Hasselblad X1D hands on

With the upcoming release of X1D, Hasselblad is doing a huge leap in the progress of photographic technology. It is not only the smallest, hence most portable, medium format camera, but also the most affordable. X1D will be sold for “just” 9000 $, i.e. for the price of a professional SLR body. From now on a studio photographer whose budget is limited and for whom a Hasselblad H6 have always been out of reach will be able to choose between the usual Canon or Nikon DSLR and Hasselblad. I am sure, for many Hasselblad X1D will be a winner.

To remind of capabilities of this new camera here is a list of the most important technical parameters:

  • 50MP 43.8 x 32.9mm CMOS Sensor
  • 16-Bit Color, 14-Stop Dynamic Range
  • ISO 100-25600, Shooting Up to 2.3 fps
  • 1.7 – 2.3 frames per second
  • Central Shutter: 60 min to 1/2000 sec
  • 2.36 MP XGA Electronic Viewfinder
  • 3.0″ 920 000-Dot Touchscreen LCD Monitor
  • Dual SD Card Slots; XPan & Square Modes
  • Built-In Wi-Fi & GPS, USB 3.0 Type C

Last Monday I attended a presentation of the new Hasselblad X1D to photographers from the area near my home and had a chance to see it live and even to try it. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity for testing this camera with landscape or close-up shots, and the  X1D we got was was preset with a 90 mm lens. So I could not make an impression of how it meets the needs of a nature photographer. Of course, there was no time for thorough testing. Therefore I am able only to make here a couple of general comments based on my brief hands-on experience with Hasselblad X1D.

Design and Construction

The most amazing thing is, of course, the size and the weight of X1D: With just 725 g it weighs 200 g less than any of my current Canon cameras – 5DsR and 5D Mark III, and it is much thinner.

The design of the X1D body is extremely minimalistic. There is a 3″ touch screen, a mode selection wheel, one customisable wheel, two customisable buttons, and a large golden coloured shutter release button. There is also a row of five rectangular buttons right from the screen. They relate to the content displayed on the screen: With them you can, for instance, delete or rate images. On the left side of the body there are two doors: one covers the card slots, and the other one – the cable connection sockets.

The body is designed like a box, with sharper edges than usually in current SLR and medium format cameras.  I had been skeptical about the usability of it till I tried it: Despite its shape, the camera lies well in a hand, the grip is firm and comfortable. The shutter knob and both wheels are easy to find and to access with the fingers. Overall, the X1D body feels very solid and well crafted, just as one would expect from such an expensive camera.

Lenses

The lenses are made minimalistic too. Hasselblad went further than other manufacturers: All so-called HXD lenses have only a manual focusing ring. No switches, distance scale, marks or other usual information is there. Without anything but just one ring the lens looks stylish and cool, but I found particularly the absence of distance marks odd: I use them on my lenses quite often to preset the focus when I can’t look through the view finder, for instance, when shooting night landscapes or in situations when I can’t put my face at the camera. How can one do it when the distance scale isn’t there anymore? Probably, via touch screen. I haven’t seen, however, whether the distance to the object in millimetres and not just focus is displayed there.

The lenses made for X1D are much smaller and lighter than the traditional H lenses. Only two such lenses will come with the camera in August 2016. A third one (30 mm) is announced for Photokina show in September. According to the Hasselblad representative, more HXD lenses will follow very soon, and even zoom lenses are in development.

The sensor of X1D is about 1.4x larger than of a full frame camera. That means that the effect on focal length is opposite to the “cropped” (APS-C) sensors that “increase” the focal length: The focal length is reduced by this factor, hence, for instance, a 90 mm f/3.2 lens on medium format would work like 72 mm with a full-frame camera, a 30 mm – like 24 mm.

Viewfinder and Screen

Hasselblad X1D is supposed to be controlled mainly via touchscreen. This is what I didn’t like, and also didn’t use while test shooting. The touchscreen is about as large as in my Canon and has the same resolution. The colour and detail presentation was good, but not noticeably better than in Canon 5Ds.

The menu seems to be well thought through and to have a clear and simple structure. However, I had no time to go through all levels of it. I personally have a strong antipathy for touch screens even in smartphones and tablets. In my opinion, they don’t make the use of devices and of software any quicker or more comfortable. They are just supposed to make it simpler for people with limited intelligence who aren’t able to remember the purpose of buttons and key shortcuts.

For outdoor photographers even such a display without touch capability is of a limited use because it is to dim in bright sunlight and too small for assessment of image quality. So being an outdoor photographer I looked at the display of Hasselblad X1D with the usual reservation. In comparison with the display in current DSLR bodies it didn’t impress me at all. The menu and the display quality in current Canon cameras is just fine for me.

Like in professional DSLR and in medium format backs, the display of X1D is not tilting, i.e. it is fixed inside the camera body, and you can’t turn it, for instance, so that you look down at it.  The Hasselblad representative told that this feature may be added in future to the next versions of this camera.

The viewfinder is purely digital, and when you are looking through it, it feels like you are using a video camera. This is what I don’t like in all mirrorless cameras, and it is one of the reasons why I don’t buy a mirrorless camera yet: The resolution and refresh rate of the viewfinders isn’t yet so good that you would feel like looking directly at the object and not like watching it on TV. The viewfinder of Hasselblad X1D is not bad and may be even better than in some other mirrorless cameras, but it isn’t a real break through.

However, there is a very nice feature: The X1D recognises when the eye is on the viewfinder and automatically turns the display off and turns it on again, as soon as you have removed the eye from the viewfinder.

Shooting

We were holding the camera in hands when trying it. Since both the lens and the body are so light, it was easy to hold and to operate. It was feeling as if you have a small DSLR camera with a medium size lens in your hands. The camera was set to autofocus and in the aperture priority mode with ISO 100 and f/5.6.

The autofocus was quick, very silent. The precision was also all right, as you can judge from the images attached below: I was focusing on the face (eyes) of the model, so it looks like the autofocus did it correctly.

However, the depth of field is, typically for medium-format, is very shallow, as you can notice particularly of face portrait. With a full-frame camera and a 60-70 mm lens set to f/5.6 I would expect the whole head of the model, or at least the whole face to be in focus. As you see in the test image, the DOF was only around 5-7 cm deep. Obviously, to achieve a  greater DOF in this light one would need to increase ISO, or to reduce the shutter speed, or to do both. In consequence the image quality may suffer if the camera is hand held. I would have used ISO 100 and f/16, and a tripod, but no tripod was available.

The resolution of this lens/sensor combo looks very good. I am not sure, however, that it is better than of Canon 5DsR when it is used with a premium quality lens. Maybe yes, but maybe no. Since the model is more or less in the middle of the frame and since there were no objects around here that came in focus, I can’t report anything about border and corner sharpness here.

I couldn’t make an impression of the dynamic range that Hasselblad praises in technical specifications of this camera. The lighting in a studio is just too good for such tests, and I think any good SLR camera would perform similarly in such conditions. An interior shot in natural light would have been more revealing, but there was no opportunity for this.

