It’s time to get a better camera (Part 1)

I bought my first digital camera in the year 2000. It was a Canon Digital ELPH S100. The screen was only slightly larger than my thumb. The pictures it took could barely fill an 8 x10 frame. It had almost no zoom capability.

And it was AWESOME.

Check out that zoom!

Check out that zoom!

I wasn't lying about how tiny the screen was.

I wasn’t lying about how tiny the screen was.

Back then, digital cameras were still for early adopters only. Apple’s iPhoto — the first real application to make importing photos, organizing them, and then ordering prints as easy as it should be — wouldn’t be released for almost two more years. But, man, was that little camera cool. Suddenly I was free to experiment with taking pictures in a way not possible before. I walked around my parents’ home and took hundreds of pictures, just trying different angles, exposures, etc.

Nursery2 Study4 Bedroom1

It doesn’t hurt that my Mom is an incredible decorator. In sunlight, the photos were even better.

517 200205041254025 536

I didn’t have to pay for film or development. I didn’t have to wait for a contact sheet with a preview of my pics. I just went to my room, imported the photos onto my PowerMac G4, and started messing with them even more. With some tweaking — and no formal training whatsoever — I was able to make pictures like these…

This is a simulated "tilt-shift" photo, where blur is used to create a "miniature" effect.

This is a simulated “tilt-shift” photo, where blur is used to create a “miniature” effect.

I can't even remember how I did this. I do know this: It was before anyone could do it in one click.

I can’t even remember how I did this “paint” effect, but I do know this: It was way before it could be done in with a filter. (Click to make bigger)

The camera certainly had its drawbacks, though. The photos maxed out at 2 megapixels (yes, I said “2”). Lighting had to be excellent or else you’d have to use the flash, and flash pictures never looked good. The biggest issue for me was the zoom, though. It was practically non-existent. You HAD to be close to your subject to get a decent photo because cropping in post just wasn’t an option (you’d lose way too much data).

So the first thing I did when I moved to Los Angeles a few years later was buy a new camera.  Digital SLR cameras were a thing by this time, but they were way too expensive. So I opted for a Minolta Dimage.

Not quite a DSLR, but still a big step up from the PowerShot.

Not quite a DSLR, but still a big step up from the ELPH.

It didn’t have interchangeable lenses, but it came with an excellent zoom, a fair amount of manual control, and a better image sensor than the ELPH. I used this camera for many a film project, to augment my digital video work with high resolution photography. Some examples of what the Minolta could do that the ELPH couldn’t…

The better zoom made it possible to get shots with a shallower depth of field.

The better zoom made it possible to get shots with a shallower depth of field (i.e. blurrier backgrounds while the foreground remains sharp).

The larger sensor made it easier to catch action. Click on the pic to make it bigger and note how the ball stays in focus.

The larger sensor made it easier to catch action. Click on the pic to make it bigger and note how the moving ball is completely in focus.

The camera worked better indoors than the Digital ELPH, but it still needed the flash more than I liked. So a few years later, when NBC hired me to produce web content for them, I took the opportunity to upgrade again. Bigger sensor and interchangeable lenses were a must this time, as I’d be shooting a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff indoors, at night, and from afar. It was finally time for… a true DSLR! My first.

You always remember your first.

You always remember your first.

I had read a preview of the Olympus E-420 in Popular Science where they billed it as the smallest DSLR soon-to-be on the market. It also had a diminutive price tag to match its diminutive stature (not to mention its diminutive 5’5″ owner). I snatched it up as soon as it came out.

This photo of the whole set from an episode of KNIGHT RIDER (2008) just wouldn't have possible with my Minolta.

This photo of an outdoor, night-time set from KNIGHT RIDER (2008) wouldn’t have been possible with the ELPH or Dimage. (I don’t think)

The even larger sensor yet, not to mention the variety of lenses, allowed me to take photos I just couldn’t take before.

I thought I had finally made it to the big leagues… and then I saw photos that our Production Assistant took with her early Canon DSLR (a 20D, I believe). Her photos were MUCH better than mine, even though my camera was almost 4 years newer. She took photos of a barely lit soundstage that were just too grainy when shot with my E-420. Even though our cameras were both DSLRs, the sensors were completely different.  My Olympus is what’s called a Four-Thirds system. Her Canon was an APS-C system.  The major difference between those systems? Her sensor was bigger than mine.

