Digital Single-Lens Reflex

Discriminator(s)

Cost
Lenses/ASA
Flash System

Non Single-Lens Reflex

Discriminators

Manual Override
Features
View Finder
ASA Range
Storage
Water Resistance
Size

 

 

 

 

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Digital Single-Lens Reflex

Finding the right camera for you is a trail of compromises and requires a process similar to a decision tree. The greater the size and cost of the camera the less compromises have to be made though usually at the expense of ease of use and weight.  Digital cameras can now exceed the image quality normally associated with 35 mm film camera.

Discriminator(s)

To me the greatest discriminators currently are cost, ASA and interchangeable lenses with their associated camera size, and whether the flash is attached to the camera (or supports the use of external flash mounts).  Notice that I did not address image quality or what type of images you want to create within that high level discriminator. The image quality of the current range of digital cameras is far better now (2009) and almost any camera can produce a quality print in at least in the 4 by 6 inch range.

Cost

DSLRs will be more expensive than the “Point and Shoot” cameras.  If you can afford a DSLR and you are not concerned about its size, a DSLR will provide the photographer with the greatest opportunity to produce a pleasing image.

Let me go through the rationalization I utilized for my camera selection. For my purposes I have purchased a variety of digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. I started with the Fuji Finepix S2 Pro, which while it is not quite a professional camera, it served as one for me. I subsequently purchased the Fuji S3, Fuji S5 to my current Nikon D700. The primary issue was the ability to take high quality sports images, which requires a high shutter speed and the ability to simulate 1600 or higher ASA film speed (with minimum amount of noise).  Additionally I had an investment in Nikon lenses (used with my F100 and N90s) so the camera had to be able to utilize those lenses. For image quality, I wanted a CCD with over 6 Megapixel. In 2002, The Fuji camera fit the bill over the Nikon camera because its CCD was one generation further along (6 Megapixel Fuji image is equivalent to a Nikon 9 Megapixel CCD). Both the comparable Nikon and Cannon (10 D) had much more noise at the high ASAs than the Fuji. The noise on the Cannon images at 800 ASA in unacceptable to me whereas I have utilized the 1600 ASA for the Fuji with excellent results. The discrepancies associated with ASA between the high end DSLRs among the primary vendors (Cannon/Nikon/Fuji) has been significantly reduced over the ensuing years.  I purchased the Fuji S3 and S5 because of my perceiving that the skin tones and dynamic range were better than their competitors. My purchase of the Nikon D700 resulted in from their improved dynamic range as well as much higher available ASA with reduced noise over the other vendors at the same ASA (where available).

Lenses/ASA

As one goes back to the film cameras (using Nikon variants), the basic camera body advanced from the 90, 90s, to the F100 and the DSLRs (using Fuji variants), advanced from the S1, S2, S3 and S5, the same lens can be utilized and its value has, with some lenses, increased. I purchased the Nikon 80-200 2.8 lens in the 1990s with the Nikon 90.  The Nikon is long gone; however, the 80-200 lens is still being used.  Yes, I could purchase a newer model with VR (Vibration Reduction); however, I purchased the 14-24 instead which provides my full frame sensor D700 a true ultra wide angle lens.  The lens should be your first consideration after you have chosen the type of camera system you want. In today’s market (late 2009), if you decided to go with the Nikon system you could purchase a D40 (relatively cheap) and a good lens.  As you gain experience and exceed the limitations of the D40 you can purchase a better camera while retaining any lenses you have purchased.

Why is ASA important?  Your low light images (daughter on beach) would have been better utilizing a higher ASA film such as 800 or 1600 with a fast lens (2.8). Additionally, action shots such as daughter running could be taken with a higher shutter speed if you had the faster ASA. A question you need to answer is do you intend to take low light available light photos or action shots in less than optimal lighting? As my photos reinforce for me, my best photos are created when the light is the relatively low light available at sunrise or sunset.  The other advantage of the higher usable ASA values is the ability to shoot an image at F12 – 16 to provide a apparent increased depth of field than might be available if you are limited by the ASA to shoot the same image at 5.6.
Interchangeable lenses are an item that perhaps is the most important value to consider in choosing a DSLR. 

