Feb 8, 2010 - Electronics    Comments Off on Camera is Ready to Upgrade, Which One?

Camera is Ready to Upgrade, Which One?

Giant City SPI guess readers can see that I’ve gotten pretty big into photography.  It’s another good way to combine my favorite sports and activities with yet another challenge.  I’ve carried my DSLR across Iowa on my bike in my handlebar bag.  I’ve hiked miles deep into Walls of Jericho with all my lenses and my full size tripod (what was I thinking on that one?)  I have a waterproof case so I can take it canoeing or kayaking. 

So many times, I’ve taken beautifully composed pictures on my adventures (like my Natchez Trace tour) only to return home and the pictures were crap.  They turn out to be just a little off – sharpness, exposure, the flash might wash a scene out, etc.  That’s why I researched cameras and came up with my DSLR selection.  Over time, my opinions have fine tuned on the gear I like.  I love L-series Canon lenses for a variety of reasons.  I’m kinda itching for a full body camera, but I’d have to be walking through the forest and some money would have to fall on me.  Either way, point-and-shoot users can rest assured that any DSLR with interchangeable real glass lenses and large sensors will improve the quality of your photos 10-fold. 

So which camera should I buy?  That’s a question I get frequently from my friends.  Since I’m biased towards Canon, I’m going to limit my response to the question to Canon.  That said, someone with an investment in Nikon has a choice to make.

Anyhow, you’ll have to click Read More below to get the rest.
So, a few things that people need to know before investing in a DSLR:

1.  Yes, leave your camera on automatic and your pictures will be very good point-and-shoot pictures.  Good light and still subjects will allow some amazing photos.  Move into dark areas, moving subjects, shadows and light, bad light, and your pictures suddenly can get just as crappy as anything.  Flash can still wash out pics, if you need the flash. 
2.  Interesting subject and good composition make good pictures.
3.  Go off automatic and DSLR can become complicated, but the rewards can be worth it.
4.  The best lenses can make bad pictures at the edges (wide open aperture, zoomed all the way in or out.)  Vignetting, edge distortion, chromatic abberation, flare.  Once you get basics of composition, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, learn to understand defects and how to prevent them or even use them to your advantage.
5.  DSLR is bigger than point and shoot.  But they no doubt take better photos.

I’m going to talk about Canon cameras from here on out, because that’s what I’m familiar with.  Nikon makes good cameras, and they’re very popular.  The brief time I spent reading about them revealed they have the same considerations.  I’ll let the reader sort it out if they want a Nikon.

I’m going to skip some basics on focal length, aperture, shutter speed.  Those are basic camera functions that are the same across any camera, brand, film or digital.

So, the camera.
On any kind of camera, light passes through a lens and aperture to strike a photo-sensitive media.  On a film camera, it’s film.  Higher ISO film means it’s more sensitive to light.  On a digital camera, light strikes a sensor.  The sensor in a DSLR, or any digital camera, is an array of photo sensitive electronic points, each sensitive to a certain color, that picks up the level of colored light that hits it.  The camera’s computer processes the data from each of these points and converts it into a JPG or other format, or stores the image just as plain data, Canon in RAW format.  The closer each of these sensors are to each other, the more electrical noise they generate, and tend to distort the points next to each other.  The higher the ISO, the more noise the sensor generates.  You can see this on photos in the dark, especially point-and-shoot with no flash.  DSLR cameras have minimal noise except at very high ISO.

Basically two different sensors are available:  Full body sensor is 24x36mm (1.41 inches wide.)  A crop-body sensor is 15×22.5mm (.89 inches wide.)  If you have a full body and crop body sensor, both at the same pixel density (say 15 Megapixels) the larger sensor will have less noise, because each point on the sensor is microscopically farther apart from the one next to it.  The full body sensor generally has a higher ISO setting because of this.
Full body cameras definitely have an advantage for image quality, low noise, high ISO.  But before deciding to go with a full body, remember that they’re much more expensive and they require special lenses – the compromise.

