Mirrorless vs DSLR

DSLR cameras by design have some inherent flaws and limitations. Part of it has to do with the fact that SLR cameras were initially developed for film. When digital evolved, it was treated just like film and was housed in the same mechanical body. Aside from the circuitry required for a digital sensor and other electronics, new digital film media and the back LCD, the rest of the SLR components did not change. Same mechanical mirror, same pentaprism / optical viewfinder, same phase detection system for autofocus operation. While new technological advances eventually led to extending of features of these cameras (In-camera editing, HDR, GPS, WiFi, etc), DSLRs continued to stay bulky for a couple of reasons. First, the mirror inside DSLR cameras had to be the same in size as the digital sensor, taking up plenty of space. Second, the pentaprism that converts vertical rays to horizontal in the viewfinder also had to match the size of the mirror, making the top portion of DSLRs bulky.

Lastly, manufacturers wanted to keep existing lenses compatible with digital cameras, so that the transition from film to digital was not too costly or too limiting for the consumer. This meant that manufacturers also had to keep the “flange distance” (which is the distance between the camera mount and the film / sensor plane) the same between the two formats. Although smaller APS-C / DX sensors and lenses seemed like a great way to reduce the bulk of DSLR systems, the flange distance / compatibility concerns left them fairly large and heavy physically. 35mm eventually came back with modern full-frame digital sensors, so the mirror and pentaprism sizes again went back to what they were in film days. On one hand, keeping the flange distance the same allowed for maximum compatibility when mounting lenses between film, APS-C and full-frame DSLRs, without the need to re-design and re-market lenses for each format. On the other hand, DSLRs simply cannot go beyond their minimum size requirements and the presence of the mirror is what continues to make them so much more complex to build and support.

DSLR Camera Limitations

Due to the mirror dependency of DSLRs for “through the lens” viewing, they have the following limitations:

  1. Size and Bulk: the reflex system needs space for both the mirror and the prism, which means that DSLRs will always have a wider camera body and a protruding top. It also means that the viewfinder must be fixed in the same spot on every DSLR, in-line with the optical axis and digital sensor – basically, there is no other place to put it. As a result, most DSLRs have somewhat similar exterior looks.
  2. Weight: large size and bulk also translates to more weight. While most entry-level DSLRs have plastic bodies and internal components to make them lighter, the minimum height and depth issue to house the mirror + pentaprism/pentamirror means lots of wasted space that needs to be covered. In addition, it would be unwise to cover such a large area with a very thin layer of plastic just to make it appear smaller / lighter – the underlying idea of a DSLR is ruggedness, even on a basic body. On top of that, DSLR lenses are typically large and heavy (especially those with a full image circle that were created for 35mm film / full-frame), so a super light camera body would result in balance issues. In essence, it is the larger physical size of DSLR systems that directly affects the weight.
  3. Complex Mirror and Shutter Design: every actuation requires the mirror to move up and down to let the light pass through directly onto the sensor. This alone creates a number of issues:
    • Mirror Slap: the most amount of noise you hear on SLR cameras comes from the mirror slapping up and down (the shutter is much quieter in comparison). This mirror slap results in loud noise and camera shake. Although manufacturers have been coming up with creative ways to reduce noise by slowing down the mirror movement (Nikon’s “Quiet” mode for example), it is still quite loud. Camera shake can also become an issue when shooting at long focal lengths and slow shutter speeds. Once again, DSLR manufacturers had to come up with features like “Mirror Lock-Up” and “Exposure Delay” to allow mirror to be lifted, then exposure taken after a set delay – all to reduce vibrations.
    • Movement of Air: as the mirror flips up and down, it moves plenty of air inside the camera chamber. And with air, it also moves dust and other debris around, which eventually ends up on the camera sensor. Some people argue that their DSLR cameras are better suited for changing lenses than mirrorless cameras, because there is a mirror between the sensor and the mount. There might be some truth to that. However, what happens with that dust after the mirror moves inside the chamber? All that dust will obviously circulate inside the chamber. In my experience shooting with a number of different mirrorless cameras, I found them to be actually less prone to dust than any of my DSLRs.
    • Frame Speed Limitation: while the modern mirror and shutter mechanisms are very impressive, they are limited by the physical speed at which the mirror flips up and down. When the Nikon D4 fires at 11 frames per second, the mirror literally goes up and down 11 times within each second, with the shutter opening and closing in between! It has to be a perfect synchronization of both the mirror and the shutter in order for it all to work. Take a look at the below video that shows this in slow motion (skip to 0:39):
        • Now imagine this process at 15-20 times per second – that’s probably physically impossible.
        • Expensive to Build and Support: the mirror mechanism is very complex and consists of dozens of different parts. Because of that, it is expensive to build and provide technical support if anything goes wrong. Disassembling a DSLR and replacing internal components can be very time consuming.
      1. No Live Preview: when looking through an optical viewfinder, it is impossible to see what the image is actually going to look like. You have to look at the camera meter (which can be fooled in some situations) and adjust the exposure accordingly.
      2. Secondary Mirror and Phase Detection Accuracy: you might already know that all DSLR cameras with phase detection autofocus system (more on this below) require a secondary mirror. I wrote about this in detail in my “how phase detection AF works” article. In short, part of the light that reaches the mirror ends up on the smaller secondary mirror that sits at a different angle than the primary mirror. The purpose of the secondary mirror is to pass the incoming light to phase detection sensors that are located on the bottom of the chamber. The problem with the secondary mirror, is that it has to be positioned at a perfect angle and distance for phase detection to work accurately. If there is even a slight deviation, it will result in missed focus. And even worse, the phase detection sensors and the secondary mirror have to stay perfectly parallel to each other. If they don’t, some autofocus points might be accurate, while others will constantly miss focus.
      3. Phase Detection and Lens Calibration Issues: the problem with the traditional DSLR phase detection system not only lies with the secondary mirror alignment issues, but also requires lenses to be properly calibrated. It becomes a two way game – precise focus requires perfect angle and distance of the secondary mirror to the phase detection sensors (as explained above), and requires a properly calibrated lens to the body. If you had autofocus accuracy problems with your lenses in the past, you might have had experience sending your gear to the manufacturer. Very often, support techs will ask the lens in question to be sent together with the camera body. If you wondered why before, now you have the answer – there are basically two places where things could potentially go wrong. If the technician adjusts your lens to their standard camera environment and your camera is slightly off, your issues might get even worse after such tuning. That’s why it is best to calibrate both the camera and the lens to resolve those discrepancies.
      4. Price: although manufacturers have gotten much more efficient over the years in terms of DSLR production, assembling the mirror mechanism is no easy task. Lots of moving components mean high precision assembly systems, the need for lubrication in areas where metal components rub against each other, etc. In turn, this all results in increased manufacturing costs. And it does not stop there – if anything goes wrong with the mirror mechanism, the manufacturer must repair or even potentially replace it, which is a very labor-intensive task.

      Mirrorless to the Rescue?

      With the rise of cameras without a mirror (hence the name “mirrorless”), most manufacturers have already realized that traditional DSLR systems are not going to be the driving force of camera sales in the future. It makes sense from the cost standpoint alone, but if we really look at the current innovation, where are we at with DSLRs? With each iteration of DSLRs, it seems like we are getting closer and closer to hit the wall of innovation. Autofocus performance and accuracy have already pretty much hit the wall. Processors are fast enough to crank HD videos at 60p. Just to keep the word out and sales going, camera manufacturers have been resorting to just re-branding the same camera under a new model name. What else IS there to add? GPS? WiFi? Instant Photo Sharing? More in-camera editing? Those are all great bells and whistles, but are they innovations that will truly drive future sales? I don’t think so.

