Getting serious about photography

When you get serious about your photography it is time to move up to better equipment. Starting with the camera. Higher quality equipment is designed to be modular so you can create your own arrangements for specific applications. Cameras come as body only… you get to choose the lens or lenses you wish to couple with the body. These are interchangeable lens cameras.

Some have built in “pop up” flash lights, others see that as another modular add-on. The most popular interchangeable lens cameras are “Single Lens Reflex” (SLR) cameras—no not self loading rifles, that is a different SLR for a different type of shooting.

When digital technology took over the market the “D” for Digital was added. They were now referred to as “Digital Single Lens Reflex” (DSLR) cameras. They became the benchmark for professional use in all but the most demanding photography.

Today a new breed of virtual DSLR cameras are evolving, called mirrorless cameras. They are being produced with close to the same functional spec’s as DSLR technology but in smaller lighter configurations.

One spin-off of this is that the price of DSLRs on the used market are becoming attractive, simply through the temptation for the original owners to upgrade and try the new technology, selling off their current gear.

Getting serious means upgrading to modular technology. For most on a tight budget this often means a choice between lower spec brand new DSLR or mirrorless cameras, or higher spec prosumer level cameras from the used market. A brand new Kia Rio, or a 10 year old Toyota Prado…

With the price being the same it boils down to much higher performance and durability versus the prestige of brand new lower spec gear with warranties. As many of us know, that prestige is short lived and when we go to upgrade it, we find little value left in it. Like a higher-end vehicle, higher end cameras and lens hold their value a lot better than common entry level technology.

The second hand market is a gold mine for photography enthusiasts starting out. Highly capable robust prosumer cameras going at less than half their inferior entry level counterparts on the brand new equipment market. So what makes one camera more professional than another?

To start with, professional just denotes “ideal for the rigors and demands of professional use”. We perceive professional demands as much higher than consumer enthusiast demands. The need for higher specifications and tolerances of functionality and rugged durability to handle weathering, knocks and bumps.

Canon and many other manufacturers have several grades of application in their brand culture;

  • Snapshot consumer grade
  • Enthusiast Entry level grade
  • Enthusiast consumer grade
  • Prosumer grade
  • Professional grade

The pricing rises steadily as you move up the grades towards “Professional”, as do the features, specifications, tolerances and durability. Canon actually mark these classes in the EOS DSLR range by the model designation as follows:

  • A single digital in front of the D designates “Professional grade Digital”. (1D, 5D, 6D, 7D).
  • Two digits designate “Prosumer grade Digital”: (20D – 80D).
  • Three digits designate “Enthusiast consumer grade Digital”: (300D – 800D—the Rebel/txi brands).
  • Four digits designate “DSLR entry level grade Digital”: (1000D – 1300D).

Snapshot consumer grade is confined to compact cameras, but even in that range there are differences in technology levels that attracts photography enthusiasts.

It should be noted here that in the future Canon may decide to change this current system of designation.

With professional grades you can expect sturdy construction, weather sealing, faster more accurate functionality, tighter tolerances for more consistency in results, more capacity and better data transfer rates, longer life expectancy, more manual control options and higher image quality. All the Canon single digit model designations are full-frame sensor cameras except the 7D, which remains as a professional grade APS-C crop sensor model.

There is variation in the professional ranks too. The EOS 6D is the full-frame entry level model. The EOS 1D’s are top level in the professional grade. In the Canon professional grading, the EOS 6D presents the best value for money, but is outperformed by the others in this grade—in field use. The 6D does not have the level of weather sealing the others in this grade have, and is not constructed of magnesium alloy as the others are, however that actually makes it a little lighter and that could be considered as a positive. It does hold its own in studio use and low light work given its lower cost, however the 1D’s are always going to be the ultimate performers in the Canon range. The 6D has now been replaced by the 6D mark II. The 5D is upto mark IV (2018). Canon also have a 5Dr and a 5Ds, which are fitted with very high resolution sensors.

One consideration with using earlier technology is how well it handles low-light and long exposure noise. This has improved tremendously in technology manufactured since 2013. The 6 and 7D’s excelled in this area… of course the 1D’s also. Other manufactures have comparable technology as well.

