While high-end camera kit remains outrageously expensive – you can spend around £50,000 on a top quality body and digital camera back – the difference in performance between professional and affordable camera kit is getting smaller and smaller. A few years ago, budget DSLRs produced noisy and grainy images unless you had access to studio lights and could shoot with a low ISO number. It’s always been possible to fix noise with software, but it’s easier and more efficient to use kit that effortlessly produces high-quality output without a separate clean-up pass.
The sub-£1,000 DSLR market is still a quality notch or two down from the professional market, but with good lighting and careful set-up you can get studio results that look very similar. Since most design work uses photography as a starting point rather than a finished product, you can now take the output of almost any affordable DSLR and use it right away. But what about camera features? Most DSLRs are now brimming with so many modes and options that their ease of use has become a big issue. Ideally, you need a camera that’s so easy to use you almost forget it’s in your hands; if you’re having to think about menus and settings, you won’t be concentrating on the important aspects of composition and lighting.
Because shooting is about personal choices, some cameras offer auto modes that try to do all of the thinking for you, while others concentrate on making full manual control more accessible. It’s a rare camera that does both equally well, so it’s a good idea to consider which style works best for you and do some hands-on testing to see how easily you can get used to the menu structure and button functions.
SLRs used to be distinguished by traditional through-the-lens optical previews. Most models now include an LCD display screen, which is likely to be hinged and rotatable, although through-the-lens monitoring continues to be available. Some LCDs add colour shifts, and they may also be bulky, fragile or prone to finger grease. So if you’re going to work outdoors, it’s worth checking how robust the LCD feels.
A big trend in recent years has been a drop in weight and size. High-end professional DSLRs continue to be big, heavy and robust. They’re typically built from a single piece of magnesium and then enhanced with weather-proofed flaps and seals. Cheaper DSLRs are made of plastic. This makes them smaller and lighter, which aids portability. But it also means they’re more likely to break if you drop them. And they’re not as good at dealing with water, sand or dust. If you’ll be using a camera mostly in the studio, the extra toughness won’t matter to you. But a small size and weight will – it makes the camera less tiring to work with and makes it easier to set it up in tight spots.
One of the key issues for all DSLRs is lens choice. Most budget models are sold with a kit lens – a mid-priced, mid-performance model. Kits lenses can be used for portraits and generic studio shots, but they won’t be ideal for tight close-ups on products, for landscapes or for telephoto action shots. Mid-performance means they don’t collect light as efficiently as more expensive lenses, which can make shots noisier. This isn’t a problem if you have studio lighting but it can be an issue outdoors, especially on cloudy days and at night.
You can save some money by buying a bundle that includes a kit lens, but it’s smarter to consider something better. Nikon and Canon both make high-performance zooms that can cover a wider range than a kit lens, with better light performance. Some also have vibration reduction. Extra lenses aren’t cheap – you can pay from around £300 for a basic zoom to over £1,000 for a more specialised professional unit. But it’s a false economy to stick with a typical kit lens. Not only will you be missing out on image quality, you’ll also be limited creatively to a much smaller range of photographic looks and techniques than you can create with a better lens or lens collection. In fact, it’s a good idea to think of camera bodies as semi-disposable items that you can upgrade in a couple of years. Lens development is much slower, and it’s likely that you’ll get a decade of life out of a good lens collection.
In terms of other features, don’t be seduced by trivial extras. You don’t usually need in-camera effects, and if you need to create a special look, you’ll be able to do it more creatively and flexibly in Photoshop. Professionals always shoot RAW files and ‘develop’ them in Photoshop later. This workflow can be very creative, as well as giving you almost infinite possibilities for mood and feel. Burning an in-camera effect into an image limits what you can do with it later.
Finally, don’t forget to include accessories in your budget. You’ll need to buy rechargeable batteries – ideally a couple of sets – and a tripod. If you’re shooting outdoors, a case is essential. Optionally, you can add glass filters to enhance image quality and create special effects. If you’re taking regular product shots or portraits, you’ll also want studio lighting, diffusers and backgrounds.
Budget to spend around an extra £150 to £300 for the basics, and from £300 upwards for lighting kits. See Calumet (www.calumetphoto.co.uk) for a selection of professional extras, although you can also often find cheap alternatives on eBay.
Whether you’re a serious videographer who wants the best HD can offer or you require a more affordable, portable prosumer option, there’s a DSLR camera available that will suit you
£424 body only (best price online)
Video: Up to 1920x1080
4fps continuous mode
In-camera video effects
This Nikon is similarly speced overall to the Canon EOS 600D (see below). The biggest difference is more accessible manual control of exposure, aperture and auto-focus – so if you have solid DSLR experience, you’ll find that this is a more creative, flexible choice. On the downside, the firmware has a few bugs and this camera doesn’t support auto-focus on certain popular Nikon lenses.
£458 body only (best price online)
Video: Up to 1920 x 1080
7fps continuous mode
3D sweep panorama
Next to Canon and Nikon, Sony has always been the also-ran. But dogged persistence is starting to pay off. The DSLR-A580 scores on price and low-light performance, making it a good choice for studio use. The noise reduction is aggressive at higher ISO numbers, but this may not be a bad thing in the studio. But the range of lenses is limited, and the hinged LCD is on the clunky side.
Canon EOS 600D
£483 body only (best price online)
Video: Up to 1920x1080
Fully articulated LCD
Integrated wireless flash
The Rebel T3i/EOS 600D’s image quality is outstanding, even at high ISO settings, and the articulated LCD makes it easy to set up and preview scenes. There’s plenty of detail too and, when paired with good lens sharpness, colour and dynamic range are good enough for professional work. But auto-focus can be relatively slow, and the design of some of the menus and buttons isn’t as intuitive as it could be.