Sunday, October 31, 2010

Which camera?!

Up until about a year ago I'd been a devoted point-and-shoot camera user. These days P&S cameras have impressive macro settings, super zooms, HD video, and even ~wide angle options. If you're willing to read the manual and have even a skosh of experience with manual photography, you can get some pretty impressive results with a P&S. In the last ~6 years I've owned and shot with (and hence the pics on this blog have come from) an Olympus 435, Canon SD970, Canon A2000, Canon SX200IS, Canon SX1, and most recently a Canon SX 210IS--all great P&S options.

But at some point, if you've got an obsessive streak like I do, 'pretty impressive' becomes 'not quite good enough'. Which is to say that a year ago I stepped up to a DSLR--a Canon T1i. In the ensuing ~8 months I carried that camera almost everywhere--on airplanes, on bike rides, while hiking and skate skiing, while bikepacking, to family functions and potlucks, and always on roadtrips. I'd shot with a full-manual film SLR about 15 years ago, so I had a basic understanding of how (and why) to control the main functions like aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and ISO. And that amount of knowledge was a good jumping off point for the T1i--I was able to get some decent results over the winter and into the spring, both with stills and video.

But at some point I got a bit huffy: I was occasionally missing a shot because the T1i's 'burst mode' couldn't quite keep up. At 3.7 frames per second, it was capturing a lot more images than any point and shoot can. But somehow, 'better than a point and shoot' was, again, 'not quite good enough'. I started to feel like an upgrade was in order, so I started saving pennies while also paying VERY close attention to what I did and didn't like about the T1i.

And, to be honest, the only flaw I've been able to find in the T1i is the semi-slow burst mode. I *love* how small and light it is. I *love* how basic the menus are, and how easy it is to find what you're looking for. I *love, love, love* how easy it is to adjust aperture/shutter/WB/ISO and more, all with your thumb and forefinger, all while keeping your eye in the viewfinder and tracking your subject. I'd been intimidated by DSLR's before buying the T1i, and it was friendly to me right from the get-go. Other than the burst mode, I really can't recommend it highly enough. If there were a way to 'upgrade' that burst mode and keep everything else the same, the T1i would be my ideal camera body.

I own three lenses for it, all made by Canon: A 10-22mm wide angle, a 60mm flat-field macro, and a 28-300 tele zoom. I use them about equally, as they are all pretty different and there is virtually no overlap. I find myself reading reviews of other lenses way too often, coveting that which I don't possess and wondering if a different 3 lenses would better suit my needs than what I have?

Probably not. I've got what I consider to be an incredible quiver of glass, the only thing lacking is time to shoot more and skill to shoot with! I sometimes wish the 28-300 weren't quite so big or bulky, but then I realize what a trivial concern that is and I toss it into the pack and stop worrying about it right then and there.

Anyhoo, a few months ago I got a bonus check from a photo gig that serendipitously fell into my lap, and with that check I bought a Canon 7d body. My hope, after reading reviews until I put myself nearly into a coma, was that it would do everything the T1i had done as well or better, but with the benefit of an 8fps burst mode.

The reality is that the 7d is quite a bit bulkier and heavier than the T1i. Because I'm usually using it on bike rides, it's getting stuffed into a ~small pack and it takes up most of the available space in that pack. Size and weight aside, the menus are more complex and numerous. External buttons are also more numerous, and simple-to-access features on the T1i are quite a bit less simple to find on the 7d. But after a few months of shooting with the 7d, then going back to the T1i for a few back-to-back days, I can say that I've adapted well enough to be able to shoot with either on the spur of the moment. And given a choice at that moment I would always pick the 7d, largely because of the 8fps burst mode.

Whether I'm shooting with the 7d or the T1i, I shoot aperture priority ~85% of the time, and shutter priority the other 15%. I do not, cannot, will not shoot in auto or "P" mode. If I'm outside (which is almost always) I'm shooting with exposure compensation at -2/3 to -1, because Canon's seem to love to blow highlights, and this is one way to combat that (more on this below). I shoot JPG files, as I don't own software to handle RAW, nor do I see any benefits in doing so.

I had originally planned to dump the T1i as I can't imagine the extravagance of having two DSLR bodies on the shelf. But thus far I haven't managed to divest myself of the T1i--it's small and light enough that I find it *ideal* to take on bikepacking overnighters where space and weight are at an all-time-premium. The measly few hundred bucks I could get for the body/charger/5 batts hardly seems worthwhile when weighed against having it around. So, for now, I'm keeping it.

As far as post-processing, I don't do much. Part of the reason for that is time--I'd much, much, much rather ride/hike/ski/sleep longer than spend more time in front of the computer. The other part of it is that I am fascinated by *photography*--that is, learning to make creative and interesting images in the field, with the camera, not at home, with the computer. I use iPhoto--the basic imaging software that's included with every Mac. 99% of the time I'll crop the photo to give it more of a widescreen look, then I'll drag the 'highlights' and 'shadows' sliders over a click or two to bring back some of what I lost by using negative exposure comp. On occasion I'll feel a need (compulsion?) to render the image in sepia, when color is more of a distraction from the composition. That's pretty much it for post-processing.

