Choosing a DSLR Camera: My Journey

Just so you know: I’ve had a Canon Powershot A610 since July 2006 – a 5MP ‘compact’ camera with 4x optical zoom, a flip-out screen, and, features-wise, can still outperform modern compact cameras and compete with bridge cameras. It has a mode dial, for instance, and even the P, Tv, Av and M ‘manual’ modes – I struggled to find this level of functionality on new/2017 types of cameras including compact, super-zoom and some bridge cameras.

My Canon A610 is a unique camera, and has set me up nicely for DSLR photography as I’m now used to fiddling with settings in the Manual modes to get the picture I want. The camera’s only real limitation is its fixed lens, and therefore its inability to use DSLR lenses.

As such, I initially wanted a Compact System/Mirrorless camera (CSC), as it’s a DSLR in compact form – the best of both worlds. But I didn’t know what to get. It was while searching for a CSC that I realised my initial, maximum budget of £300 for the camera alone (or with a bundled kit lens) would need to be doubled, in order to accommodate my minimum requirement of having a flip-up, variable angle (‘vari-angle’) Live View screen. It’s something you wouldn’t miss if you’ve never had one before, but as I have, I would miss it.

In fact, having used my father’s Nikon D3100 for a while, I just couldn’t get on with it as there was no flip-out screen, meaning the perspective and composition of shots was greatly impaired.

I wanted a CSC/mirrorless to help me expand my photographic skillset beyond compact cameras and smartphone photography. I’ve had smartphones since 2013, and before that I used the 5MP sensor on my Nokia X2-00 candy bar mobile phone. I’ve become accustomed to the convenience of smartphone cameras – whip your phone out of your pocket, snap a photo and share it.

Although I purchased a set of clip-on exterior lenses for my Galaxy S7 last year, which I’ve used a fair bit, these aren’t perfect and so I wanted a dedicated camera system that could optically zoom in on a distant focal point, rather than cropping the image on the screen a la digital zoom on smartphones.

However, having looked at models from Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Fujifilm and Canon, I almost immediately ruled out mirrorless Compact System Cameras due to their size. While I had been looking for something pocketable, their small form, together with the omission of camera grips near the shutter button, meant I couldn’t comfortably hold a mirrorless camera. I couldn’t get a tight grip on them, not like with a DSLR or Bridge camera, or even my old Canon A610 compact.

Also, because they are ‘mirrorless,’ CSC’s also omit the optical viewfinder, meaning an add-on electronic viewfinder is needed – which can almost certainly double the initial outlay. Although some cameras come with one built-in, like the Panasonic G7, I was concerned that because this style of camera is still relatively new, they’re very trendy and fashionable, two words that always seem to equate to higher costs.

Also, because they’re new, there is no back catalogue of compatible lenses and accessories, meaning only newer made-to-measure accessories are available for any given camera. I did find that some models from Sony’s lineup offer the freedom of using any lens, which is great for professional photographers, but again, especially on models below £700, the mirrorless form and thus the omission of the optical viewfinder was too big of a price to pay for huge functionality in compact form.

For instance, if I went down the mirrorless route, I’d want the camera to be just as functional and capable as a DSLR. Using the Canon EOS M6 camera as an example, which has a fairly grippy and comfortable camera grip, the initial cost of the camera and kit lens bundle would be £699 at John Lewis (EOS-M 15-45mm IS STM kit lens). Essential accessories such as the Canon EOS-M adapter at £88, needed to use Canon EF/EF-S DSLR lenses, or the add-on EVF-DC2 electronic viewfinder at £209, would’ve brought the initial outlay of the camera, in the equivalent form to a DSLR, to a whopping £996. For that price, I could have bought a decent mid-range DSLR, such as the Canon EOS 800D or Nikon D7200, and possibly even an extra lens as well.

The search for the DSLR

At this point, I started looking at DSLR’s and narrowed down my list only to those models which had a flip-out vari-angle screen – cameras without this, in my mind, were inferior to my 11-year-old compact Canon A610.

Although CSC’s can come with flip-out screens, many of them are 180-degree ‘selfie’ screens, which wasn’t vari-angle like on a camcorder. I did still consider the Panasonic G7, however, as I was impressed by its touted ‘4k Ultra HD Video’ capture.

The first DSLR I looked at was the Canon 100D, mainly because it was available at a cheap price with two kit lenses as part of a bundle. However, it and the entry-level 1300D suffered from the lack of a vari-angle screen, and I discounted both immediately.

