Canon dSLR and Lens Guide

Given that I take a lot of photos and have a dSLR with a variety of lenses, I often get asked for camera and lens advice. Having been told that it’s been helpful, I’m sharing it online in the hopes that it can assist others in their decision-making process (and something I can point people to in the future when they ask for advice). Note that the selection and prices are current as of December 2014 — and while camera prices move slowly, lens prices move even slower.

Canon EF EOS 2012

Canon EF EOS 2012

So, here’s a couple of thoughts on camera and lens selection. As I don’t know what a given person will use their camera for, I hope this covers the spectrum of everything you might want to know. If you let me know what you like to take photos of (family, flowers, food, sports, vacations, etc.), feel free to reach out to me or comment here and I can give you more specific information.

Camera

The camera is the easy choice to make. For a starter dSLR, you get a lot of performance and features out of the Canon T5i or the T3i. The T5i has a few more features  and upgrades that let you take faster photos back-to-back and can take better low-light/nighttime photos but the T3i is also quite a bit cheaper and still a very good camera. There is another model called SL1 that’s nearly identical in performance to the T5i (major difference is physical): the screen doesn’t articulate (flip out), it takes pictures a little slower but it’s significantly smaller/lighter and has fewer physical buttons/controls; if you have small hands or want a lighter miniaturized/compact dSLOR, that SL1 is absolutely the way to go — if you have big hands, stick with the larger cameras. If price isn’t a big concern, you could also make the jump from the T5i to the 60D for an extra $100.

Lens

The lens is the hard choice to make. I’d make different recommendations for someone who’s interested in landscapes vs. portraits vs. action shots vs. walk-around and so on. When you buy a camera, you can get the body only or it comes as “kit” with a prepackaged lens or two. For me, I found the starter 18-55mm lens a little frustrating in how limiting it was. I exchanged it for a kit with an 18-135mm and was very happy with that lens for many years. If this is your first time learning about lenses and words like focal length and aperture aren’t in your vocabulary, see my lens notation primer before reading on.

Kits & Bodies

Here are some product links on Amazon with competitive pricing. Note that on the kits, the minimum focal length is the same for all of them (18mm).

T5i

  1. Canon Rebel T5i SLR Camera – $599, body only (no lens)
  2. Canon Rebel T5i SLR Camera and 18-55mm EF-S IS STM Lens Kit – $699
  3. Canon Rebel T5i SLR Camera and 18-135mm EF-S IS STM Lens Kit – $899

T3i

  1. Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera – $499, body only
  2. Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens – $549
  3. Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera with EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens – $749
  4. Canon Rebel T3i SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens + EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III Lens – $599

SL1

  1. Canon EOS Rebel SL1 SLR Camera – $449, body only
  2. Canon EOS Rebel SL1 SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm IS STM Lens – $549

60D

  1. Canon EOS 60D SLR Camera – $699, body only
  2. Canon EOS 60D SLR Camera with 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens – $999
  3. Canon EOS 60D SLR Camera with EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens $1099

Buying Options

Simple choices – One click and you’re done.

If I was just starting out now, I would go with the T3i and 18-135mm (T3i-Option C) kit. Great camera and a versatile lens for $750 out the door. On the other hand, if you’re fairly committed to the idea of using a dSLR (some people get it and then it just stays in the closet thanks to iPhone photos), I think the investment in a T5i/60D is worth it for an extra $150/250 respectively (T5i-Option C/60D-Option B). The T3i-Option D is a great value for $600 and two lenses. It depends if you feel comfortable carrying a camera and a spare lens; a lot of people like to walk out the door with just the camera and one attached lens.

Harder choices – Buying a lens separately

There are a lot of lenses to pick from in the Canon lineup. The ones above are your typical starter lenses that work for most people. However, since the cameras are also sold as “body only” (Option A for all cameras above), you can pick the lens that’s right for you to go with your camera. Although I’ve listed the first three lenses here below for reference, it’s always cheaper to get them as a bundle (see Kits and Bodies above) rather than separately.

Baseline kit lens

18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS – The most basic lens offered in the lineup. Great considering the price but limiting in its range and low-light capability.

