Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Digital camera advice 

My go-to source for consumer electronics advice wrote up a useful email for another friend in the market for a digital single lens reflex ("SLR") camera. It is not aimed at experts, but at the casual amateur in the market for a decent for not necessarily expensive digital SLR. I thought I would pass it along, with links, and solicit your supplemental or contradictory comments:

The DSLR I would buy is the Nikon D40. It is light, cheap, has a great monitor screen and is plenty fast.

The other contenders really don't justify their higher prices. The D40X and Nikon D60 have more resolution, but that really isn't an issue unless you are doing big enlargements. The D90 is faster but not enough to justify the price unless you are shooting sports almost all the time. The D300 is a lot faster, but it is a lot more expensive and again really only necessary if you are a pro shooting sports. (By way of comparison, the D40 is very, very fast compared to any point and shoot on the planet and will seem fast to anyone who hasn't used a high-end DSLR.) The full-frame Nikons are nice, but the bodies start at around 2500 and are really only necessary if you need to go wide.

So I would get the D40. I would get it with the kit lens (the 18-55). The body and lens as the kit are available through Tigerhawk [We appreciate the shout-out - ed.] on Amazon for 449.99, which is really a remarkable amount of camera power and lenspower for the money.

Amazon also offers a different kit, which consists of the body, 18-55 and 55-200 for around 600. But I am not a big fan of the 55-200, so I don't know that I would get that. At some point, you can always buy the 70-200 zoom or the 55-200 VR (vibration reduction) or spurge for the 18_200 VR (which I have and is probably the best lens I have ever used, though it is heavy).

The D40 has a built in flash. If you end up doing a lot of indoor shooting and are not completely happy with the results, you could always get a Nikon SB-400, but again, I would wait on that. The built-in flash is good and works plenty well enough for me.

The D40 takes SD cards, and card speed matters. I like the Sandisk cards. The Sandisk Extreme III's are very nice. You can get an 8 GB III for 33 bucks on Amazon, which is a good deal, but the Sandisk Ultra II's are good enough and you can get them really cheap at Costco.

Any different opinions?


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Aug 05, 10:02:00 PM:

I ended up purchasing a D40. Used to have an old twisting cool pix which was very nice---especially because you could get a reasonably priced 24mm equivalent wide angle for it.

D40 is a good value. Kit lens is fine for sharpness but it is a little frustrating if you like to take pictures of people---not enough telephoto for good candids. Wide equivalent is 28mm which is adequate but if you want to go wider it will cost you.

It is reluctant to shoot in some lighting conditions---probably lack of operator sophistication.  

By Blogger Retriever, at Wed Aug 05, 10:26:00 PM:

I'm just writing as an enthusiastic amateur (I'm a mom with teens, photograph landscapes, flowers, kids, animals, architecture, street photography).
It depends what you want to take pictures of and how good your eyesight is.
The D40 is great BUT: at only 6 megapixels, if you crop significantly, you will see pixels quickly. For example, if trying to shoot that egret or running kid but can't afford the mega zoom lens.

The D60 (a successor) has 10 megapixels ,is nice and small and light and almost as cheap now.

For a lot more, you can get the d90 which has a 3 inch LCD, better sensor (I think), 12 mp, and video. The Costco kit bundles in the two starter lenses and other crud.

Nikon just introed another new entry level DSLR the d3000 which is only 599 with the 18 55 vr lens and has 10.2 mp, shoots 3 ps, and has the 3 inch lcd (it really makes a difference). However, Nikon is horrible about announcing products that are then unobtainable for months...

ALso, if you need reading glasses, or are just middleaged like me, the 2.5 inch LCD on the d40, d60, and d80 is at a fairly low resolution and is pretty crummy in bright sunlight for reviewing pictures after taking them (to see if you want to get another shot).

My first dslr was the Nikon D80 which is now available very reasonably reconditioned thru Adorama and KEH, often bundled with the 18-55. It has the small lcd, but has the cool settings display on top, and has 10 mp (better for cropping bird pix). It has a much better optical viewfinder than the competing Canon models.
I now use the d300 and love it (tho obscenely expensive). Great viewfinder, and high resolution lcd. Water-resistant and more rugged. The reason why I need its speed is not shooting pro sports, but because I don't use flash and take indoor pix by available light only. If you use the d300 and the 50 mm f1.4 lens you can get a picture of a cupcake lit by a single birthday candle in the dark (!). The speed also helps when shooting moving animals. You can also mount old Nikon autofocus lenses (which you can get second hand online) on it whereas the D40, 60, 80 etc can only use the new lenses designed for digital.  

