Vacations, Pools and Canonballs


My usual dislike of Mondays still applies on vacation, but I decided I wouldn't bore you with the fact that my first monday off work had its fair share of annoyances, so I'll bore you with my thoughts on photography instead.

Most of my friends know that I recently sold my F-707 and got a 350D, if only because I received copious amount of advice from the likes of pfig as to precisely why I should never buy digital cameras from people who manufacture VCRs, and why a D-SLR provides me with extra orders of magnitude in both control and flexibility.

I also got a lot of advice along the lines of "you know, it's not like a point-and-shoot", etc., etc., mostly from folk who thought all Sony cameras are crippled and don't include manual settings.

Well, as it turns out, moving from the F-707 and the 350D is turning out to be an interesting experience, but (as usual) not for any of the reasons people warned me about.

Anyway, the reason I changed to a Canon camera was twofold: I felt the need for a better, more responsive image sensor, and I wanted something that wasn't a Sony.

Not for any big reason (I still have a T1, and love it despite its quirky optics), I just wanted a change, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the 350D plus better optics adds up to something somewhat cheaper than the 20D.

The R1 got me thinking for a while, but change is good, and I'm thoroughly happy with the 350D so far.

Mostly.

Sensor and Image Formats

And yes, most people were right about Canon's excellent sensor and image quality. The thing takes amazing pictures, even with the stock lens, and it seems to be slightly wider than what I was used to:

I will be steering clear from Canon RAW format for the foreseeable future (the higher-resolution JPEG is already a bit more than my 800MHz iBook can handle), but I can already see noticeable improvement in tonal ranges, and it took no time at all to figure out how it performed with different settings.

Then again, the F-707's sensor is practically last century tech, so pretty much anything is an improvement in that regard.

Sadly, the quality at which images are re-processed by my photo framework does not do the originals much justice, but I will be re-tweaking the quality settings on the site over the next few weeks - I may have orders of magnitude more bandwidth now, but I'm not suicidal, and there have been several instances of people simply ripping off my photos, so I'm not too keen on improving things for them too.

Optics

One thing that the F-707 got right was the optics. Canon's stock 18-55 lens provides an adequate zoom range, but I sorely miss the Sony's ability to do up to 10x zoom (digital above 5x, but with very good image quality), so I will be looking at getting a 17-85 (with an image stabilizer) at the first opportunity - I don't really want a bunch of different optics, I just want one that works fine for most of my shots.

The usual take on Canon's stock lens is "yeah, but you can crop photos and still get lots of resolution to work with".

However, it would probably amaze compulsive "croppers" to know that before I got the 350D last week, there were about three cropped photos on this site over four years - I always forced myself to painstakingly seek out the best viewing angles for my shots, and relied on my eyes and wits alone, no matter what camera I held.

Despite my utter distaste for it (remember, I am the guy who manages his photo collection using nested folders, shell scripts and jhead) I now feel forced to wade through the iPhoto quagmire to duplicate and crop interesting shots to fake a presentable zoom size, and somehow it doesn't feel like photography (this coming from someone who started using Photoshop 2.0 on a Mac II might seem extremely weird, but that's how I feel).

I suppose I will soon slide down the full-blown post-processing chute (and my attempts at Lomography weren't totally innocent, since I wanted to get a feel for how to do simple, yet non-trivial image batch processing in a Mac using available APIs), but right now I'd rather go back to using my eye and wits and improve on the optics. the 17-85 EF-S lens with image stabilizer looks like the best compromise so far, and I will look into it during the upcoming weeks.

The UI, Always The UI

The biggest change for me (despite having used SLRs before) is that shooting with a D-SLR breaks the WYSIWYG principle, since there is no way to afford you with a live preview of exposure and white balance settings like the F-707 did.

Of course, the Sony didn't actually have a viewfinder - it was a separate screen, and you can do anything on a screen, whereas D-SLRs put the least possible amount of crap between your eye and the subject.

See What I'll Get

One big plus of getting something like the 350D is the added control in auto-focus settings - being able to autofocus off-center is a basic necessity for creative photography, and it is a pain to do so in most cameras.

But the F-707 was great at allowing you that live preview of how camera settings would influence the result, and (here's the interesting bit) that turned out to be an excellent way to learn how to deal with camera settings when making the jump from a simple point-and-shoot years back (anyone dissing current Sony prosumer cameras as "point and shoots" ought to read DPReview more often and take a close look at the manual modes on some models).

That leads us to the impact of camera settings on the actual photos, and, in turn, to the way you go about telling the camera what you want.

Scroll-and-Click

SLR users are used to relying on rather terse LCD displays and minimalist viewfinder overlays, as well as muscle memory for more common settings. On D-SLRs, everything else got crammed into manufacturer-designed menu systems that are not very clever at all (to put it mildly).

Sony, of course, has an intuitive, pretty much standardized set of menus that are virtually identical across its entire digicam range (and that have even been ported to SonyEricsson phones). The interesting bit about that set of menus is that it scales from an UI perspective, i.e., all current models share a similar set of basic, quick-access options, but you can quickly go through the menu to get at advanced features.

Pundits will jump in at this point and say that D-SLRs are "real cameras" with a lot more knobs to twiddle and more pent-up possibilities for creativity than any menu system can possibly express, and I'll keep pointing out that calling a setting "Parameter 1" is just plain stupid, and that menus shouldn't necessarily vanish or transmogrify into completely different beasts depending on the camera mode.

(There are pros and cons to this approach, but, overall, modes are a bad thing in any sort of UI. Okay, maybe not in programmer text editors, but that's another thing.)

Twiddle-which-Knob?

Of course D-SLRs provide near-instant access to some functions without having to scroll through menus, but there are some things that could be easily improved. For instance, the F-707 had an easy way to simultaneously adjust (if I recall correctly) shutter speed and exposure in manual mode, whereas I have still to find a really easy way to do it on the 350D.

The bottom line is that, despite the obvious differences in each camera's abilities, I had complete control over the Sony in manual mode without tearing my eye from the viewfinder (thanks to the way it allowed me to change parameters using the on-screen indicators and an extra button next to the wheel), whereas I find I have to keep going back to the menus with the Canon and tearing my eye off the subject.

Mark... One.

Managing your storage is also an area where the Canon needs improvement. On Sony gear, I can page through thumbnails, mark those I want to delete, and then delete them in batch.

Not so on the 350D, which lets me delete a single image at a time... or all the images on the card, which, again, feels somewhat pedestrian. I have a 1GB card in mine, but that doesn't mean I want to (or can) download every photo to my iBook while traveling - I will surely want to clear out the duds first.

Battery? What Battery?

One thing that has been niggling me is the Canon's extremely pedestrian here-now-gone-tomorrow battery indicator, which is light-years behind Sony's InfoLithium guesstimates. So far it hasn't been a problem (in fact, it's been running for 200 shots now, and the indicator hasn't even twitched), but I expect this to become a real issue if I get that extra lens.

Colophon

To make a long story short, the 350D feels solid (if a bit plasticky when compared to the F-707's metal finish), and I am sure that the differences and UI quirks will keep me entertained for months to come. Although I am not (by any means) a digital camera buff (I just keep track of what's happening as a matter of course, since it's now my primary hobby), I think it's probably the best value for money right now on the D-SLR side of the fence.

Of course, if you just want a next-generation megapixel camera and are afraid of D-SLR quirks (and overblown pricing), you might want to try out the Sony R1 when it's available - my guess is that you'll get a very good feeling for the basics of photography thanks to the interactive feedback when changing camera settings, and you'll annoy the D-SLR zealots to boot.