Gear Week: Camera Bodies

Throughout the week, I’m writing a series of posts about buying gear. As we near the end of the semester with graduations and holidays approaching, the number of questions I get from students about putting together a kit skyrockets.

Just a few more posts to get through this week – strobes will be tomorrow and random accessories on Saturday.

But for today, let’s talk about camera bodies. We’ve already discussed the sensors earlier, so we don’t need to dive into that. By now, hopefully, you’ve read up on lenses as well as where to buy these things and whether you’re going new or used.

Camera bodies fall into three categories, I think: Consumer, Prosumer and Professional.

Consumer Cameras

If you’re going to be making a living with these things, I think you need to stay away from the consumer level cameras. These cameras exclusively have the APS-C sized sensors, but that’s not what makes them poor choices.

They are slow and not built for daily use. The viewfinders are difficult to work with if you wear glasses. The controls are not setup to be very intuitive and the menu structures can be very complex. Trying to set one function that you use often can take far too many pushes on buttons and twists of dials.

I will tell you that I start my students on consumer level cameras, but that has more to do with cost than anything else. I find them to be very small for my hands and, as I wear glasses, I struggle with seeing both the full frame and the metering info at the bottom of the viewfinder. And that full frame? It usually isn’t – you’re usually seeing a cropped version of the frame, showing about 92-95% of what’s being recorded. Since I hammer my kids for edge control, that can be a problem – it may force you to crop, thereby throwing away perfectly good pixels in your workflow.

The accessories are limited at this end of the spectrum, as well. All of the lenses and strobes will work, but the specialty items may not be there. Things like a vertical battery grip or a wireless transmitter just may not exist. (Although the Eye-Fi makes up for that last one in spades, provided speed and battery life isn’t crucial to you.)

Over the years, I have had a growing suspicion that camera manufacturers calibrate their meters differently at this level. It seems to me that the consumer level cameras are biased towards a little bit of overexposure. My suspicion is the average shooter is more likely to underexpose their image and is not as worried about protecting highlights. I haven’t tested this very thoroughly, but anecdotally, it seems to hold up.

So, what cameras are in this range? For Nikon, it’s the D3200 ($500, with a kit lens), D5200 ($750, with a kit lens) or D7100 ($1,400, with a kit lens).

Please, please do not take what I say next as a slam on Nikon because I admitted earlier I shoot Canons: There is something about the way those three cameras render JPGs that I – I – do not like. I have seen files from several versions of each of them and there is something about them that I don’t like.

Also, I think they are not durable enough for what we do.

On the Canon side, the EOS Rebel SL1 ($650, with kit lens) and Rebel T5i ($750, with kit lens) are the current models. You can still find the older T4 and T3 cameras for less if you look around.

The files out of those cameras looks better, to me, but I’m still not convinced they will hold up over time.

Prosumer Cameras

If you’ve been reading along all week, this is probably what you’re looking for. When you hit this point, you start adding not features but quality to those features. If you look at the specs and compare them to the consumer grade gear, you’ll see a lot of similarities – similar resolution, similar modes, etc.

But what you won’t see in the specs is the higher level of responsiveness you get here. You also start getting lots of accessories as this is the class of camera serious photographers gravitate to. These cameras will hold up a lot longer and there are lots of professionals that are in this range.

Most of these cameras are still in the APS-C sensor range, but a few get to full frame.

Starting again with Nikon, you’re looking at the D300s ($1,450, body only). I know a lot of photojournalists who are using this camera and its predecessor, the D200, was my last Nikon body – and I think it was one of the greatest cameras I’ve ever owned.

If you want to go full frame, Nikon has the D610 ($2,000, body only) to offer you.

Over at Canon, you have two choices – the EOS 70D ($1.050, body only) or the EOS 7D ($1,400, body only).

For an entry level full frame, Canon has the EOS 6D ($1,800, body only).

Professional Cameras

Which brings us to the top of the line cameras. Here, you start to lose some features (like built in flashes, which are pretty useless to the pro) and pick up things like better weather sealing, highly advanced autofocus systems, much lower shutter lag and better monitor screens. You’ll also have more options for video and a ton of accessories.

There are two paths you can go here – general assignment work, which will give you a smaller camera but lower burst rates, or sports and breaking news, which gives you similar image quality but in a very robust body that is designed to shoot at 10 or more frames per second.

Nikon’s entry here is the D800 ($2,800, body only) and Canon’s is the EOS 5D Mark III ($3,300, body only). Both are excellent cameras and you can get the vertical battery grips (which will hold two batteries instead of one and give you a vertical shutter release, something many of us really need to help balance the camera). They each have phenomenally sensors, though Nikon is winning the megapixel war at 36.3 to Canon’s 22.3. But … well … unless you’re shooting billboards, I’m not sure that matters too much anymore.

When you step up, you choose between the Nikon D4 ($6,000, body only) and the Canon 1DX ($6,600, body only).

I’ll let you take a deep breath here.

The Nikon gets you a 16.2 MP chip, 11 frames per second and full 1080p video. The Canon gives you 18.1 MP, 14 frames per second 1080p video, as well.

So, the smaller, lower priced bodies give you more resolution, but the larger, more expensive ones give you speed. Which do you need?

Other Options

There aren’t many, really. Sure, Sony, Pentax and Olympus are selling what look like similar cameras, but they do not have the full system to back them up. You will find some really nice cameras out there, but if you can’t buy the accessories you need to grow your business, that’s a dangerous and potentially expensive path to start yourself on.

There’s also the Leica cameras which I so love … and cannot afford. But that’s a specialty item and not really appropriate for general news photography.

So, Which Ones?

Note the plural – I would never head out on an assignment without a backup. Ideally, you would have two identical bodies so the controls would be familiar, so you could move from your wide lens to your telephoto seamlessly.

But when you’re starting out, that probably won’t happen. You’ll probably end up going used and getting one body that’s a generation older – and that is fine. But look for cameras that are similar in design so the controls are reasonably consistent. A Canon 1DX and an SL1 would be a nightmare combination … but a D800 and a D300 wouldn’t be bad at all.

For me, starting out, I’d put together a business plan that would support purchasing a pair of either Nikon’s D300s or Canon’s 7D. That would let me do 90% of daily news work at an affordable price point. Both have been out long enough that there are some on the used market, too. (KEH.com has a D300s in EX condition for $750 right now and a 7D for $850 in similar condition.)

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