On the POV side of things, last year I was shooting with a VIO POV. It was just OK. I liked the preview screen, which allowed you to make sure you had it aimed just so before dropping in and recording. But the results were never super impressive, and I ended up not using it much. I sold it for a song to some close friends that wanted to get their feet wet, and was content to go POV-less.

For all of about a month, that is. The last year has seen a veritable pantload of POV options introduced or evolved, and I ended up picking up a Contour HD. All in all, it has been pretty good. I like the color and contrast it gives. I don't like that it's sorta hard to find places to securely mount it. Secure is the key word--if it isn't lashed *tightly* to whatever you're lashing it to, it will shake and the results are pretty much unusable. I thought it had a decent compromise for angle-of-view, until Skippy snagged a GoPro Hero HD and then, well, I had POV envy. The Hero HD has a much wider angle of view, which, to me, makes whatever speed you're going end up looking much faster than it really is. The tradeoff is that the Hero HD is a clunky, ugly mess to attach to your helmet/bike/body. They've all got their compromises.

For video editing I use iMovie--simple to learn and with lots of features included.

I'm indebted to Greg Luck, Ed Ellinger, and Skippy Wixom (start a stinkin' photoblog, dude!) for coaching me along with tips and advice over the past year+, as well as photographic inspiration for years before that.

So there ya have it--the 'what camera' post that folks 'round here have been asking for for years! Feel free to ask pointed questions in the comments section below, and I'll edit/amend this post with the answers.




  1. I wouldn't worry that the lens don't overlap ranges. There will be the odd occasion where you need something in the gap that you can't cover by moving your feet, but its rare.

    Think I'm going the opposite way to you. I still want the performance, but if I'm out and about in general I don't want to be lugging the extra gear around. Perhaps, a pro-level P&S.

  2. Great post Mike. I've always used point and shoot cameras for my biking, hiking, and what not photography. I shot 35mm slr for years so like you was familiar with the basics.

    I purchased my Canon T1i last spring and like you absolutely love it! My favorite lens is a Tamron 28-300. If you are looking for good quality and weight savings it may be a good option for you.

    I still want to carry it more often on the bike, but just can't seem to let go of the convenience of the P & S.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great post. Personally, I usually take my point & shoot on rides, because of the convenience factor, but I'm well aware that it can in no way compete with my DSLR!

  4. I like the idea of carrying a dslr with me on rides, but how do you protect the camera from, ahh, unscheduled dismounts? Right now I just carry an iPhone4 or p&s as they are small and easy to protect.

  5. Enjoyed the post, very informative. Good points on why jpg can be better for taking photos than RAW - I too rather spend more time outside than in front of the Mac, though sometimes it is nice (but time intensive) to edit some nice shots in RAW & Lightroom 3. Anyway. I own a 50D and have shot with a GF1, which I liked heaps. The Sony NEX-5 is coming in for a while now, and could be a sweet deal. Realistically though, nothing has yet reached the level of the 50D so if I need perfect shots or plan to print them, it is the camera to take. Though the search for the perfect UL DSLR continues =)

  6. Hey Mike,
    You may find some new life for your Point and Shoot from Canon Hacks. They've made some great scripts to load up that can enable your camera to act more like a dslr.

  7. Thanks for the info!

  8. Awesome photo geek out post!!

    Any recommendations using a Canon P&S? I have no designs on upgrading, probably ever because I simply like the size, but would shooting in a different mode from "Auto" help things in any way?

  9. So, what ever happened to that Pentax K1000? I find myself having to get re-aquainted with manual photography once or twice a year just to keep from losing the skills completely. I also find the high end DSLRs to be somewhat overwhelming. A good basic lens, body, and a good eye are undervalued these days. You have really developed (no pun intended)into a great photographer, not just a guy who is good with a camera. Kudos dude.

  10. Mike,
    FYI, iPhoto will handle RAW files just fine. I only shoot in RAW and I use iPhoto cataloging. I wish I was close to having your skills though.

  11. Mike, I have a Contour HD as well. What are you using to mount it? I have heard the vented helmet mount is crap.

  12. Having watched many of your videos I am wondering how you are mounting the camera in so many different locaitons on the bike, the Idatour series is a good example of this. Love to get some tips. Thanks.

  13. Mike - Thanks so much for posting your photos and descriptions of your adventures. You have a keen eye for outdoor photography, and I follow your blog fairly regularly. I have a photo-related question for you: I use a Canon G9 for most of my photo needs, with the occasional use of the Canon S95. After a recent trip to the Green River in Utah, I have noticed the sound of grit in the telescoping lens of the G9. I am religious about keeping the camera away from obvious hazards and never set it down in loose sand, but the wind can be mighty pesky, sending the fine grains flying everywhere. I have forced some of the sand out with canned air, but can still hear a little bit in there. I have had this problem in the past, once severely enough that the lens got stuck in the open position, and the camera would not power on. It cost me a fair amount to have the good folks at Canon repair it, and I am hoping to not repeat the experience. Do you have any advice on keeping the sand out of desert/beach trips?
    - Tom (aka anonymous)