Unprocessed JPEG file generated from a RAW produced with Hasselblad X1D equipped with a 90 mm lens - f/5.6, 1/350s, ISO 100 (Click on the picture to view the full sized image.)

Unprocessed JPEG file generated from a RAW produced with Hasselblad X1D equipped with a 90 mm lens – f/5.6, 1/350s, ISO 100 (Click on the picture to view the full sized image.)

Summing-up

As always with such presentations, its main goal was advertising. Therefore it was intended to show the highlights of this camera and targeted at the main customers of Hasselblad – fashion and portrait photographers. I went there with my attitude of an outdoor photographer, and, of course, came back home with a lot of unanswered questions.

Whether Hasselblad X1D is a winner for studio photography I am not in a position to judge due to my limited experience. To me it looks definitely more like a studio than like an outdoor camera. However, compared to usual medium format mirror cameras the X1D makes an impression more of another stylish accessory for a rich amateur. It is what is achieved by the portability of this camera: Not Leica M anymore but a medium format Hasselblad will now be the next stylish gadget wealthy people can bring to parties, events and holiday tours.

Otherwise the portability may be a big gain for landscape and architecture photographers. However, I still see clear advantages of full-frame cameras with their wide range of lenses.

How much does it cost getting a broken camera display fixed?

This small post is for those who are asking this question. Usually I do when I have to decide if I should give my camera to service or just leave it as it is – a little broken but still functioning.

In my this year’s expedition to Central Asia I damaged my second camera – an EOS 5D Mk II – a little . Its display got a crack when the camera bumped at a stone.

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

After 6 weeks in the field, it was also full with dust and the enclosure was very dirty. The camera was still functioning normally however. Although I was afraid of high costs, I set it to a Canon technical service. They fixed it very quickly and returned the camera after a few days (I am a CPS member). It was looking like new – clean and with new display glass. I had to pay 132 € that is in my opinion a very reasonable price for such a good service.

Olympus OM-D E-M1: Hands-On

Today I got an opportunity to take a look at and to try out the new flagship camera model of Olympus – OM-D E-M1. An exclusive presentation of it was organised in Nuremberg by Fotomax – the best photo equipment shop in the city – and led by a representative of Olympus headquarters who came from Tokyo to introduce this new product to customers in Germany.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 presentation in Fotomax shop in Nuremberg on 27 September 2013

Olympus OM-D E-M1 presentation in Fotomax shop in Nuremberg on 27 September 2013

Although I have used SLR cameras since my childhood and Canon DSLR cameras for the past 5 years, and although I am not going to change the brand or to switch to mirrorless cameras in near future, my interest in this type of equipment is constantly increasing – together with advancements that manufacturers have in its development. Currently, at least three companies are competing for a leadership on the market of mirrorless system cameras – Olympus, Fujifilm and Sony. I am seriously considering to get one of their recent products soon, to use it as a “pocket” camera and for certain photography tasks where a smaller camera and a smaller lens would be more efficient. Regarding the achievements of these three companies, the two leaders in DSLR systems – Nikon and Canon – look like they are still completely ignoring the trend towards mirrorless. The “1” series of Nikon and “M” series of Canon can’t compare with top model lines of Sony (NEX), Fujifilm (X) and Olympus (OM-D E) even for use by amateur photographers. Till now no company has brought a model that would completely satisfy the needs of professional photographers and replace DSLR in this area. (Note: Leitz is already offering a full-frame digital mirrorless Leica M camera that is too expensive to be an option for the majority of photographers.) Unless Canon and Nikon are secretly working on something extraordinary and are going to surprise us, I’d rather expect either Olympus, or Sony, or Fujifilm soon to become the “killer” of DSLR. The camera that I saw today is another step in this direction.

When I am watching presentations of mirrorless cameras, I feel like they are in a totally different world. Their manufacturers appear to act in a different reality and to have a somewhat different concept of professional gear than the DSLR manufacturers and than we got used to. Also now, Olympus is writing in their press releases about OM-D E-M1 that this camera is intended for professional photographers and is replacing own DSLR product line, but refers in performance comparisons only to entry-level DSLR models or to own E-5. No DSLR user would mean that these were professional cameras. Also in the presentation that I attended the Olympus representative was comparing the new E-M1 with Nikon D 3100 which is by no means a professional camera. Currently there are only two truly professional DSLR cameras – Canon EOS 1Dx and Nikon D4. The mirrorless camera manufacturers when they are talking about advancements in making professional gear actually should oppose their products to these two or at least to “semi-professional” models, such as EOS 5D Mark III or Nikon D800, but they don’t because they know that their products would then lose in this comparison. So they pick older models out of amateur product lines of Canon and Nikon and compare with them. Of course, a comparison with a full-frame camera of a camera whose image sensor is only half the size would never be correct. But no professional who can afford full-frame gear now would use a camera even with a 1.5x or 1.6x reduced sensor. Therefore claims that there is a mirrorless camera model for professionals never can be serious as long as being mirrorless goes at cost of image quality. For a mirrorless camera to become a choice of a professional photographer, either its sensor size has to reach that of full frame, or the image quality of a reduced size sensor has to match that of full-size one. Currently it looks like Olympus has chosen the second way and works on improvement of image quality of their traditional 2.0x crop factor sensors. It appears that they now have reached the level when their mirrorless camera is close to the best cropped-sensor DSLR that serious amateurs have traditionally preferred. This is logical if this company sticks to micro 4/3 standard. However, if they do this, they won’t be able to create cameras with larger sensors. To satisfy the demand for higher image resolution and quality also in the future, to attract professional photographers, and to remain competitive with other companies on the market that don’t have a sensor size limitation, Olympus will have to pack more and more pixels on the available surface of only 17.3 mm × 13 mm and at the same time to avoid the increase of noise. We will see, if they would be able to do this. For now it is too early to speak of their cameras and lenses as of professional photography equipment – no matter how great they are. They are just among the best cameras and lenses suitable for anyone who wants to achieve very good image quality for use in any area of professional work or hobby. In other words: Olympus OM-D E-M1 is a tool not for professional photographers but for photographing professionals – scientists, engineers, insurance or estate agents, etc.

Look and feel

I am not going to describe the controls of OM-D E-M1 and their functions here and would just refer to official information at Olympus website or in reviews published at specialised sites, such as DPReview. I myself had no time to try out all knobs and wheels, and could get only overall impression that my be biased because I am a Canon user.

