I guess I chose wisely


Foreign Dispatches posts some digital camera recommendations, with explanations. I just went through a fair amount of research before going out and getting a new camera myself a few weeks ago, and it’s all good—most importantly, his best choice is the same camera I got for myself, the Nikon D50. Whew, what a relief. Don’t you hate it when you dump a bucket of loot on something and then you find a good review that tells you you should have got something else?

As he notes, how many millions of pixels you’ve got are no longer the most important criterion for a good camera. What settled me was that I finally wanted some good optics—the teeny-tiny cheap lenses on your standard point-and-shoot have always bugged me, and I wanted a camera body where I could actually mount some good lenses. Since my working camera for film (which I have hardly used in years now) was a Nikon 6006, that pretty much settled it for me, so I went with the camera body that would handle my Nikkor lenses.

One other thing Abiola didn’t mention in his review: a good camera is useful, but it isn’t the most important thing in good photography. I don’t consider myself a good photographer, but I’m not bad as a microscopist, and know by analogy what works. On a scope, you get the best objective you can afford, but when you’re working at micrography, you just sort of aim that at the specimen and forget about it. Where you put all your effort and fuss and tweak is in the illumination, and what you learn to appreciate is a condenser with all the knobs and dials and filters. Same with a camera; you want to be able to point a good light collector at your subject, but the difference between a blah picture and a great one is the lighting.


  1. Doc Bill says

    That said, be sure to pick up a Nikkor Flash unit.

    I think my Nikon F3 HP is destined for the museum along with my Nikon F and TN. My flash unit might be a keeper, though, if it works on the D50 hot shoe.

    Right now I’m a yo-yo between Canon and Nikon. Thanks for the push!

  2. says

    You can’t go wrong with a Nikon.

    Though for what I do as a pro photographer I need to use film I recently bought a Nikon D70 from a friend an am quite happy with it. At least I can shoot stuff for my blog and not have to process/scan/tweak just to get a damn picture posted!

    Anyway, enjoy your shiny new D50!


  3. G. Tingey says

    Been using Olymus OM-4 (&1) for years.
    Before that I had a Leica …….

    Will have to switch to digital next year, or soon, though.

  4. James says

    I use a Canon DSLR (20D) myself, but Nikons are excellent as well. We’ve tried a few digit6al point-and-shoots (Minolta, Nikon, and Canon) and haven’t been all that happy with any of them — they’re just too limiting. I definitely would not have been able to get this lucky self-portrait with a point-and-shoot.

  5. rjh says

    Enjoy your D50. I ended up with the D70s partly because I already had a collection of CF cards for use with the Canon S40 that lives in my computer bag. The other reason was that it was clear that I would be able to use my old old non-AF Nikon lenses with the D70. I could not confirm that the D50 would accept those lenses. They require both physical compatibility and the software ability to go into 100% manual mode. Some of the Nikon bodies cannot work with these old lenses, even when the body is told that manual controls will be used.

  6. Andrea Bottaro says

    Another alternative he did not mention is Pentax.

    I have a Pentax *istDs (I had several legacy lenses from my film years) and I am very happy with it – small, light, lots of features and great pictures. The brand new K100D is even better from what I hear – it has in-camera image stabilization (as opposed to in-lens as in Nikon and Canon, which means a surcharge for every lens you buy). IS is great if you take lots of long-tele – e.g. nature or sports – or lowlight shots. Costwise, the K100D is about the same as the D50, and will almost certainly be cheaper in a few months (I am planning to upgrade some time next year, IS is too good to pass for my birding).

    Another advantage vs Canon is that Pentax glass tends to be better (Nikon lenses are also excellent). A drawback is that Pentax cameras have less resale value if you want to sell yours, since their market share is smaller (on the other hand, good used lenses sell at a premium). But most Pentaxites are quite brand-faithful, so that’s usually not an issue.

    For any research, I recommend starting at http://www.dpreview.com, especially the discussion boards.

  7. oldhippie says

    Modern digital cameras do a fantastic job. Although I am by no means a professional photographer, some of my pictures end up in glossy magazines. I use a very small camera which I love, the Canon Power shot s70. Three reasons. It is so small and light it goes with me everywhere. (You canot take a picture if you don’t have the camera.) It has a very wide field of view (28 mm equivalent. The results are good.

