DSLR decisions

A reader writes:

I am looking to buy a digital SLR camera. I am stuck between the Nikon D5000, Canon EOS Rebel T1i [also known as the EOS 500D]and the Canon EOS Rebel Xsi [a.k.a. the EOS 450D; the DPReview 500D review compares the 500D and the 450D].

I am leaning towards the XSi, however I would like to know if there is more value spending the extra bucks and getting one of the other ones. I am a beginner when it comes to photography and will use it mostly for taking pictures when travelling and family functions etc. Appreciate the guidance.


I don't really know enough about the Nikon to firmly rule it in or out. Don't worry, though; I'm sure commenters will soon explain to you exactly why your only possible sane option is Nikon, and also how a Nikon will definitely steal your family's souls and impel their dead-eyed husks to kill and devour you at the earliest opportunity.

I can, however, tell you that the major investment for any DSLR owner isn't the camera body, it's the lenses.


(Well, actually it's perfectly possible to buy a DSLR body and a couple of lenses that cost less than the body, and then just call it a day. This almost always indicates that you should have bought a smaller, lighter, cheaper point-and-shoot camera instead.)

I presume you don't have any Nikon or Canon lenses at the moment. If you've got a friend who's got a collection of lenses for either Nikon or Canon and who's willing to loan any of them to you, though, then you should get the same make of camera they have.

(This extends to less common DSLR brands, like Pentax, Olympus and Minolta {though probably not Sigma}. Sony bought up Minolta's camera arm, so now they're "Sony Alphas" instead of Minolta Alphas, but the lens mount remains the same.)

Note also that some Nikon F-mount lenses only autofocus if you put them on a camera body with a built-in motor, that mechanically couples to the lens. The D5000, like various other cheaper Nikon DSLRs, does not have that motor, and so will only autofocus if you get lenses that have their own motor. Motorless lenses will work on a D5000, but you have to focus manually.

Manual focus can be a bit of a pain with consumer DSLRs, because they never come with the split-image ground-glass focusing screen that you need. It's certainly not impossible to do manual focus, though, especially since the camera should still be able to go beep at you when it reckons you've got the focus right. (You can also usually upgrade the focusing screen - it's not even all that terrifying a DIY job.)

Further points:

1: The Nikon and the Canon T1i (which is known as the EOS 500D, outside the USA) can capture HD video. The cheaper Canon cannot. The new wave of video-shooting DSLRs - all of which, I think, you can set to lower resolutions if you don't need HD - are a big step forward in consumer videography. They give a professional interchangeable-lens camera to amateurs. If you don't care about video, though, or prefer a pocket-sized video camera, this becomes irrelevant.

2: Resolution doesn't matter. As far as actual image quality goes, even for long-exposure night shots and high-ISO work, there's little real difference between the recent Canons - and, I'm pretty sure, the Nikon too - and models from several years ago.

Three Sisters long exposure

This was a 30-second exposure, at 2:37 in the morning, by the light of the full moon, taken with my EOS-20D in 2005.

Long exposure

Another 20D shot, this time more than 40 minutes!

Long exposure

A five-minute exposure from my EOS-D60, circa 2002.

Really high-sensitivity image quality and noise reduction is, to be fair, slowly improving. And the highest sensitivity figure you can set is rising, too. But the difference is not very large, because of the marketing-driven megapixel mania that keeps packing more and more pixels into the sensors, even if most lenses and most photographic subjects don't have the optical quality and/or image detail to make this matter, rather than improving the pixels that're already there.

If you find someone selling a seven-year-old D60, in good condition, for $100, buy that instead of a new camera, and spend the savings on starting your lens collection.

(The second-hand market for DSLRs isn't actually very exciting. This is because DSLRs hold their value much better than most electronic devices, and even if an old DSLR is mechanically perfect it may have lots of crud on the sensor. And the price of brand new DSLRs keeps sliding down, even as more genuinely useful features like video, partially self-cleaning sensors and sensor-shift all-lenses image stabilisation trickle in around the marketing nonsense. Second-hand lenses often aren't that cheap, either, but this is compensated for by the fact that they're very often in perfect working order.)