The Olympus has served me well, but it’s time to upgrade yet again. I want to shoot a short film during hiatus and my Olympus (like most DSLRs from its era) can’t do video. Up until now I’ve always had separate video and still cameras, but my video camera is ancient, too. I could buy seperate gear again, but why do that if I don’t have to? Over the last couple years, the video capabilities of DSLR cameras have begun to rival (and even surpass) the quality of similarly priced camcorders. Time to finally move up to an APS-C camera, no? Something that can ably handle both stills and video? Something like, say, a Canon T4i or Nikon D5200, still cameras that excel at video for people on a budget?

Canon T4i (Photo from canon.com)

Canon T4i

That’s exactly what I was about to do. I was fully prepared to buy one of those two cameras until… I read that Canon and Nikon were now starting to put “full frame” sensors into “prosumer” cameras.  Until recently, full frame sensors could only be found in high end cameras for professionals (at high end prices for professionals). For a regular joe like me to have one would be overkill, unless I wanted to start photographing weddings (which I would be TERRIBLE at; I’d take about a hundred pictures of the cake from every angle with every lens at every shutter speed and maybe two of the Bride).

What’s the big deal about a full frame sensor? The image sensor is even bigger yet, which means even better low light performance (not to mention better quality all-around). Quality low light shooting has always been my achilles heal. It’s the thing I’ve been yearning for ever since the ELPH. Sure, if I got the T4i, I’d be happy for now. It’d definitely perform better than the E-420, not to mention allow me to shoot video in 1080P with a selection of lenses. But any APS-C set-up would still require a fair amount of lighting work to be done to get the shot right, especially in video mode.  With a full frame sensor, I could do more with less. A lot less. The learning curve would be steeper, but it’d be worth it to get the highest quality video I can get. I don’t have room in the budget to hire a full lighting crew, so I need to be able to maximize available light as much as I can.

The Canon 6D and the Nikon D600 are both full frame DSLRs made for people stepping up from smaller sensor cameras. They are designed to be an amateur photographer/videographer’s first full frame (kinda like how the BMW 3 series or the Mercedes C-class is supposed to be someone’s first luxury car). The Canon 6D is in particular a techie’s delight with its built-in WIFI and GPS. The camera seems to be made specifically for a tech guy like me, so that’s the camera I got, right?

When I was a kid, my family had a few still cameras, but only one was considered the “good” family camera. That’s the one my parents bought for their use, not for the kids to mess around with. While the kids played with polaroids, Mom and Dad had their 35mm film camera. The good camera. But, sadly, there comes a day in every kid’s life when you realize that your family’s “good” [insert item here] isn’t as good as some other family’s “good” [insert item here].

I can't remember the brand, but our family's "good" camera looked something like this.

I can’t remember the brand, but our family’s “good” camera looked something like this.

Now’s my chance to level the playing field. Buchman Family 2.0 might not live in a house as nice as Buchman Family 1.0, but we’ll have a kickass camera, goshdarnit.  It’ll be the best camera any Buchman has ever owned. We’ll have the “good” camera that will put my future children’s friends’ parents’ “good” cameras to shame.

The Canon 6D is not that camera. And neither is the Nikon D600. Yes, both are designed just for people like me. But I won’t be me for that much longer. (Huh?) What I mean is… The camera I buy now will be our camera for years. And it isn’t just for family photos and vacation video. I will be doing some professional work with this camera, too, just like I did with the Olympus. And I need the best video capabilities possible for the film I plan to shoot.  A year from now, I don’t want to feel hamstrung because I went with the best camera for 2013 Eric and not 2014 Eric.

So what did I choose? Tune into Part 2

3 thoughts on “It’s time to get a better camera (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Meanwhile, over on the tech blog… | buchnotes

  2. Pingback: It’s time to get a better camera (Part 2) | TECH GUY ERIC

  3. Pingback: Why I switched from Canon to Sony | TECH GUY ERIC

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