The camera that’s taking over from my DSLR aka a year with the iPhone 5s

I ended up with a broken screen on my beloved Nokia Lumia 720 over a year ago, and thus began my search for a new phone. After lots of deliberation and the delayed launch of the Lumia 930 with its mixed reviews, I ended up with a 16 GB gold iPhone 5s that had just received some price cuts thanks to the iPhone 6 launch. It’s been a very satisfying photo taking journey with the iPhone thus far barring some hiccups. It is a very versatile shooter that gives amazing results even in its auto mode. Then of course, there are the manual controls introduced in iOS 8 that hand over the reigns to the photographer. Plus the entire photography workflow from shooting to editing to publishing and backing up can be performed on the same device.

The iPhone 5s has been my primary camera for nearly a year now, and there have been only a few occasions like stage shows that I’ve used my Canon EOS 550D. I carried the DSLR with the 15-85 mm lens on my Goa trip in March but hardly shot with it, and then altogether skipped it on my last trip to Kolkata. In fact, I’ve been giving away some of my DSLR accessories that I rarely use over the last few months.

In terms of reliability, the iPhone series easily beats its Android counterparts as the camera app launches in a jiffy and the focusing speed and shooting latency are top notch. These parameters have been thoroughly tested in the last one year thanks to my daughter who’s 2 1/2 years old now.

Processing and sharing photos is also a breeze with the numerous apps, and this is one part of the workflow that has been completed integrated with the photo taking effort unlike in a standalone DSLR. Then of course there are the automatic backups through iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Photos, Flickr et al that ensures that the memories remain intact. It’s only natural that Microsoft and Google are trying to automate the album creation and tagging process on their photo storage services given the huge volumes we’re shooting.

The only fly in the ointment has been the storage space as 12 GB of usable is barely enough to hold all the photos after you’ve loaded a few apps. Then of course there are the videos which are all full HD and pretty enormous in size. I’ve managed to make do thanks to the iCloud photo library introduced in iOS 8 that automatically backs up and removes old photos from the device. In fact, I have gone beyond the 5 GB free tier and upgraded to the 20 GB one.

Then of course there’s the loss of variable focal lengths and being stuck with a wide angle lens. I do have a personal preference of shooting medium telephoto lengths with the 50 mm prime being my DSLR favourite. Cropping manages to take care of some of these issues when the lighting is good, and I like to think of the iPhone 5s as a camera with a wide angle prime lens.

When it comes down to image quality, I’ve found it good enough compared to my DSLR except in very low light situations. The focus speed can be a bit slow compared to the DSLR as well and this is one aspect that’s been upgraded in the iPhone 6\6+. Video quality is of course superb and the electronic stabilization makes a real difference, but the storage space gets in the way for longer videos.

There are of course other features like slo-mo 120 fps videos that are just not possible on the DSLR, and shooting time lapses or hyperlapses is a breeze compared to the elaborate setup required with the DSLR.

So, do you want to buy a DSLR? Please don’t – just get an iPhone (or even one of the Android flagships like LG G3\G4 or Galaxy S6)

So you got a DSLR

It has been a while since my first 2 posts on this topic, but better late than never. A DSLR is a powerful tool no doubt, but it can seem intimidating at first with its gamut of controls. The OEMs have tried to ease the learning curve for first time DSLR users by providing a bunch of automatic modes just as in Point & Shoot cameras. These modes make for a good starting point for starting your photography journey and get you acclimatized to the controls of your new camera. Today’s DSLRs give pretty good results in typical scenes that you want to shoot. However, there will be situations where the automatic modes will fail to give you the desired results. These are the times for which you need to prepare yourself, and some basic understanding of the way your camera works and photography is going to prove very helpful. To unlock the true potential of your DSLR you will of course have to switch to the semi-automatic and manual modes eventually. The first thing you need to do is master the basics of not just your camera, but also photography in general. There are a wealth of resources online and tons of books on the topic, and I will try to guide you to some of the ones that I found useful.

