Considering an entry level camera

I received an e-mail today about a new camera purchase. Here is an excerpt:

About the camera stuff, I am in the market for a “prosumer” digital camera and considering the Canon Rebel XT (350D). I think it’s quite a bit lower level than the D70 but do you have any thoughts on the camera or Canon’s SLR in general? Any recommendations you have for a different model/brand in the 800-1000 range would be appreciated as well.

What follows is my relevant response.

You can read my photography-related commentary on my blog. I promise I’ll try to post more often about photography. :-)

Asking a Nikon photographer about Canon is a bad idea, so you have been warned!

Considering the Rebel XT

I do not believe that the Canon EOS Rebel XT is “quite a bit lower” than the D70. It is true from a marketing standpoint, the D70 shares the mid range along with the Canon EOS 30D, but the D70 is long-in-tooth, with most of the essential features trickled down to the D50. I think that Nikon will have to refresh the D70s later this year in order to compete with the price drop in the 30D (though I suspect, unlike the EOS 30D, which should have been called the 20D mark II, it will be a real upgrade).

My big beef with Canon has been their lack of commitment to the APS-C format. The poor uptake of the 5D and the rapid introduction of the 30D and the introduction of 17-55mm f/2.8 IS EF-S lens show that Canon is now starting to take APS-C seriously, even if a number of their defenders have not. I think this is a good thing for the Rebel XT, which uses APS-C sensors.

As for the lens system (EOS) used by Canon, I’ll be the first to admit from an engineering perspective it may be the best mount on the market. Their sales are phenomenal, and often, well-deserved. My only caveat with it is that EF-S lenses cannot mount on an EF camera. I find completely unnecessary from an engineering standpoint—it was simply done to keep treating EF-S as a second-class citizen, something that is now outdated.

FWIW, this means your digital-specific lens selection is going to be a little worse with Canon than the others. But what lenses there are out there in EF-S will be among the top, if not the best available—the 10-22mm EF-S and 17-55mm IS EF-S leap to mind.

General dSLR buying advice

As I have mentioned earlier, buying a digital SLR is not like buying a computer. A dSLR is a very simple and specialist device, not a general purpose one. With the dSLR there is almost no network effect beyond the lens system itself—as long as the system you buy is stable, nothing is going to care what model camera you buy. It’s not like the photos of light bouncing around in your camera are going to say, “Gee, this is a Nikon, I’m going to bounce better.” It’s not like your tripod gives a rats ass about the logo sitting on front of your body.

I also often like to say that the problem with purchasing a digital camera today isn’t that there is there are a bunch of crappy cameras out there, but that the cameras are already so very good that the decision on what is the “better” camera is ultimately a very personal one, not determined by comparing the spec sheets—unless you are of the sort to believe that all art is simply a matter of specification.

At the end of the day it is the photo, and there are infinite number of ways to get there. But I think one way will get you there better. The problem is I don’t know that way—only you do.

My point is that there are general philosophy differences in all the makes, those differences mean that every dSLR will behave differently. It is my fundamental belief that the differences will cause one of these cameras to speak to you more—for you to form a connection with it on a basic emotional level, not necessarily on intellectual one.

For me, the philosophy “Optics rule. Camera, get out of the way!” spoke to me. Nikon shares that philosophy so I own a Nikon body. Believe me, it has burned me a number of times (missets with the camera, forgetting to reset the ISO, etc), but in a way I feel I have only myself to blame.

For you, it will probably be something else.

The philosophy of Canon v. Nikon

I find that most engineers like Canon, and for good reason: Nikon is an optical company first, and an engineering company second. Canon is the reverse. Is it a coincidence that most of the major recent optical advances have been Nikon (advanced multi-coatings, extra-low dispersion glass, nano-crystal coatings), while most of the major electronic advances have been Canon (image stabilization, piezoelectric motors)? I do not believe so.

Many of Canon’s customers are sports photographers and news photographers. One of the major reasons is the large bore of in the EOS mount makes large zooms (used by these disciplines) slightly cheaper. Another reason is that Canon’s most expensive cameras have about three times more autofocus points than their competitors. It makes predictive autofocusing much better. Those things are important in photojournalism.

Many of Nikon’s customers are nature photographers. One of the major reasons is that the exposure system on the Nikon is the most advanced on the planet. The Nikon flash (SB-800) is not as powerful as the Canon one, but it has the best exposure system, bar none. If you want how Joe McNally uses it in the Speed of Light DVD you’ll be in awe. Joe Buissink, probably the most respected wedding photographer ever, does wonders with the same gear. (I chose those two because they are in Canon dominated fields just to remind you that the photographer, not the gear, makes the photography. I could have easily mentioned wildlife (and Canon) photographer Mattias Klum instead.)

While Nikon bodies are (IMO) better constructed, I don’t think anyone can deny that accidental missets are much harder to do in a Canon than a Nikon. It’s perfect for the case where you might preset your camera for a given condition and take a gajillion shots (photojournalism), it’s not as perfect when conditions are rapidly changing (say a nature photograph taken in the changing light conditions of dawn or sunset). The difference is subtle. I, for one, love the command dial unique to the higher end Canon cameras, but I never really got used to it—I love being able to flick my settings while in my viewfinder using the two right-handed dials on my Nikon.

