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As if to justify the blog entry “Which first DSLR – August ‘08 – Thought 2 – Bells & Whistles” I found the following in Park Cameras catalogue that was an unwelcome addition to this weeks Amateur Photographer which is otherwise a brilliant magazine.

Instant Expert page!

Key Features my buttocks

Besides the Image Stabilisation, the other three were all raised as “bells and whistles”. Thanks guys.

Thought No.1, and you are happy with your lens choice. Thought No.2, and you know not to fall for the gimmicks. So what then should you look for?

A – Opinions differ, and so do DSLRs, so first and foremost: get what is right for you.

Utmost importance to a photographer is the features and functions.

Maybe you like lot of outdoor photography? A camera with a good weather sealing would be handy. You love the way your old compact can view images and capture while viewing the LCD? Then check the Live View capabilities. Do not like wading through menu’s to change functions? Check the location/functions of all buttons and dials, and the customisation capabilities of these and the menu. You love to collect things and want to be able to purchase old lenses on EBay? Check the compatibility of the lens mount. Want to make extra large poster prints? Check the pixel count versus the image quality. Want to start studio photography? Then check out the remote flash capabilities.

There are many things to consider. My advice would be to narrow down what is most important to you, and go with it.

The other important consideration is the handling of your camera. Get down to your local photography shop and pick the camera up. Ask if you can mount the lenses you are considering for purchase, and see how it fits and feels in your hand. Play with the menu system and function buttons to check they are in easy reach. Even consider asking if you can place the items in a camera bag and feel for weight. You may be carrying this around for a whole day. If you carry your camera around your neck, try this also.

I was considering the D40 as my first camera, but decided on the D80. I felt spending a few more quid was worth it, as the D40 was a little too small for my hands. This is basic ergonomics. I knew I would be carrying the camera in my hand or on my arm most of the day and it must be comfortable.

B – Important to most people is the image quality.

Note: the DSLR considered to have the best image quality today, with in the next six months, and certainly one year, will be surpassed. DSLR technology is moving along at a rapid rate.

When you are researching image quality, also take into account lens types used in the tests, the specified conditions of the test, and which format is being referred to. All DSLRs have RAW and JPG capabilities. RAW is the unprocessed camera information. JPG is processed in camera.

When talking image quality, most commonly, noise will be discussed. Noise becomes a factor when using higher ISO speeds. Higher ISO captures more light, in turn allowing more creative control (when not using a tripod). The capability of noise reduction in today’s DSLR is moving on quite quickly. Nikon’s first full frame DSLR the D3, is a leap ahead of the rest for high ISO/low noise capability. But do not expect it to stay there for long. The sensor is said to be a Sony production, and Sony are promising a full frame camera very soon. Please note, that noise only becomes a factor when printing large images. If you do not intend to print over A4 size, do not worry about noise.

Also considered in image quality is the dynamic range of the camera, its colour reproduction and the amount of chromatic aberration. Dynamic range is of considerable importance, essentially being the range of light the sensor can deal with. Colour reproduction can be dealt with; in post processing if need be, with ease. Chromatic aberration should also be considered. It is not easily to deal with in post processing. Note that these three factors are all dependant on lens type and quality.

C – The camera system.

When you buy a DSLR, you purchase into the manufacturers system. I touched on this in Thought 1, as most of your money will be spent on lenses. In addition to lenses are all the other bits and bobs you are likely to need at some stage like flashguns, remote cords, infra red remote, software, and so on. For example, if you do not have much to spend on software, Canon DSLRs come with free software capable of processing the RAW images from camera, compared to Nikons which is an extra £130. So consider once again the type of photography you will be undertaking most often, and research what accessories you might need.

D – The future.

In this rapidly ever changing world, try to have some patience. (Unlike me!) Have a look at what is in the pipeline. Sometimes announcements are made about function or new technology that will be arriving in the coming months. So check and see what advances are about to be made, and consider their importance to you. An example is the Micro Four Thirds system announced by Olympus and Panasonic as noted in Thought No.2 with most useful live view to date and the smallest DSLR. Samsung has also claimed to be making a similar system, compact style DSLR, but it is not due for release until 2010.

When i was about to purchase my first DSLR, I used camera magazines and also the reviews on the net by DPreview, to do my research.

At this moment on DPreview, i read “Panasonic has unveiled what it is calling the World’s First Full-time Live View Digital Interchangeable Lens Camera – the Lumix DMC-G1”. There you go.

If you followed Guide No.1, you should have an idea about the lenses you might use, and narrowed down your first DSLR choices. Now, what about all those gizmos?

Bell & Whistle A – Megapixels

The big number one photographic sales term in this day and age is ‘Megapixels’. Lets discount the myth.

More Megapixels does not mean better quality images.

What more megapixels does give you is larger prints.

Most people will print up to A3, mainly at A4 and smaller (if you print at all in this age of the digital camera), so megapixels should not be of a great concern. Do not let megapixel count sway your decision. Most DSLRs are from 6mp and nothing new is under 10mp, which is more than enough.

You can also use a program like Adobe Photoshop or other cheaper alternatives, which are able to enlarge images without a large loss of quality (depending on enlargement size, billboard size might be a problem).

My advise is to do some research and have look for yourself at some images taken by those cameras you are thinking of buying. Most DSLRs are coming very close in terms of image quality. Only a very keen eye will tell the difference in prints at A4 size.

Finally, another corporate trick is quoting the total number of pixels on the sensor. This is misleading. Look instead for the effective pixels that are used. This is a more accurate representation of camera’s highest resolution.