      Mirrorless cameras open up huge opportunities for innovation in the future and solve many of the problems of traditional DSLRs. Let’s go through each point above and discuss additional benefits of mirrorless cameras:

      1. Smaller Size / Bulk and Lighter Weight: removing the mirror and the pentaprism frees up a lot of space. This means that mirrorless cameras can be designed to be smaller, less bulky and lighter compared to DSLRs. With a shorter flange distance, the physical size of both the camera and the lens is reduced. This is especially true for APS-C size sensors (full-frame is tougher to address, as discussed further down in the article). No more wasted space, no need for extra ruggedness to give a feel of a bigger camera. Mirrorless cameras can be made much lighter than DSLRs.The rise of smartphones as compact cameras has taught us a very important lesson – convenience, small size and light weight can potentially overpower quality. The point and shoot sales are significantly down, because most people find their smartphones to be “good enough” for those snapshot moments. All smartphone manufacturers are currently pressing hard on camera features, because they want people to think that they are not just getting a phone, but also a great camera in a single compact package. And judging from the sales figures so far, it is clearly working – more and more people are embracing smartphones and leaving their point and shoot cameras behind. Simply put, smaller size and lighter weight in electronics win in today’s economy. We can observe the same trend in many other gadgets – thinner and lighter TVs, tablets instead of laptops, etc.

        Hence, people will naturally go after lighter and more compact, especially if the quality is not compromised.

      2. No Mirror Mechanism: no more mirror flipping up and down means a lot of good things:
        • Less Noise: no more mirror slap, just the click of the shutter is all you hear from the camera.
        • Less Camera Shake: unlike the mirror in a DSLR, the shutter by itself does not produce a lot of vibrations, resulting in less camera shake.
        • No Movement of Air: since there is nothing constantly moving inside the camera chamber, dust is less of an issue (at least in my experience).
        • Easier to Clean: and if dust does end up on the sensor, cleaning mirrorless cameras is easier than DSLRs. You do not need a fully charged battery to lock up the mirror – the sensor is exposed once you dismount the lens. In addition, most mirrorless cameras do not have an opening under the mirror to house a phase detection sensor and other components, so there is very little chance for dust to circulate after the chamber + sensor are fully cleaned.
        • Very Fast FPS Speed: having no mirror means that the capture rate (fps) does not have to be limited by the mirror speed. This means that mirrorless cameras could potentially capture images at much faster frame rates than 10-12 FPS we see today, with much less noise.
        • Cheaper to Build and Support: less moving parts translate to lower cost of manufacturing and support for the manufacturer.
      3. Live Preview: with mirrorless, you can get a live preview of what you are about to capture – basically “what you see is what you get”. If you messed up White Balance, Saturation or Contrast, you will see it in live preview – whether in the EVF (see below) or the LCD.
      4. No Phase Detection / Secondary Mirror Alignment Issues: now that many of the modern mirrorless cameras are shipping with hybrid autofocus systems that utilize both phase and contrast detection autofocus, you do not have to worry about the alignment of phase detection and secondary mirror. On a number of new generation mirrorless cameras, the phase detection sensors are located on the actual sensor, which means that phase detection will never have to be calibrated for distance, since it sits on the same plane as the sensor that captures the image.
      5. Price: producing mirrorless cameras is much cheaper than producing DSLRs. As of today, most mirrorless camera manufacturers charge heavy premiums for their camera systems, because their overall costs are high. While the actual manufacturing costs are lower than DSLRs, companies have to spend plenty of R&D money on improving autofocus performance and other technologies like EVF. Plus, since mirrorless cameras are relatively new, companies have to increase their marketing budgets to educate people. Overtime, however, prices of mirrorless cameras will drop to lower levels than even entry-level DSLRs.
      6. Electronic Viewfider: now here comes the biggest strength of mirrorless cameras and the present + future innovation with it. Without a doubt, an EVF has huge advantages over OVF. While the current implementation of EVF might not be as robust and responsive as it should be (see below), it is just a matter of time before manufacturers fix that. Let’s go over some of the key benefits of EVF over OVF:
        Information Overlay: with OVF, you never get to see more than some basic grids. There is some static information presented in the viewfinder, but it is always fixed and cannot be easily changed. With EVF, you can get any information you want displayed right inside the viewfinder – from live exposure data to histograms. Different warnings could be added, such as a warning for a potentially blurry shot.
        Live Preview: the same live preview on the LCD can be shown inside the EVF.
        Image Review: another key feature that you will never get in an OVF is image review. How cool would it be to see the image that you have just captured right inside the viewfinder? With OVF, you are forced to look at the LCD screen, which is a big pain in daylight conditions. People end up buying a Hoodman Loupe just to be able to see their LCD screen in daylight! With EVF, you never have to worry about this, since you could use the viewfinder for reviewing images instead.
        Focus Peaking: if you don’t know what focus peaking is, check out this video on Youtube

          • Basically, you can nail focus when performing manual focus without having to rely on your eyes. The area that is in focus gets painted with an overlay color of your choice and you can stop exactly where you want it to be. You would never be able to do this with an OVF in a DSLR.
          • No More Viewfinder Coverage: with OVF, you typically get something like 95% viewfinder coverage, especially on lower-end DSLR models. This basically means that what you see in the viewfinder is about 5% smaller than what the camera will capture. With EVF, you no longer have this problem, because it will always be 100% viewfinder coverage, since what you see in the EVF is what the sensor will capture.
          • Much Brighter Display: if the light conditions are poor, you cannot really see much through an OVF. Focusing with OVF in low light is also difficult, because you cannot really tell if the subject is in focus until you take the picture. With EVF, brightness levels can be “normalized”, so that you can see everything as if it was daylight. Some noise might be present, but it is still way better than trying to guess when looking through an OVF.
          • Digital Zoom: this one is by far my most favorite feature! If you have used a Live View mode on your DSLR before, you know how helpful zooming in can be. With most modern DSLRs, you can zoom in to 100% and really nail focus. Well, with mirrorless cameras, this feature can be built right into the viewfinder! So imagine manually focusing with a lens, then zooming in to 100% right inside the viewfinder before you take the picture. A number of mirrorless cameras are already capable of doing this. It goes without saying that an OVF would never be able to zoom like that.
          • Face / Eye Tracking: now we are moving to the coolest part of the EVF technology. Because the EVF shows what actually happens on the sensor, additional technologies for data analysis can be utilized to do very cool things, like face and even eye tracking! I am sure you have seen face tracking on point and shoot cameras, but if you take it a step further, you could have the camera automatically focus on the nearest eye of the person that you are photographing. How cool is that? Sony is already doing this on their new Sony A7/A7R cameras!
          • Potentially unlimited focus points: as you already know, most DSLR cameras have a limited number of focus points that are distributed mostly around the center of the frame. While it works out in most situations, what do you do if you need to move the focus point to an extreme border of the frame? The only option is to focus and recompose, but that might not be always desirable, since you are also shifting the plane of focus. In addition, anything away from the center focus point is typically inaccurate and could result in “focus hunting”, where the camera struggles with AF acquisition and goes back and forth continuously. With mirrorless cameras and phase detection sensors placed directly on the imaging sensor, this limitation can be lifted. Contrast-detection is already possible anywhere in the imaging sensor, while on-sensor phase detection will eventually get to the point where focus points will be distributed all over the sensor.
          • Subject Tracking and other Future Data Analysis: if things like face and eye tracking are possible with mirrorless cameras, you can only imagine what camera manufacturers will be able to do in the future. Imaging having a complex tracking system that intelligently combines sensor data with autofocus and uses it to track a given object, or subject in the frame. Even the top of the line DSLR cameras today have challenges with full subject tracking. If you have tried photographing birds in flight with a DSLR, tracking can get challenging, especially when the bird moves out of the focus point area, or when the light conditions are less than ideal. If data is analyzed on a pixel level and there is no real autofocus area to concentrate on, subject tracking could potentially get super advanced with mirrorless cameras.
          • Eye damage: when looking through a viewfinder, one has to be extremely careful about photographing the sun, especially with long focal length lenses. With EVF, the image is projected through the sensor and there is no harm to your eyes.

