Tag Archives: gear

Best Digital Cameras and DSLRs for Christmas 2011

Shopping for a digital camera shouldn’t be hard, but it is. There are hundreds and hundreds of digital camera models to choose from and it can be time consuming to wade through review after review trying to find the best camera for the money this Christmas. I’ll do some of that work for you and give you my recommendations for a few different price points and categories.

Compact Point and Shoot Under $200

This is the most crowded camera category and there’s been a lot of convergence over the years with cheaper cameras. Good cameras in this price range are going to be more alike than they are different. The biggest change here has been the inclusion of wider angle lenses. In the past most compact point and shoots started at 35mm, but now 24mm and 28mm is much more common. These wider angles are very useful and arguably more important than a really long zoom in most situations.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS | Amazon – $174

The Canon 300 HS is a nice little camera with a good set of features. It’s small, has one of the newer CMOS sensors, 24mm wide angle and fairly quick f/2.7 aperture at the wide end. All of my point and shoots have been Canon PowerShots (S400 about 8 years ago and S700 4 years ago) and they are just solid cameras for the money.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 100 HS | Amazon – $130

The 100 HS is very similar to its 300 HS sibling if price is really an issue. You lose a few bells and whistles like a smaller zoom range and being able to optically zoom during video. There might be cheaper cameras, but quality really starts to drop off if you go too much cheaper than this.

Compact Point and Shoot Over $200

The under $200 crowd are fairly similar. As you look at cameras over $200 you start to see more variation and better features. Along with the wider angles being offered really fast f/1.8 apertures are becoming the new must have feature. These faster lenses let in more light resulting in faster shutter speeds and less reliance on high ISO. Anything that keeps the ISO lower on a point and shoot is a very good thing.

Nikon Coolpix P300 | Amazon – $277

This is the main camera I’m going to recommend in this category. For normal day to day use there really isn’t anything like it. It starts at 24mm wide and has a very fast f/1.8 lens at that widest focal length. I recommended this camera for my sister after quite a bit of research and it has turned out to be fantastic. If I was in the market for a new point and shoot (I shoot my Nikon D90 almost exclusively) this is the camera I would get. That f/1.8 aperture is something only us DSLR shooters got to enjoy, but Nikon has pushed it down to point and shoot cameras at a reasonable price. This is just about the only P&S camera I can get excited about and it is reasonably priced.

Nikon Coolpix S9100 | Amazon – $239

If you need more zoom and are willing to trade it for the fast f/1.8 of the P300 then the Nikon S9100 offers a good set of features for the money. It packs a big zoom range in a small package compared to the “superzoom” point and shoots that are roughly the size of a small DSLR (and not much cheaper).

DSLR Recommendations

Point and shoots are great for pocketability, but it is very hard to match the capabilities of a DSLR. Over the years the price of low end DSLRs has dropped considerably and aren’t much more than a high-end P&S. If you are outgrowing your P&S or want to upgrade an older model then see my recommendation.

Nikon D3100 DSLR | Amazon – $549

The D3100 is just an incredible little (for a DSLR) camera for the money. Canon is very competitive with Nikon, but right now the two things that make me lean towards Nikon is their flash system and the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8. I suggested this setup to my brother and his results are just as good as my D90 and miles ahead of his old D40.

Nikon D7000 DSLR | Amazon – $1399

If you’re looking for one of the best cameras out there without completely breaking the bank then the D7000 is the ticket. This thing is a beast and nothing can really beat its bang-for-buck right now. If my D90 ever craps out or I felt the need to upgrade then I’d be looking at the D7000.

Nikon D5100 DSLR – What’s New and Impressions

Nikon announced the D5100 and the stereo ME-1 microphone this week. So far I like what I’m seeing. In my previous comparison of the D3100 and D5000 I found it hard to recommend the D5000. The D5100 ups the ante just enough to help differentiate it from the D3100 while increasing the price point for a better fit between the D3100 and D7000.

Price as of 08/06/11:

  • Amazon – $800 free shipping

Rundown of the key changes from the D5000:

  • 16.2 MP sensor (vs 12.3 MP)
  • 1080p video at 24/25/30 fps (vs 720p24)
  • H.264/AVC codec (vs Motion JPEG, big improvement)
  • 3″ 921k pixel LCD (vs 2.7″ 230k pixel)
  • LCD hinge on left of body (vs bottom edge)
  • 14-bit processing (vs 12-bit)
  • Default to ISO 100 (vs ISO 200)
  • Autofocus during video
  • Stereo microphone input
  • Dual IR sensors (no reaching around to the front)
  • Live view switch and record button moved to top
  • Slightly smaller and lighter

The improvements to video and the higher resolution LCD are nice upgrades. The sensor is likely the same or very close to that of the D7000 which means it will produce very nice images with great high ISO performance.

If your budget for a camera is under $1000 then the main deciding factor between the D5100 and D3100 will be the video. If you aren’t going to use video then the D5100 might not be worth the extra $300.

The D5100 is competitively priced at Amazon:

Cheaper Nikon DSLR Lenses for Low Light Action and Sports

When shooting action and sports in low light or indoors your lens becomes much more important than your camera body. Pros are using expensive glass like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 or some exotic prime to gather lots of light. The Nikon 70-200 is a tad over $2000 though. Luckily there are more affordable alternatives like the Sigma and Tamron versions of the 70-200mm f/2.8. These are good matches to lower priced bodies like the D3100 and D5000 that offer comparable performance for almost a third of the price.

Price Comparisons (updated 8/8/11)

Sigma Tamron Nikon
Amazon $949 $769 $2200

Just a quick primer about apertures; aperture is described by an f-stop, f/2.8 for example. The lower the number the larger the opening in the lens to collect more light. f/1.4 is considered very fast because you get more light and can maintain a faster shutter speed. f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22 are the standard full stops. Each step up will halve the shutter speed. In general, a lower f-stop number translates to less depth of field (DOF).

