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DSLR shopping

by Rob Friesel

a really good lens by Abby LadybugOver the past couple weeks and months1 I have reached that stage and am now laboring over the decision to upgrade to a DSLR camera.  It’s mostly (as a I admitted to one friend) “lens lust” but there’s also an amateur artistic element to it.  I’m looking for some more control over the pictures (i.e., the aperture size and shutter speed) and I believe I have taken my point-and-shoot about as far as it can go.  Then I came across this quote (via DF) which helped to capsulize it:

Christ on a bike what a difference. I feel like someone handed a slice of hot toast spread with cultured butter after a lifetime breakfasting on Skittles and government cheese. I mean, it does what I want it to! It autofocuses in less time than it takes my eyes to imagine what a proper focus would be! You can take pictures in tungsten light without tacking a fucking white card to the wall and metering fifteen times! You push the button and it takes a fucking picture! I am in consumer ecstasy! I am in consumer ecstasy! NyQuil! Advil! Malt liquor!

Begging the question: if a DSLR also happens to be the best point-and-shoot then why am I wasting my time on the point-and-shoot?

At Ben’s recommendation, I added the ’08 PCPhotoMag.com comparison shopping guide into the mix on top of my own opinions and research.  What has been beneficial about the comparison guide so far is how it attempts to compare/contrast some of the major features and to explain what to look for and what to consider in each of those features; and then the article attempts an apples-to-apples comparison of a few current models based on those features.  Even more advantageous for me is that the models highlighted in the comparison have a lot of overlap with the models I’ve been looking at anyway.

Now to consider aspects of this laborious decision in light of the article…

On Resolution

Ah…  The megapixel myth; the first piece that demands attention.  I will acknowledge that working with my 6 megapixel Canon SD630 has been a joy.  I have been very happy with the quality of the images — both how they look on screen and how they print.  Considering that I’m happy with these results, it makes me wonder if I would really notice the difference between that 6 megapixel point-and-shoot and a 10 megapixel DSLR.  After all, I print probably <5% of my photos and when I do print them, most of them are 4″ x 6″ and not even at 8″ x 10″.  What can I say?  I love me some Flickr.  And so if I do most of my sharing via Flickr and if I don’t believe that I will notice the difference (and if the articles say that 6 MP is plenty) then why not just max out there?

That said: there is this part of me that believes that if I go ahead and spring on the DSLR, I may as well go all-out and up the megapixel count anyway.  I.e., I’m reluctant to “save a few bucks” and jam “down” to a (for example) Nikon D40 when it might actually turn out to be easier and (depending on the package deals) more affordable to go with a D40X or even a D60?

It’s a tough call.  And I’m not sure that resolution is going to be the deciding factor.

On Stabilization

Hmm…  This one hardly seems like a consideration for me, though the PCPhotoMag.com article makes kind of a big deal about it.  On the one hand, I haven’t really found image stabilization to be a big problem for me.  Even some of my long exposure experiments on the SD630 have not been nearly as blurry as I expect them; and besides, I have invested in a tripod.  But there also seems to be this suggestion in some of the literature out there that this becomes more of a consideration with a DSLR2.

I suppose the jury is still out on image stabilization.  But this definitely will not be a deciding factor.

On Dust Reduction

What is there to say here?  This seems to have become more/less a standard feature — at least on all of the models that I have researched so far.  When it comes down to the final decision, this will be a factor — but it seems common enough that it seems more like I’ll be double-checking to make sure instead of actively seeking one out.

On Live View

Again: what is there to say…?  This is another feature that seems to have become standard on all of the modern DSLR models.  In fact, I cannot think of a single model that I have seriously considered that has not had a live view mode.  That said, I remember how to use an eye piece, so this will not be a eal-breaker.

On Subject Modes

I was actually a little surprised at how much value I placed on this feature when I started to seriously think about it.  Part of the whole “I have outgrown my point-and-shoot” mentality came from the fact that (for a while at least) I had stopped using the “subject modes” on the SD630.  I wanted DSLR-like control and so I was making a lot of manual settings adjustments to try and get everything just right.  Of course, after a couple months of that, I also realized that the subject modes were developed by photography experts and engineers to maximize the camera’s built-in features and remove as much of my guesswork as possible.  And as such I gained a new appreciation for that.  Now especially in light of the above Dean Allen quote…  Well: I’m beginning to think that having the subject modes crutch around is going to be kind of important.  Psychologically speaking.

