What Camera to buy?

By Robert Norman

This article might assist those thinking of becoming more heavily involved in photography as a hobby.

The answer to this question is more that just saying

one camera is better than another – it largely depends on what suits the user’s

particular need.

Most people start their photographic journey the same way – a basic point and

shoot camera set to automatic. After a while they realise the limitations of these

simple cameras and aspire to something better. They move on to a basic DSLR

(still set to auto) on the assumption that “bigger is better” only to find that their

photos really haven’t improved as they had hoped. Some become disillusioned

and their camera collects dust in the cupboard only to see the light of day on

birthdays and weddings. Others choose to explore why they are not seeing the

results they hope for – and find the choice of camera, while important, is only a

small part of the overall picture (pardon the pun!).

Assuming someone is considering moving on from the compact point and

shoot, yes – a basic DSLR is a good choice, but only if they learn how to use it.

If they are going to leave it set to Auto them my suggestion would be buy a

really good compact point and shoot and forget about pursuing photography as

a serious hobby. You’ll take good crisp looking photos which will make good

record shots, but in my personal view – not much more.

DSLR’s by nature are large, bulky things to carry around. My daughter wanted a

good camera, but something that didn’t need a forklift to move. In the end we

bought a 4/3rds camera – a Samsung NX5. This relatively new class of camera

uses an electronic viewfinder making it much smaller. Personally, I don’t like

electronic viewfinders, but the Samsung is very compact, has interchangeable

lenses (and with an adapter will also take my Canon L series lenses – but without

autofocus), a 14Mp medium size sensor, and takes brilliant images which can

be saved in RAW or JPEG. For someone wanting to move up a notch, doesn’t

want something as heavy and bulky as a DSLR, and price is an issue – then I’d

recommend a 4/3rds camera as a an ideal first step. Another important issue

many overlook is ergonomics. I’ve got large hands and for me a small camera is

a bit “fiddly”, whereas my daughter is quite petite and delighted with the “feel” of

the Samsung.

To digress – there is one drawback with the Samsung – ACR (Adobe Camera

Raw) cannot open the NX5 RAW files. Samsung subsequently issued an NX10

which as far as I could see is all but identical to the NX5 including the native file

formats. Apparently if you change the NX5 file EXIF data from NX5 to NX10,

ACR can be tricked into opening NX5 files. Alternatively, the Samsung software

that comes with the camera will convert RAW images to TIFF files – which can in

turn be opened by ACR.

Once you’ve got your DSLR out of the box set it to AV and forget about the

Auto setting. Set your capture settings to RAW and JPEG, unless you are

already comfortable with image software like ACR or Photoshop – in which just

save in RAW alone. Save in both if you are not Photoshop competent, because

JPEG will give you an instant good quality image and the RAW file is there for

the future when you’ve mastered ACR/Photoshop. If you don’t want to learn

ACR/Photoshop, my advice is to leave the camera on Auto, save in JPEG – and

be satisfied with mediocrity!

Read you camera manual and learn how to set aperture and ISO and

experiment in all sorts of light until you understand the relationship between

shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Keep at it until you can consistently take

properly exposed images at average apertures (say f11) with sufficient shutter

speed to avoid camera shake (say 125th of a second on a 50mm lens) with your

ISO at say 400 or less. Then experiment with depth of field by using the widest

aperture of your lens – such as f2.8

You are now entering the second stage of you photographic journey and from

here on it is a matter of learning from others and practical experience. Buy

photographic magazines, do their tutorials, look at online tutorials, attend

classroom photographic tutorials and workshops, join a camera club etc.

At the same time as you buy your camera I’d strongly recommend you purchase

one of the Adobe image processing software packages – either Elements or, for

those with some image processing experience, Photoshop CS5. Both packages

come with ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) which is an excellent, relatively user

friendly image processing tool. My personal experience is that image processing

is a sophisticated business, and neither package can be used out of the box by

the uninitiated. There are numerous tutorials online, but my advice is to attend a

basic course run by a camera club, the CAE, or an experienced photographer.

In most cases these would be referred to as a basic Photoshop course

(Photoshop being the industry standard), but most basic Photoshop functions

are the same or similar to those within Elements.

So now you have a camera capable of taking good photos, you’ve learnt a bit

about image processing, and having realised there is so much more to learn,

you are more than likely finding the whole thing a bit daunting. Practice your

composition, try all types of photography (portraits, landscapes, macro, flash,

long exposure etc) in all sorts of condition. “Practice makes perfect” they say,

and that is as true of photography as anything else.

Join a camera club for support and inspiration – and entering their monthly

competitions will encourage you to do your best with your image production.

