My 2 Cents For New DSLR Buyers: Lenses

Naming of the lenses is as follows: “Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS”

Which translates into: EF (mount) 70-200mm (zoom) f/2.8(apperture)L (series) IS (image stabilization)

Mount. Canon has two types of semi-compatible mounts EF and EF-S:

  • EF mount is compatible with 35mm (aka full-frame) chips and film cameras. All of Canon cameras can be paired up with this lense.
  • EF-S mount is a digital-only  mount, and EF-S lenses can be only mounted on Rebels and 30D-like cameras, but not the film cameras or top of the line full-frame cameras. This has to do with the fact that digital chips (due to the their cost of production) are smaller than 35 mm film frames, this is why on a film camera, human eye equivalent is 75-80mm focal length, while on digitals, it’s 50mm. If one were to actually mount an EF-S lense on 35mm equivalent camera and take a picture, the picture would be cropped from all sides. Here is a link to explanation of the chip size. Here is a good write-up by a real pro. The top of the line 1D and 5D cameras cannot use EF-S lenses because their chips are bigger.

Zoom. Zoom numbers tell you what range it covers.  For a typical DSLR (with a APS-C sized chip):

  • < 40mm – wide angle and super wide angle – the picture include “more” than your eye sees from the same position. The objects will appear smaller.
  • 40 – 70mm – “normal” lens – roughly equals to the focal range of human eye, you’ll see subjects 1:1
  • > 70mm  – tele lens. the resulting image will be “zoomed in” with details standing out

To estimate the equivalent of the classification above for the full-frame, multiply the numbers by factor of 1.6. For larger medium (medium format cameras, for example). Here is more info.

If there is only one number, the lens you are looking at is a prime lens. More about them below.

ISImage Stabilization system (Nikon’s equivalent is VR). IS is a special gyroscope system that attempts to compensate for small movement of the camera when shooting in low conditions, this allows taking sharper images.  Here is more information.

L Series – L is the designation for pro-level lenses from Canon. These lenses have the the best optics there is, pass the most light (so you can shoot in darker conditions), and are weather/dust proof. Generally they cost a lot and can be identified by their white color (great marketing trick – look at any sport events- all you see is white lenses on the sides, where photographers are), and a red line on the barrel. Really high quality lenses, but probably not worth starting with. Careful while browsing on the website, as just looking at them makes your wallet feel lighter.

Prime vs Zoom. Prime lens has only one focal length, which  means that it doesn’t “zoom” and the only zoom that is available is “zooming with your own feet” (get closer or farther from the subject to zoom in or out).  A logical thought at this point would be “well, gee, if you have zoom lenses, why would anybody need a prime lens?” The answer is: zoom lenses due to complexity of construction do not pass as much light as primes do. And light, my dear friends, for a photographer is everything! So, it’s a trade-off of flexibility vs sharpness and ability to shoot in darker conditions. I would LOVE to have a set of prime lenses for all possible situations, but it’s impractical. It would be expensive, impractical for action shots, and would require a huge camera bag. There are good zoom lenses, such as 28-135 IS that are well built, and cover good amount of focal length for most of the applications. There are many discussions what lens set would make a good starter kit. Here, here, and here are some examples.

One lens that is worth mentioning separately is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. This is the best value in the canon lens lineup. Sure, it’s a plastic body (as opposed to metal), and it’s not as durable, but the pictures I LOVE to use it for portraits, as 1.8 aperture will create a beautiful blur.

Auto Focus vs Manual Focus. Most of the modern lenses (tilt-shifts and other exotic animals aside) have auto focus, so it’s not a question of whether or not to buy one with it. Whether or not you choose to use it is a different story. I rely on auto focus 75% of the time, and pay the price every once in a while. In 25% cases (primarily in portraits) I switch to manual.  I have a friend who uses manual focus most of the time, so every time he returns my lens (or I borrow his) I have to check the auto focus switch.

My 2 Cents For New DSLR Buyers: Camera Lineup

As I mentioned before, I am going to use Canon as a case for this series of posts, so here is the first brand-specific post.

