Digital Camera Recommendations

A few weeks ago, a colleague asked for advice on what DSLR camera to purchase for his wife for Christmas. She had past experience of using an SLR camera, an Olympus model, but had not used it for a good number of years. She also had a reasonable stock of Olympus lenses and he wondered if she would be able to reuse them on a DSLR. I thought I would retain an edited version of my response on my blog for reference.

Dear Colleague

Re: DSLR camera for your wife.

I sounded out a few people in forums I participate in as well as my local photo club in order to answer the questions.

They confirmed what a quick google search has suggested, namely that reusing old Olympus lenses on modern cameras (even Olympus cameras) whilst technically feasible is not particularly practical (everything has to be manually operated). Not recommended. The new Olympus camera system uses unique lenses and their cameras and lenses tend to be physically smaller than those of the other manufacturers. Indeed, in addition to their DSLR offerings, they have come up with a system that does away with the R part of DSLR whilst retaining the ability to change lenses. (R stands for reflex and refers to the mirror that sits in front of the sensor/film, and bounces the image that comes through the lens up to the viewfinder via a pentaprism, which flips out of the way when the picture is taken – producing a familiar camera shooting sound) – see section below on Frame size for more information.  Whilst there are a wide range of DSLR camera manufacturers. You are recommended to either go with a Canon or Nikon model as these are the market leaders. There are very good cameras from other manufacturers, but if you want the benefits of mainstream support and economies, it is best to go with one of the leading two.  Any of the current range of either manufacturer is likely to prove to be an excellent camera for your wife. As she has experience of using film SLR in the past though it is probably best to avoid the entry level cameras as she is likely to grow tired of them quickly.

Differentiators

The key differences between cameras as you go up the range are:

  • Manual v. Menu controls
  • Speed
  • Quality

1. Manual v. Menu

Three settings control the photo taking process: a) duration of exposure, b) aperture (size of hole through which light passes), c) sensitivity of sensor (digital or film) – the ISO ratings. In more detail:-

a) Exposure duration (shutter speed): all modern DSLRs cover a very wide exposure duration range – this will not be an issue.

b) Aperture: although set on the camera,  this is a lens issue, not a camera issue; better quality lenses offer lower f numbers (e.g. 1.4, 2.8) – these are called faster lenses because the lower the number, the bigger the hole, therefore the less time is required to get the same amount of light in HOWEVER large apertures produce shallower depth of field images (so only small part of the image in the depth dimension is in focus). Prime lenses have one focal length (a fixed magnification level if you like). Zoom lenses have multiple-focal lengths, which makes them optically more complicated. Cheap Zooms tend not to be fast (or as you zoom – magnify – the biggest aperture you can use gets smaller and smaller). Faster lenses are required for action photography (sports) and are also helpful for portraiture where you want to blur the background.

c) Sensitivity of a digital sensor: this is pretty much preset by the manufacturing process, and increases in sensitivity is then achieved by amplification of the signal – the better the quality of the sensor the better the results of amplification (less noise – just like turning up the volume on a cheap amp gives your distortion, but sounds great on a better system)Generally, the more expensive the camera, the easier it is to change these settings between shots. On the medium cameras and up, you tend to see two knurled knobs (one in front and one behind the exposure button) which you can adjust easily with thumb and finger whilst looking through the viewfinder. These are usually set to control the exposure duration and the aperture. These are the heart of control/creativity in photography. On the cheaper cameras, you tend to have to go into menus to change things.

DSLRs have several operating modes running from fully-automated, scene based (on the cheaper models, to make them more like the small “consumer” cameras), through aperture priority (where you set the aperture, and the camera sets the shutter speed automatically), shutter priority (the opposite of aperture priority), to full manual mode. You can also get controls for, amongst other things, adjusting how the camera judges what the right exposure is likely to be (for example, averaging the light it sees thoughout the whole sensor, weighting the reading for the centre, or taking a spot reading from the centre), exposure compensation (forcing the readings and hence automatic elements in a particular direction to allow for factors the photographer understands but the camera doesn’t such as when photographing someone in a white wedding dress against a dark background where the camera will try to average the two out by default), auto-focusing mode (motion tracking, multiple-points, etc.). The more expensive and professional the camera, the more features tend to be controlled by physical buttons/switches/slides/etc. rather than going through menus.

Given your wife’s experience, she will probably be better having good control.

2. Speed

This refers to how quickly the camera is ready to take a picture from turning the camera on. For the cameras you are looking at, this will not be an issue. It also refers to how fast and for how long it can take a series of pictures. For capturing special moments when the exact timing of the moment is not certain, the faster the camera and the bigger the buffer the better. The better cameras can manage as much as 4-8 frames per second. (Obviously, in video mode, they are recording far more frames per second, but not to the same quality standards as a still picture and modern compression technology is used heavily on video content using frame delta approaches and lossy near redundancy reduction.)

