With Christmas coming someone asked me which Digital SLR camera they should buy for their other half, who had used a manual SLR back in the day, and was now keen to get into photography once more.
I blow hot and cold when it comes to discussing ‘gear’. Yes, I’ll sing the praises of my Bowens lighting kit, I have been nothing but happy with the Canon EOS system that I’ve used for years but, aside from the odd occasion I have a real need to upgrade, I don’t much think about gear. I vaguely know that the cheapest Canon DSLR is the 1000D and weighs in at a reasonable £349 with a cheap kit lens, that there are some great mid-range cameras suitable for commercial work, and a pro range beginning with the 5D MKII and ending with the £5k-ish Canon EOS 1Ds MKIV.
But I only really explore what’s available when the equipment I have doesn’t allow me to do something I need to. To read some camera forums you could be led to believe you need a top-line camera and a clutch of professional lenses to get results – the inflation of needs in modern photography to get the job done is pretty bonkers. While I’m a huge fan of digital photography, the romantic in me is sad that cameras are now more like computers – something you need to upgrade fairly frequently as they rapidly become obsolete. In the past famous professional photographers may have gone decades using the same primary camera – perhaps a Leica M-series, a Hasselblad 500, a Rollei. If you were happy to focus and meter manually a camera could truly be for life.
The only film camera is use with regularity these days is a Hasselblad 500c/m, a beautiful medium format device. I think my model dates from the early 1980s but the design is little changed from the 1950s. I have 80mm and 150mm Zeiss lenses with smooth, heavy-duty focussing rings that make focussing a pleasure. The sheer sharpness of the glass is as good as the best Canon professional lenses (probably even better) and, for portraiture, having ‘only’ two fixed focal length prime lenses is no restriction at all. The Hasselblad V system is modular – body, film cartridge, lens, choice of viewfinders. You can even buy a digital back for them, albiet for the price of a brand new mid-range family car! It’s the sort of high quality, buy once, use forever product I love, an antedote to the throwaway culture of most of today’s consumer products.
Still, you don’t always need to upgrade your digital camera just because something better’s come along either. The 8MP of a Canon EOS 30D, a camera I use as a backup to a 5D MKII on many shoots, is more than adequate for serious use in many contexts yet the sensor is the same as the 2004 Canon 20D. With a sharp image you can happily enlarge a photograph in Photoshop and produce wall-sized prints. The detail of my 21 megapixel 5D MKII is utterly astounding but it’s not always needed and the extra file-size means greater investment in computer power and harddrive space is necessary.
Many of the technological innovations on modern cameras are phenonomal but so far technology alone cannot make a stunning photograph and probably never will. No one would think buying the best knives or pots and pans would give them the same ability to make great meals as a top chef – that would be ridiculous – but there’s a perception that the more ‘professional’ your camera gear the more professional the results. The analogy isn’t quite like-for-like – if you want the insanely beautiful look of the Canon 85mm 1.2 lens you kind of need that lens, no two ways about it, but certainly a commercial-quality image can be taken with minimal kit given skill and education.
So, returning to my friend’s question… What would DLSR would I recommend? I more or less said this: All currently DSLRs can produce top-class results, even the very cheapest. If you have more money to spend invest in higher quality lenses rather than a fancier camera body. Even more importantly, perhaps buy the other half some well-recommended books on photography or perhaps sign them up for a course. It’s only by learning and education that pictures get better. I also said that you can’t go wrong with Canon.