After much deliberation over several weeks, my list grew smaller until I was considering only 7 cameras. These were:

  • Canon 700D
  • Canon 750D
  • Canon 200D (released in 2017)
  • Nikon D5300
  • Nikon D5600
  • [Ricoh] Pentax K-S2
  • [Ricoh] Pentax K-70

Comparison/contrast of my Shortlist of Seven:

Wireless connectivity was a feature that the latter 6 shared, and unfortunately, although the 700D was cheaper, many retailers had stopped stocking and selling it, each claiming it had been superceded by the newer 750D, which was £200 more expensive and shared the same, maximum video capture resolution of 1080p/30fps or 720p/50fps.

Although I would never have previously looked at a Nikon, my limited experience with my dad’s D3100 left me with a good feeling towards Nikon DSLR’s, and so I started looking at the D5300 and D5600. The initial cost of the D5600, at £699, was off-putting, but the lack of 1080p/60fps video capture on the inferior D5300 meant it was my only option if high-quality video capture was a requirement.

Despite the controversy surrounding Pentax and their loyal band of supporters, now owned by Ricoh, Pentax are still a respectable name in the photography world, and two of their offerings, the K-S2 and K-70, appealed to my tastes. They are both weather-proof/resistant, and come with specs that can at the very least compete with those models from Canon and Nikon.

In low light situations, Pentax’s cameras seemed, on paper anyway, much superior to models from other manufacturers, with maximum ISO levels hovering between 51,000 and 102,000. Many of the DSLR and mirrorless cameras I considered from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic and others were much more inferior in this area, with some cameras only capable of capturing photos up to a maximum ISO level of 12,800.

Ultimately, however, the cheap-feeling build quality of the two Pentax’s, as well as sketchy video capture in review videos, made me think twice about leaping aboard the Pentax train. I would, however, consider buying a Pentax in the future as a secondary/backup camera.

Bridge Cameras for the win?

With DSLR offerings ranging from dwindling models to really expensive, supposedly entry-level ‘budget’ cameras, I turned to Bridge Cameras. I’d always discounted bridge cameras because of the fixed lens, and because I feel I’m ready for the challenge a DSLR would bring. But DSLR features in a bulky DSLR-like body (actually a positive point, relative to my earlier point about not being able to properly ‘grip’ a CSC/mirrorless camera), and ‘super’ optical zoom levels seemed all too enticing. Couple that with a great image sensor, and 1080p/60fps video capture, and you can’t go wrong. Right?

The one that stood out for me was the Canon Powershot SX60 HS. All the above, with an electronic viewfinder that was exactly the same as the Live View, and 65x optical zoom. I’d heard that the Nikon P900 had a better zoom range, but lower Nikon models were a risk, and given my 11 year experience with Canon, I wished to stay with them.

Further reading, and talking to experts from Wex Photographic as well as Philip’s Cameras (both in Norwich, UK), confirmed to me a huge negative with bridge cameras: ultimately, a bridge camera is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. And when I was going to be spending hundreds of pounds on my camera, and probably half the price of an EOS 750D, this moniker was too big a price to pay. If the SX60 HS came with the ability to switch lenses, as with DSLR’s, then it would’ve been a no-brainer.

Pentax/Bridge cameras ruled out, now it’s Canon DSLR’s vs Nikon DSLR’s

Ruling out Pentax brought me back to the Canon vs Nikon debate. I put the Canon 700D on the back burner due to it only having 9 Autofocus points, as well as its lack of wireless connectivity, but I didn’t rule it out altogether.

That left just the 750D and 200D from Canon, and although the latter was due to be released, it was touted as the successor to the highly ‘compact’ 100D DSLR. But it also had a RRP of over £800. Upon release, this dropped down to the sub-£600 mark, but although I had been impressed by its spec sheet, with Full HD video capture at 1080p/60fps, it only featured 9 AF points in contrast to the 750D’s 19 cross-type AF points.

Again, its size, similar to that of a mirrorless, was almost too small, the D-pad buttons too small, and it felt too light and fragile – I was concerned that it wouldn’t be great at balancing-out the weight of a heavy telephoto lens. I was also concerned that although Canon were marketing the EOS 200D as a great starter DSLR, many expert reviewers were quick to assign it as a great ‘secondary’ camera for a professional photographer, great for vlogging and its portability, but almost everyone seemed to brush over it being a suitable replacement for a more traditional DSLR.

