Tips: Buying or Upgrading a Camera

So you want to buy a new camera? Here are my tips.

Introduction

There are many factors that can contribute to getting blurry photos when using a DSLR camera (see the “Getting Sharp Photos” article for details). Just by upgrading your camera, you may find that your lenses need to be upgraded also, but often it is enough to upgrade your lens (see the “Mega Pixel Race” article for details).

Older Canon cameras have had issues with less than perfect auto focus at times, but it seems they have really improved this even for entry level cameras now. Nikon on the other hand has generally moire pattern issues, which is still present in their D800. It is really important to read reviews, and seeing sample images before buying, and looking at the pros and cons.

Upgrade Really Needed?

If you are upgrading you have to be sure that you are getting a upgrade that really matters, and is important for your use case, and not just getting a camera that on paper looks better. Often upgrading isn’t needed, we just think it is, and would love to get our hands on the latest and greatest hardware.

Photography is so much more than just the camera. Having the skill to “find” the picture and know where to stand, at what elevation, at what time of day, at what angle – that is not going to improve with a new camera. If your current camera is a compact camera or has more than 200ms shutter lag, then you would probably want to upgrade to a DSLR, but only if you are willing to haul a big camera, lenses and other equipment around. Shutter lag is not going to be a problem in any newer DSLR, and this is one of the issues that can warrant an upgrade.

There are extreme examples of people hiring photographers that take wedding photos with their iPhones – if they can make a living out of that, that only shows that the camera isn’t always to main thing. I would however say that is going too far, but it is up to people what they want. I for one prefer sharp photos even at 100% crop, and an iPhone just cannot do that – not even close!

Mega Pixel Trap

Do not fall into the marketing trick of thinking that more mega pixels is better (read my blog on mega pixels here). If your camera has 16 mp or more you have more than enough, and as the link shows, you will actually need a fairly expensive lens to make good use of the 16 mega pixels, so unless you need to make posters for buildings 16 mp is enough. Heck, even 8 mp is enough, unless you crop your pictures a lot and still want large prints.

Brand

It really doesn’t matter if you go for Nikon, Canon or something else. You have to evaluate your needs and look at the cameras that fall into the price range that matches your needs and compare them: look at reviews at dpreview.com and look at sample pictures taken with these cameras.

When looking at sample images taken with a camera, play very close attention to what lens was used! If you do not, you may end up thinking that one camera is great because a professional lens was used, and when you get the camera you get disappointed, or the other way around: concluding that one camera is really bad just because someone used a terrible kit lens. Blurry sample photos does not necessarily mean that the camera takes blurry photos – there can be many reasons for that (see the “Getting Sharp Photos” article for details).

Video

 Do not buy DSLR cameras for their video features!

You are much better of buying a separate video camera! Why you ask? Because even the “Canon EOS 5D Mark III” doesn’t have basic auto focus while recording a movie. Sure, you can press the “Focus now” button and watch the camera jump back and forth really quickly to find the correct focus, but it totally ruins the movie. The whole point of recording movies is to record something that moves, and the lack of smooth auto focus is a deal breaker. You have to do manual focus for it to be nice, and that requires a lot of skill especially in low light.

Another problem is even a nice Ultra Sonic Motor (USM ) lens can make a lot of noise when used for recording movies – it is not their original intended use. They are made and optimized for still photography – not movie recording.

Entry Level DSLR

I am very impressed with even the cheapest entry level DSLR cameras from Nikon and Canon. They cut down on features that really don’t matter unless you are studio photographer (flash sync speed) or shoot in very low light or with large tele zoom lens (low noise at high ISO).

If you are in doubt as to which brand to go for, ask you friends what they have. It is really nice to be able to borrow lenses and equipment.

What do you get with a more expensive camera?

  • Lower noise levels at higher ISO’s
  • Higher bit count when storing color components in RAW format (higher dynamic range)
  • Better auto focus
  • Better build quality possibly weather sealing (can handle rain and rough handling)

Even my 9 year old Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II can take great pictures at ISO 1600 despite its age. Here is a hand held example at ISO 1600, f/4, 200mm, 1/60s with my excellent “Canon 70-200mm f/4 L IS” lens:

Even if we crop in at 100% and look at the hair details they are still acceptable given that is it ISO 1600 with a very old camera:

Notice that I can get away with a lower shutter speed due to the Image Stabilization (IS) built into this lens, so even though f/4 isn’t really that light sensitive, this lens still performs nicely under very low light conditions.

