Sunday, May 15, 2011

Looking at DSLR's

One of the things that annoys me about my current ultra-zoom camera is that its performance in anything other than perfect outdoors light is abysmal. The basic problem with ultra-zoom point-and-shoots is that the sensor is tiny. This is necessary in order to get sufficient crop factor so you can get a 30x zoom without needing a lens the size of a telescope, but also means that the pixels on the sensor are teeny tiny and don't get many photons hitting them except during broad daylight outdoors. The fact that many of the ultra-zooms use antiquated CCD sensor technology rather than backlighted CMOS technology doesn't help either.

This same issue -- the small size of the sensor -- also means that the sensors are really noisy at fast shutter speeds with low light (i.e., high ISO). Think about it this way. Say there's 100 photons that hit the pixel in a DSLR-sized sensor. That means there's 1% noise -- one more photon may have been coming in but got cut off. But an ultra-zoom's pixel is 1/10th the size. So only 10 photons hit the pixel. So that's 10% noise -- because one more photon is 10% of that pixel now. The results generally look pretty grainy, sometimes with odd colorations in small places. This also means that you can't deal with contrast as easily, since you have fewer photons hitting a pixel and thus less contrast to pull out and enhance if you need to do so.

Add in the relatively poor quality of the lenses typically used with ultrazooms, which are subject to chromatic distortions and fisheying around the edges, and the quality of photos taken by even good ultra-zooms is not anywhere near a DSLR's. There simply is no substitute for sensor size if you're trying to gather sufficient photons to make a good picture.

So I have two possibilities here. I can either step up to a new ultra-zoom with the new more sensitive CMOS sensors rather than my mediocre (by today's standards) POS, or I can just gulp, swallow, and buy a DSLR with the zoom lens that I need for outdoor photography. So here's what I'm looking at for DLSR's:

  • Sony A560 14.2 megapixel DSLR. Note that Sony bought Minolta's camera business in 2006, this uses Minolta lenses, which are about $100 cheaper than everybody else's lenses. Which is important, because this camera is $699, *but* the lens it comes with is only about a 2.3x zoom (1.5 crop on the sensor compared to 35mm film). I tested it in the store today and definitely need more zoom to get the shots I want to get.
  • Tamron AF 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di LD Aspherical (IF) Macro Ultra Zoom Lens for Minolta and Sony Digital SLR Cameras Which is $389.99 from Amazon. Which, believe me, is *cheap* for a lens with this kind of flexibility, basically for anything other than panoramas this is the only lens I'd need for outdoor shooting. Fully zoomed out is about 1.2x (compared to a fixed 35mm lens on a 35mm camera), fully zoomed in is about 12.9x (compared to a fixed 35mm lens). Combined with the multitude of pixels which will allow cropping to decent resolutions, this should be plenty for what I need.
So going to the DSLR will cost me roughly $1100 for the camera and lens I need for the shots I want to make outdoors. Vs. $450 for a Sony DSC-HX100V/B Ultra-zoom. Which isn't actually available at the moment due to a slight tsunami problem, but that'll get remedied.

Oh yeah, why Sony? Basically, the electronics are getting spectacularly better every year. The sensors get more sensitive, the processors that interpret the sensors and turn the raw capacitor levels into colors get better every year, and so the newest camera is most likely to be the best camera (within reason). Sony and Nikon are the most recent to update and have the best sensors of all the DSLR's and ultrazooms in their class. From a viewpoint of raw hardware they're roughly equivalent. But Sony has better processing software for things like, e.g., in-camera panorama processing that actually works and in-camera HDR on their DSLR (if you don't know what HDR is, you've never tried to take a picture of a mineshaft from the outside on a bright day, without HDR it is devilishly hard to get sufficient detail to show up, either part of the photo is washed out or part is just black). Even the HX100V is a lot better than my current ultrazoom in those respects. I just have to decide whether I want to invest over $1K in camera equipment that is bulkier and doesn't have as much ability to zoom in when outdoors (but which takes much better pictures in low-light conditions and focuses much faster)...

