Choosing a digital camera

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4925 days ago

UPDATE: please see my addendum in the Comments section, at the end.

After my last blog post, a relative asked me for camera advice, because she is planning on buying a new camera to get better at photography. I took the time to type up a detailed answer, and figured I should also share it (revised and edited) here. Note that this answer is targeted at typical home photographers who want to take better pictures; some of these comments would change for other audiences.

I have a Nikon D40. But here’s my advice about cameras:

Megapixels don’t matter, at all. Any number 5 or larger is sufficient; so long as it is at least “5” you can safely ignore the number when making your decision.

First decide between SLR (“Single Lens Reflex”) and Point & Shoot (“P&S”). Get an SLR if you really want to get into learning photography (or if you already know), and know that you’ll want manual control over specific camera settings. Also get one if you know about (and care about) depth of field. Otherwise, an SLR is probably overkill. There are great P&S cameras that have all the features you might want from an SLR, and cost a lot less. You lose some flexibility and control, but you gain simplicity and a lower price.

Everybody wants to know “Canon or Nikon?” That question really only matters if you’re getting an SLR.

  • If you are, I prefer Nikons because they work more like how I (as a geek) expect a camera to work. My sense is that Canons are more human-friendly, though.
  • In either case, it’s really the lenses that matter, not the camera body. So when choosing a body, don’t worry about it too much; buy the least-expensive body that has all the features you know you want.
  • If you aren’t getting an SLR, you don’t have to limit yourself to Canon/Nikon. I had an Olympus camera I really liked.
  • Really you don’t have to limit yourself to Canon/Nikon for SLRs, either, but it’s safer to do so. Just read reviews if you go off those two brands.

The thing that makes the biggest difference in my pictures isn’t the camera, or the lens, usually. It’s the flash. I have an add-on flash that lets me bounce the flash off the ceiling. That makes ALL the difference in how natural my indoor pictures look. Plan on buying a bounce flash; don’t consider it optional. Expect to spend about $100-$200. It doesn’t have to be fancy, to start. You can get a bounce flash for P&S cameras (the bigger ones), too.

After the flash, the next most important thing is to know what you’re doing :) Read a book, or take a class, if you don’t already know about aperture, shutter speed, and what depth of field is. Or if you don’t know how to frame a picture, handle your flash, and adjust the white balance on your computer. If you really do plan on taking a class, skip straight to an SLR rather than a P&S.

After the knowledge, the next most important thing is the lens (not the camera). Ideally you want a single lens that will zoom from about 18mm to about 200mm, with vibration reduction, with almost no barrel distortion, and that has great low-light abilities. A lens with all but the last feature exists from Nikon, for only about $750. But even if you could afford such a lens, I’d still suggest you get a second lens for low-light situations.

The point is, you can’t have everything you want, so you’ll have to compromise. Things you’ll have to weigh in your compromise:

  1. Price. Pick a budget and stick with it. You can always spend more on equipment later.
  2. Zoom range (from “none” to “huge”); also important is how often you’ll need the specific range that the lens covers. If it does zoom, you’ll need to consider whether the extremes of the range will distort the picture; some lenses do.
  3. Glass quality & coatings. Nikon and Canon are almost always great, but many third-party lenses are also great, and usually less expensive; some research can save significant money.
  4. Low-light ability (i.e. do pictures in dark places look blurry?). This is the biggest factor in the cost of the different lenses.
  5. Vibration reduction, which helps offset hand-holding and/or dim light. It’s a valuable feature for longer-zoom lenses, but not an inexpensive one.
  6. Noise while zooming/focusing. Some lenses are noisy. (I don’t usually worry about this.)

If you’re buying a P&S, the lens decision and the camera decision are inseparable. Often that’s how P&S prices are kept down – the lens is crappy. (Often not, though!) Consider the lens carefully when you buy a P&S.

If you’re buying an SLR, I suggest you buy lenses in the order below, until you run out of lens money. It’s OK to run out of money after the first lens :)

  1. The zoom lens that comes with your kit, assuming you read the reviews and they say that the kit lens is a decent one.
  2. A good low-light lens. That’s probably a $200(ish) fixed-zoom (probably 35mm) “normal” lens with a widest aperture of f1.8. Other options exist, but this is probably the right choice to start. This is a great learning-lens, and will occasionally let you get pictures that you just can’t get with either other lens.
  3. A long-zoom lens, with vibration reduction. You’ll end up using this lens a lot for people-shots, once you try it a few times.

Finally, choose the camera. The D5000 is probably Nikon’s best starter SLR at the moment. I don’t know about P&S cameras these days, and I’ve never really known about Canon :)

See It’s very detailed, but it has great information.

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A wedding photographer worthy of note

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5315 days ago

You may not know this about me, but I have investigated wedding photography pretty heavily. As an amateur photographer, my primary interest is in photographing people, but I’m less interested in portraiture and more in showing emotion and reaction, so wedding photography is a perfect specialty for me. It turns out that wedding photography is also one of the harder photographic specialties – the subjects don’t pose, the family is hard to manage, the lighting and weather are out of your control, you only get one chance to get the pictures, you need really expensive equipment to get good shots from a distance in a dark church without a flash, you have to have a backup person and backup equipment, you have very high contrasts (black/white) to deal with, and the profit margins are usually small. And there are many, many wedding photographers, so competition is fierce.

So I didn’t give up my day job to pursue this interest :)

But nonetheless I have read about it a bunch, and I always try new techniques when I attend weddings, and I am always interested to watch wedding photographers at work. I can pretty quickly judge the great ones from the so-so ones, based largely on their equipment and their approach. It’s not how you might think, though: the best photographers have the less-flashy equipment, and the least-noticeable approach. The so-so ones have flashy equipment and big gear bags and are usually either pushy or timid.

So we were at a wedding this past Saturday, and the wedding photographer caught my attention, and then held it. He had a good camera, a minimal gear setup, a good flash (with modest attachments), a good assistant, and nice clothes. He knew how to use his equipment to best effect. He focused more on composing the shot and giving it some creative attention than on “being in charge” or “showing his skill.” He dealt with people naturally. He knew how to quickly handle problems (like the memory card filling up) with minimal fuss. It just seemed like he had all the right elements, and I’ve never seen a wedding photographer before who I really thought had everything right.

At the reception, I asked him for a business card. It turns out he actually had a Mac laptop set up, showing a slideshow of pictures from earlier that day, taken during and after the wedding. The pictures were amazing! I couldn’t believe he had such a good show assembled with little or no time between events to get it ready. So I watched the show, grabbed a card, and made a note to myself to look him up later on.

So yesterday I went to his website and it looks like my intuition was correct. He has a degree in photography, and his focus (per his bio) is similar to mine – to “capture the essence of individual moments and make them memories to last a lifetime”. His sample pictures are great. He has a sample slideshow posted, and it looks great. I always assume those slideshows are assembled from a wedding where the photographer worked extra-hard, but in this case I’ve already seen his work from a “real” wedding and I can attest those pictures were just as good. So it seems that he consistently produces great work.

I didn’t want to pass by something great without encouraging it, so I took the time to post here about him. His name is Chad Moon and the business is named Chad Moon Photography. Check him out, especially if you are looking for a good wedding photographer in the Columbus/Cincinnati/Dayton area.

P.S. – I’ve posted my pictures from the wedding – some of them turned out really well (after a few touch-ups).

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