Choosing and Buying the Best Digital SLR (DSLR) Camera for Stock Photography — Canon vs. Nikon vs. Sony vs. Olympus vs. Pentax

One day, I decided that I wanted to get into stock photography. This blog post inspired me to consider this. So I went through the hundreds of photographs I had taken over the last few years and picked out what I thought were a few great photographs. Then I signed up on iStockPhoto and uploaded my first set of three photographs as part of the approval process.

They got rejected.

Then I uploaded a second set of three photographs.

These got rejected too.

Both times iStockPhoto rejected my photographs with the comment:

At this time we regret to inform you that we did not feel the overall composition of your photography or subject matter is at the minimum level of standard for iStockphoto. Please take some time to review training materials, resources and articles provided through iStockphoto. The photographs provided in your application should be diverse in subject matter, technical ability and should be your best work. Think conceptual, creative and most important think Stock photography. Try to avoid the average eye level push the button perspective of a common subject. Try and impress us, we want to see how you stand out from the crowd.

Essentially they were saying that I wasn’t very good at photography. Very true. Other than amateur basics like  “avoid shaking” and “have enough light”, I don’t know anything about the technicalities of taking photographs and also about composing a photograph. I am essentially a “have camera, will shoot” kind of guy photographing anything and everything in sight that catches my eye. Which is exactly what they were politely pointing out.

But, in my infinite wisdom, I decided that part of the problem was that I was using a simple point-and-shoot camera (the Fuji FinePix F30 — I think an excellent point-and-shoot camera for the money) and felt that if I was going to improve my photographic technique, I also needed a better camera. Ofcourse, I was blaming my tools for my lack of ability in taking great photographs.

While iStockPhoto indicates that they will accept photographs with a minimum size of 2 megapixels (which can be taken with most point-and-shoot cameras including my FinePix which supported 6.3 megapixels), going through the forum on the iStockPhoto web-site, I sort of got the impression that photographs taken with a higher end DSLR stood more of a chance of being approved (probably the quality of the photograph taken by the same amateur (me) is better with a DSLR as compared to a point-and-shoot camera).

Then I started upon the most confusing Internet research I have ever undertaken. DSLR’s are a really confusing area. DSLR’s have a bewildering range of features and are available at a wide range of price-points from a large number of manufacturers and it seems like even if you pay USD500-600, you can get a crappy camera. All over the Internet, there are hundreds of reviews, by hundreds of web-sites of hundreds of models of DSLR’s and unfortunately none of them are satisfactory. They are very subjective, don’t compare similar things between models from different manufacturers and it is hard to tell what is important — it seems like if one camera is good at one thing, it is bad at something else and always buying one camera over the other seems like a compromise based on what exactly you want to do with the camera — but what if you don’t know what you want to do with the camera (and as a result want the capability to do everything)?

I probably should have simply picked a mid-range DSLR from one of the popular manufacturers (Canon/Nikon) and gone with it and it would have been good enough for my purposes (probably more rejections from iStockPhoto). But, no. But I really wanted to make a good investment.

So I evaluated a few brands and tabulated the differences between models from each manufacturer to help me decide. I evaluated only the brands Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus and Pentax.

From the various reviews and forums, it appears that Canon and Nikon are the co-kings of the block while Sony appears to be the most amateur friendly. Pentax appears to make cameras popular with photography students supposedly for their lower price for comparable cameras.

One interesting thing I learnt about DSLRs is the “Live View” feature. Due to the way DSLRs work, normally they aren’t capable of showing the image you are going to photograph in the LCD screen. This is why all DSLRs always have a viewfinder (or maybe it’s the other way around). “Live View” is the ability of the camera to show a preview in the LCD screen. The way this is done is by implementing a separate sensor for the LCD screen preview purposes. This supposedly in some DSLRs reduces the size of the image viewable in the viewfinder.

Note that the info here is typically from the manufacturer’s web-site from June 2010. And all are cameras available in the USA.