  8. wildlifer says

    I still use my 6006 and just have the film processor put them on CD as well … but I’ve been eyeing the D50…

  9. says

    My first real camera was a Pentax, and I’ve still got it around here somewhere — I think Skatje adopted it. It’s a real SLR, but it’s a lot simpler than the Nikon N6006.

  10. Grumpy says

    “…the difference between a blah picture and a great one is the lighting.”

    Which famous photographer was it who said, “Light is the only subject”?

  11. jbCharleston says

    Good choice. But if you REALLY want to get the best out of it, get the new 18-200VR lens. The reviews have been astounding. Apparently there’s a 2 month backlog. The pro’s are all trying to find one. I recommend you check out this site for a lot of good tips and real-world experience – all very well organized and written.

    We’re planning a Safari for next summer, and there’s a D200 in our future. For the folks that tell you that pixel count doesn’t matter, when you blow up to over 8×10 with high-quality paper, you need more. But if it weren’t such a once-in-a-lifetime trip, we’d get the D50 hands-down.

    oh yes, for all of you Mac users, the current iPhoto will handle download of the D50 and D200 RAW encoding files. You end up with a TIFF file, but with all the information.


  12. Magnus Malmborn says

    There is one more reason a larger sensor is better, it’s not just noise: With a larger sensor you need a larger lens and thus a larger aperture, and that in turn improves the optical resolution.

    I currently use a D50, but previously had a prosumer Konica-Minolta Z3 (4MP, 430mm equiv. zoom.) When comparing the two I found that I got about as much detail from the D50 with a 70mm lens (105mm equiv) as from the other zoomed in to 430mm. I suspect the same will apply to the 8 and 10MP compacts; their tiny lenses will be too soft to make use of the chip’s resolution.

    Re flash-units: Any old unit with it’s own metering will work, I used a 30 year old Rollei with good results. The primary reason I eventually got an SB600 was the limited head-tilt of the old one (only 0 and 45 degrees up, no turn.)

  13. Ichthyic says

    actually, if you really want to pick up some great tips, get ideas for photo composition, and meet some generally friendly and knowledgeable photo geeks, I have spent fair bit of productive time here:


    check out the digital photography forum there, the how-to section, and the reader gallery, especially.

    Also, just in case you weren’t aware, your slr nikkor lenses won’t exactly have the same image size on the digital sensor that they did when you used them for 35mm (basically, the image gets cut off because the sensor is smaller than a 35mm film frame).

    there are plenty of guides that will give you specific translations out there, though.

  14. David Evans says

    Good advice in general. I would only disagree if you are interested in wildlife photography and want to travel light. My Panasonic FZ20 has the equivalent in 35 mm terms of a 35-420 mm F2.8 lens. Such a lens for an SLR would be heavy, expensive and hard to hold steady. I have taken some very satisfying bird and dolphin shots with it.

  15. says

    Now, you need the VR 105mm macro lens. I’ve got the same camera, the 18-70 lens that’s the kit lens with the D-70s and D 200, and a f/1.8 50 mm lens. And the macro lens. You could probably live with the 60mm macro lens, though.

  16. Magnus Malmborn says

    Shhh. If my wife finds out this thing could be budget black hole, she’ll make me take it back.

    And she let you buy a computer? I mean, just because you can spend $10k on a 600:4.0 AF-S doesn’t mean that you have to… ever. Computers on the other hand have to be replaced ever 3-5 years.

  17. says

    The Nikon D50 is a nice camera, to be sure.

    Personally, I’ve had an Oly E-500 for the best part of a year now, and I’ve never had a reason to complain. But if I was buying a new camera today, and I didn’t have old lenses to worry about, I’d almost certainly go for the Sony α100. It looks like their purchase of Konica/Minolta was a good thing…

  18. says

    Someone – I think Bob Atkins, though I can’ swear on it – commented once that with the DSLR market and the SLR market before it having been so very competitive for so long, you can’t go wrong with any of the offerings out there. Yes, there are differences both in the bodies and in the lens systems, but those are really all at the margin. The real lemon producers all disappeared or changed their business focus long ago.