A couple of key concepts to understand:

  1. The exposure triangle that relates the 3 key parameters – aperture, shutter speed and ISO – is one of the key concepts behind image making. Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure is the best book in this regard and explains the key concepts in a very easy to understand manner with lots of examples.
  2. Metering modes and learning to read your cameras exposure meter (particularly important when using the advanced controls).

Now that you have understood a couple of basic concepts, don’t forget that every camera comes with this wonderful free book that contains a wealth of information about the controls and how to use them. Not many people end up reading it though as it is not presented in the most attractive of formats. Yes, I’m talking about the manual that came with your camera and it can actually answer a lot of questions that you have initially. In most cases, there should also be an electronic version of the manual and you could do worse than to copy it to your smartphone and\or tablet to have a ready reference with you. In case you are looking for a more attractive and easier to read package, there is also a series called From Snapshots to Great Shots for most of the recent models, and you can get hold of the version for your camera. It also goes without saying that practice is the best teacher, and the digital medium lends itself naturally to the trial and error technique of shooting.

This information should help you get started with your shiny new DSLR. Also, keep in mind that just because you are trying to master the basics does not mean that you should not check out the advanced modes and controls. So go ahead and explore your camera, and I will try to whip up a few posts (hopefully quicker than this post) on how to get better results.

So you really want to buy a DSLR?

Now that you have made up your mind on buying a DSLR and have hopefully allocated a budget, let me present you with what I think are your best options to spend your money based on my experiences over the last 3 years. I have kept the recommendations as platform agnostic as possible and tried to present options that will give you the most value in the long term. To start off, you’ll need to DSLR body and a lens to go with it. You can then add on other lenses and accessories over the course of your photography journey. You also need to choose the company whose platform you want to buy into as this will determine not just your initial options, but also your upgrade roadmap.

It makes sense to split your budget into two in order to choose the lens and body. A 50:50 or 60:40 split (lens:body) should give a good balance. The table below is based on Indian market prices, so if you decide to get the equipment from abroad, you should be able to get them 15-20% cheaper at the very least.

Body

Choosing the right DSLR body is an important first step, and the cost can range from around Rs 20,000 to a few lakhs. We are already in a situation where even the starter bodies give excellent results. However, investing in a higher end model gives you more room for growth as you get accustomed to the DSLR system. Typically, the starter models have the least capable sensor (about sensor formats), while the mid-range to pro\semi-pro models have similar ones. While megapixels should not be a driving force in Point & Shoot or Smartphone camera buying decisions, they still have some value in the DSLR arena. The images you obtain using a DSLR are of a much higher quality and more megapixels give you more cropping room.

Higher end bodies also have better construction quality with the pro models being weather sealed when paired with a suitable lens. Of course, this also means that higher end models are heavier. Apart from this, higher end models have a lot more controls in the form of buttons and dials. This makes it easier to access a lot of the advanced functions that a DSLR offers, but you will appreciate this only later on. In fact, buying a higher end body can seem intimidating if you are not used to tinkering with camera controls. The camera manual is something you should be prepared to read if you want to make the most of your new purchase.

Auto focus performance is an area where a higher end body will have a big leg up on the lower end models. This can make a tangible difference in the images you capture, particularly for moving subjects. Of course, the lens also plays a major role in this area.

A few other features to consider are touch screen capabilities, tilt & swivel screens and wireless flash control capability. While the first two features can make your life easier while using the camera and composing images, the third option is something that you will need a capable external flash to appreciate. An external flash is one of my recommended accessories, and this feature will help you use it even better (explore the Strobist blog on this topic, though you will appreciate it a lot more down the line). This feature is available on most of the mid-range bodies and higher up. Some OEMs (Sony, Olympus, Pentax) also offer image stabilization built into the camera body and this can make for cheaper lenses while making the feature available at all times.

