A Treatise on Buying Cameras

by ajamess on 10.Feb.11

in Buying A Camera,Photo Gear,Photographic Musings

This is just a small writeup I did when asked "what features matter" in an entry level SLR purchase.  Of course, it all depends on use case, but here's a stab at it, and what I would by given different budgets right now.  I presume little to no knowledge of cameras in this post (hopefully I've delivered there):

Full disclosure: I shoot a Canon 7D and Canon 1Ds Mark II, so, while I hope I was not biased in this post, take my suggestions with this in mind.

Min / Max ISO sensitivity – this is a number, like 100, 200, 400, etc, which approximates how sensitive the sensor is to light.  The higher the number, the more sensitive.  What this means is if you have a camera that maxes out at 12,800 ISO and one which maxes out at 3200, the one which maxes out at the higher number will allow you to take sharper pictures in lower light.  Every doubling of the ISO effectively doubles the light sensitivity, allowing you to double your shutter speed.  If you imagine a darkly lit party where you are shooting at 1/15th of a second with your 3200 ISO camera and getting blurry shot after blurry shot, the camera which maxes out at 12,800 ISO would let you shoot at 1/60th of a second, which would allow you to take sharp pictures without much issue.

Image Resolution (Mega Pixels) – Any current entry level camera body is going to have at least a 12 MP resolution, and many will have more.  12 MP will allow you to make great prints…16x20s are no problem, and you can go plenty higher from there.  Lots of people will tell you megapixels dont matter any more.  The reason being that any camera today can output an image of sufficient quality to hang on your wall.  This is true…if you don't ever plan to crop your images.  As soon as you start cropping things, though, megapixels start to matter.  If you crop half the image away on a 12 MP shot, you are left with 6 MP to play with, which can be limiting if you are printing (but will still look great on a computer monitor).  If you think you won't crop / make any prints, this is not something you need to worry about…just consider your use cases before making it a feature you care about.

Screen quality – obviously digital cameras have a screen, but up until 2 years ago, they were pitifully low resolution for their size.  Older cameras typically have 230k pixels in their screens.  This is borderline questionable for being able to determine if a shot is sharp or not.  Newer cameras will have 920,000 pixels or more, and it makes a huge difference in usability.  I would recommend to consider this a big selling point.  FWIW, some of the lower-end Nikons still have 230k pixel screens.

Number of dedicated external buttons – okay, this is much harder to quantify, but you will notice it quickly if you go somewhere to handle the camera.  The reason this is important is, if you actually get into photography, you will want to change settings quickly.  If you are using a point and shoot now, you may or may not know the pain of changing things like focus points or ISO sensitivity, etc.  The more buttons you can devote to quick operations like this, the better prepared you are to change them as fast as possible when you need to.  Honestly, though, if you think you will be in auto mode the whole time and don't expect to invest time in learning about aperture, shutter speeds, and how they affect your image, this point doesn't matter at all.  If you were looking for 1 button, I would make it the ability to change ISO sensitivity with one press.

Ability to do "live view" – SLRs are designed to divert light to a physical viewfinder to allow the user to frame a shot.  Obviously this becomes problematic when shooting at strange angles, as your face needs to be smashed up against the cam to see what's in the frame and what isn't.  Live view shows you a "live" image as it appears on the sensor by exposing the sensor directly to light and outputting the result on the back screen.  This is great for strange shooting situations, tripod use, over-the-head use, etc, and also allows you to lock in focus extremely precisely (you can magnify the image and ensure spot on focus).  True, you will primarily be using the physical viewfinder, but having live view is a huge plus for around 20% of shooting situations.

# of AutoFocus points
– this kind of doens't matter, but kind of does.  It really depends who you ask and what kind of shooting you will be doing.  In an SLR, as I mentioned, light coming through the lens is diverted to a physical viewfinder to allow you to frame the image.  Part of this light is split off before hitting your eye onto a passive autofocus sensor.  This is a piece of silicon with physical "points" that map to points inscribed on your viewfinder.  When you focus the camera, whatever is on your currently selected point will snap into focus.  Obviously, the more points on that piece of silicon, the more "choices" you have when focusing the camera.  This is important, because for a given composition, the thing you want in focus has a higher probability of falling onto an autofocus point if there are more of them.  The thing is that, unless you are really going to invest in the hobby, 9 or so is more than sufficient for your needs.  The good news is that most all entry level cameras offer 9 points, laid out in a way which covers almost all of the frame.  That said, I would avoid any cameras with 3-5 AF points…that's where the AF point layout can seriously hinder what you can do when taking a photo.  Just as a point of reference, the current pro bodies have 45-51 AF points, something which becomes much more important if you are going to be doing a lot of action photography (sports, birds/wildlife, etc).

