Choosing a Camera System

Whether newcomer, enthusiast, or professional photographer, I bet you’ve run into the dilemma of choosing a camera and lenses, or switching your current system to another brand. It may even be more far reaching, such as choosing a different technology.

Nikon D850: Tel Aviv sunset (click for larger view)

Analog or Digital

Choosing a camera is not only about which brand or model, but also about the technology. Take for instance my daughter. She recently switched to film as it makes her spend more time and thought on composition. Would I argue with her? Of course not as she is absolutely right!

Nikon Z8: Rally for the release of more than 230 hostages held by the Palestinian Hamas

I gave her my 60 year old Kodak camera that I got from my mother. It has a fixed 45mm lens and is about as manual as it can get. She also has a “point and shoot” film camera with nothing to adjust. She prefers the results of the old Kodak. I saw dozens of those cameras on vintage markets in Berlin, and I’m sure you can find them everywhere around the world for relatively little money.

Point & shoot film camera: 1989 Berlin Wall

Some of the most famous and most stunning photos have been shot with these old film cameras. Those cameras are technological dinosaurs. Eye-detect? Are you kidding? Not even autofocus. Yet in the hands of a gifted photographer the results can be mind blowing.

You can achieve that deliberate way of shooting by using manual focus lenses on modern DSLRs. Try for instance a Nikon NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 AI-S lens, or a NIKKOR 105mm f/2.5 AI-S. Canon, Pentax, etc. all have those good old manual focus lenses that beg to be put to work. If you want to up the level (and can afford the cost), Zeiss offers beautiful manual focus lenses for modern film or DSLR cameras.

DSLR or Mirrorless

The days of the DSLR are counted. Long live the DSLR! Both are true in a way. All camera manufacturers phase out DSLRs and DSLR lenses. Many users are switching to mirrorless systems, for various reasons. I myself own 3 mirrorless and only one DSLR camera at the moment.

Nikon D850 with 70-200mm f/4 lens: David by Michelangelo at the Gallery of the Academy of Florence, Italy

But does it mean that the DSLR has died? No. There are currently very few mirrorless cameras that can match the qualities of pro-DSLRs: instant on, fast focus, weather proof, thousands of shots with one battery charge, pro-grade user controls. My Nikon D850 certainly falls into this category, as did my old D700.

DSLR Cameras

If you plan on buying a new DSLR and lenses, hurry up. Many DSLR models and lenses are discontinued and stock is running out. But if you are willing to buy used gear, you may be able to find the camera and lenses you are looking for. Guessing from my own consumer behavior, used DSLR cameras are easier to find than good lenses. I myself am very reluctant to let go of lenses, unless it’s a bummer, or if I upgrade.

In the DSLR realm, the top cameras you can buy or upgrade to, aside from the pro-bodies with portrait grip, are probably the Canon 5D Mk IV and the Nikon D850. Depending on your needs, I would also consider the full frame Nikon D750 or D780 and the APS-C sensor Nikon D500. Canon has some capable APS-C sensor cameras, too.

If you are starting out from scratch and don’t want to invest much money, have a close look at second hand DSLR equipment. At the price of entry-level mirrorless systems you can get a pro-level DSLR and a lens or two to throw in.

The downside is that eventually you may want to jump onto the mirrorless wagon. By the time you do that, prices will probably have come down. Canon and Nikon both offer adapters to mount the old lenses on new mirrorless cameras with RF or Z mounts.

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras are available in different sensor sizes, from M4/3 (micro-four-third or MFT) via APS-C to full frame as well as medium format cameras. You should not discount any of the sensor sizes as inferior! More on that below.

Nikon Z7 II: Almohad cistern, Seville, Spain

Because mirrorless systems come without a mirror, they are usually more compact compared to DSLRs. Removing the mirror also puts the lens mount closer to the sensor, which can help improve lens design. It seems that some manufacturers have improved their lenses more than others.

Here a summary of the advantages of mirrorless over DSLR designs:

  • Edge-to-edge focus acquisition
  • Better focus accuracy
  • Better people/animal/car/airplane/eye detect
  • Better life view and focus using rear display
  • Higher frame rates
  • Smaller size and weight
  • Newer and potentially better lens designs
  • Silent or near-silent shooting

The disadvantages of mirrorless designs are quickly fading away, but still noticeable with many cameras:

  • Significantly shorter battery life – there are very few mirrorless cameras that deliver DSLR-like battery life
  • Electronic view finder (EVF) lag
  • Longer startup and/or shutdown times
  • Ergonomic shortcomings due to smaller design
  • Limited choice of (native) lenses

Better focus accuracy is an example of an inherent design benefit of a mirrorless system. An article on digital-photography-school explains why. Another benefit of mirrorless design is its relatively quiet (or totally quiet) operation as there is no mirror and mirror movement. Compare the sound of any mirrorless camera with that of a Nikon D850.

