Monday, February 12, 2007

Cory's Guide to Camera Gear - Version 1

I have to start by saying that I love photo gear. One of the best parts of owning my own business is having an excuse for buying the toys, errr…equipment. I’m also always happy to talk about photo gear, so give me a call or send me an email.

Before you start looking at gear, it might be helpful to know what kind of photographs you want to take. Sports photography requires different gear than still life photography. It will also have a big impact on the amount you need to budget for your new gear. I would also suggest that you try to assess how much you will actually use the equipment. No sense spending a large chunk of change on a paperweight!

Digital or Film
Film is a four-letter word and I don’t like talking about it. Unless you like the retro look or hate computers, buy digital.

An SLR (Single Lens Reflex) is a camera with interchangeable lenses. It is the ultimate in photographic tool because of it’s flexibility with the ability to change lenses, add flash(es), filters, macro attachments, and a host of other goodies. In the right hands a digital SLR can perform magic! The downside to SLR’s is that they don’t produce better photographs than a PS (point and shoot) unless you know how to use it, and they are much larger and heavier.

The Point & Shoot is a great thing to have. Everyone should have one to just stick in their pocket so they can get a decent photograph wherever you go! Personally, I want to get one of the really small ones so I can have it with me everywhere. They are great for snapshots on the fly and outdoors when it is bright out. They are also much cheaper than SLR’s. Where they fall down is anytime the lighting is less than ideal. They have significantly more noise (digital grain) and horrible flash systems.

I am not an expert on PS cameras, so I will refer you on and for more research.

I do, however, know something about SLR’s.

Brands and Systems
So many times when someone is choosing a camera, they forget to look at the rest of the system. When you buy a particular brand of camera, you are locked into their proprietary system of lenses and accessories. You can’t buy a Canon camera and Nikon lens or flash for it. “So?” You might ask. Well, you need to guess at your future needs as well as your current needs to see if the system works for you. Do they have the lens line-up that I am likely to need? Can I ever afford to buy a good lens? Why is Pentax cheaper than Canon? Could I rent a lens if I ever wanted to? Do they have an expedited professional service department? Okay, that last one may not apply.

Canon and Nikon have the most complete camera systems available with huge choices for lenses, flashes and are the two big dogs that everyone else is chasing. The advantage to the Big Dogs is choices, lots of choices! Camera models, lenses, multiple flashes to choose from, flash cords, battery packs and lots of other stuff. Some of the other competitors (Sony, Olympus and Pentax) are currently trying to woo consumers with some pretty cool features that the big boys aren’t offering.

A Little About Lenses
Why are lenses important? Lenses are what actually get the photograph from the real world to the camera sensor. So it makes sense that if you have a cheap, flawed lens, you will have poor, flawed images. I never buy the “kit” lens that comes almost free with the camera. For the most part, you get what you pay for. The exception is in the old classic 50mm lens. With most camera manufacturers, you can pick up a 50mm lens for under $100. This is not a sexy lens in that it doesn’t zoom, is small, and looks like a piece of plastic (because it is). What it does do is produce fantastic quality for the price. The 50mm lens is the easiest lens to produce.

The kit lens is usually something around an 18-55 with an aperture of 3.5-5.6. This means that the aperture (or f-stop) slides all the way to f5.6. Each full f-stop allows ½ the amount of light in. So an f2.8 constant would allow 4 times as much light in as an f5.6. All this mumbo jumbo that sounds like math (it is, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying photography), really means that lenses with larger apertures are better in low light. That is why professionals go the expense of buying the larger more expensive versions of the lenses. For example, I use a 17-55 2.8 IS lens. It covers the same range, but the quality of images it creates and the low light levels that it allows me to use make it worth the $1200 that I spent on it rather than the $80 that the kit lens costs.

You can also get very fast, higher quality, less expensive lenses if you want to use something without a zoom. Photographers always used to use prime (non-zoom) lenses because they had no choice. Now, it is mostly professionals that prize the speed, quality and uniquely beautiful out of focus areas (bokeh is the technical term for the shape and flavor of out of focus areas that is distinct to each lens) that prime lenses are capable of producing.

Wide-angle lenses can also add a lot of interest to architectural, portrait and landscape images, but are not commonly bought by most consumers. Go wide – it’s fun!

Megapixels and Cameras
Megapixels in digital SLR’s are over-rated. You can get a beautiful 20x30 print with any digital SLR currently in production, whether it is six or 16 megapixels. For photographs of people, six megapixels is more than enough to show wrinkles and pores. You may want more if you are doing a group of 50 that you want to blow up to 20x30 or if you are doing landscape photography for very large images.

Features you may want to look for…
Image stabilization. This allows you to use lower light levels without the shake and movement of your hands to make the image blurry. Canon and Nikon offer this in a select set of lenses, which is generally considered a slightly more effective system, but it more expensive. Sony and Pentax offer this as a feature in the body, which makes all the lenses you put on the body have this feature.

Frame rate. You will quite often see cameras advertising 2.5 frames per second, 3 fps, 4 fps, or even 8 fps. The higher frame rate is highly desirable for sports and action photography. However, just as important as frame rate is the buffer size and how quickly the buffer is cleared. The buffer data is usually something like 5 fps for 6 images in RAW or 5 fps for 12 images in JPEG. Then there is the speed that the camera writes to the card (which is partially dependent upon the card). The faster the frame rate, the better for sports, wildlife and other fast moving photography. Still life, landscape, and architectural would not require a quick frame rate.
Weather proofing. Normally available only on the professional series cameras and lenses, but it might be worth looking for if you plan to do photographs of mail carriers in the rain, snow, or sleet. For the dark of night you might want to think about a high-ISO and maybe some sort of flash!

Autofocus. All the cameras have it, but it does vary in accuracy, so check the online reviews and try them out for yourself.

Canon is the current leader in digital technology and has about a two to one lead in the professional market. They have a wide range of cameras, great lenses and a complete line of accessories. Their cameras feature the cleanest high-ISO files. This allows for better quality in dim to dark lighting as well as more ambient texture when using flash.

Nikon make my favorite cameras to hold. They fit into the hand extremely well. Their sensors are second only to Canon in image quality.

Sony has just bought out the Konica and Minolta brands. Their first entry into the market is with the Alpha which features image stabilization in the camera, which allows lower shutter speeds without the need for a tripod.

Pentax is trying to grow their SLR market share and their latest entry the K10D is perhaps the greatest combination of price and features in any digital SLR. Featuring things like in-camera image stabilization, water resistant seals, and a price around $900. They also have a very interesting lens line-up with some great prime (non-zoom) lenses.

Olympus is putting their eggs in a new basket. Rather than modifying an existing camera and lens system, Olympus designed theirs from the ground up. It has some great features like the smaller size and weight of the camera and accessories, and some drawbacks like the smaller sensor that they use. Overall it is good systems at a good price if you don’t have any professional aspirations and maybe even if you do.

For more information you can check or send me an email!

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