What Digital SLR to Buy? (2009)

Which SLR to buy?

I get asked this question a lot. A lot of things have changed in photography since my parents gave me a Yashica-A and 20 rolls of expired film one Christmas morning. A lot of things have not. Mostly the things controlled by physics, the inverse square law, and the like.

Currently I own a Canon 5D, a “full-frame” SLR. This term hearkens back to the film version of the form factor that was referred to as a 35mm SLR. Full frame actually just means that you can use the same types of lenses (35mm) and expect the same results. There is a premium to pay for these cameras today. The bigger the sensor, the higher the cost. If you look at the price of Hasselblads, you can see that the inverse square law works in silicone too. (There’s a newer 5D MKII, but I’ll have to keep renting that when I need it… $$$)

Bigger sensors have some advantages in that the smaller the sensors sensors have higher densities of pixels which can have a diminishing return in sharpness. Also the smaller the sensor, the longer the relative focal length of the lens. The same 50mm lens on a full frame camera is the equivalent of an 80mm lens on a smaller sensor camera. If you like to shoot with wide angle lenses, this can be a big bummer. Big camera companies like Canon and Nikon have millions of man-hours of experience crafting lenses for the “35mm” form factor.

Although they all make new lenses for the new smaller sensors, the range and availability of lenses is quite limited by comparison and when you get into the wide angle lenses it’s pretty dismal. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good wide lenses for the smaller sensor cameras, just not as many.

Sidebar / Full disclosure: I am biased. It’s not what your thinking… Nikon vs. Canon, but actually zoom vs. prime. I don’t use zoom lenses on still cameras. I think they’re great for cinematography, because the subject is, after all, motion. But in a still camera, the end product is still, and in most cases the disadvantages of a zoom far outweigh the advantages. Speed, the amount of light a lens allows in is the biggest one for me. The wider the aperture, the more depth of field control that you have. Depth of field is how much of your picture is in focus. One of a photographers most important tools is deciding what is going to be in focus, and what is not.

Slower lenses, like zooms, limit your ability to control depth of field and shoot in iffy lighting situations, so I don’t use them. In order to get the zoom to zoom, there is just a lot more glass (or plastic) that the light needs to travel through to get to the sensor. Every element of the lens adds more optical noise. The trade off is that you actually need to think, ahead of time, which lens you will need for a given situation, which brings me to the subject “Picture Taking” vs. “Picture Making”. Good photographers do both. A Picture Taker is photographer that captures the world, as it is, around them. A Picture Maker creates or impacts that world, in some way, to reflect an opinion, a point-of-view, a story.

Picture takers - Shot with a Wdelux F7
Picture takers - Shot with a Wdelux F7

Picture takers love zoom lenses. With a giant phallus strapped to your chest (or your face), you can pick off pictures, from any spot, like a sniper. But picture making usually requires a little more intestinal fortitude. You have to determine what the picture wants to be, and then make it. It might require asking someone’s permission, crafting the light, creating a relationship with the subject, even if it is only for a 125th of a second. In any case it takes forethought, something that many people who are on a guided tour from the cruise ship don’t think, or want to think about, until it is in front of them.

So which SLR to buy? Answering the question, what you want to shoot?, is a good place to start. Most people like to shoot two things people and places. For each, I suggest a different strategy. I bought the Canon 5D because Canon makes a very cool 24mm f1.4 lens. I like this lens for practically everything. It’s on the edge of superwide so it takes in great expanses of view, but with the ability to go to f1.4 you still have significant depth-of-field control. You can take pictures with this lens that don’t look like any other pictures, and that suits my artistic ego just fine. Note: I hardly ever shoot wide open, because of the physics of light, the sharpest aperture is usually a couple of stops down from wide open. In the case of the 24mm f1.4, I find myself shooting at 2.8 often.

For idealized people I like a short telephoto. I have a 100mm f2.0, but rent an 85mm all the time. Back in the day, I went to a “Nikon School” where the instructors described a psychological phenomenon of “personal space”. The view of a person as ideal, is often cultural. In the wide open spaces of the USA, the average distance between people in a conversation is 6-10 feet! In Europe and Asia it’s much closer. This affects how we perceive a portrait. When I was a kid, I liked to be farther away from the person I was shooting. As I got older, and more comfortable in my skin (albeit old and wrinkled) I started to like to be closer.

If you are conversing with someone, while you are shooting, closer means you can use a lower voice, and a lot of times that 2-3 extra feet of intimacy means a better picture. The 85 I rent is a f1.2, but if I was going to buy one, I’d probably get the 1.8. It’s a lot lighter and focuses a lot faster.

So the good news about the smaller sensor cameras is that a fast “normal” 50mm 1.4 EF ($369) on a Canon 50D ($1200) is roughly the equivalent of an 85mm f1.2 EF ($1870) on a Canon 5D ($1400).

The widest economical choice (in the Canon range) is a 20mm f2.8 ($468). The equivalent focal length on this lens, on a Canon 50D body is 32mm, not that wide, but probably good enough for most vacation shots. To go wider is a big jump in price. The Canon 14mm f2.8 is $2,080, and is the equivalent of a 22.4mm f2.8 lens.

Cindy Cloughridge is a photographer whose work I love. She shoots with a smaller sensor Nikon and a 50mm 1.4 lens. Her pictures are stunning. Check them out here.

I don’t know much about Nikons any more. I did work for Nikon at one point in my life (apologies to Avon, Glenn, Mike and Don Crown), but the EOS changed the way I shot pictures, for the better. I know that Nikon’s are good too, but sometimes you just have to choose one.

Last parting note. Lenses are like diamonds. They have Color (multicoating), Cut (elements), Clarity (sharpness) and Carets (weight). I’ve always thought that Nikon, Leica and Hasselblad lenses were technically sharper than Canon and Mamiya, but for whatever reason, I think Canon and Mamiya lenses make people look better, prettier.

PS This is all my personal opinion. You don’t have to agree with me, so please spare me any fanboy flames!


  1. Patricia Volger says

    Love you insight!!!! You rock Peter! Love my 85mm 1.2 focuses too slow though, especially when I try to soot my critters.

  2. Schooner Darrow says

    Great article, just so happens I got a Canon 50D, interesting about zoom verses prime lenses, all my lenses are zoom, make me rethink about buying a prime lens

  3. says

    Peter, what a thoughtful and useful article. Since I often ride my bike through the city while photographing, I love my small canon but I have to sacrifice.. What. In your opinion is the best ‘compact’ camera…I don’t care about a zoom…only about maximizing quality in a small camera.

  4. says

    Brian, I’ve heard very good things about the Sony Alpha NEX series of cameras. Trey Ratcliff has good things to say about them. The Fuji X100 is also supposed to be super-cool with it’s retro styling. But my go-to place to check any camera purchase is ALWAYS DP Review! Things change every gosh darn day! (Usually better, faster or cheaper). In any case get a camera that shoots RAW!

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