GreyMatter, Personal

Guide to Photography Gear – Part 1

Note: This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast.  It will cover much of what I’ve learned through hundreds of hours of research, in my 25+ years of practicing photography.  My experience with photography gear includes a wide variety of manual and automatic SLRs, DSLRs, compacts and mobile phones from 1995 till date, spanning Nikon, Canon, Panasonic and others.

Update: Jan 2024:

In 2024, if you’re planning to buy a DSLR for the first time, you should just go for a modern-day (or previous generation) mirrorless system instead. All of the big brands in camera making have shifted focus over the past 3-5 years from ‘DLSR’ to ‘Mirrorless’. The new technology offers clear advantages over DLSRs, since it is more compact, more affordable in many cases (partly due to its smaller size format) and more exciting to use (thanks to features like EVFs). For most folks, any mirrorless made in the last few years will be more camera than you can handle, or at least use to the fullest.

As a general rule, in the detailed blog post below, simply substitute the word DSLR with mirrorless, and you should be good to go! The major point of distinction between DSLR systems and mirrorless ones is that the two big boys – Canon and Nikon – no longer rule the roost here. Instead, Panasonic or Sony should be in your consideration set, if you’re just starting out with a m43 system.

Update: Jan 2012:

If you’re jumping onto the DSLR bandwagon for the first time, you may want to consider alternatives to DSLRs like mirrorless “hybrid systems” and “EVIL” cameras. Purists will argue that a DSLR is a DSLR, but you must answer for your self – Do you want a DSLR or do you want to shoot the kind of pictures it is capable of taking? As always, your answer may differ from mine.

Update: June 2011:

Camera makers keep releasing newer models, and marketers will keep trying to convince you that you really need to buy that latest, shiny piece of Technology to make your dream come true.  It’s been a while since I wrote this post, and they no longer make some of the models referred to in the examples.  However, conceptually the writeup still holds true.  So, while the D40/x/60 family has been replaced by the D3x00 or the D5x00 lineup, do bear in mind that the examples used throughout this post are just that – examples. 

Philosophically, entry-level DSLRs still make it affordable for folks to upgrade to a DSLR by crippling “semi-pro” features like the ability to autofocus with older (cheaper) lenses, it still makes sense to invest in better lenses than in better camera bodies, and you still ought to do a fair bit of introspection about your specific needs before deciding on which camera system or lens is the ideal for your unique needs…

Should you buy a compact or a DSLR?

Excellent question ; The fact is, it depends on your particular needs.  Let’s face it, today the price difference between an expensive compact, an affordable prosumer and an entry-level DSLR is almost non existent.  This makes the decision even more difficult!

If portability is of paramount importance, go for a nice compact aim-and-shoot that you like handling (ergonomics, ease of use, etc.) from Fuji, Casio or Canon.   If “reach” is what matters most (i.e. shooting closeups of far away things), you’ll be best served by a prosumer with a mega zoom factor upwards of 12x.  Here, I’d recommend the excellent and versatile Lumix FZ35.

As a rule, compacts and prosumers have smaller sensors (hence, less light-gathering capacity), fixed lenses, consume much more power and are slower to respond than DSLRs (which limits shooting pets/kids/things that move).  If portability or reach is not a criterion, go for the lightest, smallest DSLR you can afford, choosing your “system” wisely.

No matter what kind of photography you want to do – birds, buildings or beasts – a good DSLR can give you results that are just not possible with a fixed-lens camera, no matter how much it costs or how long the zoom is.  The list of DSLR-only features usually includes startup times of less than a fraction of 1 second, excellent results in high ISOs (i.e. unbelievable results in low light, if you know what you’re doing), and very fast AutoFocus – stuff that lets you “get” that shot in an instant.  And, don’t forget, the DSLR can always be used in its “Auto” (or even better “Program”) mode, just like a point-and-shoot!  In short, every thing is better on a DSLR!

(Through the rest of this post, when I say “DSLR”, it includes modern-day post-DSLR variants like 4/3rds and micro 4/3rds and every other mirrorless design that offers interchangeable lenses.)

