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How to buy a digital camera Part 4: Serious about SLR

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Part 4: Serious about SLR

In the fourth part of our Christmas guide to buying a digital camera, BRIAN KOPING advises that the SLR camera is for those who are serious about cameras and not concerned about bulk, but there is room for the rest of us too.

In days of yore, press and other serious photographers used bellows cameras, recording images on 4 x 5 inch sheet film. The far more compact twin lens reflex camera, or TLR, using roll film, then became a popular tool. Viewing was done through the upper lens, while the lower lens took the picture. This was challenged in the early 1950s by 35mm cameras, which used a single lens for both viewing and taking, hence the term Single Lens Reflex, commonly called SLR. This is, of course, a total misnomer, as no early camera ever had the multiplicity of lenses available as that manufactured for current SLRs!

Which SLR camera to choose?

This depends on many factors. It is a given that all SLRs on the market are capable of excellent picture quality, so one has to look at one’s own requirements.

If ultimate quality is the object of the exercise, if price is not a factor and if we exclude medium format machines, then the top of the range in all leading brands is the answer. These are the so-called full frame cameras where the imaging chip is the same size as a 35mm film frame.

As stated in previous articles in this series, the larger chip will always be capable of delivering superior image quality.

Moving down the scale, almost all SLRs here have an APS-C (Advanced Photo System) size chip, which is a little smaller than full frame.

Entry-level vs Pro

We have two groups of camera in this arena, namely entry level and professional cameras. The professional machines are robustly constructed and designed to work hard and are of course correspondingly priced. The entry-level cameras share much software with the pro models and there is nothing to choose in picture quality. So if you don’t intend spending months in Bolivian jungles or trekking through the Sahara desert taking millions of images, entry level is probably what you are after.

Nikon and Canon reign supreme in this category, but don’t rule out the other manufacturers in this field. Try as wide a range as possible.

First and foremost, hold the camera. The body should feel right and the ergonomics should allow for comfortable handling. If you wear spectacles, ensure that you can see the entire viewing screen through the viewfinder.

If you have specific requirements, such as low light photography, make sure the camera can deliver. Take some low light pictures and look for white dots in shadow areas. These are called noise and most cameras have a noise damping function. Ensure the damping does not degrade the image.

Lenses and accessories

Next, look at lenses and accessories. How do they rate performance-wise? There are a number of sites on the web where cameras are reviewed, so you can get input on your intended gear.

Image stabilizing is a big plus. In some brands, the system is built into the body so all lenses fitted will have this option. In others, the mechanism is built into the lens so only lenses with this function will be stabilized.

You purchase your camera with a lens, possible two. The main lens is probably 18 to 55mm. To bring this to 35mm dimensions, multiply by 1.6 and you are about right. Thus, the 200mm lens on your digital will perform as a 320m lens.

The standard zoom on most SLRs is short for many applications, hence the two lens package being offered by retailers. This is great, but now you need a bag for your outfit and stand the chance of getting dust and moisture into your camera when changing lenses under adverse conditions. Also you often miss the shot while changing lenses.

You should ideally buy one lens that will encompass the 18mm to 200mm range. The Nikon, an excellent lens, in tests performed better at the wide-angle end than at the tele end. The Canon lens, equally excellent, performed better at the tele end. The Nikon lens is more expensive than the Canon. Or do you get a pirate lens?

The other brands

And which camera?

Sony, the comparative new kid on the block, having taken over the Konica Minolta stable, offers an excellent selection of cameras from entry level to full frame. However, all accessories are very Sony-specific and attachments are required for ‚foreign‚ accessories. Sony offers some unique exposure options as well.

Olympus rocked the camera world in the past with their Pen-EE totally auto ¬Ω frame camera, the Pen F, a revolutionary ¬Ω frame SLR, and later the OM1, a robust full-frame SLR that set new standards in pro camera miniaturization.

Olympus have adopted the Four Thirds system, using a sensor half the size of 35mm and a full frame lens mount. This doubles the effective focal length, so your 200mm lens is effectively a 400mm lens and your Olympus f2.8 300 mm lens becomes an f2.8 600 mm!

The bottom line, though, is to do your homework. Make sure the camera will suit your requirements, that accessories, spares and repairs are available and, most important of all, that you are comfortable with the viewfinder and ergonomics of your machine.

Be happy with your system, as lenses are costly so, by the time you have added to your system, you will have made a substantial investment and will be locked into your brand of preference.

Read the rest of the series by clicking on the links below:

How to buy a digital camera Part 1: No such thing as best

How to buy a digital camera Part 2: The right type

How to buy a digital camera Part 3: Bridge the digital camera divide

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