Plenty of camera gear announcements are usually made at the CES Show which started yesterday in Las Vegas. No doubt there will be a plethora of equipment that will stimulate the Gear Acquisition Syndrome yearnings in many photographers. This article discusses some approaches that can be used to help determine the best gear to meet our individual needs. One of them is the Camera Buying Triangle.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been included in this article to serve as visual breaks. Some of these images will be included in our upcoming Ireland photography eBook.
The first and most critical action that any of us can do before investing in new camera gear is to clearly define our needs. This assessment needs to consider a range of factors such as the subject matter that we intend to photograph. The type of lighting conditions that we will face. As well as the frequency with which we will face those lighting conditions.
There may be some special equipment capabilities that we will require for our photography. For example, one of our priorities could be using fast continuous auto-focus frame rates when photographing birds in flight. Regardless of our specific needs it is important to inject a good degree of logic into any camera buying decision. To ensure that we are only considering factors that are truly relevant to our needs we could create our own camera buying matrix.
After we have clearly defined our needs and removed as much emotion as possible from our camera buying decision, we can move on to evaluate various equipment options using the Camera Buying Triangle.
Camera Buying Triangle: Image Quality
The first thing that most of us want to assess is the image quality of the camera gear we are considering. There are a number of approaches we can take. Online camera reviews are sources of information that many photographers use. The quality of these reviews varies significantly. Some do quite a good job providing real world feedback, while others just regurgitate known specifications. Many of the folks who run these websites are very well intentioned and do the best job they can. It is important to keep in mind that they often only have access to specific camera gear for only a few days. It takes time to understand the image creating capabilities and nuances of individual cameras and lenses. This is critical in order to get the best performance out of them. It is important to pay attention to the lenses used during camera tests. Image sharpness, colour rendition and other image quality dynamics can be impacted significantly by lens choice. Typically brand new cameras and lenses do not yet have RAW support with software programs. As a result image quality assessments in reviews are often done based on jpeg performance only.
It can also be helpful to find websites and samples of work done by professional photographers. People who make a living with their cameras are much more adept at getting the best performance out of their gear. If they don’t… they don’t stay in business very long. Professional photographers often don’t have any predetermined bias towards a particular brand or camera format. Of course, if they are heavily invested in lenses from a particular manufacturer it makes changing brands difficult and potentially expensive. Typically professional photographers use whatever camera gear that best suits their needs, and allows them to run a profitable business.
Changing camera equipment is done with a lot of thought and consideration as the ramifications can be significant. After all, we’re talking about someone’s livelihood. When a professional photographer changes brands it can be very instructive to read about the reasons for their decision. Some of their rationale may resonate strongly with us and be relevant for our needs. On a personal basis I find these insights more useful than reading camera reviews.
Never assess image quality by accepting the opinions of people in online chat rooms as fact. The internet is overflowing with heart-felt opinions in chat rooms. As such they cannot be expected to be an impartial source of information. Pixel peep if you are thusly inclined. Just know that you may become fixated on miniscule differences that aren’t very important when it comes to the overall image creating capability of a particular camera and lens system.
Be realistic when it comes to assessing a camera’s dynamic range and colour depth. There’s no doubt that some cameras provide incredible levels of dynamic range and colour depth. The caveat is that this performance is achieved at the lowest ISO values. Dynamic range and colour depth both drop off fairly quickly as ISO values increase.
For example the current top rated full frame camera based on DxOMark testing is the Nikon D850. It has 14.81 EV of dynamic range… at ISO-32. When shot at ISO-400 this drops to 13.37 EV. By ISO-800 it has softened further to 12.59 EV. At ISO-6400 dynamic range has declined to 9.82 EV. Colour depth follows a similar pattern. At base ISO-32 the D850 has 26.4 bits of colour depth. At ISO-400 it drops to 24 bits, then to 22.6 bits at ISO-800, and 17.6 bits at ISO-6400.
In comparison, the top rated M4/3 camera rated by DxOMark at the time of writing this article is the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Dynamic range at base ISO-200 is 12.84 EV. This drops to 12.68 EV at ISO-400, and at ISO-800 it declines further to 11.9 EV. When an E-M1 Mark II is shot at ISO-6400 dynamic range softens further to 9.34 EV. As expected colour depth also follows a downward trend as ISO increases. At base ISO-200 colour depth is 23.7 bits. At ISO-400 it is 23.2 bits, falling to 21.7 bits at ISO-800. When shot at ISO-6400 the E-M1 Mark II has 16.6 bits of colour depth.