I liked the very solid feel of this camera. Its body is made of aluminium alloy and feels sturdy when you are holding it in hands. At the same time it is quite lightweight and compact – a little bigger than the OM-D E-M5 and the mirrorless cameras of other manufacturers but much smaller than any DSLR camera body. The latter has, of course, its positive and negative sides. The positive is that OM-D E-M1 is very portable, the negative — that it may be inconvenient to use for adult people who have normal sized hands. If you wear gloves of size 8 or larger, this camera is too small for you. I heard many times an explanation that Japanese prefer small cameras because they are small themselves. I think that this theory can’t be serious and is only a result of a stereotype that Europeans have of Asians. An average European isn’t much taller than a Japanese. The man from Tokyo who was talking in this presentation wasn’t smaller than many of Germans who were listening to him. Also Canon and Nikon are Japanese companies but they produce cameras that are large for many people in Europe and North America as well. For me personally micro 4/3 and even 4/3 cameras are all too small and inconvenient to hold in hands and to use although I appreciate the low weight of them. Ideally I would prefer a camera with a body like Canon 5D or 7D, or Nikon D800 but of half the weight or less. For me it is the weight that always matters, not the size of the equipment. If Olympus wants to be taken serious by professional photographers, they should offer camera models with normal-sized bodies.

Also all switches, wheels and doors of battery and memory card compartments are of metal and very solid. Overall I liked the manufacturing quality of the body of OM-D E-M1 very much. Olympus claims that it is also sealed against water spills, and the camera is resistant against freezing up to -10°C. The latter doesn’t impress me, however, because I have already used my Canon EOS cameras at temperatures even below this, and nothing bad happened. I assume that the difference may be, of course, in that you can carry an OM-D E-M1 open at such temperatures while you have to hide other cameras and take them out only briefly, for shooting.

The Zuiko lenses that I tried made also very good impression – particularly the M.Zuiko. All are built of metal, and even the fastest M.Zuiko lenses are very small. In my opinion, with such a small camera also a small lens should be used. An ideal combination should be an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and a pancake or similar small prime lens. Then it will be a really compact camera that everyone can effortlessly carry in any bag or pocket and use for snap shots. When a zoom lens, like the new M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO, is attached, it becomes too big and bulky.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 has no built-in flash. Instead a small and very nice flash is delivered with the camera. It is similar to pop-up flashes in amateur models of DSLR cameras but unlike with a built-in flash you have options to put it on the hot shoe only when you need it or keep it always there, or not use at all if you use a normal flshgun instead. The small flash fits the camera body very nicely and looks like it were part of it. While a pop-up flash fires only in front of the camera, this flash can be turned in other directions.

Unlike most mirrorless cameras the Olympus OM-D E-M1 has a built-in digital view finder. Its performance really amazed me. For someone who has previously always used only DSLR cameras it is a bit strange feeling when you compose an image as if you see it on a computer monitor, but you can quickly get accustomed to it. The resolution and colour fidelity of the viewfinder are absolutely sufficient for photography, and the image in it looks almost as real. The overall poor quality of electronic viewfinders in the past was the main reason for me to be skeptical about EVIL and system cameras as a serious alternative to DSLR. Now Olympus has overcome this limitation and made the OM-D E-M1 really usable for serious photography.

I could not try the use of wi-fi with OM-D E-M1 because the app for iPhone wasn’t yet distributed by Apple. The information that the Olympus representative gave us during the presentation was a little disappointing: The range of wi-fi connection is around 5-25m, depending on terrain. For use as a hidden camera in wildlife photography it is a too short distance.

The best way to judge about the usability of any camera is to try it in manual mode. I did it with I OM-D E-M1 and liked how quickly every shooting parameter could be changed and set with wheels, knobs and the touchscreen. I had only time to test this camera with two lenses that I was most interested in – an M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8 and a Zuiko 8 mm f/2.8 fisheye. I was also interested in performance of these camera and lens combinations at high ISO and at low shutter speed. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the test shots to RAW format because I was afraid that I won’t have a software in my computer at home to convert it.

Image quality at high ISO

The following image was taken at with a 17 mm lens at ISO 1000, and at 100% the noise is virtually absent. Of course, the camera should have applied some noise reduction here but the JPEG image still remained quite sharp.

Exposure parameters of the image made with Olympus OM-D E-M1 and M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8

Exposure parameters of the image made with Olympus OM-D E-M1 and M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8

Zones of 100% crops that are demonstrated below - Olympus OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8 , ISO 1000, f/2.8, 1/200 s, hand held

Zones of 100% crops that are demonstrated below – Olympus OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8 , ISO 1000, f/2.8, 1/200 s, hand held. Click on the picture to load the original unprocessed JPEG file.

Crop from right edge area of the frame taken at ISO 1000, f/2.8, 1/200 s

Crop from right edge area of the frame taken at ISO 1000, f/2.8, 1/200 s

Crop from middle area of the frame taken at ISO 1000, f/2.8, 1/200 s

Crop from middle area of the frame taken at ISO 1000, f/2.8, 1/200 s

Image quality at low shutter speed

A good thing about Olympus is that they have an image stabilizer in the camera. This is nothing special, however, because cameras of most other manufacturers are so, and only Canon and Nikon have IS in the lenses. As everyone knows, photo professionals always appreciated Canon and Nikon image stabilizing system, and indeed it was or maybe still is superior to all others. Now Olympus has greatly improved the IS making it work at 5 axes, i.e. also reducing diagonal shakes. Since I need to use lenses in my photography that never had a stablizer, an in-body stabilizer would be of advantage in situations when I am shooting with low shutter speed. I am talking first of all about situations when I have to set the highest possible aperture, can’t use flash, the shutter speed needs to be low due to low light, and I am hand-holding the camera. This is typical for wide-angle close-up photography of small animals. This is also the area of my photography where I would need a camera like Olympus OM-D E-M1.

Below I am showing a sample image taken with an 8 mm fisheye lens which is perfect for small animal photography due to its close focusing ability. (See also my other post Some more herping lenses where I already described this lens.)

Exposure parameters of the image made with Olympus OM-D E-M1 and Zuiko 8 mm f/2.8 fisheye lens

Exposure parameters of the image made with Olympus OM-D E-M1 and Zuiko 8 mm f/2.8 fisheye lens

Zones of 100% crops that are demonstrated below - Olympus OM-D E-M1, Zuiko 8 mm f/2.8 fisheye, ISO 100, f/16, 0.4 s, hand held

Zones of 100% crops that are demonstrated below – Olympus OM-D E-M1, Zuiko ED 8mm f3.5 fisheye, ISO 100, f/16, 0.4 s, hand held. Click on the picture to load the original unprocessed JPEG file.

Crop from the lower left corner of the frame taken at ISO 100, f/16, 0.4 s

Crop from the lower left corner of the frame taken at ISO 100, f/16, 0.4 s

Crop from middle area of the frame taken at ISO 100, f/16, 0.4 s

Crop from middle area of the frame taken at ISO 100, f/16, 0.4 s

I was surprised and disappointed by the noisy image that I got at ISO 100. However, the noise that is visible at the 100% crops showed above looks like originated by JPEG compression artefacts. Strangely, however, an image taken with a 17 mm M.Zuiko lens even at ISO 1000 looks much better, as you can see in the sample below. (Click on the picture to download the original image.)

