July 16, 2024

Advice on stepping up to a better digital camera

This is a bit off from the usual Freedom to Tinker post, but with tomorrow being “Black Friday” and retailers offering some steep discounts on consumer electronics, many Tinker readers will be out there buying gear or will be offering buying advice to their friends.

Over the past several months, several friends of mine have mentioned that they were considering “moving up” to a D-SLR camera and asked me for advice. I’ve been what you might term a “serious amateur” photographer since high school, when I was the head photographer for the school yearbook and newspaper. (It was a non-trivial issue for me to decide whether to make my career in photography or in computers.)

To address this, I wrote a guide to upgrading your digital camera. I’ve written this for a non-technical audience. Pass it around and enjoy.


  1. I agree with Deron. The “nikon and canon DSLRs only” thing is mainly an American thing. In Japan (where almost all of the DSLRs are designed) there are a ton of Pentax, Olympus, and Sony users. Those brands and their lenses will be around for a long, long time as well. Pentax has the advantage of a huge history of great inexpensive lenses that still work on the current DSLRs.

    I also like and own the Canon S90, but it’s still feels awfully sluggish after using a DSLR.

    • I didn’t make this argument casually. Go and look at the market for rental gear. Nikon and Canon gear is easy to rent. Other brands, not so much. I do point out that Micro 4/3 is something genuinely new and worthwhile. It’s pretty hard to recommend somebody buy a normal D-SLR from Sony, Pentax, etc. My “step up” audience isn’t interested in using old Pentax K-mount lenses, no matter how cheap you can now get them.

  2. If you don’t already have an investment in a particular manufacturer’s line, then be aware that today there are many more good options. In particular, in terms of the best DSLR camera systems there are really three big players now, not two: Nikon, Cannon, and Sony.
    (This wasn’t the case several years ago, which is why you still see comparisons between Nikon versus Cannon as if those were the only two choices). Additionally there are many perfectly good minor players such as Olympus, Pentax, or Panasonic.

    Sony in particular, which carries on from the lineage of the old Minolta brand, is regularly seen these days as being a very serious DSLR maker and their top of the line Alpha cameras and lenses are “arguably” as good as or better than anything from Nikon or Cannon. Each may have their minor advantages or disadvantages, but it is worth considering each against your particular needs.

    Another thing worth mentioning, especially for those considering upgrading to something more serious than a point-and-shoot, is too look at the relatively new breed of Four Thirds systems. This a new system of cameras, sort of like smaller versions of the typical SLR, that is designed to fill the gap between casual point-and-shooters and the serious SLR market. The cameras still have detachable and interchangeable lenses and a variety of more control and better image quality than a point and shot; but are also smaller and cheaper than most SLRs. Also since Four Thirds is really more like a standard than it is a manufacturer, this means that you should be able to interchange camera bodies and lenses made by different manufacturers.

    Of course, even the point and shoots are getting much much better than even just two years ago. So maybe rather than “upgrading” to an SLR or Four Thirds; perhaps you may just want to upgrade to a new point and shoot. A very recent trend is an explosion in very high quality ruggedized point an shoots — waterproof, dustproof, drop-proof — if you photograph a lot of sports, trips, or outdoors activities, these new crop of rugged point and shoots could be just your thing.

  3. Sam Wood Johnson says

    I’m a proud owner of a Nikon D70S with an extra tele lens besides the standard lens that came with the kit. Been serving me good for years now.

  4. Dan,

    I love you, but that article you posted just screams “academia”…several thousand words without pictures? That sucker is intimidating! 😉

    • I thought about rooting through old pictures to illustrate my points, but that seemed like too much work. Cranking out text is a lot easier.

    • By the same standards, the latest fluff from Danielle Steele “just screams academia” — a couple hundred pages of text and only the cover illustrations!

  5. I upgraded my old point and shoot (Canon S100 & S110) to a Canon S90. It was -well- worth it. I’ve now got most everything that I had been missing from my old SLR film days in a point and shoot camera. The low light performance of the S90 is simply amazing and I can carry it everywhere.

    The only downside is a temporary one: The camera is so new that most software does not yet support it properly in RAW mode so you’ll be left using Canon’s included “Digital Photo Professional” tool to develop the raws into a presentable file format today. I suspect this problem happens to all new camera bodies. Set it to shoot in RAW+JPEG mode until your preferred software catches up.

    iPhoto ’08 won’t load the S90’s .CR2 files at all. Picasa 3.5 loads them but does the wrong thing so they show up with washed out colors and barrel distortion.

