Still want to go DSLR? Here are some things to keep in mind…

14 Mar

Having listed out the pros and cons of a P&S (Point & Shoot) vs a DSLR in the earlier post, if you still want to go for a DSLR, here are some points to consider while purchasing a DSLR. I will be using some basic terminology here which can be looked up on the net for now and we will discuss most of these in some more detail later. Since I am primarily from an IT background, I find a lot of parallels and will try to illustrate those as we go along.

I use OS X on an iMac and a Macbook Pro for all my current work and most of the comments I have about software would be on the OS X platform and not on Windows.

Double your Budget

Sample Macro shot. 1:1.

Let’s talk about the cost first. Almost all DSLRs come with one standard kit lens. This is generally a 18-55mm and you will soon outgrow it. You will need more reach and will probably need to purchase a better “zoom” lens like a standard 55-200mm/55-300mm/70-200mm/70-300mm. For extreme close-up shots, often called macro, you would land up purchasing a true macro lens. For most indoor or low light photography, you might feel the need for a faster, prime lens (faster means a larger aperture, “prime” means fixed focal length). If you are interested in low-light, night and/or landscape photography, you might land up purchasing a decent tripod and/or a monopod. As you progress, the cost of the gear will continue to grow.

Prepare to Spend Time and Effort

Photography is like any other field. It requires study, time, effort and a lot of practice to become even somewhat proficient at it. There are different areas of specialisation within this field which includes macro, event (weddings etc), corporate, product, landscape, wildlife photography just to name a few. Each one of these requires a somewhat different skill set and gear. Of course, like all other fields, the fundamentals remain the same.

Studying the fundamentals of photography will give you a foundation just like in any other field. Practice is equally important because without the practical experience, the studies are useless. This is one thing that you will experience once you study something and try it out practically with your camera and lenses.

This is very similar to IT. You can study the fundamentals and some programming language(s) all you want, but, till you actually write code, you will not make any progress.

Selecting your first DSLR

This part is very similar to picking a PC or Mac in the IT industry. There are a variety of choices and you have to consider your requirements and try to make the right choice taking into account your budget. It is a lock-in once you have made the purchase and the same applies to a DSLR.

DSLR selection would be dependant on some factors like your budget and need/requirements. Another factor to consider would be the vendor support and service and the software they provide.

Key selection!

In general, there are 2 primary choices that would be commonly seen and heard about. Entry level and professional level. Actually, there are grades starting right from the entry-level to high-end professional level cameras. There would be 2-3 options at the beginner level, perhaps another 1-2 at the semi-pro level, and then some more at the professional level. The basic classification is based on the sensor size. The entry-level cameras have a cropped sensor, also called APS-C, while the professional level cameras have what is called a full frame sensor. Recall from the earlier post that all “measurements” in the digital camera world are inherited from the old 35mm film camera age. Therefore, a full frame sensor would mean a 35mm sensor and any crop sensor would be smaller.

We will look at these terms and their impact in practice a bit later. For now, get the best one you can afford if you are committed about your photography. As sensor technology advances and competition increases, there might be a possibility that we land up having full frame DSLRs only in the next few years, at least, I hope so.

Given the price differential between an entry-level DSLR to a full frame one, most people starting out with photography as a hobby, would generally go with an entry-level camera. Even a semi-pro, non full frame camera would generally cost twice that of an entry-level camera, if not more.

Although there are options from companies like Pentax, Fuji, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and perhaps some more, I will stick to the 2 better known brands, Canon & Nikon, since these are the only ones that I have used and know about. Sony has had some very good reviews and ratings and might be a good option to consider.

Nikon or Canon

While this might sound like a tough choice, to me, it’s a no brainer. I have a 5-year-old Canon EOS 450D (12MP) and a newer Nikon D5300 (24MP). Considering the ease of use, support and software, Nikon, for the beginner, can be avoided. Although there are heated discussions all over the internet in various forums, one should look at the choice logically rather than religiously.

Canon or Nikon?

The quality of the Canon cameras and support for the same has been far better than Nikon on a global basis. Nikon generally refuses to acknowledge issues with its cameras and attempts to cover up problems rather than rectifying them. They had this issue with quite a few models of their cameras in the recent past including the newer D750. You would be hard pressed to find these kind of issues in the Canon history.