My recommendation is to invest in a mid-range body (unless you can get a relatively recent pro\semi-pro model second hand) as they offer a good set of controls. Also, it is better to buy the model from a year or two earlier as the price will be a lot more reasonable, while offering similar image quality and features to the current year’s model. Starter models, while cheap will begin to feel limited in a couple of years once you get used to the system.

Lens options

First thing you need to do is to make yourself familiar with the terms like aperture and focal length as these are the basic parameters based on which you will be choosing lenses. Secondly, you need to understand that lenses do not come down in price unlike the DSLR bodies. So, it is better to either buy the lens that you want right now or save up for it rather than buying a lower quality lens and upgrading later. Thirdly, lenses are made not just by the companies that manufacture DSLR bodies, but also by other companies like Tamron, Sigma and Tokina for these DSLR platforms. Their lenses are usually cheaper than the OEM versions and can be a good deal on a limited budget.

The lens choice might seem pretty simple to begin with as most DSLR bodies come bundled with a lens or two (usually called kit lens). However, lenses can make the biggest difference in the type and quality of images you can take and it is typically better to skip the kit lens keeping the photography journey in mind. You could go for the kit lens in a few scenarios:

  • Constrained budget (option 1 of the table) – the kit lenses still give you really good images, way better than any Point & Shoot can offer. Plus you get 2 lenses covering a long focal length range (the lenses by themselves would cost over Rs 20,000).
  • 6 figure budget in which case the bundled lenses are actually premium ones
  • You will be shooting a lot of videos in which case going for the silent and smooth focusing kit lenses (Canon uses the STM moniker) makes sense

Other parameters to consider when choosing a lens (apart from focal length and aperture) are availability of image stabilization and the kind of focus motor being used. The former can help when shooting handheld while the latter can make for faster and silent focusing. If you plan to use circular polarizing filters with the lens, it also helps if the front element of the lens does not rotate when focussing or zooming.

My recommendation for a starting lens is to go for a general purpose zoom as this will let you shoot images in different scenarios. A lot of people suggest to start with a prime lens (fixed focal length, i.e., no zoom). While it does help you become a better photographer, a prime lens will make it difficult a lot of images as there will be situations where you won’t be able to move close enough or far enough to compose your shot. However, a prime lens makes for an excellent second lens and my recommendation is to get one of the 50mm versions eventually, unless you have gone for a wide aperture (f/2.8) zoom lens.

Even in general purpose zooms, you have quite a few options – starting from third party zooms like 17-50mm f/2.8 costing around Rs 20-25K to premium first party models like the 24-70mm f/2.8 costing around a lakh. Here’s a brief explanation of my recommendations from the initial table:

  • Kit lenses (normal zoom + telephoto zoom) – typically the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 & 55-200mm or 55-250mm f/4-5.6. These offer good value for money, but not the best possible image quality or convenience (particularly CPL filters).
  • Wide aperture zoom – typically the 17-50mm or 17-55mm f/2.8 lenses available from both OEMs and third parties. Both image stabilized and non-stabilized versions are available. While they may seem to be similar to the kit lens in terms of focal length, the image quality is considerably better due to the better quality elements used (check out the comparison image in the middle of this review). The other tangible benefit is the constant wide aperture of f/2.8 that results in a 2 stop advantage at the long end. Not only does it help in low light shooting (lower ISO or faster shutter), but it can also help you blur the background when taking portraits. You will also appreciate the constant aperture across the focal length range when shooting in manual mode as you don’t need to adjust the settings when shooting wide open.
  • Ultrazoom – typically the 18-200mm to 18-300mm variable aperture, again available from both OEMs and third parties. These may not offer very good image quality (on par with the kit lens), but make up for it with their focal length range. You are basically paying for the convenience of not having to carry around and change between two lenses. If you are not sure of what situations you will be using your camera or plan to travel quite a bit, this makes for a good choice.
  • High quality zooms – these are usually premium lenses made of high quality components giving you shaper and more colourful images. Most of these lenses have constant apertures and offer fast and silent focusing. Which lens you choose will be governed by your budget and focal length requirements.

