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Roger Buys a Camera System: Refining My Choices

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In the earlier portions of this process, I have:

1) Gotten a quick idea about the relative importance of lens versus sensor resolution

2) Screened for camera systems that might meet my needs

3) Investigated the rough cost of candidate systems

After some preliminary screening I had decided to investigate several full-frame and several APS-C sensor cameras:

I've spent about 3 weeks now doing the things that are most important (other than counting the money hit)  -- actually taking pictures with the various cameras.

I've also spent a lot of time reading reviews, just like everyone else would. Not to mention I took to heart some of the very good comments made in the previous posts (there are really good, non-Fanboy suggestions that are worth your while to look at).

In case you haven't realized it, I'm not reviewing these cameras and making recommendations, I'm just sharing how I figure out the best system for me and how I went about deciding what to buy. There won't be lots of technical information, pretty pictures, or even numerical system ratings in this post.

Ergonomic Factors

Let's face it, it doesn't matter how great the pictures are, if you don't find the camera comfortable to use, you probably won't be using it very long.

Fitting My Hands

The first thing I did was spend a day with each camera and a standard-range zoom, just to get a feel for them. Why putting a camera in my hands is vitally important became quickly apparent. The Nikon D5200 just doesn't fit my hands well. This surprised me a bit, since I'd been shooting an Olympus OM-D with grip for a while, and the D5200 is actually larger than that camera. I used it for a day, thinking I would adjust, but I didn't.

 

My oversize hands just didn't fit the undersize D5200

All of the other cameras on the list fit me comfortably and within an hour or two I was able to find the commonly needed buttons and wheels by feel.

Other Ergonomic Factors

I've shot so long with Canon and Nikon cameras that any comments I have on their layout are minor. While I'd shot a few times with the Alpha and Pentax systems, my experience with each has been fairly limited. Exploring features and menus was first order of the day for both systems.

One thing that I didn't like was the Sony joystick button. Compared to many other cameras I've shot with, the Sony button didn't have a lot of tactile feedback and I found myself having trouble selecting menus and other things with the joystick. I've talked to Alpha shooters who love the joystick so this probably has to do with my overly large and clumsy hands - but it didn't work well for me.

I had heard and read complaints about the Sony menu system. Perhaps because I have shot with NEX cameras a lot, which are similar, I didn't struggle with the menus, although I can't say I find them intuitive.

The Pentax system reaffirmed what I'd already thought during limited use. The menus and features must have been designed by photographers, not programmers, and they were completely intuitive for me. There were little things with the Pentax system that I absolutely loved, like the ability to map out hot or dead pixels from the menu. There are some mirrorless systems that let you do that, too, and I find it a bit insulting that the other SLRs require a trip to the factory for that, especially since hot pixels are something likely to occur outside of the warranty period.

Everyday Use

Autofocus

A lot of people stress a camera's autofocus system a lot more than I do. I didn't find anything with the AF system of any of these cameras that made me want to cast it aside, but I wasn't using Servo mode for action shots, either. For a lot of you who do that kind of thing, the AF system would have been a more important part of their choice.

I felt the 5D Mk III was the most accurate in low light, but there wasn't a huge difference. The Nikon and new SLT Sony bodies were on a par for me. They may not be quite as good as the Canon 5D Mk III in low light, or maybe they were. All were perfectly fine for my needs.

I had heard some questions about the Pentax AF system, particularly in tungsten light, but the K-5 II bodies were supposed to be better. I stressed it in single-shot AF and poor lighting and found it was pretty accurate. AF speed varied a lot depending upon which lenses I was using, and was perhaps a bit slower than the others. Still what I would consider acceptable, though, no question.

Viewfinder and Live View

I was interested in taking a good look at the Sony EVFs and found they were quite nice and I really enjoyed some of the heads-up display features. The horizon level features are particularly well done and I've gotten quite attached to those using mirrorless systems as much as I have. (Again, I'm not doing a lot of rapid-fire shooting of fast moving subjects. The shortcomings of even a great EVF might be more important to you.)

