Camera-buying advice

By someone else on November 10th, 2007

We recently asked my brother, Mark, for advice on whether to get a point-and-shoot (P&S) or digital SLR for our next camera (we’ve had both). Mark is a good photographer and the kind of guy who takes the time to do a ton of research before making a major purchase. His response was so good that I wanted to post it (with his permission) so others could benefit from it too. He not only covers camera recommendations but includes some philosophy about photography and parenting.

Not sure what is ideal for you, but I can share how I got to where we are now for cameras, which is a Canon 40D.

When Asher was younger (than he is now, although still young), I found that I could get pictures I was pretty happy with using our P&S digital camera. These pictures met most of our needs, although I would find myself not even trying a lot of shooting situations. Typically this meant indoor pictures, where the available lighting was not as good. Also, Asher could not move that quickly, so the camera speed was adequate to capture the image I wanted. When I say camera speed, I am referring to everything, including boot up time, mode selection, focusing speed, shutter delay, actual shutter speed, and write time (to memory card).

Most all of our pictures were taken with the small digital, with the exception of some specific shooting, such as our Christmas postcard, which I shot with my Canon film SLR.

However, as he got older and faster, I found myself taking fewer and fewer pictures, because most of them turned out blurry, or I could not compose and take the picture fast enough to capture the moment I wanted. I also had very little control over exposure settings on the camera, and wasn’t able to make enough adjustments for various shooting situations.

I also found that my shooting style didn’t require the smallest camera. The initial appeal of the P&S camera was that I could take it anywhere (usually it was in a diaper bag) and take photos. While this happened some of the time, typically it went unused. At other times I would decide it was a good time to take pictures, and we would take a ton of pictures in one setting. This allowed me to experiment with camera settings, lighting, and composition, and hopefully get a few shots that were really worth keeping. I have found that this style is a good match for the kind of pictures that I want. As a parent I learned I wasn’t as concerned with documenting every single milestone in the lives of the kids. Doing that, I would end up with an album of all “firsts,” such as first steps, first food, etc. I found that what I really wanted was good pictures that captured the lives of the kids and showed their personality, as they grow and learn. It is less important for me to be there hovering with the camera trying to capture the exact moment of their first steps. Instead, I can pick a time when they are first learning to walk and take a whole bunch of pictures in order to get a great shot. This way I can be really involved in those moments, by helping them to walk, instead of being the parent who says “this is great, but can he take his first steps a little closer to a west-facing window?”

Once I discovered that this style of shooting (taking photos in large batches) was what I preferred, it pushed me closer to wanting a digital SLR, so I could have more control over the pictures. Also, speed (all factors listed above) was probably one of the most critical factors. Other than that, having a better lens was key. A lot of the small cameras today have high megapixel counts. However, in most cases it doesn’t matter, because the lenses on the camera simply can’t compare to an SLR lens. Digital was an obvious choice over film, primarily because it’s tough to get kids to look at the camera on cue and I didn’t want to worry about how many shots I was taking, knowing I could always delete later. With the SLR, I can simply get the picture I want, without getting frustrated. This is primarily due to the camera speed, but also due to the greater range of settings available and lens options. Also, I can use different flashes on the SLR which makes a lot of shots possible – shots that were impossible on the point and shoot. Finally, there is also the possibility of other accessories, such as filters and remote control.

I mostly take pictures in batches with the SLR, such as deciding that we’ll take pictures at the park on a given day, and not worrying about it on other days. This means that the camera size doesn’t bother me too much, because we don’t take it with us every time we leave the house. If we need to capture something “in the moment” that we just have to have, I guess we could use a cell phone to do that.

So my recommendation would definitely be for a digital SLR. True, they do not take video. But to me, that seems like a small tradeoff for the picture quality and flexibility. Camcorders and P&S cameras that can take video are so cheap now, that it might make more sense to buy both. Even P&S cameras with high megapixel counts don’t take high resolution video – so if you want one for video only, you don’t need a very expensive P&S. Most will be 640×480 anyway (standard TV). You could probably get one for $100 or less.

For the SLR you pretty much pick between Canon and Nikon. Canon had almost taken over the market from Nikon (more here) for high-end digital SLRs, although Nikon is coming back. It’s mostly a matter of preference.

Why do I like the Canon?

  • I have used it for years (same as my film SLR), and am very familiar with it
  • I find it very fast to shoot. It’s very easy to get the setting and shot that I want quickly.
  • You can shoot black and white, which at the time I bought some Nikons did not offer
  • Has depth of field preview (a button), which some Nikons did not
  • Very fast picture review in the LCD
  • Excellent ability to personalize settings. Canon has 3 “wheel” positions that will save any settings combination you want. So you can tweak to your delight, and then recall everything you set by turning one dial.
  • Very fast (multiple pictures per second)
  • Better price than the Nikons

If you want to look at the Canon digital SLRs, their website is pretty easy to compare. There are not very many models in the $0-1500 range (40D was around $1200). I think 3-4 models.

Higher price gets you better metering, faster drive, more option control, more megapixels, better build quality. It just depends on what you are looking for. They all take the same lenses.

Mine is not a full-frame sensor, so there is a crop factor in the lenses. You still take a picture of what you see, but the lens becomes a different number. The factor is 1.6, so a 35mm lens on a full frame digital or film SLR is 56mm.

I’ve attached a picture here that I took recently because it’s an example of one that was impossible on our point and shoot. I was able to take this picture by using an external bounce flash at 1/250 shutter sync – not possible with the P&S. The field of view (wide angle) would also not have been possible.



Filed under: consumerism, parenting, technology
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