Getting off Auto – Decisions Decisions

I spent some time the other day chatting to a couple of Minsmere visitors about cameras. They were interested in buying a DSLR after several years of using point & shoot cameras and wanted someone to talk to them about the various options.  That seemed as good an excuse as any to write a new GoA thread (I’m even giving this loose series its own TLA now) on what to think about when buying a camera.  If you’re interested in the earlier GoA threads, on Settings, Exposure & stuff or Post Processing, follow the links.  Normal caveats about Canon-speak (not claiming Canon’s better, just that I know more about them as that’s what I use).

Incidentally – on that whole “Which is better?” argument – any DSLR is better than 99% of photographers out there, so don’t get drawn into the debate too deeply. There are two things of importance to remember.  One - Make sure to handle the camera before buying – if it feels right in the hand you’ll use it more & that will (probably) make you a better photographer.  If it’s too heavy or feels awkward, it becomes an expensive doorstop.  Two - Remember that you’re buying into a camera system, not a camera body, so think about availability of lenses, accessories etc.  For that reason alone, Canon & Nikon win hands down – bigger choice of lenses, full support from 3rd party lens & accessory manufacturers, unlimited supply of second hand kit to help keep to a budget.  That’s not to say other makes should be avoided, just be aware of the possible limitations.

So, onwards!

Checking the WEX website today, you can spend between £289 (1300D) and £5199 (1DX2) for a Canon DSLR body (without lens). That’s a ridiculous range of money, so what are you getting for that?  What features are worth looking out for?

Well, obviously, it must be more pixels, right? Er, no, not really.  Oh, the £5k monster has 20MPixels vs the 18MPixel 1300D, but many other Canon bodies have far more – the new 54Mk4 has 30MPixel for instance.  So number of pixels is pretty much irrelevant nowadays.  Yes, there can be some benefit when cropping (the more pixels you have on your subject the better obviously), but the modernity of the sensor is far more important to getting better images than the number of pixels it contains.  So watch out for older sensor designs in cameras – you’ll likely pay a bit of a premium to get the latest sensor technology, but it’s a difference you may well notice.

Whilst talking sensors, it’s worth talking about crop & full frame (FF). The term full frame simply means a sensor that is the same size as 35mm film.  A crop sensor is a bit smaller and cameras with these sensors are generally a bit cheaper than their FF cousins.  In many ways the argument between the two is daft – 35mm film was looked down upon by those photographers using medium format (or even large format) as small & lacking detail.  But 35mm ended up winning over pretty much everybody so it became the standard reference.  Now we have generations of photographers who’ve never used film, it’s a bit strange to keep using it as the reference, but there you go!

So which is better? Well….  It depends.  Full frame is better in low light (comparing sensors from the same generation) and if you’ve come from a film background you’ll be familiar with the field of view given by a lens as it’s the same as you’d get on your old film camera.  But FF is invariably expensive and for wildlife, the crop sensor’s narrower field of view can be really useful (see earlier discussion).  If the light is decent, the extra pixels the crop camera can slap on the subject now wins the contest in my opinion.  The extra detail you get is a real benefit.  If the light is a bit iffy, the FF wins it.

As a picture is worth a thousand words - here are two images.  Same bird, same time (give or take), same lens.  First is with a FF 5D3, second on a crop 7D2.  You decide!



Why is that? Well, avoiding all the physics, if you have a 20MP FF and a 20MP crop, each pixel is bigger on the FF than the crop sensor – more signal to battle with the noise, so cleaner pictures.  If you have more light than you know what to do with, the extra pixel density of the crop gives you more details.  To keep the same pixel density you have with the crop, you need a BIG FF sensor.  Luckily, Canon give us such a thing – the 5DS/R has a 50MP FF sensor, the 7D2 a 20MP crop one.  They have the same pixel density (near enough – 62000 pixels/mm2 vs 60000 pixels/mm2).  In other words, if you are always cropping the 5DS/R, you’d probably have been better off saving the money and buying the 7D2 in the first place!  Mind you, if you can keep the ISO low and get all those 50 million pixels onto the subject matter, BOY you’ll get some detail!