Measured in Megapixels, resolution is an important factor in selecting a digital camera.  Resolution is the number of individual pixels on the sensor total.  Here’s the deal:  most people like to enlarge their photos.  The bigger you make it, the more apparent each pixel becomes.  It’s like zooming in on a photo on your computer – you’ll eventually start seeing the individual pixels.  So, the higher resolution DSLR camera has a big advantage when enlarging or trying to capture detail.  You might not want to enlarge, but you certainly will want to crop.  The more you crop, a simple 4×6 photo can become grainy – the pixels can become more identifiable to even a casual observer.  So, the higher resolution wins again when cropping or enlarging a photo.  Higher resolution sensors with equal or lower ISO noise means more money – the compromise.
Don’t let point-and-shoot resolutions fool you.  Most PaS cameras have very small sensors and create a tremendous amount of ISO noise.  And their lenses really suck.  Compromises.

Several Summary Points to remember for Bodies:
1.  Full bodies take better images, typically have advanced features, lower noise, but more expensive.
2.  Full body cameras are limited to EF series lenses, also more expensive.
3.  With DSLR, higher resolution is almost always better.

So, the lenses.
Canon EF versus EF-S mount Lenses.  All Canon lenses are designated EF or EF-S.  This can be a simple problem to solve for the beginner DSLR user.  But it becomes more complicated if you get serious.  I’ll try to explain.  A full body camera users EF lenses ONLY.  It has to do with the geometry of the larger physical sensor, but you can’t use a EF-S lens on a full sensor body.  A 100mm lens is truly 100mm for a EF lens on a full sensor body.
Crop body cameras can use EF or EF-S.  But, remember that a 1.6x crop makes a 100mm lens equivalent to a 160mm lens.  If you collect a stock of EF-S lenses and upgrade to a full body camera some day, your entire stock is now obsolete.
Most EF lenses are higher quality than EF-S.  All L-glass professional series lenses are EF.  EF lenses are generally expensive.  But, there are always exceptions.  The popular Canon EF 50mm f1.8 "portrait lens" is $100.  The very good EF-S Canon 17-55mm f2.8 is around $1000.  I wanted the 17-55mm once, but I couldn’t stomach the investment, considering it would be obsolete if I upgrade my body.
Why are EF lenses better quality?  Most lenses are strong in the center of the photo, and the edges suffer from fisheye distortion, vignetting, etc.  Since a crop-body crops the outer edge of the image, they get more of the sweet spot in the captured image.  A full body lens has to be sweet all the way to the edge.  Put an excellent EF lens on a crop body, and the only thing to complain about is your own skill.
EF lenses on full bodies are better for wide angle.  A 20mm lens on an full body is 20mm.  A 20mm on a crop body is equivalent to 32mm.  Advantage full body, EF.
EF-S lenses on crop bodies are great for zoom.  A 200mm crop-body lens is equivalent to a 320mm lens on a full body.  Advantage crop body with EF or EF-S lenses.
Image stabilization (IS) is a feature that measures whether the camera is moving while the shutter is open, and compensates for slight movement.  Shooting in bright light and 1/100-plus shutter speeds, it doesn’t make that much difference IMHO.
Ultrasonic Motor focus (USM) is a special focusing system that makes auto-focus VERY fast.  Not all my lenses are USM, and I couldn’t focus well when I was taking pictures of the neighbor’s greyhound running in the backyard.  Better lenses have USM.

Several Summary points to remember about lenses:
1.  Buy the best lenses you can afford.
2.  Buy EF lenses if you are serious about photography.
3.  Every lens is a compromise:  wide range is usually lower quality.  Fixed length (prime lens) is high quality but less versatile.

So what do I have?
I’ll start with what I have, and make some recommendations based on what I’ve learned.

In January 2009, I bit the bullet and purchased a Canon XSi.  It’s 12.2 Megapixels, max 1600 ISO, crop-body.  It has all the functions you’d expect out of an advanced amateur camera.  To name a few I use, shutter lock for long exposure photos, exposure bracketing, flash compensation, live view, histogram view, RAW shooting, custom white balance, and a pile of image processing onboard for JPG storage.  It also uses SDHC memory, which I already used on my point-and-shoot.  It doesn’t do video without a firmware hack.  Don’t get hung up on this stuff.  You’ll learn this stuff later if you want to.

I recommend the Canon XSi if you’re on a budget.  For a more, you can get the Canon T1i, which shoots 15.1 Megapixels and 1080p video.  By default, it shoots 3200 ISO for candle light shooting.  It’s still a crop-body camera but it’s good.