Olympus OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8 ,  ISO 1000,  f/1.8, 1/1000 s, hand held

Olympus OM-D E-M1, M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8 , ISO 1000, f/1.8, 1/1000 s, hand held. Click on the picture to dowload the original image.

For me as for somebody who always uses full-frame cameras, the depth of field that this camera has even at f/1.8 is fascinating.

Photographer’s travel case

Image

A “briefcase” of a photographer travelling Ethiopia. (Besides the stuff in the main luggage.) A camera, lenses (including a super tele — of course), flashes and other small photo stuff were inside, along with a satellite phone and bales of banknotes — I needed four of them for this trip.

See the whole story at Nature Images by Arthur Tiutenko – Field Notes: Ethiopia 2012. Today I published about 2/3 of this report. The rest will follow in the next 2-3 weeks.

Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM and Extender EF 2x III

Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM and Extender EF 2x III

I recently updated the teleconverter to Extender 2.x III. (Previously I had the version II.) This is the first image taken with my main wildlife lens – Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM – and Extender 2.x III on EOS 5D Mark II (hand held).

Choosing the Camera Brand

If you ask someone about his or her first camera, most likely you will hear: “I got it from my father.” Indeed most people entered photography already when they were teenagers with a camera in hand that they got from parents, older brother, or as a birthday gift. In times of film photography, the equipment choice of amateur photographers was often predetermined by this, and the cameras were used until they got broken. When it happened the photographer had already a couple of lenses and hence an additional reason to stick to that brand and to get another compatible camera. Usually only those people who were meaning it serious with photography sooner or later landed in a situation when they had to choose a new camera according to their needs and plans. Nowadays, this moment comes much sooner, because the lifecycle of digital cameras is much shorter than of mechanical. The technology advancement is so rapid that even people with no professional ambitions update their cameras every couple of years.

For a typical digital camera user who has only one compact or bridge camera with a non-exchangeable lens and a built-in flash radical updates are very easy: A new camera that also has it all, is being purchased or received as a gift. The so-called “megapixel race” of the manufacturers appears to be the main driving force for such purchases: A camera owner wants a new camera as soon as it gets about twice as many megapixels as the old. Other factors that influence the choice are size and weight, zoom lens power, ability to capture good looking images automatically, prestige of the particular model.

For professionals and serious amateurs (to be short, I’ll call both “photographers” in this article) choosing the initial camera brand and changing brands are complex decisions, with long lasting practical and financial consequences.

Just like in times of mechanical film cameras a good starting point is the acknowledging that we are choosing not just a single piece of gear but a whole equipment system that may in many aspects determine the success of our photographic work and that we will have to stay with for many years.

Important Aspects to Remember

  • What we are choosing is not just a camera but a technical platform.
    Unfortunately there are very few brands whose lenses and camera accessories are interchangeable. Typically the camera manufacturers have developed and continue developing proprietary gear that won’t fit that of other brands. Therefore when we are considering a camera of a certain manufacturer we should look at it as at a system with a whole spectrum of items that we may need for our photographic work. Comparing various brands is comparing equipment systems — not just cameras.
  • It may be a choice for life.
    … okay, it is a bit exaggerated, though not very far from truth if we are talking about someone with limited finances. Certainly, you can change the equipment platform any time but, you would need to get rid of your previous camera gear. Even if you manage to sell it, you will loose a lot of money. Buying the whole set of cameras, lenses, flashes and other accessories will demand again a huge investment. Not everyone can afford such radical measures. Changing the brand makes only sense, if the current equipment is absolutely unsatisfying or outdated. Therefore, most photographers usually stay in good and in bad times with the camera brand that they have once chosen.

As with the rest of my site www.nature-images.eu, I assume that the reader of this article is a nature photographer, or someone who would like to know more about nature photography. Although many aspects that I am going to discuss below are applicable to any area of photography, the scope of this article is only equipment for nature, or wildlife photography. Specialists in other photography areas and genres should excuse me, if my judgements appear wrong or incomplete. I photograph only nature subjects and am not claiming to have expert knowledge in all areas of photography.

Criteria

As with any choosing process, when we are considering a camera system, we need to be clear about our criteria. Among them, our preferred photography genre, style and subjects are certainly the most important. You should always look at the equipment from the perspective of your specialization as a photographer. Obviously, for landscape photography a different equipment is necessary than for birds, for insects other than for safari… Not only different subjects play a role but also how you show them. For instance, cameras and lenses for animal portraits can be quite different from those that are used for photographing an animal in action.

Photographers usually have certain aesthetic preferences and personal style of imaging that, on one hand, have grown from use of certain equipment, but on the other, the equipment has been chosen accordingly. For instance, I heard from some photographers who use Canon equipment that they don’t like colour rendering in Nikon. To me this sounds odd because the images are normally recorded in raw format, and colour, contrast, white balance, saturation and other parameters are set and adjusted in postprocessing. However, some people want already the image that comes out of the camera to be as close as possible to their personal aesthetic expectations.

The requirements of image quality are the next important criterion. They come from two sides — from quality standards that are established in our photography area or genre, and from our personal standards. They don’t necessarily match. Often hobbyists tend to set lower standards for themselves while they admire the work of professionals. This is silly. I don’t see any reason why an amateur should set the upper limits for the quality of his work and to refuse professionalism. Strangely, the predicate “professional” as such seems to scare some beginners. Objectively, there is no such thing as “professional equipment”. It is only a label on the best products that manufacturers are offering at higher price level. This doesn’t mean, however, that amateurs are automatically excluded from buyers. The prices of professional equipment look scary for beginners and for professionals likewise. Nature photography professionals rarely earn their living with photographs. In that sense they aren’t different from amateurs. Not all professionals can afford high-end equipment while many hobbyists can. So if you are a lucky guy who can afford the newest and best camera model, just go and get it!

In the box below, I have put the main criteria in the order how I would apply them if I were looking for my first camera system or for replacement of the current.

Main criteria in order of validity

  1. main area of usage: landscapes, wildlife, macro, underwater, studio, etc.
  2. main subjects: birds, “safari” animals, flora, insects, herps, etc.
  3. genre: portrait, action, still life, panoramas, etc.
  4. your personal style and aesthetic preferences:
  5. image quality requirements: colour and contrast rendering, dynamic range, low noise, resolution.
  6. special requirements: low light, serial shooting, autofocus, weather protection, weight and size, lens preferences.
  7. cost
  8. comfort: size, weight, ergonomics, etc.
  9. prestige

In fact, my own list of criteria goes only to 6. I never considered the last two — prestige and comfort — seriously but I assume that some people would do. As to cost, I regard it more as obstacle than as a choice criterion. I have never made my preference only according to the price tag and am not recommending anyone to do it. For me, choosing means determining that something meets my requirements. If I need a certain piece of equipment, it doesn’t automatically mean that I can or even will ever get it. Like most people, I have my financial limits that are the main obstacle on the way to the equipment that I need or would like to have. However, these limits don’t keep me away from specifying my requirements and preferences — and goals. If you know, what you want, you will be looking for a chance to get it and this chance may come some day. You will be searching for opportunities to get the necessary money and thus approaching the chance. Indeed, there may be many such opportunities. Sometimes a revision of your daily expenses and priorities may already do wonders. A good thing with photo equipment is that it can be purchased in parts: You start with purchase of a lens that you want and use it with a cheap camera first. Meanwhile, you gather money for a better camera… Obtaining good equipment is a continuos process. If you are serious about photography, the cost shouldn’t matter for you. Have a vision and work towards it!

