Choosing Digital Camera Equipment

Since any mention of specific equipment will be rapidly out of date, I refrain from making recommendations for particular cameras on this page. If you want current information on specific models, KenRockwell.com and dpreview.com provide reasonably current insights. For thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of Nikon equipment only, see bythom.com. Options for various budgets are discussed on the pages linked below, ranging in cost from about a hundred dollars to several thousand.

As of 2008, any current model will have a resolution of 6 megapixels or more, which will produce images composed of 3000 pixels on the long side and 2000 on the short. The most advanced digital SLRs today produce photographs with over 20 megapixels of resolution, which is by some estimates close to what is captured by a piece of 35mm film. These images are large enough to be published at 13″x19″ and can be printed even larger on a high-quality inkjet.

In choosing how to spend your money, you want to find an appropriate balance between lens quality and resolution but, as long as your lenses are up to the task, you should buy as much resolution as your budget allows. For the purposes of architectural documentation, more pixels are better not because you’ll be enlarging your photographs to poster size, but because they allow you to capture more detail. If you are the last person to record a building before the bulldozer gets it, you’ll want to have as much information in each of your photographs as possible.

If money is a serious obstacle, just use whatever comes to hand. A camera is a basic and invaluable tool for fieldwork, so borrow one, if you have to. If you’re just starting out, there’s no sense fooling around with film except for antiquarian–or contrarian–motives (with the exception of medium and large-format photography. See KenRockwell.com for an explanation of the merits of film vs. digital).

The key thing is to start making (digital) photography part of the way you work, and you’ve got to start somewhere. The place to start is with a camera–any camera.

Moving From Film SLR to Digital

If you are migrating from film and stay with the same manufacturer as your film equipment, you should be able to use most of your old lenses. Nikon gear is more flexible than Canon in this regard, but newer Canon equipment will work fine. This is an excellent way to save a little money, since using your old lenses frees most of your budget to spend on a digital body, with the caveat that you will need to account for the 1.5x magnification factor on equipment in this price range.

If you do a lot of wide-angle shooting, you will certainly need to spring for a new lens to get the same coverage that you are accustomed to with film. Some of the kit lenses packaged with new digital bodies have a moderate wide-angle end, such as the inexpensive 18-55mm lens that comes with some Nikon bodies. This is equivalent to roughly a 28-70mm 35mm lens and if you never shot wider than 28mm before, may suit you fine.

Some Guidelines, by Budget:

Graduate Student

If you can spend $100, there are a handful of digital point-and-shoot cameras available from major manufacturers with 6-megapixel resolution. Anything from Canon, Nikon, Olympus or Kodak should be fine. For the first two years that I was shooting digitally, I used a 2-megapixel Olympus D490Z. Those shots were perfectly adequate (subject to my own limitations as a photographer) and I continue to use some of them for presentations and as reference material (see this flickr picture). Since most academic journals require images to be submitted at 300 dpi (dots-per-inch), their low resolution means that they will never be suitable for publication but even the most inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras currently make images large enough to publish at 5″x8″. For a longer exploration of the virtues of cheap cameras, and to make you feel smug about your thriftiness, see this page on KenRockwell.com.

Young Professional

If you have a modest budget, you can be somewhat selective. For under $500, there is a huge array of models to choose from, including both elaborate point-and-shoot models and the most basic SLRs. If you take your photography very seriously, you will certainly be more satisfied in the long run with an SLR, which lets you to buy lenses, bodies, and flashes separately and expand your kit as your needs require and your budget allows. Digital camera bodies are significantly updated much more frequently than lenses. For a convenient, lightweight, all-in-one solution, however, the better point-and-shoots from the major camera manufacturers are tough to beat.

If you do opt for the convenience of a point-and-shoot, your most difficult task may be deciding which of the preposterous array of cameras is best for you. Like any piece of consumer electronics, manufacturers reliably flout their latest offerings with unnecessary features to beguile and bewilder even the most attentive purchasers. Here are some of the things you almost certainly don’t need for shooting buildings:

  • red-eye reduction
  • digital zoom (which is just a cropping function)
  • variable aspect ratios (ie, 4:3, 16:9: another cropping function)
  • face detection
  • movie mode
  • eBay mode
  • YouTube mode (I am not making this up)

These are some features that do usefully contribute to making good images, of course:

  • Multiple shooting modes (aperture priority, shutter priority, manual and automatic)
  • Exposure compensation
  • A good-quality zoom lens (one made by Nikkor, Schneider or Zeiss, e.g.)
  • High ISO sensitivity
  • Image stabilization or vibration reduction, especially on smaller cameras
  • A large, bright LCD screen with a histogram option
  • Raw format file option

The first four of these will be familiar to old-school film photographers, many of whom cut their teeth on manual-focus film SLRs: in my case, my father’s Minolta SRT. The last three are specific to digital photography.