For example, my D300 maximum resolution is 4,288×2,848 pixels. Multiply these numbers together you get the effective pixel count of 12.2 megapixels. Printed at 300dpi (dots per inch) standard, it creates a print size of 14.5×9.5inches or 36.3×24.1cm.

And remember, more megapixels does not equal better image quality.

Bell & Whistle B – Integrated Cleaning

One problem that you will find when owning a DSLR is dust on the sensor. This usually comes from frequent lens changes.

The Integrated Cleaning removes dust at the click of a button, without having to expose the sensor and blow or clean the sensor manually. This is no big deal. It is handy, but it should not be a deal breaker. I have this function in my D300. I have used the self cleaning unit twice in six months. One of these times, it failed to remove the dust, forcing me to resort to the age old process of exposing the sensor and using a blower to remove the dust.

Note that the integrated cleaning system only removes dust, not dirt. It’s not really cleaning, it’s a form of shaking.

This gizmo is nice to have, but it is far from a necessity. Most newer budget DSLR’s from mid 2007 have an integrated cleaning system anyhow.

So when the salesperson tells you it has in integrated cleaning. You say, ‘that’s nice, don’t they all these days?’, politely.

Bell & Whistles C – Frames per second

Frames per second is what it is, the amount of images the camera captures in one second. Usually quoted in RAW, but sometimes it refers to the amount of JPGs it can capture. Keep in mind the format quoted when this figure is given.

Unless you are going to be shooting sports or wildlife, this is a totally useless feature.

If you are going to be doing this type of photography, then by all means, get the best ‘Frame Per Second’ model. When you take into consideration this feature, check the image quality achieved at high ISO settings. A high ISO will allow you to use this feature to it’s full capacity in low light situations

Bell & Whistles D – Live View

Live view is the ability to compose using the LCD monitor. With no doubt you will have used this feature, as it is common to all compact digital cameras. You see on the back of the camera on the LCD screen, what you are taking a photo of.

In DSLR technology, Live view is very new, and does not work as well as it does on compact camera’s. Most manufacturers methods are nowhere near perfect, and are only really useful when composing using a tripod, and when there is a good amount of light. Even then, focusing is not speedy and usually involves the view blacking out. Unless you will be composing landscape or still life photography, this feature is mostly useless.

Most DSLRs have very good viewfinders which will be more than adequate.

Most new DSLRs have the Live View feature. I believe the Sony @350 has the best live view function to date, due to the speed of Auto Focus compared to the competition. Just this month, Olympus and Panasonic have also announced a Micro Four Thirds System DSLR body in development, which, it is claimed, will feature the most useful live view facility on a DSLR to date. So keep an eye out for future announcements by these two companies in regards to Live View functionality.

If you have anything further to add, or if you believe something needs correcting, please comment and let me know.

Next month i will look at handy features.

This is the ultimate question for thousands of people of whom are switching to digital and for those that are upgrading from their compact or bridge camera’s. Seeing i myself never owned a film SLR, i can not speak for the film buffs. Although those that do use SLRs, most will stick to the same brand, as they most likely have a range of lens they already invested in. Which brings us to the first topic.

Lenses

You may have a camera, or brand for you new DSLR in mind, just because it has all the bells and whistles you want. But before you make your decision, first have a look at what lenses are available, and at what price.

Lens choice is not on peoples minds when choosing to upgrade from compact or bridge cameras. The main reason being the lens was fixed, so there is no choice. So why start now? Because you are about to make a huge investment in your camera, and once you have made a choice on brand, you pretty much stay with that brand, because of the huge investment you will eventually make in lenses. Nonsense, i hear you scream. Yes, nonsense if you have the cash. But who has that sort of cash. Most of us do not.

Today though, unlike in the past, if you had a Canon camera, you were limited (pretty much) to Canon lenses. Today you can choose from Tamron, Sigma & Tokina. Other brands are available, but lets stick to the affordable models. These three companies make models to suit all DSLR cameras, but you must check your choice of lens against your make and model of camera. Nearly all lenses by these lens manufacturers are compatible with Nikon and Canon, but even then, check the lens is compatible with your specific Canon/Nikon make of camera.

Although there are the budget models, each DSLR manufacturer have their own lens range. These lenses are typically of a better quality, but not always.

OK. What lenses will i need?

Lens choice is not only about the wallet, but about the style of photography. For the landscape photographer, a good wide angle (10-50mm range) lens is a must. Do you love taking pictures of animals, a telephoto zoom (100-600mm range) is for you. Love being up close, a macro lens would be preferable. Just need it for around town or on holidays, a good standard zoom (18-200mm range) is very handy.

You may not consider a fixed lens at first, but i have no doubt in the future you will purchase one. Why? Because they are ultimately better quality. You pay much more for good zoom lenses, for convenience, than you do for a top quality fixed lens (generally). So have a quick look at the range and prices of the fixed lenses also.

When you think you have made your choice then…

Lastly, have a look at the second hand market in your country. I know here in the UK, and in the US, there is a large second hand lens market. Not only is there an abundance of stores selling second hand goods, but sites like Ebay are flooded with them. So check them out also.

So what did i do? I chose the Nikon D80 as my first DSLR. It is compatible with many old lenses (give or take), and Nikon at the time was the only manufacturer of a 18-200mm lens. I do most of my photography on the move, and when travelling, so this was the perfect first lens for me. Now you can also get these types of lenses from Tamron (18-200mm & 18-250mm) and Sigma (18-200mm). I also have other Nikon Lenses. The 12-24mm f4 (for landscape and architectural photography), 35-70mm f2.8 (for a sharp wander around town lens) and the 24mm f2.8 & 50mm f1.8 (for portraits and parties).

Any questions, please ask.