Living with Photography: DSLR Quest

Created by norman on Feb. 26, 2013, 12:15 a.m. Last post by taperoo 6 years, 11 months ago.

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!

  • There's one problem I have with this column, Norm.

    DSLRs aren't all $1000+! You can get a perfectly good Nikon or Canon entry level DSLR for CHEAPER than the Sony NEX cameras! Will it be as good as a D600/6D? No, of course not, but it's just as good, if not better than the NEX series in every way except portability and the "newness" factor.

    A Nikon D3100 is $450 on Amazon right now. That makes it cheaper than the NEX when you purchased it and cheaper than the current NEX cameras.

    The Nikon takes all Nikon mount lenses. There's only one catch, it only autofocuses on AF-S and AF-I lenses. THe Sony cameras won't autofocus with ANY Nikon lens, and a photographer invests in his glass, not his body. The body will last a few years, the glass lasts as long as it is well taken care of. This means that in three years when you upgrade to a D600 equivalent, all your lenses still work and most of them will autofocus, even if they might not have on your old D3100.

    These entry level cameras also have the same size sensor as an intermediate DSLR and the NEX series, you aren't getting swindled on the sensor just because it's a beginner's camera.

    The Nikon has some nice tricks up its sleeves, Nikon puts the Active D lighting tech they developed for their high end cameras into the D3100 entry level camera, meaning it works better in low light and high contrast situations where details may get lost in shadows.

    The nikon also lets the photographer have as much or as little control as they want. You can go full manual settings, or you can swap between the pre-programmed presets just like on a point and shoot or NEX camera. Manual focus is an option with any lens even if it supports autofocus.

    I realize I'm using a lot of Nikon specific examples, but that's because I've got a D3100, not a Canon. I'm sure most of this applies to the entry level Canon cameras as well,

  • @Brent said:

    <snip>

    Except he pretty deliberately stated he wanted to go full-frame with it; moving to an APS-C or equivalent size sensor in a DSLR would have been mostly a sidegrade -- a step into the world of full-size lenses, and with it, a jump into the larger body styles, but aside from interface, the change wouldn't have been a large upgrade. He's getting great shots with the mirrorless. Full-size, while more expensive, really starts to let you get the most out of your glass. Using the NEX as Norm did for over a year there was effectively his crash course in "proper" photography practices (full control over every shot); if full-frame is budgetable, the advantages are there. It's a pretty big jump.

  • I'm so excited for you Norm and so jealous! Photography really is an expensive hobby.

    Also, you probably meant Nikon D600, not 600D (600D is a Canon)... the names are confusing.

    Edit:

    It is weird comparing the Canon 6D and Nikon D600. The Nikon's got higher resolution but lower ISO. The Nikon has 39 focus points and the 6D only 11. Other than that they are mostly the same, similiar weight, size, etc. That's kind of weird.

  • Agree with Brent. This is one of my pet peeves - refusal to recognize low price alternatives. There are always ways to get what you want without playing full retail. You can buy used, you can buy refurbished, you can buy clearance. In my case I bought a rebel XS with 18-55 and 55-250 lenses for $300 refurb from canons website. This is once a year pricing so no it's not normal but still, 6D is starting at the super high end of the scale and if you don't even know how to fully use all of the available controls on the camera (ISO, aperture, shutter, focus) then why are you spending all that money? The camera isn't going to figure that out for you.

    Sorry for the rant but as I said, thats just a huge pet peeve of mine.
  • @jrock3x8: If you want a full-frame DSLR (as Norm did), APS-C cameras are not a valid alternative. They are not a substitute for full-frame. The only lower priced alternative would be an older full-frame model, like a 5D mk 1.

  • @Artso said:

    Also, you probably meant Nikon D600, not 600D (600D is a Canon)... the names are confusing.

    derp, you're right :) fixed!

  • Congrats, Norm. I bought the D600 back in October, before the 6D was shipping, knowing I was comfortable with Nikon having owned a D90 for a few years. Now I am struggling with the sensor dust issue while also enjoying the advantages you mentioned that the D600 has over the 6D. One of the advantages, that is not specific to the current bodies but rather to Nikon as a whole, is the different selection of lenses. My main lens is the Nikon 28-300. With its huge zoom range, this lens is good for everything, except for the really wide end. Canon does not have anything like it at a reasonable price. The zoom range comes with similarly huge weight, though. The D600 with 28-300 weighs almost twice as much as the D90 with 18-105 zoom. My wife still uses that camera, and whenever I pick it up I get an almost-regretful feeling about switching to full frame. What I do then is put on my 50 mm f/1.8 and I'm happy again. Looking at the pictures from my D600 at 300 mm also convinces my I did right getting this camera body and lens combination. Every single one of the 24 megapixels is sharp at 300 mm when shooting subjects hundreds of meters away!

    If I had gone Canon, I would have bought the 70-200/4L IS USM, which I believe has excellent performance at a decent price. For wide, I would check out the 17-40/4L USM.

    The Nikon 16-35 ultra wide zoom will arrive at my doorstep tomorrow. I have some exciting ideas for utilising the weird affects that 16 mm gives when getting really close to subjects.

  • Looking forward to hear/read more of your DSLR adventures. Also glad you won't abandon your mirrorless, as that is the type of camera I might afford myself pretty soon.

  • Loyd, those are some great shots with a bit of Lord of the rings-feeling to them. I did not know that Nikon had acknowledged the sensor dust issue. I have used a vacuum cleaner and blown with a rubber bulb at my sensor without getting all the spots off. There is one in the upper left corner that is visible already at f/8, now that I know where to look for it. I've been hesitant to send the camera in, since new particles seem to be released from the mirror or shutter or whatever is causing the problem. Now I might find it worthwhile to have it serviced. There are reports that the particles stop accumulating after some time, and I might be there now, since I haven't seen any new ones for a wile.

