How To Choose an SLR Camera System

Many people are coming to dSLRs from various sources and the question of what SLR system and camera to buy is a major and distressing one for many people.
Due to the constant downward price pressure on dSLR cameras, more and more people are seeing the advantages of an SLR and moving up from compact digital cameras and from film cameras. For such people the question of which brand, and thus system, should they buy always comes up. If you already have some SLR lenses then the decision may be made for you, though this depends on the value of the lenses to you and how much you are willing to spend. If someone is coming to dSLR’s free of any existing investment in 
lenses, then it is a very tough decision. The reality is that any of 
the systems will let you do pretty much any type of photography at all. The differences come in terms of features or options that make life a little easier.

Know Yourself
So this is my advice about making a decision:

1.    Build a realistic list of the types of photography you want to do. 
2.    Be realistic about your budget.
3.    Make a realistic estimate of your likelihood of upgrading to 
higher end cameras (may eliminate brands with only one or two models).

Now have a look at the type of work you want to do and look for areas 
that would benefit from certain camera features. So, for example, an interest in sport may point you to one of the cameras specifically designed for high capture rates (if you have the money). Interest in macro could point you to cameras with live preview on a tiltable LCD. Astrophotography would point you to a camera with excellent long exposure low noise levels, etc. Also the need for specialist 
accessories may point you in certain directions. It is not uncommon for people to get into SLRs right from the start with specific specializations in mind. My first SLR was bought for me to hook up to the telescopes I was making. I was 14 at the time.

The Importance of Handling
Then you need to go to a camera store and handle the cameras. Nikons and Canons have different user interfaces and feel different to use, for example. I don’t believe you can say one handles better than the other, just 
that some will suit some people more than others. Don’t forget the other brands too. Olympus does, in my opinion, make great cameras and is worth a look. So do the others. This personal aspect is critical to buying into a system you will like. All brands tend to do things in their own way, whether this is dials or buttons, target hand size, viewfinder organization or the placement of common controls.

The lens choices you make are, in many ways, more important than the body, as you will likely use them over several body generations. All the manufacturers have some not so great lenses and some that sing. 
You need to look at the forums for this sort of information. Canon cops some flak from its users about some of its lenses but less 
about its bodies. Nikon seems to be the other way around.

Most lower end cameras can be bought in a kit with one or two lenses or as a body alone. The kit lenses are often designed to a price, though there are exceptions. So depending on your intentions, it can make sense to get the body and the specific lenses you want. A kit lens that you soon stop using because you don’t like the image quality or slow maximum aperture is no bargain.

There are still reasons today to consider single focal length lenses over zooms, even though zoom lens design has come so far. A wider maximum aperture, lighter weight, smaller size and better optical quality can all favor the single focal length. On the other hand zooms are amazingly convenient, may reduce the number of lenses you need and can be of brilliant quality. If you are going the zoom route I recommend buying them with some overlap in focal lengths. This will reduce how often you need to change lenses. So rather than a 24-70 and a 70-200, for example, I would consider a 24-105 and a 70-300. That over lap can save a lot of frustration and missed grab shots.

Another lens issue is manufacturer brand compared to third-party lenses. This is tricky. In some brands, Leica for example, the coatings of all its lenses within a range are matched so that there should be little if any subtle color variation as you change lenses. Other manufacturers may not do this, or only with certain lenses. So mixing lenses could add another, admittedly small, variable to your shots. However usually it is so small compared to the variation in light color or white balance setting. That said, there are as many stunning third party lenses as there are original manufacturer lemons, maybe more. So after you have identified the likely lens focal lengths you need you should check the forums and reviews for lens opinions. One unusual thing you can learn from checking the forums is how variable a lens or manufacturer is in quality. If you find there is huge variation in the opinion about a certain manufacturer’s 90mm macro lens, for example, it may suggest that they have quality control issues for consistency, and so you may want to look elsewhere.

Here’s a quick summary of the issues around some of the ‘in’ camera features at the moment and my take on them:

  • Dust removal systems – a great idea. Perhaps not essential but a great convenience. It takes some of the worry out of changing lenses on a windy day. After all, you bought an SLR so you could change lenses, right?
  • In lens anti-shake – the traditional way of doing it. Works well but only with the lens that has it

  • In body anti-shake – works and will work with all your lenses, perhaps saving you money

  • Live preview – extremely useful for certain types of photography, such as photo microscopy, some macro, uncomfortable position photography, such as ground level, etc. Mostly overrated in my view, except 
in those specific situations. You buy an SLR to use the lovely, bright and crisp optical viewfinder, after all.

How important anti-shake is to you depends so much on the photography you do. What it does is allow you to extend handheld photography into fringe areas where you really should be using a tripod. Of course, sometimes you can’t use a tripod, so it is a real plus but only if 
you do a lot of work in these fringe areas, such as low light, using 
long telephoto lenses, handheld macro, etc. For many photographers 
all it does is compensate for sloppy technique. For others people it really 
extends their photographic possibilities.

Body choice
Remember, you may get all the features you could ever want in a 
camera body that is too heavy to conveniently carry around. For 
example when I was over at Arles last year there was a professional photographer in the group I hung out 
with a lot with a Canon 5D and Canon’s high end lenses (L series). I 
gave her my 400D to play with (a smaller, lighter camera) and she decided she really needed to buy one for walk around type photography when she was finding her 5D just too heavy. My strategy has been that when I was still shooting with film cameras I shot with high-end models. With digitals I 
have stayed lower down the model tree because of the rapid pace of 
developments. But I’ve invested in good lenses, as these will go from 
body to body. With the pace of dSLR developments at present you should follow the same rule as with all computer equipment, never buy it for what you may do with it in future, especially if this is going to cost you much more money. You may be better off to buy a cheaper model now that will do all you immediately want. Then when you are actually ready to do that wow thing, which may take you longer to get to
than you expected, then buy what you need if you cann
ot make what you already have do it. By then it will probably be cheaper and better anyway.

For me, I shoot with all the cameras that come in for review because 
I won’t take one to review unless I get it for a month and so and can thus do real shooting with it. Too many of the reviewers get it, open the 
box, play with it in the office, take a few snapshots and maybe a 
test target and that is it. I can tell because I often know whom the 
camera has come from before me and can see how it has been used. In extended shooting with all the cameras, I find that I fairly quickly settle into working with them and get great shots. This may not be true if you have little time with the camera. They all work a 
bit differently and some cameras, especially at the low end, make 
some things, like changing ISO settings, harder than they should but then their target purchasers probably won’t change them off auto ISO anyway. Others grow on you. For example when I was testing the Leica Digilux 3 I found it to be very clunky when I first got it. But over six weeks of shooting it really grew on me and I ended up loving it.

And Then
Just as I have come to believe is true of everything involving people, there is no absolute right or wrong camera or system. All have their strengths and flaws or annoyances. All systems will have their quirks and all with have their OMG wow factors.

Your camera gear is only a tool for getting the shots you want.  

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