quick guide: buying a camera

Like snapping pictures? Amateurs, hobbyists and professionals all enthusastically supported!
Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 1595
Joined: Tue Aug 26, 2008 1:06 pm
Location: Päijät-Häme or Uusimaa

quick guide: buying a camera

Post by bretti_kivi »

Here you go. I wrote this a while back for some UK forums, and I've tried to make it a bit more international. Don't worry about the £; "quid" is a colloquialism for UK currency.

Buying a dSLR

This is intended as a quick, non-branded guide to what you might want to look out for and why when you're looking for a dSLR. It will cover the basics and some of the reasons why you would want to do this, but also some reasons why you should stick with your compact.

Why you shouldn't buy a dSLR

Because Johnny has one
Because I want one
It's sexy
I want to get more girls
I want to impress girls with the size of my lens

Why you should buy a dSLR

Because I know what I want from a camera and it's control
The shutter lag on my compact is really, really annoying
I want to use a real flash
I'd like to be able to change lenses, I've got this great collection from my old film SLR

Why you should buy a Bridge camera

Because you'll get 20x zoom in a small-ish box. No sweat, no hassle, light-ish weight and decent pics.
No dust problems, no heavy lenses, just a camera that works.

Why you should stick with your compact

Because you can forget it in your shirt pocket.

What's a "bridge" camera?

Bridge - well, you could call it the bridge from dSLR to Compact. They tend to be like a dSLR in form, but with a fixed lens - most of them have a lot of zoom attached, too. The main benefits are a step up in quality from a "point 'n' shoot" or compact, but without the weight and expense of a dSLR. They have a lot going for them if you want a very long zoom from a compact body, simply because anything over 300mm with a dSLR is going to cost you an awful lot of cash.
Don't dismiss bridges, they have their place even if some turn their nose up at them. They'll also have minimal dust problems, which is more than can be said for most dSLR users....Examples of bridges / extended compacts: Pentax X70 (24x zoom, £330), Olympus SP-590UZ (27x zoom, £300), Canon Powershot G9, Fuji Finepix S100. Just because you can't change the lens doesn't mean it's not a good camera. Yes, I did learn on a bridge, and I'm tempted on one for my wife, because it makes a "pick up, take shot" possible.

The chef makes the meal, the saucepans allow him to do it - the user makes the photo, the camera only enables it.

So what's a dSLR good for, then?

Simple: Control. Control over your lens, over your aperture, over every single aspect of the pic.
Thing is, this means you need to understand:
a) what you're taking a pic of
b) the maths and science and relationships between all the different factors; aperture, ISO, shutter speed, depth of focus.
c) what your lens will do to the subject in front of you

Which one? I have several hundred <insert currency here> burning a hole in my pocket...!

Do not ask this question before having been out to a store and having handled the cameras. Really, really important factors:
- batteries: AAs, Li-Ions?
- memory cards: CF, SD, something else?
- weight
- physical size - is this too small for my hands?

You can only get an idea of these from the 'net. I don't personally like small cameras, I need to use mine with gloves on. What about sausage fingers? The only way to find this out is to go check it out.

Something very similar applies to budget. Go get your budget, lop fifty off, and see what you can find. Then realise you want that fifty back and another fifty, too; try and buy the best you can, but you don't need a D700. So leave it. Find something that works for your price range and then get a bag for it.

Sensor size, Megapixels and why they don't matter

dSLR sensors generally come in two sizes: APS-C and Full Frame. APS-C is smaller than film, so your lens is extended in comparison. APS-C generally has a "crop factor" of 1.5. Most manufacturers have "made for digital" lenses, these are specifically for the crop cameras. If you want to buy a full frame camera, you will need to buy full frame lenses, too, and they will *not* be cheap.

Squeezing more pixels onto a given size of sensor also means that the pixels are smaller, and get less light. This means that the signal they can provide is weak and amplifying a weak signal gives noise. This appears as speckles on high-ISO pics. You'll probably get it as of ISO100 on your compact, a decent dSLR should allow at least ISO400 and the better ones even more. Very nice flexibility to have.

Megapixels are therefore contra picture quality in this case; normal dSLRs will "make do" with 15MP or so. That's more than enough for even demanding printers. That's the only place you'll ever need those pixels. Everything else will be fine without them.

Starting lenses

Most dSLRs will come with a better or not "kit" lens. This is normally 18-55mm, so a three times ish zoom. It's generally a starting point and little else. However, until you've worked out what you want to / can shoot (birds? Landscapes? Architecture? Ladybirds?) then don't worry too much about getting other lenses. A cheap 50-200 is nice, because it means you then get to cover some of the nearer birds and zoom in a bit... but it's not as close as you'd maybe like and really big lenses start getting expensive, fast.