Continuous Shooting Speed / Buffer Depth – This is probably the most obvious…these are two numbers, measured in FPS / number of frames, respectively, which define:

1) How fast the camera can shoot
2) How many consecutive images it can take before it has to slow down to flush that info to the memory card

These figures, again, are very important to action photographers.  If you aren't interested in that, stop here.  If you are, then almost any entry level camera is going to fall short here.  Most entry cams shoot around 3-4 FPS with a 30-35 JPEG frame / 6 RAW frame buffer.  If you are shooting RAW, this means you are having to slow down your shooting rate 2 seconds after starting.  This really hampers action photographers, as they will machine gun for several seconds at much higher frame rates to capture peak action.  As such, I wouldn't really worry about this figure for most entry level cams, as, if you want to do that kind of shooting,  you are better off going up a couple notches to a quicker camera body.

HD Video – going to be short with this one…  Newer cameras allow you to shoot extremely high quality HD video (read: several feature length films have been made with DSLRs).  This may not make much sense, but the fact that SLRs, which have HUGE sensors in comparison to typical video cameras, can shoot video is a big deal.  The quality they are capable of outputting is akin to cameras which, when this technology was debuting, cost several 10's to 100's of thousands of dollars.  If this is something that interests you, make sure you get a model which can capture at 24 and 30 FPS at full 1080P.  Some models capture their video at 20, which is shit, or at 720P, which is okay, but not great for making "real" videos.

Viewfinder quality / coverage – this doesn't really matter for entry level cams…as you step up, viewfinders get bigger / have more coverage of the scene.  If someone tells you to make this a selling point on an entry level body < the 1000 dollar mark, he's full of it, as most all of them are exactly the same.  If you want to be sure for yourself, hold them up to your face and compare :).

All this said, spec sheets are only going to get you so far.  You really need to go into a camera shop and handle some of the models within your price range.  Take some shots, mess with settings as you take them, see how they feel in your hand, and leave the store with the one that feels the best in your hand and is the most intuitive for you to use.  SLRs do have a decent learning curve, so you probably wont be able to feel "at home" right away with any of them.  However, if you have to reach awkwardly for buttons, or end up bumping stuff with your face, or don't like how it fits your hand, then it's probably not the camera you should buy.

If I was going to buy a camera right now, here would be my choices for the sub  1500 dollar bracket:

1200 – Nikon D7000 (body only, no lens) (Canon 7D is a good choice for a couple hundred more, as well, but it's an older cam than the D7000)
900 – Canon 60D or a Nikon D90 (body only, no lens) (Nikon is an older camera here)
800 – Canon T2i w/ 18-55 IS lens
600 – Nikon D3100 or Canon T1i w/ 18-55 IS lens (Canon is an older camera here)

Honestly, for the price point, the T2i is probably the best featured camera out there.  It's a really, really good value.  If 800 is too much, the D3100 is very similar to the T2i, for a couple hundred bucks less.  If you can swing 900, the Canon 60D is a great choice, but it won't come with a lens, so expect to invest another 200 there.  For 1200, the D7000 blows any current offering away…it's a phenomenal camera, but you'd be looking at 1400-1500 to pick it up with a lens.

At the end of the day, I would pick up a Canon T2i, and if you have some money left over, get a 50mm/1.8 II lens, it's 100 bucks, sharp as shit, and will let you take pictures in very dark conditions hand-held.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kurt Klimisch September 12, 2011 at 22:13

I would rather not point people to a kit lens. Kind of a waste of time, they should just get a good P&S. DSLRs are all about the lens first and foremost. Good article but I had my thinking really turned around by this article. http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2010/05/letter-to-george.html Don’t know if you have seen it. I had a 20D for about 5 years. Great camera. Then I went and got a 1Ds Mk 3 and it was amazing! Sold it because… I don’t know,,, and long story short, got a 7D – hated it, ended up with a used 5D classic and 1D Mk 2N and love them both.


ajamess September 12, 2011 at 22:40

I love TOP! I read it every day. I would agree with the idea of not getting a kit lens outright…if you’re already a photographer. I think there are cases where the kit lens does serve a good purpose. Consider a parent who’s always had P&S cameras and wants something a bit more capable for capturing their first born kid waddling about. They’re going to want to have something flexible over something performant. The issue here is that, to get similar range / IS capabilities, you’ll have to spend almost as much as you did on the camera body.

Then again, if you are buying an SLR with the express purpose of taking photos on a hobbyist level, I think the kit lens is indeed a piece of trash, and you’ll be much better served with a fast normal prime and either a reasonably priced zoom (off-brand 17-50 or 24-70) or a wide prime. The problem here, though, is that you’re probably spending 100 bucks on a 50/1.8 and another 300 on a zoom / wide prime, which is, as a whole, less flexible than the kit lens.


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