I've been asked the question, "What camera should I buy?" a few times over the past year, so I thought I'd write a little bit about this and next time someone asks me I can simply link to this blog post! Yes. I am a wee bit lazy.
Any camera recommendations depend on the end use of the gear. In this case I am targeting my suggestions at the adventure-oriented photographer. I'll also throw in some suggestions for travel and specialty photography but this is not the place to go if you're a wedding photog looking for gear suggestions!
In order to make any wise decision about anything, you need to be informed. In the case of purchasing digital camera equipment this is no different. There are so many choices and opinions available, that you can quickly and easily become overwhelmed and end up buying crappy gear simply because it's easier to ask the Future Shop guy than figure all "that stuff" out.
Here's a crash course in the basics that make a big difference in digital photography and which equipment I will recommend. I know this seems like a lot to read through but I've kept it as basic as I can with links to my in-depth reading.
The first thing you should understand is the basic principal of 'exposure' and how varying amounts of light and shutter speed are used in conjunction to determine the correct exposure of a photograph. I'll explain some finer points of exposure a bit later on but for now it's enough to realize that a lens can be set to let in more or less light (aperture) and that light can be focused on the sensor for a given amount of time (shutter speed). The more light that's let in at once, the less shutter speed will be needed. For example an aperture value of f/4 with a shutter speed of 1/500 is the same exposure value as an aperture of f/2.8 and shutter speed of 1/1000 - in other words they are inversely proportional. Increasing the aperture means decreasing the shutter speed. For more details on photographic exposure go here.
In the days of film, ISO was the sensitivity of the film. The higher the ISO value of the film, the more sensitive to light it was. The trade-off was that the more sensitve the film, the larger the 'grain' had to be and the less detailed the end photograph would be. Landscape films were typically 50 ISO where wedding photographers would use 800 or 1600 ISO. In the days of digital sensors, ISO still refers to sensitivity and still adds grain or 'noise' to the image with increased values. The difference with digital cameras over film ones is that most large digital sensors can easily handle ISO values of 3200 to 6400 while retaining acceptable noise levels for most prints.
ISO also factors into the exposure equation, the same way shutter speed does. In our 'exposure' example above, an aperture value of f/4 with an ISO of 400 is the same exposure value as an aperture of f/2.8 (more light) and an ISO of 200 (slower 'film').
NOTE: If you want to keep the shutter speed constant while changing the aperture, you have to adjust the ISO. If you want to keep the ISO constant while changing the aperture, you have to adjust the shutter speed.
Although this is not the only thing that matters in this discussion, it's the most confusing one for most people and one of the most talked about and misunderstood. Many amateurs think that a larger sensor is necessarily a better choice than a smaller one but this isn't the case - especially for adventure photogs as I'll discuss later.
There are 4 main sensor sizes that you need to be aware of. The full frame (FF, crop factor of 1.0) sensor is the same size as a slide negative (35mm), or 36mm x 24mm. Every other digital sensor is considered a crop of the FF one. I'll explain crop factor in the next section. The APS-C (crop factor of 1.5) sensor is 23.5mm x 15.7mm while the 4/3 (and micro 4/3) sensor is half the size of FF (crop factor of 2.0) at 17.3mm x 13mm. Most point 'n shoot cameras have sensor sizes of 1/2.5" or 5.76mm x 4.29mm or even smaller. I've personally owned and shot with all of these sensor sizes.
So, are larger sensors better? Yes and no. Larger sensors will gather more light and have different depth of field (DOF) properties (explained later). This means they're better in low light situations and can have better dynamic range (we'll discuss this later too). BUT. Like anything else, there is a compromise to be had. Larger sensors generally mean larger cameras and also larger lenses are needed to gather all that light and cover the size of the sensor. More weight in your backpack or around your neck! For more information on sensors and sensor technologies go to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_sensor_format.
(NOTE: The exception to this rule is the $7,000 Leica M9. This camera is FF and as small as an APS-C camera. It also doesn't have autofocus and a 24mm lens can cost another $7,000! http://www.dpreview.com/products/leica/slrs/leica_m9p for details.)
Crop Factor and Size vs. Cost - So what is crop factor and why does it matter? Simply put, crop factor is the amount you multiply a lens focal length by, in order to get it's 35mm or full frame equivalent. If you haven't used a film camera you probably don't really care about this, but it's one way to standardize lens lengths over different sensors so that a lens on one system can be compared to a lens on another. For example, lets compare two 600mm equivalent lenses on different camera systems with different sized sensors.