Certainly, the goals have to be realistic. If you want to specialize in bird photography, but your longest lens is 200 mm and you know that you will never be able to pay another $5.000 – 10.000 for a suitable super tele, it is better either to rethink your ambitions and to specialize in other subjects or to work on your photographic style and methods that would allow you to successfully utilize the available equipment. Even in this case, the cost will be not a criterion but an obstacle that doesn’t allow you to get the equipment that you have chosen.

Like with the cost of equipment that not everyone may afford, physical size and weight of cameras and lenses may be a limitation for some people. A super telephoto lens with a professional camera may weigh 6 kg or more. Not all people will be able to hand hold it. Together with other lenses, tripod and accessories the weight of photo gear that a nature photographer has to carry in the field can exceed 15 kg. It could be a serious obstacle for some people. When choosing your camera system and later — when purchasing additional equipment — you should be aware of this issue. Again, I don’t mean that you should purchase your equipment per kilogramme or inch. However, it is wise to always remember that you will be using it in the field. You should have a plan how you are going to do this.

A photographer choosing the equipment shouldn’t be guided by considerations of weight, size or even cost. However, I can imagine that there are people who would. Since such criteria may exist, I am mentioning them here.

The above said also applies to considerations of prestige, or vogue. In my hierarchy of requirements, prestige is on the last place. In fact, I have put it on the list because it may be an issue for some people, though a serious photographer typically wouldn’t admit that he is paying attention to prestige even if he does. Particularly this may be true for professionals. A pro simply has to meet certain stereotypes and expectations of the clients. One of them is that a pro has a “professional” camera and a big lens. Some customers even may know something about photography and thus have their picture of what is professional and what not. Often this picture is based on manufacturer statements and less on performance or technical features. I have heard from commercial photographers that they needed the most up to date gear in order to impress their customers. Not being a commercial photographer, I am lucky not to have such urge, but I can think of situations when it would be an important issue even for me.

Options and Alternatives

When photographic cameras were mechanical, it was not only the camera and the lens that were capturing images. The film was the third part of this process. The quality of the film was not less important for achieving a good image than the quality of the photographic equipment. In the 20th century, a good photographer could achieve an excellent image using a decent camera with a very good film. Technical features and quality of the camera were not influencing that much the image quality: If the lens and film were good, the image quality could be good, too. With digital photography, the influence of the camera has increased so that a poor quality camera even with a good lens will much more likely deliver a poor quality image.

Image quality is a result of combined work of several components, such as lenses, imaging sensor, and processor in the camera. The use and availability of lenses depends very much on camera viewfinder system, i.e. if it is a mirrorless or DSLR system. When I was choosing the camera brand I was looking first of all at lenses and imaging sensor. In general, there are three main parameters that are to be compared in alternative camera systems:

choice parameters for a digital camera system

  • Image sensor size and quality
  • Viewfinder construction: mirrorless or mirror
  • Quality and availability of specific lenses and accessories

These and other options and alternatives I am going to discuss in the next sections.

Digital or Film

In the last decade of the 20th century after the invention of of digital photography, its benefits were highly disputed and even the future perspectives were questioned. Like any technological revolution digital photography was met by traditionalists with a lot of suspiciousness and skepticism. The discussion of pros and cons continued well into the beginning of this millenium. Even now there are some enthusiasts who defend the film and criticize the digital even though they realize that the digital technology has won and will dominate the 21st century.

Just like magnetic tapes and venyl disks in sound recording, the use of film for capturing photographic images remained in the past: This page in history of technology is turned. The advantages of digital imaging over film are for me out of the question. Therefore, I am mentioning the film here and opposing it to digital photography only for completeness, and not because such dilemma really exists — especially for someone who is choosing the camera brand nowadays. Today, a photo camera has certainly to be digital! All camera manufacturers have ceased to develop and produce film cameras long time ago. Films are still available on the market, but it is to expect that they will gradually become more rare and disappear within the next decade.

There are still some fans of film photography around who are claiming that images captured on film have artistic qualities superior to those of images captured on digital media. Since digital technology gives us a complete freedom to process and manipulate any recorded image, there is no objective reason for such claims. People who have them either don’t understand the new technology completely or aren’t able to master it and thus feel uncomfortable.

I never regretted and won’t regret that film photography became history, and I don’t have that romantic attitude and nostalgic feelings about the film that some photographers who belong to older generation than mine still appear to have. The digital technology gives almost unlimited means for creativity. Just like it used to be with the film, modern digital cameras only record images. The rest is done in the lab which is now a computer. Thus, if someone wants an image to look like made on film — blurry, grainy and with odd colours — it can easily be achieved with image processing software. But I don’t see any reason to do that because even inexpensive amateur equipment today outshines professional cameras and labs of the past in quality of image recording and processing.

Below I am giving some key advantages of digital over film cameras.

Advantages of digital photography over film

  • Much higher light sensitivity (so-called speed): While the light sensitivity of consumer films was usually in the ISO 100 to ISO 800 range, some modern DSLR cameras are capable of capturing images with speeds up to ISO 204,800.
  • Much higher spacial resolution: Thus, capability to capture more detail.
  • Overall better image quality: Better contrast, sharpness, less grain… As a result, the images can be enlarged for output on much larger media with less loss of quality.
  • Flexibility of image processing due to use of computer.
  • Convenience: Digital images are easy to store, to archive, to present, to transport, to re-use…
  • Cost: The digital photography workflow is more affordable, first of all, because no expendable materials are used in it.
  • Simplicity: Since images can be immediately previewed and re-shot, better results can be achieved just through trial and error. For beginners, this this allows a more steep learning curve.
  • Better integration in publishing process: Since digital devices are also used for display of images and publishing, film would always have to be converted into digital data (scanned). This step isn’t necessary when the original image is already digital.

The arguments against the digital photography and in favour of film are too often hate motivated and have little to do with reality. After the already mentioned biased opinion about the aesthetic side of film photography that the digital should be missing, the next such argument is that with digital photography the work of a photographer is becoming less creative and more casual. The critics believe that a digital photographer would achieve the desired image rather through tweaking it in a computer than through careful shooting. This, of course, isn’t true. A serious photographer would always prefer photographing to processing not only because it is more fun but because the quality that was missed during shooting can never be restored in postprocessing completely. That computer software allows us to go beyond the limits of analog film processing is a progress and not an evil — as some film fans are claiming.

