Sunday, December 28, 2008

My Next Camera... a 5D?

Welcome to all of you who got cameras for Christmas and are starting to look for accessories!

I have to admit, I'm a bit of a scrooge (grinch?) when it comes to Christmas. I'm not really sure why, but it just seems like the holidays are too much work for the fun -- and that's even though my wife does most of the holiday prep work!

This year it felt like I was the president of the AV club, from twenty+ hours of work on a photography project (more on that later once the gifts go out), kid portrait shoots and editing, and videotaping the kids in the Christmas Eve service (which isn't edited yet!). I don't know why it bothers me so much -- I generally enjoy the work and editing, but people saw me with a tripod and automatically assume I know what I'm doing. At least four people asked me for a copy of the service which is a bit... disconcerting... because my rig (and experience) isn't great and I hope they aren't expecting something great.

Maybe I'm just too much of a perfectionist, but I hate handing out anything that doesn't reach a high standard. Don't get me wrong, I think I did a decent job, but my goal was good home videos, if you know what I mean.

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I didn't really get much for Christmas, which is honestly to be expected now that I'm older. I know I'm hard to buy for, and when it comes to things like photography equipment, I'm pretty particular and like to pick things out myself.

Actually, if I'm honest, sometimes I enjoy picking out the equipment more than using the equipment once I get it. There's just something I love about researching camera stuff, savoring the choices, planning how to get a good price, etc.

Yeah, I know it is dumb.

Santa did bring me a new 4GB CF card. I heard he got it for $15 after a rebate. Apparently memory of all types is dropping in price, so it's a good time to buy!

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Gear-lust brings me to the point of this post. Actually, this post has been festering (and yes, I really said 'festering') for about three months. It all started when I heard that the new Canon 5D Mark II was slated to come out this fall. Of course, in my gear-lust, my first thought wasn't "Wow, I want to get a 5D Mark II," it was "I bet used 5Ds are going to drop precipitously in price -- I should get one of those!"

Yeah, I'm a little weird. I realize that. But I need to dream about stuff that's attainable. Not dream about a $3K camera that I can't afford.

Like most amateurs (or pros with cashflow problems), I've been planning which camera I'd get next for quite a while. For the longest time I was lusting after the 40D or 50D. Then, I realized that the extra resolution of the 50D was pretty much past the resolving limit of even the best lenses (in a crop sensor, my research tells me you don't really need to go beyond 12 MP before you bang into the limits of lenses -- see DPReview assessment). Sure, I'd still love a 50D (the VGA screen is stunning, I have to say), but I'd probably get a used/refurb 40D if I was to buy right now.

To be realistic, though, there's very little I could do with a 50D that I can't do with my 20D. Ultimately, most of my problems in photography relate to what I put in front of the lens (and how I light that) than anything on the camera.

I try to keep that in mind, but that doesn't quench the desire.

I think photography enthusiasts fall into two camps: those who are in love with the art and those who are in love with the science. I definitely fall into the latter camp.

But, there is a significant difference between a full frame camera like the 5D and APS-C frame cameras like the 50D. A larger image sensor means better wide angle, better resolving power*, and better low-noise performance. I'd like all of those things. In fact, I think all of those things would let me get high quality shots in spots I can't right now.

Good quality using available light indoors. Higher resolution suitable for stock. Experiments in extreme wide angle. Bumping the resolution of all my full frame lenses instantly!

Which is why I'm shooting for a used 5D next. Granted, it will be probably half a year before I can even consider it, but the price should continue to drop while 5Ds are dumped into the used market as the pros and rich amateurs upgrade.

Ken Rockwell predicted this predicted this back in September -- at the time, used 5D bodies were going for about $1,500. Since then I've been tracking the used price of 5Ds on eBay -- these prices represent the lower price-point for working cameras (which assumes you'll spend a little while bidding):
  • 9/20/08: $1,400 (new for $1900ish)
  • 10/8/08: $1,350
  • 11/24/08: $1,200
  • 12/26/08: $1,050 (a few went for lower than $1,000, but most are in the $1,100 range)
As of this writing, B&H has new 5Ds for only $700 less than the 5D Mark IIs ($2,700 on 12/26/08). That's not a very significant discount. Amazon still has a pretty high price on the 5D Mark IIs, but the 5D is a little lower and a 50D goes for $1,070 on Amazon.

Between a 50D and 5D, I'd go for the 5D almost every time, unless I needed the reach for wildlife or sports.

Of course, I'm not in a position to buy anything right now, and if I was, I'd be buying lenses or accessories because I need them more and they're less expensive. Specifically, I still want a used super-telephoto, a macro lens with autofocus, and a flash that supports E-TTL.

Still, it is nice to dream. And maybe, just maybe, once we have more money I can find a used 5D for a good price.

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* Here's a little appendix on the resolving power thing:

From the experimental data, it appears 12 MP is about the limit of even the best lenses for the APS-C form factor. That means it is pointless to go beyond 12 MP -- sure, you have more pixels, but each means less. Even looking at that 12 MP image at 100% resolution, you'll see less detail and sharpness than a 6 MP sensor.

Extending this to full frame (see sensor size comparison; full frame is approximately 2.6 times larger than APS-C) this means the theoretical resolving limit of a full frame camera will be about 31 MP. Actually, I suspect it might be a touch less since most lenses have less resolving power at the edges of the frame. Either way, the 5D's 12 MP is well below that limit and that means each pixel means a lot -- a 5D should give a noticeably sharper image at 100% crop than the 40D even though the 40D has slightly fewer pixels.

The 5D Mark II at 21 MP is nearing that theoretical limit, but I think it is safe to say each of those pixels will mean a lot if you have a good lens. In both lines though, continuing to push the MP would be pretty stupid. I'm hoping camera makers will instead shift to pushing dynamic range, where I think a LOT of improvements can be made by rearranging sensors on the chip and using multiple sensitivity pixels.

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