I am ignoring anything that is more than USD 1000 in price. I am not becoming THAT professional.

Of all the sites I looked into, the site I liked most for explanations of various DSLR terminology was Digital SLR Guide. There is even a guide to help you narrow down what features would be useful for your specific purposes. I also somehow found the reviews at PopPhoto more useful than the common camera and photography review sites.

After some research, I decided that I didn’t need to really compare the following parameters in the DSLRs that I was looking for because the tech appears to be almost the same and the numbers related to these tech parameters are similar in all the popular models:

  • Sensor type and size: Both CMOS and CCD appear from reviews to be of similar quality and most are of similar size.
  • Technical parameters (focal length/aperture range/f-value): All the DSLRs in the price range have seem to have the same parameters.
  • Image stabilization: All DSLRs seem to have this feature.
  • Dust protection: All DSRs seem to have some form of this feature.
  • Viewfinders: All DSLRs seem to have viewfinders.
  • Storage: All DSLRs seem to support SD/HC compact flash.
  • ISO Settings: All the basic settings (typically 100 – 3200) are supported in all the DSLRs.
  • Built-in Flash: All DSLRs in the price range have one.
  • Ability to record movies: Though this appears to be the biggest marketing feature for the manufacturers at present,  I am not really interested in the ability to record movies. So I am not going to pay extra for this feature.

The biggest listed differences seemed to be:

  • Megapixels: In general all DSLRs start from about 10 Megapixels and as the price goes up, so do the Megapixels.
  • The LCD monitor size, pixel density and tiltability: This is not really relevant to the camera’s picture taking quality, but a larger screen with higher pixel density sure feels nice. Also being able to tilt the monitor appears to be a useful feature.
  • Sequential shooting speed: Most manufacturers don’t talk about the focussing speed. Instead they talk about the sequential shooting speed. Unfortunately this latter appears to be the speed (and the max possible speed under the right conditions at that) at which continuous pictures can be taken *after* focussing is done. The more expensive the camera from a manufacturer, the higher the frames-per-second. Also the amount of RAM available appears to limit this to some extent and no-one really talks about the amount of RAM.
  • Price: This is really a function of all the other features in the DSLR — for my purpose, I am looking at possibly the cheapest with the best common feature set. Also note that I list the SRP (Suggested Retail Price) for each camera below, but it appears that all cameras are sold at prices lower than these SRP’s. In fact different web-sites seem to have different prices. Not sure why this is….but always look around for a deal. BTW, Olympus cameras have confusing pricing — the model/feature/price combinations don’t make sense. From reading around, it appears this is because Olympus has models that are differentially priced to sell in places like QVC, etc.

Canon:

EOS Rebel T2i EF-S 18-55mm IS Kit EOS Rebel T1i EF-S 18-55mm IS Kit EOS Rebel XSi EF-S 18-55IS Kit EOS Rebel XS 18-55IS Kit
SRP USD 899 USD 799 USD 649 USD 549
Megapixels 18 15.1 12.2 10.1
Sensor CMOS, 22.3mm x 14.9mm CMOS, 22.3mm x 14.9mm 22.2mm x 14.8mm 22.2mm x 14.8mm
HD Movies Full HD, 1080p Full HD, 1080p No No
Speed 3.7 frames per second 3.4 frames per second 3.5 frames per second 3 frames per second
ISO Settings 100 – 6400 100 – 3200 100 – 3200 100 – 3200
LCD Monitor 3.0 inch 3.0 inch 3.0 inch 2.5 in
Storage SD, SD/HC, SD/XC SD, SD/HC SD, SD/HC SD, SD/HC
Processor Digic 4 Digic 4 Digic 3 Digic 3

Nikon:

D90 D5000 D3000
SRP USD 899.95 USD 629.95 USD 549.95
Megapixels 12.3 12.3 10.2
Sensor CMOS, 23.6 x 15.8mm CMOS, 23.6 x 15.8mm CCD, 23.6 x 15.8mm
Speed 4.5 frames per second 4 frames per second 3 frames per second
ISO Settings 200-3200 200-3200 100-1600
LCD Monitor 3.0in, 921,000 dots 2.7 in, 230,000 dots 3.0in 230,000dots
Storage SD/SDHC SD/SDHC SD/SDHC

Sony:

Alpha 550 Alpha 500 Alpha 330 Alpha 230
SRP USD 849.99 USD 649.99 USD 469.99 USD 449.99
Megapixels 14.2 12.3 10.2 10.2
Sensor CMOS CMOS CCD, 23.5 x 15.7mm CCD, 23.6 x 15.8mm
Speed 7 frames per second 5 frames per second 2.5 frames per second 2.5 frames per second
ISO Settings 100-12800 200-12800 100-3200 100-3200
LCD Monitor Tiltable, 3.0 inch, 921000 dots Tiltable, 3.0 inch, 230000 dots Tiltable, 2.7 inch, 230400 dots 2.7 inch, 230400 dots
Storage SD/SDHC and Sony Memory Stick SD/SDHC and Sony Memory Stick SD/SDHC and Sony Memory Stick SD/SDHC and Sony Memory Stick

Olympus:

E-600 E-620 E-450 E-520 E-420
SRP USD 749.99 USD 699.99 USD 699.99 USD 499.99 USD 449.99
Megapixels 12.3 11.8 10 10 10
Sensor MOS, 17.3 x 13.0 mm MOS, 17.3 x 13.0mm MOS, MOS, MOS,
Speed 4 frames-per-second 3.5 frames-per-second
ISO Settings 100-3200 100-1600
LCD Monitor Tiltable, 2.7 inch, 230000 dots 2.7 inch, 230000 dots
Storage Compact Flash, Microdrive, xD Compact Flash, Microdrive, xD

Pentax:

K-x
SRP USD 649.95
Megapixels 12.4
Sensor CMOS, 23.6mm x 15.8mm
Speed 4.7 frames-per-second
ISO Settings 200 – 6400
LCD Monitor 2.7 inch, 230,000 dots
Storage SD/SDHC

Finally what did I buy?

First I eliminated Olympus entirely. Their cameras are good, but I was confused by their differential pricing and wasn’t able to make complete sense of their models. Also their storage appears to be different from everyone elses.

I also eliminated the Sony Alpha 230 since it appeared to be mostly the same as the Alpha 330 but with a few features missing (I didn’t fully catalog what was different — since the pricing was just a little bit different, I assumed only a few features were different).

Next I generally felt that the most I would spend would be for the lowest end model of any brand (since I am not sure that I would be a very good photographer!) among the ones remaining in my list. This left me with the Canon EOS Rebel XS 18-55IS Kit, the Nikon D3000, the Sony Alpha 330 and the Pentax K-x. I liked the Sony Alpha 330 (basically because it appeared to be the most bang for the buck among the low-end models of DSLRs) and I probably would have ended up buying that except that I bought the Pentax K-x. Why? Because it was comparable in feature set to the next-higher model DSLRs of the other brands while it was priced on Amazon.com, where I bought it, at USD 513.99 (there was deal — check if there is still a deal: Pentax K-x 12.4 MP Digital SLR with 2.7-inch LCD and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AL Lens (Black) (affiliate link)). This deal  price was lower than the lower-end models of Canon and Nikon (even with the lower prices on Amazon.com for around the same time). So I feel I bought the equivalent of a EOS Rebel XSi or the D5000 or the Alpha 500 at the price of a lower end model.

Case closed.

What do you think? Did I make a good choice? Do you have any experience with the Pentax K-x? Leave me a comment.

(Update: Read about my first impressions on the Pentax K-x here)

(Update: To do a technical and pro/con comparison of cameras, SnapSort is excellent!)

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