By Blogger Retriever, at Wed Aug 05, 10:27:00 PM:

(continued, about lenses):

The best lens I have is the Nikon 50mm 1.4 (under 400, usually out of stock) for low light pix, and catching moving critters and general paparazzi street photography (aka catching the kids doing something funny). Sharp, light. However, the 50mm f1.8 is almost as good, and way cheaper (130?)

I do NOT recommend any of the off brand lenses, even tho their manufacturers make the Nikon branded ones. The reason is the electronic interface, I think. I found that when I had a Tamron 17-55 it was just not right. And the Sigma 30 mm f1.4 I got for indoor museum shots (no flash allowed) is garbage: blurry on the Nikons. Perhaps I just got duds?

The Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 vr is expensive but you practically can't get a bad picture with it. For travelling, I take that on the d300 and carry a Leica Dlux 4 (with a wide angle built in). THe Leica is the best point and shoot I have ever had and rivals the D300 at times (the lens, but also the software--the Panasonic look alike cannot produce equal pictures.) About 700 dollars now. If I could buy only one camera that price, I would get the DLux 4. Gorgeous color, sharp, fast, and tiny unobtrusive camera. Point and shoot body, pix as good as dslrs.

Another great lens is the Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR which is all purpose; you can use it as a zoom and as a macro and it takes GORGEOUS pix. Very flattering (ie: slimming) taking portraits of women.

I have not been happy with the nikon 55-200 vr (used it twice then stopped in disgust at blah pix it took). I like the 70-300 mm vr better tho it isn't as sharp pr as fast as the 70-200 (at 1/3 the price, not surprising) and hunts to focus, but it is smaller and better for trips to the zoo where you are trying to shoot far away critters. It's fine as long as you have bright light, not good indoors, and is also better to take on a trip to the city as less attractive to muggers.

Another factor is the steadiness of one's hands. Tho not quite the doddering old lady my teen kids consider me, I am very grateful for the vr lenses.

But, as you say, any dslr is a quantum leap forward from the usual point and shoots. I look at pix I took with the Canon G7 I had before, and they look cruddy compared to those taken with the d80 and the d300.

So much for an amateur's perspective.  

By Blogger Diane Wilson, at Wed Aug 05, 11:05:00 PM:

Such a broad topic that it's hard to know what advice is useful and what's not.

If you're used to point-and-shoot, then a "starter" like the D40 will be quite an improvement. If you've had past experience with either a film SLR or a DSLR, then you probably have more specific wants, and need to do more research.

Nothing beats the experience of holding and shooting a camera. I have an older D70. One feature that I dearly love and would not give up is the second control wheel - one under the right thumb, the other below the shutter button in front. Both are programmable, so I have one set for over/under exposure, and the other to change aperture without changing exposure. You don't see small things like this in reviews, but they can make a huge difference in your photography experience. The D90 has this; the D40 does not.

As noted above, 6MP does not provide enough pixels for heavy cropping and enlargement. The D70 is a 6MP camera, and I do feel the limitation. I'd love to trade up to the D90.

I'm not a fan of built-in flash for anything, but that's me. It's utilitarian but will never take great photos and does risk red-eye. Good flash photography starts with getting the flash off the camera, and that does mean one or more separate flash units. Getting serious about flash photography is an education in itself.

My kit lens was the old 18-70, which is a good starter but certainly not the kind of great lens that built Nikon's reputation. I did splurge on the 12-24 zoom, and it's oustanding. (Again, just me, but I dearly love ultra-wide angle lenses.) The 105 micro VR (mentioned above) is a truly great lens, especially for close-up work. By the way, it is not a zoom; it's a fixed focal length lens, and that produces a noticeably sharper image. I'd like to get one of the VR tele zooms, but haven't settled on which one yet.

The subject matter you shoot is tremendously important in determining what camera is best for you. If you're not sure what that means, then you should definitely start with something basic (like the D40). If and when the camera's limitations become an issue for you, that in itself will guide you in trading up.  

