Which camera is best?

Written by Gary on October 2nd, 2009

Sorry, there is no answer to that – each camera has their strengths and weaknesses depending on what needs are required, and usually its not just the camera that one needs to consider but the lens for the job at hand and whether you can afford it and have it with you.

As you will hopefully see, it’s not the camera so much but the lenses you choose which tend to be more important, but of the most importance is your own skill and vision as a photographer – a $100,000 grand piano won’t enable you to play a Beethoven sonata if you can’t play the piano – although some shots can be great without much skill, in general, the camera and lenses are only enabling devices to allow you to maximise your creative potential.

But let’s first look at the needs of the pro photographer.

This is not advice for the pro – they know their own individual needs far better than I will – this is to give the non-pro’s out there an outline of why pros will choose particular systems or kits.

I am sure that being a pro could be fun and interesting, but like many things when they become your job, in the end, you often resent it because you are forced to do things what other people want and when they want it, and usually not on your own terms.

The pressures placed upon a pro are considerable, and their choice in equipment will usually give priority to the following factors while generally ignoring weight and size considerations:

  • reliability even in adverse weather conditions (hence the Canon 1D series or Nikon D3x)
  • highest image quality with low noise at high ISO, high resolution (good quality pixels), wide dynamic range to minimise blown highlights as well as allow for some exposure latitude (hence very expensive, large, slow medium format kits for studio work, or 35mm full frame for other work)
  • ready availability of rental or rapid repair service wherever one is in the world (hence the Canon/Nikon dominance)
  • for action work, fast AF with rapid burst rates of 8-10fps (hence Canon 1DMIII or Nikon D700/D3 and now perhaps Canon 7D)
  • availability of highest quality specialty lenses such as the superb Nikon 14-24mm, the Canon or Nikon tilt-shift, super telephoto, wide aperture portrait and wide angle lenses, and special macro lenses.

If you think sports pro work is always fun, check out this image posted on dpreview.com – if this poor lady doesn’t go home with neck and back strain, stress and migraines, she must have a very good physio, masseur and yoga master!

pro at work

NOW, for the rest of us who can actually do photography for fun!

There are some niche areas which require niche solutions:

  • astrophotography – although possible with most dSLRs, generally the serious guys will use a Canon for the availability of third party camera control systems, use of modified camera bodies with IR filter replaced, true RAW image files, and the nice Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L lens
  • infrared photography – this is best done with use of modified camera bodies with IR filter replaced – and usually this means a Canon or perhaps a Nikon mainly as a volume issue
  • action photography – requiring 5-10fps, preferably weather-proofed – maybe the Canon 7D or the successor to the Olympus E3 will be the way to go, although other options include Nikon D300s
  • radio wireless TTL flash photography – if you need radio instead of infrared for either distance, lack of line of sight or in bright sunlight, then you need either Pocket Wizard or RadioPopper units, and unfortunately, these are only made for Canon or Nikon systems at present
  • you regularly enlarge prints bigger than 20″x30″ – well either you get a 10-15mp camera and do panoramic stitches, or you go to a full frame 20+ megapixel camera with the best prime (non-zoom) lenses mounted on a tripod with self-timer and mirror lockup (ie. look at getting a Canon 5DMII or Sony a700 assuming you can’t afford a Nikon D3x or Canon 1DsMIII)

If you do not have a burning need for the above niche areas, then almost any dSLR or MFT camera may suit your needs, although each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

My personal philosophy (and I own Canon Pro gear, Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds gear as well as film gear), is that you should consider the following:

  • only consider that which you are likely to be able to afford
  • do not spend too much on the camera as this will be almost worthless in 5 years, but look carefully at your lens choice as this is what generally will determine the images you create, and will depreciate much less rapidly
  • the best camera will be the one you are willing to bring with you – small size and weight does matter!!
  • there will be times you need full manual control including manual focus – make sure the camera does this well
  • if possible have a camera with built-in image stabiliser that works on every lens – you will be surprised how often you need it, it doesn’t impair optical quality, does not add weight and expense to every lens you buy, you can still use optical IS if you need it
  • while the viewfinder image quality helps to inspire you, other than that, it will not give you better image quality, but it does help if it displays the full frame and works well in low light (a good reason for the GH-1 even though it does not look as nice as an optical one)
  • if possible, get weather-proof lenses as this will help prevent dust getting inside them as well as moisture – both of which will adversely impact your investment
  • one camera is not enough, try to always take two with you – you don’t want to be continually changing lenses and it’s nice to have a back up system

So what would I buy???