There are 3 main classes of Canon DSLR cameras which (somewhat) correlate with their model number ( I include models current to the time of the post):

  • Rebel (aka NN0D outside of US)  – T2i (550D), T1i (500D), XSi (450D), XS (1000D) – Started in 2003 with the original Digital Rebel/300D, this line of cameras is perfect intro into Canon DSLRs. Small and light due to plastic bodies, the Rebels are compatible with the most accessories. All of the models have the “cropped” APS-C chip.
  • N0D – 50D, 60D – mid-range cameras for pros and serious amateurs. They are heavier and larger than the Rebels, but they have some weather seals, mostly metal bodies (see below), and most of the features of the top line.  Similar to the Rebels, they carry the APS-C chip.
  • ND – 1D Mark III, 1Ds Mark III, 1D Mark IV, 5D Mark II, 7D – the top of the line, creme-de-la-creme cameras for professional photographers. These cameras have the most advanced features, carry a lot of metal and are heaviest in both weight and price tag, but the price you pay gets you a camera that will work after being dropped into mud from a height of an elephant, and could be used as a melee weapon.

Nikon has a similar breakdown into classes with D3 being the flagman and D3000 being the intro.

Canon lineup seems to be drifting, and in the direction I do not really care for: the latest 60D camera, while, according to the model nomenclature, belongs to N0D line, does not have the metal body as its predecessors, such as 50D. At the same time,  up until the introduction of 7D, the delineation between the N0D and ND was quite clear with the “pro” level reserved for the 1D/5D cameras. Now, however, at almost half the price of 5D Mk II, 7D places itself closer to the N0D series. 1Ds and 5D models have the full-frame sensor, while others have cropped versions.

While some people may want to invest the most money into the best camera they can afford, in my opinion, one should also remember that the more expensive the camera body is, the more expensive the accessories. While a remote control compatible with the Rebles will cost you about $30, remote controls for the 5D Mk II will require a $700 of disposable income. Sure the more expensive remote has A LOT more features that are useful for the pro, but it all comes down to want-vs-need  in combination with sober realization of one’s current abilities as a photographer.

Additionally, there is a cost of lenses to consider. At the current state of technology, one wants to invest the most money into the “glass”, not the electronics. A good lens can serve you for a very long time, across many bodies. The picture will be only as good in terms of clarity, colors and lack of distortion, as the lowest common denominator will allow it to be, so a 1Ds Mk III with an EF 75-300 f/4.0 will make a picture only as good as the lens will allow it.

What it all comes down to? Here is what I think:

  1. Purpose, Frequency of Use, Weight, Size. If you are going to be carrying the camera chasing butterflies in the fields you probably want to start with the Rebels. The same applies if you are traveler-type with ambition to one day make it to the National Geographic, however, if you expect to be in the wild more than walking the streets of foreign cities, you probably want to start with the 50D or 60D due to their sturdiness. And while the 500 gram vs 700 gram difference may not seem significant at first, it will become obvious soon.
  2. Price of Accessories. As I mentioned above, the top line requires the top accessories and deep pockets
  3. On-board Flash. As much as we curse at it, it is used quite often, even if you soften it with a sheet of paper. 1D/5D camera bodies do not have a built in flashes, so you will have to purchase a separate flash.
  4. Video Capabilities. The newest cameras have video capabilities with a variety of quality levels spread out between the Rebel T1i with basic specs and 5D Mark II (logically) with top of the line specs  (the season finale of House MD Season 6 was shot entirely using Canon 5D Mark II).
  5. LCD Size and Brightness. On a bright sunny day outside, a bigger, crispier LCD certainly helps checking if the picture needs to be re-taken. For some people, LiveView is also important. Initially, the DSLRs had very limited LiveView capabilities, but modern cameras have addressed most of the issues. Personally, I prefer the viewfinder.

My 2 Cents For New DSLR Buyers: The Brands

Canon vs Nikon vs Sony vs Pentax vs…. Dizzy yet?

