Wednesday, June 8, 2011

So you want to buy a DSLR.....

Ok so you decided to take the plunge and pick up one of those new DSLR cameras you have been seeing around the neck of people at weddings and well.. basically all over the place. But you have no idea where to start... Rather then blindly taking your hard earned cash to Best Buy and relying on the "knowledgeable" employee to help you buy one.. here is some basic tips/info to get you started...

Note.. this is not a be-all-end-all guide to buying one.. these are just my basic thoughts and a reha
sh of what I have told a few people recently who were doing just this.. buying a new DSLR for the first time.

What exactly is a DSLR and why is it better then my Point and Shoot?
Ok.. to answer this I am going to avoid drawing any pictures, or getting too into the technical jargon. (going to be hard.. but lets try to give it a go)
(ok I couldn't help it.. had to add one

DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. Boiled down what that means is that with a DSLR camera (or any SLR for that matter) there is only ONE lens and one way for the light to enter the camera. EVERYTHING from the actual light recording, view finder, focus sensors, exposure sensors, and so on, uses the same optics and light path. A PS (point & shoot) camera typically has a lens which is used for the camera to take the picture, and then several other sensors external to it which handle the rest. The viewfinder is an separate optic which is offset from the main lens. Now why is a SLR better? In a nutshell.. you are measuring the exact light that you are recording.. so everything will be more accurate. What you see in the viewfinder is what you get.

SLRs are bigger cameras then PS ones. They have bigger optics, and bigger film/sensors. Everything about them is more accurate, has less optical distortion, and cleaner (meaning lack of image/sensor noise) then a PS camera. What this means (again, in a nutshell) is better looking pictures across the board.

Basic rule: Bigger/Heaver optics/sensor = higher image quality and camera performance.

SLRs also have interchangeable lenses. Rather then stick you with fixed lens that has an "all purpose" focal length and mediocre performance you can select the right lens for what you are trying to do. For scenic stuff you can attach a nice wide angle.. for sports a telephoto with image stabilization. For a wedding maybe you will use a "fast" standard zoom (f2.8 24-70 is typical). During the course of a "event" you may find yourself swap
ping lenses a few times. Or.. maybe you just attach a good "walk around" lens and go with that.. accepting that it might not be totally ideal for each situation. It is all up to you.

SLR cameras are not for the photo-graphical weak. If you plan on just keeping it in P (programmed) mode all the time then you may want to consider getting a Pro-Sumer camera instead (a fancier better PS). SLRs allow you to use modes which give you total control over the photographic process. Everything from using full manual exposure, manual focus, manual flash power, and then RAW file post processing is possible. Of course you don't have to go that far by choice or by necessity. The point is that SLRs are for those who not only want to take pretty pictures, but who want to have that creative control over the photographic process. There also are some situations (like low light, natural light, sports, nature, etc) where you really NEED to control the process. The control systems in a PS camera just are not capable of seeing the shot the way our eyes do so they just can't setup the camera correctly. Those "scene" modes that your PS camera have may help you a little bit.. but only a little bit.

With a SLR you will be able to get shots you would never be able to get with a PS, at a far superior quality, and utilize creativity which you wouldn't be able to use with a PS. On the flip side you will have to learn (at least) about basic photography in order to make full use out of it.

So now that you have decided to buy one... what do you need to know?

You are buying into a system...
The biggest difference between buying a Point & Shoot (PS) camera, and DSLR, is that you are buying into a "system" with a DSLR purchase. You will be investing in lenses, flashes, and other accessories. It is the nature of the beast. These will all, more then likely, be from the same brand. So if you buy Canon you are stuck with the lenses offered for Canon... and so on. So you had better look beyond the camera body at what else that brand has to offer. Look into the lenses.. the pricing... It all should factor into what you buy because once you commit to a brand you are stuck. Down the road after you have bought a few lenses you are not likely going to dump that brand to go with another one.

Note: Yes there are 3rd parties who make lenses compatible with Canon and Nikon. Tamron, Sigma, and Zeiss are some of the major names. In some cases (Tamron and Sigma) you can get a better value version of the same "Brand" lens at similar or possibly better performance. Zeiss makes amazing lenses but they are not for amateurs and WILL empty your bank account. The same thing applies with flashes and other accessories... but if you want to use ETTL-II or the Nikon equivalent you'll need to stick with the brand name models.