The philosophy of Olympus

After Canon and Nikon, the next in market share is Olympus. Olympus has a special place in my heart because I used their bridge cameras for so long.

In general, Olympus cameras are compact and easy to use. I think they are very consumer-centric. I like to think they are the sort of company that put as much quality in as tiny a space as possible. They are definitely always on the cutting edge, if not the bleeding edge.

I have been very down on Olympus’s system in the past, but I take it back now and admit I am wrong. I think Four-Thirds is a viable system with some unique advantages. Ignoring the caveats I have mentioned about this system earlier, I want to point out that any lens you can buy in Four-Thirds, whether they are Zuiko (made by Olympus), Sigma, or Leica (through their support of Panasonic), they are of top notch construction. My only complaint is one of price: the lenses are very expensive.

I want to point out that you can see their design philosophy in their choice to make 4/3. It is a smaller format than APS-C which makes it a noisier one. But the lenses are quite compact and versatile and zooms are very cheap. Physically they included a very large bore (I think even larger than Canon) and a totally new specification which gives it a lot of room in the box for them to deal with telecentricity (a non-issue for film lenses that is an important requirement for digital lenses). Unlike Canon, you know that the new specification means that lens designers will actually take advantage of the extra room in the box (because the mirror is smaller). Electronically, it is superior to any standard out there.

Again all these things make it very consumer-friendly. Look at all the macro lenses they make which takes advantage of the small sensor size, or how close focusing their regular lenses are. This is because of the smaller format: again, very consumer friendly.

Four-thirds cameras are the only real digital SLRs (with interchangeable lenses) that have live LCD preview. On one hand, you might say they need it because their viewfinders are so dim; on the other hand you have to say that is pretty “bleeding edge” technology with a definite nod to consumer friendliness. What could be more consumer friendly than the ability to see exposure in a live preview?

I know one thing that is more consumer friendly: never having to clean up dust motes that collect on your sensor after you change out lenses. What consumer wants to debate using a sensor brush vs. liquid solution? What consumer wants to have to know why you shouldn’t spray compressed air into your camera? Make it simple by allowing the consumer to never have to think about that. How? Apply ultrasonic vibration (called a SuperSonic Wave Filter) to the sensor on camera startup to shake off all the dust.

Dust shake? That’s a feature unique to all Olympus dSLRs also. :-)

(As for Panasonic Four-Thirds, take a good look at the L1. Look at the boxy body, the texture of the grip, the manual levers and dials, the aperture ring on the lens, the fact that this kit lens has both image stabilization and a wide aperture of f/2.8. You know what the intended market of this camera is. Perhaps that market speaks to you.)

The philosophy of Sony (formerly Konica-Minolta)

The folding of Konica-Minolta into Sony is actually a sensible marriage. Did you know Minolta gave the world autofocus? Good and practical engineering has been a hallmark of all three companies. The K-M advantage has been “anti-shake” (a.k.a. vibration reduction or image stabilization) and that is a big one. K-M’s ability to turn any lens into an anti-shake lens is a big advantage when it comes to the sort of spontaneous street photography and candids that I admire, but can never achieve. You know Canon and Nikon aren’t going that route because they make too much money on optical IS or VR lenses.

The other advantage is a huge number of dials. The problem with electronics today is all the buttons feel the same. Even with my D70, doing the press-modify and dial turn without looking can result in a lot of mispresses. Trust me, that won’t happen with a K-M. Each dial feels different and you know what you are doing without looking. A K-M Dynax D feels like a CAMERA and I mean that in the all-caps and bold that I put it in.

You give up an extra LCD display, which I couldn’t do. But the real reason I didn’t buy a K-M was because I couldn’t afford the one digital Dynax model they had when I bought my D70.

That’s no longer true.

The philosophy of Pentax

One concepts: the photographer is king. You can see this in my homage to Pentax in this article.

Pentax has been true to the K-mount longer than anyone. Why? Because the photographer is king and the Pentax photographer has K-mount lenses.

Pentax camera bodies have the largest viewfinders in their class. Why? The photographer is king and the king needs to see.

Pentax camera bodies have a lot of focus points, sure, but more importantly almost all the autofocus points are “crosshatch” style so they perform all equally well in low light. Why? Because the photographer is king and the king wants every auto-focus point to be the best.

If you feel that it’s good to be the king, you probably will want to buy a Pentax.

Finding the one that speaks to you

I said these a lot, but it won’t hurt to say it again.

When you buy your first dSLR, buy a cheap, fast prime (50mm f/1.8 or equivalent). They run $100 and it’ll make your camera have value in a way that the lens that comes with it, never will. Why? 1) You will be able to take a shot in lower light conditions than you can with a pocket camera or bridge. 2) You will intuit how to use your feet to zoom, what composition means, and what at least one focal length “looks like” on your camera. 3) it’s the highest quality lens for the cheapest price. 4) It’s a dSLR not a bridge camera, if you don’t want to change out the lens, buy a bridge because it’s a much better value.