So what other benefit do you get with the FF sensor. Time to enter the murky world of equivalence.  We already know that a crop sensor has an equivalent field of view of 1.6x that of full frame (so a 400mm lens on a crop is the same field of view as a 640mm lens on full frame), what is not so appreciated is that you get an equivalent depth of field too.  Avoiding all the messy maths, it means it is easier to get a shallower depth of field with a given lens on FF than on crop.  This is great for portraits where you can normally get closer or further away to get the required framing & the shallower depth of field is desirable to isolate your subject.  It’s perhaps less useful for most wildlife applications.

Where the smaller sensor size does get handy is in the world of macro, but in this world, the smaller sensor is king. Smaller sensor cameras (eg bridge cameras with their typical 5.62x crop sensor) have much smaller sensors than DSLR crop or full frame and as such, they’re great for macro shots as they tend to give a really deep depth of field.  This is useful in close up subjects – it means the bug is fully in focus!

Crop sensor cameras (because of their narrower field of view) use the centre of lenses designed for FF. As virtually every lens is sharper in the middle than around the edges, that’s really good for crop users – they’re using the best bit of the lens.

Time for refreshment, then we'll carry on....

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Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • So once you’ve decided on the sensor, what other features should you look out for?

    Number one with wildlife is probably the Autofocus.  Multiple points make it easier to obtain focus and track moving objects and cross type points are more accurate and reliable than non-cross points.  A focus point is not really a point, but lines arranged in patterns.  To focus, you need a line at right angles to the item you’re trying to focus on.  So a vertical point can focus on horizontal items in your image (the horizon maybe).  A horizontal point can focus on vertical items in your image (eg side of a building).  A cross type point (ie + shaped) can detect either horizontal or vertical items.  A dual cross type (a combination of + and X shapes) can pick up pretty well anything.  In addition to the type and number of focus points you may find more expensive cameras give you the ability to tune the AF to better suit your needs. You can tell the AF to ignore a tree in the way for a second as you’re panning a bird in flight, or tell it to react immediately something appears a bit closer to you.

    A high frame rate (ie number of shots per second) can be very useful, especially for fast moving wildlife where it’s impossible to catch a fleeting event through your ability to hit the button at precisely the right moment, though the temptation to “spray and pray” should be resisted where possible.  Apart from filling up your memory card with loads of near identical shots, it will annoy everyone in the hide with you with the continuous machinegun rattle!  There will normally be a limitation on the number of shots you can take in one go as well.  This buffer depth can be as small as 3 or 4 RAW shots on a lower spec camera, 20 or more on something higher priced.  Whilst talking about shutters, the sound it makes can be quite important.  Look out for silent (or near silent) shooting modes which are great when you’re being discreet, or simply to avoid annoying people.  Finally on this subject, see what range of shutter speeds are supported.  Higher spec cameras normally go up to 1/8000 sec, lower spec 1/4000 is more likely.  To be honest, the number of times you use these incredibly high speeds is limited, but worth being aware of what you’re getting.

    Batteries can be quite important.  A bigger capacity battery will last much longer than a smaller one – and DSLRs are generally much better than EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens) types (Micro 4/3 are EVIL).  Low hundreds of shots (2-400) seem common on a battery charge for an EVIL camera, I can often get 2000 or so off my DSLRs – so do some research if you don’t want to carry round extra batteries.

    Connectivity is becoming common in cameras now, with Wifi, Near Field Comms, GPS all appearing in various models.  Is that useful?  Very much a personal choice.  If you want to shoot in jpg & upload your picture to Facebook immediately, then you’ll need Wifi.  Wifi also means you can control your camera from an App on your phone – which may be useful to you.  GPS allows geo-tagging of images, though it’s often best turned off (it chews up the battery).  There have been high profile cases where people have inadvertently leaked the location of protected birds using this too – though it can also be handy to prove people were breaking the law shooting Schedule 1 birds!

    Do you want to use video?  I gloss over video as I shoot stills more than anything, but modern DSLRs are very capable in this area with HD, 4K and various bells & whistles.  Check for sockets on the camera for external microphones and the like, not all have them.  Better screens, some touch sensitive, some flippy & twistable, all have their plusses and minuses.  Larger bodies tend to have more buttons & wheels which can help the ergonomics when using the camera, but may confuse you if you’re not used to them.  The build quality on more expensive models is generally better and they’ll have a metal alloy body under the plastic, more weather sealing and the like.  The 1D range are handy substitutes for a hammer should you require one, their build quality is so good.  Do you need the ability to stand in the rain and shoot, do you need the longer shutter life?  All personal choices.  Remember, this is photography, there are very few rights and wrongs, only opinions! 