This is when I started to seriously consider the Nikon D5600. 39 AF points, 1080p/60fps video capture. It seemed perfect. But, its price meant it was now an extra £100 above my already doubled maximum budget, and only 9 of its AF points were cross-type. Cross type AF points are essential in locking-on to and tracking moving subjects, and if the D5600 and cheaper D5300 only had 9 of them, what was the point of having the other 30 AF points?

Although not a deal-breaker, this was a huge disappointment. I was reeling from the fact that, on paper, the Canon 750D had 19 cross-type AF points but lacked the D5600’s 1080p/60fps video capture, and that although the D5600 came with 39 AF points, only 9 of them were cross-type, ultimately pitting it against the much cheaper Canon offerings in the form of the EOS 700D and the recently-released EOS 200D.

Panasonic G7?

I briefly considered the Panasonic DMC G7 at this point, at just under £450 with 4K Video capture. However, the fact that it comes with a smaller two-thirds sensor meant that image quality would’ve taken a hit.

Also, the G7 is actually a Compact System/mirrorless camera – which ultimately means a limited catalogue of compatible, expensive lenses and accessories. The small size of its D-pad buttons was also a negative, and it joined the Canon SX60 HS, Pentax K-S2 and K-70 on the cutting room floor.

Back to: Canon vs Nikon DSLR’s Battle

Video reviews hinted towards the Nikon D5600’s trouble at focussing during video capture, and just as I was about to go for one anyway, I spotted the Canon 800D. 45 cross-type AF points, Full HD capture at 1080p/60fps. Again, this seemed perfect. The only problem? Its initial price with the standard 18-55mm kit lens stood at a whopping £869. My budget was already stretched out to a maximum of £600. I just couldn’t afford the EOS 800D.

And that’s when I turned back to the 750D. The 800D, while very, very perfect, brought everything back into focus (excuse the pun) and brought me back to the reality and gravity of the task at hand. I’ve been comfortable with my Canon Powershot A610 for 11 years, so why change camera brands?

The EOS 750D might not have had the higher video resolution, but Canon DSLR’s in general were highly recommended for video capture by the many YouTube reviewers who use them on a daily basis, and who ultimately helped me to make my decision: TheCameraStoreTV, TheSnapChick, UnboxTherapy, Tony and Chelsea Northrup, Kai W, and DigitalRevTV to name but a few.

Reasons for choosing Canon EOS 750D:

John Lewis (UK) were offering the EOS 750D as part of a bundle with an addtional LP-E17 battery pack for a grand total of £639.95 – the cost of an extra battery would’ve been £60, on top of the cost of the camera at £599, which would have cost just under £660. It was a good deal, and one that I simply couldn’t ignore.

Battery Grip: the newer EOS 200D and EOS 800D don’t seem to have a battery grip available, whereas the EOS 750D does: the EP-B18, which costs £99. Once purchased, this will allow me to double my maximum battery capacity as the grip can house two LP-E17 battery packs, and plugs right into the main battery compartment on the 750D body. It also has an extra shutter button, main dial and a few other buttons that mirror the rear interface layout of the camera for use in portrait photography when the camera is tilted 90 degrees on its side.

Canon lenses are also slightly cheaper than Nikon lenses, but at this stage I won’t be pilfering for anything expensive. I’ve already picked out a Tamron 70-300mm macro/telephoto lens at £90, which is at least £200 cheaper than Canon’s own 70-300mm lens.

19 cross-type AF points. Initial impressions are high, with enough sensor coverage to capture motion blur and freeze moving subjects. Similar, if not superior, to my Galaxy S7 smartphone, with the added ability of being able to optically zoom in on a focal point. Like my Canon Powershot A610, but much better image quality and higher control over autofocusing.

Hybrid AF, which is very good despite being one step down from Canon’s hyped Dual Pixel AF technology. Together with the touchscreen, focussing on a focal point or tracking a moving subject with the EOS 750D is a breeze – much like on a smartphone. In fact, its ease of use means there isn’t a huge learning curve.

Im conclusion, while I could’ve gone for a much better camera, or hopped over to Nikon with the D5300 or D5600, I felt that I’d set out to get a Canon in the first place, only looking around to justify that I was buying the right model. And in the end, that model was the EOS 750D.

