Saturday, December 5, 2009

We're having a baby, what camera should we buy?!

Or, the alternate title, "2009 Holiday Camera Buyer's Guide for Expectant Parents".

We have a couple sets of friends who are expecting babies this next year. We all want to remember our children's early years well, and our friends are interested in trading in their older compact cameras for something that will help them better capture their growing families.

Being their friend-who's-into-photography, I feel obligated to give some input. Now I should include a disclaimer here: there are a few reasons why I'm qualified to give an opinion, but probably more reasons why I'm not. Nonetheless, I care about my friends and have done my best here, and I feel pretty good about the conclusions.

It's an exciting time to buy a digital SLR! Jess and I use a Canon 20D, which is just about four years old now, and I can assure you that our camera is pretty low on the list of things which are holding us back from creating better images ("lack of artistic talent" being much higher on my list :) ). Even the cheapest SLR today can outperform ours in some important ways, so you'll be buying a really powerful creative tool!

First, a few general thoughts on buying a camera.

Don't invest too much
Cameras don't hold their value long after the next model comes out. Just like a car, a new TV, or any other piece of consumer electronics, cameras depreciate in value each month you own them. So try to resist the urge to spend too much on features that will be cheaper and more standard next year.

Canon releases a new model of its lower-level cameras about every 12-18 months. Check out the timeline at the bottom of this wikipedia article.

Ignore the Megapixels
I have to admit that trying to gain a complete understanding of the megapixel issue has been a big headache for me; there's a lot of incomplete information out there, and it feels like every time I learn something new it opens a few more questions. Fortunately, there seems to be a pretty consistent conclusion that unless you're intending to make pretty large prints, more megapixels aren't going to help you in any way.

I decided not to try and completely restate the arguments I've read--it was a lot to cover and I wanted to avoid accidentally proliferating misinformation. But here's at least a short summary of the big arguments.
  • Cameras you'll be looking at today have at least 8MP, which is plenty for the resolutions at which we typically view our pictures. Online and on our computers, we share and view images at much lower resolutions than an 8MP camera can provide. For example, to make a 1920x1080 wallpaper for your 24" widescreen monitor, you only need a 2.1MP image.
  • You can look online to find recommended maximum print sizes for a given resolution. Any camera you buy today is sufficient for making excellent 8x10 prints.
  • We tend to lust after more megapixels thinking that it will give us sharper images. But if your images don't look sharp, it's pretty unlikely that your camera resolution is the problem. It's more likely an issue with poor focusing, subject movement or camera movement at low shutter speeds, lens quality, image noise, or even the aperture used.
  • Megapixels are a deceiving measurement of resolution. It requires a large change in the number of megapixels to produce an appreciable change in resolution.
For a more in-depth discussion of the issue, check out this article.

All that to say, don't pay more to get 12 or 15 megapixels instead of 10. Look at the camera's other features like how it handles noise at higher ISOs.

The upside to the megapixels not being important is that the entry-level SLR you buy today will hopefully be sufficient for you for a relatively long time!

Shooting In Low Light
Alright, so don't let yourself spend more than you need to, and don't sweat the megapixels. What should you look for then?

What people seem to want most out of their cameras is to get great shots in the poor (low) lighting conditions we live most of our lives in, i.e., indoors or at night. We want to sit in our baby's bedroom and capture a great scene of him smiling and waving his arms around--never mind that there's not much light and the subject is moving around!

Instead, what we get is a noisy, grainy, blurred, or even out-of-focus image that's not at all what we saw. The easy solution? Spend lots of money on your camera! Buy a $2,500 Canon 5D with superb noise performance and spend another grand or so on a super-fast zoom lens. Problem solved, post written.

Oh, what's that you say? You don't want to spend that much? :) Well, on the opposite end of the spectrum, here's what I'd suggest. Keep the camera you have, and don't ask the impossible of it. Instead, go to the park, throw down a blanket under a tree, and take some photos in some nice, bright, diffused light. Your 4MP compact will work wonders.

That's not quite fair either, though. Staging all of your photos isn't that fun, and you'll probably never do it. Fortunately, there are some great entry-level SLRs which provide a happy medium between price and performance.

Why buy an SLR?

The main reason to buy an SLR is for artistic control, but there are still some very good reasons to buy one and just use it in full-auto.

SLRs are built with superior image sensors. I was glad I got to learn about this, it's always been a bit of a mystery to me. In order to make a compact camera small, camera manufacturers have to use small lenses with short focal lengths. To achieve the same magnification as an SLR, they have to then use tiny image sensors. These image sensors are very small--the sensor in a digital SLR is more than 13 times larger than the one in a typical compact camera! The pixels are packed incredibly tight, and its very difficult to achieve the same level of noise performance as a larger sensor. I appreciated the discussion of this difference in this review of the top-of-the-line Canon point-and-shoot (look for the section titled "sensor").

I've always wondered, why don't they make a point-and-shoot with the same sensors as an SLR? There's your answer--there are physical constraints which prevent the smaller cameras from using the nicer sensors and achieving the same performance as the bulkier SLRs. An SLR will fundamentally give you better images with lower noise at high ISOs.

Another good reason to go with an SLR is their shooting speed. SLRs include more powerful image processors which allow the camera to take a number of shots in quick succession. This can be really helpful when you're trying to capture a moving target like a child. You can hold down the shutter release to fire off a burst of shots and hope that one of them turns out well. Or just fire away with individual shots without having to wait in-between. Point-and-shoot cameras, on the other hand, typically involve a lag of a few seconds in between shots.