In order to get a 600mm field of view (FOV) on a FF camera like the Canon 1DSIII, you need a lens like the Canon 600mm f/4 IS. For the same FOV on a micro 4/3 (m43) camera like a Panasonic GF2, you could use the Panasonic 100-300mm f/4-5.6 OIS lens (remember, m43 is a crop factor of 2x so the equivalent length is the one given multiplied by 2, or 200-600mm).
|Lens||Dimensions (Len x Dia)||Weight||Price|
|Canon 600mm f/4 IS||449mm x 168mm||3820g (8.64lbs)||$11,000.00|
|Panasonic 100-300mm f/4-5.6 OIS||126mm x 74mm||520g (1.15lbs)||$550.00|
Now you can begin to see why a FF camera isn't always the best choice! If I was using a FF system instead of a m43 system, I would never have gotten the following shot from my canoe of a bull moose feeding roughly 500 meters away. There is just no way I would be carrying an $11,000 lens that weighed almost 9lbs on an 11 day back country canoe trip instead of the relatively inexpensive and tiny Panasonic one! I also couldn't afford it...
Crop factor applies to wide angle lenses too. The Nikon 14-24mm lens is a bit faster (f/2.8 vs. f/4.0) than the Panasonic 7-14mm but it's also 1.5 lbs heavier and twice the cost, not to mention gigantic in comparison.
If you read internet discussions on digital cameras you will find lots of references to the dynamic range of different sensors. Dynamic range is simply the spectrum of light that a sensor is capable of capturing in a photograph with any detail. In general, the larger the sensor, the more DR it is capable of capturing. This means that in landscape photos you get more detail from shadows to bright light which results in a better photograph. Point 'n shoot cameras will often have black shadows with no detail or 'blown highlights' which no detail in the sky areas. One way to combat limited DR in a sensor is by taking a series of pictures at different exposures and then using software to combine them into one photograph. The two main techniques for this are 'blending' and 'HDR' processing. Some cameras like the Sony NEX's can actually do in-camera HDR's. One of the biggest complaints with small-sensor cameras is their lack of DR. Newer sensor technologies are fighting this issue. Filters can also be used to effectively expand the range of light you can capture with a smaller-sensor camera. I've written an article on this too! (http://www.explor8ion.com/using-gnd-filters.html)
To keep things simple, I'm using depth of field as the portion of an image which appears sharp and in focus. There are two things which work together to affect DOF and you need to understand this to make a decision about camera gear. As an adventure photographer, you will want most (not all) of your shots to have a large DOF. You will want most of your shots to appear sharp and in focus across the entire scene as in this photograph:
Notice how the foreground flowers and the background mountains are all in focus? This is a large DOF. The two things which determine the DOF are the aperture of the lens (how much light is being let in) and the size of the sensor behind that lens. Without getting into the mathematics of it, the smaller the sensor and the smaller the aperture, the more DOF you will get. (For more on this topic go to this website. WARNING: Hope you love math! )
For comparison, here's an image with a shallow DOF (notice that only the butterfly is in focus):
Apertures are measured inversely, so a large aperture number is actually smaller than a smaller aperture number (confused yet?!). For example f/8 is a smaller aperture than f/2 because it's a fraction. You can think of aperture as the opening in the lens that changes, depending on your settings. This is the opening which allows light to enter the lens and pass through to the sensor.
The landscape photo above, with a large DOF was shot at f/8, while the butterfly was shot at f/2.8. A lens at f/8 is only letting a small amount of light in, while a lens at f/2 is letting much more light hit the sensor at one time. Here's an image that demonstrates what I'm saying, the size of the dots represent the amount of light the lens is letting in:
For more on aperture and DOF go here.
The important part for you to understand is that lenses have a 'maximum' and 'minimum' aperture value and that the sensor size, combined with the set aperture of the attached lens affects how much of the photo is sharp and in focus. For our purposes, this means that a FF camera with a 14mm lens at f/5.6 will have slightly less DOF than a m43 camera with a 7mm (14mm equivalent) lens at f/5.6, which for landscapes isn't a bad thing. (Roughly, the m43 camera at f/5.6 will have the same DOF as the FF camera at f/8.0) Of course for shallow DOF like portraits or macros, the FF lens will have a shallower DOF at f/1.4 than the equivalent m43 lens at f/1.4 which is why wedding photographers generally prefer a FF camera.
(FYI: One other thing that affects DOF is the focal length of the lens. A wide angle lens at f/2.8 will appear to have more of the scene in focus than a telephoto lens of the same scene - this is why most macro lenses are longer than 60mm.)
As important as the camera sensor is, what you're putting in front of that sensor is obviously important too! Lenses have different properties that affect the pictures they are useful for and how well they take them.