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    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • In reply to Whistling Joe:

    A timely thread Joe as I'm thinking of upgrading my 7D at the end of the year and was torn between the 7D MK2 and the 5D and I now know I'll stick with my first instinct and go for the 7D mk2.

    It is the lenses I'm struggling with, from the 100-400 mk2 +TC versus the top of the range 100-400 with built in TC, also the 500mm prime versus the f2.8 400mm.

    Saying that I'm going to be limited with weight with the walking I do.

    My Flickr photos

  • In reply to Alan.:

    Finally, what about lenses?

    In many ways, lens choice is more important than the camera body. Over the years, it’s not uncommon to update a body whilst keeping a lens, so it’s worth understanding what you’re getting.  There’s some handy info in this thread, discussing telephoto lenses, and on an earlier GoA one, but I’ll summarise some things to look for here.

    As with sensors, newer designs are frequently better than older ones. Generally speaking, newer optics and better coatings make a big difference to the final result – and it’s not always about buying the big white lens to get top quality images.  Many of the newer consumer grade lenses have excellent optical characteristics, so don’t automatically reach for the credit card before considering some of the alternatives.  So what should you look out for?

    Focal length. For wildlife, often the longer the better, 400-600mm is ideal (for birds at least).  Prime lenses (fixed focal length) are often sharper than zooms; their design is simpler & lighter, but modern zooms are so good, you’re often having to pixel-peep to tell them apart.  Zooms are certainly more flexible, but if you do lots of low-light work, primes are available in bigger apertures than zooms and may be your best choice.  You can spend some serious money on big primes though, so make sure you’re sitting down before looking at the pricelist.

    Maximum aperture. f/2.8 aperture lenses are wonderful, f/4 great, f/5.6 pretty good and f/6.3 are fine. The bigger the max aperture the more light you have to play with, which helps the camera AF better & allows the addition of teleconverters without resorting to manual focus (check your camera's capability to, so will AF at f/8, some will not).  Once again, price is going to be the sticky subject here – an f/5.6 400mm lens is an awful lot cheaper than an f/2.8 one!

    Autofocus speed. AF can be achieved via USM (fast), STM (nearly as fast) or Micromotor (slow).  Faster AF is key for in-flight shots, so worth getting if possible.  3rd party lenses (eg Tamron/Sigma) will generally be slower to focus than Canon (or Nikon etc), even if they have AF with an equivalent technology (Sigma HSM = Canon USM) as they have to reverse engineer the AF algorithms.  So if you need the fastest possible AF, stick to the original manufacturer.

    Stabilistation. IS in Canon terms, OS in others.  Stabilises the shot, meaning you can shoot at slower speeds than normal.  Very useful (almost essential if you shoot handheld a lot).  4 stops stabilisation is pretty normal now, older lenses may have 2 stops worth (explanation of stops in earlier thread).

    Minimum focus. Can you get close to your subject and still focus?  If you can, it can be really handy, especially for insects.

    Build quality. More robust, more weather sealing, often heavier.  This is the world of those oh so lovely white Canon lenses we all drool over!

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    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • In reply to Alan.:

    Alan W said:

    A timely thread Joe as I'm thinking of upgrading my 7D at the end of the year and was torn between the 7D MK2 and the 5D and I now know I'll stick with my first instinct and go for the 7D mk2.

    It is the lenses I'm struggling with, from the 100-400 mk2 +TC versus the top of the range 100-400 with built in TC, also the 500mm prime versus the f2.8 400mm.

    Saying that I'm going to be limited with weight with the walking I do.

    If money is no object, the 200-400 with built in TC is the better lens.... sometimes.  If you're walking a lot, it's less convenient than the 100-400, though obviously better and easier when adding the TC (flick of a switch vs swapping lenses around).  Big difference in price though - £1.8k vs £8.6k checking WEX.  The big primes are huge fun, but it then becomes really important to know what you're after.  The 400/2.8 gives you access to the extra-sensitive AF points, but if you're always using it with a TC, why not simply get the 600mm prime?  The 500mm prime is (relatively) cheaper and lighter, but you're still likely to be using it with a hefty tripod and gimbal head & that makes it less practical for walking.  If weight's important, clearly the 100-400 wins hands down and truth be told, if you're looking at spending the price of a small car on a big lens, you're probably going to add that 100-400 into the shopping cart as well, for the occasions the Big White isn't practical!