3. Quality

It is important not to confuse quality and resolution. A 12 mega-pixel sensor can produce a better picture than a 24 mega-pixel camera in many cases. The higher the resolution, the more “scaffolding” there is between the individual light collectors which results in increased noise and poorer amplification options. Flow down of technology is rapid at the moment, so in some ways, the more recent and cheaper Nikon D90 can produce slightly better photos than the older and significantly more expensive D300 using the same lenses. The D300 has a wider range of functionality though and better build quality (including protection to keep rain and dust out of the insides of the camera). The D300 is designed as a semi-pro camera and hence has a more robust and protective case. See Clarkvision.com for detailed comparisons between different sensors.

Choices

So, to the current camera choices as at Christmas 2009. Note that VR = vibration reduction, IS = image stabilisation : in either case, optical/mechanical mechanism in Nikon/Canon lens respectively to compensate for vibration when shooting a low speeds (such as taking a picture indoors without a flash).

Options

Canon 1000D – around £380 with 18-55mm NON-IS lens – ideal for snaps/portraits and not bad for landscapes
Nikon D3000 – around £400 with 18-55mm VR lens – ideal for snaps/portraits and not bad for landscapes
Nikon D5000 – around £580 with 18-55mm VR lens – ideal for snaps/portraits and not bad for landscapes – this camera does video as well
Canon 500D – around £570 with 18-55mm IS lens – ideal for snaps/portraits and not bad for landscapes – this camera does video as well

I think the Canon 500D would be the best option (and that is despite me having a Nikon) keeping your budget constraints in mind. A cheaper alternative would be the Canon EOS 450D £430 plus lens.The best choice though in my view for a longer term investment would be a Nikon D90 but the body alone would cost around £600.Remember though, invest in glass (i.e. the lenses). You can start with a cheap body and a decent lens and you can always keep the lens and use it on future bodies.

Frame size

One last thing to keep in mind for your wife. The film that your wife probably used on her old Olympus camera was known as 135, or 35mm – actually, each negative was 36x24mm. Most DSLR cameras use a sensor that is around 2/3 this size, similar to the short lived Advanced Photo System film format, APS for short, and so the sensors are often referred to as APS-C (where C stands for cropped) sized.

There are now full frame sensor cameras available from both Canon and Nikon. As you would expect, these costs a good deal more than the APS-C cameras. It is worthy of note because older lenses were designed for the original 35mm film size and generally work well on the latest full frame cameras as well as the APS-C cameras BUT some more recent digital lenses were designed for use ONLY on APS-C sensor cameras and whilst they may fit onto the full-frame cameras, they do not cast an image onto the whole sensor. Keep this in mind when investing in more expensive glass as your wife may choose to upgrade to a full-frame body in the future.

Incidentally, the Olympus DSL(R) camera systems uses a smaller sensor size (called four thirds), which many would argue reduces quality compared to APS-C let alone full frame sensors. It is around 30% to 40% smaller than APS-C sensors. They have now introduced micro four thirds.

The use of APS-C sized sensors means that there is a multiplication effect in place against full-frame lens sizes such that a 300mm lens used on a full-frame camera acts like a 450mm lens – i.e. a longer zoom, great at the zoo/safari – on APS-C cameras. This is less helpful at the wide-angle end where an 18mm lens which will give a nice wide view on a full-frame camera gives a more conventional 27mm angle of view on an APS-C camera. (Incidentally, human eye is around 50mm in full frame terms.) This multiplication effect is also known as the crop factor.

Note that much larger format sensors are available for the “medium format” market, where manufacturers such as Mamiya and Hasselblad produce cameras that cost much much more than the most expensive full-frame (35mm) sensor camera. These cameras tends to have replaceable digital backs. There are third party manufacturers of digital backs such as PhaseOne. The resolution on these cameras are often larger than that of DSLRs but the sensors are so much larger that the individual light sensors will be considerable bigger than those of DSLRs even with the higher resolution.

2 thoughts on “Digital Camera Recommendations

  1. Just wanted to say , this was very helpful to me. I have a sigma 35m SLR with a 300mm zoom. I love it and swore I’d never go digital. I bought an Olympus Stylus Tough 8000 in May. The flexibility of the all weather and underwater feature attracted me. I love the freedom of taking pictures without the cost of developing. I can shoot away without breaking the bank. However, I miss my zoom and finding the different menues that might do what I always did manually is exasperating.

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