Joey Miller, 2013

 

I also use the LCD for live view focusing quite often. The D800's LCD interpolation artifacts during magnifion are distracting somtimes but didn't prevent me from getting accurate manual focus shots very often. I really liked the articulated LCDs on the Sony cameras during live-view focusing  and I've always loved the focus peaking options. My eyesight isn't what it once was and that allows me to manually focus even through the viewfinder. I liked the Sony's focus-range feature, too, and I'd use that fairly frequently, I think.

I know there are some specification differences between the LCDs, but there was nothing I could really notice just using them. They were all excellent, but none of them are going to work for me in bright summer sunlight.

400mm Equivalent Images

As I'd written earlier, one of the biggest motivators for me making this choice was being unhappy with the telephoto images I was able to get from a Micro 4/3rds system, so a big part of my comparison was image quality of a 16" x 20" telephoto print.

I did some fairly appropriate and fairly simple tests using the hand-holdable lenses I would be interested in. I shot still subjects at 100 yards distance, resized the resulting image to print at 16" x 20", cropped the centers, and compared. I looked at 100% crops to see exactly how much detail was possibly visible, too. I'm sure there are 692 arguments people will make about the validity of this, but hey, they're my prints and it reproduces what I want to do.

Within each system I experimented with lenses a bit to see what I thought gave me the best images and ended up with this:

 

For the Olympus zooms I even shot at 200mm, 250mm and 300mm, to see how much the increased magnification might translate into resolved detail, even realizing I wouldn't be able to zoom that far on most of what I shoot.
I'm not going to present you a review, I'm not a reviewer. But after looking at all the images myself and then asking 6 photographers who work here to look at them without knowing which image was which, some things were very apparent (all 7 people had the same conclusion).

The D800, when pixel peeping, resolved more detail than anything else and it wasn't even close. Resized to this print size (the D800 is actually downrezzing here) the difference became less apparent, but still 7 of 7 picked it as the sharpest image.

The Canon system was considered very close in a 16" x 20" print, but when pixel-peeping on a monitor the difference was more apparent (so it probably would be more apparent in a larger print, too).

The micro 4/3 images, even taken at 300mm (600mm equivalent) didn't resolve as much detail as the other systems. This is simply about the lenses. One interesting point was that when I zoomed either lens from 250-300mm I got a larger image, but really didn't resolve any more detail. In other words, I could have done that in Photoshop.

The Sony A99 with 70-400 at 400 was weaker than the other SLR systems. The A77, using the 70-400 at just under 300mm resolved better, although it still wasn't as strong as the others. I repeated the tests with the Sigma 50-500 OS at the same focal lengths and it was better, so again this seems to be about the lens.

The Pentax, despite only being 16 megapixels, surprised me positively. It didn't quite resolve as well as the Canon, but was very close. I think the excellent 300mm lens and no AA filter gave it a higher resolution than I expected. I will mention that I tried, and ruled out, the 60-250mm f/4 lens, which I thought would be most useful. It wasn't nearly as sharp as the 300mm prime.

 

While not nearly as small as an m4/3 system, the Pentax 300 f/4 is smaller than the Nikon or Canon full-frame equivalaents.

 

So my conclusions were that moving to a new system would definitely be worthwhile for my 400mm shots. The D800 provided the best resolution, the Canon and Pentax systems were both acceptable, but the Sony systems lagged a bit. I know there are new lenses on the way for the Sony system, but as I mentioned earlier, I'm not considering anything that's not available now.

Macro Shooting

Macro is another area of importance. I found the Canon 100 f/2.8 IS L macro's image stabilization really did make a bit of a difference for me here, probably because it also stabilizes angular shake. I'm the first to admit I use it as a crutch and I should be setting up my tripod and macro rails more often . . . but hey, I like a crutch as much as the next guy.

The Nikon D800e with the 105 f/2.8 VR did show a bit more detail than the Canon did, but I couldn't cheat my handholding exposure quite as much with it.  The Pentax didn't quite resolve as well as the others, but it was certainly acceptable, as was the OM-D system I'd been shooting with.

