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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mike's DSLR Buying Advice (Was: Truck With Balls)

I'm afraid I get asked all the time to help people with purchasing decisions in most every photographic category. I've been able to offer a modest amount of good advice in the past which people seem to appreciate. Unfortunately, I just don't have the time to offer case-by-case advice to individuals—if I responded to every such request, I'd probably never get anything else done.

Tony from London, UK writes: The subject in hand: your great article, earlier this year, regarding your take on the now defunct Konica-Minolta 7D in Black & White Photography magazine. I have read and re-read this many times. Hence the following questions, as I know I have to make the transition from film sometime.

• Your article alludes to the fact that this K-M and its smaller brother 5D are in the same mould, so, I was very interested in the article and potential purchase...which now has been thwarted. I now understand Sony are marketing the I'm avidly looking at reviews. Although I am looking out for a secondhand 7D or 5D.

• My concern is regarding the pixel ranges of the high end fixed lens cameras and worry with 6MP, as in the 7D, as to the capability to produce files for reproduction of say 16x11-inch prints. Perceived wisdom from fellow club members are telling me I should be looking at 8–10 meg. What is your take on this?

I look forward to your response, when you're able to find the time.

Megapixels, I think, are something like horsepower. Enough is enough...except that you'd usually almost always enjoy more...except that, when you have obviously too much, you wonder if you couldn't do just as well with less. Cf. the current Shelby GT500, a Ford Mustang that is so large and powerful that it impresses in every way. The only problem with it is that it leaves Ford lacking the sort of car in its lineup that the original Mustang was. The Shelby is so much Mustang you just wish they'd start making...well, a Mustang.

My personal philosophy toward horsepower has always been Colin Chapman's: don't add a larger engine; lighten the car. With a minimal camera setup, pared-down and leaned-out, I'm always ready. That's how I'm happiest.

I wish I had had a camera with me yesterday, for instance. I came out of a store late in the day to find my little 150-hp Ford parked right next to a vehicle that could almost have come out of a comic book: an enormous, shiny, dolled-up and tricked-out über mega-pickup truck, jacked way up on massive oversized tires. The truck had balls. I wish I were speaking figuratively with that last, but unfortunately, in a display of the kind of taste I will be forever grateful I don't share, there were a pair of large, flesh-colored rubber replica male gonads hanging from the truck's trailer hitch.

The two vehicles sitting innocently next to each other would have made the kind of mildly humorous shot that car magazines used to use on their back pages. (I should bring my camera to that store more often: it's the same parking lot where I saw another humorous shot I regret missing, a hairdresser's shop called "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow" with a "For Lease" sign in the front window.) But as I darted away in my agile little car I thought to myself that I wouldn't trade it for that ballsy pickup truck even-up. I love the sports-car ethos.

Anyway, here's the upshot: 6 MP is plenty for 16x11-inch prints, assuming adquate software and the skills to use it, and 10 MP would be better. Twelve would probably be better than that—I'm quickly leaving my depth here—and 32 would probably be better still, except that, with 32 MP, having a camera with you would then require investment and planning on a scale on which I never invest nor plan; either that, or your camera would remain magnificently enthroned in its cabinet at your studio when you happened across a nifty shot in the parking lot, and you would be left wondering, again, how many megapixels would be enough for a camera you could actually carry with you.

Abandoned church (built 1887), Cedarville Township, Wisconsin

Inadequate DSLR Buying Advice
I'm afraid I'm not a true expert in any of this—just a very well-informed shopper. The reason is that I do not have the opportunity to use all the DSLRs as they come out. My expertise with SLRs was comparative—that is, I had used a large number of them over the years and knew firsthand what they were all about. Such is not the case with DSLRs.

I bought the 7D for two reasons: 1. it has a very good, large, clear viewfinder for a half-frame (APS-C) sensor camera, and 2. It focuses well in low light. Since owning it, I have learned to love two other things it has: Anti-Shake, which I've extolled at length elsewhere, and I also like what I see of the accuracy with which it handles color, which I'm very picky about since I don't particularly like color. I'm now convinced that Minolta brought an especial expertise to that area of camera design.

