Friday, July 23, 2010

SLR Basics 3: Choosing a Brand

So you want an SLR after all. So what to buy?

First of all, any of the major brands will perform well. So while it may not exactly aid the decision process, rest assured that there is no "wrong" choice. You will be able to take great photos no matter what you buy. With the basics taken care of, the real competition in your brain will be about details.

This will be the longest entry by far, but you need not read all of it. I have ordered the sections roughly by how important I think that quality is, the most important being first. If one of the factors is enough to drive a decision, stop reading--that's your brand!

(Technically, I'm covering interchangeable lens cameras in general, not strictly SLRs. This means I will mention the new mirrorless models, which I think are similar enough to real SLRs as far as my intended audience is concerned.)


If the camera is uncomfortable to hold, you will avoid using it. If it is too big and heavy, you will avoid carrying it. If it is too hard to control, you will simply give up on it. There should be as few obstacles as possible to using the camera.

There is no substitute for physically holding an SLR in your hands. Go to a retail store and try several models out. Manufacturers generally design their cameras similarly, so if the latest model isn't on demo, try last year's model. The layout will be more similar than not.

Specific things to look for:
  • Too small. Cheaper SLR bodies and mirrorless bodies usually have less switches, are made of plastic, and use a dimmer pentamirror. If you have large hands or weak eyes, you may find these bodies uncomfortable to handle.
  • Too big. Upscale SLR bodies tend to be made of metal rather than plastic, have a top LCD, and a glass pentaprism. This makes them bigger and heavier all around. If you have small hands, are physically weak, or plan to travel long distances with the camera, you may find these tiring to hold.
  • Switch placement. Can you reach all the buttons without having to shift your grip or removing your eye from the viewfinder? Is the wheel(s) comfortable to use?
  • Viewfinder: Is it comfortable to see through? Is the shot information laid out to your liking? If you wear glasses, is the eyepoint far enough that you don't have to mash your face and glasses right up against the camera (too badly)?
In fact, ergonomics is so important that if you happen to find a brand that fits you like a glove, choose that and ignore the rest of the article.


Do you carry your equipment on a cushion of crushed velvet? Or do you drop them on the ground and kick vigorously just in case?

Impact and weather are the enemy. Bodies range from unsealed plastic to sealed magnesium alloy. If you are a typical tourist more interested in Disneyland than the Middle East, plastic will work just fine. When going on a desert adventure or to the tundra, you will probably benefit from dust and water resistance.

Every brand offers weather sealed bodies, but generally they are high end models. Pentax is an exception, as some of their cheaper bodies are sealed as well. But sealed bodies must be paired with sealed lenses, or the lens mount just becomes a giant leak.

Weather-sealed does not mean waterproof. Buy a dedicated waterproof camera or waterproof housing if that is what you are really after.


Did you know your friends and family may have already decided for you?

SLRs are most useful with a library of lenses to fit a shooting situation. Building from scratch even a modest collection of (hundred- to thousand-dollar) lenses can be quite expensive. So inheriting a system or knowing a photographer who would be willing to loan equipment is a very strong incentive to use the same brand. As long as you can stand that brand's ergonomics of course.


Sony E and micro 4/3 cameras do not have a mirror. This means they can omit the mirror assembly and optical viewfinder, which makes them slimmer and lighter. You will only have the LCD and/or electronic viewfinder for framing. The framing lag will make following action much more difficult. The backlit screen may not be bright enough to use in broad daylight. Conversely, its brightness may impair your night vision when operating in low or no light. (Also, try spotting a constellation on an LCD...) Whether the trade off is worth it is highly personal. I will simply say that SLRs are more all-purpose.

For speculation, Nikon will likely be releasing their own mirrorless line, which will likely need a new mount to deliver on smaller total size. Canon announced their own intention to release a small body of comparable size to mirrorless cameras, but avoided saying that their product would be mirrorless also. (Historical note: Canon once made APS film SLRs of similar size as modern mirrorless bodies.)

Anti-Shake Systems

Anti-shake systems are known by many names: Canon's IS, Nikon's VR, Sony's SteadyShot INSIDE, Panasonic's Mega OIS, Pentax's SR, etc. Such systems today are of two types: they either move part of the lens or move the camera's sensor.
  • Canon, Nikon and Panasonic use lens systems. You will benefit from it only when using a specific lens designed with this feature, usually at extra cost. Kit lenses generally have this as standard. The optical viewfinder and autofocus system will both benefit from it, as the lens corrects the image before passing it to the rest of the camera.
  • Sony, Olympus and Pentax use sensor shift systems. This is usually standard in their bodies. You will benefit from this when using any lens. However, because it is installed on the sensor, it only works when the sensor is in use. It will not stabilize the image for the viewfinder or autofocus system. Mirrorless cameras are an exception because they use the sensor full-time.
    Lens Selection

    Companies are not created equal. The systems they create are not equal either. Each manufacturer offers a slightly different selection of lenses to set their brand apart.