Dynamic Range and ISO

I had mentioned earlier that ISO 1600 performance was really important to me and ISO 3200 would be useful, but I rarely go past that. Shooting with these cameras it quickly became apparent than none of them particularly limited me at ISO 1600. I would be willing to print jpgs from the camera with all of them. Similarly, there was some noise that I'd want to work on in post, generally, at ISO 3200 but all were usable.

While there were on paper dynamic range differences, at my usual ISO (200 to 400) none of the cameras limited me greatly and I could rescue shadows and highlights reasonably with all of them. The Canon had the known problems with pulling out shadows, but I could pull back highlights beautifully.

From everything I've read it seems D800e files allow a bit more rescue leeway than the other cameras, and the Canon does have a problem pulling out shadows sometimes. But in what I shot, using my usual 'Zeiss, the jet-black dog' dynamic range tests, I'd be happy with any of the cameras.

 

My dog 'Zeiss' is my standard dynamic range test. He's trying to hide the rawhide he isn't supposed to chew on the carpet. 

The Wide End

There were no suprises here. Then D800 with the 14-24 f/2.8 AF-S was simply better than any other zoom combination. With prime lenses like the 14mm f/2.8 or 17mm TS-E, the Canon could hold it's own against the Nikon, but with the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 the difference was quickly apparent.

 The 14mm f/2.8 quickly replaced the 16-35 f/2.8 in my shoot around.  Joey Miller, 2013 

 

The Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens was much like the Canon 16-35 f/2.8. OK, but clearly not competitive with the Nikon system. If I were to go with the Sony system, I'd really consider a RokiBowYang 14mm f/2.8 lens. It's sharper and wider than the zoom, way less expensive, and at 14mm manual focusing wouldn't really be an issue, especially with Sony's peaking filters. For that matter, I might well consider it an option with the other systems, too.

I didn't have access to a Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 in Pentax mount so I didn't do a hand's on with this system and ultra-wides. The 15mm f/4 was quite nice, but I'd want something wider.

Where I Stand Now

Nikon D800e system: Meets or exceeds all of my needs.

Canon full-frame system (I'm still doing the 5D Mk III vs 6D tap dance): Meets all of my needs.

Pentax K5 IIs system: Meets my needs, but not quite as easily as the first two.

Sony Alpha system: While I love some features, and lust after the 135mm f/1.8 lens, it's a bit weaker at 400mm which is a major motivating factor for me.

At this point I'm leaning towards either the Canon or Nikon full-frame systems, although I'm still considering the Pentax. I like some features of the Alpha system, and some of the lenses are awesome, but for what I wanted most to do, it wasn't quite as good as the others.

I'm going to do some system exploration, as in what lenses I'd actually buy with each system (the initial cost lists were simply trying to put things in perspective from the m4/3 system). I'm also going to consider one of the earlier suggestions about keeping my Micro 4/3rds system and simply buying a dedicated camera - telephoto lens combination. I'll make my final decision in a few days, but there were and are plenty of options that will fill my needs perfectly.

I think the takeaway point is that the process I used made me look at a system (Pentax) that I hadn't really considered on the front end. The process also ruled out (for me) some cameras that I thought would be good choices on the front end. My goal with every major purchase is to avoid buyer's remorse and I think this has helped me do that.

I'll put a brief post up in a couple of days with my final choices. Uwe Steinmueller of The Digital Outback Photo has volunteered to write a counterpoint post, about what he would choose for his own system to publish at the same time. I think this will be a nice contrast and perspective: one gearhead hobby photographer and a full-time working professional photographer doing a similar exercise. We'll publish them simultaneously on Friday.

Roger Cicala

Lensrentals.com

February, 2012

46 Responses to “Roger Buys a Camera System: Refining My Choices”

Douglas O'Brien said:

Just to compare apples to apples and not oranges, could you add some price information? Bodies only. A standard kit.