3: Don't get only one lens, even to start with.

If you get a basic body-plus-one-lens package for any of these cameras then you'll get a perfectly serviceable little zoom lens. Photo enthusiasts love to complain about quite minor image-quality flaws, but the kit zoom lens really is just fine for most purposes.

You should also definitely get a cheap 50mm f/1.8 prime, though, for reasons I explain here.

In brief: Cheap "fast" large-aperture lens equals great portraits, with the face in focus and the background blurred.

The cheap Canon f/1.8 50mm is this one. The Nikon equivalent is this one - NOTE, however, that it's one of those motorless lenses that you'll have to focus by hand on low-end Nikon DSLRs. For candid portrait shooting this isn't actually a major limitation, since you need to jockey around anyway when using autofocus to avoid focusing on the tip of the nose rather than the face, but it's still worth noting that, as far as I know, there's no cheap f/1.8 prime for Nikon that has its own autofocus motor.

(By linking to Adorama, above, I'm making no particular recommendation of them. They're a perfectly good online photo store, as is B&H, with prices about as cheap as any dealer who isn't a scam artist - but I'm linking to them because I like their short URLs and site search. Note that I'm also linking to the USA-retail versions of these lenses; big photo stores also often sell cheaper used, "refurbished" and grey-market lenses.)

4: If you're going to shoot sport or birds or anything else that needs a telephoto lens, then you should either buy a two-lens camera kit, which usually adds a passable something-to-200mm lens to the standard little zoom lens, or buy a something-to-300mm zoom lens separately. The absolute cheapest options in this category - some under $US100 - have lousy image quality, but you don't have to pay a lot more to get a quite acceptable Canon, Nikon or Sigma. (Third-party lenses - Sigma, Tamron etc - can usually be had in both Canon and Nikon versions, and often some other mounts besides.)

Canon 75-300mm, $US160
Nikon 70-300mm, $US155
Sigma 70-300mm for Canon, $US159
Sigma 70-300mm for Nikon, $US159

The basic something-to-200mm lenses, like the little kit zooms, also show up very cheap on eBay all the time as people upgrade their camera-and-lens kits. You'll be able to save a little money if you buy the basic lenses that way, but it's probably not going to be worth the hassle.

You can also get quite affordable image-stabilised lenses these days. Both Canon and Nikon make stabilised versions of the above cheap zooms, though this pushes the price up over $US500 without improving the actual basic optical specifications at all. The stabilisers help considerably with camera-shake, but do nothing to prevent pictures of things that are themselves moving from being blurry.

You can get the stabilised version of the basic Canon 18-55mm lens in a quite cheap body-and-lens kit, as well. Here's a refurb version of that kit, at a price that's hard to dislike.

5: Get a tripod. A cheap and nasty eBay/DealExtreme Special will do fine. Even if you hardly ever use it, it'll be $20 (or less than $15...) well spent when you finally do need it to shoot longer exposures in low light, maintain consistent framing of a sequence of shots, et cetera.

(You might also like to get a remote shutter release cable for your camera of choice, to avoid bumping it when you press the shutter button for a tripod shot. The brand-name versions can be a bit expensive, but since a remote release cable is just a switch on a wire, you can buy cheap copies with confidence.)

6: Get an add-on flash, with a swivel-and-tilt head. (Not one like this, that only shoots forward.)

Direct lighting from the little pop-up flash on your camera, or any other flash pointing forward, will get you a picture when nothing else will, but is an almost perfect guarantee that the picture will be an unsightly "happy snap".

F/1.8 cat portrait.

Flash bounced off the ceiling, plus a 50mm f/1.8 wide open, are your secret weapons to take fantastic portraits indoors.

