Budget concerns, vol. I

I pointed out in the summary part of the post that covers the basics (sensitivity, aperture, and shutter speed) that what matters the most in photography is that you know what you are doing. I also noted that most cameras can get the job done.

There is an old adage among photographers pertaining to the best camera. It is quite simple. The best camera is the one you have. It is pointless to argue that this and/or that camera could provide you better or the best results if you do not have that camera. Even if you have the best camera in the world, it does not matter if do not have it when you need it. If you need it, right now, and it is tucked away at home, it is of no use to you, there and then. If all you have is your smart phone with you to get the job done, then that is what you must use to get the job done. It is that simple.

It does not matter a whole lot whether you use a Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, or Sony camera, to mention the well-known brands. I am quite confident that you can also get the job done by using a Fuji, Panasonic, Ricoh, or Sigma camera. I would also be highly surprised if a Hasselblad or Leica camera could not get the job done, assuming that you have that kind of money to spend on cameras. Even a high-end smart phone that allows you use the phone camera in a manual mode might able to get you good results even in demanding conditions. Night time is certainly very demanding, but once you know what you are doing, it is not as demanding as it may seem at first.

To be clear, in this post I will focus on camera bodies, not on lenses. To keep things tidy, I will write about lenses in a separate post.

Bigger is better?

To be clear, photography is not cheap when you need a camera that can perform in demanding conditions. As a rule of thumb, bigger is better. Then again, bigger is also more expensive. How much more expensive?

To give you answer to that, I first need to explain what bigger means in this context. Simply put, physically large cameras tend to have physically larger sensors which generally outperform physically smaller sensors that are typically housed in physically smaller cameras. But why is bigger better?

Bigger is better because large sensors tend to have relatively high pixel pitch, measured in µm (microns or micrometers), when compared to small sensors. This is, of course, relative as you can have a large sensor with more pixels than a small sensor with fewer pixels and still have the same pixel density. The advantage of a large sensor is that the pixels can be physically large, while still providing plenty of resolution (typically indicated in megapixels). Conversely, smaller sensors need to provide enough resolution, which tends to compromise the pixel size. But why does pixel size matter?

Pixel size matters because you can fit more or fewer pixels on a sensor depending on their size. The smaller pixels increase the resolution, whereas larger pixels increase the amount of incoming light per pixel. Simply put, bigger is better because a large sensor will gather more light than a smaller sensor, assuming that the sensor is not crammed with pixels.

I think it is, however, better to explain this the other way round. Small sensors are very capable. They are, however, limited by their physical size. To fit in some industry standard number of pixels, which is currently something between 20 to 30 megapixels, means that the pixels have to be relatively small. For example, the Olympus flagship camera, the OM-D EM1X houses a fairly small sensor (17.3×13.0mm) capable of 20.40 effective megapixels, which means that its pixel pitch is 3.32 µm. In comparison, the Nikon flagship, the Nikon D6, houses a much larger ‘full frame’ sensor (35.9×23.9mm) capable of 20.80 effective megapixels, which means that its pixel pitch is 6.43 µm. It is no surprise that the Nikon flagship will provide better results than the Olympus flagship, especially in demanding conditions, because, in this case, bigger is simply better.

Bigger is not, however, better in every case. For example, the Fujifilm GFX100 has an even larger ‘medium format’ sensor (43.8×32.9mm) than the Nikon D6, but its pixel pitch is only 3.76 µm as it is capable of 102.0 effective megapixels. However, in some cases, it is preferable to have low pixel pitch. In this example the GFX100 is all about the resolution, whereas the D6 is all about light sensitivity. In other words, in this case bigger is about having more pixels, not about having high pixel pitch.

It is also worth keeping in mind that bigger sensors cost more to manufacture than smaller sensors, which means that the cameras that house large sensors are also going to be more expensive than cameras that house small sensors. A silicon wafer of a certain size can fit only a certain number of sensors. A manufacturing defect will therefore affect more large sensors than small sensors per silicon wafer due to their physical size. While the sensor size is not the only thing that affects the camera price, it does play a large role in it. For example, the Olympus OM-D EM1X costs some 2500€, the Nikon D6 costs some 7500€ and the Fujifilm GFX100 costs about 10 000€. In other words, bigger is not only (typically) better, but it is also (typically) much more expensive.

