So I’m looking at buying a DSLR, and I’m balancing price/value with capability and quality to come out with the best camera for my needs. I’ve only rarely worked with professional- and expert-grade cameras, usually just tinkering with ones belonging to the photographers that I work with. Pretty much all of the photography that I’ve ever done, either for personal use or for-hire has been shot with a point-and-shoot of some sort. I pretty much converted over from shooting a combination of film and digital to just shooting digital about four years ago, and if there’s one thing I really miss about shooting in film is that, even with a one-time use camera, you can get crispness and color depth that you can’t achieve with a pretty reasonable point-and-shoot digital camera.
So anyway…perhaps my biggest pet peeve about shooting in digital with just about any point-and-shoot that I’ve laid hands on is the color noise that becomes evident if the photo isn’t taken under the most ideal conditions. And the worse a camera performs under low-light conditions, the worse this problem seems to be overall. Therefore, my old Sony point-and-shoot digital camera is a much bigger culprit than my boyfriend’s Canon point-and-shoot of comparable specs. As a result, I find myself stealing his camera to take pictures more often than not. A close second pet peeve is the harsh shadowing and reflections that result from using a non-sensitive, barely adjustable flash. Most point-and-shoots don’t have any way to hook up a flash kit, and the positioning of the built-in flash is not conducive to using a reflector or a diffuser of any sort or quality with much success. Even DSLRs have this problem with a non-diffused or straight-on flash, but the strange thing is that I never had this problem shooting in film, and I never did anything special with the stock flash.
So, getting to what I mentioned in the headline…Flickr has this neat feature where you can look at photos taken with different cameras. So, I pulled up the pages for all of the cameras that I was considering: Canon 30D, Canon 450D (Rebel XSi), Nikon D80 and Nikon D40. Suffice it to say, beautiful images can be captured with any of these cameras with the right lens, under the right conditions. The more I look at things, the more I realize that lenses can matter a good deal more than the camera body itself. However, I want to know what each camera is capable of, and how well it handles non-ideal lighting and handling with a kit lens. The kit lens for each of the cameras I’m looking at is a 18-50mm lens with image stabilization and/or autofocus capabilities. The cameras differ in megapixels, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as how well the camera performs under conditions such as low light with a high ISO and no flash–a recipe for high noise no matter what you’re shooting with, and bad lighting conditions (like fluorescent lighting) with flash–often a recipe for harsh shadowing and significant color noise.
I found that looking at recently posted images from each camera provided me with plenty of non-professional, non-ideal snapshots that are really the stress test for the sensor and the optics that I was looking for. From what I saw, the Nikon cameras are prone to more noise and harsh shadowing under non-ideal conditions. The Canon cameras are much more forgiving; low-light shots taken with the 450D at ISO 250, handheld, with no flash were fairly crisp and had no perceptible noise. One taken with the 30D at ISO 1600 and no flash did have some perceptible noise, but even less than what I would get if I took the same picture at ISO 400 with my point-and-shoot Sony, or even my boyfriend’s point-and-shoot Canon.
I also looked at some of the more professional and artistic images taken and still found indicators that the Canon cameras are less prone to my biggest digital pet peeves than Nikons. One image, taken with the D80 at 200 mm and ISO 220, had a good bit of noise around the finer details of the image despite very good lighting conditions. Zoom is another thing that can contribute to a noisy picture, so this exemplar makes me question the D80’s ability to overcome what I see as one of digital photography’s biggest problems. I do like the color depth that the Nikon cameras can seem to capture, though. That is one thing that I would say it does slightly better than the Canons, particularly when taking pictures of people and animals. The D40 seems to be a little less noise-prone than the D80; I’m told this is because of its lower megapixel count, but it seems to suffer greatly from harsh flash-induced shadowing, moreso than any of the other cameras I’m looking at.
So at this point, I think I may be settled on either the Canon 30D or 450D, though I’m leaning a bit more to the 450D at the moment, as it seems to have a few more noob-proofing capabilities for the price which seem like they’ll remain useful once I get used to using and maintaining a DSLR. Ideally, I’d like to be able to try both of them out to get a feel for them and see which one seems to respond best to my shooting style and if one feels less awkward then the other to use. I’d also be interested in hearing from someone who has used two or more of the cameras I’ve been looking at and getting their comparative opinion on the cameras.