However, in early years of digital photography, there was one objective criticism that most photographers including me were taking seriously: The dynamic range of films was generally believed to be greater than of image capturing and processing electronics. This situation changed completely with the advancement of digital imaging in the last decade. Both, in film and in digital photography, the dynamic range is a complex issue that results from quality of several members of the imaging workflow and of their capability to record, to process and to display the image information. In film photography that were lenses, films, chemicals, paper, scanner, etc. In digital photography the dynamic range depends on the quality of the lenses, the sensor and digital processor in the camera, and of other equipment that is used for processing and display of images. Modern large image sensors, such as in DSLR and medium format cameras, are capable of recording the luminance range that is close to that of human eyes and hence adequate for representing all the tones perceivable by humans. In film and digital photography alike the biggest limitation is, however, not in recording but in display of dynamic range. Currently, neither the photographic paper, nor the printers, nor the displays of consumer electronic devices can cover the entire dynamic range that is being provided by the imaging process.

Cropped, Full-frame or Medium Format

The image sensor is the key element in a digital camera that is responsible for capturing the light and thus is of crucial importance for image quality. In current photo cameras sensor of two kinds can be found CCD and CMOS. Neither of these technologies has clear advantages or disadvantages. Brands and camera models that are currently preferred by nature photographers have CMOS sensors, but this may change in future.

Most important image sensor parameters

  • Size, i.e. surface area: The larger — the better.
  • Pixel density: The heigher — the better.
  • Dynamic range: The wider — the better.
  • Signal-to-noise ratio: The lower — the better.
  • Light sensitivity: The heigher — the better.

The performance of image sensors varies from one manufacturer to another and also between models of a single manufacturer. It improves very quickly, and every year new cameras appear on the market that outperform all previous. Therefore no one can give recommendations in favour of a concrete model or brand. When your are choosing your camera brand, you should evaluate and compare such parameters as signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range, light sensitivity, etc. Typically these parameters improve with the size of the sensor. There is a rule of thumb: The larger is the sensor — the heigher the image quality. Therefore, I would recommend always to look for a camera with the largest sensor that you can afford. Unfortunately, also the other rule is always true: The larger the sensor — the more expensive it is.

In digital photo cameras three groups of image sensor formats are being distinguished: medium format, full frame, and reduced (so-called, “cropped”).

preferred use areas of different sensor formats in nature photography

  • medium format: landscapes, flora, static and slow-moving macro subjects
  • full frame: all subjects
  • cropped: wildlife, less suitable for macro and landscape photography

The cropped sensors have a vast variety of sizes ranging from 1.28 x 0.96mm to 27.9 x 18.6mm. Obviously, cameras with sensors of reduced size are less expensive. This is one reason why they are the most common on the mass market. The second reason is that the devices that have small image sensors can also be built small. Thus, the smallest sensors are in mobile phones and digital compact cameras. In photo cameras with exchangeable lenses sensors are not so small: 23.4 x 15.6mm (Sony NEX C) and larger. For quality photography, especially for nature subjects, cameras with larger sensors should be preferred. This is one of the reasons why nature photographers prefer to use either Canon or Nikon DSLR cameras. (See more about this below.)

The so-called “full frame” has the size of approx. 36 x 24mm which corresponds to a frame of a photographic film. Actually, such cameras were called in times of the film “small format” as the opposite to medium and large format films and cameras. The focal length of lenses is always expressed in millimeters relatively to full frame. When lenses are used with smaller or larger sensors, it increases or decreases respectively. Even if the lens can’t be used on full-frame cameras, its focal length is indicated for full-frame. To know the real focal length on a given camera, we have either to multiply (if the sensor is smaller than full frame) or to devide (if the sensor is larger) it by so-called “crop factor” — the ratio between the sizes of full and of current frame. If the sensor is smaller than full frame, the focal length of a lens decreases, i.e. its field of view gets narrower. This one of practical disadvantages of cameras with reduced sensor size. However, if the pixel density of the sensor is heigher than of a full frame sensor, the reach of a lens would increase. A money-savvy wildlife photographer often would regard this effect as an advantage of cropped sensors. Personally, I would rather use a full-frame camera with a telephoto lens and a 1.5x teleconverter than a 1.5x cropped sensor camera and a telephoto lens combo. Of course, the first would be more expensive than the second but improved image quality will be my reward.

Cameras with larger sensors than full frame are now called “medium-format”. They are built by Hasselblad, Leaf, Sinar, Phase One, Mamiya, Leica. The size of their sensors ranges from 45 x 30mm to 53.9 x 40.4mm. Calling them “medium format” is not completely correct because the “true” medium format of film cameras was different, and the former “large format” doesn’t now have an equivalent in digital photography.

A drawback of the huge image recording surface of a medium format sensor is the speed. The extremely low frame rate of such cameras makes their use for most subjects in nature photography a problem. Another problem is that the focal length of lenses decreases when the sensor gets larger than full frame, as a consequence, a 150 mm lens would be only 75 mm, if the surface of the sensor doubles. There are very few lenses for medium-format cameras with focal length longer than 100 mm but in fact they are even shorter. In practice, this makes the medium-format cameras unusable for wildlife photography, although they are unmatched when used for large and more static subjects, such as landscapes.

If you are a specialist for landscape photography and can afford it, I would strongly recommend you to consider a medium format. Even not being a landscape photographer, if I had enough money, I would have got a medium format camera, such as Phase One, to use it for my landscape shots. The digital backs of Phase One currently not only have the largest sensors but are better protected from harsh environment and therefore more suitable for use outdoors.

Mirrorless or Mirror

The construction of digital single-lens cameras (DSLR) has derived from predecessors in the times of film photography. For a viewfinder of such cameras a mirror is used that allows the photographer to look through the lens when he is composing the image and focusing on the subject. While looking through the lens, the photographer can also define areas in the scenery where the camera measures the light.

I think, the advantages of this technology are quite obvious:

Advantages of DSLR cameras

  • Long-focus lenses can be used
  • More convenient and exact image composing
  • Easier and more precise focusing
  • More precise light metering
  • Better visibility of the scenery in the viewfinder

DSLR are standard in nature photography, and at least for wildlife photography no real alternatives exist.

Currently there is no mirrorless camera model on the market that could be a perfect tool for nature photography. However, this technology develops very quickly, and it is to expect that mirrorless cameras would compete with DSLR or even replace them in many situations in near future.

There are two categories of mirrorless small-format cameras that can be used in some areas of nature photography — though with limitations: mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILC) and bridge cameras.