    While I emphasize unique and distinctive lenses here, I will point out that these are niche lenses targeting enthusiasts and professionals. The far more popular and useful "general purpose" lenses are made by every manufacturer. This comparison is largely academic.
    • Canon is the market leader. They offer one of the largest lens selections around, including specialty lenses such as the tilt-shift lenses, an extreme macro lens (1-5x life size!), a "budget professional" f/4 lens series, and the largest selection of super telephoto lenses (over 300mm focal length).
    • Nikon is the other market leader. They offer the other one of the largest lens selections around, including their own tilt-shift lenses, an unequaled wide angle zoom lens (14-24mm), and a pair of unique portrait lenses ("DC" for distortion control). Among their discontinued fare is a dedicated astrophotgraphy lens and a macro zoom lens capable of 0.75x magnification.
    • Sony is the new Minolta. Their selection is smaller than Canon & Nikon but is still large, notably including a compact autofocusing 500mm mirror lens and an even more unique portrait lens ("STF" for smooth transition focus). Sony recently released a mirrorless camera line to compete with micro 4/3. There are only 2 lenses so far fitting this new E-mount.
    • Olympus and Panasonic share the 4/3 ("Four-Thirds") mount and thus can share lenses. They are focusing on their new mirrorless cameras, which use the micro 4/3 mount. Micro 4/3 lenses are more compact than SLR lenses. Both standard and micro 4/3 have a more limited lens selection than Sony A and Pentax.
    • Pentax is owned by Hoya, a major optical glass manufacturer. Their lens selection is comparable to Sony's. They are known for weather sealing even low grade lenses (other manufacturers force you to buy the professional lenses) and their compact and well-built "limited" prime lenses, among them a few exceptionally thin "pancake" lenses.

    Because of their physical design, mirrorless cameras can accept adapters for many lenses from other manufacturers, including those designed for long dead/outdated cameras. You will lose automated functionality, but for some applications (macro and video come to mind) this would still be acceptable. Old manual focus lenses might actually be preferable, as their focus mechanism is designed for hand focusing rather than compared to autofocus lenses.

    Similarly, Canon cameras can be fitted with adapters for other manufacturers' lenses as well, though the selection is far less. But notably, Nikon lenses will fit. As with mirrorless cameras, you will lose automated functionality.

    Except for their high end models, Pentax cameras accept AA batteries natively. Other brands use proprietary lithium ion batteries and need external camera grips to accept AA.

    If you care about what the pros use, Canon and Nikon currently split the professional market and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This trickles down to the SLR market as a whole. Consequently, these brands' secondhand, rental and dealer markets are much larger and more accessible than the others.

    So... got a brand or at least some candidates yet? How to choose specific models of equipment is next.

    Monday, July 19, 2010

    SLR Basics 2: System Mentality

    You are not buying a camera. You are not buying megapixels, ISOs, autofocus points or even video recording. Buying an SLR is buying into a system and this is the biggest change from shopping for a compact.

    Lenses are more important than the camera. Your camera takes no images without a lens painting one upon the sensor. Lenses determine the subject matter you can shoot and the conditions where/when you can shoot. Everything you do with the camera passes through the lens first.

    Tripods are more important than the camera. The camera needs a stable platform, whether shooting still lifes in a studio, a grain of rice blown to more than life size, landscapes at dawn, birds in detail at 100 meters, stars under a clear sky or making mist out of moving water. Long shutter speeds, long focal lengths and the highest sharpness possible all require that camera movement be eliminated, stability that the human body simply cannot provide for more than a fraction of a second. Image stabilization helps at the borderline, but will not help past a second. A blurry photo is beyond saving.

    Flashes and lighting are more important than the camera. ISO is no substitute for good light. Sometimes the light simply sucks and it is easier to just bring your own. Photoshop takes expertise and labor to do its magic. A homemade light tent and pair of 60W bulbs will do more for your eBay photos than an any SLR ever could. Learning how to manipulate the light is as important as learning how to shoot in every condition.

    The camera body is a part of a system. It is an important part, but still only one part. Do not neglect the rest of the system, especially when starting from scratch with a limited budget. If you end up doing an hour of Photoshop to fix each photo, you may as well have stuck to a compact. Getting great results straight from the camera is a tricky and rewarding skill that requires a team effort from your whole system. Lenses especially should not be neglected, for they are the real core of an SLR system.

    Stop thinking about camera specs. This works somewhat for compacts, but for SLRs it is an expensive distraction from more important issues. The camera cannot and will not do it all.

    Friday, July 16, 2010

    SLR Basics 1: Why an SLR?

    Now for something a little different. This won't really describe anything new or rare as far as online info goes, but I felt like writing a tutorial and so a tutorial you will receive. (In explaining to others, you also explain to yourself.) Perhaps I can rephrase enough in ways that will help a few others "get it". This is a series.

    SLRs are bulky and heavy. Their lenses are sold separately and can be prohibitively expensive. They are less forgiving of operator error. In fact, they will likely give worse results than a cheaper automatic camera for an unskilled user. So why bother with them at all?
    • You want to learn more about the technical aspects of photography.
    • You want to take specialized pictures, e.g. stars, small objects, formal portraits.
    • You want to take pictures of moving things.
    • You are willing to carry several pounds of camera to accomplish the above.
    • You are willing to sink hundreds to thousands of dollars to accomplish the above.
    If none of these describes you, save yourself a lot of hassle and just buy a compact, preferably with face detection and image stabilizer. It will be easier to use, lighter to carry and is usually cheaper. And to be honest, their images will be perfectly acceptable, especially for common web sizes (1600x1200 and smaller). Seriously. Camera tech is quite amazing at every price level.

    Still interested? Because you have a long way to go.