Friday, 29 August 2008

Brand and Model Perspectives

Cross-section of SLRImage via Wikipedia

I shoot an Olympus e-510 DSLR, a Kodak P-880, an Olympus C-750Z and a Nikon 775. Yes, I do still shoot with the Nikon 775 even though it is a 2MP camera with a slovenly response to tripping the shutter release. And I used to shoot two Minolta film SLRs - the XE-1 and the X-700. I'm saying all this so that I can share some perspectives with you. Notice, I say, my perspectives - they are not the absolute fact - perspectives are what you develop when you intend to buy a new camera, particularly a DSLR.

Most newbies are told to go to a shop and hold / handle a few cameras. Some use that handling to make up their mind, but often we see newbies come back to the forum, none the wiser. So much for that - they are so new to the DSLR business, they listen to the salesman, they listen to more experienced forum posters and they still can't make up their mind. Because they don't have sufficient discrimination to eliminate a brand or a model.

My perspective is towards entry level DSLRs by the way, so, here goes.

Canon

Canon is a big brand - it makes pro level 35mm equivalent DSLRs (called "full frame") as well as chic IXUS point and shoot cameras. I know people and have recommended Canon point and shoots, particularly the Powershot A Series that are good value for money. I have no shooting buddies near me that have Canon DSLRs although I have some friends who have Canon DSLRs. As a Pro brand, you will find some of the sharpest, well built, brightest, heaviest lenses made by Canon in the world. If you saw the Olympics or sports meets, there would be a whole brace of Canon Pro sports shooters with big white lenses.

If you intend to be a Pro sports shooter, a Pro journalist, then Canon is one of two brands that is a no brainer choice. Be prepared to spend big bucks for quality. Be prepared to carry heavy gear. Be prepared to insure your gear. I would expect lens rentals and repair facilities to be available given the demands of the Pro photographers.

But what do the Canon entry level DSLRs offer you?

  1. A reputation inherited from the Pro gear (whether practical or not). The ability to buy a Pro quality, expensive lens if you wanted to.
  2. Reasonable, competitive features.
  3. Better low light pictures given the same type of kit lens as the other brands.
  4. You can buy non Canon brand lenses from third party makers.
  5. You can use second hand, autofocus, meant-for-film Canon lenses.

What I don't like about Canon?

  1. The right hand grip from the earlier entry level models - it didn't feel right in my hand (you may feel differently).
  2. The perception that I have to buy more expensive, better range lenses (bigger as well) if I wanted some respectable sharpness and performance).
  3. The perception that the earlier entry level kit lens was not "nice"
  4. No in body sensor shift image stabilisation

Our perceptions are clouded by our prior experience - I had had no prior experience with Canon film or digital bodies.

Nikon

Nikon is the other Pro brand in cameras. My comments about Nikon Pro cameras would be similar to Canon, except that Nikon has only recently arrived on the full frame, 35mm sensor scene. With Nikon though, I have some empathy. My photo mentor when I was in school carried a Nikon. My nearest photo buddies carry Nikon DSLRs. I have held the Nikon D40, D40x, D300 in my hands and came away happy with the feel of the bodies in my hand, the silky sleekness of operation.

What do Nikon entry level DSLRs offer you?

  1. The very cheapest models feel good in your hands and are quite small in terms of bulk - almost like the small Olympus bodies. Once you fit non kit lenses on though, the bulk increases significantly, although with the new kit lenses, the package still looks attractive.
  2. The ability to fit a long heritage of older Nikon lenses, even manual focus ones.
  3. The ability to fit Nikon Pro quality, expensive lenses.

What I don't like about Nikons?

  1. Features in the cheaper bodies have been purposely truncated so as not to draw sales away from their mid-range and Pro level bodies. For example, exposure bracketing and depth of field preview.
  2. Some older, meant-for-film autofocus Nikon lenses will not motorise on the cheapest Nikon bodies.
  3. No in body sensor shift image stabilisation

Olympus

Olympus has always been a maverick. The famous designer was Y. Maitani - he designed not only the famous OM-1 film SLR but even very unique and special small cameras like the XA. Olympus is not a big camera company. They have skills and reputation in microscopes (I used them when I was studying Materials Engineering).