Flash System

My last significant discriminator is the flash system.  The ability to have an off camera flash for me is of prime importance.  The ability to bounce a flash off of a ceiling or wall, to soften the flash with a box or other methodology makes the difference between a photo that has excessive shadows (when you do not want them) and one that uses the flash to enhance the image.  The draw back to me for the Fuji (S2) was its relatively slow sync speed: 125th  (Max shutter speed with a flash). After experimenting with flash and available light basketball games, I found that I could still get good pictures with flash at 125th which were better than my available light photos which had minimal depth of field. I had been taking the same pictures at 1/250th utilizing my F100 prior to going digital. As a result of my experimentation a sync speed of 1/125th is acceptable whereas 1/60th is really limiting and unacceptable for my purposes. Fuji, with the S5, finally got up to 1/250 and the D700 even exceeds that capability.

Why is flash important? Most built in flash units (within the camera body) have a range of about 12 feet or less when utilized with an ASA of 200 at f 3.5.  This increases to about 18 feet with an ASA of 400 or an f stop (aperture) of 2.8.  Utilizing my external flashes I can get flash shots from 24 to 60 feet depending upon ASA and type of flash (Nikon 28/800/900 or Metz 40). The other problem with a built in flash (because the flash is so close to the lens) is a subject’s red eye. While software will get rid of red eye on digital photos, it is better not to have it in the first place. Most point and shoot cameras (built in flash) have red-eye-reduction features which emit a series of short light bursts to get the subject’s pupil to contract and thus reduce the potential of red eye. This is not truly effective.  If you desire to take portrait shots you will want a camera that supports an external flash capability. A method to reduce the “red eye effect” for camera built in flash is to have the subject of the portrait not look into the camera lens and focus instead on an object off the lens axis.

Non Single-Lens Reflex (Ignoring Lyca)

For the person not desiring the expense of a full featured DSLR camera, the features associated with the camera are the main discriminators in camera selection for the sub $1000 cameras. Why are features important and which features are important to the purchaser and which are noise and should not be a significant concern? Make a list of camera features you are concerned about and then rate them by importance to you. Most point and shoot digital cameras have similar qualities: a body mounted moderate zoom lens (not interchangeable 35-105 mm), range view finder (image is not through the lens), electronic view finder, limited ASA (100 – 400), removable storage (CF, SD, memory stick etc.), varying amounts of water resistance, size (shirt pocket, coat pocket), lens speed (3.3 to 11.5 – not user selectable but dependant upon zoom) integrated flash (no external flash capabilities), power source (AA, Lithium, rechargeable), startup time from turn on, time between shutter depression and image capture (lag time), cost, automatic program modes, resolution size of the CCD, and the most limiting factor – manual override of automatic modes and settings. 

Discriminators

Why is manual override the most limiting factor? If you are just doing a family history (“I was there” type of photos) the automatic capabilities are probably sufficient.  However, you have a desire to produce better pictures than the typical “snap and grin” shots you will want a manual override. While more than 90 percent of my photos are manual, typically 40 % of “snap and grin” shots could have been better with more control over exposure, focusing, and film speed (ASA). Specifically, most cameras utilize the 18% gray as the basis for exposure.  If you are taking photos where there is a predominance of white garments (sport jersey or bridal dress), you might want to underexpose the image. In my sports photos in direct sun light I adjust the image to be at least one F-stop lower.  Beware of those cameras that do not retain settings between power-up cycles. I just purchased a Nikon S640 (unretouched photos here) which does not have the manual override per say; however, if you understand how the scene selection works, you can fool the camera to permit a partial override. A link to a discussion on this capability will be placed here.

