My Learning Curve - Part 1

2. Equipment - Introduction

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This section details my thoughts and experiences on equipment in general. For specific details on individual products please see my more detailed sections:

2 (i) Equipment - Cameras
2 (ii) Equipment - Lenses
2 (iii) Equipment - Other
2 (iv) Second-hand Equipment

Cameras

The Basics – For wildlife photography it is almost essential to use a digital SLR, they can be fitted with a range of high quality lenses each of which will be appropriate in differing situations and although this means more expense the images produced in a range of conditions will be superior with a digital SLR as compared to a compact digital. The range of lenses available may become your primary determinant in choice of camera!

A digital compact equipped with a zoom lens is a good ‘emergency’ camera when weight or volume are a priority but they usually suffer from a delay between pressing the shutter button and taking the picture (though this can be tolerated most of the time you will find it annoying at least some of the time). Ideally the compact should be able to shoot in RAW format but that greatly narrows your choice and restricts you to the higher end compacts. They can also be extremely slow at auto focusing and can be difficult to use outside of their preset/automatic modes.

Image noise is also less of an issue with digital SLR’s than compacts. I believe this is mainly a function of the size of the sensors employed in compacts which is smaller and has more densely packed photo sensitive receptors to produce the image, these smaller more densely packed receptors tend to suffer from digital noise to a greater degree than the larger sensor arrangements found in most digital SLR’s.

Compacts also have a greater depth of field, I believe this is due to the shorter distance between the sensor and the lens in most compacts compared to an SLR. This can be useful in some circumstances and definitely is one of their plus points in certain situations but overall most people prefer the greater opportunity for depth of field manipulation available from an SLR then a compact.

With regard to the make and model, that is a very personal choice. This will depend on your budget, the type of photography you wish to undertake, lenses you may already have, lenses you intend to buy, how the camera feels in your hands, your feelings on buying second hand, your locality etc. etc.

I would however suggest that you buy from a well known manufacturer and that the pixel sensor size is at least 7MP, ideally 10MP or more. However that is not to say you should be pixel obsessed, there is more to image quality than mega pixel count – comments regarding image quality are usually available on reputable camera review sites. On the whole, the more pixels you have the better image detail and most importantly for wildlife photography the more opportunity you have for cropping an image and still ending up with a reasonable quality image.

For most wildlife situations you can never have enough image magnification and your choice of camera can help here. If you choose a camera with a sensor size that gives a cropped image e.g. many Canon cameras have a 1.6 or 1.3 crop factor and Nikon’s mostly 1.5 when compared to a standard 35mm film camera. A Canon 20D or 30D therefore makes the image appear 1.6 times closer. This can be of great benefit as it effectively turns a 300mm telephoto lens (in 35mm film language) into a 480mm lens which roughly means you go from a magnification factor (in binocular terminology) of 6x to just over 9.6x.

Full frame digital SLR’s have a sensor size the same as a piece of 35mm negative film and hence are not cropped e.g. Canon 5D, these are great for wide angle shots because there is no increase in focal length, the lens performs at its designated focal length (in 35mm film terms). Full frame SLR’s tend to have a higher pixel count and suffer from less digital noise as the photo receptors can be larger and more widely spaced and so there is less interference between each and less heat issues which appparently leads to digital noise. All in all they tend to produce better images, but you do not have the cropping/magnification advantage. They are therefore ideal for close work and Landscapes.

For me I always try to use my full frame Canon 5D wherever possible but due to the advantages of the magnification effect of cropped cameras I inevitably end up using either a 20D or 30D most of the time.

Two other extremely important points are lens availability (you will spend a lot more money on lenses than you will on a camera body), lens quality and ancillary equipment compatibility (e.g. bags, tripod fixings etc.). Some manufacturers have many more lens choices and ancillary equipment compatibilities plus the opportunity for good second hand purchases than others, the obvious manufacturers that stand out in a positive way on these factors being Canon and Nikon.

Specific Thoughts - Link To - Digital Camera Resource, an extremely useful camera review site.

My personal decision matrix regarding camera purchase lead to Canon as my preferred manufacturer and a second hand Canon 20D as my starting point. Since then I have added a 5D a 30D and recently a 40D. Regarding the move from 30D to 40D, I have greatly appreciated the increased pixel count, dust reduction mechanism and larger viewing screen. If weather resistance, reliability, dust, noise or speed of auto focus ever became a serious issue for me personally with these cameras I would then look to an EOS 1D Mk3.

My priorities in arriving at this decision were as follows:

Choice of lenses
Quality of lenses
Image quality
RAW capability
Second hand buying opportunities for quality used equipment
Manual capability (i.e. aperture priority, shutter priority modes, full manual etc)
Greater than 7MP sensor
Cropped sensor (benefits of magnification effect)
Camera body durability
Auto focus system
Likely reliability and longevity
Size or rear viewing screen
Future product developments
Availability of information on camera and equipment usage

One point worth considering is camera choice and the problem of dust on the sensor. I have not owned any of the current cameras that have dust reduction systems but believe this would be a definite advantage particularly if you frequently changes lenses and are away from home a lot and so unable to easily clean your sensor when you need to.

From a personal perspective I really try to avoid changing lenses as much as possible. In fact I bought another camera body to specifically help reduce my frequency of lens changes. I have also found that I get more dust issues with cameras when they are newer and my 5d’s seem to be more dust prone than my 20D and 30D.

A word or warning regarding ‘dust’ on sensors, while removing what I thought was a piece of dust from one camera sensor it actually turned out to be a sliver of metal from the bayonet lens fitting. During the cleaning (I was just learning how to clean sensors then – please see my Lens Cleaning tips in the Other Thoughts section for my current safer methodology) I scrapped this piece of metal across the sensor and scratched the sensor in the process. This camera now has a slight mark on each picture I take though it is only noticeable when this scratched area is part of, say, a piece of sky in an image and so is easily ‘repaired’ in Photoshop.

When I first started I was paranoid about dust on the sensor and those nasty little specs they produce, however I am now far more relaxed about the situation and at the end of the day fix them in Photoshop where necessary.