By Blogger Diane Wilson, at Wed Aug 05, 11:09:00 PM:

I should also add that one of the best things I ever did for my photography was switch from glasses to contact lenses. When I hit 40 and had to start wearing glasses, it made using the viewfinder much more difficult, and I did a lot less photography. After switching to multifocal contacts, I can once again press my eye to the viewfinder, and use a (D)SLR the way the gods intended them to be used!  

By Blogger Retriever, at Wed Aug 05, 11:17:00 PM:

Sorry about that typo (more haste, less speed) that Diane caught. The 105 obviously is not a zoom. The reason it is so sharp is because of the fixed focal length. But my point about its versatility is that it can do quite a good job of getting closer to subjects that might be skittish if you were in their face (wriggling kids, cat stalking a bird or some such). As well as being up close to a bee on a flower or some such.  

By Anonymous Billy Bob Corncob, at Thu Aug 06, 05:38:00 AM:

Let me offer a different perspective.

If you want a digital SLR, buy something that is enduring and can handle prime lenses. I would go with something (Sony or Nikon) in the 12 megapixel range. The reason to go with a digital SLR, that is, an SLR period, is the lenses. Lens quality is the most important factor in picture quality. No point in buying the nice lens but having substandard resolution. I shoot a lot; so I can see the difference (that's why I shoot film). I see the difference more readily because I look at pictures more critically. You will see the difference too. You just won't know it.

If you don't want to fiddle with lenses (and I suggest primarily prime lenses, despite how they sell these things in kits -- nor am I the only one....when Nikon abandoned most of their film cameras, they - surprise, surprise - introduced a line of very high end Zeiss lenses with the Nikon F-mount, for their cameras). If I shot 35mm much, I'd definitely buy at least one of the Zeiss lenses. Now those give you very pretty pictures.

But you're not likely to want to fiddle with the lenses if you're buying a zoom. And that to me says that the money is wasted on an SLR. Which says to me to buy something like this Sony:


It is very high end for a 'point and shoot.' It has good resolution at 10.1 MgP. And you can buy Photoshop or Photoshop Elements with the money you save. A little learning about post image processing is like having a dark room in days of yore.

(ask me, I can show you examples of people's pics on the web that I dramatically improved with only a small 300 Kb file taken from the web).

This post-processing, with a little bit of learning, can enhance your pictures far more than the lenses you are likely to be able to afford. I could explain why, but that is the best deal - a high megapixel point and shoot and Photoshop or Photoshop elements. (I'd post two sets of examples . . . Perhaps TH will post them for me . . .)

But save the money. SLRs are for budding camera enthusiasts - that is, there is a reasonable probability you will become more serious about cameras, and you want to start learning technique. If it is just to have the best camera you can for your income level, then really it makes far more sense to spend the money as I suggest. It won't "look" like you have an expensive camera, but you'll have high end pictures.

A small vignette. I used to live in a building with a photographer for a major news magazine. He carried one camera, with one lens. Not a zoom lens either. His editors never complained. A very good camera, a very good lens. One focal length.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 06, 09:32:00 AM:

Having owned several digital point and shoot cameras, I only have one unmentioned observation to add to the discussion: expect to replace the camera. Digital cameras of all brands are not as sturdy as film cameras. You will be making this decision again.  

By Blogger Rich V., at Thu Aug 06, 11:21:00 AM:

I bought my wife the D90, w/4 lenses on Ebay for about $1400.00 it had a lot of accessories, and was a better deal than the Amazon package. I also bought her an HP 8850 photosmart printer for $400.00.

While she's not a pro, she now has the ability to do pretty much what ever she wants to do. As a hobbist, I wanted her to have a camera that wouldn't be obsolete in a year or two.  

By Blogger "Mindles H. Dreck", at Thu Aug 06, 11:24:00 AM:

camera bodies come and go. A good lens is forever. I'm a Canon guy, myself, but I don't have any fanboy prejudice against Nikon.

I gave my son a Panasonic Lumix with Leica 2.8 lens. That thing takes astonishingly good pix, and you can stick it in your pocket. Survived a teen trek in France too.  