Ideally you'd want a quality flash from the camera manufacturer, that works with the wireless triggering systems that most (possibly all) current DSLRs have, and can thus be used together with any other compatible flashes you buy. But those can be a bit pricey.

Off-brand flashes that work with the Canon and/or Nikon systems exist, but are apparently often a little dodgy, and aren't all that cheap, anyway.

The next step down, which will probably suit you just fine, is a flash with no wireless-compatibility stuff, but which still supports Through-The-Lens (TTL) exposure metering. Sigma have some nice options; again, there are also more expensive products from the camera manufacturers themselves.

If you're really on a shoestring budget, you can just buy a cheap old-fashioned "thyristor" auto-flash that works with your camera.

Your camera probably won't like flashes with a high trigger voltage, but there are many flashes that do not have this problem. The one-stop Internet info depot for cheap-and/or-manual flash users is Strobist.

(The magic name of Strobist also makes it pretty easy to see if that "SpringFlower Joyshine 2001" on eBay for $15 is worth buying. Just searching for [flash name] "trigger voltage" will also usually suffice.)

OK, readers; what've I forgotten? Let's see if we can throw so much advice at Jorge that he gives up on the whole idea of taking pictures!

Smiley sky

Smiley-face conjunction

This is my picture of the Moon/Venus/Jupiter "smiley face" conjunction that just happened. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

(The 500-pixel-high version doesn't look like much. The full-size one is better. There was a little cloud, though.)

I wasn't planning to take this picture, but I went for a walk to Echo Point and found a person there hopelessly trying to photograph the conjunction with a full-auto compact camera. Which actually did have a "Starry Sky" mode (among many others, including one called "Food"...) - but said mode was, of course, useless.

So I promised to take a proper picture and e-mail it to her. And when I got back to Echo Point with my DSLR and tripod there was a family there trying to take the same picture, and failing for the same reason. So I harvested an e-mail address from them too.

A few times, I've gone to Echo Point and it's been cloudy or foggy or otherwise not the ideal time to take a picture of the Three Sisters. On those occasions, I've offered to send disappointed photographers a picture I took on another date, because I've got some excellent ones.

Three Sisters long exposure

My favourite is this one, which I took at 2:37 in the morning, by moonlight, with a thirty-second exposure.

Everyone I've made this offer to so far has declined, though. And fair enough, I suppose; the Three Sisters I photographed last year is not the same Three Sisters you would have photographed had you been able to see it through the bleeding fog. But the Smiley Conjunction I photographed is, within a fairly small time window, the same one that the people I sent it to saw.

Old lens, new camera

OM lens on Four Thirds camera
Picture credit: Conlawprof

A reader asks:

Simple, maybe stupid question. We had an Olympus OM-10 which broke down, and some good lenses and stuff which didn't. Please, do OM-10 lenses fit on modern Olympus digital cameras? I asked Olympus but they didn't answer.


In brief: Yes, they do. Just buy an OM-System-to-Four-Thirds adapter ring and away you go. Olympus make their own adapter, and there are cheap Chinese ones that're probably just as good, since there's no glass in there.

EBay's full of adapters for popular camera and lens types, but there are far fewer Four Thirds cameras out there than Canons or Nikons, so there only seem to be a couple of OM-to-Four-Thirds adapters on eBay at the moment. I wouldn't be worried at all about buying one on eBay for $40 delivered rather than from Olympus for $100, though; when there's no glass in the adapter, it's hard to get it wrong.

Olympus have a list of recommended lenses for use with the adapter. Other lenses should also work, but may lose a little quality.

The reason for this is that film responds in pretty much exactly the same way regardless of the angle from which light hits it - well, as far as SLR-camera applications go, anyway. Digital sensors, on the other hand, have their own array of tiny "microlenses" over the actual sensor pixels, not to mention protective glass and anti-aliasing filters on top of the microlenses. This stuff does not respond the same to light coming at an angle as it does to light coming straight at it - think of looking at an LCD monitor from an angle, versus looking at a CRT.