Finally, you can also buy nice lenses for your SLR with large maximum apertures. These will perform better in low light, and can also give a more artistic look to your photos by creating blurred backgrounds and drawing more attention to the subject. The fixed-length 50mm lens will perform very well and is very reasonable at about $100. I should point out, though, that a large aperture with a close-up subject means an incredibly shallow depth of field, and it can be tough to keep the subject in focus!

Entry-level SLRs on the market
That's all of the background, let's look at some actual cameras.

I'm going to keep the discussion focused on Canon models here because I'm talking to my friends, and Canon's what Jess and I shoot, so that's what we'd be best able to help with. If you have a reason to go towards Nikon instead, the Nikon D3000 is a solid competitor to the Canon Rebel XS (which I recommend below) and you can't go wrong with it.

Canon has an excellent entry-level SLR called the Digital Rebel, of which there are three models: the XS ($480), XSi ($570), and T1i ($690). I'll discuss each of them in a bit.
The XS, front and back

Buying a used SLR
With the "cameras don't hold their value" point in mind, I also looked at the option of buying a used Canon 30D. The 30D is in the camera line a step above the Digital Rebel models. The 30D was released in 2006 to replace the 20D that Jess and I use. The current model in this line is the 50D, released at the end of 2008, which is about $1,000 on Amazon.

Our local camera store, Samy's Camera, has a used 30D that's in great condition for $500. Talking to the guys at Samy's, this probably isn't the right direction, though. The 30D does not come with an image-stabilized lens, and it's reasonable to expect that the sensor in the newer rebel has better noise performance than this older but more professional model. The newer rebels also have some neat features built in for preventing and cleaning sensor dust, which has been a big pain for me with our 20D.

There were only two reasons that I gathered why you'd want to go with the 30D. The 30D has a larger, sturdier, and more durable housing than the rebel. It feels more substantial and has a larger grip. I was told that it has better seals than the rebel, and it'd be the better bet if you plan to shoot in some more rugged, dirtier conditions. Also, it can capture more frames per second than the rebel, which you'd care about if you were a sports photographer :).

Canon Digital Rebel Comparison
With that aside, here's what I've learned of the rebels. They all come with an image-stabilized lens, which is excellent. The image-stabilized lenses work magic in low light, and let you get away with hand-holding the camera at much slower shutter speeds. The caveat, though, is that they only steady the camera's image and not your subject. The subject has to hold really still or their movement will turn them into a blur. So they're not much help when your baby's moving all around, but could definitely help capture him sleeping or in a rare moment of stillness.

At first glance, the differences between the three models seem like gimmicks that Canon is throwing in to try and get you to spend more. Reading some in-depth reviews, though, revealed some interesting features and improvements added to the nicer models. They each have progressively better noise performance at high ISO, plus some subtle features which may interest a more serious photographer.

Here's what I pulled out as the most interesting features for each one. I've included the link to the full review that I read if you're interested in a more in-depth look.

I'll tell you upfront that I think the XS is the best bet. I think that the higher prices for the nicer models are justified and they aren't bad buys, but, since even the base model has a solid set of features, I also think it makes the most sense to get an SLR for as little as possible, and buy another one four or five years down the road when today's "high end" features become standard.

Canon Rebel XS ($480)
  • A fully capable SLR, there's no major feature missing here
  • 10.1MP with great noise performance even at ISO1600
  • 2.5" display
  • 3.5 shots per second
  • Supports "Live View"--you can shoot using the LCD instead of the viewfinder. This seems like a neat feature for when you want to place the camera somewhere where it's impractical to get your face up to the viewfinder.
  • Here's the link to a detailed review.
Canon Rebel XSi ($557)
  • Slightly better noise performance
  • 3.0" inch display
  • 12.2 megapixels
  • 9 auto-focus points as opposed to 7 on the XS.
  • If you get pretty serious about editing you may decide to shoot in uncompressed RAW format. The XSi can shoot 3.5 frames per second RAW, but the XS can only shoot 1.5.
  • Here's a link to a detailed review.
Canon Rebel T1i ($690)
  • Significantly better noise performance, with a higher maximum ISO
  • Higher resolution 3.0 inch display
  • 15.5 megapixels
  • Shoots 1080p "full HD" video. This sounds cool, especially because you could use your nice SLR lenses to get wide angle or zoomed in shots. Apparently, though, it's pretty cumbersome and more interesting to people who want to play with artistic videography rather than shoot home videos. You can't control the aperture, which is surprising on an SLR, and the video doesn't auto-focus in the same fluid way as a simple camcorder. I wouldn't make this feature the deciding factor.
  • Here's a link to a detailed review.
Again, I think the XS represents an awesome low-cost opportunity to get your hands on an SLR, and it's not missing any major features that are going to make you want to upgrade in a year if you decide to get more serious.

Look out for the Rebel T1!
I wish we could end things there, but sadly, there's one very important thing to point out. If you look back at that Canon SLR timeline (at the bottom of the article), it seems likely that the Rebel XS is due to be replaced any month now. An internet rumor earlier this year even suggested that a "Rebel T1" would be coming out by this Christmas to replace the XS. That obviously hasn't happened, but it seems likely that it will be here in the next 6 months.

It's annoying being on a boundary like this. On the other hand, Amazon's price for the Rebel XS seems like a pretty steep discount, and it may be that it takes into account the fact that the XS has been around a while and its time is almost up. The T1 will probably sell for closer to its retail, making it a more expensive camera initially. If $480 really is a good price for the XS (and I don't know how to assert that), it seems like it might make sense get your hands on a new SLR for the lowest possible dollar amount, rather than pay more for some new features you may not need.

It's a bummer to leave things on that note of uncertainty, but I hope this gives you some good options to consider, and has you excited about purchasing an SLR! Good luck, you can't really go wrong!

I want to say thank you to:


  1. Great post, Chris. Thanks for all the time and research you put into this. W and I both learned from it.

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