A list of things to get

Top of the list: a bag. Protect the camera.
The strap is not for decoration.
Use your lens cap when you're not using the camera. It's a pain having to clean stuff.
Lens cloth (decent MF will do, preferably non-fluffy)
In no particular order:
- Tripod. Get a cheap one, maybe, if you MUST. Other than that a Slik, Velbon, Manfrotto, Red Snapper. Well under a hundred, worth it for long exposures - anything over 1/40 or so will benefit from either shake reduction (more about that in a sec) or a tripod
- 50-200, 50mm lenses, the rest is far more specialised and has specific uses.
- think about an external flash, it makes a lot of difference.

Functions and Terms

Body: the camera itself
Glass: lens
Prime: non-zoom lens
Long glass: long lenses, mainly for sports stuff
Fast glass: generally below f3.5. Great for low light shooting, normally primes. Canon has a 50/1.2, Pentax has an old manual 1.2, there are several 85 1.4s available.
Shake reduction is nice to have. In the body, even better. Glass with SR tends to be expensive.
PC port: used to synchronise flashes. Don't need.
Grip: additional grip for the base of the camera, normally with another battery or two, and a way to hold the camera in portrait mode (upright) easier. Very nice if you're used to it. Don't really need.
Bokeh: out of focus areas. Some lenses turn them lovely smooth, others more jagged. Affected by the blades on the aperture.
Shutter lag: the time it takes for the camera to react after you press the trigger. Compacts tend to take quite long to take the shot.
Filter: glass that goes on the end of your lens. For protection and for effects. Popular and useful ones include polarisation (circular is good, but it's not cheap) to reduce glare, UV to protect and get better blue skies. Graduated filters can help bring sky brightness down without reducing the brightness of the land in a landscape shot.


Glass stays, bodies move on. Your collection will get bigger if you let it, it's called "LBA" - Lens Buying Addiction.
There are lots of lenses around, depending on what you want to do and why.
Older stuff tends to be fully or partly manual (you might need to set the aperture on the lens itself) and manual focus is completely normal on older lenses.
Remember, too, that different lenses will have a different "sweet spot". There was a guide to doing this posted not long ago; add your lens on the camera onto a tripod and take pics at different f-values. Some will be better than others, and it may change along the length of a zoom lens. Test it and you will understand better how to get the most out of your equipment, i.e. where the lens is sharp and contrasty. Most glass is not good "wide open" - which means f2.8 on an f2.8 lens, but your mileage may vary - test it and you will know.

Why you would want specific lenses
- Fisheyes group 180 degrees into the view, distorting on the way in a round manner, so that you have to be careful not to get your feet in the shot. Very nice if used well, difficult to use well. Generally 8-15mm.
- Ultra wide angle tries to cram the same information without distorting as much. Works reasonably well up to a point. Good example: sigma 10-20, available for lots of fitments. Generally <20mm.
- Wide Angle - used to be less than 35mm, so 20-35. Nice area to use, because you get pretty much your standard viewpoint from your eyes with a 20 or so and one eye with 35-50. Crappy portrait lenses, good for landscapes.
- "Normal" lenses; 50-85 or so. There's frequently little between these, either; 50 is a traditional length, seen to be the same as the view from one eye. Agreed, to a point, on a modern dSLR. 85 is a classic portrait lens, 50 also works well.
- Telephoto - anything above 100 or so. 135 is a portrait lens (only just) and older ones are pretty common.
- Mirror lenses: these use a mirror to reflect the light. Generally used for astrophotography, because any bokeh will be doughnut shaped.
- "Walkabout". "always-on" - generally a 17-50 or so; there are f2.8 versions of these that are well-regarded. These are the lenses that no-one feels the need to take off, because they do a lot of photography well.
- Macro - anything that will focus closely and give ... well, up to real-life size. However, this term tends to be misused somewhat. There are generally 50, 100, 150 and 180mm macro lenses; the 50 demands you get right up close to get the real-life size, the 180 allows some more space, which is good for insects and the like.
- Shift / Tilt-shift lenses: great for architecture and tiltshift for cool effects. Not cheap.
- Teleconverters: yes, you can increase all your lenses' length with one of these, but image quality will be lost, as will as many f-stops as the converter (so that 200/f4 becomes a 400/f8) which is not so good.

Aperture, ISO, DoF

The complicated part:
for a given shot... ISO 100 may mean 1/125 @ f2.8. ISO 400 may mean 1/125 @ f8 OR 1/500@ f2.8.
There's a relationship there and your camera will work it for you if you set it to S or A mode; A will allow you to set the f2.8 (I'll explain why you want that in a sec) and S the 1/125.