Photography magazines are expensive. Buy a range and subscribe to just one

or two that best cover your range of interest. For example Australian

Photography is pitched at basic to intermediate photographers, Digital Camera

from the UK has a great tutorial DVD each month, and Better Photoshop

Techniques is an Australian production targeted at those with intermediate or

better skills. Better Photoshop is part of the Better Photography stable

produced by Peter Eastway, one of Australia’s top landscape photographers.

Peter also offers online tutorials by subscription called Masterclass. For those

with basic Photoshop abilities who want to improve both their photography and

processing skills I’d recommend you have a look at Peter’s Better Photography

web site.

Getting back to what camera’s to buy, all camera’s from major manufacturers

such as Canon and Nikon take excellent photos and whether you spend under

$1,000 or several thousand for the top of the range model, the improvement in

the image is a lot less than most would think. Put a professional L series Canon

lens on a base model Canon and in average conditions I’d be surprised if most

people could tell the difference from the same image taken with the same lens

on the top of the range full frame Canon. What makes the difference is the lens.

If you are serious about taking better photos, don’t buy a kit, buy a middle of the

range body and the best lens you can afford. Manufacturers try to keep kit

prices to a minimum and as there isn’t much they can do with the body they

skimp on lens quality. My first DSLR was a Canon 50D with a kit 17-85mm lens.

That lens can be bought separately for about $400 with image stabilisation – yet

the L series replacement 24-70mm lens (without stabilisation) costs closer to

$2,000. The difference in the image quality is immediately noticeable.

Good lenses are expensive so think about what you actually need. I’m principally

into landscapes and don’t have much need for fast telephoto lenses – as would

say a sports photographer. Canon make a superb 70-200mm L series lens

where the f4 version without image stabilisation costs about $1,200. The f4 with

image stabilisation is around $2,000 and the f2.8 model with IS comes in close

to $3,000. Most of my shots are in good light and with a tripod I get the same

quality as the f2.8 with my non-IS f4 for one third the outlay. More money to

spend on another lens!

Would I buy a Tamron or Sigma lens – probably not. My research indicates that

while these companies make very good lenses the quality can be variable

whereas Canon and Nikon lenses are consistently reliable. Most Tamron and

Sigma lenses are also not compatible with full frame cameras. The old adage of

“You Get What You Pay For” holds true, but the exception to this rule might be

very large, fast lenses (say 500mm) which come with an equally large price tag

out of the reach of most of us. Sigma reportedly make a very good zoom lens

with a maximum focal length of 500mm at a fraction of the price. If you are into

bird photography (the feathered variety) a long lens is a must, and a “good” lens

has to be a better alternative to no lens!

Many lenses are not suitable for use on full-frame cameras. As most avid

amateur photographers aspire to ultimately move to full frame it is probably a

good idea (especially if you are buying top quality lenses), to acquire lenses that can be used on full frame cameras as well.

Image stabilisation. Yes, it is nice if you simply have to capture the moment in

low light and don’t have the luxury of a tripod (or time to set one up). For me, I’d

rather save the money to spend on another lens and live with the occasional

inconvenience. I’ve done tests that prove conclusively no matter how careful I

am with handheld shots, at modest shutter speeds I cannot match the quality of

a tripod shot. I’m also satisifed that an image taken with mirror lockup is always

cleaner as the slap of the mirror sets up a vibration in your camera that can last

longer than your exposure. Now these vibrations (hand held or mirror slap) can

be quite small and in most cases imperceptible, but when you start enlarging

images to A3 and A2 your shots need to be spot on.

What about full frame cameras? For a whole range of technical reasons they

take cleaner images with less noise and they have more pixels. So if you want to

enlarge your images (or crop them down) and still have something that looks

crisp and clean on A3 or larger, full frame is the way to go. Having said that, for

someone starting out, money will be the principle limitation once you look into

the cost of “good” equipment. My advice would be to buy a DSLR with a

medium size sensor to learn with, and upgrade when (a) you’ve decided you

need a better camera, and (b) you can afford it.

Finally, a word about eBay. I’ve bought and sold more photographic equipment

on eBay than I care to think about. There are material savings to be made on

new equipment (it all comes out of the same factory at the end of the day), and

eBay enables you to get best value for equipment surplus to you requirements.

While there are many pitfalls to using online auction houses (anything online

really), done properly (researching a fair price and setting your limits), and with

the right precautions (such as relying on PayPal’s guarantee against fraud) eBay

can be the photographers friend!

In summary:

 Moving to a DSLR involves a material learning curve.

 You will need to have a working understanding of image processing software.

 Undertake a basic photography and Photoshop course

 Work out what lenses you need for your type of photography – ie do you really need fast lenses with image stabilisation.

 Buy the best lenses you can afford – preferably suitable for full frame cameras.

 Join a camera club.

 Buy a range of photo magazines and then subscribe to one or two that suit your area of interest.

 Practice, practice and practice some more.
Article courtesy of 4WD Exposure which offers workshops and tutorials on basic photography and image processing – www.4wdexposure.com.au

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