With advances in technology it seems to be more and more daunting to decide which inter-changeable lens camera to buy. Having recently made a significant change in our camera gear I thought it might be a good time to share some of the considerations with which I wrestled.
The technology buzz
The internet seems to be bursting at the seams with new gear announcements from the various manufacturers. And of course, with each new announcement the ‘fanboys’ come out and extol the virtues of various cameras based solely on the published specifications. Some folks even go as far as to publish ‘reviews’ of the new gear – long before anyone has even held that new model in their hands and actually tried to take a picture with it!
The sanest thing to do is simply ignore all of this fanfare. At the end of the day none of this really matters in the purchase process. We all live with the reality that no matter what we buy today there will be a new model right around the corner next year with the manufacturers telling us what we currently own isn’t good enough in their attempts to sell us more stuff.
Did my Nikon D800 become obsolete and useless when the D810 was introduced? Of course not! Folks that own a D800 will be treated to many more years of wonderful imaging with that body.
While it is true that we need to be aware of technology, it certainly should not drive our purchase decision. So what’s the most important thing?
Define your real needs
We need to get back to basics and define what we actually need in a camera and lens system. Until we do that we are in danger of spending a lot more than we need to on gear that is overspec’d for our real needs. So, brew yourself a pot of coffee or boil some water for tea, grab a pad of paper and a pen and sit down and really think about what you need from a camera.
Two important initial questions you should ask yourself are:
1) What types of photography am I planning on doing?
Nature and wildlife? Landscape? Astro? Macro? Portrait? Wedding? Building and architecture? Sports? Travel and vacation? Family events? You may end up with a fairly long list. After you’ve got your list finalized, then estimate the percentage of your total images that you expect each photography category to represent. If you’re not sure, then go back over the past year and take stock of what photographs you’ve actually taken and use that as a guide for the future.
2) What is my budget?
There’s no point looking at new gear that doesn’t fit the budget we have to spend. That only fuels dissatisfaction with our current gear. If you’re planning on building a system up over time then identify how much you think you’ll be able to afford over the time period. An interesting thing might happen at this stage – we may discover it may make a lot more sense looking at good, used gear than buying new. This may be especially true of camera bodies. It is quite common for a camera body to lose half of its value after a few years – but there still could be a lot of life and great images left in it.
Now that we have the types of photography we’ll be doing and in what relative volumes, as well as our budget, we’re in a position to start considering what gear would best meet our needs from a technical standpoint.
Considering the technical stuff
The most important thing we need to remember is that there is no such thing as a perfect camera or a perfect lens. Every piece of camera gear, regardless of cost, comes with some kind of trade-off. The key is to understand our needs well enough that we can make informed choices in terms of the trade-offs that we are willing to accept.
If I would have paid any heed to all of the negative comments on the internet about the Nikon 1 system I would have never bought my first V2. I now own three of them and for good reason. They are terrific, little cameras that do a great job for me. Sure, there are trade-offs which I understand and accept. Regardless of the gear that each of us may purchase the key is to focus on the strengths of what you bought, and do the best you can to work around its limitations.
Focus on what you need a camera to do, not on its design or construction. For example, the debate on DSLR versus mirrorless is pointless. All that really matters is what the camera produces for you – not how it gets the job done. This is akin to driving a car. Is it more important that you understand how an internal combustion engine works, or how to drive the car to get you to your desired destination?
Avoiding the ‘small difference’ trap
It can be easy for any of us to get caught up in all of the hype that surrounds photographic gear. Often times the improvements are incremental at best, and sometimes the small differences that we may fixate on actually make no significant difference at all to the images we create.
Egos make bad equipment decisions
Pride of ownership and ‘bragging rights’ can really cause havoc with our equipment purchases and cost us a lot of money to boot. The best camera gear decisions are made logically with our egos left at the door.
How important is low light capability to you?
Many folks get spun out of shape considering the low light capability of a body and lenses when the reality is that they pretty much only shoot in bright conditions anyway. For example when I’m doing client work (which is mainly video) I always have some studio lights with me and almost never shoot at above ISO-800. Whether a camera is a ‘low light monster’ or not really is of little concern to me based on the work I do. This may be completely different for other folks. Even if we do shoot in low light conditions on a fairly regular basis we need to keep in mind that we can deal with lighting based on our choice of camera body, lenses, and software. Or for many shots – use a tripod.
Some folks buy fast primes to deal with low light conditions. If I’m shooting static subjects in low light I would much rather shoot with a zoom lens that has very good vibration reduction. One way isn’t better than another – they’re just different. Obviously when shooting a moving subject in low light you’ll need as fast a shutter speed as possible so a fast prime lens will be more effective than a zoom lens with VR under those specific conditions.