So for best results on digital cameras, you need lenses that're as close as possible to being "telecentric", which means the light coming out of the back of the lens is lined up, as much as possible, with the axis of the optical components.

All of the standard Four Thirds lenses are pretty telecentric. OM System lenses aren't so much, because they didn't need to be to work fine with film.

Olympus have a page about this issue, too.

(Telecentricity may be less of a problem as digital sensors evolve - see this page for some speculation.)

Worrying about telecentricity is a bit nit-picky, particularly because the part of the image circle where the rays from any lens are likely to be least perpendicular to the sensor are around the edge, which consumer digital cameras with their "APS"-sized sensors can't even see.

The down side of this is that an APS-sensor camera can only see about two-thirds of the image a "full frame" sensor or 35mm film frame would capture with the same lens. This means all of your lenses appear more telephoto, and you need a serious bug-eyed-monster lens to get really wide-angle photos. The up side is that, even if you don't care about telecentricity, most lenses store their problems around the outside of the image circle. Vignetting, chromatic aberration, softness; all are worst around the edges, which simply aren't seen at all by an APS-sensor DSLR using 35mm-film lenses.

The Olympus/Kodak Four Thirds system was actually purpose-built around these APS-sized sensors, which is why its lenses and cameras are smaller and lighter than those for other big-brand DSLRs.

(The OM System cameras and lenses were small and light compared with the competition too, though that was because of ingenious engineering rather than just having smaller film.)

"Mainstream" Canon and Nikon (and Sigma, for that matter) DSLRs can have full-35mm-frame-sized sensors, but the affordable models only actually have the smaller APS size. So, for those cameras, the lenses and bodies are bigger than they need to be. You can get lenses that only work (well, only work properly, at least) with APS sensors (Canon's EF-S line, for instance). But most mainstream DSLR lenses, and all of the really high-quality Canon and Nikon ones, still throw a 35mm-sized circle of light into the camera, even if only the APS-rectangle middle of it is being caught by the sensor.

The critical issue for putting a lens made for one type of camera on another one - no matter what company makes the camera and the lens - is how far from the back of the lens the film, or sensor, is expected to be. This is called the "lens register" or "registration distance". The adapter you use to attach System X Lens to System Y Body will inescapably add a bit of distance of its own, so you need System Y's registration distance to equal System X's distance plus the thickness of the adapter.

If System Y's register is not big enough - if it's smaller than System X's, or so close to it that even a skinny adapter will move the lens too far away from the sensor - then it's still possible to adapt the foreign lens onto the camera, but only with some serious limitations.

If the lens is just too far away from the sensor then you won't be able to focus to infinity - but you will be able to focus closer than you'd otherwise be able to. This is what people do on purpose when they add "extension tubes" or bellows to lenses for macro work.

(Note that this may slightly hurt image quality, since aberration-correction expects the sensor or film to be the normal distance behind the lens. A lens that perfectly focusses red, green and blue right on top of each other at the normal registration distance probably won't do that any more if you move it further away from the sensor. The image-quality loss should be much smaller than what you'd get from a simple screw-on front-of-lens "magnifying glass" macro adapter, though.)

If you want to keep infinity focus with a lens that's too far from the sensor, you'll need not a simple ring adapter, but an adapter with optics in it to increase the lens's registration distance. Unless that adapter is rather expensive, this will hurt image quality so much that you'd be better off getting a cheap and nasty lens with similar specifications that was made to fit your camera in the first place.

Karen Nakamura's Photoethnography.com has an excellent page about inter-system lens compatibility, with register numbers for many camera types.

Let's pretend you've bought a Canon EOS (EF) digital SLR, and want to put your Olympus lenses on it.

The registration for EOS cameras is 44 millimetres, and for the OM System is 46mm, so it's possible to put the latter lens on the former camera - but only if your lens adapter is a mere 2mm in thickness, or contains the dreaded optics.