There is a holy war between the equipment fashionistas and all sides are quick to point out differences which sometimes are not even that significant, at least not on amateur level. What I have seen:

a) You DO want to put some thought into what brand you buy, as this is the brand you are likely to stay with for the next few years. Advancing slowly by buying additional accessories such as lenses one-by-one within the brand is easier than replacing all the goodies in your camera bag because you realized you are interested in a different brand. This is not to say that it’s impossible – photo equipment (especially one without quickly depreciating in value electronics) tends to have good resale value.  My first camera was Canon, I stuck with the brand, and I don’t see myself switching.

Some of the brands to consider:

  • Canon – 65 lenses, 11 camera models
  • Nikon – about 70 lenses, 9 different camera models
  • Olympus – 26 lenses, 7 camera models
  • Pentax – about 23 lenses in current lineup, 2 main camera models, but some VERY colorful variations of bodies
  • Sigma – specialize in lenses and have lenses that will fit Canon or Nikon or other brands Canon-compatible lineup alone yields 50 items, 2 camera models
  • Sony – 33 lenses, 9 camera models

b) Canon and Nikon have the most lenses and bodies in their lineups. This is not a negative nor a positive – they simply have the finest gradation of tools. Imagine having 12-color crayon set vs having 133 colors. Sure, with the 133 set you can color the tree “Jungle Green”, but for most application just a green will do. Availability of variety of choice for upgrades will only cause you to spend more time stressing about and researching what the next purchase should be.

c) User interface differs, with majority opinion that Nikon has a more intuitive one, though after using Canon for quite a while, I did not find Nikon interface intuitive at all. I would recommend going to BestBuy or similar electronics store, as they have multiple brands, and trying them yourself to get the feel (I’d shoo the reps, in 90% of cases they are clueless).

d) Backward Compatibility – Nikon brand cameras are compatible with 20-30 year old lenses, which can save you  some money. Whether or not you do it, is a different question. I would not recommend getting into bargain-seeking until you know what to look for in lenses and how to tell a good used lense from bad one. I still can’t. Some info on the topic:

e) If you have friends who have already succumbed to the allure of “pro”-looking magnesium-cowered shutter-clicking, wallet-sucking  beasts, it may be worth getting a poll of who uses what brand and going with the majority, given that you agree to share the accessories within the group. I know 4 people who also use Canons, so we can swap and borrow lenses and flashes. This saves some money, given the prices of your new hobby.

My 2 Cents For New DSLR Buyers: Intro Rambling

Recently, I had a long conversation with somebody who was considering a purchase of a DSLR. The person had certainly done their homework and many topics were covered.  At the end of the conversation I wrote up a 2600-word email with some additional info and links. Few days later another person asked me for advice on the camera (this is how it usually works, people see a camera that looks bigger/more expensive than theirs, and assume you are a pro).  Since I rarely need an excuse to start rambling and my faith in everybody’s entitlement to my opinion is unshaken and ever-growing,  I decided that I’d post some info. I hope it will help a person or two. I’m going to break things up into multiple posts for easier topical classification and digestion.

First things first, I am NOT a professional photographer – never have been, never will be. Photography is my hobby, I started in it circa 2004 when I was able to afford my first DSLR. The information I’ll post is result of my researching the topic, and my experience.

Who may find this information useful: average person who has enough disposable income to afford a DSLR and is curious about photography. Having stopped by a BestBuy or other similar store, they realize how diverse (seemingly) the jungle of photo gear is, and they are trying to find a way to start.

What to expect: basic information, summaries and links to more detailed articles.

What NOT to expect: MTF Charts, barrel distortion comparisons, discussions of which brand is better.

What will be covered: brands, model lineup (using one brand as an example), prime vs zoom, wide vs normal vs tele, accessories

How information is structured: since it’s a blog format, I’ll break up the original “essay” into posts by topics for easier digestion.

So, let the rambling commence…


OnStar Facebook

OnStar announced today that they will/may offer Facebook link via voice-to-text.

I suppose it should offer an alternative to texting while driving, but I seriously doubt that the texting audience will switch.  I wonder what the updates will look like now:

John Doe turned left

John Doe ran the red light

John Doe via OnStar: “Oh shit…”

John Doe likes Concrete Retaining Wall