Fonda Ede said:

After I originally commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a means you are able to remove me from that service? Thanks a lot!

Massimo Cristaldi said:

Sure Uwe, it is different. But still the relationship with the tool remains, no matter if to write you use an ipad or a pen.

Last thing: the part you were quoting is from this interview of Mario Giacomelli, one of the most important Italian photographers ever. You can enjoy the whole text here: http://www.horvatland.com/pages/entrevues/03-giacomelli-en_en.htm

Massimo

Uwe Steinmueller said:

>I’m not a fan of mechanics. I have had this camera, still the same one, since I started taking photos.

I understand you. But with digital we cannot just put a new film into our older cameras. So maybe digital is a bit different.

Massimo Cristaldi said:

Uwe,

Sure, Roger can decide to use all possible focal lenghts. My point is that I believe that there is generally a preference that emerges naturally along the years and that is linked to the way every single person sees the world. Similary there is a physical relationship btw the photographer and the camera that has nothing to do with the absolute IQ or speedy AF, has to do with the way every single person feels the tool he's using.

Mario Giacomelli used to say: "I don't know about other people's cameras. Mine is a thing I had cobbled up, it holds together with tape and is always losing parts. All I need to set is the distance and that other thing - what do you call that other thing? I'm not a fan of mechanics. I have had this camera, still the same one, since I started taking photos. It has lived with me, shared many moments of my existence, both good and bad. If I ever lost it... well, the very idea of having to live without it pulls at my heart."

So here the logical, sequential, data oriented approach, mixed with some money consideration could be seriously tampered by a simple concept: 'the tool I feel can make me represent the world the way I see it'.

Sorry for being so phylosophic but I think these aspects are equally important in steering a decision.

Massimo

Uwe Steinmueller said:

>After many years of photography I ended up to naturally “restrict” myself to a sort of “wide angle” zone, from 17mm to 50mm, just using primes

Restricting is good but if Roger wants also to shoot wildlife (a desire I understand) you need long glass. I would be fine from 28mm - 200mm and like to use zooms.

Massimo Cristaldi said:

Roger,

Really nice sequence of posts. Interesting, for me, that your photographic needs spreads from 14 to 400mm. After many years of photography I ended up to naturally "restrict" myself to a sort of "wide angle" zone, from 17mm to 50mm, just using primes on Canon or on (relatively) old Rollei 6003 (and recently Fuji X). Of course I fully respect your needs, but to me, so diverse focal lengths hide a bit the photographer personality and "signature".
I would suggest you to get the system that you feel more confortable with. To me, the results is also a matter of of physical relationship with the camera. Given your tendency to choose btw the top models, I think that the relationship you have with the camera/lens you'll be using will be more important then some technical glitches or downsides that every system would inevitably have.
Less is alway more.

Looking forward for your final choice,

Massimo

Spencer said:

When you add it all up, don't forget to add the cost of accessories you're going to have to buy like extra batteries, eyecups, microscope and telescope adapters, blimps, Arca-Swiss plates, extension tubes, awesome old-school leather ever-ready case, right-angle finder, monogrammed lens caps, bellows, wireless speedlight controllers, GPS units, and all the other thousand things that make a camera work for you.

Markus said:

Hi Roger, on keeping the m4/3 system in parallel - if I were you, I'd do it!

I was in a similar situation like you, but sort of the other way round: I used to work as a part time professional landscape, documentary and travel photographer and have built up a Canon system over the years (5D II & lenses reaching from the Zeiss 21/2.8 to the Canon 300/4 IS + Converter).
But times are changing and I'm actually a dad now. Quit the photo job almost completely, concentrated on my other career which allowed me more regular working hours. And my subjects naturally changed to 'portraiture of small human beings'.
So I needed sth. much smaller to take with me on day family trips and vacations. I opted for the OM-D (see how it all comes together?) and to keep it small, I went exclusively for primes (12/2.0, 20/1.7, 45/1.8 - ok, I couldn't let off the 75/1.8, too). What can I say? It's great! It's a mini DSLR with a full set of lenses which fits into a small hip bag (the bag is actually made for a single 70-200/2.8 zoom).
So: Size advantage: Check! Good enough image quality: Check! Similar to DSLR control interface & responsiveness: Check!
But still: I never would let go my FF set and from time to time I have lots of fun using FF 1.4 lenses which does make a difference if you're used to m4/3 1.8 depth of field. And for sure, one day or another in the coming years, I'll be back on some travels, shooting landscapes and documentary professional again - not too often, but it will happen.
Long statement made short: I'm really happy to own sth. of both worlds and that's why you may want to keep both systems.

