You’re in the market for a camera or lens, but don’t know which one to go for. Photo expert Malcolm Birkitt offers some advice to help guide you through the maze.
WITH SO MANY different types and makes of camera on the market, how do you go about choosing the right one? It’s easy, really — just think of the kind of pictures you want to take, because this quickly points you in one of two directions.
If you don’t want to be bothered with all the technicalities of photography, a compact camera is the obvious choice because of the high level of automation built in. All but the simplest models employ auto focusing to ensure good subject sharpness and, depending upon your budget, there’s a wide choice of models with zoom lenses for extra flexibility.
But if you’re serious about taking pictures, and want a degree of input into how the image is created on film, an SLR is clearly the best bet. Those letters stand for single lens reflex, which means the image is viewed through the picture-taking lens, via a mirror mechanism which flips out of the way the instant the picture is taken. Compacts use a separate viewfinder system, which is less accurate. Most modern SLRs have taken the auto focus (AF) route too, though there’s always the option of manual focusing if required.
The other major advantages of the SLR camera design are that exposure settings — shutter speeds and apertures — can be user selected to some degree, and lenses can be interchanged. Whereas a compact’s lens is fixed permanently to the camera body, the vast majority of SLRs permit the lens to be removed and another of different focal length fitted. This affords great optical versatility.
In the UK, the SLR scene is dominated by four major manufacturers, each with several models in its line-up, though one or two other marques are also worth considering. Canon EOS auto focus cameras occupy a strong No 1 position in the sales charts, and for good reason. All the EOS models are cleverly designed, low in weight, and simple to operate — yet the range of features is second to none.
Kicking off the range is the popular EOS I000N, which at £330 includes a neat 35-80mm zoom. This camera is typical of the modern multi-mode SLR in that it can be used in fully-automatic mode, semi-automatically, or the user can select his/her own exposure settings with the aid of the integral meter. A clear ‘Command’ dial, featuring graphic symbols for the different modes, is used in conjunction with an LCD display to control the various options. Quiet to use, the 1000N has a good choice of metering patterns and fast, efficient AF.
One of the few things the 1000N doesn’t have is an integral flash. For that you need its lookalike — the 1000FN – which costs an extra £45. Canon’s latest SLR is the EOS 500, priced at £450. Even smaller than the 1000, it shares the same zoom lens, control layout and excellent all-round performance as its budget brothers, with just the odd extra feature to justify its higher price tag.
The camera which first demonstrated Canon’s preference for low-noise operation is the EOS 100. This £550 model sports a 28-80mm zoom and a 3 frame- per-second (fps) motordrive among its complete specification. The £836 EOS 5 is similar, but with an even faster 5 fps motor and sophisticated AF system controlled by your eye! Space precludes an explanation here, but check one out down at your local dealer — you’ll be amazed.
This marque has provided strong competition for Canon in recent years, with a whole stable of Dynax SLRs. Generally speaking they’re all good, exhibiting excellent exposure accuracy and lightning fast AF, but the later models are preferable if you can afford them. The £310 2xi is the most cost-effective way of getting your hands on some fine Minolta xi technology, but it lacks for features.
Rising steadily up the price ladder, the 3xi at £370 is better, or the 5xi at £530 — all three feature a neat 35- 80mm zoom. There’s also a 7xi at £730, but you may prefer Minolta’s latest gems. The 700si is an advanced model with a £750 tag to match, or there’s the very latest 500si at a bargain £400. This recent launch sports a neat 35-70mm zoom, jumps on the picture mode bandwagon, and looks a winner all the way.
After a spell in the doldrums, Pentax is back in the SLR mainstream with some convincing cameras. The pick of the AF models is the Z-20, which costs £500, features a large but flexible 28-80mm zoom and has a trio of novel picture modes too. Excellent handling characteristics are reinforced by an innovative memory facility which can recall your favourite settings.
Buying the Z-10 saves a little money but you lose a lot of features, while if your budget can stretch that far, how about the Z-1 at £700? The Pentax flagship SLR has a specification to set the mouth watering.