    I looked at Nikon, but they did not (and still not) have a small, compact body like the Canon 350D or the Pentax models. I know, other people complain about them being too small – taste differs, so good thing we have choices. I was really, really close to getting a Pentax but my GF already has a Canon film body and some lenses so that gave me a leg up on that. Bodies come and go, after all, while lenses tend to last.

    One tip is the Sigma 30/1.4. It’s my most used lens by far, and is not only a good general walk-around lens, but excellent in low light.

  19. Steve Watson says

    The best thing about going digital (for us, first a Kodak p&s, now a D70s) is you can just blaze away without worrying about wasting expensive film on bad shots. It’s especially good for non-posed shots of moving subjects: I just leave my camera in multi-shot mode and hold the shutter down — somewhere in that sequence, I’ll capture the moment I want.

  20. Gray Lensman says

    The Canon 5D has a film-size sensor and 12.8 Megapixel file size. Your lenses don’t “magnify” 1.6 times and you can print huge prints without having to resize. It’s the cheapest DSLR with the full-size sensor. The advantage is that the lenses give you the expected image size, not the “magnified” one. The wideangles are really wideangles. All my Canon EOS EF lenses work too. The 5D costs the same ($3K) as the D30 we bought in 2001 which is a 3 megapixel (and still works fine). My wife uses it for real estate property photos with a 14mm=22mm lens. The pics look professional on the Web.

    Film is still better, at least right now. A Fuji Velvia 50 slide is approx. 40 megapixel equivalent and will scan better and better as the scanner technology improves. The current hotshot digital models will become obsolete, just like your new laptop. I’m not selling my Canon EOS-1N any time soon.

  21. Chet says

    Great, but what about a digital camera that’s not so frickin’ slow? Half the models on the market, it’s like they take ten whole seconds to boot up, and then another two seconds to actually take a shot when you push the button.

  22. says

    The DSLRs now are actually pretty snappy, at least according to the review sites.

    I guess that guy would consider me one of the suckers, since I bought one of the cameras that looks sort of like a miniature SLR but isn’t. It wasn’t exactly a pricey “prosumer” model, though, but one of the stabilized ultra zooms that have started to appear in the sub-$400 range (a Canon S2 IS); it cost no more than a lot of pocket cameras.

    Maybe it’s just denial, but I’m pretty happy with it. I bought it knowing full well that the sensor was no better than in a pocket camera, so in good light at close range it won’t take better pictures. But on the other hand the lens loses less aperture than a compact at high zoom levels, and I like the long zoom and the image stabilization; it makes taking casual pictures at family gatherings and such a lot more fun than with my old pocket camera. The shutter lag isn’t bad either.

    I wouldn’t buy one of the more expensive “prosumer” cameras now that DSLRs are cheaper, though the extra kit you have to lug around with a DSLR can be a problem. And he’s absolutely right that megapixels are not even worth worrying about any more; just about any camera you’d buy from a reputable manufacturer has 4 megapixels or more, even in the sub-$200 range, and that’s as many as most people will ever need.

  23. says

    This sounds great for me, but right now I am looking for a good digital camera for my daughter’s 10th birthday. She has a great eye and is constantly taking pictures with our old Olympus D-100. No need to worry about compatibility with old lenses and stuff for now – she’ll build her own armamentarium over time.

  24. Markus says

    At work I just use a Canon S2 IS which is perfectly good for me. Most pictures I take are close range, and of computer components. The funnest ones are the motherboards with a single bent pin in memory socket. With no stand and no specialized lighting equipment it can kind be a challenge, but I’ve taken quite the adequate pictures of something less than 1mm width.

  25. says

    The S2 IS has this odd “Super Macro” mode in which it can take pictures of things shoved right up to the lens.

    Actually, though, that’s the one mild disappointment I have with the camera: my old Nikon Coolpix 2500, a two-megapixel pocket camera, was better for taking extreme macro shots than the S2 IS.

    This may have been more a testament to Nikon’s obsession with macro than a valid criticism of the Canon. Going by the specs, the pocket Nikon’s macro mode was less powerful. But the Nikon’s smaller lens had less chromatic aberration in macro mode; it achieved equivalent image coverages at slightly greater distance which (along with its smallness) made it easier to handle; and its absurd little flash, located right next to the lens, suddenly went from being a liability to an advantage in close macro shots. The Canon’s lens tends to cast a shadow on the subject. Like PZ said, it’s all about the light.

