07 January 2009


Are there perhaps too many digital SLRs on the market?

One way to get lots of people to see a photo of yours on the image sharing site Flickr is to take a good picture. That requires talent, skill, and dedication. A few of my pictures have become popular simply because they're good photographs—at least I think so.

But my most popular pictures on Flickr aren't like that at all. They're nerdy: pictures of wacky guitars or geek conferences, of old computers or Linux running on a Mac.

And what do you do to attract huge numbers of viewers and comments and favourites? Simple, go full nerd: just make a picture of a whole bunch of cameras and encourage people to argue about them. More than 38,000 views in six months, 208 favourite votes, and dozens and dozens of comments:

Old image of almost 25 cameras

State of the DSLR market: Nikon vs. Canon vs. Sony/Minolta vs. Olympus vs. Panasonic/Leica vs. Pentax digital SLR cameras, as of June 2008
State of the DSLR market - June 2008 (old)

An earlier attempt of mine at the same thing even had commenters threatening to kill each other about the kind of camera they like! But my favourite comment was from Axl Van Goks: "I like the black one with the buttons and stuff."

Since the digital camera market changes like crazy, my big collage from June 2008 was out of date within weeks. I waited for all the pre-Christmas camera introductions to shake out, and now I've made a new version that includes all the current digital SLR cameras I could find (almost 40) from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Leica, Samsung, Sigma, and Fujifilm:

New image of almost 40 cameras

State of the DSLR market: Nikon vs. Canon vs. Sony/Minolta vs. Olympus vs. Panasonic/Leica vs. Pentax vs. Samsung vs. Sigma vs. Fujifilm digital SLR cameras, as of January 2009
State of the DSLR market - January 2009 (new)

I expect the arguing to begin soon in the comments. The picture has 139 views and 4 favourites since I posted it three and a half hours ago. And yes, yes, I know, I know: they're not all strictly SLRs, but I think they're all of interest to SLR buyers.

Ah, art. Have at it.

UPDATE: My thesis appears to be correct. As a rule of thumb, the more cameras you put in a picture on Flickr, the more popular it is:

Shameless link baiting? Success!

Links from John Gruber and 37signals didn't hurt either.

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01 September 2008


Links of interest (2008-09-01):

  • It's a fact: I find it astonishing that the governor of Alaska (Alaska!), and new vice-presidential running mate for John McCain, doesn't think that climate change is human-generated. I'm guessing her house isn't built on melting permafrost.

  • I'll let Dan Savage give his trademark trenchant take on the other Sarah Palin news.

  • This past week Canon introduced its new EOS 50D SLR (a nice upgrade from the 40D), and Nikon followed with its D90 (which supersedes the D80 and takes movies, a first for an SLR camera). While I use Nikon myself, and the D90 would be great if I needed a new camera, for people just getting into the market, I still think the Pentax K200D is an excellent deal.

  • Speaking of photography, the always-snarky Ken Rockwell has (as usual) excellent advice on how to carry less stuff so you make better pictures. I should have heeded his advice when I went up Whistler mountain a few weeks ago. I took a bunch of photos, but only used one lens, even though I schlepped a whole bag's worth of stuff (plus a tripod I never unfolded) up there—just like the guys Ken was making fun of at the zoo.

  • I'm a little too old to have ever been all that interested in going to Burning Man, but I'm particularly glad to have avoided this year's dust storm. Yuck.

  • Looks like Americans won't be the only ones having an election this fall.

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03 July 2008


State of the digital SLR market: Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, and Leica

Last year I created a little composite image of the various interchangeable-lens digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras then available from Nikon and Canon, the two leading camera manufacturers. It turned out to be one of my most popular pictures at the Flickr photo sharing service, of course because photo enthusiasts like to argue about Canon vs. Nikon almost as much as Mac and PC people do about their computers.

It became out of date pretty fast, with models discontinued and new ones introduced. But people kept looking at the image and commenting. So I decided to go further and create a similar composite visual chart of DSLRs currently available, as of the end of June 2008, from all the major camera makers: Nikon, Canon, Sony/Minolta, Olympus, Panasonic/Leica, and Pentax. The pictures are all the companies' publicity photos, sometimes sourced directly from their websites, sometimes from others such as DP Review and DC Resource:

State of the DSLR market: Nikon vs. Canon vs. Sony/Minolta vs. Olympus vs. Panasonic/Leica vs. Pentax digital SLR cameras, as of June 2008

No wonder people are confused about which camera to buy! Prices here range from around $500 (with lens) to about $8000 (no lens). The smallest cameras in this bunch are the Leica M8 (off by itself on the lower right, and not an SLR, see below) and the Olympus E-420 (top of the fourth column, see this review for real-life size comparison photos). The heaviest are the two pro monsters, the Nikon D3 and Canon 1Ds Mark III, in the lower left.