-- Badtux the Technology Geek Penguin


  1. While your logic is semi-sound you will soon find that you are limited in expansion of a camera kit when you get outside the Canon and/or Nikon brand. And, trust me on this one, once you start using a DSLR you will want to expand with better lens and bodies.
    Check out the buy/sell forum on and also the good used items available at Both offer extremely good values on quality used items. I have purchased from both sources and both are reliable.
    The rule for camera equipment is the same as for computers; Buy the very best you can afford! Bigger, Better & Faster is the name of the game.

  2. I'm not a camera guy, but my decades-long good friend Catherine (see my blogroll) has won a couple of prizes, had some exhibits placed prominently in Houston, etc. etc. She ran into a similar problem with noise in photos she tried to submit to stock-photo companies: they really don't like those noisy pixels. I don't know what specific cameras/lenses she ended up choosing, but I do remember the cameras are from Canon. It may say on her site what she's using now. (Sorry no link from here; her house was broken into recently, and I'm exercising an overabundance of caution.)

  3. Uhm, Dave, every major lens vendor makes Minolta (Sony) lenses, generally releasing them at the same time as their Canon or Nikon lenses because they use an adapter base rather than a fixed base. The lens I've selected for my outdoors shooting is a Tamron lens also available for Canon and Nikon (except it costs $100 more for Canon and Nikon due to design decisions made by Minolta that make their lenses cheaper by moving things into the camera body that other vendors require lens vendors to put into the lens). Tamron makes good lenses BTW (and are part-owned by Sony so Minolta/Sony support is likely to continue), this is one of their "value" lenses (yes, in DSLR world a $500 lens is a "value" lens!) and thus has a few compromises but not ones that matter for what I intend to use it for, which is quick-fire outdoors photography to capture wildlife at varying distances. (The stock kit lens is plenty for the kitteh photos and garden porn).

    Regarding hotshoes, the Minolta hotshoe isn't the same as the Canon/Nikon hotshoe but there's an adapter. Any accessory that fits the Canon/Nikon hotshoe will work with the Minolta/Sony hotshoe with this adapter.

    What you *will* find is that local camera shops usually only stock Canon and Nikon. But local camera shops are becoming as much relics of the past as cobblers and hat shops. And good riddance to most of them, IMHO, because I've never met a bigger bunch of arrogant customer-hating assholes than the typical staff of the typical camera store, who believe they're doing you a favor by taking your money rather than providing the sort of customer service that would make me want to buy from them rather than from We're down to one camera store in the entire South Bay area, and I have no idea how they stay in business because a bigger bunch of flaming assholes you'll never find outside of a GOP convention.

    Canon right now doesn't have a current-generation camera -- their cameras are all previous-generation cameras with previous-generation (less sensitive) sensors and previous-generation (less capable) processor chips. Nikon does have a current generation DSLR. It doesn't do some of the things I want it to do though, and Nikon lenses are more expensive because all image stabilization and focusing is done in the lens, none of it is done in the camera body. This results in bulkier heavier more expensive lenses.

    Do note that if you're not intending to take photographs of the entrances of mine shafts, the lack of in-camera HDR support in the Nikon is unlikely to affect you. Same thing regarding the 3D panorama support in the Sony, that'll be a blast for my shut-in relatives in Louisiana who have no opportunity to see these landscapes first-hand due to various health issues. Note you can do these with the Nikon with external software, but that software is quite expensive and doesn't work as well as Sony's in-camera software because Sony has information from sensors that don't get embedded into image formats. I have no intention of spending megabucks for professional image processing software when for the most part the rudimentary image processing available to me via iPhoto and The Gimp have proven plenty.

    - Badtux the Nature Photographing Penguin
    (Hey, cats are nature, right?)

  4. There's an argument to be made against the bigger/heavier cameras and lenses, too: it's definitely harder to just whip out your camera and grab a photo of something fleeting.

  5. Steve, camera companies are like computer companies, they're always leapfrogging each other to have the latest greatest. Until Nikon and Sony released their latest entry-level DSLR's in October 2010, Canon's entry-level DSLR's were the best. Now it's Sony and Nikon's (both are best for different things, it just happens that *for my particular applications* Sony gives me more of what I want).