According to DxOMark a score of 12 EV for dynamic range is considered excellent. A difference of under 0.5 EV is usually not noticeable. Colour depth is rated excellent by DxOMark when at 22 bits. Differences of less that 1-bit are usually not noticeable. If you compare the test data between the leading full frame and M4/3 cameras you will find a larger difference at base ISOs than when the cameras are used at ISO’s such as ISO-400, ISO-800 or as high as ISO-6400.
There are three key takeaways from this information. The first is that larger sensor cameras will typically outperform smaller sensor cameras in terms of dynamic range and colour depth. The second point is that the differences are greatest at base ISO. The third takeaway is that the differences at slightly higher ISO values such as ISO-400 to ISO-800, may not be nearly as great as many people assume.
From a practical standpoint it is important to consider at what ISO values you typically capture your images. If you shoot in the ISO-400 to ISO-800 range much of the time, sensor performance differences between various camera formats may be at more modest levels. It can also be judicious to consider IBIS and VR performance as this can help a photographer use gear at slower shutter speeds and correspondingly lower ISO values. Consider how you intend to use the images you create… for example in social media or in small to medium sized prints. Depending on your image use, there may be very little noticeable differences in dynamic range and colour depth between cameras of different sensor sizes from an everyday use perspective.
A good way to evaluate image quality between different cameras is to borrow or rent one and create a range of images at various ISO values with it. Then, process those images using your current software and make some reasonable sized prints to compare. A2 (420 x 594 mm, 16.5 x 23.4 inches) or A3 (297 mm x 420 mm, 11.7 x 16.5 inches) prints are decent test sizes. Rather than getting out a magnifying glass to pixel peep, view the test prints from a typical viewing distance of a metre to 1.5 metres (~3 to 5 feet).
Some of us purchase camera gear due to pride of ownership feelings or a desire to be associated with leading edge technology. And, let’s be clear… there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! Each of us has our own unique buying motivation.
Camera Buying Triangle: System Capability
When buying an interchangeable lens camera it is critical to consider the various lenses that we need for the work we produce. We also need to consider various in-camera capabilities and functionality. Fundamentally the camera gear that each of us chooses is a means to an end. Our cameras and lenses are the tools we need to create the photographs that each of us sees in our minds. The best camera equipment investments are often with gear that allows us to push our creativity and expand our photographic options.
There is saying that “We date cameras, but we marry lenses.” Many of us who use interchangeable lens camera systems have more money invested in lenses, than we do in camera bodies. So, we should spend a lot of time considering the investments we will be making in lenses rather than just focusing on a camera body.
Every photographer has their own needs when it comes to lenses. Some folks prefer to shoot with prime lenses. Others like zoom lenses. A specific photographer may need a specialty lens for particular subject matter like macro photography. To get more flexibility out of their gear, some people choose fast aperture primes, or constant aperture zoom lenses. For others, variable aperture zoom lenses are a good fit for their needs. Each lens in our kit brings strengths and limitations. Our challenge is to choose the best combination of gear that meets our needs with the least number of acceptable trade-offs.
System capability also extends to accessories like flashes, tripods and heads, filters, and even to the computer and software we’ll need to process our photographs. We also need to consider the handling and ergonomics of various camera options. One thing is certain… we need to consider a lot more than just the size of a sensor that is in a particular camera body.
Camera Buying Triangle: Total Cost (Price, Size and Weight)
The final part of the Camera Buying Triangle is Total Cost. This includes the price of the camera gear we buy as well as its size and weight. Make no mistake there is a cost attached to buying camera gear that is too large or too heavy for our individual needs. Gear of that nature ends up collecting dust in a closet or lying dormant in a camera bag because we eventually stop using it. Money tied up in stagnant camera gear represents a lost opportunity cost. Those dollars could have been put to much better use in something else.
Unfortunately many of us have let our emotions get the better of us when we’ve purchased camera gear somewhere along the line. I know I have. At some point there is a financial penalty to pay for those emotional decisions.