Dodge petunia-planter, Cut River, Michigan

I've settled in well with the 7D. It and I get along. I've learned what to feed it, and how to deal with its idiosyncrasies. In return, it has rewarded me many times, often with pictures I feel I couldn't have gotten with a lesser device. How much better my pictures might be with a better device remains a theoretical proposition for me. I have no doubt that better is possible. I also don't know if more capable devices would reward me with pictures I can't get with the 7D. Maybe. I'm pleased with the level of capability I do have.

Is It Safe?
I personally believe that any of the current DSLRs are cameras that will reward their users with excellent output. That includes all of the entry-level DSLRs, which are now up to a decent standard in terms of the results they yield: you can get very good files with a Nikon D50 or Pentax K100 or Digital Rebel XT. I'm also of the opinion that none of the entry-level DSLRs are really terribly good cameras when looked at purely as cameras. Their viewfinders are very poor, their construction suspect, and their responsiveness so-so at least in certain areas. The next tier upward, which includes the Sony A100 and the Canon 30D among others, improve on the entry-level bodies in a number of ways, but none of these really come up to the standard of an excellent film camera of a dozen years ago (apart from the important fact that they're digital, of course). For that you need to move up to Canon 5D and Nikon D200 territory. And I'll be looking at the next Sony, the upmarket one.

Still, it's getting pretty safe to invest in a DSLR. They might not yet be very pleasing devices as cameras, but the results that you can get are astonishingly good, all things considered. And getting better all the time.

Still Life with c. 1940s Portrait Photograph



Blogger wojtekk said...

I have recently bought Konica 5d and I am very happy with it. I was thinking about 7d, but it was too much for my budget. But I do not regret it - as all the photography happens inside your head, and camera is just a tool. I could have Nikon, Canon, Pentax... Really - I am not that bothered. After all, whatever I will photograph, it is me and my vision. And if I know how to deliver it well and I will have my eyes open, I will do a great photo even with pinhole made from can of milk :)

Shoot with your head and your eyes, people. Forget megapixels. Use your brain. If you will make photo good enough, people will be amazed even if you will print it on the toilet paper.

Which does not means that you should not aim for the best, of course. ;)

3:08 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Your still life really hits the spot. I think it's partly because it invites seeing different parts of it in different ways: as reflection, as shadow, as light, as picture, as detailed object, etc. Super!



3:28 PM  
Blogger Zzakk said...

Did the truck's balls look like this?
I never leave home without my F717.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Very well said. I think you've managed to extol all the real "virtues" of the, now unfortunately defunct, Minolta "system" without coming across as a "fanboi".

5:43 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

For the serious photographer who wants to get his feet wet with a digital camera, based on my own recent experience, I would recommend the Ricoh GR Digital because it leads to a different way of shooting which you can see in several threads that I've started on the photonet Leica Forum, which has proved surprisingly hospitable. The latest of these threads is:

It seems Ricoh set out to create a digital version of the GR1, their cult classic --and they've suceeded:


5:53 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

And Mike, I love the colour of the second and third pictures: the non-Veliva look -- is this how the camera sees colour or did you lighten and desaturate?


5:56 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

Mike, I thought you got the Fujifilm F30 to have a camera with you?

6:52 PM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

Discontinued cameras are such a bargain, especially when they're the calibre of the Minolta 7D, which can be had for about two-thirds the price of the Sony A100 presently. Even if money was no object, I'd go for the 7D any day! My advice?

Choosing a camera is like choosing a kitten: you can wonder forever about what you're going to get, and then you turn around and find something completely unexpected staring you in the face. And then it trundles home with you, and makes you warm and happy.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I've seen quality in SLRs is much higher, with good lenses, than whatever small sensor digicams can produce with more pixels.
I think I might buy one digital slr in the future.
But being a fan of big prints of landscape scenes, I came to think there's no way I'd be happy with a 6 or 8mp slr. Am I getting the wrong idea?
You know what you get in terms of detail and tonality from even mediocre medium format gear and film, I used a Mamiya C330 with a 55mm lens a lot, what would be the way to go digital to get that kind of results? That's plenty comfortable for me. I really don't like the feeling that I might be being too finicky, any opinions?