        Mirrorless Camera Limitations

        We’ve gone over the many advantages of mirrorless cameras over DSLRs. Now let’s talk about some of their current limitations:

        1. EVF Lag: some of the current EVF implementations are not very responsive, resulting in considerable lag. While this is certainly a nuisance compared to OVF at the moment, it is a matter of time before that lag is eliminated. The latest EVFs are already much better than what they used to be before. But as EVF technologies evolve, the lag issue will be resolved completely.
        2. Continuous Autofocus / Subject Tracking: while contrast detect has already reached very impressive levels on mirrorless cameras, they are still very weak at continuous autofocus performance and subject tracking. This makes them pretty much unusable for wildlife and sports photography at the moment. However, with the rise of hybrid autofocus systems and their continuous development, we will soon start seeing mirrorless cameras with much better continuous autofocus capabilities. One of the reasons why mirrorless cameras have been slow in this department, is because most mirrorless systems are small and not well-suited to handle large telephoto lenses. So manufacturers have not been putting much of their R&D efforts into this specific area. Again, it is a matter of time until this is implemented on mirrorless cameras.
        3. Battery Life: another big disadvantage of mirrorless cameras at the moment. Providing power to LCD and EVF continuously takes a toll on the battery life, which is why most mirrorless cameras are rated at about 300 shots per battery charge. DSLRs are much more power efficient in comparison, typically in 800+ shot range per charge. While it is not a huge problem for typical camera use, it could be an issue for someone that travels and has very little access to power. Still, I believe that the battery issue is also something that will significantly improve in the future. Batteries will be more powerful and power-hungry LCD screens will be replaced with OLED and other much more efficient technologies.
        4. Red Dot Patterns: due to the very short flange distance, most mirrorless cameras suffer from a “red dot pattern” issue, which becomes clearly visible when shot with the sun in the frame at small apertures. Basically, light rays bounce back and forth between the sensor and the rear lens element, creating grid patterns of red (and sometimes other colors) in images. Unfortunately, there is no way around this limitation on all mirrorless cameras with a short flange distance, as discussed here.
        5. Strong EVF Contrast: most EVFs designed today have very strong, “boosted” contrast, similar to what we see on our TVs. As a result, you see a lot of blacks and whites, but very little gray shades (which help to understand how much dynamic range can be captured). While one could look at the histogram overlay in EVF, it is still a nuisance. Manufacturers will have to find ways to make EVFs display images more naturally.

        As you can see, the list is rather short and I expect it to get even shorter within the next few years. I believe that all of the above issues are addressable and they will get better with each iteration of mirrorless cameras.

        In summary, I would like to say that DSLRs simply have no way to compete with mirrorless in the future. I am not saying that everyone will be switching to smaller and lighter mirrorless cameras soon – no, we are still far from that point. However, it simply does not make sense for manufacturers like Nikon and Canon to continue investing into making DSLRs better, when the technology advantage is clearly with mirrorless. Below is what I believe what Nikon and Canon should do in the near future.

        Nikon’s Mirrorless Future

        Currently, Nikon has three different formats and two mounts:

        1. CX – Nikon CX mirrorless mount, cameras with 1″ sensors. Current camera line: Nikon 1 AW1, J3, S1, V2
        2. DX – Nikon F mount, APS-C sensors. Current camera line: Nikon D3200, D5300, D7100, D300s
        3. FX – Nikon F mount, 35mm full-frame sensors. Current camera line: Nikon D610, D800/D800E, D4

        When everyone was going mirrorless, Nikon ended up creating a new mirrorless mount – CX with a small 1″ sensor. While the imaging and autofocus technology of Nikon 1 cameras is good and the overall system is fairly compact, the biggest issue is the small sensor size. With a 1″ sensor (which is much smaller than APS-C) as shown below, the Nikon 1 cameras simply cannot compete with APS-C in image quality, bokeh and dynamic range, just like APS-C cannot compete with full-frame, or full-frame cannot compete with medium format. Simply put, Nikon has a sensor size disadvantage with its CX / Nikon 1 system.

Nikon vs Canon vs Sony

copsI have been getting a lot of questions from our readers about whether they should pick a particular camera from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax or some other manufacturer. These inquiries are only increasing over time, so I decided to post an article on what I think about different camera systems and why you should go with a particular brand versus others. Many of the questions are something like “should I go for Nikon D5000 or Canon 1000D” or similar, with readers asking me to tell them why I would recommend or pick a certain brand/type of a camera over another. When it comes to the question of Nikon vs Canon vs Sony, there are lots of heated debates over the Internet, so I wanted to share my personal thought on this subject matter as well.

As you know, I have been mainly writing about Nikon – simply because pretty much all of my gear is from Nikon and it is the system of choice for me. Why don’t I shoot Canon or Sony? Is Nikon superior than these brands? No, not really. Read on to understand why.

Lola and I used to have some debates on camera gear in the past. She was very impressed by the beautiful imagery from wedding and portrait photographers that shot with Canon, pushing her to think that we had an inferior brand of choice. It took me a while to convince her that it was not the case and here is how I explained everything to her, which I hope will help our readers understand this topic in detail and answer questions about different camera systems.

A camera is just a tool

What happens if you give the best set of painting tools to someone who does not know how to paint, and an ordinary, much inferior set of tools to a good painter? Who is going to have a better painting? The same rhetorical question is valid for photography – if you get a better camera, does it necessarily mean that you will take better pictures? No, I do not want to bring up another “camera does not matter” debate, since we are all getting tired of it.

You know what, on the other hand, let’s discuss it for a second…does the camera truly matter? It does and it doesn’t. For most people who use a camera for family snapshots, the camera does not matter. For an amateur photographer or hobbyist, it does. For a professional photographer who makes a living out of photography, it matters big time. When somebody hands a crappy camera to a good photographer, he/she will most likely be able to utilize it fully and capture great pictures. Similar to how a good painter is able to work on a painting with a low-quality set of tools. However, no photographer would want to continue working with low-end gear and no painter would want to use low-quality tools for the rest of their lives, since they know that the good tools do help them tremendously in achieving the best results that differentiate them from the rest of the competition. Ansel Adams loved to work with the best gear for a reason – he knew how to push it to its limits and get the best possible results.

I forgot where I heard or read this story, but it got stuck in my head for a while. The story goes like this. Two photographers are standing side by side and taking pictures – one is a professional photographer who makes a living selling his pictures and the other one is an amateur/hobbyist. The pro obviously shoots with a very expensive camera and lenses, while the amateur is shooting with an average camera and a kit lens. The amateur knows that the pro is famous and that he sells his pictures. At one point of time, he turns towards the pro and says “sure enough, with gear like that I bet you can get great shots that sell”. The pro tries to convince the amateur that his camera is just his tool, but the amateur keeps insisting otherwise. At one point, the pro says to the amateur “I will give you my camera gear and you give me yours. We shoot for several hours. The photographer that comes back with better images gets to keep all camera gear”. Without much thinking, the amateur just walks away…

So, when does the camera matter? If you are just getting into photography, I would say the camera you pick does not matter. If you are an amateur or hobbyist and you shoot for pleasure, having moderate to good photography skills, the camera you use does matter to a certain extent. If you are a pro making a living selling your pictures, the type of camera you use is extremely important.

Sensor size matters. No matter what some people say, sensor size does matter. There is a significant difference between a tiny sensor on a point and shoot camera and a DSLR full-frame sensor. Things like dynamic range, depth of field, viewing angles and noise all contribute to the overall quality and perception of an image and the difference is quite apparent. This difference is certainly smaller between full-frame and cropped sensor cameras, but still enough to impact the look of the photographs.

Lenses matter. The type of lens you use, its focal length, aperture and color rendition also play a huge part in how the final image comes out. You will never be able to isolate a subject with a point and shoot camera like you can with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. You cannot replicate the effect of a tilt/shift lens with an ordinary zoom lens.

The Photographer’s Eye. Finally, you have to remember that a camera is just a tool in a photographer’s bag. Without the photographer’s skill set, patience, vision, creativity, planning, timing, lighting and post-processing, even the best camera in the world will not be able to create a good picture.