On Lenses

See above: “lens lust”.

The truth is that I don’t know what I’m doing.  I desperately want to.  But I don’t know a 50mm prime from a 55-200mm VR lens from my own asshole.

There I’ve said it.

There are a whole lot of “ifs” and “ands” and “buts” that all seem to be involved in this whole lens business that are new to me.  I’m okay with that.  It’s a lot like when I got into graphic design and webdev stuff in the first place.  There is this whole exciting nomenclature that you cling to at first, playing along with it, blindly stabbing at it, and eventually putting all of the pieces together.  Granted, there’s more at stake with hardware3 but the spirit sure is the same.

And I suppose that is why the lens business is both simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating.  Lens mounts?  Adapter kits?  UV filters?  Tilt shift?  Auto-focus motors?  Focal length factors4?  Fisheyes?  The last thing I want to do is invest in a lens specifically for panoramic shots only to discover that it won’t attach to the camera body.  (Or worse: that it’s really meant for shooting objects really close up.)

So Which Camera Is The Right One?

This seems like such a big decision.  It seems like the smart thing to do is to go with a “last year’s model” like a Nikon D40 or a Canon XT; a DSLR in the 6 megapixel range that would be a step up in control but whose resolution would be the same as what I’m accustomed to.  But like I mentioned above: it also seems like if I’m going to go ahead with it anyway, then I may as well up the resolution while I’m at it.  And why not, right?  What is there to lose5 ?

Nikon D60Nikon D-series cameras.  One of the cameras in this line really seems like the way to go in many respects.  The D40 is supposed to be an excellent 6 megapixel camera with a nice big sensor and beautiful output; certainly the pictures in Flickr look great.  Another step up and we have the D40X which bumps the resolution to 10 megapixels.  And another step up and we have the D60 which adds in the motors for auto-focus.  Pros?  All of these models seem popular and well-known.  All of these models seems to have lots of lens options.  With the D60 having come out, the prices have dropped on the D40 and the D40X.  All of these models have “subject mode” features.  And it seems like a very feature rich line of cameras all around.  Cons?  The D40 is “only” 6 megapixels.  Neither the D40 nor the D40X have focusing motors6.

The other thing to consider seems to be the price-point and the packages that are out there and available.  The price-point on the Nikon models seems reasonable when compared to equivalent models.  And the more research I’ve done, the more it seems like there are affordable package deals out there that add accessories and essentials.  Let’s be honest now: the economics are a factor here, too.

Canon XTiCanon Rebel-series cameras.  Not to bust on the Nikons that appear to be so glowingly reviewed but…  Well, I kinda/sorta had my heart set on a Canon.  It’s partly a brand-whore thing and partly a recommendation thing.  Pros?  My comfort level with the Canon is automatically a little bit higher; I’ve used a Canon point-and-shoot for over a year now.  I would expect that the UI would be at least slightly more familiar7.  The brand is popular and well-known and much-recommended.  There are lots of lens options.  The self-cleaning sensor is standard.  Cons?  The Canon models do seem to be at a high price-point.  The XT is “only” 6 88 megapixels (but good luck finding one — seems that everyone only carries the 10 megapixel XTi now…).

And again with the “where to buy?” question.  Again, it seems like there are some good deals (and package deals) to be had out there — but in the apples-to-apples comparison with Nikon9…?  I have to wonder if the slight-but-significant-enough price difference is going to be noticeable in picture quality? easy of use? durability? long term satisfaction?

Other DSLR cameras.  And just when I thought I had at least narrowed down my selection to an “A or B” type choice, we have a bunch of other cameras enter the running.  From practically out of nowhere the Olympus EVOLT E-410 comes on my radar.  Its images seem to be of satisfactorily high quality.  And if I’m considering a UI shift away from Canon to Nikon anyway, why not accept yet another contender into the ring?  And then John (again) goes and screws up the whole mess by suggesting a Pentax like the K100D Super.  As if I needed more complicating factors?

Conclusions?

