Quick DSLR Screed

A friend recently asked me for some input on buying a new DSLR. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because I’ve been there (and still am) and bad because there is no correct answer. So much of it depends on the photographer, and their tolerance for the learning curve. The curve can be very steep, and despite its capabilities nobody calls a Nikon D800 “user friendly”. The menus are dense and challenging. Likewise, the digital sensor is getting better, but it is not film, so if you have any, your film experience is only slightly useful. Luckily you won’t be thinking “I wish I was shooting film again” any time soon.

I know what I would do if I was starting fresh, and why I would do it.

  • Get the current brand/body you want
  • Get one good lens (kit, or prosumer equivalent)
  • Get a good bag, and a spare battery.
  • Get to work!

In my case I would probably end up with something like the Nikon D7000 or the new D5200 and something like my 10-24mm DX Nikkor. When I first got my setup dialed in I did a lot of good work with the 18-70DX kit lens (that was OEM with the D70 kit!) but I have also owned the new 16-85DX and hated it. I also owned the excellent 17-55 Nikkor and it was great, buty weighs a freakin’ ton, and costs about as much… So YMMV/MMMV.

This decision has become muddied a bit by the variety in sensors and systems. Full Frame 35mm? APS-C? Micro Four Thirds? Advance P&S? Will you buy a Canon? Nikon? Oly? Panasonic? Sony? Leica? While you are at it, how important is video capability? Even the bottom of the DSLR lines shoot full HD video.

[Note: I like Ken Rockwell‘s reviews and writing. I have not found much to argue with except he might overrate the occasional lens. At least he does actual testing to back up his reviews]

When I got into it there was very little clutter in DSLR land. You went Nikon or Canon. Everything was APS-C. Nothing shot video. Advanced P&S gear was not competitive in comparison. Now you can grab a Canon G12 or G1x and you can get great results. A Panasonic G3 is freakishly capable. As before, the better gear really shows its value in extreme situations: Low light; Fast action; Very wide angle; Very long lens work; Architecture; Magazine covers… And even there you are probably blown away by at least one or two photos made with a good compact fixed-lens camera in any given issue of National Geographic. In terms of resolution, image quality, and dynamic range, compact sensor cameras are where mid-range DSLR sensors were five years ago, and DSLR sensors are off the charts good from where they were.

Example: On my last trip to Europe I shot almost everything with a 10-24mm zoom on my D300, plus my Canon G10, plus my iPhone. The G10 holds up to the D300 very well, but it will blow out highlights faster than you can say “255” if you aren’t fixated on the histogram and the exposure comp wheel. It also has subpar low-light performance. The iPhone takes great photos for what it is, but it has even less dynamic range than the other two, and worse low light performance than almost anything this side of the Holga. Still, the iPhone’s convenience and good daylight imaging capabilities make it invaluable. You can also text your mum! Take that, Rolleiflex!

So the advice thing got a little muddled in the details (ok, very muddled), but I still think that the cameras available today perform so well, and the “kit lens” quality is so good, that you could grab a standard Canon or Nikon kit and do pro work, or at least above average work, in almost any scenario. You will end up learning to manage the tsunami of files that you will generate, then post process and archive your images, out of sheer necessity, and that will extend the capabilities of your camera as you progress. As well, the skills you develop on the camera will translate into capturing images in a way that targets your post processing workflow. You will take images knowing that they won”t look good out of the camera, but will shine once you get them “up on the lift”. The two phases mesh very well once you get off the steep part of the curve.

I’m considering a short run of blog posts detailing some digital photography challenges. I hope I can follow through on it.

To Be Continued……….

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