  6. “One other clever trick is taking advantage of Microsoft’s Bing Cashback program. Several camera vendors, including B&H, Adorama, J&R, and Abe’s of Maine participate and you get some single-digit percentage of your money back. I have no idea whose pocket that money is coming out of, but it seems to work.”

    This says that Bing Cashback prices are Higher than Regular pricing:

  7. One reason to go for Canon bodies is also the hackability — the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D can load user created firmware to extend the features with Magic Lantern (and the P&S bodies can use chdk). Since this is “Freedom-to-tinker”, the ability to tinker with the camera’s internals seems like it would be of interest to the readers.

    • I thought about hacks when writing this up. Non-Tinker readers wouldn’t likely want to monkey around with this, but it’s certainly a plus for Canon that it’s bodies can be hacked. Of course, firmware hacks don’t do anything to improve your lens or sensor.

  8. I have a basic Canon digital camera for a couple of years now. While it serves the basic functions well, I find it unusable for occasions such as night shooting or for panoramic views. Thanks for the upgrading guide. I definitely find it useful.
    Alex from laser lipo

  9. Nathan Williams says

    Canon offers both a 50mm f/1.4 and a 50mm f/1.8. The former is about $400, the latter about $100. For someone just starting in this stuff, is that half-stop worth that much more money? (I have the f/1.8, and I agree that a fast 50mm lens is a great thing to work with, though people keep trying to sell me on the $300 35mm f/2, since with the APS-C factor, it’s closer to the 50mm lenses of old).

    • The half-stop of aperture is probably not worth it for someone just starting, and the other improved aspects are probably debatable as well. Of course, I have use the 50/1.8, the 50/1.4 and the 35/2 and by FAR prefer the 35/2 (on the 1.6x sensor cameras). I didn’t use a 50mm lens with a 35mm film camera, so I don’t have much to compare with – I just fine the 35/2 a useful lens.

      • My advice remains to get an uprated kit zoom plus a 50mm prime. The former for its versatility. The latter because it’s typically cheap and makes for a great portrait lens. Beyond that, there is no obvious next lens. Some people will want a longer telephoto. Others a fisheye. Depends on what you want to shoot.

    • As a Canon owner, you’ll be perfectly happy with the 50mm f/1.8. Nikon people are stuck, because Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8 doesn’t autofocus with the cheaper consumer bodies. It seems silly to spend the extra bucks on a Nikon D90 just so you can buy a cheaper 50mm f/1.8. Better to pony up for the new AF-S 50mm f/1.4.

  10. Roland Dobbins says

    I totally disagree with your statement, ‘The only time you should consider getting away from Nikon or Canon, in the interchangeable-lens department, is if you’re looking at some of these new “Micro 4/3” cameras, most notably the Panasonic GF1 or the Olympus E-P1.’

    I got away from my Canon 50D and picked up a Leica M8.2 and 3 lenses. I sold all my Canon gear, so I ended up paying about $5KUSD to upgrade to the Leica – and I’ll never buy another dSLR again.

    Yes, Leicas are expensive, but with the M9 now on the market, the price of a used M8 or M8.2 has dropped considerably, and there’s both a brisk trade in high-quality used Leica lenses as well as some good 3rd-party lenses made for the Leica bayonet-mount like Cosina Voightlander and Zeiss. The Leica M cameras are considerably smaller than the dSLRs, they’re much less noticeable by subjects, the lenses are tiny (I carry my M8.2 with a lens mounted, and two additional lenses in the pockets of my cargo shorts, along with cleaning stuff and an extra battery), and they can be used to produce remarkable portraits, landscape shots, and street shots (the manual-focus Leicas aren’t suitable for sports or action photography due to their manual-focus-only approach).

    No, these cameras aren’t for everyone, but they’re increasing in popularity as folks are tired of dSLRs the size of their heads, with huge lenses which attract attention and backbreaking kit loads. I just ordered an M9, and am selling my M8.2 for a reasonable price; I already have a buyer, who can now get into Leica shooting for a much lower price than retail.

    So, please don’t forget the rangefinders, yes?


    • My advice is targeted at readers “stepping up” from a $200 point-and-shoot. Leica M-series gear is far more than one step up. The prices, alone, put Leica gear out of the reach of most consumers.

      That said, enjoy your Leica gear. It’s great stuff.