Thursday, July 28, 2011

Buying Cameras: Adding On

Part one of the "Buying Cameras" series was about narrowing down the choices when buying a first camera; for part two we're looking beyond that to some of the decisions that go into building a camera system. This is a slightly more involved process because more factors need to be considered, and there are even more possible options. Here are some suggestions to use as a guide when deciding what's important, and when to take the next steps.

Start simply and add complexity later. It's always easier to learn the capabilities of your equipment with fewer options and variables to consider, and technique can make a bigger difference than gear.

But sometimes it helps to start planning for the future early.

If flexibility is important then nothing beats a camera that's designed for interchangeable lenses. Canon cameras are the best for this, followed closely by Nikon, whose entry-level cameras won't autofocus with some of their older lenses. (While new compatible lenses are being introduced every year, these improved designs invariably cost a little more.) Both of these brands are big enough that their accessories are available in any camera store, and there are huge amounts of resources devoted to them.

Other companies, such as Pentax, Sony, and Olympus, do make some interesting SLR cameras. But in each case they're harder to find and have much more limited options, and are more questionable as a long-term investment. Unless you already know that one of these is right for you, stay with the bigger brands.

One interesting exception that's emerging are the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens format cameras. These have excellent image quality and are built for Live View and HD video recording, two features that traditional SLRs still struggle to integrate. Panasonic and Olympus make cameras and lenses under the "Micro Four Thirds" name. It's not nearly as big as the Canon or Nikon SLR ecosystems, but it's developing nicely and is the only mirrorless format that has really caught on. Samsung and Sony each have their own as well, but those two systems are still very basic and not very well supported.

The two best predictors of a lenses' performance are its price and its magnification ratio. The longer the zoom range – take the focal length and divide the biggest number by the lower number – the more complicated the lens needs to be. And while economies of scale can create some good low-cost lenses, as a rule the more expensive lenses need fewer compromises in their design, construction, and quality control. These two predictors aren't perfect, but they're accurate enough to be useful.

For example, an entry-level SLR is often offered with two lenses. One will be a standard zoom, typically 18-55, and the other will be a telephoto that reaches as much as 200 or 300mm. Because these two lenses each have a short (3:1 to 6:1-ish) magnification range, they'll be as good or better than a single lens that covers the entire 18-200+ (11:1 or more) range, and less expensive as well.

The opposite extreme from a super-zoom is a lens that doesn't zoom at all, like the classic 50mm prime lens. This is a very simple lens, and even the cheapest ones can be very good. Prime lenses that cost as much as a mid-market zoom can have exceptionally good optical qualities. But remember that there's no objectively 'best' lens: what matters more is how it's used and that it suits the photographer who's using it.

An entry-level SLR with two zooms, a 50mm f/1.8 lens, and a mid-range flash is an astonishingly flexible kit that's capable of excellent results, and can cost less than just one premium lens. But a general-purpose setup isn't right for everybody. Some cameras are genuinely better than others for specialized tasks, and lenses can completely change what a camera can do. A stamp collector and a bird watcher will integrate photography into their passions in very different ways, and someone who wants to photograph landscapes won't need the same equipment as someone who takes portraits.

If you don't have a clear passion to drive your photography – and many photographers happily spend decades without one – then there's no rush to load up on specialized equipment. The time may come to add a macro or wide-angle lens, or buy a camera with better controls or improved image quality, but there's no hurry to start the hike up to the point of diminishing returns. Just be warned that buying better and more specialized equipment can be a lot of fun, and sometimes becomes an enjoyable hobby all on its own.

Remember that everything in photography is a compromise. The third and final instalment of my "Buying Cameras" series is looking at the process that I go through when adding new equipment to my collection, and even addresses the ever-popular question: "does the camera matter?"

Matthew Robertson writes for the popular website `thewsreviews, and he routinely uses seven cameras in six different systems. Almost all of his lenses are primes that fall within the 35mm to 100mm range.

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