Digital SLR Superguide: Choosing a dSLR

Published Date
22 - Feb - 2007
| Last Updated
22 - Feb - 2007
 
Digital SLR Superguide: Choosing a dSLR
Which dSLR is right for what you want to do?
Cameras are great tools to capture those special moments, but you’d want to make sure you get the right tool for the right use. Digital technology is advancing so rapidly that new terms and innovative features are being introduced at Internet broadband speeds. It’s hard not to get swamped by all the techno-jargon and marketing babble, but as with any kind of high-priced purchases like a car or a house, it’s all about doing your research and asking the right questions (see box).



The trick to choosing the right dSLR is to be honest with yourself. There is a big difference between what you want and what you really need. Ultimately it is your own wallet that suffers. Some painful soul-searching before the purchase will save you a lot of heartache and wallet burn.

There will be a lot of grey areas, of course, but everything is relative to the budget and what the camera will be used for. For example: If you’re a novice at nature photography, water-proofing in cameras might be fairly important considering the locations of nature shoots, but you might want to start off with a midrange model first to pick up the basics before venturing into the top range (where all the weather-proofing niceties are). You might also consider other alternatives such as a water-resistant camera wrap to reduce spending.
Tally up your budget
The first thing when considering a heavy investment such as a dSLR system is always money and how much of it you are prepared to spend. Bear in mind that the cheapest dSLR would still set you back at least about S$1,000 (US$636.21) together with a usable lens. This excludes any additional expenditure on accessories you might (and probably will) need.

Bundled kits, which usually include an entry-level lens for beginners, are a good way to get started. Some sales events will offer package deals where they bundle the camera with various accessories. You may be able to pick up some genuine bargains.

One thought to give some consideration to before you decide to splash out on a whole range of lenses, tripods, and external flash units is the weight that you will want to carry around. If you are planning to be fairly mobile then it is better to settle for a camera and lens that will not be too heavy. Of course, there will also be a trade-off: A camera and lens selection that weighs a bit more will often give better results. Just make sure that you know how heavy everything will be, and that you have a nice, big camera bag to fit it all into.


What do you want to shoot?
Knowing what you’d like to shoot is a big step in determining the type of equipment you need. Consider the following categories carefully.

Beginners: Getting started with dSLRs
Street and travel: Good ol' general purpose
Sports: Need for speed
Wildlife: Getting back to nature
Underwater: Marine photography
Portraits: People pictures

Beginners: Getting started with dSLRs
Digital cameras have sped up the learning process for beginner photographers. The ability to immediately review shots taken, as well as other features such as viewing image histograms, highlights, shooting information and so on, are great for novices. It takes the hassle out of having to second guess your mistakes, which can often be corrected on the spot.

Most beginners have yet to develop a good sense of which type of photography they favor, although they might have an inkling or inclination for one particular style through viewing the works of other photographers. If you fall into this category, avoid splurging on equipment all at once. Start off with a basic dSLR system, such as the Canon EOS 400D or the Nikon D80, and a set of basic lenses (one kit lens and a telezoom glass) and accessories. In this way, you’d avoid getting locked into equipment which might not be ideal for you in the long run.

Street and travel: Good ol' general purpose
Street and travel photography are often categorized together, as strictly speaking, there isn’t a hard-and fast rule on the subject. It often can be anything and everything the photographer’s eye "sees", so these are best served by keeping the equipment simple, yet versatile.

However, common sense dictates that for street and travel photography, the equipment should be kept light and convenient. Some functions can often be dispensed with, such as an optional vertical grip with shutter release, to reduce the weight. Nothing kills mood faster than overloading with equipment and getting tired earlier. A lighter, more compact system also means that fewer accessories can be used as well, such as a smaller, lighter tripod and smaller camera bag. The system should ideally be quick to start-up and respond, in order to catch any action that may be unfolding before your very eyes.

Sports: Need for speed
The fast and furious world of sports photography is an exciting one, and from the massive super-tele lenses that the professionals use, it’s also an expensive one. However, for hobbyists, it’s often possible to capture sports action with a modest dSLR setup. A good tele-zoom lens is generally considered essential, but it’s sometimes possible to extend the focal range using tele-converters. The crop factor of dSLRs also helps to boost the reach of the camera--for example, a 70-200mm lens on a Canon EOS 30D (1.6x crop factor) becomes a 112-320mm lens for effective focal range. The Nikon D80, on the other hand, has a crop factor of 1.5x.

Fast autofocusing, a larger image buffer and better image noise control for higher ISO settings are also some factors to consider. Sports photography seldom requires large image sizes as well, as smaller pixel count files mean better management and faster phototaking ability.
Wildlife: Getting back to nature
Animals, whether they are in a zoo or out in the wilderness, make for fascinating photographic subjects. As with sports photography, it may not be necessary to invest in top-grade, professional equipment and lenses. A moderate tele-zoom lens can be equally useful in a semi-controlled environment where you get closer to the animals without danger, especially when it is augmented by tele-convertors and the crop factor of dSLRs. However, a good camera for wildlife photography should feature some kind of water or dust resistance or seals, since the equipment is literally exposed to the elements.

Underwater: Marine photography
It opens up a whole new world for photography, especially if it is combined with another sports or hobby such as diving or snorkeling. It’s noteworthy that most marine photographers start off with a prosumer digital camera with a water-tight casing rather than a dSLR, since casings for dSLR cameras are notoriously expensive and can accept only a limited range of lenses.

The categories discussed above are just some commonly practiced by photographers. There are many more, and the one which will appeal to you will depend on what you enjoy most. You might also want to think about: landscape, macro, creative/artistic abstracts, and portraits, all of which have their own unique characteristics.

Be sure to read up and do more "homework" first before committing to any purchases.

Portraits: People pictures
Taking good portrait pictures can be one of the most satisfying aspects of photography. You will be able to capture the essence of a person and show them at their best in a single picture.

If you are likely to do a lot of portrait photography you should generally look for lenses with wide aperture values (f/2.8 is a good bet).

These will give a shallow depth of field, making your subject stand out from the background. You should also use a camera that has a good range of manual controls so that you will be able to try different exposures and aperture values. Other useful tools would include flash units that have built-in slave units, so that you can provide indirect lighting, and a sturdy tripod.

A high-end dSLR will give you the megapixel count to be able to print out large photos, suitable for framing and hanging on a wall or putting into a silver frame on the mantelpiece.The legacy issue
When it comes to buying a dSLR, present or previous users of film SLR systems face an additional concern: Legacy issues. By this we mean that they would tend to own a collection of equipment (lenses and the like) that has been designed with the manufacturer’s cameras in mind.

Accessories and lenses are proprietary to each system (so, for example, a lens for a Canon camera will not fit a Nikon dSLR, and so on), and switching systems means taking a substantial hit to the wallet. Before making a decision, check up on the compatibility of each system and make an assessment of what you can continue using. If you’ve already invested heavily on lenses, it makes practical sense to continue using the same camera system, no matter how tempting a rival brand’s new model may be. Newer and better models are constantly being introduced, so patience is a virtue here.

While most legacy SLR equipment will retain a reasonable resale value and can be sold to fund the new dSLR purchase, this issue is not just related to owning lenses and accessories. It is also a matter of experience and usage. For example, Canon’s zoom lenses rotate in the opposite direction from Nikon’s, so those who opt to switch systems will probably find some difficulty adjusting. Canon uses a single command dial as well, while Nikon uses two, which can be confusing for some.

While these are obstacles, which can be overcome in time, the issue of legacy experience and equipment is well worth giving thought to before your purchase.


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