Different Camera Systems

Now let’s talk about different camera systems that are available today. Since the demand for DSLR cameras has been increasing significantly (just pay attention to how many people carry DSLRs in parks today), companies have been putting more money on R&D and more players have been entering the DSLR market. As of today, the current manufacturers of mainstream DSLR cameras are: Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax and Sigma. With so many different brands and types of cameras to choose from, it is getting harder to choose a particular brand over another

So, which brand should you invest in? Yes, you heard it right – invest. If you are planning to be serious about your photography, you will be buying more gear over time. Whether it is new cameras, lenses, filters, flashes or memory cards, the type of the camera system you pick is important. If you make a wrong choice, it will be very costly to sell all of your gear and replace it with a different brand. On top of that, you will have to spend some time to learn the new system and get used to it. So, going back to the question on which brand should you invest in, as I have pointed out in my “How to buy a DSLR camera” article that I wrote a while ago, I would pick between Nikon, Canon, Sony and Pentax. Choose between these three brands and you won’t go wrong. Nikon and Canon certainly lead with the widest selection of cameras, lenses / accessories and have the largest market share.

There are some other brands such as Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji that have also been doing well in the market. Olympus and Panasonic have been quite successful with their Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds systems, thanks to a solid selection of lenses, great cameras and their compact system size. Fuji makes excellent X-series cameras with amazing image quality and also a good and growing selection of lenses. But all these are not DSLRs and are considered to be in the “mirrorless” camera category. Mirrorless is certainly the future, as highlighted in my Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras article, so if you want to embrace new technologies, definitely have a close look at the mirrorless market.

Another thing you can do, is see if anyone you know already has an advanced camera and ask for their suggestion and advise. If the person you are asking is a good photographer, it might be a good idea to buy the same brand camera, so that you could learn from that person and even possibly borrow gear in the future before you buy your own. This is very helpful especially if the photographer is a professional – you won’t have to surf the Internet for hours to understand something or make a decision.

The grass is always greener on the other side

No matter what camera system you pick or use today, you most likely pay a lot of attention to other brands. If you own a Nikon camera, you look at Canon cameras and compare. If you own other brands, you are probably looking at Nikon and Canon. The thing is, the grass is always greener on the other side when it comes to cameras and lenses. The topic of Canon vs Nikon, for example, always comes up between photographers. Nikonians look at some of the Canon cameras and want more megapixels, while Canonites look at some of the Nikon cameras and want less noise. Lens debates between these two brands are also endless… At the end of the day, the question you should be asking yourself is, how much better would your pictures get if you picked one brand over another (or switched from one brand to another). Most likely, the change would be very insignificant. You gain one thing and lose another. What if one brand comes up with a breakthrough product tomorrow. Are you going to switch or regret your purchase decision?

It is all about you

Again, think of your camera as your tool for the job. Without good technical skills and creativity, no matter what camera system you use, you will never be able to capture anything good. Read, learn, learn and learn, then experiment and shoot a lot – that’s the only way to become a better photographer. Don’t become a gearhead and buy more and more useless stuff you do not need. Once you become a better photographer, you will know exactly what you need to get the best results.

Great Photo Ops during Spring Migration

The spring migration of birds in North America offers many opportunities for photography. A trip to Point Pelee National Park during the Festival of Birds in early May has become a yearly event for us. Point Pelee is the southernmost point of Canada, reaching into Lake Erie at the same latitude as northern California. This point is along primary bird migration routes and is often described as a critical area for birds migrating northward in the spring. The 50km crossing of Lake Erie can be exhausting and the point offers a place for birds to rest and feed before pursuing their migration. Bird sightings and photography are made easier because leaves are not fully developed at that time of the year and there is a good number of birds moving northward along this narrow point. The warblers are in their breeding (usually more colourful) plumage, making them perfect subjects for photography. While Point Pelee is known as the “Warbler Capital of Canada”, sightings are not limited to warblers. You will also find sparrows, wrens, woodpeckers and thrushes, many of which remain shy and elusive at other times of the year. During the peak of the migration, it is relatively easy to see 50 different species of birds in a single day.  Guides and volunteers are always happy to assist with identification or in providing information on sightings of newly-arrived species.

Point Pelee National Park has trails covering a variety of habitats. The Marsh Boardwalk, the DeLaurier Homestead & Trail and the numerous trails at the tip of the point are typical stopovers in our daily routine. You will find warblers, vireos, wrens and much more along these trails.  Close to the park, Hillman Marsh Conservation Area is another hotspot where birdwatchers congregate to see waterfowl and shorebirds. Egrets, herons, ducks, swans, gulls and terns are common there and you might see raptors over the marsh or farmland.

Migratory birds can of course be seen in other parks and conservation areas. From Ottawa, we usually make a stop at Presqu’Ile and Rondeau provincial parks on our way to Point Pelee. Depending on the timing of your visit in the spring, you might find species that are still moving in their migration and others that are establishing their territory for nesting. The Colonel Samuel Smith Park, an urban park on the western side of Toronto, is also interesting as red-necked grebes have established there to breed, thereby providing opportunities for photos of mating rituals in April-May and of baby grebes in June.

On the south side of lake Erie, in Northwest Ohio, you will find the USA counterpart of Point Pelee National Park. The Magee Marsh Conservation Area and Boardwalk, the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, the Maumee Bay State Park and the Metzer Marsh Wildlife Area, are amongst the most famous birding areas in North America during spring migration. Ohio’s spring festival is promoted as “The Biggest Week in American Birding” and the area is called the “Warbler Capital of the World”. Indeed, the Magee Marsh Boardwalk can be crowded at times. Interestingly, this does not seem to bother the warblers which are easier to watch and photograph than in any other area we have visited so far. You can always retreat to other birdwatching sites nearby when it gets too crowded. As distances between these sites are relatively small, you can easily move to another location during the day. Together, these parks and refuges cover a wide variety of habitats were migrating birds can rest, feed and wait for proper weather conditions before crossing Lake Erie in their northward migration.

Further north and east, well into the Atlantic migration flyway, there are a number of interesting sites to photograph birds during their spring migration. Cap Tourmente, close to Quebec City, is well known for snow geese as they stop in large numbers to feed in both their spring and fall migrations. Because of the variety of habitats, Cap Tourmente is also a good place to see warblers, sparrows, flycatchers and raptors. Further east, along the north shore of the Saint-Lawrence river, Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive and Isle-aux-Coudres are well known to bird enthusiasts. The migration peaks there at a later date in May. We were surprised by the number of species present in these areas, with more than 60 species seen over two days.  You may also want to continue on to Tadoussac for whale watching and breathtaking scenery. You might see brants, eiders and red-throated loons along the way.

Along the Saint-Lawrence river, between Montréal and Trois-Rivières, we regularly stop over at the Réserve Mondiale de la Biosphère du Lac Saint-Pierre (RAMSAR site) as this is a good location to observe waterfowl and snow geese. This is where we were able to photograph this American bittern.  Bitterns blend so perfectly in their environment that you do not see them until you get so close that they flush away with a big noise (and a big surprise for you).  It is always a lucky day when you can find one that “poses” for you.

Spring is upon us and will offer many opportunities to photograph birds in their breeding plumage. As they establish in specific locations after a long migration, they get busy finding a place to nest and start defending their territory. Some are very vocal in doing so and will perch in the open to signal their presence.  This only lasts a short period as most will soon revert to a quiet behaviour so as to avoid revealing the location of a nest or the presence of newly-hatched chicks.  They get busy finding food for their young and their behaviour clearly change to one of being more secretive.  It is then time for photographers to retreat and leave the birds to their family duties.

Field Contributor Benefits

When you become a Level 3 subscriber, a Field Contributor, you will also have access to the Nature Photographer Field Contributors’ Web Site. The Field Contributor’s site contains additional articles, information, and images.

1) Your name will be listed in each issue and on the web site as one of our Field Contributors.

2) You will have a pin number so you can access the Field Contributor web site where you will find articles which are only published on the Field Contributor site.

3) Helen and Marty are available by telephone. In fact, we enjoy talking with you a great deal. We will do our best to answer questions and look forward to discussing article ideas with you.

