The computer helper: Is a digital SLR camera right for you?
By Jay Dougherty Jul 8, 2005, 5:45 GMT
Washington - Those small, digital point-and-shoot cameras are nice, but most of them will frustrate you sooner or later. The next step up for many is a digital interchangeable lens camera, often referred to as a digital SLR.
Once prohibitively expensive, these higher-end cameras from Nikon, Canon, Fuji, and a few other makers promise better performance and better picture quality. But do they really deliver on their promises, and is the added expense worth it for you? Read on for some answers.
Q: I'm a photography know-nothing, and my point-and-shoot digital camera is easy to use, but I'd like something that gives me a range of lens possibilities and better pictures. Are digital SLR cameras easy to learn?
A: All digital SLRs offer something similar to a point-and-shoot mode. On Canon SLRs, turning a dial on the top of the camera to the green rectangle puts the unit in fully automatic mode. On Nikon cameras, turning the command dial on the top of the camera to "P" does essentially the same thing.
In these modes, the camera takes over all adjustments for the light conditions present at the time you wish to take a picture. Shutter, aperture, and even on-board flash, if available, are controlled automatically.
That said, however, it's important to note that while digital SLRs may make taking the picture as easy as any basic point-and-shoot digital camera, manufacturers of digital SLRs generally expect that you will spend more time in postprocessing - working in photo editing software - than would a user of a point-and-shoot camera. For that reason, pictures tend to come out of the digital SLR cameras looking "flatter" than pictures from the small snap-and-print units.
The reasoning is that digital SLR owners want the flexibility to process the photographs in a personalised way - much as an old-style professional photographer would add his own touches in the traditional darkroom. If spending time at the computer editing your digital photographs is not for you, you may wish to steer clear of digital SLRs.
Q: Since owning a digital camera, I've come to love nature photography. But it's clear that my little camera won't get me close enough to birds and small mammals. So I'm looking at digital SLRs. What will I need in addition to the camera to enable me to photograph animals close-up?
A: The short answer is "a good bit of money."
Seriously, the cost of your digital SLR will be one of the smaller expenditures you'll make if you wish to explore nature photography in a satisfying way. The camera lenses required for such photography typically far exceed the cost of a camera body itself.
What you'll be looking for are lenses in the 200 - 600mm range - the most expensive camera lenses available. The longer the lens, the higher the cost. Birders and others who photograph small animals generally require 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm lenses. These "fixed focal length" lenses do not zoom. They are fixed at one particular focal length. These lenses provide the highest quality, higher than a zoom lens can offer, but of course they are less versatile than zoom lenses.
Both Canon and Nikon do sell zoom lenses that are suitable for a variety of nature subjects. Nikon's 80-400mm lens features vibration reduction technology to counteract the "camera shake" that can reduce the quality of photographs taken with long lenses, which are difficult to hold steady by hand. Canon's 100-400mm lens is similar; it utilises Canon's famous image stabilisation - or IS - technology. These lenses tend to cost around 1500 dollars from reputable dealers such as B&H Photo in New York City.
The longer fixed focal length lenses cost even more. 500 millimetre lenses can cost around 4500 dollars, while the 600mm lenses from Canon and Nikon, used by professional bird photographers, can set you back as much as 7,000 dollars.
With big lenses come hefty support requirements. That means you'll need to invest in a good, solid tripod, especially for the larger lenses. If you're getting seriously into these topics, it's a good idea to bookmark such online forums as Nature Photographers (http://www.naturephotographers.net/rf.html), Photo.net (http://www.photo.net), and RobGalbraith (http://www.robgalbraith.com/bins/index.asp), where you can learn a great deal about all specialisations in photography and communicate with others who have more experience than you.
Q: Which digital SLRs do you recommend for a nonprofessional?
A: Canon's Digital Rebel XT and its 20D digital SLRs have received overwhelmingly favourable reviews from trade periodicals and customers alike. Nikon's D70 camera is widely respected, as well. Remember that the choice between major manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon is significant. You'll be buying into an entire camera system, not just an individual =unit. Since the lenses, flashes, and accessories are proprietary to each vendor, once you decide on a camera body, you've basically bought in to a system. So think about the decision carefully.
Both Nikon and Canon systems allow you to take superior photographs. If there is an overwhelming difference between the two, it lies in the fact that Canon currently offers more "image stablised" (IS) lenses, including IS in its line of very long lenses intended for nature photographers. Nikon tends to have followers who applaud the manufacturer's attention to the ergonomics of its cameras and the ease-of-use of it flash system.
Fuji digital SLRs are built around Nikon bodies, so they utilise Nikon lenses and many Nikon accessories. Olympus has released an SLR system, the E-1, that was built from the ground up to be digital. While this E-series has received good reviews, its relative newness means that it does not offer the range of lenses and accessories that the major manufacturers provide.
Q: Why are digital SLRs better than point-and-shoot cameras?
A: Digital SLRs are geared toward an audience that wants more flexibility from cameras. Some of flexibility comes from the cameras themselves: the ability to control depth of field, shutter speed, white balance, and other settings provide more artistic control over photographs. Digital SLRs also generally offer faster performance: the Nikon digital SLRs, for example, offer instant startup times and no shutter lag - the amount of time required to take a second or third picture after you've taken the first.
The range of lenses offered by digital SLR makers adds even more flexibility. Both Canon and Nikon offer well over 50 individual lenses, each with its own characteristics and purpose. You can choose lenses to take close-up macro photography, portraits, pictures of animals, and much more.
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