For less limited funds, go for the full body camera.  Canon 5D or the 1DS bodies are next-step cameras that remove ALL excuses.  You can see the comparison in the link to the T1i review above.  But, you have to buy EF lenses.

So what do I have?
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens – a decent starter walk-around lens that came with a XSi kit.  This lens does have corner distortion at maximum aperture and zoom settings.  The widest aperture setting isn’t that great.  It does have image stabilization, but I’m not sure if it does me any good.  It has no USM.  Since I’ve upgraded, I’d love to get rid of this lens.  They go for about $75 used.  If they weren’t such a good deal in the kit, I’d recommend skipping this lens.

Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS Lens – this is another lens I got as a kit.  It shoots well in bright light or at 55mm.  It has image stabilization and it probably helps more than I think at zooms.  Again, on a crop, I’m getting equivalent of 400mm of zoom, which is a lot.  It’s not good zoom, it’s just zoom.  It comes in handy for shooting blue heron, pelicans, sports.

Recommendation:  for telephoto, spend the money on the very popular 70-200mm f/4.0 IS USM ($1200) or the less expensive 70-200mm f/4.0 USM ($650.)  It’s a better lens, and not that expensive.  Most telephoto I shoot is in good light too, so the IS IMHO may not be worth the extra budget.  There’s the stunning f/2.8 version too, but it’s $1800.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens – this is a must-have lens for portraits and low light.  It’s about 85mm after crop factor, which is supposedly about what the human eye sees.  f/1.8 is a huge aperture, which makes for flash-less photos in almost any indoor light.  Focus is super-sharp, and distortion is low.  It’s small and lightweight so it’s easy to carry.  Everyone with a Canon camera should have this lens for about $100.

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0L Lens – if we had kids, I would have had to turn over my first born to buy this lens ($700.)  I started looking for a wide angle lens, but I convinced myself that I needed to upgrade my walk-around lens before I got into specialty.  This lens is super-sharp, super-low distortion.  It has great contrast.  f/4.0 makes it a not-so-good lens without shooting flash.  It’s expensive, but this and the 50mm (and Lensbaby) will be the only lenses I keep if I upgrade to a full body.  If I weren’t ever planning to upgrade to full body, I might have considered the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM.  It’s also more expensive but the f/2.8 is very desireable.

Lensbaby 2.0 – a Lensbaby lens is an experimental lens.  It focuses by manually manipulating an accordion style lens housing.  It allows you to move a "sweet" focused spot around the composition by flexing the lens.  You can think about this some day, but I just mention it because I have one.

Recommendation:  one should consider a Canon 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 or a Sigma/Tokina equivalent.  These generally produce crappy images at the edges (wide open, or zoomed in), reviews are generally crappy, but the versatility and convenience just might be worth it for $350.  They are also compact and lightweight.  You might get an opportunity shot you would miss if you only had a telephoto or wide angle mounted.  I bought a Tokina off craigslist for $60 and carried it across Iowa on my bike.  It broke on Day 1, and it’s actually in the mail to Tokina for a $100 repair.  Bargain, huh?  However, it’s compact, versatile and cheap (no big loss if it gets rained on, dropped or stolen) so it’ll go with me again.

In Summary:

Here’s what I’d buy:

Item Spec Cost
Camera Body Canon EOS Rebel T1i (500D) Digital SLR Kit w/EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens < $800
option 2 Canon T1i Body only $650
option 2 buy body only, add a Canon 17-85mm for walk-around.  More versatile, better lens $450
Memory Card SDHC – 8 Gigabytes (with reader) <$30
Should Buy Canon 50mm F/1.8 II < $100
Optional Lens Canon 28-200mm < $350
or Tamron 18-200mm <$300
Zoom Lens Canon 70-200mm F/4L USM <$650
Camera Bag Variety of bags available $65-$80
Good Tripod Manfrotto legs and ball head $300

More tips:
Post-processing can create better photos, but do your best to get a great pictures through the glass.  You can’t sharpen out of focus pictures.  You can add contrast or saturation to a photo on a cloudy day.  After over a year with a DSLR, I try to use post processing for cropping.  I had some good success with my cloudy day Georgiana pictures by increasing contrast.  Otherwise, pictures can begin to look fake.  (as you get better, on Canon, try RAW mode, and learn the histogram while shooting and in post.)

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