As for my own experience, I had a P&S Canon (quite sometime back) and it developed some sensor related issue and all images came out purple. I went to the local Canon service centre and it turned out to be a known issue and they fixed it for free. The camera was well out of any warranty period. I never had any issues with my Canon DSLR, so, cannot comment on that.

I did have issues with the new Nikon D5300 though. The first thing I noticed was that I had dust on the viewfinder on a brand new camera. A few days later, I took it to the Nikon service centre and was told that it was normal to expect dust in the viewfinder and they could not do anything about it. When I told the “engineer” there that it could be a design fault with the 18-55mm collapsible lens which could easily collect dust, he had not even seen the lens before even though it had been out for over a year. Almost forgot to mention one other interesting fact. I had called up Nikon service to find out the nearest authorised service centres and I was told that Nikon “frowns” on any online purchases as only “fake” Nikon gear is sold online and it would not be covered under any warranty.

Hmmm…does not really inspire confidence. Anyway, even though it was not a very good feeling to have dust in the viewfinder of a brand new camera, it might have happened sometime in the future. After using the camera for a couple of months I discovered some other issues. The most annoying being that the moment you zoom into the LCD screen, the image just halts. It’s a documented issue all over forums on the internet with no update or response from Nikon. The LCD zoom is critical for remote shooting and focus stacking (we will get into this later). Interestingly, the D5200 does not have this issue and even the cheapest P&S cameras work fine with their LCD and zoom. Sigma (a third-party lens manufacturer) also documented issues with their lenses and came up with some firmware updates to make them work with the D5300.

Okay, now let’s look at the software provided by Nikon and Canon. Before we get into the provided software by these companies, let us understand why it is important. If you are going to use a DSLR, one of the main advantage is that you can shoot raw images which allow for corrections later without any perceptible quality loss when compared to JPEGs. The most common adjustments being white balance and tone. The raw format is proprietary to all the camera manufacturers and only they know how exactly to cope with all the information in there. All third-party applications like Adobe Lightroom, Corel Aftershot, DxO Optics Pro, Capture One Pro etc are based on reverse engineering the format and do not support or know the details of the formats.

The current software offered by Nikon is practically useless and will crash even if you switch between a couple of images. If you avoid that, then, simply enabling noise reduction of lens correction makes it useless. The Nikon application, Capture NX-D, does not even have any specific Nikon lens profiles for correction leave alone 3rd party lenses. Interestingly, you have more in-camera processing features than in the desktop application. As for remote control, Nikon charges for the application so I do not know if that works or not. Nikon has recently announced ViewNX-i which is scheduled for a March 17th release, we can only wait and see if that works or is another practically unusable application like the Capture NX-D. Canon software on the other hand, is quite usable and the remote control is free as well. Canon also has wider and better support in 3rd party applications compared to Nikon.

To summarise, considering the hardware, software, usability and quality of support, Nikon, as on date, is not something I would recommend in the entry-level DSLR segment. Even in the lens segment, Canon has an edge over Nikon, at least for beginners.

Even if you dis-regard the stock software, the other factors are enough to avoid Nikon. If you already purchased a Nikon, get used to the issues and go for a Canon (or the best option at that time) once you outgrow the entry-level, which, actually, happens to be my plan as well.

Consider Nikon, with its 3xxx and 5xxx at the entry levels to be a PC vs the fewer options in Canon being the Mac. Going Canon is simpler than trying to select from the wider Nikon range.

Basic Entry-Level or Higher

In general, there would be multiple models in the cropped sensor category from all vendors. Some of the differences between the lowest end and the top end can be listed as follows:

Future gear

  • Flash Commander for remotely controlling off camera flash
  • HSS or High Speed Sync for flash. This does not limit the shutter speed to around 1/200 when using a flash
  • Mirror Lockup for shooting
  • Micro adjustments for lens focus
  • Higher native ISO/Better sensor QE (quantum efficiency)
  • Higher maximum shutter speed
  • Larger internal buffer for continuous shooting
  • Better usability by having common functions on buttons rather than wading through menus
  • DoF preview
  • Multiple SD card slots
  • Built-in WiFi and/or GPS. NFC is also available in some models.
  • Articulating LCD screen, perhaps with touch control
  • Better build quality

There would be more points and some more details, but, by and large, this list covers the common ones. Since I have progressed somewhat in my own learning, I would say that the first two points are important to consider depending on your area of interest.