Software is an important consideration when shooting in low light conditions. I used to keep my Nikon 1 V2’s at ISO-800 or less in an attempt to limit noise. I now have no hesitation shooting them up to ISO-3200. What’s different now? I use the PRIME noise reduction function in OpticsPro 10. It does a great job and in my experience gives me about 2 extra stops of light when shooting in RAW. Think of your camera system as having three parts…a camera body…lenses…and software. All are equally important.
If you do shoot a lot in low light conditions, then a full frame camera may be the best choice for you. You’ll then need to decide whether a DSLR or mirrorless is the better choice. Often this decision comes down to the focusing speed and accuracy of the AF in low light conditions.
Zoom versus prime lenses
The age old debate about shooting with prime lenses versus zoom lenses rages on. There is no right or wrong way…they’re just different. I just sold a Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8G prime this month, and it occurred to me that I had never taken even one still image with that lens during the time that I owned it. All I ever used it for was video.
Unlike many photographers I hate using prime lenses. To me they are necessary evils that I use only in specialized situations. Otherwise I avoid them like the plague. I would much rather shoot with a zoom lens equipped with effective VR than use a prime lens.
Before making a buying decision it is important for you to consider what type of lenses with which you prefer to shoot. And, never fall prey to what other folks tell you that you ‘must have’. I’ve made that mistake in the past and it has always cost me later. The truth is we can get by with a lot less gear than we’re told we ‘must have’.
I remember reading an article by Bob Krist a few years back about ‘what’s in my bag’. Bob is one of the most celebrated travel photographers in the world whose work was frequently seen in National Geographic and NatGeo Traveller magazines. I was fascinated to read that at the time of the article Bob was shooting with a pair a D7000’s, two DX format zoom lenses (16-85 mm and a wide angle zoom), an FX 70-300 mm zoom, a small macro lens and one prime lens. If a celebrated pro like Bob Krist can have his work published in top flight magazines like National Geographic with that gear line up it begs the question what ‘regular folks’ like us really need.
Sensor size and performance
One of the things that you’ll hear frequently is that you ‘have’ to get a full frame camera. People talk about the beautiful bokeh and the shallow depth-of-field that can be achieved with that kind of body. And, what they say is true. But the opposite is also true…with a full frame camera it is much harder to get deep depth-of-field and sharpness from front to back of frame, especially when shooting landscapes. That is compounded further when the camera you are using has a high pixel density sensor since the effects of diffraction can start to set in by f/11.
Considering depth-of-field is important and deciding what you really need is critical. I just sold my Nikon D800 and most of my FX glass. Why? For the industrial type of work I do getting more depth-of-field is far more important than shallow depth-of-field and creamy looking bokeh. Quite frankly shooting with a full frame camera was a bit of a pain at times. Wedding and portrait photographers would likely have the opposite view. Again, there is no right or wrong – its just different and you need to get what is right for you. I’ve used FX, DX and CX bodies and each has their advantages and disadvantages. I’ve made the move from full frame to micro 4/3 as my main client platform…but more on that later.
Sensor performance is a key consideration regardless of the camera you choose. While many people like to criticize DxOMark and their testing methods (especially if their camera body doesn’t score well) I value the impartial testing that DxO brings to the table. Their sensor and lens testing is one of the factors that I always take into consideration in my equipment purchases. Two of the most important sensor performance issues to consider are dynamic range and colour depth.
In simple terms, dynamic range is the ability of a sensor to capture a range of contrasts, from bright highlights to dark shadows. Dynamic range is measured in EV with a difference of 0.5 EV usually needed to be noticeable for most people. DxO considers a score of 12 EV to be excellent.
Many full frame cameras have fantastic dynamic range. For example the D810 is rated at 14.8 EV. Other full frame cameras, notably Canon, do not fair nearly as well with dynamic range. For example, the Canon 5D Mark III only scores 11.7 EV. This becomes very noticeable when working with RAW files when trying to retrieve both highlight and shadow detail.
Think of colour depth as the ability of a sensor to capture a range of colours and to discern subtle differences between colour shades. Camera sensors with high colour depth scores will do a much better job with colour rendition than will sensors with lower scores. This is often very important for portrait photography where capturing subtle differences in skin shading can be critical.
Colour depth is measured in ‘bits’ with DxO considering 22 bits and higher as excellent. A difference of 1.0 bits is needed to be noticeable for most people.