The cheap (but still very good) Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens is just too slow and short to be of much use in low light. The Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6 (or 55-300) would give you more reach, but it too will be too slow as it zooms in. For example, in an indoor hockey rink I’d estimate that shooting at ISO 1600 with f/2.8 gets you 1/250 second. f/4 would drop that to 1/125 and f/5.6 would drop it to 1/60. That’s a very big difference and would allow motion blur to become a problem.

I’ve shot a group of friends playing broomball at a local rink with my 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 and it was a struggle. Even with ISO between 1600-3200 my shots were underexposed if I tried forcing the shutter to 1/250. I could have lowered it, but then motion blur would have started kicking in. I don’t think I even bothered sharing those photos with anyone.

Low light action (pretty much everything not in sunlight) is just one of those things that’s flat out hard. Pros can throw thousands of dollars into their gear, but we don’t really have that luxury. A cheaper DSLR like the D3100 or D5000 is up to the job, but they really need the help of a f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens to keep the shutter as fast as possible.

Depending how much reach you need you could even use the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 to get as much light as possible for cheap. If you do need more reach then the Sigma and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses become some of your few options. The Sigma seems to have better autofocus capability and the Tamron has slightly better image quality.

Bang for your Buck

The Sigma has shot up in price making the Tamron a better value. There is also a new Sigma lens with image stabilization built in, but it is almost $1400.

Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG HSM II Macro Zoom Lens for Nikon

Tamron AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD IF Lens for Nikon

To Richard who used the Contact Me form to ask about the Nikon D90

Google is bouncing back emails to the address you left, but here is my response if you happen to visit again:

Richard,

Sounds like you have a pretty good idea of what you want. If you want to quickly change shutter AND aperture in Manual mode then the D90 has a rear thumb wheel and front index finger wheel to adjust both. It also has a DOF preview button.

Truth is I’ve never had good luck with the tracking autofocus on my D90. There just are enough AF points to reliably track a moving subject. I shoot almost exclusively in continuous AF with a single AF point selected and the AE-L/AF-L button configured to lock focus while held. This allows me to always have continuous focusing, but I can still lock focus and recompose if needed.

The D7000 would be a completely different story and I’d likely trust it to track subjects for me.

For quick action you’ll be served well by the D90 or D7000. The D7000 has a more sophisticated AF system and can shoot a little faster (6 FPS vs 4.5 I think). About a $450 difference between the two so that all depends on your budget.

Another thing to think about is lens selection. Most of the cheap lenses start at f/3.5 and get to f/5.6 or even f/6.3 in a hurry. Zooms with a f/2.8 constant aperture can easily cost more than your body.

When you say you “don’t need all the gizmos” are you talking about autofocus and metering or things like HD video and other misc features?

Andrew

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Nikon and Canon lens Review

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X116 Pro DX for Nikon and for Canon

Nikon’s DX zoom lenses like the 18-55mm start at 18mm (27mm after crop factor) which is just starting to get into the wide angle arena. Most of the time this gives you a wide enough field of view (FOV) and if you need to get more in then you can just back up. There are times though when you can’t or don’t want to back up. Sometimes you might want a wider FOV to get a different perspective in a shot. It’s not just about “getting it all in”, but rather looking at a shot differently and getting the composition you want.

I had never shot a DX lens wider than 17mm or one with a constant f/2.8 lens. We can see the difference in FOV between the Tokina 11-16mm, Nikon 18-200mm and Nikon 35mm:

11mm is wide, really wide. The test shots above were taken at about 5 feet from the TV. The first thing I notice in the 11mm shot is the perspective distortion, but that isn’t necessarily bad. The Nikon 18-200mm presents quite a bit of barrel distortion at 18mm. The Tokina gives nice straight lines, but going so wide starts to affect perspective. Things at the edge of the frame in this situation look stretched because of perspective distortion.

The best way I can describe perspective distortion is that the ultra-wide focal length allows you to move the camera forward into the scene. This has a large impact on the size of subjects depending on their distance from the camera. Subjects in the foreground will appear larger in size than subjects in the background. You can see this in the shot of Mt. Shasta below, the foreground right in front of my feet is balanced against the huge volcano in the distance. You have to use that foreground emphasis to your advantage and it is surprisingly hard to do. That’s about the best I can explain it, but you can read more about perspective distortion on Wikipedia.

The Tokina 11-16mm is a very interesting lens and can be considered special purpose. It’s definitely not for close up portraits as the perspective distortion can wreak havoc on your subjects’ faces if you aren’t careful. For a more distant portrait like my wife in front of Haystack Rock you can get away with it. Keeping the subject in the very middle of the frame helps avoid unflattering distortion like me with the moose in Coeur d’Alene.

The lens itself is very solid and well built. The focus ring pulls in and out to switch between autofocus and manual focus. I’m very happy with the lens and has whetted my appetite for more “pro” lenses, especially with a constant f/2.8. Overall this lens is a very good value.

For Nikon users, depending on your camera you might want to look at the comparable Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5. The Tokina does not have a built in autofocus motor so it will not be able to autofocus on bodies missing the motor to drive non AF-S lenses. The lower end bodies like the D5000, D3000, D3100, D40, D50, and D60 do not have the motor so the Nikon 10-24mm becomes your best option. The D70, D80, D90, D200, D300, and D7000 are all good to go.

Canon users will run into a similar situation if your body does not include an autofocus motor then you’ll want to consider the Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5. The only problem with the Nikon and Canon versions is the higher cost, slower apertures and more distortion.

The Nikon version is about $600 from Amazon and the Canon version is about $700