It’s very rare for me to suffer buyer’s remorse, as I typically research any product I am going to use quite carefully. When it comes to photography, I have always been a Point & Shoot fan for a number of reasons: smaller and lighter cameras, less complexity, and most importantly, lower cost. In my adventures I could carry two P&S cameras and not worry about one being broken or stolen and I was generally quite happy with the quality of the photos.
This changed in a very subtle way sometime in early 2010, as I began to understand that photographs of people and things were just as interesting as photos of places and landscapes… I realized I was leaving out part of the story of my adventures because I often left the people around me out of them. As I changed some of my style, I became absolutely amazed with the quality of photos being taken by a friend I met in Nepal with a Nikon D5000. Her photos of the people around her told a completely different story than those I took due to the superior depth of field control and general image quality provided by a DSLR.
I was hooked. On returning to the USA for a brief break in July, I dove into DSLR reviews and quickly uncovered something else I had known about tangentially but never paid much attention to – the incredible video quality of newer DSLR cameras. I love my ContourHD but it didn’t have the versatility I wanted to capture in low light and before long I was suckered into the hype around Canon’s newly released “prosumer” DSLR, the Canon T2i / EOS 550D.
My plans for using the camera were as follows:
1. Video of myself narrating various actions
2. Video of people or places I encountered
3. Photographs of myself, people, and landscapes
1 - The primary intended usage was a complete and utter failure. I bought the camera very early into release when many reviews talked about the “Auto-Focus” in video mode that was new to this camera yet never made it clear that it sucked. First, it’s not “Continuous Auto-Focus” like you encounter in any other kind of camera that takes video on the planet, but rather more of a one-time focus lock. Second, in video mode the AF is utter crap in my experience, with more focus hunting (and failing) than I have ever seen on a camera before.
In nearly every video I tried to take of myself or of anything else using auto-focus, the result was incredibly blurry. Worst of all, the low resolution and small review screen on the back would often make this video look sufficiently crisp, such that a cursory check would indicate the video was focused. The result of this experimentation and frustration was that I ended up with barely any narrative shots on my entire three month journey to the Arctic Circle as they all turned out like crap. Live and learn – this was definitely the wrong tool for that one-man job, as plenty of reviews that go in depth on the video now make clear.
2 - Videos of people were equally impossible to shoot in a simple guerilla style, primarily because people are moving targets. Following someone, moving with them, keeping them in frame, and managing a small focus ring on a camera using only an inaccurate slightly blurry LCD screen to hope you are focusing accurately is an unrewarding experience. As a result, almost the only quality video shot with my T2i was tripod mounted fixed wide-angle shots with a very large depth of field (such as most of the static shots in Pete & Red Episode 6: Bear Naked Truth).
Thus I learned for myself everything that I would have learned if I had waited a few more months for the camera to go from the hype (as the first prosumer DSLR that could auto-focus while shooting video) to the reality. The reality is that people can get amazing video out of these with professional style add-ons, from follow focus rings to shoulder mounting rigs and matte boxes – it’s really quite incredible what they can do. For a solo adventurer living out of a backpack and trying to mostly record spontaneous life experiences, a real video camera is far far better, however.
3 - Photographs were a different beast entirely, barring a few interesting points. I prefer to talk about negatives first, so let me isolate the bad things before I move onto the good things:
The T2i is an 18MP camera with an APS-C sized sensor that will generally be used with consumer quality glass (lenses). In short, that sensor and most consumer glass can’t really resolve 18MP simply because the glass isn’t sharp enough. Thus, there’s no point in shooting 18MP photos without very expensive professional lenses. Many review sites point this out and show it, and after experimenting with it myself I left the camera in 8MP mode exclusively (the filesize and framerate differences are huge). It seems ridiculous to me to be using less than half the megapixel capability of the camera, but there’s really no point in going the full monty.
Another major problem I’ve encountered has been the focus quality, through the viewfinder or using the LCD screen. Unless I zoom in on the LCD, it is extremely hard to accurately focus on a shallow depth of field shot. This is extra frustrating when taking photos of yourself via the timer, so in the end I stayed away from shallow depth of field unless I had a lot of time to set it up and could focus bracket my shots. This may be an inexperience issue, it may be because of the slight astigmatism in my right eye, or the quality of my cheap lenses. Either way, it’s something to be aware of – those sexy shots are not as easy as one hopes.
From a color perspective, almost all of the photos I took with the cheap Canon lenses looked a little washed out and needed very slight adjustments in post-production, and a small portion of photos taken in low-contrast situations blended so much that the only way to resolve any detail was to convert them to black and white. This is something adjustable in the camera as well, but ultimately I felt it was easier to do it in post where I had a large screen to review it on rather than trying to tweak using the slightly inaccurate LCD on the back of the camera.
Finally, I have to admit that I’m completely underwhelmed at the image stabilization in the EFS kit lense compared to cheap P&S camera stabilization. There are a lot of technical reasons why this is much harder in a DSLR, but to some degree I can’t help but think it’s silly. For example, it’s considerably harder to get a crisp shot of anything while riding or on the move and in anything but the brightest sunlight with extremely fast shutter speeds I can’t sweep the camera on burst mode to take panoramas. This is likely a problem with any DSLR camera compared to a P&S, but it’s one to be aware of.
All this aside, the T2i with cheap lenses did take photos that, when everything was done right, vastly exceeded the quality of most of the photos I’ve ever taken with a point & shoot camera. Sometimes with sharpening in post production I found myself completely amazed at the quality and reality of the photos I took. When done well, the shallow depth of field shots were so much fun and conveyed so much more meaning.
In short, I’m so glad I bought a DSLR for photography. I am still learning and still adding cheap lenses (each of which is more expensive than a high quality point and shoot camera), but there is without a doubt a time and a place for a DSLR in my adventures. It definitely took my photographs to another level and helped me engage with more people.
So, what would I do differently if I were to do it again? Simple – I wouldn’t waste my money on a T2i. It would have been a far smarter investment to purchase a slightly older DSLR camera for a few hundred dollars less as there was almost no real benefit in buying the latest and greatest prosumer. Additionally, I knew going into it that Canon lenses were usually much more expensive than Nikon lenses, but I didn’t expect to buy very many; now I have five lenses including the kit lense and wish I had realized how addictive buying lenses can be! You will want more lenses, trust me!
In the end, if you’re thinking of upgrading from a Point & Shoot and have a thousand dollars or more to invest, I definitely recommend it. However, I’d recommend that you buy the cheapest quality body that you can find and drop the rest of your cash on lenses, instead of buying an expensive new body. It’s just not worth it unless you are willing to spend a ton more on all the extra gadgetry and bring a small army of helpers around with you. In theory you can get a super cheap DSLR and try to stick with only the kit lense, but it’s definitely not easy.
DSLR = awesome. Point & Shoot = extremely useful. I guess you can just end up carrying both like I am now…
One other point: My T2i started having problems locking up as I was returning on my trip. It would no longer take video and burst shots without crashing. Eventually this escalated until it did not work at all. I opened a case with Canon Support and sent it to a nearby Factory Service Center for repair under warranty and it was accepted, fixed, and sent back to me with a new mainboard within a week. This was the first time in my life that I have sent something to be fixed under warranty and I was extremely impressed, even while disappointed that I had to do it. For what it’s worth, I couldn’t find anyone on the internet that had the same symptoms in many days of searching.