Nikon vs Canon vs ?
"So what brand should I buy". Let me (once again) boil it down... you should pick between Nikon or Canon. That is it.
  • Olympus has always done things differently then the mainstream.. and that will hurt you down the line.
  • Sony is not really 100% ready for prime time yet (but they will be....and they will be good).
  • Pretty much every other brand has very limited market share. Just stay away. A brand without market share isn't going to have good support by software companies, and 3rd party HW. If you are buying into a brand's system (See above) you don't want to buy into one that no one cares about.
I know that I will piss off some fans of Pentax or Sigma (or etc) with what I said above.. and I am not putting down the technical qualities of the gear.. some of that stuff is very very nice.. but your not going to find a Sigma compatible battery at Best Buy in a pinch...

Now.. which of the two should you buy? That is your choice. Both are good brands. Both have the
ir fanboys. Both have their faults.
  • Nikon has this funny thing where some of their lenses do not have built in AF motors... so they are only compatible with the more expensive bodies. (not really a huge deal.. but still a quirk that annoys me)
  • Nikon also puts the IS in the body... which is not something I prefer.
  • Canon (as of this moment) has ever so slightly more noise in their images at high ISO as opposed to Nikon
  • And so on and so on...
Really you can't go wrong with either. They are both good. Your best bet is to go to the store and hold them.. see which ones you like shooting with better. In the end that is the biggest factor.

Marketing things to ignore:
Megapixels... who needs em:
Marketing people, in an effort to "Dumb down" the whole camera buying process, have focused on megapixels as a discriminating factor with cameras. They push an idea that "More is better". Now that isn't necessarily NOT true. But it isn't the biggest and most important factor when comparing two cameras.

For me, that lies w
ith image noise. I want to be able to jack up my ISO as high as possible and still end up with a useable image. I want to use as little noise reduction as possible. Sure, more resolution (or megapixels) is good too. But I know from experience that once I get over 10MP I can pretty much do whatever I need to do. I can crop down reasonably, and I can print up to poster size without a problem. Plus I have access to excellent tools which can upsample if needed. So if camera A has 12MP and B has 18MP I don't care too much... nor should you unless you plan on printing NASA quality wall posters.

High continuous shutter speeds are for the birds..

Here is another marketing friendly specification: how many frames per second (fps) a camera can take in continuous mode.

Put simply: If you are NOT a photo journalist... If you are NOT specifically a sports photographer shooting for SI, or ESPN.... if you are NOT a reporter who covers local high school / collage games.. or if you do NOT plan on hiking out into the wilderness with $10,000 lenses attempting to shoot birds in flight.. you do NOT need a super hyper fast fps!

Most entry level DSLRs
do 3-4fps... and that is more then fine for chasing your toddler around. Trust me.

Included software
You aren't going to use anything that they include with the camera (at least until you start messing with RAW).

You are going to get your hands on Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop Express, or maybe full blown Photoshop.

There also are some other non Adobe competing products out there which are also good...

Forget about ANYTHING you can buy at BestBuy (unless it is from Adobe of course). For all sorts of reasons that I don't have time to go into here (maybe in a future blog) they are worthless. Again.. trust me.

Sensor Size
Most DSLRs that cost less then $2000 are what is called "crop" sensors. Their sensors are smaller then a piece of 35mm film. Cameras that are the same size are called "full frame" and cost more then $2000.

Smaller senso
rs cost less money to make, and thus the cameras are cheaper (and more compact). Mind you the crop sensors found in DSLRs are still much larger then what is typically found in a PS camera. The usual size is called 1.6x which means a full frame sensor is 1.6 times the size of the smaller sensor (in a nutshell). The sensor found in a PS camera is much smaller then that. These tiny sensors do not have excellent image quality overall.

Smaller sensors have another benefit in addition to price. Because of the physics behind it you get a telephoto effect. Basically that means whatever lens you attach will have slightly less wide angle, and slightly more telephoto. In the case of fixed length lenses they will be a little "longer" (more zoom) then what the lens actually is. Obviously that is just the basic idea..

One big drawback to smaller sensors is that their pixel density is much higher then their full frame co
unterparts. many more megapixels crammed into a small space. Due to the nature of physics this results in much more image sensor noise as compared to a lower pixel density. So.. if you crank up the ISO on a crop camera you will see significantly more image noise then compared to a more expensive full frame camera. Why do you care? Well if you are in low light you'll end up with grainy images.. or if you go to a wedding and do not use flash.. you'll end up with grainy images. Granted today's modern technology noise reduction software will help.. but it will be lossy. The #1 reason why people go full frame is to take advantage of the low imager noise.

So in general... the bigger the sensor the higher quality the images will be.. the lower the image noise will be.

I will also add that in my comparisons between my full frame 5DmkII and my crop 40D the full frame pictures have a much better dynamic range, color saturation, and over all beauty then with the 40D. There really is a difference beyond resolution and ISO.

Ok so that is what I got for you to start...

(and thank you to the various online locations that I stole the pictures and diagrams from.. you know who you are.. thanks!)