Look at the lenses first:

  • standard zoom covering 28-70mm (or 120mm perhaps) in 35mm terms – most kit lenses will suit your needs here but you may want to pay a little more for a wider aperture lens but then it gets bigger, or a special lens like the Panasonic 14-140mm HD lens which gives 28-280mm coverage with full AF HD video capability
  • a portrait lens – focal length in the 35mm equiv. of between 85-135mm with a wide aperture (f/1.8-2.8)
  • telephoto zoom – I prefer a wide aperture one so it can double as portrait lens and allow use of lower ISO
  • low light street photography lens – wide aperture (eg. f/1.4-2.0) lens with focal length 35-40mm in 35mm terms (eg. the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake looks like it will be awesome for this
  • architecture/landscape wide angle lens which allows gradient filters and has minimal distortion (eg. Olympus ZD 9-18mm)
  • creative ultra wide lens (eg. Panasonic 7-14mm)
  • macro lens (all manufacturers have good ones such as Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0)

For telephoto work, cropped sensors generally offer you the best telephoto reach for the size and expense.

This is why I love the Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD lens:

  • it is the only lens that provides wide aperture, high quality, weather-proofed 100-400mm telephoto reach with beautiful bokeh in a relatively compact size with its weight is only about 1kg (the Canon 100-400mm IS is f/4.5-5.6 and 1.4kg, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS is 1.6kg and either are more than twice the price, the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 VR is 3.3kg and much more expensive)
  • it provides reasonable macro performance for nature photography as its closest focus is 1.2m at equivalent focal reach of 400mm f/3.5 (closest focus comparisons: the Canon 100-400mm = 1.8m, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 = 1.4m, Nikkor 200-400mm = 2m)
  • it has 9 circular diaphragm blades for nice bokeh (Canon 100-400mm and 70-200mm have 8 blades)
  • it’s short length allows it to be stored in a 24cm deep shoulder bag (the Canons above require at least a 28cm deep bag which means those backpacks you need to take off to get access to your gear – not my favorites!)
  • it’s wide aperture allows use of 1.4x or 2x tele-extender, the latter allows an incredible hand holdable 800mm reach at f/7 and at 1/200th sec, you don’t need high ISO for reasonable daylight conditions
  • it becomes image stabilised when used on most Olympus dSLRs and MFT cameras
  • see my photos for how versatile it is

Once you decide on the lens you need, you can then look at the camera, for instance, to match the ZD 50-200mm:

  • if you need full weather-proofing to match it, go for the 5fps Olympus E-3 or its successor which should be coming soon.
  • if you don’t want the weight of the E-3, then the cheaper E-30 offers the same 5fps and action photography AF needs as the E-3
  • if you can’t afford the E-30 or want something lighter still, go for the E-600 or E620 – both of which still have built-in image stabiliser and flip out LCD, but not as many AF points for continuous AF work
  • if you can’t afford the E600/E620, then the E520 or a second hand E510 (which I use), will suffice as long as you can get by with only 3 AF points (thus not great for moving subjects), and these still have an image stabiliser built-in

Now, the ZD 50-200mm will not be everyone’s cup of tea – it is still a big, heavy lens, and if you are happy to go for either less aperture (thus less suitable for portraits and needs higher ISO for low light or action work), less telephoto reach or less image quality (most are softer at wide open and at the long end of zoom), then you can choose from a multitude of other telephoto zoom lenses for either Olympus (eg. the ZD 70-300mm), Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc – see here for the telephoto options.

For almost everything else, the Micro Four Thirds system will eventually (if it doesn’t already) offer the best in image quality for size of kit, and has the significant advantage that it does not bring attention to your camera as much as a dSLR would.

The Micro Four Thirds are great for general photography, wide angle work, street photography, travel, video, macro, and is so versatile, you can get adapters to use almost any legacy lens ever made on it to give you loads of fun and creative options. This is great if you are not well endowed with money – get an Olympus E-P1 or it’s successor for instance, and you have arguably the best system for using manual focus lenses out there (although you may miss the absence of a viewfinder). It instantly (with an adapter) converts almost all your cheap Ebay lenses to image stabilised lenses and the absence of a mirror means much faster manual focus than on most dSLRs.