4) You are invited to submit images and/or articles which will be considered for possible publication in the magazine, in the iPad app, in the PDF sold on this web site, or on this web site.

5) When published you will receive payment. The payment schedule is:Spring and Summer issues — payment will be made in late November- mid December.Fall/Winter issue — payment will be made in April.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

Ansel Adams

Beginning Photography Equipment

Buying photography equipment for the first time is a daunting task. Useful guides exist to help beginners choose a good camera, but few newcomers realize that the camera itself is only the first of many pieces of equipment necessary to create a full setup for photography. In this guide, I will suggest a complete kit — everything from lens cloths to computer monitors — that will provide a beginner with high quality images (and room to grow) for a price of around 2000 US dollars.

Note that this guide is not a comprehensive list of equipment that will work for every type of photographer. As your photography becomes more specialized — portraiture, landscapes, wildlife, or anything else — you will gravitate towards more specialized equipment as well. The recommendations below can be considered an all-purpose starter kit rather than a list tuned to one specific type of photographer.

1) The Camera

The core of photography is a camera, or at least the sensor of a camera. At the moment, one of the biggest debates in the photography world is between two different types of cameras: mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Both have their merits, but a beginning photographer on a tight budget should be looking more closely at DSLRs. With entry-level models, new mirrorless cameras cost about the same as new DSLRs, and sometimes less. However, you can still buy older, high-quality DSLR equipment (including lenses) for a lower price than similar mirrorless gear. Mirrorless cameras are filling this gap quickly, but the best camera for a beginner on a budget is almost certainly a DSLR.

Of all the possible DSLR cameras, my strong recommendation is to buy the Nikon D7000, used, from the camera store Adorama. Some people find too much risk in buying a used camera from eBay and Adorama is one of the most respected names in the camera business — when they rate a used camera at E-, its condition will be as good as most “mint” cameras sold through eBay.

The D7000 is better than an entry-level DSLR because it give you room to grow. Although it has the same sensor as some cheaper cameras, it gives you so many more features (including extra dials that make it easier to change settings once you learn about your camera) that make it indispensable. How do I know that the D7000 is so good? Simple — I have taken more than 60,000 photos with it! Check out the three images below, all taken with the D7000:

To find some more info and sample photos from the D7000, check out our review. If you want more details on entry-level Nikon DSLRs, we have a general outline as well.

Keep in mind that the D7000 can be a complex camera for a beginner. However, if you’re dedicated enough to be reading this article in the first place, you are probably the type of person who will grow to appreciate the many benefits offered by the D7000.

Here is a link to the Nikon D7000 at Adorama. Note that this camera has been discontinued, so you have to click on the “Buy it used” heading to see your options. Generally, an “E” quality D7000 will be about $400.

If you would prefer a more entry-level camera (one that is easier to use and has the even better image quality, but does not offer as many features for learning photography), Nikon’s newest is the D3300. When you buy it with a kit lens, the D3300 from Adorama is $500.

2) Lenses

Whereas a camera sensor will record the light that it receives, a lens’s job is arguably even more important: help the light get to the sensor in the first place.

Lenses range from the “free” — those which come in a kit with the camera — to the unbelievably expensive. As a beginner, it can be tough to determine which lenses are worth their asking price, especially if you have no prior knowledge of which lenses even exist in the first place (although our lens database can help).

If you want a high-quality beginning lens for the lowest possible price, you should look at prime lenses (those which do not zoom) or third-party lenses. I do not recommend starting with the kit lens that comes with some cameras (usually an 18-55mm zoom), since you will soon realize that you want something better.

My first recommendation, if you use a Nikon camera like the D7000, is to buy the wonderful Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX lens. This tiny gem is sharp — check out our sample photos — and it costs just under $200. Here is a link to the 35mm f/1.8 DX at Adorama.

To add to the 35mm f/1.8, you will probably want a wide-to-telephoto zoom, and a good choice is the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS lens. This is a particularly useful lens because it not only has a wide aperture of f/2.8 (which lets it work well in dark scenes), but it also has image stabilization to help make your handheld images sharper. Here is a link to the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS, which costs $520 at Adorama.

Or, if you would rather stick to a single lens, the revolutionary Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 is $800, and it would replace both the lenses above. It is a heavy lens, but it is amazingly high-quality — just check out our review. Here is a link to the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens at Adorama.

Lenses are an individual decision, and these three are nothing more than my own recommendations. If you practice a more specific type of photography (such as wildlife), you could prefer completely different lenses. However, for a typical beginner, these lenses are a great way to find out what type of photography you like the most. Plus, they are good enough to keep even as you grow more specialized.

Total: $720 or $800, depending upon the lenses you choose

3) The Tripod

Often overlooked and undervalued, a tripod doesn’t seem nearly as important as it really is. After all, three aluminum sticks glued together are no more complex than three sticks glued together. Right? Unfortunately, that logic is why many photographers choose to buy the least expensive tripod they can find, then leave it at home all the time because it’s cheaply-made and hard to use. A tripod should be as popular as its buddies Camera and Lens, but somewhere along the way it got the short end of the stick.

You will realize over time whether or not you need a tripod for your photography (and if you do, you will want a more expensive model at some point in the future), but it is important for a beginner to have a solid model as well. With that in mind, my recommendation is to get the Manfrotto MT190X3 tripod. It is not a perfect tripod, but I can say (having used the older version of this tripod extensively) that it should be more than enough for most beginners. Plus, at $150, it is pretty inexpensive (as far as good tripods go). Here is a link to the MT190X3 at Adorama.

However, a tripod is not enough — you still need a ballhead so that you can adjust the position of the camera. I have tried several ballheads in the $100 range, and I can say that the best (by far) that I have ever used is the Oben BE-126 ballhead. Even with my heaviest camera and longest telephoto lens, this ballhead has never slipped out of position, and it always locks tightly. This head isn’t quite as good as the most expensive ballheads from companies like Really Right Stuff or Arca Swiss, but it is fantastic for the price. Here is a link to the BE-126 at B&H, another highly-reputable camera store.

Total: $260

4) Software

There is a lot of competition for software that processes images, with the two most popular options being Capture One Pro and Adobe Lightroom. These two programs are similar — they both allow you to organize and edit your photos — but Lightroom is far less expensive. Some argue that Capture One Pro is better (whereas some argue the opposite), but Lightroom will is ideal for those on a budget, since it costs half the price. For what it’s worth, I only ever use Lightroom, and I find it to be wonderful.

To purchase Adobe Lightroom 6 for $145, visit this link to Adorama. Note, though, that some products (including the lenses that I listed earlier on this page) can be bundled with Lightroom and save you an additional $40. If you want, you can also download trial versions, both for Capture One Pro and for Adobe Lightroom.

Also, don’t give into the temptation to buy Photoshop just because it is so popular — most photographers will not actually need its features, since it is more of a graphics-oriented specialist program than something like Lightroom. Plus, it is far more expensive (and the newest version is only offered through a frustrating subscription program).

Total: $140, but $100 when you bundle Lightroom with a lens.

5) Monitors

If you are a just starting photography, your current monitor probably is not good enough for serious editing work. Specifically, the colors on your screen will almost certainly be wrong — you will not be editing anything how you think you are.

Check out our monitor purchase guide for more information, although note that several new monitors have come onto the market since it was published. One of the best new models is the AOC 12367FH 23” screen. Don’t be fooled by the bizarre name — at $160, this is one of the least expensive IPS monitors on the market, and you absolutely need and IPS monitor if you want to do serious color work on your computer. Yes, better options exist (often for significantly more money), but this monitor is a great start for a beginner. Here is a link to the AOC monitor from B&H.

Unfortunately, getting a good monitor is only half the battle — step two is color calibration. My strong recommendation is to buy a piece of hardware to calibrate your monitor, such as the $60 Spyder4Express. It does not have all the same features as its $190 older brother, Spyder5Pro, but it gets the job done for a much lower price (assuming you only use one monitor). I edited my photos for almost a year without any calibration, and I never realized how wrong my colors really were. I had to re-edit everything! Save yourself some time and buy a real calibration unit. Here is a link to the Spyder4Express from B&H.