The MILC, or system cameras, typically have a digital viewfinder. Then they are called electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lens (EVIL) cameras. This group includes “micro four thirds” cameras — such as Samsung NX, Pentax Q, Panasonic DMC-G, Olympus PEN, cameras with proprietary mount — Nikon 1, Sony NEX. The EVIL cameras are the least usable for serious photography: They can’t be used under bride sunshine, manual focusing is difficult, stable handholding is almost impossible…

Some system cameras have optional optical viewfinder as accessory (e.g. Sony NEX), a hybrid viewfinder — as in Fujifilm FinePix X series, or purely optical — as in Leica M. The most important drawback of the optical viewfinder (also called — rangefinder) is lack of through-the-lens (TTL) viewing and exposure measuring. The photographer sees only a marked area that represents the view field of the lens — not what the lens actually sees. This may work with most wide-angle lenses, with standard and even with short telephoto lenses, but not with long teles. As a consequence, no lenses with focal distance greater than 100-150 mm can be used. Therefore, the use of rangefinder cameras for wildlife photography is very limited.

Advantages of mirrorless cameras

  • Compact size
  • Little weight

The electronic viewfinder technology is more promising. If the resolution of viewfinder picture would approach the quality of real life picture some day, the mirrorless cameras may win the competition with DSLR.

Mirrorless cameras typically have small sensors. Don’t ask me, why. For the time of writing, only Leica M had a full-frame sensor. Not just due to this fact but much more because it was a Leica, it was extremely overpriced and more a stylish accessory than a photographer’s tool. Unfortunately, among other brands that have only models with tiny sensors none can be regarded as serious photography equipment.

Like digital MILC, bridge cameras fill the niche between compact, pocket-sized digital cameras (also called “point-and-shot” cameras) and digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR). This is why they are called “bridge”. Other than in mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, the lens in a bridge camera is fixed. Typically it is a super zoom lens that covers a large span of focal lengths — often from ultra wide to telephoto. Exceptions are some specialized models such as Minox DCC or Fujifilm FinePix X that mock classic cameras and are more lifestyle objects than photography tools. They have a fixed focal length wide-angle lens. Since bridge cameras are intended for use by non-professionals, the characteristics of their lenses are described not through focal length but through magnification ratio. For a photographer this can be confusing. For example, a lens with focal length 6 – 72mm may be labeled just as “12x” zoom. Even more confusing is that such cameras often have additionally a so-called “digital zoom”, i.e. the in-camera software can enlarge the captured image.

All bridge cameras have truly tiny sensors — even smaller than in MILC. Due to this they are made extremely light weight and very compact. With such small sensors also the lenses don’t need to be big. Since the lens isn’t removable, the user of a bridge camera usually doesn’t need to carry anything else than only this one small device. Bridge cameras are very convenient but their image quality doesn’t get even close to the standards that photographers have already set using DSLR cameras. They are very popular with various professionals who use them for documentation photography where the content of an image is more important than perfect quality and aesthetics. Certainly, I would recommend current bridge cameras for such tasks and not the bulky and heavy DSLR.

I have no doubts that in very near future mirrorless small-format cameras will get larger sensors, thus becoming a serious alternative to DSLR. Maybe they even will replace the mirror cameras some day. But today DSLR remain the only choice for the majority of nature photographers.

choosing a dslr camera

Currently only six companies produce digital single lens cameras (DSLR): Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax Ricoh, Sigma. Fujifilm had also been making quite nice DSLR cameras for awhile but discontinued all models a couple of years ago and now appears to have concentrated all efforts on development and production of mirrorless cameras.

Only three manufacturers — Canon, Nikon and Sony — currently offer full-frame cameras. In the past, also Kodak had DSLR models with full-frame sensors (Kodak DSC Pro) but ceased their production in 2005. In 2012 the company went bankrupt. All current models of Olympus, Pentax and Sigma have cropped sensors.

Strategy for acquiring dslr equipment

  • Think full-frame: Even if you can’t afford a full-frame camera at the beginning, make all purchases with it in mind. Do not buy lenses that are incompatible with full-frame cameras: Full-frame lenses can be used with cameras that have cropped sensors but not vice versa. Get a full-frame camera body later and use it with the lenses that you have already purchased.
  • Lenses have priority: Start with lenses if you are short of money and can’t buy at once all equipment that you need. Get the best lenses you can afford. If you can’t purchase at once the whole set of lenses that you need, get fewer but better. Prefer lenses of the same manufacturer as your camera (Canon EF, Nikkor, etc.) or of a renowned third-party, such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach. Lenses are essential for photography. Never save money on them!
  • Prefer full frame to cropped: Do not believe if someone is praising cropped cameras. Cameras with small sensors are good only for interim use. Do not spend too much money for it. If you can’t afford a full-frame camera, get an older model of cropped one and use it temporarily with your full-frame lenses.
  • Megapixels do matter: Do not listen to people who are proclaiming that heigh megapixel numbers are nonsense. Of course, the heigher is the sensor resolution, the heigher should be the resolution of the lenses that are used with it. However, many lenses are good enough for use with sensors that have up to 30 Mp or even more.
  • Choose from Canon or Nikon: The DSLR cameras of these two manufacturers are currently the first choice for nature photographers. Almost all nature images that you see in books and magazines, on posters and postcards, on websites of honoured photographers, among winners of photography contests have been made either with a Canon or with a Nikon camera. Unless you have a strong personal reason to prefer Sony Alpha, Canon and Nikon cameras should be better choice.
  • None of two brands is better than the other: Listen neither to Canon nor to Nikon fanboys claiming that their brand is the best. Look at concrete lenses and cameras that you are interested in.

As you may have noticed, the majority of nature photographers use either Nikon or Canon equipment. Of course, there are reasons for this.

Advantages of canon and nikon dslr systems

  • The largest variety of lenses: Not only the two companies themselves but many other lens manufacturers produce lenses for Nikon and Canon mounts, but less for other brands.
  • Special lenses: Lenses of some types — such as tilt-shift, extreme super teles, some wide-angle lenses — aren’t available for other DSLR brands or are optically and technically inferior.
  • More advanced lens technology: Canon and Nikon develop lenses and optimize their performance for their own cameras only. Their lenses aren’t compatible with other camera brands. Though it is a disadvantage for a money-savvy buyer, it ensures the best possible lens performance.
  • Best image stabilization: In Nikon and Canon equipment, the image stabilizer is in lenses — not in camera bodies, like in other brands. Image stabilization is helpful only in some cases — usually with telephoto lenses, when they are hand held. For the majority of photography tasks the IS is either not necessary or even disturbing, for it may degrade the sharpness. Canon and Nikon wisely provide image stabilization only where it indeed makes sense — with long telephoto lenses — and it works better than the in-camera IS of other manufacturers.
  • Full-frame sensors: Current full-frame sensors and cameras of Canon and Nikon are better than those of Sony.

A separate word needs to be said about Sony Alpha. It has its origin in Minolta system that Sony acquired in 2006. Minolta cameras had been serious competitors for Nikon and Canon in the past. Now, it still appears that for Sony professional photographers and DSLR videographers are a not that important target group, and the company is more concerned with development of consumer grade digital cameras — such as NEX system. The line-up of their DSLR lenses (even including Carl Zeiss ZA) is still much smaller than of Nikon and Canon. Many Minolta lenses are compatible with Sony DSLR cameras that have the same mount but in practice this means nothing because film lenses are not optimal for digital photography. Since Sony’s Alpha DSLR cameras are also not cheap, there is no reason for a nature photographer to prefer them over Canon and Nikon.