Where does this leave the Canon and Nikon cropped sensor cameras?

They do make a great backup camera for your full frame camera (particularly a Nikon D300s or Canon 7D for sports photography), and may make sense for many people who plan to mainly use Canon or Nikon for various reasons, but Canon and Nikon have not created a range of pro quality lenses dedicated for these cameras so personally, I would prefer a full frame camera, and combine that with a MFT camera so I have an option of a more discrete, compact solution. The full frame lenses will also work in MF mode on the MFT camera but at 2x effective focal length reach offering an interesting alternate use for these lenses and potentially adding image stabilisation – great for that Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens!

Here is a question to ask yourself – is there any lens designed for Canon or Nikon cropped sensor cameras that is indispensable and not available with similar features on Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds – I can’t think of any, whereas the Olympus ZD 50-200mm fills a rather unique gap, as does the Panasonic 14-140mm HD lens for video work, and the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lenses.

Scan through Nikon’s lenses and look for the DX ones (designed for cropped sensors), let’s see what they have to offer:

  • DX 35mm f/1.8 giving a standard 53mm f/1.8 lens – nothing too exciting about that – you can get the beautiful Panasonic Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 lens for either FT or MFT although it will be more expensive, while the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 will be much smaller and with at least as good image quality, and image stabilised when used on Olympus MFT cameras
  • DX 10.5mm fisheye – who buys fisheye lenses these days, and in any case Olympus have one as do Canon
  • DX 10-24mm – nice ultra-wide but all manufacturers have these and the Olympus one is wider still at 14mm not 15mm, and you can have it image stabilised
  • a range of rather boring standard zoom lenses for DX that are generally available by Olympus, and Olympus goes further by offering wide aperture versions – even a constant f/2.0 version if you have the money for it!
  • DX 55-200mm telephoto zooms but they are both f/4-5.6 not f/2.8-3.5 as with the Olympus ZD
  • that’s about it folks – Nikon does not seem to be that committed to cropped sensor cameras, and Canon is no better!

Now, don’t take this the wrong way – Canon and Nikon have many great pro lenses for their full frame cameras (which will work on their cropped sensor cameras, and will work on Micro Four Thirds in manual focus), and I love many of these, and these may be your reason to buy into Canon or Nikon – it’s just that I would not be buying Canon or Nikon based on their cropped sensor lenses.

Hopefully I have emphasised enough that for most purposes it doesn’t really matter which camera you have as long as you have it with you and that in the end, the success of the image will usually depend much more on your choice of lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, camera position, camera to subject distance, use of image stabilising device (including tripod), subject composition (and expression if a portrait and thus your rapport) and perhaps most importantly of all, the light hitting the subject and split second in time you decide to take the shot.

But for the tech heads who really think the camera has a big role, here are a few general points:

  • the smaller cropped sensors have the following advantages:
    • allow smaller size lenses for same telephoto reach
    • allow lenses to be designed for sharpness across the whole image even at wide aperture
    • allow more depth of field although large sensors can achieve this by using a smaller aperture and higher ISO
    • allow smaller sized cameras for more portability and more discrete use – great for travel and street photography
    • 10-12mp is all that most people need for prints up to 20″x30″ so they are not having to store much larger image files unnecessarily when compared with larger resolution sensors
    • the best camera is the one you have with you, and most will bring a small camera over a large one more often
    • the Four Thirds and MFT cameras have a sensor that is big enough for great image quality and also allows for shallow depth of field when used with wide aperture lenses such as the ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 or 50mm f/2.0
  • full frame camera sensors have the following advantages:
    • shallower depth of field – great for making a subject pop out but may introduce its own problems when you really need more depth of field such as for super telephoto or macro work
    • potentially more dynamic range allowing less blowing of highlights, better highlight recovery in RAW processing, and more exposure latitude for exposure errors
    • potentially less image noise at high ISO
    • potential for more pixels to allow larger prints – although unlikely to see a difference in prints 12″x18″ or smaller
    • ability to use 35mm lenses at the focal length they were designed for, although many will have poor performance in the periphery, and many will not have the resolution to cope with 20+ megapixel sensors

Oh, and don’t believe me when I say MFT can do most of your shots – see this guy’s shots with the GH-1 and kit lens – now they are impressive!


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