What Digital Camera Is Best For Me?

Photos by MJ Klein

The other day, blogger Andres left this comment and I thought that the topic warranted a response in a main blog post in order to address it properly:

Andres said… I’ve been thinking about upgrading my camera and getting a DSLR. been deciding between the Canon 400D and the Nikon D80. been looking on the net for info and reviews and have been asking a few photographers and it seems to be 50/50 as to what everyone likes. it’s like asking coke or pepsi. one thing i hear a lot tho’ is that canons are better for portraits and since the main reason i wanna get a DSLR is to shoot our upcoming baby, i’m
leaning towards getting the 400D. plus, 400D is a bit less expensive than the D80.

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Good points.  Personally, I belong to the club of “It’s not the style, its the man” as we used to say about martial arts.  Volumes have been written about equipment vs: the photographer, such as this article by Ken Rockwell, entitledYour Camera Does Not Matter.”  This is a great read, and I highly recommend it.

However, the camera does matter in a single regard:  it should not be a limiting factor.  An excellent example of this phenomenon is Michael Turton’s recent acquisition of a new Canon.  Previous to that he was unable to capture certain types of shots, even though he could visualize and properly compose the shots.  The camera had certain technical limitations that prevented proper exposure and these limitations could not be worked around.  Clearly the only viable solution was a new camera.  All of us in the blogging community have witnessed a remarkable difference in Michael’s photography.  Clearly his previous camera was hindering his creativity.

In the case of the 2 cameras that Andres mentioned, the Canon 400D and the Nikon D80, neither of these candidates would be a limiting factor as they represent the current state of the art in DSLR technology.  But which one should you buy?

Good Question!

Back in the days when I was a recording engineer, my friend Robert called me up and asked me to come over his home and help him set up his listening area.  Music is very important to Robert and his wife so when they decorated their new home they designed a listening area.  One of the things that Robert insisted upon was that the system be “flat” and not add coloration to the music.  Robert, being a professional musician with studio experience, wanted to hear musical selections as the producer had created them.  I brought an analyzer over and spend painstaking hours setting up the placement of the loudspeakers (google “Haas zone”) and flattening the response with equalization.  When I was finally satisfied with the setup I asked Robert and his wife to come join me for some listening tests.

They were unimpressed.  Robert said that the sound was “unexciting” and that it lacked a certain dimension and depth.  After re-checking the analyzer and listening to some CDs that I had personally engineered and mixed, I was certain that the system’s response was accurate (as much as could be said in his home environment).  Still, Robert and his wife were disappointed.

I pushed up the high end response on the EQ and then added several DB of boost on the lower end.  Suddenly the couple’s eyes lit up.  “Wow, that sounds incredible!”

I have found that often people will buy the stereo system that is the loudest when they go to the store.  People like the “loudness” button for the same reason.  There is a low and high end boost that people find appealing.  But, those systems are not faithfully reproducing the sound in an accurate manner.

Now, back to photography.  Andres mentioned something very important when he said:
“one thing i hear a lot tho’ is that canons are better for portraits.”  I have read this too, but I also recall reading why this perception is commonplace – because the Canon does not faithfully reproduce the colors, but favors certain hues that make skin tones look pleasing. People like how their portraits look, just like music the stereo examples above.  The camera gives them more of something that pleases the eye, whether or not its for real.

But, please bear in mind that I read that, I did not originate that belief (in other words if you flame me about it your comments will be ignored).

To get an idea of what people are saying on this topic, check here.  Notice that this debate was going on before the advent of DSLRs!  Personally I think that the best camera for protraits is one handled by a photographer who is trained and has experience taking them.

Before I bought the D80, I considered several candidates, including of course, Canon cameras.  I like Canons very much but in the end I chose the D80 because of the feature set and Nikon’s legendary reputation for faithful color reproduction, lens selection and accessories.

But, all of these new DSLRs have impressive in-camera processing capabilities.  You can change how the camera records the images among a variety of parameters.

Shots Outside the Factory

I took this shot of a hibiscus using normal processing.  To my eye, the color of the flower and the background looks accurate (but remember that we are all viewing through computer monitors, so the best test is to have prints made by several different processors).  The camera was set to Normal, which is where I keep it for most of my work.

Shots Outside the Factory

This shot was processed by the camera for more vivid color and extra sharpness.  Notice the purple highlights and how bright the green background is.