Total: $220

6) Lighting

Disclaimer: I don’t use much external lighting for my photos, mainly because I do not take many images of people. That said, most photographers will need a flash at some time or another, whether for portraits or for creative still-life photography.

Nikon brand flashes cost hundreds of dollars, assuming that you want a flash that can function off-camera in an automatic (TTL) mode. However, third-party flashes with those features can be fairly cheap — check out the Yongnuo YN-568EX, an extremely well-specified flash for the price of $105. Depending upon the genre of photography you practice most, this may be the only flash you need. (Or you may need dozens more — ask any portrait photographer!) Here is a link to the Yongnuo flash at B&H.

You may also want some light modifiers (such as reflectors), but I don’t recommend getting anything more until you are sure that you want to do portrait photography. There is no end to the world of light modifiers, and a beginner should learn the basics before deciding which complex lighting setups to buy.

Total: $105

7) Filters

Filters are another essential element of a photographer’s toolbox. With digital cameras, only a few filters are even necessary in the first place (the old color-correction filters for film can be replicated using software like Adobe Lightroom) — but some filters cannot be replicated in post-processing. The single most useful filter for digital photography is a polarizer. Just like polarized sunglasses, these filters cut glare from shiny surfaces (other than metal), they darken skies, and they reduce haze. Plus, they make images look more vibrant and saturated.

If you are not a landscape photographer, you will want a polarizer because of these benefits — and if you are a landscape photographer, you will probably never remove the polarizer from your lens! Depending upon the lens or lenses that you use, you will need to get a polarizer of a specific size. Polarizing filters (and filters in general) are sized in millimeters — just like the front rings on a lens. For a lens with a 72mm ring (like the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 that I suggested above), you would need a 72mm filter.

If you are on a budget, buy a polarizer that is the same size as the filter ring of your largest lens. For example, you may choose to go with my suggestion to buy both the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX and the Sigma 17-55mm f/2.8 OS. If you do, these lenses have different filter ring sizes — the Nikon is 52mm, whereas the Sigma is 77mm. To use the same filter on both lenses, get a 77mm filter a plus a 52mm-to-77mm step-up ring. This is a lot less expensive than buying two filters!

Filters can be expensive, and with good reason — a bad filter will harm the image quality of every image you take. So, don’t skimp on a filter! One brand known for a good balance of price and quality is Hoya, which is my first recommendation for a beginning photographer.

Here is a link to the Hoya 77mm polarizer at B&H. You would use this size if you choose the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS lens, which has a 77mm filter ring. This filter costs just under $90.

Here is a link to the Hoya 72mm polarizer at B&H. You would use this size if you choose the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens, which has a 72mm filter ring. This filter costs $60.

Here is a link to B&H for the 52mm to 77mm step-up ring that you would use on the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 lens, if you also bought the 17-50mm f/2.8 lens (which has a 77mm filter thread). This ring costs less than $4.

If you decide that landscape photography is your favorite type, you will probably need two additional filters: a graduated neutral density filter to darken skies (get a rectangular graduated filter, not a circular one) and a regular neutral density filter to blur moving water. However, both of these are specialist filters, and I recommend waiting until you know what you want before buying either. For now, a high-quality polarizing filter should be more than enough.

Total: $60 if you bought the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, a bit over $90 if you bought the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 and Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS. 

8) Extras

You will definitely need a bag for your camera, but I recommend against buying one new from a store. Generally, you’ll be able to repurpose an old backpack or messenger bag to carry a camera — if not, try finding one at a garage sale. Instead of paying $50 or more for a bag, you can get one for $5 or less if you buy secondhand and local. I would recommend a remote release for your camera. For the D7000, try the $15 ML-L3 (here is a link for the ML-L3 at B&H). I have owned two of these — they are easy to lose, so be careful — and both have worked quite well.

Make sure to get cleaning equipment for your lens. I recommend that you get two or three lens cloths (this $4 microfiber cloth from B&H is great), as well as a cleaning spray (here is a link to a two ounce spray at B&H for $3). In total, this will be about $10.

In addition to a lens cleaner, you need a way to get rid of dust that lands on your camera’s sensor. The best way to do so, and the safest, is to use the Sensor Gel Stick, which we sell here at Photography Life. It costs $55, and you may want to buy some extra sticky paper for another $13. Between the two products, your sensor-cleaning equipment will cost no more than $70.

I also recommend an extra battery. That way, you can be shooting while one of your batteries is charging. I strongly recommend getting a Nikon-brand battery — cheaper batteries from third parties can be tempting, but this is one part that you really don’t want to malfunction. Here is a link to the Nikon EN-EL15 battery at B&H, which is the battery that works for the Nikon D7000.

Lastly, you will need memory cards. The D7000 can take two SD cards at a time, and its images take up a relatively large amount of space. I recommend getting two 32GB cards so that you don’t run out of space — the 32GB card from PNY Technologies is a wonderful value at $20. I can vouch for this card completely, since I use the 64GB version in my Nikon D800e camera! Here is a link to the 32GB PNY card from B&H — remember to get two.

Total: $190 or less

9) Summary

If you’re keeping track, that’s a lot of equipment you’ll need — far more than just a single camera and a kit lens. However, no matter how many reviews and comparisons you read, you will be hard-pressed to find better items than these. I have personally used most of the items on this list, and I know other photographers who have used the rest. It can be daunting to start a DSLR system from scratch, but you will have truly everything that you need if you buy the items listed in this article.

When I bought my first DSLR, I soon realized that I had spent all my money on the camera and I had left nothing for a tripod, filters, or a good monitor. I had to wait months before I had a complete and working kit! To make this process easier, I compiled all the information above into an easy list.

Here is a final compilation of the items above — a complete and high-quality photographic kit for under $2000 US dollars:

  1. A camera — Nikon D7000 — $400
  2. A lens or lenses — Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, or both the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX and the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 OS  — $800 or $720 respectively
  3. A tripod and ballhead — Manfrotto MT190X3 tripod and Oben BE-126 ballhead — $260
  4. Editing Software — Adobe Lightroom 6 — $100 if you bundle it with one of your lenses, $140 on its own
  5. A calibrated monitor — AOC 12367FH 23” monitor and Spyder4Express callibration unit — $220
  6. A flash — Yongnuo YN-568EX — $105
  7. A polarizing filter — The Hoya 72mm polarizer (for the Sigma 18-35) or the 77mm polarizer with a 52mm to 77mm step-up ring (for the Sigma 17-50mm and the Nikon 35mm) — $60 or $90 respectively
  8. Smaller extra items — A remote release, a microfiber cloth, a cleaning spray for your lens, a Sensor Gel Stick to clean your camera sensor, additional sticky paper for your Sensor Gel Stick, an extra battery, and two 32GB memory cards  — $190

Grand Total: $2135 for the one-lens setup, $2085 for the two-lens combo.

Ok, so that’s a bit over $2000. Buy one of these items used, or ask for a polarizer for your birthday, and you’ve hit the $2000 mark. Congratulations!

If you get the items above, you truly could go for years without needing any more photography equipment. And, when you do decide to buy more specialized gear, all of these items are high-quality enough that you can keep them around for a long time.

Also, although Photography Life receives a small portion of the sales whenever you buy something from the links in the list above, we are not affiliated in any way with the products in this article (aside from the sensor gel stick, of course, since we are selling it on Photography Life)! I am recommending this equipment because it is some of the best for the money, not because a manufacturer is paying me to recommend their product. Also, you will never pay more for an item by clicking on these links — buying them here is just a way to thank us for all this research and testing.

I hope this article has helped you see what you need to put together a camera system for a moderate budget. I am happy to answer any questions in the comments section below, and feel free to recommend your own favorite gear to our readers!

