I was sitting up late the other night talking to Dave Sifry about his excellent Beginner’s Digital SLR buying guide: The Sifry Starter Photo Package. If you’re thinking “maybe I should get a better camera”, it’s a really good place to start. I wanted to add a couple of points and then rant a bit about the collective insanity around megapixels in camera marketing.
To Dave’s piece, I’d add a few more items of advice:
Dave correctly advises that if you already have some decent lenses, you might as well get the camera that goes with them. I followed that advice and ended up in the Pentax world. But his piece might leave you thinking that Nikon and Canon are all there really is. Between the two of ’em, they sure enough dominate the DSLR world, but there are excellent (some of them interestingly off-beat) competitors from Pentax, Sony (the former Minolta line), Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma, and Fuji.
There are a ton of good photography-centric places online to help widen your mind and sharpen your skills with that new DSLR. My personal favorite is The Online Photographer.
It’s hard to avoid Digital Photography Review (everyone says “DPR”). They have probably the biggest just-the-facts database on every which camera you can possibly buy. Their reviews are exhaustive and detailed and number-laden; and are often criticized for hiding the essence of the camera behind a cloud of numbers.
Whatever kind of camera you have, there’ll be an online forum for the people who use it. These may prove insanely valuable, particularly if you’re having trouble figuring out how to do something that seems like it should be easy.
You’re going to need some software to handle all those pictures you’re going to be taking. Macs come with iPhoto, and it’s mostly harmless. But for a small fraction of the price of a decent lens you can get Adobe Lightroom, which is an absolutely outstanding program for doing color-correction and leveling and cropping and sharpening and so on. It does pretty well everything you need, it has a wonderful user interface; one of the nicest things about it is that it’s really fast.
Pretty soon, you’re going to start hearing people talking about “Shooting RAW”. Shooting RAW doesn’t necessarily get you better pictures, but does provide opportunities for lots more entertainment in tweaking them.
The Megapixel Irritant · The #1 item that accompanies every digital camera ad—on the web, in your morning paper, on TV—is the megapixel count. I’m here to tell you that in almost every case, the count just doesn’t matter, and when it does, smaller may be better. The whole world of cameras would work a lot better if we could get over this misleading mania.
Why would you want more megapixels, anyhow? There are two reasons: if you want to print out your pictures on paper, it takes quite a few megapixels to fill up a medium-sized print.
Furthermore, many digital photographers (particularly those who shoot with prime lenses as Dave recommends) like to crop their photos, sometimes reducing them dramatically in size to focus in on the key visual element. Obviously, the more pixels you have, the more you can crop while still leaving behind a useful picture.
Squares and Square Roots · I remember the early days of pocket cameras, with one or two MP. When we suddenly got four and five MP cameras, that was a really big deal, because the pictures were twice as big or more, on each side.
But remember your high-school geometry? When you go from five to ten MP, you double the MP count but only increase the size of the picture by the square root of two (40% or so) on each side. And the effect of going from 7 to 10 MP is even less impressive. To double the size of a 5MP image, you’d need a 25 MP sensor, which exist but you can’t afford them.
Sensitivity and Crowding · There are two ways to get more megapixels into a camera. One is to put them on a larger sensor; the other is to squeeze them closer together. Making the sensor bigger has dramatic effects on the camera body and lens and so on, and is really expensive. If you want to add more pixels, you have Moore’s law on your side, it all happens down in the silicon. But there’s no free lunch: as you make pixels smaller and closer together, you lose sensitivity and increase visual static. It’s simple enough: big fat pixels with some space between them are better at gathering the pieces of your picture.
This really hurts when you’re trying to shoot in low light. There are very few pocket cameras that can give you a good-looking image when you need to crank the sensitivity to ISO 800 or more.
The quality of the images produced by my klunky old 6MP Pentax *ist-D is way higher than the ones from the 7.1MP in my Canon A710IS pocket cam; the difference is always visible, and it’s particularly dramatic in low-light shots.
There’s a reason that the real cost-no-object high-end DSLRs (for example the Canon EOS-1Ds and the Nikon D3) are what is called “full-format”; the sensor is the same size as a piece of 35mm film, many times larger than the competition. People praise these cameras’ high sensitivity and ultra-fast shooting speed, not pixel counts (although the Canon has 21.9MP).
The Fuji F30 Story · Take a moment to read Micah Marty’s Digicam Appreciation; there was once, a few years ago, a pocket camera from Fuji, the F30, that everyone agreed had low-light imaging capabilities that totally stood out from the pack. Then, as Micah phrases it, “Fuji decided to forgo its primary edge over the competition (‘Less noise’) in favor of being more like the competition (‘More megapixels!’).” The result is that the “classic” F30, unlike every other now-superseded digicam, is increasing in value, on EBay for example.
Earth to the camera business: can we get over the megapixels already?