Tip: Start with any entry-level DSLR from Canon, Nikon, Sony or Pentax, and you should do just fine!  Plus, if you stick with a good “system” like Canon or Nikon, your investment stays relatively future-proof as it will allow you to use great lenses over a period of decades.


Canon, Nikon or other?

Broadly speaking, Nikon and Canon systems allow you access to a universe of glass.  And they’re both fantastic camera- and lens- makers that you can rely on.

Personally, I prefer Nikon because of their commitment to quality, their superior ergonomics and their serious approach to design.  As an example, Nikon has consistently chosen to limit the megapixels (totally irrelevant to picture quality) instead, working on increasing ISO capabilities in their camera bodies (totally relevant to picture quality), in spite of enormous market pressures to do otherwise.  If you handle comparable models from both Canon and Nikon, you will also find that Nikon cameras make it easier for you to get to the features that matter.   I also like the fact that, thanks to the ‘Nikon’ system, modern cameras (with few exceptions) can mount almost any lens made since the 1950s’!

If you already have old glass (i.e. lenses), the choice is easy.  If not, you’ll have to factor in other dependancies like memory cards (Sony’s proprietary format?), service support in your country (Pentax’s non-existent presence in India?), etc.  If you have no such constraints, you can start with any thing.

You should also bear in mind that innovations in industry often come from other players, not the market leaders. One example is how entry-level Pentax DSLRs have had in-body Image Stabilisation (IS) for years!  Another example is Panasonic’s recently launched (DMC G1) – a completely new mirror-less shutter design in a new micro four-third mount, making it half the size of a comparable DSLR!

The fact remains that there are alternatives to Nikon and Canon that have a lot to offer at comparable or lower costs.  Do your research, and factor in your personal constraints to make the choice that’s right for you.


Should you spend more on a better body or a better lens?

The short answer : Lenses.

Remember, DSLR bodies get obsolete in two years but a good lens can last you for two decades or more.

The long answer : Don’t compromise significantly on the body either.  As in all things, it’s a tradeoff.  Make sure you’re well informed about which factor you’re trading for what benefit.

For example, Nikon’s entry-level DSLRs (D40/D40x/D60) are simply outstanding in what they do.  But, they don’t AF with older (non AF-S) lenses, as the AF motor is not on the body but on the bundled kit lens.  This also keeps their costs down, making it more affordable for you to buy.  And, this is not a problem when you’re starting off, since the kit lens works just fine and autofocuses too.  But, if you want to expand your kit to include other lenses (new or old), you’ll soon discover that AF-S lenses cost significantly more than their AF counterparts.  So, you’ll have to spend many more times the dollars you saved on the body, on buying lenses that AF with that body!

And, in case you’re thinking : “I’m never going to buy a bunch of lenses”, think again.  Sooner or later, you will.  And you will also discover the other golden rule of buying photography gear – The investment you made on the first DSLR was only the beginning, not the end!

Tip: If you’re on a budget and still want AF capabilities with older lenses, go for a used Nikon D50 / D70 / D90. You should be able to get one for a bargain (with its kit lens!).

There is enough and more out there on the issue of whether or not the equipment matters.  My own take?  Many a times, newer technology helps you shoot in light conditions where earlier technology may not have.  At least when it comes to modern-day DSLRs, every few months or so, there are significant advances made that can be used to your advantage.  That said, bear in mind that all things newer are not necessarily “better”.  Detailed reviews of DSLR models from even Canon and Nikon – the global leaders in this category – will show how a certain feature (like metering) worked better on the older model than it does on the newer one!  So, do your research.

Thom Hogan has written the best writeup I’ve ever encountered on choosing lenses rationally.  Also, If you want to compare specifications across Nikon DSLRs, see these links for current and old models. (Thanks, Thom!)

That said, I wouldn’t worry too much about buying Nikon or Canon technology that’s a year or two older than the current.  But it may make a difference to you if you want a feature that they rolled out only in the last year.

Continue reading Part 2