    By the way, it is great to see you back at Tested. I'm a regular PC World reader, but Tested is a more interactive experience where we see a much broader Loyd with interesting stuff about board games and photography to share.

    @loydcase said:

    As a D600 issue, I feel your pain regarding the sensor oil/dust problem. At least Nikon's acknowledged that now, and is repairing / cleaning for free (including paying for shipping) as part of the warranty service.

    I carried the D600 to New Zealand in December, along with the 16-35 f/4, 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-300 f/4.5-5.6. Having come from a D7000, the camera was instantly comfortable. I had a great time with it, and got some great shots. So work through the dust problem by contacting Nikon.

  • @mrasmus said:

    @Brent said:

    <snip>

    Except he pretty deliberately stated he wanted to go full-frame with it; moving to an APS-C or equivalent size sensor in a DSLR would have been mostly a sidegrade -- a step into the world of full-size lenses, and with it, a jump into the larger body styles, but aside from interface, the change wouldn't have been a large upgrade. He's getting great shots with the mirrorless. Full-size, while more expensive, really starts to let you get the most out of your glass. Using the NEX as Norm did for over a year there was effectively his crash course in "proper" photography practices (full control over every shot); if full-frame is budgetable, the advantages are there. It's a pretty big jump.

    My point was that he should've started with the low price DSLRs rather than the NEX in the first place, not that he should've gone for a lower price DSLR instead of the Canon he just bought

  • @Brent: Ah, apologies, misunderstood you.

    I agree, for the most part -- that's the frugal thing to do, as upgrading the body requires no lens transition (you don't have to build up a second collection of glass). That said, Norm's gotten good utility out of that NEX camera, and I suspect it's helped him figure out his needs.

    To look back now and say "shoulda gone with a DSLR to begin with" presumes that he would've done as extensive day-carry with a full-on DSLR as he did with the relatively pocketable mirrorless. I know five different people who were interested in getting serious into photography, went the DSLR route, and then it sat on a shelf because it's impractical for most people to shoot that. I've started recommending NEX and other mirrorless cams to my friends when they express interest, simply because it's feasible for them to carry. The best camera is the one you have with you; the way I see it, the more you have a camera with you, the more shots you take, and the further sucked into the hobby you get. If necessary, the mirrorless models are holding decent value -- easy to liquidate it and afford another lens or two, if that's the issue.

    At this point, I'd say Norm made the right jump.

  • @loydcase: Wow Loyd, those are some amazing shots. Do you have a personal blog/tumblr/whatever besides Improbable Insights (which you have sadly abandoned. I really enjoyed your posts when you were actively blogging a few years ago) where you post photos?

  • Congrats Norm! You have taken your first step into a larger world. I'm very much an amateur photographer and only get to shoot once or twice a year, but this is a hobby that can literally change how you view the world. Regarding recommended EF lenses, the "holy trinity" of zoom lenses is aptly named: 16-35 f’/2.8 L II, 24-70 f’/2.8 L II, and the 70-200 f’/2.8 L IS II. All are top of the line and will each cost nearly as much as your body. I only own one unfortunately :(

    A couple shots from a roadtrip I took. Happy shooting!

  • @protocolsnow: that 24-70 f/2.8 looks so good! ahh but can't spend that kind of money right now.

  • some days I feel like I'm the only one who actually understood what his economics professor was talking about.

  • I'm holding out to see what rumours about the fabled 7Dmk2 are true before I make any large purchases. From the sounds of it sounds like a the *secret* successor to the 1Dmk4 which is something I could totally get on board with.

    If not that I'll probably just save money pennies for a 5Dmk3 or go hunting for a gently used 1Dmk3 / mk4.

    I could also really use a 24-70 f2.8 II as well... Having the 16-35 & 70-200 makes me miss having something to fill that gap (50 f1.4 helps a bit).

  • Well, my T2i feels completely inadequate now. Thanks a lot!

  • @norman I know I'm late to this parade because the talk about this podcast mentions this camera, but I was going to read this article and respond to it before the podcast, but that has come out and I'm going to echo the crowd. Your mirrorless cameras are good for the pocket, but when you want a real picture you look through the viewfinder. I'm an asshole I know. When you're actually holding the camera to your eye it's a whole different world than when you're holding it 1-3 feet from your body and you can actually use Joe McNally's technique for holding a camera still from his book, which acctually works.

    The 6D seems like a good camera for people who never want to use a flash unfortunately it has a horrible sync speed and if you want to get into some strobist.com techniques you'll probably be better served by your Sony. You should know manual settings are always best, shutter speed is best for when you want action a specific way, aperture wide open makes things look like magazines when you can pull the stuff you want into sharp focus. If you want practice doing panning and stuff like that head to the race track like I did, horses racing I captured this picture for practice but it turned out awesome. Horse racing pans more slowely than cars so those streaks are easier to come by.

    Again, you need to check out both Strobist.com and Tips from the Top Floor.

  • I still rock my D40 when I feel like going light.


  • Lens choice wise ? My Kit consists of a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 USM L, Canon EF 50m f/1.8 MKII and a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 USM L (there are better wide angle L lenses). That covers all the bases pretty much for what I need. Even though I have APS-C bodies I went for L lenses as I will eventually move upto Full Frame. Saves me money later and I can enjoy the Quality of L glass now. I love my nifty fifty, the first lens I bought for my first DSLR (400D) way back in 2006 or was it 2007.