– Chris J.K.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 7 – Official Report to be released Jan 23

It was announced last week that Samsung will go to press on Monday, 23 January with an official report detailing what really went wrong with their Galaxy Note 7.

Since killing off the Note 7 and releasing an update that permanently bricks the remaining few devices, Samsung have been conducting an internal investigation to find out why a large number of the units caught fire and exploded last year.

Their report is due out next week, and to be completely honest, after taking the plunge and going for a Galaxy S7 in December, I’m particularly interested to hear the reasons for the Note 7 fires.

After reading unconfirmed insider reports about a rushed R&D phase and cramming so much tech into an already thin device, I want to know how a doomed product like the Note 7 ever reached the shelves.

To get the elephant out of the room, I’ve long held a grudge against Samsung for the low quality and build design of some of their past products – something I’ve probably admitted a few times in my blog series, My Next Phone. I’ve also alluded to the fact that my heart said Huawei P9 but my brain said Galaxy S7 when making a decision about which phone to go with next: to be honest, I was slightly miffed that the S7 had trumped a lot of the other Android smartphones I had been considering when it came to features, specs, usability and general user experience – phone like the LG G5, Huawei P9, and Sony Xperia X Compact.

But I now have a newfound respect for Samsung, because after so many years of getting it completely wrong with flimsy plastic covers, they’ve finally turned the corner.

However, I’m still in a state of shock about the Galaxy Note 7, both from a business perspective as well as a journalistic one. I just can’t believe that a company as big as Samsung could make such a big slip-up, one that could’ve proved very costly for other companies like HTC or LG.

I’m sure their marketing budget more than covers the slip-up with the Note 7, but now that we know they’re releasing a statement that concludes their internal investigation, I’m interested to hear the ‘Official’ reason(s) for the fires. Was it that they rushed the whole process? Was there any advantage to switching to a different battery supplier? Did they try to cram too much technology into an already thin device?

Whatever the reason, I’m sure it’s something that every major smartphone and technology maker will be eagerly waiting to hear about. After all, if it is a common problem with a particular battery or style of phone, that’s something that affects the whole market, not just one company.

I’m sure that a lot of companies, from HTC, Sony, HP, Huawei and LG, to Apple, Google and Microsoft, will all be looking to learn a lot of lessons from Samsung’s mistakes. Hopefully even Samsung can be a bit self-reflective as well.

My Next Phone: Virtual Assistants

Virtual Assistants have been around in the computing world for a while, but they’re now also available on smartphones. A virtual assistant is supposed to take the smartphone experience to a whole new level, organising your day and reminding you with alerts about appointments in your calendar, weather reports and news headlines.

The many variants of assistants offer different services, and some of them are better than others. Some are more friendly, while others can give you a detailed response to a query instead of pointing you to a web search.

Although I’ve personally never used Virtual Assistants, save for the occasional tomfoolery when getting a new phone and discovering its features, I can see why many people use them.

Virtual Assistants have come a long way since the days of Clippy on Microsoft’s Works suite on a computer. Apple debuted Siri back on the iPhone 4S, and since then, the popularity of Virtual Assistants has grown.

Here, I’ll quickly look at some of the main examples, although it should be noted that there are many alternatives, including small lesser-known apps such as Assistant.ai, and also more popular assistants, downloadable from various app stores, such as Robin, Dragon by Nuance, and Jarvis.

Siri

Siri is possibly the better known variant, and appears on Apple’s iPhones. She’s gained a lot of publicity, from TV advert skits to cameos on comedies like The Big Bang Theory.

Siri was first introduced as an app on the App Store by Siri Inc. There were plans for the Siri app to appear on other phone platforms such as Android and Windows, but these were halted upon Apple’s acquisition of the app. As such, the Siri app was withdrawn from the App Store, and the iPhone 4S was the first phone to receive Siri integrated into the phone’s operating system as part of an update to iOS 5 in October 2011.

Although the earlier iPhone 4 and iPod Touch 4G did not officially receive Siri when updating to iOS 5, a legal port was created and distributed on Cydia by independent developers, who bypassed Apple’s Siri servers by creating a backend using APIs from Google and Wolfram Alpha. Access to the Siri port required the user to jailbreak their device, before heading into Cydia, the marketplace for iPhone repos and tweaks.

The original Siri app was integrated into services such as StubHub, OpenTable, Google Maps, MovieTickets and TaxiMagic, and used voice recognition technology from Nuance, developers of the highly popular Dragon dictation software. A feature of Siri was to adapt to the individual user’s searches and language usage to offer a truly unique and personal service.