You’ll spend more on your lenses. Bodies get cheaper.

Every manufacturer makes a camera for your budget, the price difference is only a couple of hundred and diminishing. The quality difference is negligible. Go to the store, find the one that speaks to you (one will), buy that one and don’t look back.

I took over 10,000 photos with my D70 in the first year of use, it’s still too much camera for me. I’m happy with that thought.

I hope you will be as happy with your camera as I am with mine. I hope that the first 10,000 photos you take with your camera put mine to shame. I have a feeling they will.

22 thoughts on “Considering an entry level camera”

  1. This is an excellent piece. So true.

    Personally I chose a D70 because I chose the Nikon religion 9 years ago and it would have been silly for me to switch.

  2. An interesting blog entry on a camera purchase. Note that while the poster purchased a Nikon D70s, the one used by the photographer he admired was a Canon Rebel XT. Read the reasons for his purchase as well as some of the comments.

    I think that is exactly the sort of thing I mean when I say: “I think one [camera] will get you there better. The problem is I don’t know that way—only you do…It is my fundamental belief that… one of these cameras to speak to you more—for you to form a connection with it on a basic emotional level.”

  3. An interesting discussion on Flickr that reminds me of why I wrote this article.

    Here was my contribution:

    @Spy to die 4: Canon is what "most people use and what most profis use?" This is true if you mean 2-3% more than Nikon. Also it’s the plurality but not the majority. Finally, the most popular brand actually depends on the market: I bet Hasselblad, Sinar or Pentax have larger marketshare in fashion photography. I bet Nikon has a much larger marketshare in nature photography. Sport photography, OTOH, is nearly entirely Canon.

    But whatever it is, who says that the right brand for them is the right brand for you? These are cameras, not computers.

    Here is my take.

    Some entry cameras you may want to consider: Canon Rebel XT, Nikon D50, Olympus E330, Panasonic L1, Pentax *st DL2:, Pentax K100D, Sony Alpha. IMO, they’re all great cameras with a great future. If you buy the one we tell you, you’re only hurting yourself down the road.

    Are they taking the photographs, or are you? A great camera is the one you love to carry with you.

    As for lens selection, that’s usually a function of what sort of photos you take and what sort of needs you have. Don’t know the answer to that? Then a kit zoom and a cheap 50mm prime will probably be a good place to start.

  4. I feel Canon’s consumer market cameras always (so far) feel a bit more toy like than Nikon.

    I found that the canon left out fundamental features that I wanted, and to be fair, if you are looking at this level of camera you probs wont notice them.

    Nikon’s inclusion of a top LCD, a pentamirror viewfinder w/ grid, and two click-wheels on the D80/90 shot it above the 400D/450D for usability imho, and If you like shooting manually it is far, far, superior. Just no comparison, it’s especially not fair on the canon to compare the two.

    Nikon’s interface is also far superior, I have used many DSLRs, read reviews, and talked to owners; Bottom line is Nikon are very good at designing menus.
    If I was in the market for this sort of camera I would take the d60, or if possible the D80.

    The D80/90 essentially for one reason, it doesn’t feel like it puts limitations on a prosumer dslr photographer, the others do, to me.

    The D60, well I find the grip on the canon competitors feels a lot smaller, I can’t grip them as well :(

    In this market… Image quality wise I prefer the Nikons, the canons are different, and there isn’t even that much in it. Didn’t like the noise from the Sony Alpha competitors.

    Pentax and samsungs, can’t remember if they both do it, use of weather proofing Is admirable, but the Canon and nikon have their mighty family of products.. buy a good lens for a D60, get the money and use it on a better camera, very appealing.

  5. I kind of had my heart set on getting an Olympus E-620 but can't find one new where I live (actually, haven't found any decent 2nd hand offers either) and I am a bit wary of having one mailed to me. Part of the reason I wanted Oly was so I could use my old lenses (28, 50, & 70-210). We have quite poor actual in stock, try before you buy choices here, so not tried Panasonic (and I am no fan of Sony). Did pick up the Pentax but felt rather clunky in operation
    Despite my love for Olympus, my hands just weren't keen on the PENs and I really cannot be without a viewfinder (and I am not willing to pay extra stupid amounts for one). Never thought I'd see the day, but I am thinking of going the Nikon route, felt better in my hands than Canon, plus the basic warranty is better.
    The two-lens kit is a pretty good price here (about same as 2nd hand E-620 I saw — ridiculous E-620 price rather than very low Nikon). The 18-55/55-200 Nikkor VR lenses seem fine in reviews and the 2-lens kit is only 110 € dearer than the body alone.

    How will I get a cheaper set up than the Nikon double kit by buying separate lenses, especially if primes? I get the logic, really I do, I just don't agree that financially separates are doable. I shoot nature, love macro and landscape/architecture. What would be a cheaper set up for me? Of course, now the 5100 is out, there'll be little chance of me selling the 5000 down the road (unless the 16Mp, increased pixel density of the 5100 drops the image quality) .

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