Saturday, 12 July 2008

Digital Cameras for Macro Photography

The Rapid Evolution of Digital Cameras and Macro Photography
Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners in my last post I wrote about RAW conversion software and how it can be used to improve your digital macro photography workflow. I have also written a closely related post about image editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop CS3) and how it can be used to enhance your macro photography. In the past I have covered a diverse range of subjects including photographic composition and helpful macro photography techniques. This post however is going to address a subject that is much more exciting...cameras! You will never get far with macro photography without a descent camera. There are literally thousands of cameras on the market of all shapes, specifications and sizes. Your job as a consumer and photographer is to sort through them all and find the best one for your requirements. This is a difficult prospect if you are new to photography altogether, or maybe less so, if you are upgrading or migrating from film to digital. Remember that this is a macro photography website and as such all information is tailored towards obtaining better macro photographs.

The most significant challenge of finding the perfect camera for your requirements is that it does not actually exist. This means you have to find the digital camera that comes closest to perfection. When it comes to macro photography you need to look for some specific features on the camera that will make much easier. Since the onset of the consumer Digital (Single Lens Reflex) SLR boom there have only really been two camera manufacturers in the race. Canon and Nikon have totally dominated the market for SLR cameras. There are a lot of camera manufacturers developing digital SLR technology in an attempt to get a foothold in this lucrative market. Up until now non of the pretenders to the thrown have been able to better the Canon and Nikon cameras who have interchanged the trophy for best Digital SLR throughout the entire range. The arrival of Sony, Fujifilm, Sigma, Pentax, Samsung, Panasonic, Leica and Olympus barely ruffled any feathers. All were making good high specification cameras but they always seemed to fall just short of the mark. The market leaders seemed to be untouchable with both Canon and Nikon developing the most advanced camera models. It was going to take an innovation a little bit special to spoil the party. In an attempt to reel in th
e bigger camera companies, manufacturers began to jointly develop digital SLR technology. Pentax and Samsung have joined forces in this way. Konica Minolta, a major innovator of photographic equipment, began jointly developing digital camera technology with Sony. In 2006 Konica Minolta pulled out of the camera and photography business. In doing so, they sold most of their digital SLR technology to Sony. This is one of the reasons why Sony was able to hit the ground running with their range of Alpha Digital SLR cameras. It has been Sony who have finally managed to build a camera good enough to pour cold water on the Canon and Nikon parade. The NEW Sony Alpha 200 has been awarded as the best entry level consumer Digital SLR camera by the Technical Image Press Association (TIPA) for 2008. Proclaimed to be as the most coveted photo and imaging awards in Europe. TIPA editors judge on quality, performance, and value criteria that are very important to the end user.

If your starting out from scratch I would recommend that you investigate the Sony Alpha 200 and Alpha 350 as a potential purchase along with the equivalent Canon and Nikon cameras. As the owner of a Canon camera I fully understand the frustrating and persistent problem of their cameras underexposing images due to the metering system being easily “fooled” by difficult lighting (for example a bright sky). The Sony Alpha 350 certainly has an aesthetic advantage over the Canon 450D and the Nikon D60. It also has an impressive specification with a 14.2 MP sensor, that's more mega pixels than a Canon 450D (12.2) Canon 5D (12.8), Canon EOS 1D MKIII (10.1), Nikon D60 (10.2), Nikon D300 (12.3), Nikon D3 (12.8). Mega pixels are not everything, but this is an example of how hard Sony and other manufacturers are pushing this technology along.

A contentious argument against buying the a Sony (or most other Non Canon or Nikon brands) is that they do not have a large choice of high quality lenses available. Sony manufacture their own range of lenses and third party lenses are also made in this mount by Tamron and Sigma. I do have some reservations about the Sony 100mm f2.8 Macro Telephoto lens. Note the word “telephoto” this means that the lens barrel extends as you zoom closer to your subject. I would prefer a fixed lens for macro photography, particularly for shooting insects. If I was in the market for a Sony Alpha SLR camera, lenses would be my main concern. Fujifilm have been clever in this regard and made their SLR cameras with a Nikon F lens mount. This means that their digital SLR cameras are compatible with the entire Nikon (Nikkor) range of lenses from past and present. It is interesting to note that Fujifilm do not currently make an entry level digital SLR camera. Whether or not consumers will buy the Fujifilm over the Nikon is the main question. Fujifilm are one of the companies involved with the development of the four thirds system, perhaps they will introduce this lens mount on some of their cameras in future. If you are thinking about buying a SLR camera for macro photography keep in mind that Canon and Nikon have some of the best lenses available and most third party manufacturers make lenses for these mounts.

What is the The Four Thirds System (4/3)?
The four thirds system is a standard created by Olympus and Kodak that allows for the interchange of lenses from different manufacturers. Several companies support the standard but this not mean that they make cameras that use the 4/3 system. Ko
dak, Fujifilm, Leica, Panasonic, Olympus, Sanyo and Sigma are all involved in developing the 4/3 system. Olympus, Leica and Panasonic all currently manufacture digital SLR cameras that use the four thirds (4/3) system. The system itself is called the Four Thirds System because it uses an aspect ratio of 4:3. This may seem familiar as it is the same ratio used by standard television and is also used in a lot of computer monitors. Most digital SLR cameras use an aspect ratio of 1.81:1 which is very close to the 16:9 ratio, the international standard format for high definition television(HDTV). The Four Thirds System uses a physically smaller sensor, most often found in point and shoot compact cameras. A consequence of using a 4/3 sensor in a digital SLR camera is a larger depth of field. This is a real advantage for macro photography where depth of field becomes very narrow at high magnification. The small components are also the reason that Olympus has been able to develop the worlds thinnest digital SLR camera . The Olympus E410 weighs only 380g. A major drawback and concern for consumers who may be thinking of buying a four thirds camera is the lack of lenses available. There are only 4 macro lenses to choose from at time of writing this article. Luckily two of them are the very reasonable Sigma 150mm f2.8 EX DG HSM and Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG.