    - Badtux the Technology Penguin

  6. Minerva, that's a good point.

    Popular Photography, for kicks, compared a Sony HX100V against the Nikon D5100 entry-level DSLR. In outdoor photography the HX100V only captures about 70% as much detail as the Nikon (which is pretty much identical to the Sony that I've mentioned elsewhere), and of course is relatively useless indoors due to its relative lack of sensitivity (1/14th the sensor size, doh). On the other hand, it's 1/3rd the size and weight for high zoom, and picks up 15% more detail than last year's best ultra-zoom was as well as being roughly twice as sensitive as last year's best ultra-zoom due to the shift from a CCD sensor to a back illuminated CMOS sensor. And note that my current ultra-zoom is *not* last year's best, it's two years old now, which is forever in technology years...

    The reality is that the consumer of my photos is this web site and friends and relatives who will only view the photos on their personal computers in scaled down version, not magazines or stock photography shops. So the question of whether I should fork out $1400 for an entry-level DLSR plus all kit necessary to make it work, or $500 for an ultra-zoom and kit (extra battery is the "kit" in this case), is a good one. What the DSLR gets me is greater detail, greater contrast ability (due to being able to pick up more detail at lower light levels), and faster speed (since the larger sensor needs less time to pick up sufficient photons to compose a photo). The expense is that for a comparable zoom level, it's roughly three times the size, weight, and cost ($500 vs. $1500, realistically speaking). I can afford it. But the question is, do I need it? The answer is "no"... but the decision is still not an easy one to make because the DSLR will still pick *much* more detail out of the entry of that mine shaft than the ultrazoom, due to its far better sensitivity. Siiiiiigh!

    - Badtux the Decision-pondering Penguin

  7. Tux, the decision is simple -- which camera will make the kitties look better? Just accept that being cat-owned has some financial penalties...

  8. Ouch. We both know which camera that is, Marc -- the $$$ camera :( . The kittehs would look simply MAHvelous, they say...

    - Badtux the Cat-owned Penguin

  9. Tux, best bet for buying good quality like-new camera gear is from the Fred Miranda website. I've got no skin in that game at all, I've bought some gear from people selling there, but I love that it's not full of scam artists like eBay and has high quality gear from real photographers who take care of their equipment. and visit there forums to sign up (free) to purchase through the buy and sell forum. They ask for a small payment only if you are going to sell there, buying is free. Plus, all participants, both buyers and sellers, are rated by each other and many of them are photographers who know each other professionally.

    You can get a better quality camera for less money that will be as good as new.

    I also second staying in the Canon/Nikon realm as they have the best bang for the buck and the widest range of available brand name and independent (like Tamron or Tokina) lenses.

  10. You might want to look into Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens Cameras (i.e. EVIL). They have the larger sensors but no flip up mirror like an SLR.

  11. Tom, the thing is that the very latest sensors and processors, used on the very latest Nikon and Sony/Minolta cameras, are significantly better than even last year's sensors. Basically a brand new Nikon D5100 mid-grade or "step up" DSLR for $800 has a better sensor than a two-year old "professional grade" camera that cost $2500 two years ago, its sensor is more sensitive and its processor can process data significantly faster (i.e., can process data and save it to flash faster). You'll likely find better lenses attached to that "professional grade" camera than typically would be attached to an entry level DSLR, but DSLR technology has taken a huge leap these past two years.

    As long as Sony owns part of Tamron, I'm not worried about getting decent-quality lenses for the Sony/Minolta cameras.

    Jim, I looked at the EVIL cameras. Thing is, I saw some significant downsides to the technology of the cameras I looked at, such as significantly slower autofocus on some or reduced sensitivity on others, and given that I will have a fairly bulky telephoto lens attached due the fact I intend to do outdoors photography with the thing, the smaller size of the EVIL cameras is irrelevant.

  12. Tux, the Fred Miranda site has new cameras. A lot of these folks buy multiple cameras, especially the studio photogs, and turn them around rapidly. I've seen Canon 7d and 60d cameras there, the latest models. You're right about the sensors but if you want to save money on an essentially new and latest model camera you'd be crazy not to give the buy and sell forum a look. Even if you want a Sony.

  13. Where used would work best, I think, would be with lenses, because people buy lenses, decide it doesn't fit their needs, and sell them. And lenses are a mature technology -- glass is glass, and hasn't changed in a hundred years. Not like sensors.

    I suppose I could wait to see what Canon comes up with on their next refresh of the Rebel line. I'll have to wait anyhow, since Sony's out of stock at the moment due to their slight tsunami problem...

    - Badtux the Waiting Penguin


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