By Blogger Diane Wilson, at Thu Aug 06, 12:54:00 PM:

As a counterpoint to Billy Bob, two rules:

1. It depends.

2. All decisions are compromises.

Prime lenses are ideal for certain tasks: Low-light work. Portraits. Close-ups. What they are not, is versatile. (I'll bet that pro with one lens was a portrait photographer, and that one lens was a very fast short telephoto, about 105 or so.)

Zoom lenses are about versatility and price. Zooms are great for walk-arounds. One zoom is a lot lighter than two or three prime lenses to cover the same range. They are less expensive than the equivalent set of prime lenses.

SLRs will almost always beat a point-and-shoot on image quality, except for the most expensive and specialized point-and-shoots. The reason is lens quality, even if the SLR has a zoom lens.

A digital point-and-shoot will have a serious "shutter lag", the time between pressing the button and actually taking a picture. A digital SLR will not have that lag issue. The reason is that a point-and-shoot uses the same sensor to feed the viewscreen and to take a picture; the SLR uses mirrors for its viewfinder, so the sensor is always ready to shoot.

A point-and-click will almost always be lighter and smaller than a SLR. Most will fit in your pocket; a SLR will not.

Everything is a compromise, and compromises are reached by deciding which factors are most important. What's right for you? It depends.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 06, 04:38:00 PM:

Listen to Mindles.
All professional photographers know that camera bodies are replaced much more often than the glass (lenses). So, once you commit to a "system" (Nikon, Canon, etc) you're unlikely to leave due to the investment in the glass. Quality lenses go from slr body to body (within the system)with ease. So, two pieces of advice:
1) Decide on a system and spend good money on good glass - that's an investment.
2) Go to www.dpreview.com and www.fredmiranda.com and read (read ALOT) about others' experiences and then decide.
Only you can define your photography preferences and which compromise suits you best. For example, for very little more than the D40 combo, Canon offers an arguably superior combo (http://www.amazon.com/Canon-Digital-Camera-18-55mm-3-5-5-6/dp/B0012YA85A/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=photo&qid=1249590911&sr=1-1).
Above all, enjoy the hunt!  

By Blogger David Wellbaum, at Thu Aug 06, 07:22:00 PM:

Agree with some of the others here. D40 is a great camera, but if you are doing crops and enlargements, go for the D90. I have one and it is fantastic. I previously owned a D300, which is pricey and great, but the D90 is cheaper, has HD video, and is lighter. Plus, the D90 has the same CMOS sensor. The picture quality is outstanding. It also takes SD cards.  

By Anonymous Jim Miller, at Thu Aug 06, 08:28:00 PM:

The correct answer is: It depends.

Nothing wrong with the D40 (though Nikon is replacing it with the D3000), but it is not the best choice for everyone.

If money is no object and the buyer wants to take pictures in extreme conditions, then one of the pro DSLR might make more sense. If you really want the VR lenses, then you might want to buy the Nikon D60 package that includes both of the common VR lenses. (As far as I know, Nikon does not offer a D40 package with the VR lenses.) And so on.

And then there is the video question. Some of the newer DLSRs can take high resolution video; the D40 can't.

Nor is a DSLR the best choice for many people. Though the D40 is one of the lighter DSLRs, it is still much heavier than, for instance, some of the ultrazooms, especially when carrying two zoom lenses.

And so on, and on.

BTW, much of quality advantage of DSLRs comes from their much larger sensors  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Aug 06, 08:56:00 PM:

If you're shooting indoor sports or other activities that discourage or prohibit flash photography, the D90 is worth every penny.  

By Anonymous Gandalf, at Thu Aug 06, 09:30:00 PM:

I have the Nikon D80 which I bought primarily so I could use the Nikon autofocus lenses I used with my Nikon film camera. Well that did not satisfy very well as I wanted wider and longer. So I got the 18 - 200 VR and as a previous commenter said "best lens I have ever used". At 200mm and 10mp it sucks in infinity and at 18mm it is so close to a fisheye that you never have to step back to get everyone in the picture. The 3 frames per second speed of the camera is great. Just hold your finger down and get everyone smiling at the same time. Sure it is heavy and relatively expensive but it really gets the picture you really wanted to get. Battery seems to last forever and with an 8GB card there is no problem with storage. I love it.  

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