I have excluded a few other makers, such as Fuji and Sigma, and rebadged models from Samsung (nearly the same as some Pentaxes) and Leica (almost identical to the Panasonics). These images reflect the main line of SLRs (plus the M8) as of this writing.

Relative camera sizes are not exact. The positions of the various models vaguely reflect my impressions of a combination of price, features, and market segment. That's quite subjective, so you could easily argue with my placement of some of them. Take the image as a general guideline. Look down the columns to see how different cameras from a single manufacturer compare from low-end to high-end; look across the rows to see roughly comparable cameras (in features, price, or both) from different makers that compete with one another.

Nikon and Canon are (currently) alone in providing full-frame size semi-pro and professional DSLRs: the D700, EOS 5D, D3, and EOS 1Ds Mark III. The Leica M8 is the real outlier—not an SLR at all, but a digital version of the classic Leica M rangefinder; I put it here because a significant number of photographers looking at the high-end Nikons and Canons might also consider it.

The most crowded market segments are the introductory level (with something, and sometimes several confusing models, from every manufacturer), and the midrange enthusiast section (with some interesting choices like the D80, D300, 40D, A700, E-3, DMC-L1, and K20D). With all the choices, this might be the most interesting time in the history of single-lens reflex cameras, certainly in the digital era.

I also left out some models. Canon's pro sports-focused 1D Mark III, which looks and works essentially identically to the 1Ds Mark III, is one—the difference is that the "s" indicates a larger full-frame sensor (Canon needs a serious simplification of its naming scheme). The Nikon D40 is also the same body as the D40x (and the D60), but with a lower-resolution sensor. Some of these models, such as the D40x and the Canon XTi, may be theoretically discontinued now or soon, but remain widely available.

Finally, there will probably soon be updates rendering this composite chart at least partially obsolete. Canon is expected to replace the three-year-old EOS 5D any old time, Nikon might do the same for the similarly aged D80, Sony may release a full-frame DSLR (since they make Nikon's full-frame sensor, I believe), and Nikon could bring out a D3x or similar model with a higher-resolution full-frame sensor like the 1Ds Mark III. I'll let you know.

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18 June 2008


Buying your first serious digital SLR camera

Behind the big lens at Flickr.comI get emails out of the blue sometimes, and yesterday a guy who found me via Flickr asked my advice on buying his first serious digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. He's already quite a good photographer, with a keen eye, and he's trying to decide between the Nikon D300 and Canon EOS 40D.

He likes the Canon's interface, but prefers the features of the D300, as well as the more vivid colours it produces (at least in JPEG mode). He wants low noise, good low-light performance, and good ability to take landscapes, high dynamic range (HDR) photos, and macro (closeup) pictures.

When you're starting out buying an SLR, what you're doing is committing yourself to a camera system, particularly with lenses. Chances are you will keep and use the lenses for much longer than you use that camera. For instance, I have a Nikon D50 I bought in 2006, but my lenses include a zoom that I bought in 1995 for my old film Nikon, and which still works great. I've been using Nikon SLRs since the early 1980s—had I chosen Canon or some other camera back then, I'd probably still be using that brand, just because of the inertia.

Both Nikon and Canon are good choices—but don't forget Pentax's K20D (Pentax provides some of the best values in both SLRs and quality lenses these days) and even Sony's A700 (Sony took over Minolta's camera business, and offers very nice Zeiss lenses too, some of the best available). I'm not a fan of the four-thirds system from Olympus and Panasonic/Leica, but you might like it.

The D300 is about 50% more expensive than the 40D (around $1800 Cdn vs. $1300 Cdn), so that might make the decision for many people. (The closest competing Nikon is actually the aging D80.) One way that price difference could affect your decision might be with lenses: if you can only afford an expensive body (like the D300) with cheaper lenses, you'd be better off getting a less expensive body (like the 40D) with better lenses like Canon's top-end L series. Again, the lenses will be around your kit longer than the body.

And for any camera you get, rather than buying yourself a standard zoom lens, I would recommend getting one or two good-quality prime (non-zoom) lenses instead. They are better optically, faster (i.e. have a larger maximum aperture letting in more light), and will also make you think about your compositions more carefully.