The use of an electronic shutter can produce what is called rolling shutter: artifacts and distortions produced by moving subjects. Many mirrorless camera manufacturers publish high frame rates, but in reality they achieve them by using an electronic shutter. The Nikon Z9 and Z8 along with the Sony A1 and the newly released Sony A9 III are currently the only cameras that have overcome this issue.

Nikon D850 DSLR: Palestine sunbird – example of rolling shutter artifacts

Note that the above photo showing rolling shutter artifacts was taken with a Nikon D850 DSLR, so this is not an exclusive problem with mirrorless systems.

Micro Four Third (MFT)

This is the smallest sensor for interchangeable lens cameras. It is still a lot bigger than the sensor in your iPhone or whatever cellphone you carry around. Which means the quality is better.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 (original model): Ein Qelt inside Wadi Qelt, West Bank (Palestine)

MFT (also known as M4/3) cameras are typically smaller in size than their larger-sensor siblings. Compared to full-frame sensor cameras, the focal length of MFT lenses must be multiplied by the factor 2 to compare with equivalent full frame or 35mm film cameras.

To be specific, if you own a 200mm f/2.8 lens for a full frame DSLR (or 35mm film camera) and want to get an equivalent micro-four-third lens, you need to buy a 100mm f/1.4 lens. A Olympus 100-400mm f/5-6.3 IS MFT lens, which is quite compact and hand-holdable, gives you a 200-800mm focal length with a f/10-f/12.6 aperture in terms of depth of field (DoF). This is intriguing for wildlife and bird photographers who can’t zoom close enough to their subjects.

I own an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV MFT camera that would definitely not be suitable for fast-paced action and wildlife photography. But OM systems (as the company is called now) has cameras with fast autofocus that can do the job, together with lenses that have the reach.

My Olympus, together with my 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO zoom, is a very manageable camera for travel photography that delivers excellent results in terms of colors, contrast and sharpness out of the box. You can get that camera together with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens for $700. It’s not a great camera for low light, though. You wouldn’t want to go much higher than ISO 1600. Still, last winter in Berlin I got some good photos inside the Pergamon Museum.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV: Roman period finds from Italy and Near East at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Panasonic is another MFT company that delivers excellent cameras and lenses.

Main benefits of micro-four-third systems:

  • Compact cameras and lenses
  • Ideal for travel, hiking, and everywhere where size and weight matter
  • Some models look like old film cameras – they are great for street photography as they are less intimidating than DSLRs or full-frame mirrorless cameras
  • Long focal lengths at small sizes
  • Greater depth of field because of the multiplying factor of 2 compared to full-frame sensors

Disadvantages of micro-four-third systems:

  • Small sensor with lower dynamic range
  • Higher noise level at even moderate ISO settings
  • Limited range of options, both cameras and lenses
  • Subject-to-background separation is not as good as with APS-C or full-frame cameras, even when using fast lenses (for example f/1.4)
  • Lower resolution compared to full-frame, usually around 20 megapixel

APS-C

This format is somewhere in the middle between MFT and full-frame cameras. Taking the example above, a 200mm f/2.8 lens on a full-frame camera would require you to get a 135mm f/2 lens on an APS-C camera for the same depth of field. You need to apply a factor of 1.6 (Canon) or 1.5 (Nikon and others) when using your SLR lenses on an APS-C body.

Nikon D7200: Ad Deir or the monastery, Petra, Jordan

APS-C cameras combine some of the advantages of the MFT systems – smaller size and weight, bigger focal length – with the benefits of a larger sensor. However, unless you get lenses designed for APS-C, you won’t get much of a weight and size benefit.

The main benefit of APS-C cameras are their price. They are mainstream cameras and manufacturers like Canon, FUJIFILM (Fuji), Nikon and Sony offer both entry-level and mid-range cameras.

APS-C cameras such as the Nikon Z30, the Sony A6700, the FUJIFILM X-T5, or the Canon R100 can use the same lenses as their full-frame cameras. If you think you may want to upgrade one day to a full-frame camera, get the full-frame lenses.

Let’s face it: Lenses made for APS-C cameras are in most cases cheaper but also optically inferior to their full-frame brethren. That said, for travel or day-to-day use there is nothing better than an APS-C camera with an APS-C wide-to-medium-tele zoom, or a small pan-cake lens. What is the use of optically superior cameras and lenses if you don’t want to carry them?

Full-Frame

Until quite recently carrying a full-frame sensor camera was equivalent to playing in the champions league. Full-frame cameras have a relatively large sensor about the size of a 35mm slide film. This allows them to gather more light for better dynamic range, lower noise level, and increased megapixel goodness.

