Choosing Your First Camera

If you have just decided to join in the photographer’s club, well it is much easier now with digital. You don’t have to worry about having the wrong speed film in your body when going indoor or having the wrong temperature for the wrong lighting. Even the ‘prosumer’ cameras can take breath-taking pictures!
My first digital camera was actually a prosumer Fujifilm FinPix 4900. You can read its review here at dpreview.

DSLR or Compact Prosumer?

I paid SGD$1,400 for it at Harvey Norman, only to find out that you can buy it for less than SGD$1,000! What a ripped off!

And after using it for a while, I don’t quite like it because its battery life is really short! Something like after taking 100 photos (without flash) and the battery will be completely flat! And it takes ages for the camera to start up which by then I have already missed whatever I want to shoot. And most of all, the image quality was not I want.

The next digital camera which I bought was the Nikon D70. I paid a premium (SGD$2,200) for it when it was just launched. It was everything the 4900 wasn’t. It fired up instantaneously upon switching on, it can take more than 2,000 photographs before recharging, and most importantly, it can take my older Nikon F mount lenses. And now my dad uses it for his photography hobby.

The prosumer is always attractive when pricing and budget is concerned. You won’t feel bad if your new photography interest goes into the bin after 3 months. And you don’t have to lug around 10 kg of gears with you. But these days, prosumer camera offers pretty good resolution and colour reproduction.

However, the sensor size, firmware, and the build-in lens will not be able to give you the kind of depth of field, contrast, high ISO vs low noise quality, burst shots, or colour reproduction of a full fledge DSLR.

Nothing beats the sound of the shutter slamming and the whining sound of the focusing motor. Besides, using a DSLR you can learn the fundamentals properly, be able to do bracketing shots, experiment with HDR photography using RAW file, and quickly access to exposure compensation, change ISO settings, or exposure mode without having to enter deep into the menu (well at least for Nikon cameras).

Used DSLR for a start

DSLR can be affordable for beginners. The used market for DSLR and lenses has matured since the days of the D70. You can get a Nikon D2X for a mere SGD1,200 from the shops, or a 3 months old D5100 for SGD$800.

In fact, most of the time I would recommend my friends to buy a used DSLR body first before investing in a new DSLR. This is because most likely after a few months you would have given up or got tired of the hobby. And also, a used DSLR will allow you to know what additional functions you would prefer to have in the next DSLR you will invest in. For example, do you really need that 8 FPS capabilities to shoot your daughter running around the garden.

Some of my friends are worried about buying ‘lemon’ used DSLR. Well, the DSLR today are made so well that I have yet came across anyone’s DSLR that develop a fault. NEVER!!? My D70 and D2X are still functioning perfectly till today. The only problem I have is with the battery.

The most vulnerable part due to wear and tear in a DSLR is the shutter. All DSLR shutter has a lifespan. The Nikon D700’s kevlar carbon shutter has a lifespan of 150,000 shots! To paint a picture of how long it will last, imagine if you take 1,250 photographs every month. It will take 10 years for the shutter to fail! For the entry level DSLR the numbers usually falls close around 80,000 to 100,000.

Here’s a link to a database which records the break down frequency and lifespan of shutters of the various make and model.

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Functions & Lenses Consideration

When purchasing a DSLR, one must remember that the system is comprises of two elements – the body and the lens. Both body and lens comes in various level of functions and build quality. And for Nikon bodies, there are generally three level: entry level body, semi-professional body, and professional body. As for Nikkor lenses, most professional lenses are at least a F/2.8 and smaller (ie F/1.4)

The camera body is responsible for:

  • Auto-focusing algorithm speed
  • Auto focusing accuracy
  • Picture quality and noises
  • Pixel count
  • Shooting speed

While the lens will determine:

  • Sharpness
  • Contrast
  • Colour
  • Bokeh (out of focus area)
  • Depth of field
  • Focusing speed
  • Stabilisation
  • Low light/indoor capabilities

As you can see, the lens accounts for most of the crucial elements for a beautiful photograph. However most beginners focus too much on the body than the lens. Just remember, the life-cycle of camera bodies are much shorter than lenses’ life-cycle. So in a few years time your camera body will become obsolete while good lenses last for decades.

Therefore, if you don’t shoot sports event, an entry level DSLR with a good lens can be very satisfying. Having said that, having a good body and good lens will NOT necessarily means you will take good photographs. FUNDAMENTALS of photography is the key.

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Chi Siang Written by:

Hi! I am a Singaporean who used to work and live in Saigon for 6 years. I am married to my Vietnamese wife and we travel back to Saigon regularly. My years living amongst the Vietnamese and not amongst the expats community, gave me an unique insight into Vietnamese people, their culture, and their way of life.

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