7:48 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...


With the Ricoh GR Gigital (8MP), about which I've written above, I've made a 24x36 inch (60x90 cm) print -- and that's just from a JPG file! Indeed, the Ricoh JPG conversion engine is very good. But it also shoot's in RAW mode, and I want toi try making a 40x80 inch (100x150 cm) print from a DNG file; but eventually I'll try making a print this size from a JPG file.

But perhaos you should take what I say with a grain of salt because I like grain and I like the "35mm aesthetic."


8:13 PM  
Blogger eugene12 said...

Hi Max,

May I suggest you try Sean Reid has some interesting comments about the drawing of pictures from various sensor sizes: Small sensors tend to be more sketchy and has less hard details than larger sensors of APS-C size. 10MP seems to be better than 6MP. Full frame (like Canon 5D or 1Ds) has more fine details, quite like medium format.

Like Mike said, it is how you can handle the software to get the most of the quality of data collected from the sensors. And also what is the look of the picture you like.



10:51 PM  
Blogger scotth said...

I think one of the things that is tough about giving purchasing advice is that the most important thing to think about is what you want from the camera. Most people do not seem to want to stop and think about the type of photography they want to do, what features will help facilitate that type of photography, and what features are less important for what they want to do. A camera purchase is a personal one, and what works for one person may not work so well for someone else.

5:51 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

I never make prints larger than 16x20, so the ongoing MP race has happily passed me by. Because I've personally witnessed the debunking of the "You have to print at 300ppi to get good prints" myth, 6-8MP seems to be plenty. My 8MP Olympus E500 is capable of making clear, crisp prints in the sizes I like without generating unnecessarily large files that gobble up my hard drive space. I have finally been able get off the treadmill of always waiting for the next "gee-whiz" camera model to come out. Now I can get back to making photographs.

For an intersting article on what kind of print quality is possible with an "entry level" DSLR, read Alain Briot's article, "A Rebel in Paris" which he wrote for the Luminous Landscape website.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Eugene and Mitch, thanks for your answers. I think I can handle the software to make a nice big print from scanned 35mm film, but the same big print from medium format film is a different thing altogether.
I was just wandering if that's the same kind of jump as from an EOS 20d to a 5d,for example.
And really, it's not about the numbers, it's mostly the looks and how easily you can get what you want, as you said.

7:57 AM  
Blogger sbug said...

"I'm also of the opinion that none of the entry-level DSLRs are really terribly good cameras when looked at purely as cameras."

This must be why I'm still shooting with my 48 year old film Nikon. That, and the fact that a D200 or 5D are financially out of reach.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Tony Rowlett said...

I was ready to buy a dSLR since the Canon 10D came out, and even if I got one on the used market today, I'd still be completely happy with it, although now I might look at a more advanced model. No, my problem is not the camera... I could choose one in nearly a random way. My problem is what do I do with the images once I shoot them. I have to be something "more" than a photographer, and in several ways. All of a sudden, I need to learn how to be slightly less than meticulously organized. I need to learn computer post-processing. I need to know what kind of computer hardware to have. And I need a reliable method of storing my images. They're no longer in my PrintFile sleeves, sitting there, perhaps for years before taking my sweet time to decide to remove one to print. I really want to buy a dSLR today, but I have to resolve those issues first.

6:48 PM  
Blogger dyathink said...

Tony, if i had even begun to think about the stuff you mention before impetuously buying my first digital camera in 1999, i would never have bought it. Ignorance was bliss for about the first five minutes. Until i realized my computer was woefully inadequate, that i needed something called photo editing software and worse, that i actually had to learn said photo editing software and then as soon as i did, i ditched it and had to buy (OUCH!) and learn a horrendously complicated program called Photoshop. I discovered that i needed more batteries and more memory for the camera than what actually came in the box, and then burned out said batteries by using a generic charger (bad) and well, the list went on from there. And i live in the third world where nothing is easy to get and it all costs twice what people have to pay in an industrialized country. My advice? Don't worry, be happy. Buy the DSLR if that's what you have a yen to do and the rest will solve itself in time. :)

12:49 AM  

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