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    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • In reply to Whistling Joe:

    Thanks for that Joe, I was going to allow myself to splash out if I could justify it to myself (that was without going to the shop to test the weight out on them), I normally carry my gear on a monopod and only use a tripod when sat watching the Kingfishers.

    So practicalities would still be pointing me to the 100-400 mk2.

    My Flickr photos

  • In reply to Alan.:

    Lol,  I need to go lie down for a while after reading all this and trying to digest everything !  thanks WJ.

     It's always a difficult decision choosing the right body and lens combo and as WJ says, once the pro's and con's are ironed out then it comes down to  personal preference and what you type of photography you are doing;   I didn't want too much heavy gear to lug (nor did Mike ! )  and so I opted for the 100-400mkii and 1.4 TC  and can honestly say that I am totally delighted with its performance on both the 7Dii and the 5Diii and the significant improvement of sharp detail when compared to my previous 70-300mm.      The AF is staggeringly fast to lock on and the majority of birders I have met around various reserves have had the exact same combo of 7Dii & 1.4 extender;  I have not encountered one single person that hasn't sung this combo's praises for wildlife photography !     Where I find it hardest is dealing with the lack of light in our British climate so those f2.8 primes are always a tempting prospect albeit when you get to the longer focal lengths the weight becomes an issue.      

    You should have been at Birdfair Alan, you could have played with all the various combinations till your hearts content  lol    Going into a good camera store and trying out the combos can really give you a feel for the differences in performance and of course the weight;    the 300mm f2.8 prime felt so light (at around 2.4 kilo) compared to the very heavy 400mm which felt like a lead brick; think the new 500mm the chap said was lighter than the 400mm  - but don't quote me on that as I haven't checked the stats and I may have misheard trying to take in all the bells, whistles and prices  !            

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    Regards, Hazel 

    "Each kindness shown to birds or men is sure to flutter back again" 

  • In reply to Alan.:

    Alan W said:

    Thanks for that Joe, I was going to allow myself to splash out if I could justify it to myself (that was without going to the shop to test the weight out on them), I normally carry my gear on a monopod and only use a tripod when sat watching the Kingfishers.

    So practicalities would still be pointing me to the 100-400 mk2.

    Alan, you could consider the 400mm f4 DO lens, which is only 2.1kilo, so substantially lighter than some of the bigger lenses. This might be much more suited to your walkabout style. It would become a 520 f5.6 with a 1.4 TC and you could even push it to a 800 f8 with a 2x TC. Its still a big splash but not as much as the 200 - 400 or the 400 f2.8 - you could treat yourself to a 200 f2.8 as a supplementary lens and still have change from the other 2 (-:). When i made the decision to buy my 500 f4, it wasn't the extra distance that was the major factor, it was the extra full stop of light (remembering that each full stop lost halves the available light)  and I think/hope it was worth the extra. 

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    Cheers,

    Bob

    My Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobs_retired_now/

  • In reply to Bobs_Still_Retired:

    Bob makes a good point regarding the f/4 DO lens.  The original (by reputation) was a bit iffy with colours & contrast, but the Mk2 is meant to be a huge step forward and it certainly works out more compact and lighter than some of the other options.  One day there'll probably be a 600mm DO (presumably a 500 too), I'm sure a prototype was displayed at one of the photography shows in the past year.  Mind you, it'll likely have a price to match, but there's little doubt that smaller/lighter is the way manufacturers will move

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    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • In reply to Whistling Joe:

    Thanks Bob and Joe for that info it is certainly going to come down to weight (I've done 7 miles this morning just wandering around my patch) but that f/4 400 doesn't look too heavy at 2.1 kilo and with the Mk2 100-400 at 1.7 kilos it looks like it will come down to either one those two.

    My Flickr photos

  • In reply to Alan.:

    Alan W said:

    Thanks Bob and Joe for that info it is certainly going to come down to weight (I've done 7 miles this morning just wandering around my patch) but that f/4 400 doesn't look too heavy at 2.1 kilo and with the Mk2 100-400 at 1.7 kilos it looks like it will come down to either one those two.

    at the kind of money for the 400 f4, it might be worth considering a weekend hire -  £120 for a 3 days from lenses for hire.

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    Cheers,

    Bob

    My Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobs_retired_now/