Friday, July 3, 2009

Looking For A DSLR?

How Much Camera Do I Really Need?

This question is useful for people who believe they may sooner or later become serious about photography. If you want snapshots of your kids, family events or vacation locations, then a good quality point and shoot is the camera for you.

I am not about to poke fun at point and shoot users, who often get more downright enjoyment out of their vacation, backyard holiday and kid pictures than any serious amateur gets from his or her best attempts. There’s no rule, law or commandment that says a P&S user is a lesser person than someone who gets serious about picture taking, thus begins to use a digital single lens reflex camera, or other more expensive picture grabbing box…and some of the digital medium format cameras are almost unbelievably costly, while the higher end full frame (35mm frame) digital SLRs aren’t far behind.

I shoot professionally, primarily for magazines, but the thought of spending $4,000 to $8,000 for a camera body, plus many more thousands for a set of lenses to use, makes my Scots-Irish blood pressure scream upwards. Such cameras are excellent for the box photographer—that’s the pro captured in a small box with 20 to 50 other shooters trying to get the same action shots at the same time at football games, baseball games and similar tightly confined events.

My high speed shots are usually confined to racing automobiles or motorcycles. That kind of shooting always leaves enough space to wander, so you’re not rubbing elbows with other pros. Amateurs can’t get through the access gates to get close to the track, but even shooting from outside the fence, most of today’s DSLRs will render unto you some mighty fine photographs.

At this point, there’s not a whole lot of sense in spending more than $1,500 for a DSLR and a couple of lenses to get you started in high end digital photography. It’s quite possible to get a start shooting less demanding subjects for under $500, including a single lens. This is for new gear.

The $500 DSLR/Lens Combo

Nikon’s D40 with an 18-55mm zoom lens has an MSRP of $500 with a $50 instant rebate applicable (at least at one camera store). Olympus E520, with a 14-42mm lens is on the rolls for $460 at the same store. Pentax’s K2000 with an 18-55mm lens sells for $480 at that store. The closest Canon comes is with the Rebel XS, selling for $530.

The cameras and lens listed above are not the only ones available under $500, but generally are noted as useful for less demanding photographic situations and events. That means that the shutters will probably last for aout 40,000 actuations, and the other features of the bodies are sufficient to allow a good bit of photographic learning, though there are also plenty of step-up features to make it easier for those just graduating from point and shoot cameras.


If you want to guess how long 40,000 shutter clicks might last, think of how many rolls of film you shot in the past decade. If you shot more than 1,112 thirty-six exposure rolls of film, you need to move up a camera grade.

Understand that materials in these cameras are not quite the quality you’ll find even in $750 cameras, and that some features are not available. We can step through the features of two cameras to see the differences. I use a Pentax K20D in my work. It’s not the best camera available, but when I bought it, the price was $800, delivered. Today, that price is about $675. The Pentax K2000 is a beginner’s camera with enough features to keep most users quite happy for years. It will do most of what my K20D will do, but it won’t last as long, nor will it do as well in some more difficult arenas. The photo you see above is of my K10D, which I used last year, but turned in on a K20D.

$500 Camera Features

The K2000D offers shake reduction, a five area focus, a pop-up flash with a guide number of 11 at ISO 100, CCD shake dust reduction, a 10.2 MP sensor, 2.7” LCD, 3.5 frames for 5 frames continuous shooting in best JPEG, 4 frames for raw (because of the larger files). With batteries and SDHC card, it weighs only 22 ounces. It uses AA batteries, giving as many as 1,600 shots per set of lithium batteries, and can accept rechargeable AAs. This provides the ability to shoot all you want anywhere in the world, because AA batteries are a standard, and available almost everywhere. The K2000 is plastic over a stainless steel chassis. It is not weather-sealed. The viewfinder provides information on AF frame, spot AF frame, shake reduction, flash status, shutter speed, aperture, focus indicator, manual focus, EV compensation, AE lock indicator, ISO warning. The LCD monitor at 2.7” wide has 230,000 pixels.

If you want the camera to give you settings, there are scene modes for Night Scene, Surf & Snow, Food, Sunset, Kids, Pet, Candlelight, Museum, Stage Lighting, Night Snap. There are a host of other settings, many of which you can quickly glean at, in my view the current champ of camera reviews and other tech info for digital photography.

Compared to...

The Pentax K20D is a high end amateur/low cost pro camera that offers many more features than the basic K2000, or, until the K-7 came out, than any other Pentax camera. As a start, there’s a 14.6 megapixel CMOS sensor, live view mode (not the best, though), 2.7 inch 230,000 dot LCD, burst mode, allows 21fps shooting at 1.6MP resolution (up to 115 frames, dynamic range expansion mode, X-sync flash socket, image parameter settings (Custom image), color adjustable LCD monitor, compare mode in playback,32x zoom in playback, adjustable levels of high ISO noise reduction, sensitivities up to ISO 3200 (can be extended to 6400), rather than ISO 1600, dust alert for locating particles on the sensor pixel mapping to identify and correct for dead pixels, AF fine-tuning for as many as 20 chosen lenses. The K20D offers two dials on its right side, front and rear, for much more complete control of commands. It does not offer scene modes.

Look to for detail information on almost all cameras.

You have to select between models (and there are many), as well as brands, which is really all that makes the selection complex. I’ll trek further into the forest of lower cost DSLR cameras next time around.


  1. Interesting thoughts... I'm switching systems (almost carelessly wrote "downgrading") because my basic everyday tools are Nikon D300, 14-24 f/2.8, 55 Macro 2.8 and 70-200 VR 2.8 - all of which weighs just over 5 kilos and have gradually bent my 65-year young shoulders from ramrod straight to a slippery slope! Enter thoughts of an Olympus E-620 with 9-18, 50 macro and 50-200 lenses into the equation... at just over 2 kilos it's a no-brainer for both my health and wealth!

    Cheers, Ed Buziak.

  2. That's a load to carry. I'm toting a Pentax K20D, Sigma 50-150mm, 70-200mm, Pentax 12-24mm, and, at times, a Sigma 18-125mm. With batteries and similar addenda, it is heavy, but I'm afraid to weigh it all together. I'm badly in need of knee replacements, so that adds to the difficulty.

  3. Bonne Année Charlie... thought I'd make another posting after 18 months to say that for the past year I've done basically the same type and amount of photography (for the Alamy image agency) as before... but with a trio of 24mm, 55mm and 135mm manual Nikkors on my D300. Makes life in general a lot simpler and much more enjoyable when you can still do what you love with one camera and lens over your shoulder and a small, spare lens in each jacket pocket.