Nikon Z7 II: Cordoba, Spain

Yes, of course a larger sensor can carry more pixels. But don’t fool yourself that megapixel count is the most important criteria. It very much depends on what you want to photograph. Full-frame cameras with rather low 24 megapixel sensors have often a lower noise level at high ISO. That can be a great advantage in sport, action, or wedding/event photography, or photojournalism. 24MP sensors are also better for 4K video recording than 45MP sensors since the latter require oversampling.

Nikon Z8: Black kite (Milvus migrans) near Tirat Zvi, Israel

I prefer the higher resolution for more detail in landscape, travel and cityscape photography. They also allow you to crop much more (see photo above). But I do not see much difference between 45MP and 60MP. Many full-frame high-resolution cameras converge around the 42-50MP mark. Take for example the Canon R5, Sony a7R IIIA, Sony Alpha 1, Nikon Z7, Z7-II, Z8, Z9, and Leica SL2. To me, all of them have about the same resolution and any differences in detail are a matter of lens quality and sensor design.

Canon EOS R5: Lucy at the dog park

There is a difference between sensors with and without anti-aliasing filter. The latter produce a little more detail at the cost of introducing moiré. Many scenes don’t show moiré, but sometimes it creeps up. All my Nikon cameras – the Z7 II, Z8, and D850 – introduce moiré at times. I fix it in Lightroom. The Canon R5, for example, comes with an anti-aliasing filter and rarely shows moiré. The photos from the Canon generally look just a little softer. I wouldn’t take that as a criteria to choose for one or the other system. If you shoot fashion and are concerned that the fabrics introduce moiré, rent the camera you want to buy and check for yourself if moiré is an issue or not.

Here a shortlist of the benefits of full-frame cameras:

  • Clean images due to lower noise and better dynamic range
  • More leeway for post-processing
  • Higher resolution – typically 42-60MP – with more detail (also depends on lens)
  • “Low-resolution” 24MP FF cameras provide even better signal to noise ratio at low light, and/or better video capabilities
  • Better subject isolation with wide-aperture lenses, compared to APS-C or MFT
  • Full-frame cameras are typically pro-grade, with good weather sealing and robust built (magnesium frame, high-tech materials)
  • Better focusing
  • Full-frame cameras are mostly top-of-the-line cameras with (many) more features and controls (buttons, dials, etc.)

But there are downsides too:

  • Somewhat larger, heavier bodies, though mirrorless design has mostly reduced size and weight
  • Less depth of field at a given aperture, compared to APS-C or MFT
  • Less “reach” with telephoto lenses, compared to APS-C or MFT
  • Requires beefier computer to process the RAW files due to their large size
  • Uses expensive storage media for high frame rate or 4k/8k video: Sony uses the CFexpress type A cards that are rare and extremely expensive; others use CFexpress type B or XQD that are a little more affordable

There is almost nothing to top the full-frame camera league, in each and every category. High resolution combined with increased dynamic range, reduced noise, and improved focusing and controls make full-frame cameras the best choice for those who can afford them. BUT, are you really willing to carry around that gear? Think twice!

Nikon Z8: Tel Aviv, Israel – parents of hostages taken by the Palestinian Hamas call on governments to help free their children

Landscape photographers: Today there are medium format cameras such as the FUJIFILM GFX 100S that cost a little more than a Nikon Z8, but less than a Sony Alpha 1. Medium format cameras come with around 100 megapixel and capture even more detail for very large prints.

Lenses

There is a difference between DSLR and mirrorless lens designs. Because there is no mirror in mirrorless cameras, the lens flange can be much closer to the sensor. This allows improvements in lens design. My experience with Nikon has shown me that the new Z mount lenses I use or own(ed) are better than their equivalent F-mount predecessors, without a doubt. My Z7 II review, which includes some lens reviews, gives you a more detailed picture. Canon, on the other hand, has disappointed me: the 15-35mm f/2.8, the 24-105mm f/4, and 16mm f/2.8 RF lenses had sharpness and/or other issues.

Nikon Z7 II with 24-120mm f/4 Z-mount lens: Danube cruise, Obernzell, Bavaria, Germany

Thom Hogan has categorized the Nikon Z lenses into optical quality categories. The emphasis is on “optical quality”, which is not necessarily the most important category for you (or me). When you are shooting a baseball match or your kids dance performance on stage, you will be much more concerned about focus speed and accuracy than corner sharpness, distortion, or vignetting. Of course focus speed/accuracy aren’t solely lens issues, but the lens does play an important role.

The good news is that most of the latest mirrorless camera/lens combinations provide as good or even better focusing capabilities as their DSLR counterparts. But guess what: More than a decade ago you could get sharp pictures with a Nikon D700 and a Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D “screwdriver” lens (those that use an electric motor in the camera to drive the focus).