As regular readers know, we recently made a significant investment in Olympus camera gear. For illustrative purposes only, the following compares the investment and weight of that purchase to buying Nikon full frame gear. I’m not ‘picking on’ Nikon. It is a brand with which I have personal experience. Nikon is also a brand that I hold in high regard as it has done a great job for me in the past.
The comparison is based on current manufacturer suggested list pricing. Since there are not exact matches for some equipment from one brand to another I have included three full frame options to cover parts the focal length range of the M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 (efov 80-300 mm). These are the Nikkor 70-200 mm f/2.8 Z-Mount, the F-Mount version, and the Nikkor 120-300 mm f/2.8 F-Mount.
The point here is not to debate the relative merits of these individual pieces of kit. It is simply to provide approximate cost and weight comparisons for illustrative purposes.
Olympus M4/3 system price/weight cost:
OM-D E-M1X = $3900, 849 grams body only, 997 grams with batteries and 2 memory cards
M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 (efov 14-28 mm) = $1,750, 534 grams
M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 (efov 24-80 mm) = $1,350, 382 grams
M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 (efov 80-300 mm) = $2,000, 880 grams with tripod collar attached
M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro (efov 120 mm) = $670, 185 grams
M.Zuiko PRO 45 mm f/1.2 (efov 90 mm) = $1,700, 410 grams
Total suggested list price and weight = $11,370 CDN, 3,388 grams (7.47 lbs.)
Nikon full frame options:
Z7 = $4,300, 585 grams (no batteries)
Z6 = $2,800, 585 grams (no batteries)
D5 = $8,500, 1405 grams (with batteries and cards)
14-24 mm f/2.8 F-Mount = $2,470, 1000 grams
24-70 mm f/2.8 Z-Mount = $3,200, 805 grams
24-70 mm f/2.8 F-Mount = $3,100, 1070 grams
70-200 mm f/2.8 Z-Mount = $3,600, 1360 grams
70-200 mm f/2.8 F-Mount = $3,700, 1430 grams
120-300 mm f/2.8 F-Mount = $12,900, 3250 grams
105 mm f/2.8 macro F-Mount = $1,180, 720 grams
85 mm f/1.4 F-Mount = $2,100, 595 grams
Total suggested list prices and weights for Nikon full frame options:
We have included Z-Mount lenses where possible with both the Z7 and Z6 cameras. F-Mount lenses were used with the D5 comparison.
- Z7 with 70-200 f/2.8 Z-Mount (does not include 120-300 f/2.8 F-Mount) = $16,850 CDN, 5065 grams (11.17 lbs.)
- Z7 with 120-300 f/2.8 F-Mount (does not include 70-200 mm f/2.8 Z-Mount) = $26,150 CDN, 6955 grams (15.33 lbs.)
- Z6 with 70-200 f/2.8 Z-Mount (does not include 120-300 f/2.8 F-Mount) = $15,350 CDN, 5065 grams (11.17 lbs.)
- Z6 with 120-300 f/2.8 F-Mount (does not include 70-200 mm f/2.8 Z-Mount) = $24,650 CDN, 6955 grams (15.33 lbs.)
- D5 with 24-70 mm f/2.8 VR F-Mount and 70-200 mm f/2.8 VR F-Mount (does not include 120-300 mm f/2.8 F-Mount) = $21, 050 CDN, 6220 grams (13.71 lbs.)
- D5 with 24-70 mm f/2.8 VR F-Mount and 120-300 mm f/2.8 F-Mount (does not include 70-200 mm f/2.8 F-Mount) = $30,250 CDN, 8040 grams (17.73 lbs.)
Regardless of the camera brand and format that we eventually buy, calculating the total approximate cost and weight of the total kit we envision owning, is a critical part of the decision making process. This is especially true if we are in our later years, or if we do a lot of hiking with our camera gear. These are times when the weight of our gear can become more critical.
Buying camera gear can be a complicated and stressful experience. Keeping our emotions at bay by clearly defining our photographic needs is the first step in making a good decision. After defining our needs, using the Camera Buying Triangle to evaluate Image Quality, System Capability and Total Cost, can help us make a balanced and appropriate decision.
If you enjoyed the photographs in this article that were captured with the Nikon 1 system, you may find our eBook, The Little Camera That Could, of interest. This eBook is available for purchase and download. It is priced at $9.99 Canadian. Readers interested in purchasing a copy can use the link below.
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.
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