Digital SLR too much for you?
The technology that made the Sony alpha digital SLR cameras a force to be reckoned with is not the only legacy that Minolta left behind. Minolta were also responsible for introducing the first superzoom compact cameras with their Dimage cameras. Superzoom compact cameras are getting more and more like SLR cameras all the time. They do not have interchangeable lenses and are often considerably lighter to carry. They are very capable cameras and are great for people who do not want the problems of having a heavy, cumbersome digital SLR camera to carry around. These compact cameras are often called bridge cameras because they span the gap between an SLR and an ordinary compact camera. A benefit of a b
ridge camera is that it will shoot in RAW file format, whereas many point and shoot cameras do not have this feature.

Taking an SLR with you on an outing, journey or expedition takes a lot of planning. You need a whole load of stuff including a camera, tripod, lenses, camera bag and external flash gun/s. On top of all that, your electronic equipment needs to be charged or fitted wit
h batteries. It all adds up weight wise and can be difficult to carry for long distances over rough terrain. It also adds up cost wise as each component will be expensive to acquire. This can take time to build up all the kit that you require if you have a low initial budget. A compact camera may solve some of these problems but not all of them, for example you will still need a tripod for those longer exposure shots.

Fujifilm currently appear to have the upper hand in this market with their excellent Finepix S100(FS) being the latest addition. It is for this reason and this reason only that I have singled it out for attention. The obvious attraction to photographers is their high quality Superzoom lenses but they also have Macro (and Super Macro) functionality built in. Some cameras have additional screw on macro filters that can be added for increase
d magnification.

  • 2/3 “ High Resolution 11 Megapixel Super CCD VIII HR

  • 28-400mm F2.8-5.3 High Performance 14.3x Zoom Lens

  • Optical Image Stabilisation

  • ISO 100 – 10,000 [ISO 6400 at 6MP or Lower, ISO 10,000 at 3MP)

  • Unique Film Simulation Modes

  • RAW mode

  • VGA Movie Mode

  • Comprehensive Photographic Controls

  • Multi-bracketing and high speed continuous shooting

  • 2.5” tiltable high resolution screen

For an absolute beginner to macro photography the a Superzoom camera is a good way to get started. You have to accept that you will not have the same amount of control as you would with a digital SLR camera. This is not as much of a drawback as you might think because as your photography improves you can always upgrade to a new digital SLR later on
. I have no preference for any particular product or manufacturer. My main point in this post is that you have to take a long hard look at the camera market, read as many camera reviews, blogs, forums, websites and magazines as your brain will allow. Try and find example shots taken with the camera that you are thinking of buying. Despite the great advances in super zoom cameras, I would always feel a bit restricted without my SLR camera. I have spent a lot of time studying and learning photography and finding the limitations of my camera. This is how I know that it is time to upgrade to a new model. My lenses all have a canon mount so my decision is already made. The main problem is finding a reasonable second camera that can be thrown into your top pocket for backup, emergencies and general photography – there a certain situations and circumstances where a large expensive digital SLR camera could attract undesired attention. Remember that many mobile (or cell) phones now have high quality cameras built-in which are great for covert photography.

I hope that you have found this article about the rapid evolution of digital cameras and macro photography interesting. There is certainly a lot more to digital cameras than meets the eye. I'm not sure if it is just me, but I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence! In this post I have mentioned quite a few lenses and this has been the inspiration for my next post which is going to be about...[drum roll please] macro lenses. In the meantime thanks to everyone who has emailed me and left comments on my blog. I am currently editing some of the older posts so it may take a while for new posts to be added. Thank You for visiting my Macro Photography for Beginners website.

Marvin Africa


Anonymous said...

Yeah!! Love these types of multi purpose digital cameras!!

urmiraj14 said...

hi i came across yr blog while looking for entry-level dslrs. i really liked all your posts, especially the ones on composition. i am a beginner at macro photography, but not into the nature or wildlife kind - more of "everyday objects from different angles". what wud u say abt the Nikon D40 for such a purpose (without buying additional macro lenses)? I'll be checking yr blog regularly for your response. Thanks!!

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Urmiraj14,

Nikon make excellent SLR cameras. If you read photography and camera review websites (for example DP Review) you will find that the D40 gets a very good write up. I have only ever seen positive feedback about this camera. It is an ideal camera for a beginner. Add the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF VR Micro Lens and you will have a really good macro set-up.

I'm hoping to write some articles about still life macro photography at some stage.

Keep me informed on how you get on.


urmiraj14 said...

thanks! appreciate your quick response :) i was actually thinking that for the time being i'll skip buying a macro lens. will do more homewk abt other avlbl afforable dslrs. will most def let u kno abt which i choose!