No SLR guide would be complete without this prestigious manufacturer. Though Nikons are invariably priced higher than models of similar specification, they’re built to rigorous standards to withstand all the knocks, and still have a cachet the others can’t match. At £564 the F-601 is the least expensive Nikon I’d recommend. The control layout is commendably clear but at this price only a 50mm standard is included.
A new departure for Nikon is the F50 model, just released at £599 and including a 35-80mm zoom. Users have the option of selecting either ‘Simple’ or ‘Advanced’ modes of operation, which seem to offer the best of both worlds. I’ve tried one recently and enjoyed it, though certain operations take a lot of button-pushing.
Beyond the big four, several other cameras deserve checking out. Centon is the first manual focus SLR mentioned here, and a clone of a tried and tested Minolta design of recent times. But at just £130, including a 28-70mm, who’s complaining?
Another fine manual focus model is the Ricoh KR-10M, which has a whole host of extras incorporated into its £205 price tag.
Yashica may not be the most fashionable name in SLR circles, but the cameras always handle and perform well. On the manual focus front, take a look at the FX-3 Super 2000 or the 108MP at £180 and £230 respectively, or if you fancy auto focus the 300AF is available for £380, including a 28-70mm zoom.
Sigma has long been known for its fine independent lens range, and now it has an SLR to match — the SA-300. This auto focus model has had quite an impact since its launch, because it offers an excellent blend of features at a very reasonable price. With a 35-80mm zoom it costs £370.
Last but far from least, Olympus has a small range of cameras that many feel offer the best of both SLR and compact worlds. Shaped and held more, like a video camera, the iS models have permanently attached zoom lenses and highly-sophisticated integral flash units. The iS-100, just out at £399, features a 28-110mm zoom, the iS-2000 has a 35-135mm optic for £500, while the £670 iS-3000 has an extraordinary 35-180mm lens.
Telephoto and zoom lenses
Aircraft in flight tend to be considerable distances away, so you need lenses with a good degree of magnifying power to make them appear as something more than dots in a large expanse of sky. Two types of optics can help the SLR owner overcome this problem — the prime lens and the zoom.
Prime lenses feature a fixed focal length, say of 135mm, or 300mm and so on. Zooms, on the other hand, offer a range of focal lengths, such as 70-210mm or 75- 300mm, with the user able to select intermediate settings to provide changes of composition. We live in the age of the zoom now, and prime lenses tend to be reserved for extreme focal lengths or lenses with abnormally fast maximum apertures — the types you see trained on sports events or the Royal Family!
A 70-210mm is a useful first zoom to buy, as it’s affordable yet flexible — no wonder they’re so popular. The longest telephoto setting gives a roughly 4x increase in magnification compared to a 50mm standard lens, so you can take fine shots of aerobatic displays at air shows, changing the focal length to give different effects. The same lens is useful when the aeroplanes are back on the ground, as the narrow angle of the lens enables you to crop in tightly on your subject and avoid distracting background details.
If you seek greater telephoto power, then go for a 75-300mm zoom as many of these designs are still reasonably sized and priced, or a prime lens. Cost and bulk increase proportionately with increases of focal length and maximum aperture, so a 300mm f/2.8 lens is substantially bigger and for dearer than an f/5.6 version. 400mm, 500mm and even 600mm telephotos are available, but you’re talking serious money for the fast-aperture designs and they need lots of practise to master handling them.
An inexpensive alternative is to fit a 1.4x or 2x converter between the SIR body and the lens, as this gives a useful increase in focal length. On the downside a converter absorbs either one or two stops of light, and reduces optical quality slightly. You may also need to use a faster film to avoid camera shake.
A final point about telephotos and zooms. Generally speaking, independent marques are significantly cheaper to buy than a camera manufacturers’ own lenses, and you’ll be lucky to see any difference in performance. Among the best independent brands are Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and Vivitar, each having a range of excellent lenses.