What DSLR to buy in October 2011.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Ok I'm a little early, but Xmas is on the way, end of the year bonuses of Gran'Ma money too. Time to start deep diving into that DSLR market, have a look at the freshest products, and make up your mind !

DSLRs are a great way to get into serious photography. Costs are fixed, they are the most multipurpose cameras you can find, and unlike compacts the huge choice in lenses allows you to specialize your gear into whatever you like, portrait, macro, landscape.

Part 1 / Things to be aware of.
  1. Picture quality comes from 3 things: the lens, the sensor (its size in particular) and your talent.
  2. There is no such thing as a lens that is good at everything. Buy specialized. Multi purpose will be average at everything at best.
  3. Don't get the kit lens. Buy body only. Apart from top of the range DSLRs, the kit lens is usually very average, a cheap multipurpose lens. A great all purpose lens doesn't exist, a good one cost 1200$. If you'r happy with the cheap kit lens, you probably shouldn't buy a DSLR.
As you can see, none of the fancy marketing crap you are bombarded with is among them. Forget built in HDR, shooting 80 frames per second, or rotative screen with plutonium based night vision with Cylon detector.

When you choose a camera, well don't choose the camera only, choose the package:

- What will I shoot? Out of the answer to that question you will decide what lens(es) to buy. Look into the lens range of different manufacturers first to eliminate those who can't get you what you want. You want to spend most of your money on lenses. Those will last 20 years, not your camera body. Some great lenses I have are older than me, they are still the best on the market. I know the camera body is sexier, all those buttons, screens...but don't be fooled. A great lens on a cheap body will give you a better image than a great body with a poor lens.

- Then choose the camera. Now there is something to be aware of that is not explained anywhere apart from customer service when you take back your lens to the shop: entry level DSLR don't have a built in motor, so they can't autofocus most prime lenses (35mm and 50mm fix lenses). Be aware of that ! You will end up getting one of those lenses one day, they are must haves. Would be too bad you need to buy an other body. Some manufacturers started making those with an engine, to adapt on those cheaper bodies. Have a look at the offer before you buy.

Part 2 / An overview of the main brands.
Whatever brand you pick, you won't really make a mistake. The short story for the ones in a hurry: if you intend to progressively level up your gear, and commit, go Canon or Nikon. I'd go Nikon, they are on top technology wise and in terms of built quality. But going Canon makes a very little difference.

Other wise, Sony and Pentax are not bad choices. I'd go Pentax over Sony, they know photography, but overal I don't see any reason why not go Nikon.
  • Canon: a lot of marketing in the past decade at Canon, allowing them to position as the number 1 amateur DSLR brand. Now looking back at 50 years of camera history, Canon is not the top camera facturer, far from it. All great film SLRs are Nikon made, from the FE to the F5 / F6. All best pre digital era SLRs are Nikon made. However, in the nowadays market of DSLR, Canon will give you the same range of cameras and lenses than Nikon. Price wise, Canon is always in between 2 Nikon cameras (or Nikon is, it's all the same). Nikon will have a 500$ and a 900$ DSLR, Canon will have one at 750$, etc.  Feature wise, it'll be about in between too. Overal going Canon or Nikon makes a very little difference for a non pro, but here is why I'd go Nikon...

  • Nikon:  the best SLRs, digital or film you can get. Period. Why that? The build quality is the best, the ergonomic of aperture and shutter speed control are the best, the metering system is the best since 1995 on the F5, and still far ahead of competition. The sensors and software behind it are the best, performing amazing in low light. All pros shooting digital or film top or the range SLRs are shooting F5 or D3. Finally, all your lenses will work with a brilliant 90$ Nikon film SLR. The D700 outperforms the 5DmkII. Not by much, but it does. Sorry Canon fanboys. Keep in mind that whatever brand you have, we're debating crumbs here, it won't change anything to your ability at taking great shots if you have it in you.

