Your First Proper Camera? DSLR or CSC?

© Andrew Newson

© Andrew Newson

Because I run photography courses for a living I am often getting asked for advice on what equipment to purchase, especially when it comes to cameras.

Sometimes this question comes from someone who doesn't yet have a camera or someone who is looking to upgrade from a compact or bridge camera.

If you don't yet have a camera to speak of, maybe just a mobile phone, then you will be facing the decision of which type of camera to go for. My advice is fairly simple, if you think that you might want to develop an interest in photography and produce some really good quality images then it has to be either an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) or a CSC (Compact System Camera).

I often find myself recommending entry level SLRs and usually the Nikon D3300 or D5300 (depending on budget). There are other good options too but there is one specific reason I usually recommend Nikon and I'll get to that in a moment.

These cameras cost around £350 and £520 with the kit lens (18-55mm) and this is the main point really, in terms of financial outlay you are really getting a lot for your money and you have a system that you can add to; flash gun, additional lenses, lens upgrades etc etc.

One really common topic of conversation
that comes up when I'm doing my 1-2-1 camera courses is how to achieve blurry backgrounds in photos. The answer is pretty simple, you need a lens with a wide aperture (low f/number) and this is the main reason I recommend Nikon, because of the excellent 35mm f/1.8 DX lens they make. This focal length can be related to 50mm focal length on a full frame DSLR or a 35mm film camera. This is the perfect lens for portraiture and general shooting, in my opinion. The wide f/1.8 aperture means you can isolate the subject from the background by just having a small amount of the image in focus. The reviews of this lens are outstanding and all for £150!

So let's say you opt for the Nikon D3300 with kit lens and the fantastic 35mm f/1.8 prime lens, the package will cost you about £500, which in the photography world is a bit of steal.

Some of you will know that I shoot with Fuji CSC cameras and I love these cameras, the image quality is fantastic when you know how to handle them and the lenses are superb, no doubt about it. But if you look at something like the X-E2 with 18-55mm zoom lens and then add the 35mm f/1.4 lens we are talking about £1200 (Dec 2014), okay there are some cashback options right now which could mean saving as much as £400 bringing it down to £800 which I think is incredibly good value, but it is that little bit more than the SLR options right now. If you have the budget then this is also a very good route to go, especially if having a smaller camera system is important to you.

If you are currently weighing up the pros and cons between a mirrorless (Compact System Camera) or a digital SLR, let's talk about some of the differences now which might help you.

An SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera has a mirror prism system on top of the camera and when you look through the viewfinder you are actually looking through the lens itself. We call this an optical viewfinder, ie. you are seeing the real world and not an electronic version of it. The trouble is that this does add a bit of bulk and weight to your camera.

The better (read more expensive) the SLR is, the better the optical viewfinder will be. When I say better, I really mean how much coverage the viewfinder has. Most entry level SLRs have around 95% coverage so when you are looking through the viewfinder the image you see is slightly smaller than the actual image that will be captured. This is not really a big deal it just means you might have to do some subtle cropping of your image in post-processing after the event. The better the viewfinder the more coverage you will have and this means the more accurate you can be with your framing.

A CSC (Compact System Camera) has interchangeable lenses just like an SLR does and most have pretty large image sensors, some that are the same size as those found in SLRs. Most do not have optical viewfinders though.

A CSC will have an LCD that you can use as a viewfinder, but we know that sometimes this alone is far from ideal because they are difficult to see in bright sunlight.

Some CSCs have electronic viewfinders which you can look through and see an electronic version of the world. Historically these types of vewfinder haven't been that great, the resolution was fairly low and the refresh rate not that fast so it was always a bit frustrating to use. Not so anymore in my opinion. The technology has advanced a great deal and now electronic viewfinders found in some of the top CSCs are really superb. There is also a benefit of an electronic viewfinder, they are WYSIWYG! What You See is What You Get, meaning if you adjust your exposure that will be reflected in the view you are seeing and sometimes that can be really useful.

As far as I am aware there is only a couple of CSC cameras that have meaningful optical viewfinders, they are the Fuji X100 and the Fuji X-Pro1 with their hybrid viewfinders that you can switch between electronic and optical. These viewfidners work a little bit like a viewfinder on a rangefinder camera. You are not looking through the lens with these viewfinders, but rather through the top left hand part of the camera body and the view you see is an approximate reflection of the particular lens that is fitted to the camera. They are far from perfect at the moment but, in some situations, it can be really valuable for things like street photography. Fuji are working on improving this and that shows in the most recent version of the X100 - the X100T. I hope that Fuji will apply this improvement and-then-some to the new X-Pro2.

I mentioned that some CSC have large image sensors, there are cameras with Micro Four Third image sensors, some with APS-C and now even some with full frame image sensors like the Sony A7. I have bought in to the Fuji system that uses APS-C and to be honest the quality is so good I can't really see myself being tempted back to full frame for the foreseeable future, but only time will tell.

Generally speaking, the larger the image sensor the better the image quality. Quality with Micro Four Thirds is good, better with APS-C and better still with Full Frame. The question is, which do you need and what does you budget allow!?

So for those with a more modest budget...

Nikon D3300 with 18-55mm kit lens (About £350)
Nikon D3300 with 18-55mm kit lens and 35mm f/1.8 prime lens (About £500)

For those with a little more lolly to play with...

Fuji X-E2 with 18-5mm lens (£720 after cashback)
Fuji X-E2 with 18-55mm lens and 35mm f/1.4 print lens (About £820 after cashback)

Upwards of this and we could start thinking about the excellent Fuji X-T1 which has one of THE best electronic viewfinders around and the same great quality image sensor as the X-E2. It has another added benefit of being weather sealed.

Fuji X-T1 with 18-55mm lens (around £1170 after cashback)

Of course I'm sure many will disagree with my recommendations so it goes without saying (although I am about to!) that these are just my opinions :-)