Features

Zoom lens: Most point and shoot cameras have a zoom lens capability to 3x.  Only the least expensive cameras with low resolutions (2 Meg) have fixed length lenses. These are currently available in the $200 price range. These are equivalent to the 35 mm film camera zooms from 35 mm to 105 mm. Some higher price cameras will zoom up to 10 x. Why are zooms important? A zoom lens permits the photographer to compose a picture while minimizing the physical movement away or closer to the subject.  The telephoto portion of the zoom is used many times to capture a portrait without being in the face of the subject or to frame an interesting object when the photographer can not get physically closer.  The telephoto zoom permits the subject to fill the frame and not be lost in image. The wide angle part of the zoom (24 – 35 mm) permits the photographer to place more people in a group shot when they can not move back any further because of a wall or other physical impairment. Additionally, a wide angle zoom can capture the majesty of a scenic venue that would not be possible with a normal lens (50 mm).

View Finder

The point and shoot variety cameras have either an optical view finder or an electronic view finder. While the electronic view finder more closely represents what the captured image will be, it will provide a drain on the batteries. The optical view finder will be subject to parallax and less accurate than the electronic view finder and both usually will represent from 80 to 95% of the actual captured image.

ASA range

The ASA is the effective film speed. With digital cameras, the higher the ASA, the greater the probability of inducing noise in the image. Usually the lower ASAs 50 and 100 will exhibit the less noise and the 1600, 3200, and 6400 ASAs will exhibit the largest noise. Noise is manifested by light irregular patterns that appear on an image and are most noticeable on solid color objects in an image. Why are there various ASAs associated with digital cameras?  Setting the ASA permits the correct exposure for a given shutter speed and aperture.  In automatic mode, the digital camera will adjust those items to produce a correct exposure; however, if you are in a low light situation, ASA 100 will not permit the image to be captured properly and an ASA of 400 or higher might be required. Additionally for photos were the photographer desires to capture a moving subject a fast shutter speed is required. In this situation, the aperture can not be open enough to permit a correct exposure so the higher ASA is required.

Storage

Digital cameras must have the capability to store the image. There are two types of storage usually utilized: internal memory and external storage.  The internal memory is transient and usually called the buffer. The buffer comes into play when the photographer desires to take a multiple images before the image can be stored on an external storage device.  This is usually expressed as an ability to take a number of images per second (e.g. 7 per 2 seconds). This value is hard to compare between cameras because it will vary depending upon the image resolution which translates directly to the size of the image file being stored.  The external storage devices are continually changing from the proprietary Sony storage, the Compact Flash (CF) Type 1 and II, and the Secure Digital. Generally speaking there is not any significant difference between the removable formats with the CF cards having a greater storage capacity.  With the larger image files being created in the newer cameras (2009), the speed of the card will be a price discriminator within a type of card.

Water Resistance

Several of the point and shoot cameras to offer a degree of protection from water (rain or perspiration) and some are even submersible to 20 or 30 feet. If the photographer desires to take beach or boat pictures this feature may increase in importance.

Size

The larger the camera, the less likely the photographer will have it with him/her. If it is small enough the photographer will carry the camera everywhere he/she goes and image opportunities will not be missed.  The quality of the lens may not be as good with the smaller camera. A larger zoom capability will most likely result in larger camera size.

 

Most point and shoots will not permit a capability I utilize frequently and would have helped the shot indoors (light from window in your lap) and the shot with the bright road behind your daughter: the ability to focus and adjust the exposure on a subject and then move the camera to frame the image properly while maintaining the exposure information. This is predominately required in outdoor shots especially those taken between 10 am and 4 pm. (summer). In your daughter running on the beach you could have utilized a faster shutter speed to get your daughter in focus that may or may not be available in the point and shoot. Some do have a sports mode, which will automatically have the highest shutter speed for the given amount of light. Your landscape photos could have been better utilizing a greater depth of field by utilizing a wide-angle lens and having an f-stop of 16 to have the foreground in focus while retaining detail in the mountains. This would also require a high ASA if a tripod and slow shutter speed were not utilized.