Accessories

This is an area where you may not choose to invest immediately, but over time you can add on some basic equipment like a flash and filters for some interesting effects. At times in low light, you will find that even a DSLR does not give you the kind of images you had hoped for and the on camera flash makes things even worse. That will be the time to create your own get an external flash with a tilt and swivel head. Tripods are another frequently recommended equipment, but thus far I have not felt much need for it as I prefer handheld photography and image stabilization takes care of my needs. If you do want to go for a tripod, don’t bother with the cheaper models as they will not be very stable and I doubt you want your investment on the camera to come crashing to the ground. Instead, do some shooting and figure out whether you actually need one, and then be prepared to invest Rs 10-15K on a decent model.

You will also need to good camera bag to carry around your equipment and you are likely to get a decent one bundled with your initial purchase. That should take care of your needs till you decide to buy more lenses and\or a flash.

Which system to choose

My recommendation would be to choose either Canon or Nikon (especially if you are in India) due to their market presence and lens range, while Sony is a distant third option. Olympus also has its DSLRs, but they use a smaller sensor and their network and lens range is limited. Pentax is pretty popular in the USA, but their presence is practically non-existent in India. There are also the mirror-less models from Sony, Canon, Nikon and Panasonic but the lens options are again quite limited and they don’t really give you much advantage over a full-fledged DSLR in terms of size or weight.

Another aspect to factor in is which system your friends and relatives are using and choosing accordingly. This will enable you to borrow and exchange equipment, particularly lenses and open up more avenues for experimentation.

Personally, I am a Canon user (EOS 550D), and my decision was based on having used the Canon system of Point & Shoot cameras starting with the PowerShot A300 and moving up to the A630. Plus, the 550D was the best mid-range model in 2010 (Nikon had the D5000 then).

What you get for your money

Today, when you buy a DSLR, you are entering not just the world of still photography, but also that of videography. It will also be your first step towards building your photography platform of choice. If you are coming from a Point & Shoot or camera-phone background, then you will really appreciate the better quality images to begin with. Over the course of your journey, you will also experience the images that were not technically possible on your previous cameras due to their limited low light capabilities and slow focus. Just remember to carry your new DSLR on your expeditions.

The road ahead

I hope that I have given some basic guidelines that will make it easier to choose which DSLR to buy. You can always read up more on the web and check out the current market prices of the bodies and lenses. So, do some more research, make up your mind on what to get, and go get that DSLR.

It will be pretty tempting to spend more money on equipment once you have got the camera. However, the main area where you should be investing after getting your camera is in improving your skill (shoot as much as you can) and buying a few photography books should be a worthwhile investment.

If you want some ideas from me on what you should do with that DSLR of yours, stay tuned for my next post in this series.

So you want to buy a DSLR?

It’s been over 3 years since I got a DSLR, and 4 lenses, tons of book and a bunch of accessories (and overall expenses just a bit south of Rs 2L) later here’s my take on whether you should get a DSLR (yes, whether) and what you should start with if you decide to take the plunge.

First things first

A lot of it depends on your budget – not just the initial amount but also the amount you will be spending (or be tempted to) after you have taken the plunge. The minimum amount you will have to spend to start off will be in the Rs 25 – 30K range (unless you bag a second hand deal) and this will net you a starting DSLR body plus a kit lens. However, if you really want a decent starting combo then be prepared to invest at least Rs 40-50K. If you have a lot of money burning a hole in your pocket, then the good news is that you can easily spend over Rs 1.5 lakh and get a pro level kit and have the option of spending lots more in the future as well. Then again, I doubt that you would be reading my post if that were the case. As for your options, I’ll come to that in a bit after I’ve covered my second point.

The Second thing (or the first thing actually) – Why do you want a DSLR?