It seems, if not impossible, then at least Herculean to come to a conclusion without more input.  The sentimental, optimistic part of me wants to jam with a Canon XTi.  A slightly more practical part of me says to go for the Nikon D40.  The skeptic wants the Pentax K100D Super.  And/but how does one go about rendering the decision?  The five minutes spent screwing around in the store with one model or the other is not nearly enough.  And yet there is basically no chance of a field test either.  And just because the images I find on Flickr look great doesn’t mean that mine will…

So, dear readers: any suggestions while I continue to digest all of this?

  1. It’s been months but I put the research project on the shelf for a while and then resurrected about two or three weeks ago. []
  2. E.g., the Mike Davidson article shows two comparable 1/8th second exposures with and without image stabilization and there is certainly a noticeable difference there. []
  3. I.e., who wants to blow a few hundred bucks on a lens that they can’t take full advantage of? []
  4. This seems like it’s a big deal and yet no one seems to really make that big of a deal about it.  The “focal length factor” stuff certainly isn’t one of the “highlight items” in the PCPhotoMag article; they mention it in context but they don’t have a call-out for it the same way that they do for resolution or even image stabilization.  And maybe I’m overblowing this in my mind.  Maybe the focal lenght factor stuff is more/less irrelevant if you’re doing all of your photo work digitally anyway.  But it’s mentioned in enough places that it makes me think that I need to give it some long and hard and very careful attention.  One way or the other, this will come into play when the final decision about a camera is being rendered. []
  5. Besides a slightly more than a few dollars, eh? []
  6. But both models appear to ship with an AF-S lens that does have an auto-focusing motor built-in; so it’s a bit of a trade-off, I guess. []
  7. Though John says that all UI elements get thrown out of the equation when going from point-and-shoot to DSLR territory.  Time will tell? []
  8. NOTE: Corrected this on May 23, 2008.  Got my facts wrong.  Sorry about that. []
  9. Or is that too much of a holy war? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

8 Responses to DSLR shopping

Chris Kelly says:

I went through this over the holiday season. I ended up pushing up to the Canon 40D, though I still wonder about a comparable Nikon 😉

Even though I didn’t really follow my own advice, I’ve pretty much learned that you really want to spend only enough on the body to be happy, and then really go crazy on the glass.

I ended up getting a package with the Canon EF-S 17-85mm, which is a decent lens, but to be honest, the Canon EF 50mm prime is attached to the camera 99% of the time (we do a lot of food shots for my girlfriend’s cooking blog) and is well worth the purchase when you get a camera. I’ve also started taking a liking to the Canon EF-S 10-22mm, so that may be a future purchase as well…

Overall I’ve been extremely happy with the Canons and would recommend the Rebel XTi, as it’s such a killer deal with the Rebel XSis just coming out.

Also think about saving a little extra money for an application like Lightroom or Aperture if you’re evening considering shooting in RAW.

found_drama says:

@Chris: thanks for the advice! I think that’s part of the reason that I’m thinking of keeping it narrowed down to either the Nikon or the Canon — seems like it will be much easier to find lenses.

Justin says:

I love my D70s. I don’t think it matters which brand you go with, even though the act of purchasing a brand kind of locks you into that brand for life – the lenses aren’t interchangeable. Still, the new D300’s make me wonder if I should have waited a bit longer. I’ve tried shooting with my cousin’s canon, and I felt it kind of awkward – though I imagine a lot of that is normal inexperience with a different interface.

Anyway, one accessory that is easy to forget is the camera bag. Most camera bags suck. The only one I have found that I enjoy and feel comfortable carrying most everywhere I go is the Domke. It is much more extensible than any other bag I have used, and it stands out a lot less than the average lowepro or crumpler.

Justin says:

Oh, and I highly recommend picking up a 50mm prime… not only are they a lot of fun, they are one of the best ways to improve (or so I’ve found).

I don’t think you have to worry about stabilization as much when purchasing a body. That’s where a VR lense will help (and it does, if you are willing to spring for it).

I haven’t gone to the step of picking up lightroom or aperture, but I really want to. That said, I’ve done just fine with iPhoto, and expect to for some time (and I shoot a lot, up to and over a few hundred RAW frames per outing).

And, the rule seems to be to spend less on a body, but more on lenses – they say a good piece of glass will last you multiple decades, while bodies change more freqeuntly.

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