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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
The Price of Quality
by Jim McGee

In this issue we have an updated Guide to Buying an SLR; a subject that we get a lot of questions about.

The original version of this article ran almost two years ago and is one of the most popular articles in our library of back issues. The reason is simple. Whether you're looking at a camera that uses film or pondering a switch to digital a new camera represents quite an investment. The wide range of features available today, even on entry-level cameras, can be daunting. It doesn't help that consumers often get confusing and contradictory advice from the people behind the counter at the camera shop and at the mega-store. You can imagine how confused newcomers can be - let alone experienced photographers.

That article outlines the differences in the grades of cameras and the differences in quality among different levels of gear. But how much quality do you really need and how much should you pay to get it? Much of what is considered to be "common knowledge" among experienced photographers was true of equipment from fifteen or twenty years ago. That "knowledge" has been repeated so often that it is accepted as gospel, but it is not necessarily true today.

A lot of folks who are new to photography really struggle with the concept quality and a lot of those who've been in photography for a while completely lose site of what quality really means.

So I'm going to step into this very gray area and lay down some absolutes. Let the emails begin!

Minolta Maxxum 5

Nikon's Flagship F5

1. An F5 is no better than a Maxxum 5 for creating four-inch prints - How can I possibly say that a $225 camera is the equal of a $2,000 camera! Am I insane! Am I an idiot! Am I taking kickbacks from Minolta!

Well I'm sure I'll get emails asserting all of those things, and to be honest my wife has questioned my sanity on more than one occasion. It would also be nice if camera companies did give photojournalists kickbacks, then I could afford more camera stuff, but unfortunately they don't (note to the humor impaired - this is called sarcasm).

But let's get back into the real world for a minute. I won't rehash all the explanations regarding the ruggedness and reliability of pro cameras compared to consumer cameras. You can read that in the buying an SLR article for yourself.

For my purposes here let's take a look at an average soccer mom and football dad. We'll equip a Maxxum 5 with Minolta's 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 lens that Minolta packages with that camera in a kit. We'll equip an F5 with Nikon's super sharp 35-70mm f2.8 lens. The Minolta comes with a built in flash. We'll equip the F5 with a monster SB-80DX. Then we'll hand both cameras to our imaginary mom and dad with both cameras set to program mode. Then we'll turn them loose at the field on Saturday morning and at a birthday party on Sunday afternoon with a couple of rolls of drug store brand no name film. On Monday morning we'll take the film down to the local Quickie Mart where it's run through a machine with nary a human eye checking for quality and where the chemicals are a bit old and shaky. When those four-inch prints come back do you really think you'll see a difference in quality?

I'll tell you right now that you won't and if you do the difference will be minor. The cost difference between the two setups? A whopping $2,765. The Maxxum 5 and lens kit sells for around $275. The F5, flash, and lens for around $3,040.

For the next part of the test we'll put the same two setups in the hands of a couple of experienced pros. We'll send them out shooting with slide film for images that will be blown-up to the size of a full-page magazine spread and printed at 8x10 or larger sizes and we'll take the film to a pro-quality lab for processing and printing. Will you see a difference in quality? You better believe you will.

But in this example why should the soccer mom and football dad pay for even the next model up from the Maxxum 5?

The answer is they shouldn't. They'll never see the "improvement" in quality and there is a chance they'll actually get worse results from a "better" camera since it doesn't have the pre-programmed shooting modes that can be a tremendous help to inexperienced photographers.

Quality is a relative thing. High-end gear is worth every penny for pros and serious amateurs but it can actually produce worse results for inexperienced casual shooters.

2. Many People Overspend on Equipment - There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts on the Web. They lurk in newsgroups and online chat rooms. They'll tell you things like "If you have any aspirations toward serious photography you should only buy prime lenses because of their superior quality". Or that one camera body is obviously superior to another because the meter is more accurate by a half stop under certain situations. My favorite is that "you should never buy a camera that doesn't have mirror lock-up".

Folks these people are full of crap (I can feel the email counter spinning).

When you get into serious amateur and pro-level gear there are no absolutes. There is a tremendous variety of gear at this level because photographers have a variety of needs. Gary Stanley prefers slower variable aperture zoom lenses over fast primes or fast fixed aperture zooms. Gary shoots landscapes and has found very little difference in image quality for the kind of shooting he does; but there is a significant difference in both the weight he has to carry into the field and the price of the gear. The proof is in the stunning images Gary produces. I've seen these same images blown up to wall size prints and they're still stunning.

As for metering accuracy you would do well to spend time learning how your meter responds to varying conditions. This is a lot more important than the fact that one body underexposes by a half stop compared to another. For starters there is no such thing as "correct" exposure. Pros will adjust exposure based on the situation, their film, or the mood they want to set. They may make changes based on the tastes of a specific client or shoot the same scene multiple ways so that the shot can appeal to a broader range of clients.

Mirror lock-up is an issue for serious macro photographers and those shooting with extreme telephotos. Does that describe you? Besides today's serious amateur and pro bodies produce much less mirror vibration than the cameras of old making this discussion a moot point for all but the most demanding photographers. And if your camera doesn't have mirror lock-up there are some simple steps you can take to negate the effects of mirror vibration (see Moose Peterson's article on proper telephoto technique). Finally mirror lock-up is a non-issue if most of your shooting is done handheld!

