When choosing a camera, the first factor to consider is the types of pictures you wish to take. Will the camera be mainly used for photographing family activities – including children’s sports, family get-togethers and holidays? Or will you be using it creatively for photographing landscapes, wildlife, street scenes or other non-personal subjects? Students of photography and other photographers who wish to make photography a career or part-time income producer may have different requirements from those who simply take pictures as a rewarding and engaging hobby.
First-time buyers usually look at their budgets and set a top figure on the dollars they want to spend. While this can be a valid approach, experienced photographers tend to focus more on the camera system (body, lenses, flash and other accessories). This is better in the long term as, over time, you will probably invest more in the system than in individual camera bodies.
Choose a system whose manufacturer produces the lenses you need and, ideally, whose system is popular enough to enable you to rent unusual lenses for special situations. Some other factors to consider include:
1. How will the camera be used? Will it be used for photographing fast-moving subjects like wildlife and sports? Will it be taken into damp and dusty places? Will it be used extensively after dark?
2. Do you have existing lenses and other accessories for a 35mm SLR camera that can be used on a DSLR from the same manufacturer?
3. What do you lose by swapping from an advanced compact camera to a DLSR?
4. What functions do you need and how easy are they to access?
5. To what extent are you prepared to edit your images?
Although modern DSLR cameras are technically complex, much of this technology has been used to make them easy for photographers to operate and allow them to produce top-quality digital images.
The DSLR market is split into three sectors: entry-level models for everyday photographers, enthusiast or ‘pro-sumer’ models for people who take their photography seriously and professional models for photographers who earn a living by taking pictures. Potential camera buyers should understand the differences between the three categories in order to decide whether a camera will meet their needs and offer good value for money.
Professional DSLRs: It’s easy to spot the professional cameras because they’re bigger, bulkier and more complex looking – and their price tags are significantly higher. However, the main differences are usually less obvious and include build quality and functionality. Although not all pro DSLR cameras have ‘full frame’ (i.e. 36 x 24 mm) sensors, high sensor resolution (over 10 megapixels) is more likely to be found in pro cameras than further down the line.
Professional cameras are large, heavy and engineered for intense usage.
Professional DSLRs are built to be used all day, every day and in a wide range of weather conditions. Consequently, they must be constructed from highly durable materials and extremely well-engineered. Most pro DSLR bodies are made from magnesium alloy, which combines a relatively light weight with toughness and durability.
Professional cameras also include high levels of dust and moisture sealing to protect the internal components. Their shutter mechanisms are typically rated for at least 300,000 cycles and they normally offer much higher continuous shooting speeds than consumer cameras. They can also capture more shots in a burst in continuous shooting mode. These factors account for a large part of their high price tags.
Pro DSLRs offer the widest range of user-adjustable controls and greatest potential for customisation of any camera. Features like Kelvin-adjustable white balance, white balance bracketing and compensation and a wide range of shutter speed, exposure settings and focusing controls are standard. Custom menus are commonly provided for saving frequently-used combinations of camera settings and adjusting various controls to suit photographers’ preferences.
But don’t expect a pop-up flash – or pre-set scene modes. Professional photographers require neither of these features. Instead, the mode dial on a professional camera will carry P, A, S and M settings and, although the camera will have a hot-shoe, it won’t have a built-in flash. However, it will be compatible with the most sophisticated accessory and studio flash units.
Although other DSLRs will usually accept most of the manufacturer’s compatible lenses and flash units, only pro DSLRs can accept and utilise the full range of accessories, including high-capacity battery packs and wireless file transmitters. Some can even download location data from a GPS unit and include it in the metadata in image files.
Enthusiast and Pro-sumer DSLRs: Sitting between the professional and enthusiast models are ‘pro-sumer’ DSLRs, which have some features of each type. Most pro-sumer models have 10- to 14-megapixel sensors and their bodies are made largely from metal alloy – although maybe with some polycarbonate components.
Sensor sizes vary and some cameras may lack the full dust and moisture sealing of the pro camera bodies. Most pro-sumer DSLRs have shutters that have been tested to at least 100,000 cycles and all have pop-up flash units.
Pro-sumer cameras share features from both professional and consumer cameras.
Pro-sumer cameras offer many user-adjustable controls, although some of the more esoteric functions may be absent, the range of custom functions may be less and the internal buffer memory (for burst shooting) is usually smaller. Some pro-sumer cameras are sold as single- or twin-lens kits but most are also available as a body-only option.
Entry-Level DSLRs: At the entry level are DSLRs that are designed for everyday photographers and priced accordingly. They usually have plastic (polycarbonate) bodies that combine strength and lightness. This makes them substantially smaller and lighter than professional DSLRs and somewhat lighter than ‘pro-sumer’ models.
Their menu systems are more logically configured and easier to use because many functions are identical to those found in compact digicams. Many models include features like help screens and/or illustrated scene modes to help novice users learn about the manual controls and assist them to take better pictures.
Pre-set capture modes are common, usually covering Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Action and Night Portrait modes, with other pre-sets in a Scene menu. Pop-up flash units are standard. Entry-level DSLRs usually have smaller image sensors than professional DSLRs (although they are often the same size as the sensors in ‘pro-sumer’ models). Resolution can vary from 6-megapixels to 14-megapixels.
Most enthusiast DSLRs are sold in kit form, with one or two matched lenses. In many cases, the supplied lenses have been designed specifically for the camera’s imager and cannot be used on 35mm SLRs with the same lens mount. It’s not that the lenses don’t fit; the view they provide is smaller and you get vignetting (darkening) of the edges of the field of view when they are used on a larger imaging area.
Entry-level cameras have been designed to provide all the functions keen photographers require at an affordable price point.