If you want to show something in focus and something else close to it out of focus, use a very small F number.
If you want the depth of the focus field to be larger, use a larger F Number.

Simple, no? well, there's another part:
The bigger the f-number, the greater the depth of field.
The larger the distance, the greater the depth of field for a given f-number.
Just as an idea:

f2.8, 20cm - 2mm DoF
f16, 20cm - 5mm DoF
f2.8 2m - 5cm DoF
f16, 2m - 20 cm DoF
f2.8, 20m - 50cm DoF
f16, 20m - 5m DoF

This makes it slightly more complex. Then there's the effect that different lenses have on the available DoF. Best thing to do is go and try it and you'll see what works.

Macro distances tend to mean minimal depth of field, so you end up using f/16 or higher, which starts to need flash in anything but bright sunlight.

Shutter speeds

If you want to freeze movement, try 1/160 upwards.
If you want to show movement but isolate something (a car, plane, bird), try 1/60-1/125
A rule of thumb: over 1/length of the lens (so that's 1/50 with a 50mm, 1/200 with a 200) gets difficult to hold still. Practice, use support if you have to (walls, benches, trees).

Frames per second

Why? Because you can? That's not a really good excuse. "Because I need to shoot fast-moving sports" is a better one. 5fps is good, 8fps better, but you will need good memory cards because of the amount of data. So costs go up. Still need it?


Flash is fun. For the full lowdown: strobist (go google). Other than that, an external flash with diffuser is a great tool to have in your toybox. They have something called a "guide number"; this should mean the number of feet it lights at ISO 100 or something of that order. Doesn't really matter; higher guide numbers cost money. Forty something is the general one for a "cheap" flash (we're talking around a hundred <currency> here); if you're buying a Sigma and you're serious, get a Super not an ST as the ST only allows control down 1/1 or 1/16. The super allows 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64. Even that's too much, sometimes.
Nikon's SB900 and Pentax' AF 540, Canon EF-580EXII are all very nice indeed. But pricey. The Sigma is cheaper and allows *most* of the flexibility, but not all.
Using flash: bounce it. Off the floor, off the ceiling. Diffuse it. trigger it remotely. The possibilities are endless.
Ring flash gives a very specific effect, most useful for macro work. Don't need it unless you understand why you want it.

Brands and comments

Nikon / Canon: the big boys. If you want to use expensive, long glass, go this way. Almost religious followings, though at the very top, there's essentially nothing between them. So it becomes a question of your investment and also the logic involved. Handle the camera!
Pentax: bit strange, nice cameras. Slightly more noise on the picture at higher ISO (think 800+) than the above two. Can be difficult to find lenses, unelss you've got a stash. Prices have gone up on old, nice glass. The K7 is here, the others have dropped in price on the second hand market as a result.
Sony: If you have an old Minolta, this is the way to go. As above for the lenses. Several fresh releases mean dropping prices on others.
Olympus / Panasonic: four thirds demands an awful lot of the glass, so there's not much around. The E3 has some nice comments. µ-4/3 will change the way people look at SLRs, but whether it'll be accepted is another story.

The newest models are becoming very difficult to differentiate.

To those who want to spend money

As an example: the 50D is great, but what will it offer you, as a newbie - or even an ambitioned amateur - over the 1000D that you'll really use? OK, Nikon's D5000 offers Video, but no stereo mics and no autofocus while you're shooting video. Is that really enough to sway it one way or another?

Go and handle the camera but think about what you really want and need before you walk into a store. Who will carry it? How? What do you intend (right now) to take pics of? Detailing work? Kids? Pets? Work? That should influence your thinking to an extent similar to budget. If there's "too much" money, invest it in nice lenses when you really know what you want to take shots of. They don't depreciate very much and are relatively simple to get rid of again.

I tried to make the point a while back that the camera doesn't really make a difference in, maybe 95%+ of situations. I had this rammed effectively down my throat back in the winter....
Story: My wife was off in Central Europe and took my camera with her. I had an ice-track session - my first one - and I borrowed a "lesser model" to use. K100D Super, my own is a K10D.
It gave me less junk. It was irritating as it would only take 3 shots and then think before the next one, which means I lost some opportunities but it forced me into waiting for a shot rather than just "snap snap snap snap snap snap snap snap" which I could do with my own. The shots are fine. They're probably just as good as the K10D, because it was good light and I use classy (not cheap, not expensive) lenses.