Sorry for the 'longish' post, maybe it gets some thoughts running.

Markus

Uwe Steinmueller said:

>I’m very happy with my D800e, but I shoot most of my pictures on the OM-D.

Good summary. I have the Gh3 and D800 and think the same. The images from the D800 are great but I can live what I get from the GH3 most of the time.

David said:

Huh, I think the D800e is a good choice Roger, it's the one I made... I have the OM-D and a whole bunch of lenses, and the D800e with the 24-70 and 70-200 and a couple of fast primes.

If I wasn't concerned about size, weight or conspicuousness, I would probably use the D800e for everything. Objectively, it performs better, there's no doubt about that. And if you're looking at buying a high end FF camera for that performance, I think you would be best off going with the cadillac, because every step below that is going to narrow the gap between your new system and m4/3 and probably make you question why you're lugging around 3x the weight and size at 2x the cost.

I'm very happy with my D800e, but I shoot most of my pictures on the OM-D. It's my grab-and-go kit, where the D800e is my studio and/or my "I have an idea for a great picture, and I'm going to spend a few hours getting it" and/or my "I guess I'll impress this client with my fancy huge DSLR" kit.

That's just me though. Only you would know whether or not you'll miss that portability giving up m4/3. Good luck!

David said:

Roger, thinking more about your problems with the OMD, I would really have expected you to do a telephoto shoot out with the OMD. Or you did and didn't tell us about it.
You are looking for 400mm f4 lens. The first think that pops into my head is the wonderful Olympus 43rds 50-200mm f2.8/3.5. I own this one and the Olympus 43rds 70-300mm f4/5.6. The 50-200 will give you 400mm f3.5 and its really good! Add the MMF3 to get you to OMD and it should work, but I have read the AF is slow. The 70-300 is good at f8, personal experience and many online tests. It should also focus ok on OMD, but have not tested it. Then there are the stellar 90-250 f2.8 and 300mm f2.8 43rds lenses that are huge and expensive, but not outside what your considering with a New system.
In the M43rds front, I have read many times that Ctein loves the Panasonic 45-200mm lens. Either he has an outstanding copy, or this one is good and mostly overlooked.
I don't own any M43rds yet, but I am in 43rds with E3 and E510, with lots of lenses. What I have read online about M43rds is two tele's you tested are not good. But that the 45-200, the 40-150 and the newer panasonic x-175 lens are good. These can get you out near what you were looking for.
But if you don't mind some manual focus, the I would highly recommend the 43rds 50-200mm even with the EC14.

Samuel H said:

great, now I NEED some popcorn...

Milan said:

So I'm guessing that after all this journey, the option of not switching all at once looks reasonable. Basically, if money is not an issue, to buy a D800 + 300mm f/4, keep m4/3 for other things and then decide along the way how to continue (buy more lenses for the D800 or if a good telephoto comes for m4/3, maybe switch back to it). If money matters, they going K5 + 300mm f/4 seems like a good option then.

Interesting articles, can't wait for Friday to find out what you decide!

Guest said:

Roger, you make me feel bad for choosing Sony.. Hahaha.

abib said:

Roger, Hitech has a filter adapter and wide angle adapter Lucroit System for the 14mmL mk2, I have the ring adapter, the wide angle holder, .6 reverse grad and the .6 soft grade, love them and can't live without all of them. I also use the pre cut Kodak Wratten ND to slo mo water, sky, etc.

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