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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Selmer of Cameras

by Paul Butzi
I’m a fan of the Leica M cameras, so I read with interest Ben Lifson’s glowing review of the Epson R-D1. I disagree with much of what wrote, but I was struck by his assertion that the R-D1 is “the closest thing we have to the Stradivarious [sic] of digital cameras.”

It’s interesting in some camera buff sense to argue about which camera is actually the digital photographic equivalent to a Stradivarius violin (I’d argue for an Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One P45 back, myself). But I’ve been teaching private photography lessons recently, and so I’m more interested in a different question— which camera is the digital equivalent of the Selmer Clarinet? Sure, it’s nice to aspire to the legendary status of the Stradivarius. But no one learns to play violin on a Stradivarius. Most of us took music lessons on lesser instruments—like the ubiquitous Selmer clarinet. I’ll bet millions of folks who learned clarinet in their youth learned to play on a Selmer, or an equivalent. In terms of aggregate musical appreciation, you could probably mount a convincing argument that Selmer Instruments outranks the Stradivarius family.

So, I think it’s interesting to ask which of the current crop of digital cameras is the photographic equivalent of the Selmer Clarinet—a robust, serviceable camera that is easy to learn on, offers capabilities that allow room for substantial photographic growth, and doesn’t suffer from crippling misfeatures which make it hard to learn good photographic habits. What I have in mind, here, is something akin to the estimable Pentax K-1000, the camera that was purchased by the thousands as parents went out to buy cameras for their kids taking photography classes. Decent lenses for the K-1000 were plentiful and cheap. It allowed full manual control of aperture and shutter speed.

Right now, the Canon Digital Rebel XT/EOS 350D seems like a good choice. It’s reasonably small and light. It’s a capable camera. At under $700 with the entry level zoom it’s not appallingly expensive for a digital camera. The rest of the Canon digital SLR lineup provides room to grow if the student outgrows the limitations of the Digital Rebel/XT. I’ve had a number of students with this particular camera, and they all seem pleased with it.

And, at the risk of getting caught by the Pinker Effect, the Pentax K100D and K110D which look pretty interesting although I haven’t actually seen on in person. In particular, the image stabilization seems pretty appealing.

There are a slew of contenders out there.

Posted by PAUL BUTZI


Blogger Albano Garcia said...

I vote for the Nikon D50, it's very well built, well featured and it's a pleasure to use. The kit zoom is pretty decent, and ultrasonic.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Before I got to the end of your post I was thinking "the Canon Rebel XT." Though manual control isn't as easy as the 20D/30D or pro models, it's still relatively convenient and effective. Canon also has a huge range of lenses and accessories available that can be harder to find with smaller brands or new systems like 4/3. Resale value on Canon's high-end lenses is also really excellent, allowing new photographers to try out lenses without losing too much if they're not a perfect match for their style of shooting.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

I dunno, Paul. The inconsistent quality controls on the R-D1's production may make good copies nearly as scarce as a Stradivarius violin. ;-)

Canon's 350D does indeed represent a nearly perfect trainer dslr. I just gave one to my sixteen year-old niece last weekend. (She's a budding talent who's already won two awards in national competitions...with a Canon Powershot A camera!) With just a bit of basic orientation she was easily able to become deft enough to capture some "keepers" by day's end even though she had never used an slr camera before. It offers plenty of room to grow without leaving the body.

I'm sure that Nikonians would rightly claim similar status and possibilities for their D50 and D70 models.

5:45 PM  
Blogger ShadZee said...

I would say the Pentax DSLRs are the best for this purpose. They are VERY easy to operate, you can experiment with many old lenses (compatible with even 40 year old lenses), and most importantly they make GREAT images.

The new line (K100D) with built in image stablization could just be the new generation of the K-1000 ;-)

6:46 PM  
Blogger Dan Mitchell said...

I noticed your article with interest... being a music person myself - former brass player and music faculty member today. The Selmer analogy works quite well for me. Two thoughts...

I have to agree that the 350 XT is probably the digital camera equivalent today. In the right hands it can take excellent photos, the price is right, it is a good camera to learn on and trade up from.

However, I'm not so comfortable with the "Stradivarius of cameras" notion. While the camera and the violin are both "instruments" used to express the vision (and technical prowess) of the artist, I'd argue that the quality of the violin is more central to the expression of the musical performance than is the quality of the camera. On the violin, the violin is it - there is no other "technology" involved in the performance at all. However, with photography there are a number of other factors that play into the technical side of the creation of the image: the software used to process in image, the printer, the paper, etc.


7:18 PM  
Blogger winkalman said...

As a fledgling photography student I put my money on the venerable Pentax ist DS, and haven't been disappointed. All of the entry level DSLRs are capable of excellent results but the Pentax bodies are not only some of the cheapest, they also offer some exclusive features that I feel are important for beginners.

*Spot meter - This is lacking on the 350D and is all but essential for learning how what you meter affects exposure.

*Backwards compatibility - Not only do you have access to forty or fifty years of Pentax and third party glass you can also use cheap reversal rings, bellows, and (with the DS at least) TTL flashes. A few well placed bids on eBay and you can put together a very usable kit on the cheap.

*Viewfinder - Now that you've got all of those great manual focus lenses it's nice to have a camera that you can actually see through.

I currently have:
Pentax DS w/kit lens - $579
Pentax A 50mm f1.7 - $21
Pentax F SMC 70-210mm - $107
Pentax M 100mm f4 macro - free

Not the kind of gear that would make a Canon or Nikon pro jealous but more than enough for me to grow into.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Kenwrick Chan said...