Mid-Career

If you have about $1000 to spend on equipment, and a desire to make a long-term commitment to photography, the optimal equipment is certainly a digital SLR body and a good quality lens. In this range you will have a choice of a few lightweight bodies with plenty of resolution (in 2008, the 8-12 megapixel range) and a wide array of decent zoom lenses. Canon and Nikon are the principal players in this game, both with an enormous and growing selection of lenses. You can find very comprehensive assessments of the current crop of Nikon lenses and bodies at bythom.com and both Canon and Nikon equipment at KenRockwell.com.

Do not, under any circumstances, skimp on lenses. You will be far better served by spending more money on good glass with a more modest range. Though you may decide, in time, to replace an aging camera body, an excellent lens will serve you well for many many years. If you are moving to digital from film, you can even continue to use your old manual-focus lenses if you stick with the same manufacturer for the new body. I have used a Nikon D100 (still available used at keh.com) and D200 very happily, the latter attached to Nikon’s marvelous 12-24mm zoom lens. For those with less need to shoot in tight spaces, an 18-55mm, or even 18-200mm lens may suit you better and will certainly be more flexible (both of these lenses suffer somewhat from barrel and pincushion distortion, especially at their extremes, but this can be minimized using the PTLens tool for Photoshop). Whatever you do, buy a decent lens that will last you through multiple bodies.

Professional Photographer

If you have superior photographic talent and an extravagant budget you are most likely not reading this little dissertation but some readers, perhaps, are looking forward to a day when they will and would like to know where to set their sights. The top of the line, in the world of DSLR photography, are the very small number of so-called “full-frame” camera bodies. Kodak produced one of the first, the DCS-14n, which sold for $4,000 in 2002 but was soon discontinued. Around the same time, Canon offered the 11-megapixel 1Ds for $8,000, which is currently on its third iteration, now at 21 megapixels and still selling for $8,000. Canon has added a second full frame camera, the 13-megapixel 5D, for a seemingly modest $2500. Nikon finally entered this game in 2007 with the $5,000, 14-megapixel D3. All of these cameras use a very durable, heavy, weatherproof body to house a high-quality, high-resolution image sensor that is the same size as a piece of 35mm film, hence the “full-frame” designation. Because of their size, these sensors remain very expensive to produce and the price of full-frame digital cameras is expected to remain quite high in the near future.

In addition to the high quality of their sensors and their heavy-duty enclosures, the principal benefit of these cameras is that all of the old lenses for film bodies work as expected, without any magnification (less expensive digital SLRs have smaller sensors that magnify images by a factor of 1.5, as described here). For architectural photographers, this means that your beloved tilt-shift lens is still useful, though you may have to determine the exposure yourself and focus manually (incidentally, Nikon recently started producing a 24mm T/S lens designed for the new digital bodies, which is great news for architectural photographers except for its nearly $2,000 price tag).

In terms of resolution, construction quality, and handling, these high-end cameras are usually paired with a less costly (but still expensive) camera with APS-sized-sensor from the same manufacturer, allowing professionals to have a backup body that feels familiar and allowing the rest of us to own something that handles and takes abuse like a pro camera, hence the appalling neologism for the intermediate range of SLR, “prosumer.” These cameras use smaller sensors, smaller bodies, and are slightly stripped-down versions of their full frame cousins.

For Nikon, the little buddy of the $5000 D3 is the $1,800 D300; Canon pairs the 1Ds and 5D with the $1,300 40D. In the right hands, and paired with the right lens, any of these cameras will produce spectacular images that can be printed at 13″ x 19″ and beyond. For most of us, however, this highest level of equipment may be overkill, especially if the body is not attached to a high-quality lens. For example, the sensor, the only determinant of image quality in the camera body, in Nikon’s D200 (the precursor to the D300) was exactly the same as the one in the D80, which originally sold for roughly half as much.

What the extra $700 (or the extra $7,000) buys you, in other words, is more direct control over camera settings, perhaps a more accurate metering and autofocus system, and a more durable, heavy body to lug around. I have dropped and banged my camera enough to appreciate the extra heft of the more expensive bodies but more careful photographers will certainly be wholly satisfied with less rugged gear at a fraction of the price. Nor are the differences in resolution as great as they seem. To make a noticeably larger or sharper enlargement requires doubling the resolution and, for many purposes, 6 megapixels or above is plenty.

With that said, if you need the most resolution and the best sensor and the flexibility of using the widest range of lenses, there is no substitute for these professional camera bodies. If your budget permits it, and your skills are up to their capabilities, you will not be disappointed.

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