Seven Years of Digital Photography

Last modified on June 16th, 2007

Back in December of 2000, while home in Chilliwack visiting my family for Christmas, I made the digital plunge. I was in London Drugs, looking around the electronics section for something bright and shiny to make me happy, and my eyes settled on the first real section of digital cameras ever to hit the market.

For the most part, most of those cameras were nothing more than glorified webcams — they took grainy photos, and really didn’t have any options. However, one in particular stood out above the rest. It was the Nikon Coolpix 880, and it became my first digital camera.

I shot all my photos that Christmas completely digitally, which amazed all my older relatives and friends. The photos were pretty awesome for the day, but by today’s standards, had a few colour problems (notably skin tones) and didn’t really perform that well in low light. I loved having the ability to review your shots immediately after taking them, and getting instant satisfaction from all your shots. For the first time in ages, I was excited about taking photos.

Unfortunately, I soon learned that I was a year or two ahead of the rest of the market. Making prints out of my digital photos was difficult, and not a single store in Ottawa would do it. So, I had to get Ofoto, a US photo company, to print them and mail them to me, which was a bit of a pain in the ass (usually took 7 – 10 days to get them).

The next “step-up” in terms of Cameras was a 6MP Canon Digital Elph. I still have one of these (although not the same one), not because I like the photos they take (in fact, I think they take rather lousy photos, given how much they cost), but because they have a small form factor and can easily fit into an inside jacket pocket. Unfortunately, they aren’t they durable, and I’ve broken my current one twice, once by having it in my pocket (the LCD cracked due to tension against it — maybe I wear my pants too tight?), and once in New York City (I think it fell a few inches and the shudder mechanism broke). And to be honest, while I think dropping a camera 6 feet runs a pretty good risk of breaking it under most conditions, I think most cameras should be able to sustain a fall of a few inches, or take normal wear and tear. So, I’m pretty disappointed with this line of cameras (although lots of people seem to like them).

This reminds me of my problems with cell phones. I’ve had water damage with my cell phone a few times, only one of which they have ever fixed under warranty. You see, they have a little dot inside the case which changes colour when it gets wet. If it’s in the “wet colour” state when you send it in, normally they just blame you for getting it wet and charge you full replacement price. However, Vancouver is one of the wettest cities in North America, and in the fall or spring, there’s usually always some sort of rain or mist blanketing the city. To argue that I shouldn’t be able to use my cell phone while walking to work (while it’s rainy and misty) is a bit of a stretch, but that’s usually when it’s stopped working for me.

So, back to cameras, I think Canon should step up and make these guys a little more durable. If it can’t handle normal wear and tear (a camera that claims to fits into a pocket *should* be able to survive being put into a pocket), then something is wrong.

So while I still own a Digital Elph, I hit a point a few years ago where I realized that I was sort of hitting the wall in terms of my abilities and room to maneuver with my camera. I could have upgraded to something like a Canon Powershot camera with a few more bells and whistles, but I figured that I enjoyed photography enough that I should just bite the bullet and get something I really liked.

So, around three years ago, I shelled out $2000 and picked up the Canon EOS 20D, 8.2MP Digital SLR body and never looked back.

The first mistake I made, and it’s something that most people who take the SLR plunge make, was picking up a crappy lens. It is absolutely pointless to buy a Digital SLR and throw a junky lens on it. To be honest, the pictures you end up with will probably be a lot worse than those you’d get off a cheap digital point-and-shoot camera. You can make really awesome lenses that are small for point-and-shoot cameras, but it’s far harder to make good SLR-size lenses (the advantage being that with a larger lens you let in a lot more light). So, don’t be cheap when it comes to your lens — most of you will keep them for a very long time.

If you really are budget limited, the exception to the rule would be Canon’s really cheap 50mm f/1.8 lens— it’s great to mess around with on a SLR. The f/1.8 speed is amazing for low light photography (I’ve taken shots in almost no light without using a flash), and it’s sharp as a tack. For $100, you really can’t complain about the cost, and it’s worth having in your kit all the time. Unfortunately, it’s not a zoom, so it’s a bit limiting, but I think my days spent using the 50mm lens have taught me to be a better photographer, since it has forced me to spend time thinking about composition, and to move my feet to obtain better photos. The build quality of the 50mm isn’t that great (you wouldn’t want to drop it), but for $100, I think it’s well worth it.

Most people new into digital photography will want a decent zoom lens, and that’s where it starts to get tricky. Canon has many varieties of zooms, all with different strengths and weaknesses. If you’re going to get into L series (Canon’s luxury high-end series), then the choices are a bit easier. But for amateur and prosumer lenses, it’s a bit trickier.

I spent quite a bit of time asking forums and people who had been into photography a long time, and one lens in particular kept coming up — the Canon EF 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 IS.

This lens not only is a good performer, but let’s face it, it looks cool on your camera as well. As soon as I put it on, everyone thought I was a pro, and that’s a nice feeling to have, even if you aren’t a pro. Another benefit with this particular lens is that it has built in image-stabilization. So, if you flip the switch on the side, it will take sharper photos by attempting to actively cancel out any vibration of camera-shake. That feature worked quite well, and helped get some shots I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get.

The next lens I put in my kit was Canon’s 17-40mm f/4.0L. It was the first L-series lens I bought and I couldn’t wait to get it home and test it out. Of course, like most L-series lenses, the sharpness immediately blew me away. They say once you go “L”, you can’t go back, and it’s really true. So unless you want to start replacing every lens in your kit, I would hold off on getting any L-series lenses until you’re pretty sure you want to sink a few grand into it.

Photo taken using Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0L

The nice thing about having this lens on a digital body is that this particular lens isn’t that sharp in the corners. Once you put it on the 20D or 30D, the crop factor inherent in the camera essentially removes the softer areas from the image. Unfortunately, you also lose a bit of the drama that wide-angle lenses are known for, but everything is a trade-off.

This is primarily my main walk-around lens, which might seem a bit strange for most people. But since I do primarily city-shots and landscapes, I use it quite a bit. I’m going to pick up the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L soon, and that will undoubtedly be my new walk around lens (and will almost make the 17-40mm useless).

The next L-series lens I picked up was the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L. This thing is a monster, weighing approximately 3.3 lbs — so heavy in fact that it has a separate tripod mount on it so your tripod doesn’t fall over while using it. I shot most of Northern Voice using this lens, so check out the images to see what it can do. I don’t use it that often, but it’s great at capturing shots at a distance and keeping them super sharp and contrasty. It set me back nearly $1500, so it’s not a cheap lens to have in your kit, but if you need a great telephoto, then definitely grab it.

Photo from Northern Voice using 70-200mm f/2.8L

While I still consider myself just a photography enthusiast, I am beginning to take photography a lot more seriously lately, and am actively going out to shoot photos and try to get even better. I still have a couple areas I need to explore, such as flash and low-light photography, and action shots, but I think I’ve made good progress in areas such as composition. I’ve also done a lot of exploring in the area of High Dynamic Range imagery, and if you want to see some of my shots, check out my flickr set here.

I’m also looking for whichever friends and families want to be test subjects soon as I really need some practice shooting people under different light conditions before that wedding. So, if you’re a reader and want some shots taken, just let me know.

I’m going to write a few primers I think over the next few weeks and feature them on my blog in the area of photography. I seem to be writing a lot about photography lately, so maybe I’ll add a separate RSS feed as well for the photography related entries.