The bottom line here is that if you're moving up into better quality gear you need to be honest with yourself about your needs and the kind of shooting you do. Figure out what's best for you and don't buy into the bullshit. It will only cost you money.

3. The Point of Diminishing Returns is Much Lower Today - The point of diminishing returns is the engineer's way of describing how much bang for the buck you're getting. It refers to the fact that at the bottom of the market a hundred or a couple of hundred bucks can make a dramatic difference in quality but at the upper end of the market it can take thousands of dollars to see a very small improvement.

4. The Quality of Today's Equipment is Fantastic - Fifteen or twenty years ago there was a lot of low-end junk out in the marketplace. Today even entry-level gear is pretty darned good. Powerful computers help design lenses, lighter less expensive materials allow more performance for less money, and dramatic improvements in metering systems have turned program mode from a joke into a function that can produce good quality exposures in most situations.

If you stay with the big four camera manufacturers and the big four plus Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina for lenses it's pretty much impossible to go horribly wrong from a quality perspective.

Its true the cheapest entry-level lenses are a bit soft. But they are still sharper than a point and shoot and they're not a bad starting point. That's why they're called entry-level. The good news is you don't have to spend much more to see a real jump in quality.

5. Some Camera Shop Experts are Full of It - As I wrote these words I just heard the counter on my inbox spiral past triple digits.

Most camera shops are staffed by folks who are passionate about photography. Most are extremely knowledgeable folks who will make a real effort to steer you toward the camera that will best fit your needs. But there are a lot of high school and college kids behind those counters as well. Their chief reason for telling you that Brand X is great is that they own that brand and they're in love with it. They're not intentionally trying to steer you down the wrong path. But they're so in love with their own equipment it's difficult for them to recommend anything else; but the equipment they're in love with might not be right for you.

There are also folks behind those counters who are working for minimum wage plus commission - and they'll make bigger commissions if they talk you into a more expensive camera and an extended warranty. Whether that is what you need or not doesn't enter into the equation.

Finally there are those who will steer you toward a particular brand because it's what they have in stock and they're sold out of the brand you really want.

The bottom line is that if something smells bad don't hesitate to ask for the manager or for a different salesperson. After all no matter what camera you're buying you're spending a lot of money and you should be treated with respect.

6. People Stress Way too Much about what Camera to Buy - No one has ever died from buying the wrong camera. Photography is supposed to be fun right? So give yourself months rather than days to settle on the camera that's right for you. Read articles, read catalogs and browse spec sheets at your leisure. Talk to photographers and stop by camera shops. If you can try it out in the store. Run a roll or two of film through it. Enjoy the process. You won't irritate the salesperson. Knowledgeable customers who are into photography are the folks salespeople look forward to dealing with. After a while it should become obvious what camera or cameras are right for you.

EOS 1Ds 11 Megapixel Full Frame CMOS Digital. It's the latest & greatest but at $9,000 should it affect your buying decision?

7. If You're Looking at Digital Cameras it Doesn't Matter what's coming out the Next DAY/Month/Year - How can I say that when the WhizBang 3000iXi is rumored to be just around the corner? Haven't I heard what that camera can do?

First, don't believe everything you read on the Web. Someone wrote me last week with a detailed description of the 28 Megapixel Nikon D2 that is supposed to be released in January that is supposedly based on a new breakthrough chip. The problem is that it's not happening. The email even included an explanation in pseudo-techno-jargon that almost sounded plausible (if you suspend your belief in physics).

Base your digital camera decisions on what is available today. For at least the next seven years there will always be something better on the way. So if you're going to be swayed by what might be coming next week plan on at least seven years before you buy your first digital camera.

But if you're serious about buying digital look at what's out there right now. It's pretty damned good. Find the best camera for your needs and jump in with both feet. Remember if something newer, faster, or bigger comes along your camera will still work fine. It just won't be the newest anymore. CÚst la vie.

8. Higher Quality Digital Cameras will require You to Purchase a Bunch of Other Stuff Which can Raise the Price Dramatically - Memory cards, spare batteries, some software and maybe a cable or two are all part of the digital equation.

This is a bigger deal with a digital camera than with a film camera because those memory cards are expensive. Some digitals use proprietary batteries and if you're getting a pro level SLR it will chew through batteries so fast that the custom rechargeables from the manufacturer are your only practical bet.

That whimpering sound you hear is coming from your credit card.

9. Just Because a Camera is Great and Shockingly Expensive Doesn't Mean it's Right for You - Chuck McKern loves his F4 but lusts after an F5. Moose once loved his F5 and now loves his D1H. Both are big bulky cameras. I prefer an F100 for it's smaller size and lighter weight. Gary has a budding new romance with a D100. Another friend of mine will only shoot with Canon's wonderful IS lenses. Clement Salvadori has traveled all over the world with a couple of generations of Canon Rebels because he likes their light weight and low cost - and he's had thousands of images published that were taken with these "entry-level" cameras. There are many, many photojournalists that shoot with dirt simple, all manual Leica M6 and M7 cameras.

The right camera is not the most expensive camera. The right camera is not the camera with the most features. It's the camera that has the most features that matter to you. It's the camera that fits your hand and your budget. It's the camera that becomes intuitive so that you're thinking about the image and not what buttons you need to press.

OK, let the emails fly. Just give me a minute to duck.

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