downgraded anyway!

Documentary photography is straight snapshot recording of any event. Image quality might be of importance to a photojournalist, but the story with a “limited appeal time” will be of more importance, so don’t mis the shot because you don’t think you have the quality required! So what type of photography are you intending on doing?

It is hard to decide what equipment is best for you when you are not sure what type of photography you might enjoy most. That is one reason why I advocate starting simple. When in this scenario, stick to entry-level prices. If you can get a Pentax K-7 for the same price as a Canon 550D (T2i) then you might go for the Pentax K-7 because of its weather sealing. Similarly a Sony A35 would be a good purchase at Canon 1100D prices. In fact any mid level camera at entry-level prices should be snapped up. This usually happens when a mid level camera has been superseded by a new model. Outside of that it is hard to go past a Canon 1100D, or a Nikon D3100 for value as a first DSLR camera—or any other if the price matches these. Canon and Nikon have the value at both the entry-level and the professional level, but other brands like Sony and Pentax provide a serious challenge at the mid levels. It is very hard to separate Canon and Nikon, they are both maintaining pretty level pegging.

If your passion is outdoor sport, nature and wildlife, the Pentax K-7 & K-5 are good value for money in the mid range as they are the only ones that are weather sealed in their price range! Canon’s range doesn’t get the same weather sealing until the pro consumer level (at more than twice the price). Even then reports from industry reveal the Canon 5D II shutter release button weather seal to be a week point in this model. However this model is now superseded by the Mk III, and now the 5Ds (http://www.dpreview.com/products/canon/slrs/canon_eos5ds).

Lenses can also be weather sealed, but don’t assume all the pro lenses are, or that any of the budget ones will be at all. Check their specification first. Many professionals going out into exposed environment will acquire covers for their camera and lens. Some are commercially available, some are custom-made and some are home-made. They further protect gear from water, salty sea spray, sand and dust, while in use.

If a compact camera is desired, there is quite a range of water proof makes and models available that can be fully submersed up to several meters in water, so will easily handle the rain and are thus obviously dust proof. One of these is the Ricoh PX. It has the unique distinction of having a manual option in its’ mode selection—something that is very rear for a digital compact camera that is waterproof. This makes it more useful for general creative photography out in the field.

This article assumes the interest is in photography and not video, as many of today’s digital cameras also have high-end video capability built-in. Any reviews or recommendations on equipment here are based solely on the photography component and would likely change if the video requirements were considered.

I hope this article clarifies a few things and helps make your choice of camera a little easier, but unfortunately it doesn’t end here. While the camera robustness and reliability might be important, the lens determines the bulk of the image quality. Many lens manufactures often double up on the focal lengths available in their range, making us wonder why. Apart from the cross over period when a new model is released that will eventually supersede the previous one, often a high spec professional market lens will accompany a budget conscious consumer one. Canon is the best organised here, with an easy system of distinction. All their pro series lenses are identified by an “L” in their names and a red circle around the front of the barrel of the lens. Both Canon and Nikon lead in the range of professional lenses available, with independent manufacturers taking the same honours for the mid market. Canon and Nikon also do very well in the entry-level lens market. Although durability would not be their strong point at this level, optical quality is very good for what you pay.

Lenses might seem quite simple compared to camera bodies, but there is more to them than first realised. As well as looking for sharpness of image, experts also look for tonal and colour quality, edge aberrations, and evenness across the hole field, bokeh (patterns of out-of-focus highlights throughout the image caused by light diffraction through the iris), distortions, flare and internal element ghost reflections.

Zoom lenses introduce many of these undesired side effects due to the number of lens elements needed and the varying distance between them as they are zoomed in or out. Prime lenses thus provide the optimum in available image quality. A prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length, although some say one that has a fixed maximum aperture over the entire zoom range. We will have to wait and see which definition becomes the standard in time, however I refer to a prime lens as one with a fixed focal length here.

There is always some confusion with aperture and F stops. Aperture refers to the hole in the lens iris to which the light passes before hitting the camera sensor. When we say maximum aperture, we are saying biggest hole or opening possible. F stops on the other hand are a scale indicating volume of light in fixed units. The higher the F stop value, the lower the volume of light, because F stops refer to attenuation amount. It is back to front to the aperture concept and that confuses people because we think of maximum as the highest value. While a maximum aperture does mean maximum amount of light passing, it is represented by the lowest numbers on the F stop scale. Think of the F stop scale as attenuation. You want to reduce the light flow, so wind in some attenuation. How much? Well the higher the value, the more attenuation you are winding in. As you wind in this light attenuation, you are closing the iris, or reducing the aperture. So maximum aperture means minimum attenuation and minimum aperture means maximum attenuation, measured in F stops.

So if you feel you are going to need a lot of lenses for all different purposes and are prepared to pay for professional quality, then your choice of camera system really comes down to Canon or Nikon. If you have an unlimited budget you could check out what is on offer from the German manufacturers like Leica, but accessories would be limited. How easy is it for instance to acquire a tilt-shift wide-angle lens for your desired brand? On the other hand would you ever need one? There is no need to go into debt over equipment you don’t need! If you think you might need it one day, worry about it when the time comes—it might have been superseded several times in the meantime!

Buying photographic equipment like any equipment is usually more a case of great budget control, controlling vanity over need, current need over possible future need, returned reward over extravagance. Of course all that goes out the window if you are a collector!

If I were to give any advice from my own experiences, it would be “buy budget and test the waters”. Be prepared to sell and reinvest once you are sure the passion has taken hold, or if your aspirations are professional, invest when you find business coming your way. At this point, put lenses as a greater priority than camera bodies. My first upgrade after deciding this was going to be a long-term passion, was a professional lens and a second-hand body. Several years later I still use that lens a lot, but the body has been replaced. Bodies may wear out and be upgraded frequently; good lenses are a long-term prospect. They will dictate what brand you adhere to though, but are the key to image quality.

This article was researched and written by Gavin Lardner CC BY 2012, updated 2016.

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One response to “Buying DSLR cameras

  1. DSLR Camera. An important tip to consider with photography is that photography is one case where you might be at the mercy of the tools you use. This is important to consider because there is only so much you can do with a non dSLR camera due to processor and lens limitations. Invest in a DSLR camera. The single best thing you can do to improve your photography is to purchase a good camera. A digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera allows you to use lenses specific to the type of photography you are pursuing, and offer the ability to control every setting.*

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