It turns out that it is indeed possible to make adapter rings that're this thin; you can buy 'em quite cheaply on eBay. You can even get "AF Confirm" versions, which allow the camera's autofocus system to beep when it reckons you've got the scene in focus, just as it does if you're using a Canon lens in manual-focus mode. The focus screens in mass-market DSLRs are usually not very helpful for manual focussing, and their viewfinders also commonly aren't very big and bright, so AF confirm can be more useful than you might think.

DSLR focus screen
(Photo by Andy Crowe, coincidentally taken through the viewfinder of a Four Thirds DSLR with an OM lens. This is an upgraded focus screen, not the one that came with the camera.)

The situation for OM lenses on Four Thirds cameras is rather easier. OM System 46mm, Four Thirds about 38.7mm; the adapter has to be about 7.3mm in thickness, which makes it quite easy to make.

Old lens, new camera.
Picture credit: David Reeves

Simple adapters are inadequate if the lens you're adapting needs to be controlled by the camera to work properly. Modern autofocus lenses, for instance, may still have a manual focus mode (possibly without even a distance scale), but they usually don't have a control on the lens to set aperture. To set the aperture to anything other than wide open, therefore, you need to attach the lens to a camera of its native type, select the aperture you want, press the depth-of-field-preview button to make the lens stop down, then remove the lens while still holding the button, so it stays at that setting. This is not very practical.

If you're just putting old all-manual lenses on new cameras, though, these sorts of problems don't arise. The lens controls are all on the lens, so it'll work as it did before.

Yes. Yes it does.

I have just, by idly clicking through from the Wigu/Overcompensating guy's pictures of his righteously necrotic brown-recluse-spider bite, discovered that there is a Flickr group called "Does this look infected to you?"

That is all.

Another day, another rip-off

Remember that doofus who was selling USB endoscopes on eBay using a bunch of the pictures from my review of it?

This happens all the time, to me and to other review sites. Unless the people responsible are really stupid and hotlink the images, we usually never even know it's happening. I only find out about it when a reader tells me.

And that's how I know about the further unlicensed commercial popularity of my eTime endoscope pics. Two different sellers ("calalily899" and "ukelectronic-zone"), one just using some of my pics, the other using some of my pics plus a little of the text of the review, just to rub it in.

I know why this happens. It's because the pictures I take of things, especially of things that aren't often photographed by other people, look too good. If my pics looked like drunken happy-snaps, nobody'd rip 'em off. But when my picture of a product is pretty much indistinguishable from a manufacturers' hand-out press-release shot, there it'll be at the top of a Google Images search - though the copy of it Google finds won't necessarily even be the one I put on my own server.

(If you'd like to read about what I would, if I were something of a tosser, call my "photographic workflow", I've got a tutorial about it here.)

I don't really care about people using my pics on their MySpace page or school report or something. I'll give pretty much anybody permission to use my pics for non-profit purposes for free, if they ask. And if they don't, I still don't really mind - but I'll send the full-resolution originals to people who ask for permission, while people who just pinch 'em without asking have to settle for the versions I put on the Web.

Commercial image-pinching is different, though. If you're making money with stuff I made, I'd like to get paid my share.

A couple of days ago, a reader spotted yet another eBay image-pincher, this time selling tiny R/C cars with some images and text taken from my old review of one.

So I whipped up a complaint letter for eBay's VeRO system, and within a day all of the listings had been zapped. The VeRO system takes a bit of effort to get into, but it works really well once you're signed up.

And now, just a couple of days later, here are more pic-copying endoscope sellers.

I have, however, had a thought.

Sending a VeRO complaint takes at least a few minutes, and all I get in return is the cruel satisfaction of having stuck a rather small spanner in the works of someone's business. The only entity that really gains anything from VeRO complaints is eBay, who I think keep the listing fees for just about every possible kind of cancelled auction.