Focal length refers to the magnification or angle of view (AOV) usually measured in millimeters. For example, here's a wide angle shot (24mm) with a wide AOV:
And here's a telephoto shot with a narrow AOV from the same area (on top of a mountain):
In general, a narrow AOV is used to focus the attention of the viewer, where a wide AOV is used to convey a more substantial scene. A narrow AOV can also be used in landscapes to 'compress' the landscape and make it more dramatic as the following shot of a mountain climber demonstrates;
The mountains behind the climber are brought into the scene, even though they are at least 10km away! Most amateurs don't use their telephoto lenses enough in the landscape because they think only wide angle shots are 'landscape'. Typical lens types and usages:
|Lens Type||Focal Lengths||Typical Usage||Comments|
|Ultra Wide Angle (UWA)||12-18mm||Landscapes, Seascapes||These lenses include a lot of foreground but can make distant objects appear unnaturally small. They can also introduce other strange optical effects if the shooter isn't careful. Usually these lenses can't take filters and cost a lot of money.|
|Wide Angle (WA)||18-35mm||Landscapes, Nightscapes General||Typically used to include a lot in the scene. The wider lenses include a lot of foreground. I find 21-28mm is sufficient for most typical landscape scenes. Any lens wider than 28mm doesn't do well with polarizing filters (a must for landscapes IMHO). Nightscape lenses should be fast (i.e. f/1.4-f/2.8)|
|Normal||35-55mm||General, Portraits||Normal lenses work for almost everything. A fast normal 50mm lens is invaluable and usually fairly cheap. (i.e. 50mm f/1.8)|
|Telephoto (Portrait)||55-200mm||Macro, Portraits, Compressed Landscapes||Telephoto lenses are very useful for the adventure photographer. They get you closer to the action and make your landscapes look very dramatic.|
|Ultra Telephoto||200-800mm||Wildlife, Sports||Any lens over 200mm is specialized for extreme landscape compression or wildlife shots. Handy but can be very large and expensive!|
Phew! That took longer than I intended - and that was just the basics! :-) In order to put it all together you will have to give weight to certain parts of your photography over others and look at what's available in the market compared to your budget. I will demonstrate this with two different camera systems, geared towards my style of photography which includes landscapes, people (my family), macro and wildlife. First we need to put a numerical value on what we want to use the gear for or a usage factor, a high number means it's more important. You can not have ties!
We also need to put a value on other factors such as the aesthetics of the gear, the portability (everyone has their own ideas for this) etc. Here's my top 5 characteristic factors along with their importance value, which works the same way as the usage factors above (high is very important):
Now, for each camera and lens combo we will determine what it's suitable for and come up with a numerical importance value for it. This value will help determine what equipment is most important to me and what I should buy first or consider in the first place. The following is an example of 3 new cameras that I'm interested in. They are all small / light compared to a full frame camera system. The NEX-7 and X-PRO are APS-C sensors (1.5 crops) and the Olympus OM-D is a micro 4/3 sensor (2.0 crop).
|Factors||Sony NEX-7||Fuji X-PRO 1||Olympus OM-D|
|Lens Choice (2)||x|
Based on the above table, the clear winner here is the new Olympus OM-D camera. Now lets evaluate a few different lenses for the Olympus and see if I can pick some of them too. For lenses I only use the usage factors because I'm only picking lenses that I'm interested in anyway. I'm simply trying to prioritze my spending here.
|45mm f/2.8 Macro||x||2|
Based on the above table, my first 3 lenses for the Olympus OM-D should be the 14mm f/2.5, the 12-50mm zoom lens and the 25mm f/1.4. I would also add the 100-300mm lens for the occasional wildlife shot. This is exactly the type of system I'm interested in. It allows me to walk around with a great set of light lenses that should cover almost any shooting situation I'm in.
So can I make some actual real-life camera gear suggestions? Based on my personal experience, I would suggest the following gear for someone who's interested in adventure photography (in order of what I consider best to not-as-good);
You'll notice that there are no DSLR's on my list - this is very intentional. I believe that with the size / weight advantage of 'mirrorless' systems, you should no longer consider large / heavy / expensive DSLR's as an adventure photographer.
So at the end of the day, what kind of equipment do you need and how much will this all cost? I'll do an analysis using the Sony NEX 5N - a tiny APS-C camera with some great lenses.
|Sony NEX5N Kit||The basic kit comes with the 18-55mm lens.||$700|
|Sony 16mm f/2.8||A 24mm lens (16x1.5 remember?). Nice and wide and cheap!||$300|
|Sony 55-210mm||Not the world's highest quality optic, but cheap and over 300mm at the long end. Light too.||$300|
|46mm CPL||A circular polarizing filter. This is needed to darken the sky and make the greens and blues in your landscape 'pop'.||$50|
|Extra battery||You should always have an extra battery! EBay is the best place to get these cheap.||$30|
|32GB SD Card||To store pictures on. Get a fast one.||$110|
|Tripod||Get a small / light one. Gorilla pods are pretty cool.||$50|
|TOTAL||This may seem expensive but for a lifetime of good memories this isn't. Camera equipment has gotten much cheaper with the digital age - take advantage of it! Remember, this also includes an HD video camera.||$1500|
There are many different factors to consider before spending your hard-earned cash on a camera system. As you can see, it makes a big difference what you intend to use the system for and how much money you can spare. In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is cheap out on your camera gear. When you're done climbing or canoeing or adventuring, all you have left are your memories and your photos / video. Your memories will fade but the photos you take won't. Make them as good as you can!