Large sensors also demand large lenses, which also tend to be expensive. I am going to explain this by comparing wide-angle lenses as they would be my first choice for doing landscape photography. They are also produced in fairly large quantities, meaning that their prices are reasonable and comparable between the brands. In comparison, telephoto lenses, especially supertelephoto lenses, tend to be more expensive as the demand for them is much lower.

A good wide-angle full frame lens costs anything between 500 to 700€, while excellent wide angle glass costs anything between 1000 to 3000€. Medium format wide-angle lenses tend to cost even more, and the selection is very limited. For example, there are two wide angle lenses for that Fujifilm camera, the cheaper option costing some 1800€ and the more expensive option costing some 2800€. The micro four thirds (MFT) Olympus wide angle lenses are much more affordable, costing a couple of hundred euro, and even the most expensive wide-angle lenses are more affordable, costing anything between 1000 to 1400€. Moreover, as the micro four thirds lens mount is shared by other manufacturers, the choice of lenses is broad (albeit some of the lens features might not work properly).

Bang for the buck

But what is the right camera for you? Well, that depends on what it is that you want to do with the camera. Even if you just need a camera for research purposes, you still need to figure what kind of research you will be conducting. If you will be using it solely on a tripod, you do not need a flagship camera, regardless of the camera sensor size. Therefore, the budget for your camera can be as low as 400 to 500€. You might even be able to find camera body and lens combo for that price.

Bigger is more expensive, or is it?

To be clear, the camera sensor size is worth keeping in mind at all times. In general, bigger is better, as already established. Then again bigger is generally more expensive, as also already established. How much more expensive?

To provide an example, you may be able to find a camera with an APS-C sized sensor (24x16mm) and a camera with a full frame (36x24mm) sensor for the same price. It would seem to make sense to opt for the full frame camera. However, you need to take more things into account than the sensor size.

Crucially, the bigger the sensor, the bigger the lenses need to be. You can, of course, use lenses designed for full frame cameras on APS-C cameras and vice versa, but when you use lenses designed for APS-C cameras on full frame cameras, you can only use them in a crop mode, utilizing only part of the potential of that bigger sensor. It makes more sense to buy an APS-C camera if you only have matching APS-C lenses. The point is that while full frame cameras are nowadays more affordable than what they used to be, you also need to be aware that the full frame lenses tend to be more expensive than APS-C lenses.

Medium format cameras that have even larger sensors than full frame cameras are much more expensive. Their lenses are also very expensive. I will not get into detail here, as this post is not about lenses, but to give you an idea of the costs, a micro four thirds or an APS-C body costs anything between 500€ to 2000€, depending on when the camera became available and the features it has. A full frame body costs anything between 1500€ to 9000€, with most bodies costing around 2000€ to 3000€ (the top end professional camera bodies cost about 6000€ and the prestige camera bodies cost anything between 7000 to 9000€). A medium format camera body is going to cost at least 5000€ (e.g., Fuji and Pentax), but there is no cap on how much these can cost.

The best value for the money is likely going to be found in the top-end APS-C camera bodies and in the affordable full frame camera bodies. You come across a great deal, a body and lens combo, in either of these segments and I would recommend opting for such deals. My tip is to go with whatever offers you the best bang for the buck. Of course, you’ll need to consider your budget and work within those limits.

Sensor technology

Sensor technology keeps getting better and better and, to be honest, it is kind of hard to keep track of the developments. My first DSLR has a charge-couple device (CCD) sensor, which, in my opinion, gives me wonderful colors, but it performs poorly in demanding conditions. You can use it at ISO 800 and still get good results, but that is about it, about all it can do, and I would rather use it at ISO 400. The more recent cameras I have house complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) sensors, which perform much better in demanding conditions. If you think that is confusing, you also need to take into consideration that the older generations of CMOS sensors are front-side illuminated (FSI), whereas the newer current generation CMOS sensors are back-side illuminated (BSI). The difference between FSI and BSI is in how the different components are arranged. It is not worth getting into, unless you are an engineer. The main thing is that BSI sensors provide better results than FSI sensors in demanding lighting conditions.