The “Prosumer” grade is probably the most sort after for those that attempt some professional work but have a different day job. This grade range started with the 20D. It was superseded by the 30D, which was revolutionary, but eventually surrendered to the 40D which finally allowed A4 300ppi resolution images to be exported directly from the camera. This is the standard ‘magazine publishers’ demanded for full page illustration.

The 50D did not bring much more to the table than 40D before it. It was on the verge of adding video capabilities, but these did not materialise until the 60D. The 60D came with new designs. Many of the accessories, such as batteries and power grips, normally shared by its predecessors could not be used with it. In terms of photographic capability, it was much more automated with fewer options of manual control (a move away from the professional grade perception). However it was the first in this prosumer grade class to have video functionality. Like it’s big brother the 6D it was built more for light weight than robustness.

It was the 70D that brought the robustness back into the “prosumer grade” group. The 70D II along with the 40D and 50D offer some of the best value for field performance models in the canon range. The 40D (a durable, magnesium alloy bodied camera) simply because of its low prices on the used market, while the 70D II because of its high-speed burst rate, supurb auto focus and moving target tracking accuracy (that compares or exceeds some of the higher order prosumer and professional grade cameras above it at a much lower price).

For those who cannot stretch the budget to Canon’s prosumer range and are not confident enough to buy second hand, there is the “DSLR Consumer grade” range. These may be known as Rebel Txi models (US Marketing), or as the three digit model designation from the 300D through to 800D +. This grade lacks the robustness and durability of those above, but they take many of the same accessories, produce similar image quality under normal conditions, are smaller and lighter and of course less expensive.

The grade level below them on the professional scale are the 1000D – 1300D models. These are even further slimmed down than the three digit model designations, to keep costs low, as expected for DSLR entry level.

Canon’s mirrorless models (the EOS M x designation) are very new and still evolving. They would fulfill the current needs of DSLR consumers, but still have a way to go before they can break into prosumer and professional markets, outside of studio work.

That is the Canon Story. Nikon, Sony, Pentax and others all have their own offerings. Pentax is well known for its weather sealing on lower cost prosumer offerings. Nikon is comparable to Canon in its range and quality and Sony is a thoroughbred in video technology and a large corporation spending a lot on new technological development. This is starting to show in their still camera offerings—particularly their mirrorless technology.

These four all make lenses as well. However there are a number of third parties that specialise in lenses with mounts to suit many different makes. Both Sigma and Tamron are Japanese companies that have stayed in Japan. If they can’t compete on price—being Japanese based, they will compete on quality and design. That philosophy seems to be paying off for them as they are now releasing some impressive lenses that are very price competitive in this quality range. They do their research to produce models that fill market gaps, such as a compromise between a brand’s top quality offering and their consumer quality offering of the same lens, but at the consumer pricing.

It is easy to pick up a used Canon 40D camera for less than $200 and a used Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L lens for around $600 through ebay online trading sites. For less than $850 you can aquire a DSLR of prosumer grade that far exceeds the image quality and durability of any brand new Canon “Entry” or “Consumer” grade combination—assuming they are not using the same lens at a comparable price.

Any of Canon’s lenses designated with an “L” (and a red ring around them) are their more professional grade lenses. They are hard to beat in both build and image quality by independent lens manufacturers, but they can be quite expensive when purchased new, and often when second hand if they are sort after models. If video is your priority, then you need to consider lenses with quiet autofocus and image stabilization motors. In the Canon range these lenses are usually designated with STM rather than USM in their model names.

Also if video is your priority, then you are going to need to look at newer cameras than the 40 or 50D’s. On a limited budget this may equate to Canon’s lower spec “Consumer grade” models, or newer used higher spec “Prosumer grade” models like the 70D. While the 60D has video functionality, it has some drawbacks, particularly in the video encoding/compression it uses. It was Canon’s first prosumer video offering.

So are you an older professional grade technology user, or a newer entry level grade technology user on the same budgets? Just remember newer technology does give better results in terms of high ISO and long shutter speed noise suppression, but may fall down in robustness and weather sealing.

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