  26. says

    …hey, I just noticed that the author was none other than Abiola Lapite, high on my list of really smart people who often say well-argued things I disagree with.

    This seems to be no exception, though I did have many points of agreement here. I just think there are more categories of potential buyer than “piker who should stick to point-and-shoot cameras” and “someone who really needs a DSLR”. Mind you, another couple of years of entry-level DSLRs getting cheaper and more capable and that may not be the case any more. And I can’t wait for high-sensitivity sensors like the one in that Fujifilm camera to take over the rest of the market.

  27. says

    Matt, I definitely think that DSLRs are going to be a must-buy in the very near future, although the EVF market seems to be pretty solid right now as well. Those will probably remain a better choice for folks who want a step-up from point-and-shoots without going for the whole DSLR hog. But their main advantage right now is price (and having seriously huge zoom ranges), and I can definitely see DSLRs encroaching on their territory soon.

    I’ve owned a pair of Nikons in my time (a Coolpix 2500, neat digital p&s for the time, with the swivel lens thing, and a N65, since I really wanted to own an SLR and couldn’t afford a digital one). They’re darn fine cameras. I’ve been nothing but happy with both of those purchases, although it seems like Canon is getting better reviews in Pop Photo these days. Most of the differences between those Big Two, though, are pretty slight and nitpicky. I don’t think it’s possible to go wrong buying bodies from any of the major manufacturers right now.

  28. says

    [sigh] Another toy to buy when I have money, like that new Lego Mindstorms kit …

    What can one get for about $150-$200 these days? Anything actually decent, unlike the IXLA I bought a few years ago?

  29. Courtney Bane says

    Speaking of lighting, here’s a great site about cheap off-camera lighting. The guy who runs it is a photographer for the Baltimore Sun, and the site is about using shoe-mount flashes off-camera. You’ll want to start with the Lighting 101 section. Also, while the site recomends Pocket Wizard radio triggers (which cost $300+ for a transmiter/receiver pair), you can get a set of radio triggers from eBay for $30 or so. I just bought a set from this eBay store. They haven’t gotten here yet, but several people on the Strobist flikr forum have bought from them, and seemed satisfied.

  30. says

    For $150-$200 you can get a pretty decent little camera nowadays, about a 4MP model with a small 3x zoom lens. Most of the major manufacturers make them. It won’t be the slimmest or sexiest-looking camera, nor will it easily take good pictures without the flash in indoor light; but it will probably fit in your jacket pocket, it will work fine as long as you’re satisfied with using the flash now and then, and it will take excellent pictures if the light is good.

    Do bear in mind that that’s just the cost of the camera; you’ll want to spend $40-$70 more on a decent-sized memory card (they usually ship with a ridiculously tiny “starter” card), and maybe more on batteries and charger depending on what’s bundled with the camera.

  31. Romy B. says

    Well, I came within a micron of plunking down the cash for one of those D50s just last week, and this may clinch it.

    I’ve spent the last two years dinking around with a little 3mp Panasonic point-and-shoot, getting some extraordinary results, for which lighting is truly the key. In those two years my venerable, dead simple and tanklike Pentax K1000 has gone *sniffle* untouched– never would have believed it in 2004.

    OK, that’s it– off to the camera store. There goes the next month (year?) Glad to see that the linked review is reassuring about the D50’s kit lens for DSLR newbies, since that was an uncertain issue.

  32. says

    I got a D50 last Christmas. I am very happy with it. The lack of shutter lag is my favorite thing about it. Point and shoot digital cameras just take too long to take the picture. I also have heavily used the program mode rather than the auto mode. In program mode it will not use the flash. This lets me do available light photos where I know that the builtin flash simply will not cover the subject.

  33. Dave Godfrey says

    With old flash units, they will probably not work with the D50, unless they are the DX series. (Or you are happy setting everything manually.) With very much older flashguns you will need something like the Weinsafe, which steps down the voltage so you don’t fry the camera.

    Personally I’m sticking with film. (Three systems sadly, Canon Manual & Autofocus, and Bronica), and scanning. Its nice to be able to review your shots, but I use the viewfinder for composition. its one of the reasons I like shooting medium format, with only twelve shots on a roll it forces you to think about what you doing.

    With regards to market domination, in the UK Canon have been way ahead of Nikon for quite some time.