Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Buying Your First DSLR Part II

Last month we began our exploration of the DSLR world by outlining some basic facts required to make an informed decision regarding your first camera purchase. We discovered megapixel count isn’t particularly important, RAW format availability on your camera is, and discussed various desirable lens attributes – noting that generally the unit offered as part of a camera kit possesses few of these.
This time around, we’ll continue our examination with an in-depth assessment of key elements to look for when making a selection from among the often dizzying array of available models.

Process of Elimination

Given this enormous assortment, one of the easiest ways to cull your list of purchase candidates is to eliminate models from all manufacturers save two: Nikon and Canon. Why? There are many reasons, but perhaps the most compelling relates to lenses.

If you recall, last month we discovered that while camera bodies come and go, lenses are forever – generally retaining their overall utility and much of their resale value. So why does that matter? Well, for starters, if you find you get serious about your new hobby, you’ll want to have access to the widest range of top-quality lenses that your camera can accommodate. Nikon and Canon have each been in business for nearly a century (Nikon founded 1917, Canon in 1937) and take pains to ensure backward compatibility in their new bodies with their legacy lens line-up, meaning you’ll have a selection of literally hundreds of compatible lenses.
If, on the other hand, you’ve purchased another brand of camera and find yourself ultimately limited in your photographic pursuits due to the availability of gear, you’ll discover that having made a significant financial investment in one brand, it’s often difficult to abandon it in favour of another.

Ask any professional photographer what make of DSLR they use and invariably they’ll reply with one of these two brands. Lens selection is certainly one of the reasons for this, but beyond that fact, while the entry-level and intermediate field is jam-packed with competitors, there are far fewer manufacturers that address the hardware needs of the professional – Nikon and Canon being preeminent among them.
So, in selecting a first DSLR from either of these companies, you’ll have a clear progression from novice to professional in terms of equipment, without having to abandon your old gear.

Non-Essential Features

Now that we’ve covered some primary purchase considerations, it’s time to delve into what specifics to look for when evaluating an individual camera.

Aside from megapixels, two features often touted as significant by camera manufacturers would be scene modes (e.g Sports, Kids, Landscape etc.) and built-in image editing. If you use these as factors in making a purchase decision, you are doing yourself a disservice.

On-board image editing is pretty useless for the majority of applications. Does it make more sense to use a canned effect in-camera and judge its rendering on the tiny LCD screen provided, or, given you are going to be processing the RAW file on your PC anyway, make editing decisions in an environment where you can properly see the photo at 1:1 scale? I think everyone can agree the latter is preferable.

Secondly, are you not buying a DSLR to give you more creative freedom and better image quality? Why then would you want the camera to make important artistic choices for you by selecting a scene mode? The only modes one really needs on a camera are Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Mode.

Major Modes

Aperture Priority allows the photographer to select a particular f-stop in order to achieve a desired depth of field, while the on-board computer automatically selects the appropriate shutter speed to maintain a correct exposure. This is the most frequently used mode for the majority of photographers given it provides the highest degree of artistic control over the resultant image while still gaining significant benefit in terms automated exposure management by virtue of camera selected shutter speed.

Shutter Priority is the opposite of Aperture Priority in that the photographer controls the shutter speed while the camera decides what the appropriate aperture would be to achieve an accurate exposure. This mode is most often used by sports and bird photographers who want to ensure they are able to freeze the action in a frame without any motion blur... or to perhaps introduce blur depending on their artistic vision for the shot.
Manual Mode, as the name implies, gives complete control to the photographer for setting both shutter speed and aperture. This mode is most commonly used in flash photography, night shoots, studio work, and situations where the lighting conditions (e.g. extremes in dynamic range) are fooling the camera’s built-in meter and resulting in an inaccurate depiction of the scene.

What’s Really Important

Some specifics to look for which are important include things that may not be initially obvious, such as viewfinder coverage. This may come as a surprise, but the majority of consumer and prosumer level camera bodies do not show the entirety of the scene they are capturing in their viewfinders. This results in photographers capturing extraneous details in their images and making it difficult to frame the shot correctly without having to crop the file in post. Look for a camera that has decent viewfinder coverage – at the very least 95%, though higher is better.

Good body ergonomics are key to any purchase decision – how well the camera fits in your hand, how easily you can reach the primary controls, and how readily you can access the most commonly used functions. If you often find yourself buried in on-screen menus trying to set your camera to a particular mode of operation, you’ll be missing shots. The vast majority of the most frequently used options should be accessible from the camera body itself without having to access any on-screen menu whatsoever. Your fingers should be able to find the majority of these without the assistance of your eyes as you look through the viewfinder. Add to this the availability of a vertical grip for taking portrait oriented shots without going into contortions and you’ve got your ergonomic concerns covered.

Another often overlooked specification is battery life. If you’re out in the field and line up the perfect shot, it’s not going to be much good to you if you’ve not the power to take it. Your battery should ideally provide you with a full day’s worth of shots without having to swap.

As mentioned in last month’s article, unless you’re going to be shooting outside exclusively, and always on sunny days, high ISO performance is extremely important. If your shots are a grainy mess at over ISO 400, you’re not going to be a happy camper. Take a few well exposed shots inside the store at ISO 800, then zoom in to 100% magnification and scroll around the image paying particular attention to the areas in shadow. Is the noise (graininess) tolerable? If not, time to look at another model.

Taking your time, as well as bearing the preceding points in mind while selecting the right camera for you is paramount. It can determine the difference between embarking on an expensive and frustrating experiment, or the discovery of a lifelong passion. Here’s hoping you experience the latter!

Originally published in TechKnow Magazine by columnist, Ray Richards,
September, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Buying a new camera is always an exciting experience. It's always a good idea to do your research before going to a store to buy.

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