Living with Photography: DSLR Quest

By Norman Chan

So I bought my first personal DSLR camera. This is both exciting and scary, but mostly expensive.

Hey guys, sorry for no column last week. It was a busy week with a little bit of travel, and as it turns out, quite an eventful one for my life as a photographer. Let's cut to the chase: I bought a DSLR. (This is what happens when I don't consult you guys for a week.) What was supposed to be a drawn out quest to find the perfect DSLR for me over the course of this year was unexpectedly cut short when I made an impulsive (but well-informed) purchase. These things seem to happen a lot. Specifically, I bought a Canon 6D, which just arrived over the weekend. So what does that mean for you and me? It means we have a LOT to talk about.

Let's start by recapping this short-lived DSLR Quest, and where I was at when I began seriously thinking about it. I have been using a compact mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor for over a year and a half. I love that system for many reasons, including excellent image quality, relative portability, easy of handling, standout features (articulating screen, focus peaking, programmable controls, etc), but most of all, affordability. You can buy a mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor for $500 these days, which is an incredible value considering the type of photos you can squeeze out of it. And that's the important part--that it's a great (and I would dare say essential) stepping stone from shooting photos with cheaper fixed-lens cameras and automatic settings to interchangeable lenses and manual control. If you're buying your first post-smartphone camera today, a compact mirrorless camera is the way to go.

I also don't think I've exhausted my compact camera yet, nor am I completely adept with it. Shooting in full manual or shutter priority modes are still just within grasp, and I'm still tinkering with settings like white balance, RAW editing, and shooting video. Part of why I adore my NEX-C3 is that its awesome potential isn't just handed to you--you have to coax crisp and clear photos out of it through hard work and practice. Like any camera, its limitations can be overcome through skill and sheer force of will, as my obsession with long exposure/low ISO shooting can attest. That's why I'm not going to ditch that camera any time soon. There's still much more to do with it, and many more conversations to be had about using it. Mirrorless cameras are a class of their own.

But there are some people in the photography community who believe that mirrorless camera system will inevitably replace DSLRs. It's comparable to the mobile vs. PC debate--mirrorless camera acolytes say we're headed for a post-DSLR world. Cameras like the Fuji X100 and Sony SLT-A99 push the limits of what cameras without mirrors can be, packing big sensors and fast processors into unconventional body designs. I'm not sure where I fall in this camp, but I know that you can't make a call without being informed and having lived in both worlds. And while I have used DSLRs in the past (Canon 30 and 40D), neither were full-frame cameras. If I was going to make an "upgrade" from a mirrorless camera system to a DSLR, going from a micro 4/3 or APS-C sensor to a full-frame one is the biggest change I could make. It's a different learning curve that runs parallel to that of a compact camera, with some lessons that overlap but many more that will have to be learned from scratch.

Make no mistake--buying a new DSLR is not an easy decision. Spending $2000 on a single piece of consumer electronics rarely is. There are so many considerations to take into account before clicking the "buy" button, and many more considerations that newly become part of your world after that purchase is made. I'm just experiencing those now: everything from high-quality (and high-priced) lenses, camera bags, tripods, filters, straps, flashes, grey cards, and light meters are now part of my world. Owning a DSLR is a serious commitment. To take it seriously involves time, energy, and yep, lots of money. Before anyone buys a DSLR--let alone a full-frame one--they should ask themselves if it's something they really need (defining that is a whole other discussion), and whether they can commit to making the most out of it with their resources. For me, that answer was yes.

So let's get to how I went about making my decision, and why the 6D ended up being my only real option.

Choosing a DSLR camera body is actually not as difficult as it sounds, especially in the full-frame market. Because of how segmented products lines are these days, there are actually only a few things you have to figure out before the decision is basically made for you. For me, it boiled down to: how much I wanted to spend and which lens ecosystem I wanted to be in.

Regarding the first question, everyone I talked to recommended that I not worry about buying the best camera body and save my money for good lenses. Lenses will last you a lifetime, while high-end camera bodies are refreshed every four to five years. It's like buying a gaming PC--I'd rather invest in a good monitor and upgrade my video card every few years than be stuck with a low resolution monitor that won't make the most out of next year's GPU. And the most I wanted to spend on a camera body was $2000, knowing that more money would be spent on lenses eventually. A year ago, you would have struggled to get a full-frame camera with a $2000 budget, but two interesting developments happened at the end of 2012 that changed the market. Namely, Canon and Nikon each releasing an "entry-level" full-frame DSLR. With $2000, I could buy Canon's 6D, Nikon's D600, or Canon's now-discontinued 5D Mark II. (Canon's 5D Mark III, Nikon's D800, and Sony's SLT-A99 are all well reviewed, but too expensive.)

Even though the D600 and 6D target the same customers, they are very different animals with very different strengths and weaknesses. In the past week, I've read almost every single high-profile review of both cameras and browsed through dozens of forum threads. And unsurprisingly, there is no consensus about which camera is "better". The 6D shares the incredible high image-quality of the 5D Mark III, including amazing high ISO photos. The D600 is packed with more manual controls and has features like a built-in flash, dual memory card slots, and moire-free video. The 6D focuses better in lower light. The D600 has a higher frame rate. The 6D has a smaller LCD. The D600's LCD has fewer pixels. The 6D only has a paltry 11 auto-focus points, and only one cross-type phase-detect point. The D600 has sensor dust issues. The 6D has built-in Wi-Fi and GPS. The D600 has a headphone jack. I could go on and on.

But at that point, the decision was almost made up for me. Deciding between Canon and Nikon boils down to choosing a lens ecosystem rather than comparing specific camera models. And even though I owned neither EF nor FX glass, I have more friends who own Canon cameras (including Adam) and have more access to Canon lenses than I would Nikon lenses. I wanted to be able to make use of a new camera without immediately spending thousands on lenses by tapping into the resources available to me. And when it came to deciding between a 6D or a discounted 5D Mark II, I went with the newer model to be able to test features like built-in Wi-Fi that I believe will be standard over the next generation of cameras. Better to have experience with the newer technology so I can make informed recommendations. Always thinking about you guys.

So with the 6D's reported capabilities and shortcomings in mind, the decision was actually whether to buy the camera or hold off until the next generation. In other words, I was asking myself if I could live with the limitations of the 6D's unimpressive autofocus system. But hold on, limitations aren't a bad thing. As with my mirrorless camera, the 6D isn't perfect. Great photos aren't handed to you. Photographers have to find ways to apply skill and technique to overcome technical deficiencies. That challenge is an exciting prospect.

And I've been having a ton of fun with it so far, especially with its video capabilities. Just check out this still from a test video I shot today of our office set:

The image quality is flabbergasting.

I should also note that I didn't buy the 6D kit with the 24-105mm f/4 L lens that Canon bundles for $2400. Though it's a well-regarded lens, I wanted to do research on my own to build out a lens collection from scratch. The first lens I bought was actually the Sigma 50mm f/1.4. Many people buy Canon 50mm f/1.8 (aka the nifty fifty) as their first lens because it's so affordable (~$110), and Canon's own 50mm f/1.4 is apparently excellent for its price as well (~$330). The Sigma is actually more expensive and a physically larger lens, but reviews peg it as having better bokeh because of its 9-blade diaphragm. So far it's great. But I'm already on the hunt for my next lens. If you own EF glass, let me know what you have and what you're happy with! There is still so much to discuss, so I'll see you all next week!