  • Sony: the key benefit of Sony SLR bodies is the compatibility with (RIP) Minolta lenses. It's also the only other brand with a full frame offer, though I believe the camera is a bit old now. Their camera bodies are not bad at all, I just don't see why you would bother going at a brand that has no history in photography, a more limited lens offer (lenses are good though, no match from top of the range Nikon or Canon but good enough).  It's also harder to resell.

  • Pentax: often disregarded by amateurs, Pentax is actually much more of a true hardcore camera manufacturer than all of the above. Their professional medium format film gear simply rocks the photography world. The 67II, 680II are pure marvels of the top level camera world, competing with Mamiya, Hasselblads and Rollei. Pentax knows better than Sony how to make cameras and lenses.  Pentax SLRs are very good. The recent K's have been praised by critics, but this one I admit I didn't have the opportunity to try (I tried 1 to 4 models of each of the above mentioned brands). I would still go for Nikon, for the same reason I'd get a coupe from Porsche and not from Audi, or food from a French restaurant rather than English: buy what someone is best at. Nikon is best at SLR. Pentax's key strength remains film medium format.

Part 3 / My advice for this winter !

My overal preference : best value for the money ratio (around 1000$).
    1. It's a draw ! Nikon D7000 & Canon 600D. The Nikon is my last year's choice. There is nothing better for the money on the SLR market for photography (not for video). Of course D700 and D3 are better, but with the price tag of the Nikon D7000? No thanks, I'm not paying 5000$ for a 5% difference. Ultra high ISO performance, Nikon ergonomics, even the kit lens is decent. The Canon 600D has flaws, ergonomics and control can be crap (some essential part only accessible deep dive in the menu), but picture quality overall will be close to a D7000. Very good in low light too, articulated LCD is great for video (the D7000 doesn't have that). If you know video will be a key part, you might prefer that, it's also a tad cheaper (about a hundred). Be aware that focusing in live view (when looking at the screen, not the viewfinder) is always slower.
The Nikon D300 and Canon 7D are out of question: the D7000 is better than the D300S and cheaper, period. The 7D I had for a day was a great disappointment. At this price range, low light rendering and ergonomics were crap. D90 is too old and can't compete feature wise.

The low budget choice (around 500$)
    1. Nikon D5100. AF system of a semi pro camera, not even really slow in live view. Great image quality. Can't AF with non DX prime lenses ! Make sure you lens is motorized, entry lever DSLRs don't have a built in motor.
    2. Pentax K-r. The best for photography in this price range. High frame rate, good iso performance, small, good built quality etc. Sucks at movies (files are too large due to old jpeg format. For low budgets, the best.
D3100 is just so on cheap side that...I mean if you really can't afford more, I'm sorry but you won't be able to get the lenses either. Just get a good compact, or a used one (no shame, ALL my gear was bought used).

The high budget choice (full frame, 2000$-7000$)
    1. Nikon D4: I know it's not out yet, but it will be before Xmas. My sources (a distributor) told me they will have a huge Nikon announcement in a week, i.e. early October. The D3X and D3S are overpriced, it's ridiculous. Yet they are the best DSLR cameras. Period. However they are not that young, spending that money on them now would be a little dumb. I would bet an arm the D4 is going to be the best you can get in 35mm format, and will remain the best for a while. It will stratospherically expensive, but if you can afford it...
    2. Nikon D800. Same story, not out yet, but the D700 being the actual best full affordable full frame, its replacement should be quite the top of the range machine to own. I will buy one.
    3. Leica M9. Ok that's not a SLR, it's a rangefinder, but if you read the price tag of a D3 and didn't blink, you might want to look into that. It's about the same price, you loose the AF and a lot of  feature (forget action shooting), but lenses will be at a all different level. Low light performance is great too, it's rather small in comparison, and resells value is unbeatable.

Canon 5D mkII ? No, built quality is disapointing, metering system is poor compared to my 1995 Nikon F5, and the low light noise is not as good as a D7000. Simply too old. Canon should announce a new top range camera soon too.

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