My “Canon EOS 5d Mark III” is a true master at high ISO’s and I can without problems go to ISO 6400 – and I sometimes even use ISO 12800, but that is the point where I stop, although the camera can go to ISO 102400 which is insane! The human eye is no way near that sensitive.

Lenses

What is usually lacking in the cheapest entry level cameras is the kit lens that comes with it: 18-55mm is just not a great all round lens, and you will very quickly want more zoom. 24-105mm or 18-135mm is a much better all round zoom range for a DSLR with a crop factor or around 1.5-1.6 (which is typical).

It is very important to evaluate your lenses and look for the resolution (MTF). PhotoZone.de is a really nice place to start. You first select if your camera is Full Frame or APS-C (“normal” with a crop factor) and then find your lens and go to page two where all the details are.

 Do not worry too much about Distortions, Vignetting, and Chromatic Aberrations on a lens – it can be fixed

While they can look bad this is all fixable in Adobe LightRoom4 with a single mouse click for all photos you import.

 You must look at the resolution (MTF) as nothing can fix a blurry image later!

If the photo isn’t sharp you can’t really do much – software sharpening isn’t going to give you the nice result you could have had with a better lens.

I mentioned that 55mm isn’t enough zoom for an all-round lens, but please don’t fall into the usual trap of buying a super tele zoom lens as one of the first things you do. It will end up collecting dust unless you are a bird photographer or really need that kind of zoom. 200mm is a lot of zoom for most people…unless you are like this guy:

 

I would be very careful with lenses that cover the whole range, e.g. 18-300mm. It might be a great lens, but I can’t help to think that this kind of range comes at a price – especially since you cannot find professional Canon lenses that cover this wide a range.

If you have a Canon camera that isn’t full-frame I can highly recommend their very cheap Canon 50mm f/1.8 as it is very sharp and very good for low light conditions. This is however not suited for full-frame cameras as the quality just isn’t good enough at the edges. The 50mm is not suited as your only lens – it is a weapon you pull out in low light or for portraits where you need high quality. When I had a none-full frame camera, I had a 28mm f/1.8 as my favorite because 28mm with a crop factor of 1.6 corresponds to 45mm. Today I use a 50mm f/1.4 with a full-frame body. If this is all nonsense have a look at the following section.

Crop Factor

The lens is going to show the same image regardless of the crop factor. The difference is in how much of that light is recorded by the sensor.

Crop Factor 1.6
Fullframe:
Recorded Image:
Recorded Image:


So although the lens shows the same image in both cameras, because the sensor is only recording the center part, the one with the crop factor is going to seem more zoomed. So for a camera with a crop factor it doesn’t matter if the lens is total crap around the edges, as that part is not being recorded. So upgrading to a fullframe camera is very likely also going to mean an upgrade in lenses.

Flash

Don’t worry if the DSLR camera has built-in flash or not. These tiny flashes that pop up can be used in a pinch, but they give a very harsh light that really isn’t what you want. It is much better to get an external flash and bounce the light of the ceiling or something else to get that smooth soft light. Here is an example with or without bouncing flash taking with my old retired Canon EOS 20D:

 

Bounce:
Direct:

It is like night and day, so get an external flash and start bouncing! Professional cameras don’t even bother having a built in flash, and I couldn’t agree more: it makes no sense.

Alternatively you can get a faster lens so you don’t have to use a flash, and can just use the ambient light (it is also much less disturbing). Here is my dinosaur Canon EOS 20D at ISO 800 with a ambient light picture with the cheapest lens available, the Canon 50mm f/1.8:

 

 It just would not have been the same picture with a flash.

Common Flash Mistakes

I often see people taking flash pictures with their compact cameras in stadiums or big places like Grand Canyon in the evening. There isn’t enough light so the camera wants to use a flash, but it doesn’t take much pondering to realize that the tiny camera flash cannot possibly light up Grand Canyon, and the photo ends up dark and unusable with some very over exposed foreground. Zoom out as much out as possible, and set the camera on a table or on a rock for stability and disable the flash and try again. It is an amazing difference that makes. The reason you want to zoom out it that all lenses except professional ones have less light sensitivity when you zoom than when you do not. This is what is meant by the cryptic “F:3.5-5.6″ written on some lenses: it means that the light sensitivity is f/3.5 when zoomed out and f/5.6 when zoomed all the way in. The lower this number the more light sensitive the lens is. You can always crop the image later – what matters is getting the image sharp.