So I said to my questioner that if he doesn't have a brand preference for other reasons, and if he can afford the Nikon D300 with a quality lens or two, then I'd recommend it over the Canon 40D. The D300 offers excellent low-light performance, an amazing LCD screen (much better than anything Canon has), and lots of other features. Not that there's anything wrong with the 40D, but by most objective measures the D300 is superior.

As far as lenses go, if I were starting from scratch, I'd get a basic fast prime like the $140 Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 or the $500 digital-only Sigma 30 mm f/1.4. For a second lens, I'd look at either a general-purpose stabilized zoom like Nikon's well-reviewed $750 18-200 mm, or (more likely in my case) a moderate telephoto prime that can also act as a macro lens, such as Nikon's $900 Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8. If I had more money to spend, I might get both of those, or go crazy and buy the $1500 manual focus Zeiss Makro-Planar 100 mm f/2.

Canon has similar standard prime, telephoto-style macro, and zoom lenses. So do Pentax (prime, macro, zoom) and Sony/Zeiss (prime, macro, zoom, or Zeiss zoom).

It would be a pleasant luxury to be starting an SLR system from scratch, and to have maybe $4000 to spend on it. But no matter how you start, if you're a photography enthusiast, you'll get more lenses and other accessories (flash, battery grip, tripods, etc.) over time. Just don't cheap out with your lenses to start, and you'll be happier in the long run.

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04 December 2007


Nikons vs. Canons

Nikons vs. Canons at Flickr.comIn photo-geek cirlces, Canon vs. Nikon is something like the endless Mac vs. PC debates. They are the two heavyweight gorillas of the industry, especially in the market for digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, with everyone else—Pentax, Olympus, Leica/Panasonic, Sony/Minolta, Fuji, and so on—picking up what customers they can in the giants' wake.

However, unlike in computerland, any decent photographer, no matter how rabid about his or her preferred brand, would likely acknowledge that both Nikon and Canon produce excellent cameras and lenses, and if given one or the other to shoot with, could do a good job with only minimal transition time. Canon has dominated in both professional and amateur circles for the past couple of decades—whereas Nikon used to be the overwhelming pro favourite in the pre-autofocus era before that.

It's interesting that Japanese companies have dominated the camera market for so long (though of course they manufacture all but their top-end cameras and lenses in places like China and Thailand). Through the first half of the twentieth century, the companies that dominated compact cameras were American (Kodak) and German (Zeiss/Contax and Leica). Kodak and Leica are still making cameras, while Japan's Kyocera bought Contax some years ago, and stopped making Contax cameras in 2005. Zeiss remains a top-end, German-based lensmaker, supplying Sony and others these days.

But while Kodak continues a respectable business in the point-and-shoot market it created more than 100 years ago ("You Press The Button and We Do The Rest" was its catchphrase then), and Leica has a strong niche market among elite buyers, and in larger formats there are companies such as Sweden's Hasselblad (now also owned by a Japanese group), Japan has been the heart of the camera industry since at least the 1960s.

I've been a Nikon guy for 25 years, ever since I graduated from my dad's old Pentax SLR to a Nikon FG I bought for myself around 1982. I could just as easily have chosen Canon or Olympus or Pentax or Minolta then, but as it was I've kept a stable of Nikon lenses about during that whole time, which meant I've kept buying Nikon bodies to go with them.

For someone new to photography, the only simple way to tell Nikon and Canon SLRs apart is by reading the name badges on their pentaprisms, and to note that Nikon likes to include a red swoosh at the top of its camera handgrips. But for people who take lots of pictures, there are differences that we've grown accustomed to.

Nikon, for example, has used the same basic lens-mount design (the F-mount) since the 1950s, so even the newest Nikon SLRs support most Nikon-mount lenses ever made, especially those from the last 30 years, as well as lots of third-party lenses, even some swanky ones from Carl Zeiss in Germany. Canon, on the other hand, has changed its lens mount a few times to support newer technologies—the last major change (to autofocus) abandoned previous Canon lens designs, but enabled faster autofocus than Nikon could achieve, which is why the pros all moved over.

That's a big difference, but the little ones are important too. How the power switch works. Which finger you use for the adjustment dials. Where the buttons are, and what the different modes are called. Some photographers (me included) prefer Nikon's approach to ergonomics, but Canon's cameras generally look sleeker, especially at the high end. Most agree that Canon's lens caps kinda suck.

But you know what? For people just getting into digital SLRs, I think the best deal right now is the Pentax K10D. It offers things that neither Canon nor Nikon does, such as weather-sealing at an introductory-level price and in-camera shake reduction that works with any Pentax-compatible lens, not just those with shake reduction built in. Unless you expect to turn pro one day, that might be a great choice.

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