How to Choose and Buy a Tripod for a DSLR Camera

Choosing a tripod can be an overwhelming experience, given how many different types and choices we are presented with. On one hand, a tripod is a very simple tool to keep our cameras steady when we use them in challenging light conditions. On the other hand, there are so many different variables that come into play when choosing a tripod: How tall should it be? How light should it be? How stable should it be? What kind of weight can it support? How much should I spend on a tripod? These are just some of the questions that might come up as you look into buying a new tripod.

Before getting into the intricate details about tripods, I would like to go over the advantages and disadvantages of tripods and why you might need one for your DSLR.

) Why do you need a tripod?

So, what is the purpose of a tripod? You might need a tripod for some or all of the following reasons:

  1. To increase sharpness and depth of field in your images by keeping the camera still in low-light environments when using slow shutter speeds.
  2. To rest heavy camera gear such as long telephoto lenses on the tripod.
  3. To increase the quality of the images by keeping the camera ISO low.
  4. To allow more careful composition, while framing the shot exactly how you want it.
  5. To shoot HDR and panoramic shots that require exactly the same framing and precision.
  6. To photograph nighttime objects such as the Moon, planets, stars, etc. as well as painting with light or using available light for landscape and architectural photography.
  7. To do self-portraits with a camera timer.
  8. To shoot extreme close-ups/macro (flowers, insects, etc).
  9. To hold various objects such as flashes, reflectors, etc.
  10. To shoot at difficult or impossible (hand-held) angles.
  11. To shoot vibration-free videos.
  12. To defend yourself 🙂

I personally use a tripod for one main reason – landscape photography. Shooting sunrises and sunsets can be quite challenging, especially when the light conditions are far from ideal. Although with the recent introduction of ultra wide-angle lenses such as Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 VR with vibration-reduction technology and DSLR cameras such as Nikon D3s that have very impressive high ISO performance, you are almost no longer required to use a tripod. However, I still prefer to use a tripod to keep camera ISO low (at base ISO) and to frame the shot for HDR and panoramic images. In addition, there are situations where you must use a tripod in order to slow down and blur action, such as photographing streams and waterfalls as shown in the image below. Therefore, if you are into landscape photography, a good tripod is a must and any pro will tell you the same thing.

Occasionally, I might use a tripod for wildlife photography (specifically birds), but not during long hikes, due to inconvenience and weight factors.

2) Tripod components – what is a tripod system?

A tripod system is generally comprised of the following parts:

  1. Legs – the obvious. Tripod legs are typically made of aluminum, basalt, steel or carbon fiber.
  2. Head – the part that holds a digital camera or a lens. There are many different types of heads, but the most popular types are ball-heads and pan-tilt heads.
  3. Centerpost/Center Column – a separate leg that runs through the middle, allowing to further raise the tripod head.
  4. Feet – good tripods allow changing tripod feet at the end of the legs for indoor and outdoor use.

The cheapest tripods have legs with an integrated non-replaceable head and feet and sometimes have a centerpost, while the top-of-the-line tripods have a modular tripod system that have replaceable feet and allow attaching a separate tripod head (the head is typically not included).

3) Disadvantages of using a tripod

Tripods are nice and can give you many options to get the highest quality image. However, there are also some significant disadvantages of using tripods, specifically:

  1. They are heavy. Although there are relatively lightweight carbon-fiber tripods out there, once you add a tripod head, the setup becomes quite heavy.
  2. They are inconvenient. No matter how small and collapsible your tripod is, it still occupies space and is often inconvenient to carry around or travel with.
  3. They are difficult to use in crowded environments.
  4. They can be expensive. Good tripod systems can cost over $1,000.
  5. They can take a while to set up, making you miss the best moment.
  6. You can easily damage your camera and lens if you do not know how to properly operate a tripod, or if the tripod system is cheap and unstable.

4) Factors to consider when choosing a tripod

You started your tripod shopping spree and have no idea where to start. What factors do you need to consider when purchasing a tripod? As I have pointed out above, purchasing a tripod can be an overwhelming experience, given how many different choices we are presented with from small and compact to large and heavy. Let’s go through each factor and identify your needs:

4.1) Weight Rating

The first thing I would look at is how much weight a tripod can support. Many photographers make a mistake of buying a tripod that can only support a few pounds and is not made for heavy DSLR equipment. What ends up happening is the obvious – at one point or another the whole thing collapses, destroying the DSLR and the lens. Always make sure that the tripod you want to buy can support at least 1.5 times more than the total weight of your camera and your heaviest lens. I say at least, because I prefer to keep it at around 2x more. Do not forget that you will at times apply pressure on your camera and sometimes even rest your hands on the setup if you are shooting with long lenses, which adds to the weight. You might also add a flash or a battery grip to your camera in the future, so you have to keep all of that in mind.

4.2) Tripod Height

I always recommend buying a tripod that matches your height, so that you do not have to bend to look into the viewfinder. Once you put your camera on a tripod, the viewfinder should be at your eye level. It is OK if it goes higher than your eye level, because you can always adjust the legs to be shorter. However, if it is much below your eye level, you will find yourself bending all the time, which can be a tiring experience, especially when you are waiting for some kind of action and need to constantly look through the viewfinder.

If you are buying a tripod with an attached head, you want the tip of the head to be on your jaw level. If you are buying a modular tripod with a separate head, make sure that the legs end approximately on your shoulder level.

Another factor to consider is tripod height when it is folded for easier travel. Do you need it to fit in your carry-on luggage? Mine barely does diagonally, with feet removed, and I take it with me everywhere I go.

4.3) Tripod Weight and Construction

Weight is a significant factor when choosing a tripod. You do not want your tripod to be too heavy, because you will find yourself leaving it at home, rather than taking it with you on the road. The lightest tripods are made of carbon-fiber material, which is extremely durable, stable and does not rust. While carbon-fiber is the best material for a tripod, it unfortunately comes at a high price tag.

The next best construction material is aluminum, which is heavier than carbon fiber. Most cheaper tripods are made of aluminum today. You can also find tripods made of stainless steel, but those are generally used for video equipment and are too heavy for regular use.

In terms of total weight, try to keep the tripod legs without the head under 5 pounds. Generally, carbon fiber legs are between 3 and 4 pounds, while aluminum legs are between 5 and 6 pounds, depending on the size and how much weight they can support. Basalt lava legs are somewhere in-between both in terms of weight and cost.

4.4) Tripod Legs

Tripod legs generally come in two forms – tubular and non-tubular. All carbon-fiber legs come in tubular form and have a threaded twist-lock system to secure the legs, while aluminum, basalt and steel tripods might come in different shapes with a flip-lock. Depending on the maximum height of the tripod, there might be between 3 and 5 sections on tripod legs. The more sections, the higher the tripod and generally a little less stable.

4.5) Tripod Feet

Some advanced tripods will allow you to replace tripod feet for different conditions and situations – they just unscrew on the bottom of the tripod legs. There are different types of tripod feet for indoors (rubber or plastic) and outdoors use (metal spikes). Unless you are planning to shoot in icy, rainy/slippery conditions, the standard rubber feet that come with your tripod should work just fine.

4.6) Centerpost

Some tripods come with a centerpost – a single leg in the middle of the tripod that allows you to increase or decrease the height of the camera by simply moving the centerpost in upward or downward direction. Although some photographers find it convenient and nice to have, I strongly advice against having a centerpost on a tripod. A centerpost defeats the whole purpose of a tripod – it is essentially the same thing as having a monopod on top of the tripod. It might not be as pronounced if you are only shooting with a wide-angle lens, but once you set up a long telephoto lens, you will quickly understand that using a centerpost will cause too much vibration. If you still want to get a centerpost for whatever reason, make sure that it can fully decline to the same level as where the tripod legs meet. The centerpost should never wobble at its lowest level.

4.7) Tripod Head

A tripod head is the most essential part of the tripod system. It is responsible for securely holding camera equipment and controlling camera movement. A modular tripod system does not come with a head and you have to buy it separately. When choosing a tripod head, always make sure that it can support at least the same amount of weight your tripod legs can.