Canon and Nikon have the widest range of lenses combined with the most advanced camera technologies. Most third-party lens manufacturers produce lenses for Nikon and Canon. Among them only Sigma and Tamron offer lenses for all DSLR brands mentioned above. Carl Zeiss, Voigtländer, Schneider Kreuznach, Tokina have lenses either for Canon, or for Nikon, or for both, but less or not at all for other brands. Choosing the camera brand, it is worth to check how good also the third-party lenses are. I can compare Sigma lenses for Canon mount with proprietary Canon lenses because I have both: The majority of Sigma lenses are not as good as Canon’s own. Tamron lenses are even less expensive than Sigma but have a not so good reputation. However, there are some excellent Tamron lenses too that are worth to take a look at if you are searching for a budget alternative.

Only Canon, Nikon and Sigma have own super telephoto lenses, i.e. longer than 300 mm. For other brands, such lenses are made by Sigma — up to 800 mm — but they are not as good as Canon’s and Nikon’s. This is one of main reasons why Canon and Nikon are preferred for wildlife photography. Also tilt-shift lenses exist only for Canon and Nikon DSLR (otherwise, for medium format). Canon’s current TS-E lenses are better than Nikon’s counterparts. But Nikon has probably the world’s best ultra wide zoom lens — 14-24 mm — that is so popular that some Canon photographers use it with an adapter.

Of course, the relatively heigh cost of Nikon and Canon equipment may be an obstacle for some people — especially for beginners. Cameras and lenses of Pentax, Olympus and Sigma usually cost at least 20-30% less, but I would strongly recommend to resist the temptation. Don’t forget: You are choosing not just a camera but a whole equipment system. If you are short of money, just don’t try to purchase all at once — get only one lens or two that you use for a awhile with an older camera body that you can find relatively cheap on eBay. My way to the current equipment collection was like this, and I am still convinced that it was right.

Nikon vs. Canon

This is a very popular discussion topic on amateur photography forums throughout the Web. Typically, a beginner who has difficulties with the decision asks this question which is certainly quite legitimate. The replies of the community may very quickly shift into attempts of mutual insults between protagonists of the two brands. I suppose that people who carry out such verbal fights are beginners too who just recently got a camera of either brand and are very proud of this, love it, but at the same time are afraid of having made a mistake. Such willingness to defend the favourite brand in every situation is a sign of immaturity rather than of expertise.

As I already pointed out a few times in this article, both brands are the best among DSLR. Thus, there can’t be a general answer of the question, what is better: Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Many opinions pro and contra obviously result from habits, experience, attitudes: For instance, a Canon user may dislike Nikon cameras for the lack of a wheel that quickly switches between menu options, aperture settings, thumbnails in preview mode, etc.

Some opinions however are of objective kind and worth to be taken seriously by someone who is choosing the first camera. For example, Nikon users often view as an advantage that also DX lenses, i.e. made for reduced frame sensors, can be used with FX, i.e. full-frame, cameras though producing a cropped frame. In Canon equipment, the EF-S lenses can’t be used with full-frame cameras. In my opinion, it is a negligible disadvantage because a cropped-frame lens on a full-frame camera doesn’t make sense anyway. However, I can imagine that some Canon users may be annoyed by the fact that they have to purchase expensive EF (i.e. full-frame lenses) even if they don’t have a full-frame camera yet but plan to get one in future because none of EF-S lenses will then work.

The professional camera bodies of both manufacturers are outrageously expensive, but sometimes one may cost less than the other. For someone who is looking for a professional camera this may be a reason to prefer the brand with currently lower price. On the other hand, even many professionals who can’t afford a pro body choose heigh-end amateur cameras with full-frame sensors. Canon and Nikon often swap the leadership in this market segment. When I was writing this article, Nikon’s top-level amateur camera was better than Canon’s. But this may have changed when you are reading it. Always check the current status of both brands before you decide in favour of either brand.

The above said is valid for lenses too. Some types of lenses are better in Canon while some — in Nikon. I already mentioned the great Nikkor 14 – 24 f/2.8 mm lens. There is another very popular Nikon zoom lens that has no counterpart among Canon lenses: 200 – 400 mm f/4. (Canon has developed a zoom lens with the same focal length already in 2010 but still didn’t release it. It is also unknown if this lens will ever appear on the market and how much it would cost.) However, there are quite many Canon lenses that outperform the Nikon’s counterparts. For instance, Canon super telephoto and tilt-shift lenses are currently the best in class. For some Canon lenses no Nikon equivalents currently exist. For instance, there was no Nikon 17 mm tilt-shift lens and no 800 mm telephoto lens for the time of writing. Another advantage of Canon’s system is that most full-frame lenses of other brands that aren’t compatible with Canon EF mount can be used via adapters. This can’t be done with Nikon cameras, whose mount has the smallest diameter among SLR systems.

Summary and Conclusions

If you are a beginner in digital nature photography, you may be now disappointed because you haven’t found recommendations of a specific brand or model in the above text. But I hope that I could explain why there can’t be any. My intention with this article was to outline the principles of choosing a camera system for serious nature photography. Based on the above said, here are my final recommendations in brief:

  • Be clear about your requirements and choose the equipment that meets them as close as possible.
  • If you can’t afford everything at once, get it in several steps.
  • Start with lenses: Get the best that you can, and use them with a cheap camera.
  • Get a better camera as soon as your financial situation improves. If it wouldn’t, just continue using top-quality lenses with a cheap camera.
  • Prefer a used older high-end camera to a new low-end.
  • Even if you aren’t a professional photographer, get the best equipment you can. It is particularly important if you are a beginner: A “pro” camera and lenses will not only give you more self-confidence but improve your photography results. Certainly, a top-quality equipment alone won’t make you a star photographer. But to use it already when you are learning and gaining experience is much more fun. In my opinion, it also helps a beginning photographer to recognize his faults: If you are a beginner and have top-level equipment but your photographs are still not good, it should be pretty clear that you have to improve your skills — not your camera.
  • Don’t buy equipment bundles and kits: a camera with a lens, a tripod with a head, etc. Instead, analyse and select every piece of equipment separately.
  • The bigger the sensor — the better: Get a full-frame camera, or, if you are a landscape photographer — a medium format. Think of cropped sensors as of “poor-man’s” gear.
  • Don’t take seriously everything what people say about brands. Many of such opinions are biased or based on myths or history. In digital photographic technology things change very quickly. If you can’t try out the brands in question yourself, compare as many reviews and test shots as you can find.
  • Don’t buy the newest camera immediately after it was released. First wait for tests and opinions from independent parties. The flows in electronics and software may become evident within a couple of months after the release.