So here's what I said to these latest sellers (with slight variations for their particular offences), instead of just VeROing them right away:


I note that in your several auctions for the eTime Home Endoscope, you use a few images from my review of that product here:

I did not give you permission to do this, and now require payment. Please forward $US250 to my PayPal account at dan@dansdata.com immediately. This sum purchases you the right to use any of the images from www.dansdata.com/pencamera.htm, for eBay sales purposes only, for the next 12 months.

If you do not make this payment within 24 hours, I will use the eBay VeRO system to cancel all of your auctions which infringe my copyright.

I've actually tried this before. Back in the day, all I could threaten commercial copyright infringers with (besides never-gonna-happen legal action, which is always the first stop for Internet kooks but is actually almost always pointless) was exposure before my Army of Goons. And I told 'em to send me a cheque rather than PayPal me. But it did actually work a couple of times, out of the several times I tried it.

Let's roll the dice again!


I just got a press release about an exciting new technology called "SmileCheck". It's supposed to give a digital camera the ability to look for "facial features associated with smiles" in the live viewfinder view. So, if you've got your camera in SmileCheck Mode, you press the button when everyone's in frame, but the shutter will only actually click when it reckons everybody in the frame is smiling.

This doesn't sound like the most useful camera gimmick ever, but it's more useful than "sepia mode". If it works.

The PR company helpfully included "before" and "after" pictures, to show what a sterling job SmileCheck could do.

Here's the kind of picture that SmileCheck will, allegedly, prevent you from taking:

SmileCheck, before

And here's what it'll let you take instead:

SmileCheck, after

The more I think about this PR company's choice of images, the more my facial expression comes to resemble that of the kid on the left.

UPDATE: They've now produced a second press release, showing off the same technology but this time coupled with the camera's self-timer, and calling it "FaceTime". So you activate that mode on your camera, and it waits the usual several seconds (so you can get yourself into the frame) and then starts looking for smiles, and takes the picture when it thinks it sees them. The demo pictures are less hilarious this time.

Portraits Of Horror

When I read Michael Ciuffo's "Rip-off Photography" article, I did not immediately see everything wrong with the picture for which this unfortunate gentleman's mother paid hundreds of dollars.

Horrible portrait

OK, he looks like a huge dork. But I look like a caveman in photos. Big deal.

At a glance, you can see that the lighting on his face is strangely even, and he looks significantly airbrushed too. But there's more. Read the article for the rest. It's as entertaining as those Celebrities Before And After Photoshop pieces, in its own way.

(Don't miss Mike's ultimate guide to building a minifridge into a 1998 Toyota Corolla, either!)

By the usual standards of terrible studio portraits, though, Mike got off pretty lightly. List of the Day's Great Olan Mills Photos will scrub from your mind all memory of Mike's embarrassment, replacing it with things indescribable.

(When I was a kid, I had hair exactly like that of one of those children. Not for a thousand dollars would I tell you which one.)

What's a good portrait look like, you might ask?

Picture of me

Well, here's a picture my friend Katy took of me in 1998.

(I'm happy to say that I still look pretty much exactly like that, if a bit fatter now.)

On film, ambient light, subject significantly toasted on nitrous oxide at the time. Perhaps that's what warded off the Caveman Curse.

Katy's photo doesn't try to make me look like a matinee idol, or some insecure housewife posing for chaise-lounge-and-feather-boa "glamour" pictures. That, by itself, is half the battle.

I do feel obliged to mention, however, the pinnacle of my own experiments in self-portraiture to date.


If you click the mercifully small thumbnail, you'll get a 1024-pixel-wide version. I'm not even going to provide a link to the 2048-pixel-wide version; edit the URL yourself if you simply must see it.

All you need is a fisheye lens, and you too can see yourself as an urRu!

The transdimensional CCD

I'm listening, for the first time, to Louis and Bebe Barron's soundtrack for "Forbidden Planet".

Defective camera image

And then the MAKE blog lays this trip on me too.


I see now.

This world is not real.

The camera can see.

Let me help you see.

I will change you into the truth.