To me, the HSS and FC are equally important and I do not have either on the Nikon D5xxx models. The D5300 does have WiFi and GPS built-in. The D5200 does not and the latest D5500 does not have GPS. You can get WiFi and GPS as separate accessories, as also a FC unit. The killer is HSS, which, cannot be “added” on. Since I like doing some macro (extreme close-up) photography, a 1/200 limit on the shutter speed when using the flash, makes it un-usable in certain scenarios. Also, there are special effects that can be created using HSS that cannot be done without.

The mirror lock up can also be critical for a variety of scenarios including landscapes and focus stacking. The Nikon 3xxx/5xxx do not have this.

My Canon 450D has a DoF preview as also the new Nikon D5500, but, the earlier D5xxx models do not. The upcoming Canon T6x might be an idea to look out and wait for rather than jump to Nikon.

Which Accessories to Get

To begin with, None!

The only exception to this might be a decent carry bag for the camera, if at all.

Marumi EXUS CPL Filter

Do not invest any more than you already have in the basic camera kit until you have learned and practiced a bit on your new camera. There is a lot you can do with any current DSLR with their standard kit lens, generally a 18-55mm. Some camera bodies come with better kit lens and are more expensive upfront. In either case, do not purchase any accessories till you get used to the camera and are convinced that you want to continue to invest time and effort into this venture.

Okay, with that advice out-of-the-way, let’s take a look at what all you might really require to continue down this path…

  • Assuming you got a 18-55mm kit lens, you might want to look at a 55-200mm or a 55-300mm lens. This will allow you to experiment with a wider range of focal lengths to see which you actually use more and then invest in better lenses for that range.
  • A good, fast, SD card and an additional camera battery.
  • An external flashgun or a speedlite. This can greatly enhance the quality and versatility of your photography. Ideally, you would also want to get some kind of diffuser/umbrella/reflector for the speedlite to soften the light falling on your subject and reduce hard shadows. A relatively in-expensive cable to move the flash off the camera, or, a wireless solution for the same purpose.
  • A tripod. A decent, sturdy tripod can be a real help with a variety of scenarios. Some kinds of shots cannot be achieved without one. For example long night or landscape/water exposures. A tripod will also be extremely helpful when shooting video.
  • A good CPL (Circular Polarising Filter). Perhaps a ND filter as well. We will discuss these later.
  • Extension tubes in case your interest lies in macro photography.
  • Some 3rd party photo management and editing application.

The list will grow as you learn more and start figuring out what else you might need.

Invest Wisely

A DSLR, just like a PC or a Mac, is not an item you would buy on a regular basis. It is an investment in equipment that you would upgrade and use for years to come.

Watch your investment

My personal learning, so far, and a variety of similar experiences on the internet, can be summed up as “you get what you pay for”. This is true for virtually all equipment related to photography. The most common mistake seems to be purchasing cheap lenses and filters. Keep in mind the fact that the lens and filters will outlast your camera body, so, make that investment wisely and try not to get the cheapest available.

I have made that mistake multiple times hoping that technology from 3rd party vendors might be more competitive and therefore they can offer cheaper alternatives with reasonable quality. Not true. Complete waste. Most of us starting out in photography do not realise the issues since the results from these cheaper alternates look a lot better than our existing, smaller, cameras/devices…At first glance!

Once you really start looking at those images at full resolution and/or attempt to print them, the difference will start hitting you on a regular basis. Even the paper you use for printing carries the same tag of “you get what you pay for” as mentioned earlier. I have used several different photo papers on the same printer with dramatically different results.

Technology for DSLRs has come a long way and you really cannot go wrong with whichever brand or model you chose to purchase for starting out with photography. The difference will only start to show up after some investments in time, learning and money. This could take a few months to a year or more. So, to begin with, it would not really matter which brand or model you get.

To figure out more about any of the terms used here, I would recommend that you refer to the Wikipedia instead of other random sources coming from search engines. Flickr would be a good place to check for actual sample images taken from a particular camera body and lens combination.

I will start with some fundamental and practical aspects of learning photography in the next post.

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Posted by on March 14, 2015 in Gear, Photography


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