I cannot emphasise this enough: the camera is like your barbecue. It merely enables that smoky flavour, that crispiness on the outside, it doesn't create the sauce or the food. Maybe, if you're really fussy, you can find a really good reason to get that rotisserie or another burner on the side, or a physically bigger grill space so you can serve 15 at once instead of just 10. At the end of the day, though, just how much do you "need" these things?

I will not deny that the 50D is a great camera. Or the D90. They're not to my taste and I think they offer too much to a newbie.
Buy a cheap body, get some glass, get better, upgrade when you really understand why you need it.

Memory cards

Fast ones are good, but expensive. If you don't need them...don't bother. 2GB, 4GBs are good, remember that your reader will also limit the speed of getting the pics off the card. Sandisk Extreme IIIs have a very good reputation and they're extremely fast for a reasonable price. Ultra IIs are OK; on my K10D, the UII allows 5 RAW shots in a burst, the Extreme IIIs 8. That's quite a difference.
There are valid reasons for huge cards - if the camera supports them - but if you lose the card, either physically or can't read it - then you are in deep doo-doo. Limit the size and avoid the issue. Clean the cards after use, and that way your camera will normally be ready whenever you want it.

JPEG is the standard format for pics. RAW is the pic the camera takes before processing; if you've screwed up, for example, the white balance, then it's easier to correct in RAW than JPG. It's also easier to correct lighting issues (too light, too dark, because the camera measured on the "wrong" part of the photo) with RAW. However, it takes time and skill to use it correctly. Nice, but time-consuming. It's also known as "post-processing", the act of getting your RAWs and converting them to JPG with external software. Then you might want to correct, straighten, sharpen.. that breaks the bounds of this guide, big time. The ability to switch between RAW and JPG is nice, especially if it's easy. RAWs are a lot larger than JPGs; 10MB vs 2MB @ 10MP.

Specific suggestions for kit

- Basic kit
Body + 18-55. 2x 2GB cards, Bag.

Next up: add a 50-200, maybe tripod, maybe external flash.

Specfic lens recommendations

Indoor sports - hockey, tennis: 70-200 f2.8 (they're not cheap!)
Landscapes: 30/1.4, 24/2.8, 10-20; fisheye if you're feeling adventurous
Architecture: Shift + converter + tripod OR very nice glass - I think it's a Zeiss Flektogon that has a stunning reputation, but it's exceedingly expensive. Why? because straight lines will show up every single issue the lens has. Try it with your kit lens on a brick wall...
Portraits: 85/1.x or f2.
Macro: Tamron 90mm + converter for 1:1, 100mm Macro; Sigma 180mm has generally excellent quality
Events inside: 28-75 or 24-70 f2.8 + flash
Astro: f8 500mm mirror
User avatar
Posts: 1595
Joined: Tue Aug 26, 2008 1:06 pm
Location: Päijät-Häme or Uusimaa

Post by bretti_kivi »

comments welcome. I hope it's understandable to a global audience ;)

User avatar
Voltage Ohms
Posts: 14719
Joined: Sat Nov 26, 1983 4:00 am
Location: Burnaby, BC

Post by stipud »

Thanks Bret. Stickied :)
User avatar
Posts: 709
Joined: Wed Dec 13, 2006 7:16 am
Location: Grand Rapids, MI

Post by joyride »

dpreview.com is a invaluable research tool. Once you have your choices narrowed, so some research on there.

Another to not overlook, go to a local shop and hold one. I was amazed at how much different each camera felt. Most cameras in a given class are fairly the same, so the 'fit' could be the deciding factor (you will be holding it for a long time). Also, I was surprised when my local shop was cheaper than any on-line retailers.

You will need a photo editing program when shooting digital. There are many more choices than just Photoshop. Most people will only use the resize, hue/saturation, and levels. Programs like Gimp (free) will cover most needs. However, Photoshop Elements is a great option for around $100. It will do much of the same things that the full program will do, for way less money. Download a trial version to see what it is like before you purchase it.

Books are always a great start. Lark has many great editions that are easy to read and understand. They have a ton of images and show exactly what you need to do step by step.
User avatar
mr tibbs
Forum Goatee
Posts: 3895
Joined: Sun Dec 17, 2006 3:03 pm
Location: The land of morons, I mean mormons.:(

Post by mr tibbs »

Great write up Bret!!
the Floor Sweeping Hack with Golden Ears
Posts: 14788
Joined: Fri Dec 19, 2008 9:53 pm

Re: quick guide: buying a camera

Post by ttocs »

my cnc has been keeping me happy and busy as well as both earning and spending some of of my cash. I have been considering adding a 100w laser cutter/engraver to the fleet and not sure I would have any left over cash. I enjoy your pics, thanks for sharing.
what else can I say I am a grumpy asshole most of the time.
Post Reply