The Nikon and the Canon will give you considerable range over “realness” and “eye candy” so I don’t think one has to worry about a particular camera being good or no good for portrait work, especially if you also consider the realm of post-processing software.  The main success of portraits revolves around the lens and the lighting.

Shots Outside the Factory

Longer length combination lenses just don’t have the sharpness that shorter lenses have.  I purchased 2 lenses.  This shot was taken with the 18~70mm lens and its about as sharp as one can get.  The gossamer spider web is impressively detailed against this background (view large!).  If one is interested in portraits, then I cannot recommend strongly enough that you purchase a portrait lens (around 100mm).  A versatile flash is also important for lighting the subject or the background as necessary.

Our professional wedding photos were taken by a photographer who used a D200.  But, he photoshopped every single file to get the results he wanted!

My advice is to look at the feature set of the camera – the functions it offers and how they are presented.  Some features are buried in a menu, others are available by single buttons or combinations.  What you do with a camera will be significantly influenced by the functionality of that camera.  If you are a point-and-shooter, then you probably won’t need to change shutter speeds and apertures very often.  If you use manual mode frequently then the ease of adjustment is very important.

But, in the end the truth is, no matter what camera you use to photograph a cute baby, all of the shots will be precious!

The cost of the D80 body in Taiwan at the time I purchased it was NT$28,000

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  1. you are always raving about Pentax Colby, and bitch about it when people don’t take your recommendations about buying one. truth is, you don’t own one either.

    you expect too much. no one is going to flame about Pentax because nobody cares. sorry.

  2. michael, thanks for the greatly informative post.

    before making my mind on getting a dslr, i was deciding between getting a dv and a dslr. if i had it my way, i would get both but karen said i can only get one (hey, gotta listen to the wife!). since i can already take video with my point & shoot digi cam (altho’ not very good quality), i decided to get a dslr.

  3. Andres, i hear you man!

    lemme know which one you decide upon.

    you’ve seen my D80 but i don’t think you’ve had a chance to actually use it. i’d be happy to meet you in Taipei sometime and let you shoot with it for awhile. when Michael Turton shot our wedding and reception he was very impressed with how easy it is to take great shots with the D80.

  4. One word for DSLR users.


    I know you don’t (can’t due to Linux?) shoot RAW Michael, but I’m a firm advocate of shooting in RAW.

    Shooting in RAW does require some extra computing time, but you can set everything up to auto on the computer if you want and that’ll allow you to do the processing on import.

    While shooting in JPG is fine for most people and all you really need for the web (a friend of mine shoots for AP and shoots in jpg), a JPG file is saved with “lossy” compression. That means that some of the picture data is thrown away. Shooting in RAW captures all the data.

    The best analogy I’ve heard is that RAW is like a having a slide/negative, whereas JPG is like having a print.

    I mostly use Adobe Lightroom to process RAW files and can process things pretty quickly (I shoot stock photos, so have to shoot RAW). Photoshop CS3 (which I also use) has the same RAW processing engine, and both the 400D and D80 are supported by PS CS2, although the RAW engine is a generation earlier. Plus, both cameras come with some basic RAW processing software – I’m not familiar with Nikon, but Canon’s DPP that ships with Canon DSLR’s is very good.

    Andres, if you’re after any more info about RAW that I can help you with, let me know

  5. cfi, yes, raw is an option, however i have never shot anything that required it. the file size hit is considerable and nearly all of my shots are not worth it, quite frankly. i shoot for the blog and for occasional prints. jpeg is good enough for that. linux support for images and digital video is nearly on par with the Mac, and i can certainly use Digikam to handle raw images if i wish (funny but i was just looking at the file format menu yesterday). the D80 shoots all imaginable combinations of raw, raw+jpeg of various sizes, etc.

    you got me thinking about doing some experimentation though. that is one area that i haven’t explored yet. thanks for the informative comments.

  6. Another Taiwan Blogger in the market for a new camera! I am leaning towards the Nikon D40 because of its price and with the money I save (over say a D80) I could buy all the accessories I will need.

    I have been having some on the job stress lately, so if cooler heads prevail and I don’t quit my job next week, I’ll probably buy it sometime next month.

  7. hey Todd, nice to see your comment. be sure and let us know which model you chose and make sure you post plenty of photos on your blog!

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