If you are thinking of taking the plunge solely for better photographs, then think again. Most mid-range Point & Shoot cameras give pretty decent images these days and will cost you half to a third of the starting DSLR option. Plus, they are a lot more convenient to carry around and the ultra-zoom models (we’re in the 50X+ zoom range now and they’ll cost you about as much as a starting DSLR kit) will easily outrange your starting DSLR kits. In fact, you will need to spend upwards of Rs 1 lakh to match the range of even a 20X ultra zoom P&S.

If you really want to spend Rs 30K on a new camera for better quality photos, take a close look at the Sony RX100. It has a pretty high resolution large sensor for a Point & Shoot which will give you near DSLR quality images (should match the quality of 5-6 year old DSLRs easily) in a pocket friendly form factor. Plus, it uses a Carl Zeiss lens with a pretty good range (28-100mm), something that will require you to spend 10-15K more on a starting DSLR kit. The camera also has an amazing burst rate of 10 fps that rivals the top end pro DSLR models.

The second generation model of the RX100 is also out and it costs almost 50% more, but gets you a tiltable screen and a better sensor among other improvements. For more compact options with larger than usual sensors, you can also check out the Canon PowerShot S series.

Another option to explore, particularly if you have an old smartphone (or none at all) is the Nokia Lumia 1020 with its large 41 MP sensor that enables lossless zooming and excellent low light capabilities. It is hands down the best camera smartphone around and gives mid-range P&S cameras a run for their money. This will not just enable you to take better photos, but it will also be with you all the time so that you can capture all those moments that you’d miss with a dedicated camera. Plus, you can edit the photos directly on your phone, back them up online and even share them easily through online services and social networks.

The above two options also mean that you will save a lot of money in the long term and not lose out on much on the photo quality front. Think about them long and hard…

Nothing doing, I really want a DSLR

Well, that was pretty quick, but it is always good to know your options and rationale before taking the plunge. So, why should you get a DSLR? Better image quality is just one part of the equation, and this too is mostly applicable to low light scenarios. What else do you get? Better control over the images you take for one, though this is partly covered by advanced settings available on many Point & Shoot cameras and also in Nokia’s Pro Camera app on its high end Lumia phones (plus similar apps on other smartphone platforms).

The real power (and real costs) of DSLRs is in their interchangeable lenses. They allow you to take photos in many different scenarios that would not be otherwise possible, like in low light without a flash in the case of wide aperture lenses, or from far far away like in the case of telephoto lenses used by wildlife and sports photographers (P&S may give you better range, but not the quality), or big picture scenarios possible through wide angle lenses (one area where Point & Shoot cameras are really lacking). Depending upon the lens the focus speed can also be blazingly fast (handy for action shots).

Then there is the whole new world of accessories like flashes, lights and filters that allow you to sculpt the kind of images you want to. Then there is also all the jargon that you will have to get used to (don’t worry, it takes a year or so), and also the constant gear temptation that you will have to put up with.

To put things in perspective on the gear and expenses front, the cheapest lens you can buy for a DSLR cost around Rs 6-7K and does not zoom (the nifty fifty, i.e. 50mm f/1.8). So, you are looking at investments (or splurges) in the 10s of Ks range at the bare minimum. Basically, buying a new lens will cost you as much as buying a decent entry level to mid-range Point & Shoot camera at the very least, and decent quality lenses will cost you as much as the good quality P&S like the Sony RX100 I had recommended earlier. As for the pro lenses, they run into the 6 figure range.

Another thing to keep in mind is that lenses don’t really come down in price unlike electronic items. In fact, their prices may even go up dramatically (10-20%) depending on supply and demand. You will also find that some of the lens designs are really old (10-15 years), and have not really come down in price. Plus, the second hand market and lens rental options are also pretty limited in India (rentals and second hand are two of the common suggestions on online forums). Of course, this is where having a bunch of DSLR touting friends comes in handy as you can share a bunch of gear among yourselves.

So, what should I get?

I’m going to give you some more time to think about what I have covered in this post, and cover the options in the second part of this series. Just be prepared to increase your budget to around Rs 40-50K, and ditch that kit lens.