You can ignore all this if you are buying a new camera, but it is worth keeping in mind if you are buying a used camera. A used camera is a good option to consider as you may be able to buy a solid performer for a fraction of the price of a new camera. You do, however, need to trust the people you are dealing with. The camera warranty time may have expired, which means that you are on your own if the camera starts acting up. Anyway, you probably will not be buying a camera body housing a CCD sensor, but the existence of different CMOS technologies is worth keeping in mind if you are looking to buy a used camera body.

AA or no AA

It used to be the case that camera sensors were, by default, overlaid by an anti-aliasing (AA) filter. The purpose of this filter is to prevent distracting moiré patterns in your photos. As that may seem obscure, it is that warping pattern you can see on tightly patterned clothing and on walls in some photos. The tradeoff is that the filter makes everything just a little bit softer than they would be without the filter. Nowadays some cameras have this filter whereas others don’t have it.

Is there a noticeable difference in the image quality? Well, the thing is that it is hard to say whether it makes a much of a difference, one way or another, as there are other things that affect image sharpness as well. My most recent camera does not have it and it is, I would say, sharper than my previous cameras which do have it, but, then again, there are other factors that also affect the results. For example, a higher megapixel count helps to capture more detail, at least in good lighting conditions. Then there are differences between sensors, sensor technologies and the image processing, so I can’t really say anything conclusive about this.

Finding your way

It is worth keeping in mind that there is a shift from digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) to mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILCs). I will not be comprehensive here. I will only provide you a quick summary of the differences between the two.

The main difference between the two is that DSLRs have optical viewfinders (OVFs), whereas MILCs have electronic viewfinders (EVFs). Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Firstly, the DLSR OVF gives you what you see through the lens, whereas the MILC EVF gives you an image of it. The former gives you less information about how your photos will end up looking, whereas the latter gives you a rendition of the final image. In my opinion, this is a matter of preference. I prefer the OVF, but there are plenty of people who prefer the EVF. Both (current) types allow you to view the scene also from a small screen behind the camera, making them very similar in this respect. This feature is generally known as live view. Secondly, DSLRs tend to have a better battery life than the MILCs. Optical viewfinders are highly advantageous in this regard as they do not drain your battery while you look through the viewfinder, while you compose your image. Thirdly, MILCs tend to be smaller and lighter than the DSLRs as they do not need a mirror box and a chunky pentaprism on top of the camera. Fourthly, MILCs tend to be more suitable to videography than DLSRs.

There are, of course, also cameras that only have a screen in the back. These cameras are typically fairly compact, which gives them the advantage over DSLRs and MILCs. To achieve that compactness, they also tend to have fixed lenses, which simply means that you cannot change the lens. This is a disadvantage. The Ricoh GR series is a good example of these kinds of cameras.

To be fair, it is, in my opinion, a bit pointless to compare different types of cameras in order judge which of them is the best type of camera. They all come with their advantages and disadvantages. For example, compact cameras are purposely compact, which allows them to be used in certain ways. I own a Ricoh GR because it packs punch. It is light and it gets the job done. It is also very discreet, unlike larger cameras that draw attention once you take them out of your camera bag or backpack. Is it a perfect camera? No, it is not. It cannot do what my DSLRs can do. It certainly lacks versatility.

Other things to keep in mind

A camera is more than just the sensor or the viewfinder. Build quality might not affect your photos, but it does affect the way you use the camera. Plastic is plastic, whereas metal is metal. You can feel the difference. Plastic is, of course, lighter than metal, but, in my experience, it also feels like plastic. All my DSLRs have had a steel chassis and plastic and/or magnesium alloy shell on that chassis, which is why I have never really worried about durability. Then again, I handle my cameras with care. I pay for my cameras, so I treat them well.

Build quality is, however, more than just the materials used to house the camera sensor. Weather resistance is something that makes a difference if you take photos outdoors. While I generally do not take photos in harsh weather conditions, for example in heavy rain, proper weather sealing is useful to have. If you happen to be somewhere where it is, for example, raining all the time, you might end up waiting forever for a sunny day if your camera does not have weather sealing. Otherwise invest in an umbrella and avoid windy days.