As my iPod Touch 4G was never officially supported, I haven’t had a lot of experience with Siri. I was unaware of the Siri app at the time, and as such, my experience with Siri has since been limited to my use of iPhones in my local electronics store. Despite jailbreaking my ‘iTouch’ on numerous occasions, and installing Siri ports through Cydia, I found that some of these ports weren’t as good as the real thing, and I had to rely on YouTube videos and trips to my local technology store to enjoy the real Siri for all her pros and cons.

That said, even though Siri is only available for iPhones, she/he/it still remains one of the best assistants out there, although Siri wouldn’t be the sole reason for me switching from Android to iOS if I were ever to make the transition.

Google Now (on Tap)

Like Siri, but only available through Google Search or via the Home button on Android phones, Google Now is very useful, and presents information in a ‘Cards’ format, which is now central to the Google search experience.

Whenever I’ve used Google Now, results have always been quick and to the point. It’s always been relatively easy to add events to my calendar, as has adding or removing weather reports or alerts for certain news stories.

That said, I’ve never really found the use for a Virtual Assistant.

Cortana

Microsoft’s contribution, initially only available on the Windows platform but now downloadable as an app on Android and iOS, is named after the Master Chief’s AI friend in Halo, the video game that was almost solely responsible for confirming the Xbox as a reputable game console opposite Sony’s Playstation.

It seems fitting, therefore, that Cortana is the name of their Virtual Assistant, as Cortana ties-in with the new-world branding of Microsoft. Even the same voice actor was used for the American variant of Cortana.

Microsoft Cortana

On my Windows Phone, I enjoyed how much more human Cortana was than Siri ever seemed to be. Although I’ve mentioned my limited experience with Siri, I’ve watched a lot of comparison videos on YouTube and played around with Cortana myself. When I’ve used Cortana, she seems a lot more down to earth and natural in how she answers a query. She’s less robotic than Siri. Cortana even has more of a personality than Siri and Google Now put together. Ask Cortana to sing a song or tell a joke, and she’ll do just that, with often amusing results. Ask Siri or Google Now to do tell you a joke, and they’ll direct you to a web search on jokes websites.

The Evolution of Cortana in the Halo games

The Evolution of Cortana in the Halo games

When it comes to actual, real world practically, on the whole Cortana performs well, although there is the odd request that results in a web search or an “I didn’t understand” error. As this article by MakeUseOf explains, cross-platform availability is possibly Cortana’s biggest appeal and is integrated into Windows 10, which means you can send a text or make a call from your laptop or PC, similar to the Siri experience between an iPhone and a Mac.

Plus, Cortana can be downloaded as an app for Android and iOS and, on Android at least (in my experience), can even replace Google Now as the default assistant. Cortana even makes it easier to use some of Microsoft’s services, now that the Office suite has been made available for mobile in the form of the apps Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive and Outlook among others.

S Voice

S Voice is Samsung’s contribution to the world of virtual assistants. Personally I’ve never used S Voice, even though I have it on my Samsung tablet. It’s more of an annoyance than a useful feature, although I shall report my findings in my review of the S7, which will be uploaded shortly.

Google Assistant

Google Assistant, though available in the Allo messaging app, will only be available as an integrated part of the Android OS on Android 7 Nougat for the new Pixel and Pixel XL devices (however, it has been said that Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge might get Google Assistant as well).

Google Assistant in the Allo app on my phone

Google Assistant in the Allo app on my phone

Google Assistant seems to be a useful feature, and I can certainly see its benefits, but as it’s currently only available through Allo, an app I’ve rarely used since launch, my experience using the assistant is limited – alongside my rare usage of the Messenger bot/assistant created by Facebook.

If Google Assistant is anywhere near as useful as Google Now, then it should be a promising future rival to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Which Assistant is Best?

As I said before, I have rarely found the use for a Virtual Assistant, and often ignore the feature where I should probably use it. Personally, the idea of talking to my phone is rather frightening, especially in public where people may think I’m talking to myself. I’m often able to get things done quickly without requiring the assistance of an assistant, and don’t think I’ll be needing the services of one any time soon.

That said, if I ever did require such services, I’m leaning towards Cortana, the Dragon app by Nuance, or the independent assistant Robin, which has been around for a few years now.