Matching Camera to User
While there may seem to be a logical correspondence between the camera types listed above and some user categories, the relationship is not necessarily straightforward and some additional features may need to be considered to achieve the best match between a photographer and a camera type. We’ve outlined a variety of different types of photographers with camera type suggestions below.
1. Novice Buyers of DSLR cameras usually want to learn more about photography and turn it into a rewarding pastime. Photographers in this category are often stepping up from a digicam to a DSLR or swapping from a film camera to a digital camera. Although the latter may have some photographic knowledge and expertise, their understanding of digital technology may be sketchy so they need simple ways to translate their existing knowledge to the new digital platform.
Entry-level models are ideal for these photographers, particularly if they include pre-set scene modes and guide or help screens to explain various camera controls. Live view shooting will be particularly useful as it allows the camera to be used in the same way as a digicam for composing and capturing shots.
Cameras that use SD or SDHC cards are worth considering if you are transitioning from a digicam to a DSLR because you can use the memory cards you bought for your digicam in the new camera. DSLRs that use SD and SDHC cards are usually slightly smaller and lighter than those that use the larger CompactFlash cards.
2. Family Photographers normally look for a camera that will take better pictures than their digicams and offers greater versatility. People in this group will also focus on entry-level models that are simple enough for both parents and teenagers in the family to operate. Many purchasers will be drawn to twin lens kits (which contain both wide and tele zoom lenses), particularly if some family members are involved in active sports. A 75-300mm lens provides a great range for sports and outdoor photography, while an 18-55mm lens is ideal for indoor shots, group portraits and party photos.
3. Photo Enthusiasts upgrading from an existing film or digital SLR camera will usually look for a higher-resolution model from the same manufacturer as their existing camera in order to continue using favourite lenses (and other accessories). Many photographers in this group will focus on ‘pro-sumer’ models that offer higher resolution, greater functionality and better durability.
4. Outdoor Photographers and Bushwalkers need cameras that combine light weight with adequate dust- and moisture-proof construction. A ‘pro-sumer’ model could meet these requirements without adding too much weight to the overall camera-plus-lens package. For most photographers in this group, a single, extended-range zoom lens will be a better solution than carrying several lenses. Reducing the need to change lenses in the field will reduce the risk of dust or moisture entering the camera and also ensure their camera is always ready to use when that once-in-a-lifetime wildlife shot appears.
5. Aspiring Professional Photographers need a camera to learn their craft on. Because they will probably transition to a professional camera once their learning days are done, rugged construction is less important than having all the functions required in professional photography at their fingertips. Lens choices are also less relevant than having a high-performance lens that will provide high-quality pictures for their portfolio. At this stage, it may be more important to invest money in a really good lens and fit it on a secondhand ‘pro-sumer’ or professional camera.
6. Professional Photographers are looking for a versatile workhorse that will keep going day after day and be usable in a wide range of situations. Different types of professionals will require different types of cameras, depending on the work they do. Studio photographers will require very high resolution and the ability to use the camera with professional studio flash systems. The ability to shoot with the camera ‘tethered’ to a computer may be another requirement.
Professional photographers require a solidly-built, reliable camera but have special requirements when it comes to lenses.
Wedding photographers (especially those who work without assistants) often get by with ‘pro-sumer’ cameras because they are light enough to allow the photographer mobility yet their performance is close to professional standard. Many photographers will carry two cameras to provide opportunities for simultaneously shooting, say, monochrome and colour, with and without flash or with lenses of differing focal lengths.
Sports photographers require cameras with high continuous shooting speeds, large internal memories and a comfortable balance with long telephoto lenses. Many photographers in this group use fast ‘prime’ lenses, which are very heavy. A tripod or monopod is often required to ensure steady shots and lenses with built-in stabilisation are a must.
How Many Megapixels?
What resolution do you need in a DSLR? It largely depends on how big you want to print your pictures and how much you are likely to crop images after you’ve taken them. More megapixels means more detail is recorded and, consequently, you can make larger prints or apply more savage cropping.
However, paying for pixels you don’t need is a waste of money. It’s better to invest in a camera with a better quality lens, larger sensor and more effective image processor. The diagram above shows the optimal sensor resolution for three popular print sizes at the standard print resolution of 300 dots per inch (dpi).
Because larger prints are viewed from greater distances, resolution requirements go down as you increase print size, so there is little difference between, say, an 8-megapixel sensor and a 10-megapixel sensor. It is possible to make excellent A3 (and A3+) prints from 8- or 10-megapixel DSLR cameras and A2-sized prints from 12-megapixel or higher cameras.
How Important is Brand Loyalty?
If you already have a film SLR plus several lenses, should you look for a DSLR from the same manufacturer? Not necessarily. Lenses designed for 35mm cameras may not provide the best possible performance on a DSLR body with a smaller-than-35mm sensor. It’s usually better to buy a camera with a matched, designed-for-digital lens.
However, if money is tight, being able to use your existing lenses on your new DSLR body is a cheap way to expand your options. But remember to take account of the crop factor that will apply when you fit the 35mm lenses to your new DSLR body. Older lenses may not provide the electronic contacts required for autofocusing. In such cases, manual focusing is the only option.
The following websites provide additional information on the topics covered in this article.
www.photoreview.com.au/tips/buying/factors-to-consider-when-buying-a-dslr-camera.aspx for an overview of things you should look at when buying a digital camera.
www.photoreview.com.au/tips/buying/busting-the-megapixel-myth.aspx for information on the relevance of a camera’s megapixel count.
www.photoreview.com.au/tips/buying/where-to-buy-a-digital-camera.aspx for advice on buying a digital camera.
www.normankoren.com/digital_cameras.html has useful explanations of digital camera technologies.
Canon. Advanced Simplicity. Visit canon.com.au for more details.