There are three types of heads commonly available:

  1. Pan-Tilt Head – either with a single handle for horizontal movement or dual handles for both horizontal and vertical movement. This is the most common type of head that is typically built into cheaper tripods.
  2. Ball-Head – compared to pan-tilt heads, ball-heads only have one control that loosens or tightens the grip. They are very flexible and allow very smooth operation while keeping the camera/lens securely tightened.
  3. Gimbal Head – a specialized head for long and heavy 300mm+ lenses. Compared to pan-tilt heads and ball-heads, gimbal heads perfectly balance the camera and heavy lens and are best suited for fast-action photography. They are extremely easy to use in any direction and do not require tightening the head every time the camera/lens moves.

I started out with a pan-tilt head and eventually switched over to a ball-head with a quick-release system (see next), due to flexibility and easiness of use.

4.8) Quick-Release System

Every modern DSLR comes with a thread on the bottom of the camera that allows you to attach it to a tripod or a monopod (heavy lenses also come with a similar thread on the tripod collar). This threaded system makes it extremely inconvenient to attach cameras and lenses on tripods, because you would have to either rotate the camera or the tripod to attach them together. To make it easier and more convenient for photographers, manufacturers came up with a great solution – to attach a small removable plate on the camera or lens, which then can be tightly secured on the tripod head.

Cheaper tripods come with a simple plastic plate that can be attached on any camera or lens, while some of the more expensive tripod heads come with a more durable plate. The best quick-release system, however, is the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System. It has more or less become a standard among manufacturers and it has proven to be a very effective solution for quick and easy operation. Compared to plastic plates, the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System is made of very strong aluminum and allows attaching the camera/lens on a tripod without the need to rotate anything. A quick-release plate is permanently attached to a camera or lens, which then easily slides into a quick-release clamp (pictured below). The locking mechanism is simple, yet super tight for a vibration-free operation.

The beauty of this system is that some manufacturers like Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises offer not only plates for almost any camera and lens, but also replacement lens tripod collars, flash brackets, L-brackets and other accessories for the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System. The only downside of the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System is that it is not cheap – you also have to purchase separate plates for each camera and lens.

4.9) Stability

A heavy tripod does not always mean that it is stable. There are plenty of tripod systems out there that are heavy and durable, yet lack the much-needed stability when used in various weather conditions. When a tripod is fully set up, it has to withstand not only wind, but also occasional bumps and knocks that might happen in the field. You always need to make sure that your camera and lens balance on a tripod rather than lean towards one direction, because you might end up damaging your equipment if the head is not fully tightened or if the front outweighs the back and everything falls on the ground.

5) Which tripod should you buy?

Now that you are familiar with all the criteria for selecting the right tripod, you are probably wondering which tripod you should buy for your photography needs. Since I have numerously gone through the experience of shopping for tripods and have seen others do the same, let me tell you what many photographers end up doing. They first look for the cheapest tripod available that will be good enough to hold the first DSLR, since they have no idea if they really need it or do not know how often they would be using it. The tripod would cost between $75 and $150 for legs and head, which is a good price for a simple tool. Next, they purchase a longer and heavier lens and add more weight to the setup. All of a sudden, they find that the cheap tripod is not good enough and they need something more durable and stable. After making the first mistake, they suddenly realize that they need to do more research and they spend countless hours reading about tripods on different websites and forums. Despite all recommendations from the pros, they are not willing to invest on a top-of-the-line tripod with a good ball-head, so they end up getting a popular tripod system for $300-500 with a separate head. Seems like a great investment and the tripod seems to be much better than the previous one. After a year or two they realize that their last purchase was not that good, because the tripod is too heavy and hard to use, especially for traveling. They realize that they should have listened to the pros in the beginning and bought a good tripod system. Does this sound familiar? It certainly does for me, because I went through a similar experience and wasted too much effort and money.

Other photographers might have a different story, where they purchased an inexpensive tripod they like in the beginning and they are still happily using it today. All it says about them, is that they are not using their tripods as much and what they have is good enough for occasional use. Anybody who heavily relies on a tripod (especially landscape and architectural photographers) ends up buying two to three different tripods to eventually end up with the best.

It seems that it is hard to avoid purchasing multiple tripods, because it is often impossible to justify the cost of a good system to someone who does not heavily use a tripod. If someone told me that I would eventually spend more than $500 on a tripod system when I just got into photography, I would have never believed them – that’s too much money to spend on a darn tripod! But it all turned out to be true, because I actually ended up spending a lot more than $500 overtime, and I wish I could go back in time and buy the right stuff from the very beginning.

If I recommend someone who has just bought their first DSLR to buy the best tripod system that costs between $800 and $1,200, I will almost certainly get a “you are crazy” look, no matter how well I explain my story. Therefore, here is what I would recommend:

  • If you currently do not have a tripod and you want to buy one, get the cheapest aluminum tripod system with an integrated head for less than $150 total. Why do I recommend the cheapest tripod? Because you first need to understand how much you will be using it. Six months down the road you might end up doing other type of photography that does not require a tripod or you might find yourself on a path of becoming a good landscape or macro photographer. A cheap tripod will give you enough information to understand the real role of a tripod in your photography.
  • If you already have a cheap tripod and you want to get something better, save yourself a lot of money and frustration and get the best tripod with an arca-swiss quick release system – skip the middle. Some people buy cheaper legs and heads and either find them too heavy or unstable. One common problem with other quick-release systems, is the fact that cheaper plates do not grip well on cameras and start wiggling and rotating relative to the base, making it a nightmare for panoramic photography.

6) Best Tripods to Purchase

My tripod recommendations, based on the above, are divided into two categories: “low-budget” (under $150) and “top of the line” (over $500).

6.1) Low-budget tripods (under $150)

Here are the best low-budget tripods under $150 that I recommend:

  1. Sunpak Ultra 7000 – $79.95. Very cheap, weighs 4.1 pounds (1.9 kg) and can support up to 12.3 pounds (5.6 kg) of total weight. This is very similar to the first tripod I bought for myself from a local camera store.
  2. Slik Pro 340DX Tripod (Black) with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head – $99.95. Although maximum height is too short at only 57.9″ (147 cm), it is very lightweight at 3.5 pounds (1.58 kg) and can support up to 8.8 lbs (4 kg) of total weight. This would be a great tripod to take on long hikes.
  3. Slik Pro 700DX Tripod with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head – $139.95. Although it is a little heavy at 7 pounds (3.18 kg), it can support up to 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of total weight and can be extended all the way to 74.8″ (190 cm).

6.2) Top of the line tripods (over $500)

Top of the line tripod systems have separate legs and replaceable heads. Let’s start with the tripod legs. The best legs are made of carbon fiber and manufactured by such brands as Gitzo (top choice) and Really Right Stuff. I cannot really recommend a particular model, because you should choose one that fits your height and weight requirements. If you buy Gitzo, their best and most stable line is the “Systematic” 6x Carbon Fiber series without a center column. I personally have an older version of the Gitzo Systematic legs that I have been happily using for years and they have never failed me once. I highly recommend using the Gitzo Configurator to get the best legs for your gear.

In terms of tripod heads, if you are not shooting with very long lenses, you should definitely go for a ball-head. Here are the best ball-heads available in the market today:

  1. Arca-Swiss Z1 – $389.95. I have been using this ball-head for almost two years and I really like it.
  2. Kirk BH1 – $375.00. An excellent alternative to the Arca-Swiss Z1.
  3. Really Right Stuff BH-55 Pro – $415.00. Another great ball-head that is very similar to Arca-Swiss Z1 and Kirk BH1. Top choice among many professional photographers.

There are also other cheaper brands that manufacture good ball-heads, one of which is Markins. The Markins Q3 costs around $300 and it can actually support more weight than all of the above ball-heads.

If you are shooting with long and heavy lenses, your best choice is going to be the Wimberley Gimbal (top choice) or King Cobra.

One more thing worth noting, is that the latest Gitzo Systematic 6x Carbon Fiber tripods come with a hook under the platform. I would highly recommend to get one if you can, because you can hang your backpack/sandbag for additional stability.

Remember, with tripods you often get what you pay for! Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.