Camera ergonomics is also something that is often overlooked. There is no right or wrong to this as different camera bodies work better for different people as all hands are not the same. My advice is to feel the camera in your hands before buying it, if possible. Camera bodies are made for right-handed people, which means that the camera grip is going to be on the right-hand side. Get a good grip of the camera with your right hand. The point here is to get a feel of the camera, how well you can grasp it. While this will not affect the image quality, a good grip is a good grip. This might not be on the top of your list, I understand that, but it makes a world of difference to handle a camera that suits your hands as opposed to handling a camera that suits no one’s hands. In my experience, there are a lot of cameras that have poorly designed grips. It is, as if, they just went with whatever, instead of designing it and testing it on actual people. I also recommend testing how well your right-hand fingers can reach the various buttons and dials while gripping the camera. If your thumb and index fingers can reach them while maintaining a good grip, great. If not, not so great. This is also something that is often ignored by the manufacturers, as if none ever stopped for a moment to point how impractical the design is for the photographer.

Related to ergonomics, bigger is also not always simply better. Large cameras tend to be heavy, which means carrying them around is going to be a chore. At first it may seem that you should simply get the biggest and the best performing camera, but, in my experience, handling a big camera is dreadful. Moreover, having to carry a heavy camera and heavy lenses is also dreadful.

Stabilization might not be the most important thing in a camera body as photographers have managed to do just fine without it. Some cameras have in-body image stabilization (IBIS), which helps you when you are in a pinch, when you have to shoot handheld with low shutters speeds. The sensor basically floats in the body, moving around, which allows it to be fixed in place, while any the movement caused by your hands is countered by that float. In my experience, IBIS does work quite well, as intended, but don’t expect it to work wonders. It has its limits. You still have to stay as still as possible. In good lighting IBIS will not do anything for you, but it is still a nice feature to have. You would think that there is enough light wherever you happen to be, but that is often not the case, which means that you will need to make some compromises. You can bump up the sensor sensitivity to get a faster shutter speed, but that IBIS might be just the thing that makes that unnecessary. IBIS might also be available in the camera video mode, which is where, in my opinion, it really helps you to get good footage.

Memory card slots might seem like something that is not even worth mentioning, but if you really need to make sure that you accomplish what you set out to do, having dual memory card slots is important. Why? Well, I have only had one memory card fail on me during operation, corrupting the data. It was not the end of the world, but I did end up losing something that I could not photograph again as I was covering an event. Having two memory card slots allows you to save the photos on both cards, so that if one of them fails, corrupting the data, you still have a backup card. I would say that in research this kind of redundancy is something you should take into consideration and prioritize it over many other features.

Ignore the buzz

If there is something that you should be aware of, it is marketing. The manufacturers want you to buy their products, not the products of some other manufacturers. The differences are often minute between the manufacturers, but, of course, it is not in their best interest to tell you that. They like to throw a lot of jargon and impressive numbers at you, to make sure that you are impressed by their products. Do not be fooled by that.

The manufacturers used to emphasize the megapixels, but I would say that is no longer the case. Now they like to boast on things like the backscreen resolution, not in a way that makes any sense, indicating the resolution like we do with TV and computer screens, like 1920×1080, but in a way that makes no sense, whatsoever, indicating how many millions of dots there are on that screen. For example, 920 000 dots means that the screen resolution is meager 640×480, which is old school VGA resolution. The backscreen of my latest DSLR has just a bit over one million dots, which may seem to be impressive, being over a million, but that is still in the VGA territory. To be clear, that is fine, as most work on the photos is done on a computer screen and not on such a tiny screen.

Bottom line

I did not cover everything that is relevant to buying a camera body. Most importantly, I glossed over the selection of lenses, which vary, brand by brand, as does the price of those lenses and their compability with older camera bodies. I left that out as I believe that it warrants a separate and a more dedicated discussion. There are also many features, such as frames per second (FPS), high dynamic range (HDR), pixel shift, horizon correction, interval shooting, exposure bracketing, averaging, that I did not even mention. All of these do, of course, matter. I did not, however, go through them as they are only important to the extent that you have use for such features. In most cases you will not be using them and therefore I did not cover them.