When it came to the DSLR world, the story goes that Olympus never had an established auto focus film SLR - (maybe the autofocus idea generated bulky film bodies and bulky autofocus lenses which were not the Maitani style) - so they decided to maverick it again and produce an E-System using a smaller Four Thirds Sensor. The Four Thirds organisation has a few members - Kodak, Panasonic, Leica and Sigma. They just announced the micro Four Thirds Standard - which is about using the same sensor size, having a shorter flange distance to the removable lens mount - we're all waiting to see what kind of EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens) camera body will eventuate. Existing Four Thirds lenses will mount on a micro Four Thirds body with an adaptor and autofocus.

Olympus contribute body design ideas and probably body chassis to Panasonic Lumix DSLR cameras.

What do Olympus entry level DSLRs offer you?

  1. A well designed, optimised (sharpness vs cost vs size) pair of kit lenses.
  2. The smallest bodies amongst the competitors (although certainly bigger than a compact camera).
  3. A from-new line of lenses from Olympus and Leica. Some re-engineered lenses from Sigma
  4. The ability to fit (with inexpensive eBay adapters) manual focus second hand lenses from Olympus, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax K, M42 Screw Thread, Nikon.
  5. In body sensor shift image stabilisation
  6. A 2x sensor crop factor so your effective telephoto magnification for the same optical focal length has more reach. A 200mm optical focal length lens will give you 400mm of reach.

What is less to like about Olympus?

  1. A smaller sensor, so slightly more grainy photos at ISO levels above 400.
  2. The 4:3 aspect ratio vs the 3:2 aspect ratio of the other brand's APS-C sensors.
  3. The 2x sensor crop factor will make legacy and current lenses less wide. A 24mm optical focal length will become 48mm focal length effectively, meaning it isn't wide any more.
  4. Less lens choices and no legacy auto-focus second hand lenses.
  5. A less than sharp viewfinder (makes focussing those manual focus lenses hit and miss)

Pentax

Pentax is a very senior brand. It was a peer competitor to my previous favourite and deceased brand, Minolta. Neither were able to compete with Canon and Minolta in the heavy duty, big time Pro photographer market, although there were Pros who did use both brands. In their film SLRs Pentax stayed with the M42 screw thread mount (called the Pentax / Practika mount) a long time. They are a small company but they have recently merged with Hoya Glass who make optical filters, spectacle lenses. They also work closely with Samsung and some of their DSLRs are rebadged and sold by Samsung with some changes.

What do Pentax DSLRs offer you?

  1. Very good value for money. In fact, probably the lowest price possible for a DSLR, particularly the older models.
  2. A variety of "primes" - single focal length lenses that are small and light.
  3. A variety of lenses including second hand manual focus lenses (M42 screw, Pentax K mount). New lenses are either Pentax branded or Samsung and Schneider Kreuznach approved. Sigma are a major lens supplier.
  4. Utilitarian features - well thought out, photographer's features rather than the latest "I have this feature too" ideas.
  5. In body sensor shift image stabilisation

What is less to like about Pentax?

  1. The reliance and close association with Sigma means that the lens feel and build quality do not have the Nikon / Canon "feel". That does not mean Sigma / Pentax lenses are not adequate.
  2. The surface finish and general feel may not be up to the standard of a Nikon.

Sony

Sony had been making digital compact cameras for a long time. When they wanted to get into the DSLR business, Minolta happened to be looking for a buyer for their camera business, so Sony bought the Minolta camera and DSLR business. With that, they introduced the first Sony DSLR, the Alpha 100. Soon after, Sony, with much investment in technology and development, introduced a brace of new Alpha models, incorporating more Sony ideas. Sony have an extensive optical, digital business in still cameras, TV cameras and TV technology, just like their competitor Panasonic.

What do Sony DSLRs offer you?

  1. The Sony brand, support and service network, retail and point of sale network. IT'S A SONY! Competitive and keen pricing.
  2. Engineering money and engineers galore - they too are technology mavericks.
  3. Minolta personnel and expertise from the previous Minolta DSLRs.
  4. Second hand, Minolta Auto Focus Lenses, new Sony branded ones and Carl Zeiss branded lenses.
  5. In body sensor shift image stabilisation

What is less to like about Sony?

  1. The kit lenses are not the sharpest.
  2. Some features purposely left out on the entry level bodies.
  3. A peculiar left - right weight balance caused by cramming articulating large LCD panels in the body.

Sometimes choosing a brand from these is first preluded by - "Do you have a problem with not buying a universally accepted Pro brand like Canon and Nikon". Your photos may not and will probably not be different but the chip on the shoulder may show through. If you have no problems, then you can continue on to enjoy choosing from a wider range of brands.

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