The Stradivarius comment just went unnoticed by me, but as a clarinetist the mention of a Selmer reference made me take notice. The thing is that a Stradivarius is a unique instrument which can't be duplicated. The clarinetists I know often try dozens of similar make clarinets to find a good or hopefully a great one. There are custom clarinet makers (e.g Wurlitzer, Chadash, Eaton, and Backun) that create clarinets with a better hit ratio of good/great/bad one, but none are as unique and "great" as a Stradivarius violin. [Funny the ballpark cost for most of those custom clarinets are similar to a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II].

So I'm assuming that "Selmer" is really a reference to the Selmer Bundy student line of musical instruments that many of us in America have grown up with. I can imagine a professional photographer using a Canon XT to do their work, but I can't imagine a professional clarinetist using a Bundy .. unless they're performing outdoors. Maybe we're looking for the modern equivalent of the Brownie?

12:16 AM  
Blogger viewfinder said...

it was very pretentious to equate the Epson R-D1 with the creations of Stradivarious,....a closer analogy would have to be the key bugle....they are both transitional instruments with poor facility and serious problems of intonation caused by clumsy design and short sighted conception but offer a glimpse of what might be great promise for future evolution.

12:27 AM  
Blogger aizan said...

that's high praise for a key bugle. ;)

12:37 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

The "venerable" Pentax ist DS? Pentax makes some nice gear, but I don't think a camera that's been out less than 2 years is quite ready for the "venerable" tag yet.

The old Pentax K1000 had a 21 year production run which puts it squarely in the venerable class. None of today's entry level dslr's will be around even a quarter of that time before an updated replacement is released. Model longevity goes a long way towards making a camera a classic like the K1000. Today's cameras just won't be around long enough. The models that seems so amazing today will be mere curiosities 10 years from now.

5:59 AM  
Blogger xianfu said...

digital camera? i own a pentax. ^^ interesting blog here...It got me addicted on reading it.. Keep it up.. leave me some comment too at my blog InvernoKL wanna have ur words on it.. :p take care, xian

6:05 AM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

All Stradivariuses sound different from one another. Conversely, all cameras of the same model number should produce images of identical quality. Call me unimaginative, but I don't understand the metaphor.

7:07 AM  
Blogger fizzy said...

I'm not sure there is one anymore. The thing about the K-1000 was that, being fully manual, it forced you to learn photography. You needed to work the controls to get a picture at all. You needed to know what they did to get a better one. With a completely automatic modern camera, even the most advanced pro model, you can pick it up and push the button, and get a technically good picture. If you have natural talent and a good eye, you might make good pictures without knowing anything about photography. (Now, some might say that taking away the technical hurdle would let you concentrate on artistic aspects... hmmm, maybe. But you still need to know what exposure and contrast and DOF and all that mean, and it's tough when the camera is doing it for you.)

The other thing was that the K-1000 was dirt cheap, even new, and there were always used ones in the shop. A student could pick one up, buy a few accessories, and take the photo class just to fill an elective without a major investment. And you know, sometimes he found out he really liked photography. The newer DSLRs, even the cheapest, are still a good chunk of change, and the pocket cams won't teach you anything about photography either. That aspect of taking a class on a whim to explore photography is gone now too, I'm afraid.

The last kid I knew to take photography, a couple of years ago, still learned on film in a darkroom, which is good but is getting increasingly difficult to do (found any B/W paper to buy lately, much less chemicals?). How are photo students taught these days anyway? Can you use your pocket cam and the software on your school computer? Are you asked to buy a DSLR and Photoshop?

9:31 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Fizzy said: "The last kid I knew to take photography, a couple of years ago, still learned on film in a darkroom, which is good but is getting increasingly difficult to do (found any B/W paper to buy lately, much less chemicals?). How are photo students taught these days anyway? Can you use your pocket cam and the software on your school computer? Are you asked to buy a DSLR and Photoshop?"

The niece I mentioned above will be taking her first photography class (high school) this fall. She is required to use a film camera, as are nearly all beginning photo students. (I was able to find a good used model of that Canon 350D's film counterpart, the Canon EOS Rebel T2, for her for a song.)

I understand why schools continue to teach with film (complexity, cost) but don't know how much longer it will be practical to do so. Perhaps a good subject of a new topic here.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Tom Monego said...

My son mentioned he wanted a film camera for school, so I'm giving him my Canon F1n. It is worth about as much now as a K1000 was at the end of its run.
I can't remember how many people I told to get a K1000. Ran into an old collegue for 20 years ago, what was the second thing she said to me, "you remember that camera you told me to buy(I think I suggested anyway) it still works but I use my digital now."
$100 with a lens and still works 20 years later wow.
The problem I have with the Rebel 350D is that Canon's kit lens is horrible, the worst of the kit lenses, also it has very dim viewing (as do Nikon D50 & D70). So Pentax or KM/Sony may be the way to go. An Olympus E1 is selling very cheap these days, superb build and quiet, but lenses aren't available used and are very pricy new.
Selling a DSLR with a 35 f2.8 or 50 f1.8 would be what I would look for in a starter DSLR. Zooms just give to many variables.


12:14 PM  
Blogger Ian Rees said...

I'm a Nikon user, but I'd have to agree that the Pentax dSLRs are superior to the 350*/XT, and maybe even the D70/D50. The Pentax's do stop down metering (D70 lacks). They have a spot-meter (Canon lacks). They work on inexpensive old glass with metering (Nikon mounts, but meter inoperable.)

All the Canon gear is autofocus and you can't use vintage gear without adapters.

I'd say in this order,
Pentax *ist D/DS -> Nikon D50/D70 -> Canon.

I also think you should host this blog on your own server to avoid the pain of having to sign up for YET ANOTHER POSTING ACCOUNT.

1:21 PM  
Blogger johnfalky said...

Another Gearism Chat. I consider "Gearism" a true internet disease.

1:02 PM  

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