Nikon D700 with 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-D “screwdriver” lens: Dance performance, Israel

In most situations I would value optical quality higher than most other qualities. But what do I mean with “optical qualities”? Here my shortlist:

  • Edge-to-edge sharpness: For landscape and architectural photography, this is a must. Also helpful for wildlife (bird in flight) photography.
  • Low distortion: Especially for architectural photography.
  • Center sharpness: Portrait pictures don’t need edge or corner sharpness, but center sharpness.
  • Pleasing bokeh: Portrait or other photography where you want to blur the background.
  • Low chromatic aberration (CA): This is ALWAYS something to look for. Much of the CA can be removed automatically by software (e.g. Lightroom), but some lenses are so bad that you will have to manually remove the CA (for example the Canon RF 16mm f/2.8 lens).
  • Lack of flare: You want to have as little flare as possible. Wide angle lenses are more prone to flare than normal or telephoto lenses. Most times you should use a lens hood to minimize or prevent flare. But it doesn’t work always. There is flare and flare – some can be absolutely nasty like the one produced by the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 F-mount lens. On the other hand, the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8 lens produces a rather pleasing flare that can be used artistically. Note that the Canon RF 15-35 is a lot less prone to flare.
  • Colors: Different lenses render colors sometimes differently.
  • Contrast / micro-contrast: Lenses can greatly contribute to the contrast in the photos. Some lenses have a pronounced micro-contrast that enhances features and details. Have a look at some Zeiss lenses. I got somewhat similar results with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 AIS lens.
  • Anything that gives the lens a unique trait when looking at the photos. For example, many Zeiss lenses produce a unique look. I have a NIKKOR 105mm f/2.5 lens that is definitely not the sharpest lens but it’s great for portraits.
Canon EOS R5 with RF 15-35mm f/2.8 lens: Example of flare

As you can see in the list above, you should look out for the optical qualities that are relevant to your photography. A portrait photographer will have different priorities from a sports or landscape photographer.

In many cases, the lens will have a greater influence on the result than the camera. You should be VERY particular about your lens choice. That said, some of the photos I most cherish are the ones I took with a cheap kit lens.

Nikon Z8 with 14-24mm f/2.8 Z-mount lens: Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, Israel

To bring my experience to the point: I have struggled for a long time with different wide angle lenses and even camera systems and lenses. I have bought and sold the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens for the Nikon D850 because of its terrible flare. I’ve bought the Canon R5 camera with the RF 15-35mm f/2.8 and other lenses in order to sell them at a great loss after a year. (The Canon R5 is a great camera in many ways, if it wasn’t for the RF lenses I bought.)

Canon R5 with 15-35mm f/2.8 RF-mount lens: Mar Saba monastery, West Bank, Palestine

Thom Hogan wrote an excellent article about “What Makes for a Great Lens?“.

Sony is known to have some good lens designs, though I have zero experience.

Most important, be aware of sample variation. Even the greatest and most expensive lenses can show some variation in accuracy as a result of manufacturing processes and quality assurance. Unless you rigorously test the lens by yourself, you can’t be sure. See the summary below!

Summary

You need to be clear about what you want to achieve. Remember, the camera and lenses are nothing but tools. Choose the camera and lens(es) within your budget that are right for the job. See for example my contemplation about Traveling to Spain with the Nikon Z8 or Nikon Z7 II? to nail down what’s really important to you.

However, you really can’t tell by looking at a spec sheet if a camera or lens fits your needs or doesn’t. You have to try it out! So before purchase, it’s best to rent the equipment to see if it meets your expectations.

Do not let camera and lens reviews, including the ones on this website, take the better of you. In 2021 I bought about $8000 worth of equipment (camera and lenses) and sold them at half price after a year of frustration just because I relied on other users as well as “reviewers” on the Internet. First try then buy!

Nikon Z7 II with 14-24mm f/2.8 lens: Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Once you decided on your camera and/or lens, buy at a place with a good return policy, in case you are dissatisfied with your purchase. When you receive the equipment, go out and take pictures. The more the better. Review them and see if this is what you were looking for. Bear in mind that higher resolution cameras are more tricky in getting sharp photos! Beware of the camera settings and your technique. Analyze the photos and see where you are at fault and where it’s a shortcoming of the camera/lens. Carefully check for quality issues / sample variation.

Modern cameras have become extremely complex and setting them up properly can be a daunting task. Luckily there is a lot of good and often free advice on the Internet.If you are into wildlife, look at Steve Perry‘s and Jan Wegener‘s setup videos for the Nikon Z8 and Z9. I usually take some suggestions and add some of my own preferences.

Every time you buy a new camera, there is a learning curve as you familiarize yourself with its features and functions. Take that into account, especially when you switch to a different technology, or to a different brand.

Author: Heiko Sieger

The day has 24 hours. If that isn't enough, I also use the night.

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