The key point here is that sensor technology has been steadily improving and many of the smaller format cameras now have quite good dynamic range and colour depth performance. For example, the new Nikon 1 J5 has a small 1″ CX sensor. It uses BSI technology so that sensor is able to achieve 12 EV of dynamic range and 22.1 bits of colour depth. This type of performance is on par with some entry level, and higher, Canon DSLR’s and not too far off M4/3 bodies. So, do your homework and check out sensor performance before you make your purchase. You may find that the gap in sensor performance isn’t nearly as large as it was in the past.
Larger sensors do provide more cropping potential. Like most things that can be counterbalanced – in this instance by a smaller sensor with a long telephoto zoom allowing you to frame the subject better and potentially avoiding the need to crop your image.
How many pixels do we really need? It depends on what you’re going to do with your images. If you’re planning on printing really large prints than you may very well need 24 MP, 36 MP or more. Most of us don’t need all those pixels. We regularly print images up to 12″ x 18″ and have been able to get acceptable quality from 14 MP files. I just photographed my first and last wedding last weekend (a favour for my youngest son). I took about 1,600 images and filled almost four 32 GB compact flash cards in the process. Large files can be a pain to process if your computer isn’t up to snuff.
Lens selection and performance
It is critical to remember that the images that come out of your camera are the result of the camera body and the lens that was used to create the image. Lenses do not perform equally well on all bodies. Many older lenses were not designed to work with high pixel density sensors. You can hook up a Ferrari to a farm wagon if you want – it just isn’t going to perform up to its potential if you do.
The photography community has a good population of ‘lens snobs’. They spend, or claim to spend, inordinate amounts of money on exotic, expensive lenses and chastise other people who make more affordable choices. It’s true that there may be some differences in image quality…especially if you pixel peep with a magnifying glass and blow up your images to 4 meters in width. With some decent post processing skills most folks can get quite good and acceptable results when they shoot in RAW with affordable gear.
Use third party data such as the lens testing on DxOMark to help you assess your potential lens purchases.
How important is video to you?
Shooting video with an interchangeable lens camera is becoming increasingly important for many people. If this is a consideration for you then it will be important to look at the shooting capability of any camera body you select. Look at frame rates, the codecs available, and whether the body provides zebra patterns (this shows areas of your image that are overexposed) to help you get properly exposed video clips, and focus peaking which helps you fine tune your manual focusing in video. For most of us video is a ‘strange new world’ and if that is one of your primary considerations it is best to read reviews and watch YouTube reviews done by credible experts like Philip Bloom. I also like the reviews done by the folks at VideoMaker and The Camera Store in Calgary.
Look for a camera that allows you to adjust aperture on the fly while in video mode. Many Nikon DSLRs do not allow this simple function and it really is a pain. Watch comparison videos on YouTube between different cameras and pay special attention to the amount of moire that is present in video footage. This can vary significantly by brand and model. The cost of a camera is no guarantee of good video performance. My Nikon 1 V2’s actually have quite decent video capability and cameras like the Nikon D5200 and D5300 produce very good quality video that is better than what the D4 or D800 produce.
A little bit on what we did and why
As mentioned earlier in this article we recently sold our D800 and almost all of our FX glass – I’m keeping my FX 85 mm f/1.8G to use with my Nikon 1 V2’s, and I have one other FX lens still to sell. We decided to sell this FX gear simply because we were hardly using it any more except for client shoots. It was just too large and heavy, and for what we do 36MP was overkill. I’ve been having a lot more fun shooting with my Nikon 1 gear which has become my ‘everyday’ system. We’ve been getting some clients asking about us doing their video projects in 4K at 30p which Nikon bodies can’t do. So, after doing some research we purchased a Panasonic GH4 with two Panasonic f/2.8 constant aperture zoom lenses, the 12-35 mm and the 35-100 mm. I looked back through our video storyboards and those two lenses will cover the vast majority of the focal lengths we typically use. I doubt that we’ll need to add anything else in terms of lenses for quite a while. The GH4 provides us with better dynamic range and colour depth than our V2’s so it will do a better job on landscape stills etc. I suppose the only thing we may add is a future Nikon 1 V4, assuming that its sensor performs as well as the one in the J5. Our philosophy has always been to bring a lot of capability and value to our clients by shooting small, light and solo. This change in gear will help us do that even better than in the past.
Do what’s right for you
There is a plethora of great choices of camera gear available today. I have no idea what gear is best for you, and neither does anyone else. What’s best for you is really a personal issue based on the kind of photography you do and your shooting style. As long as you focus your decision around getting the best performance that suits what you do as a photographer, do your homework, and get the best functionality for the money you have to spend, I doubt that you’ll make a mistake in choosing gear. It’s all about getting the functionality you need… not what’s the latest thing or the ‘coolest’ technology. Camera bodies, lens and software are simply the tools we need to create the images that are in our minds.
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