Step up in range

18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS – A step up in range from the 18-55. Also, while the aperture range is the same, you’re limited to 5.6 at 55mm in the above lens whereas 55mm here will open up around f/4. With this lens you’ll only hit 5.6 at 135mm instead of 55mm.
18-200mm f3.5-5.6 IS – Same comments as 18-135 but benefits extended to 200mm. A little heavier.

Step up in focusing (I prefer range over focusing capability)

15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM – Slightly larger range and better focus
17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM – Great for low light and better focus
17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM – Great if you want to fiddle with manual focus. Not personally a fan of the minimum narrow f/4 aperture as I take a lot of indoor / night photos.

High-end lenses

24-70mm f/2.8L USM – The lens I use all the time. I love it. No IS though.
24-70mm f/4L IS USM – Cheaper version of my lens. Narrower aperture but has IS to compensate.
24-105mm f/4L IS USM – My lens with a larger range but narrower aperture and IS to compensate; this is where personal use weighs in — this lens isn’t better or worse than my 24-70, just different. Someone may value the extra longer reach and the IS more than the lower aperture even if my habits do not.

Primes

35mm f/2 IS USM – Great for capturing wider shots. I own a 28mm f/1.8 USM because I happen to like wider shots than most but the 35mm is better quality than mine and has IS.
50mm f/1.4 USM – Extremely high image quality lens and low-light performance for a great, low price. Pretty incredible lens. No IS though.
85mm f/1.8 USM – Great for portrait style / tight framed shots

These are the majority of lenses that make sense for consideration as your first primary lens. If the long end of the 18-135 range seems unnecessary to you, I would suggest the 17-55mm because of the great 2.8 aperture. If you want some of the range, consider the 15-85mm 3.5-5.6. The high-end lenses take incredible shots but they’re admittedly pricey. The primes take beautiful, stunning shots at a fraction of the cost with much better low light performance. Case in point — You could buy all 3 primes I listed for the same as the cheapest high-end lens I listed. Personally, I like having just one versatile lens with me most of the time, although my 28mm prime gets a lot of use, too.

There are third-party manufacturers of identical lenses for around 70% of the Canon cost. I haven’t bought any but I’ve heard pretty good things from the Asian companies Sigma, Tokina, and Tamaron.

I hope that you’ve found this primer helpful on entry-level cameras. Feel free to ask if you have any questions or want recommendations about narrowing down options about any of the stuff that I brought up. If you’ve found this useful, please consider buying through one of the links on this page. This costs you no extra but does help me defray the cost of the site.

Lens Notation Primer

As part of my series on buying entry-level dSLRs and lens buying, you may come across notations on a lens that are unfamiliar to you. If this all seems familiar, move on to my dSLR and lens guide. If not, read on to get a handle on what I mean.

Canon EF Lineup 2013

Canon EF Lineup 2013

Focal Length — wide-angle, telephoto, mm

The millimeter (“mm“) number refers to magnification in the focal length (how close or far a lens captures a photo) of a lens. Low numbers mean you can capture a wide field (“wide-angle“) of vision (sometimes more than regular human vision). High numbers mean you can zoom in on something far away (“telephoto“). If you like taking photos of landscapes or people in a small room, you’ll want a lens that goes down pretty low (24mm and less) into the wide-angle territory. If you like zooming in on stuff far away, you’ll want a lens that goes pretty high (100mm and more) in the telephoto category. Some lenses have a range that’s only low (10-22mm), some high (70-200mm), and some have a big range (18-135, 28-200). Lenses that go to a high focal length (super telephoto) are usually more expensive than lenses that go low focal length; also they’re bigger and heavier.

Zoom vs. Prime

The lenses I specified above are “zoom” lenses because you can zoom in and zoom out with them. Some lenses are specified with a single number (e.g. 50mm) and they’re called “prime lenses. With those, you zoom with your feet! To recompose a shot, you walk closer or farther away. While inconvenient, they are cheaper, lighter, and higher image quality. Of course, your eyeballs don’t zoom because they are prime lenses and you’ve probably been making do with those for a while.

  • Note: The zoom notation does not necessarily mean that they are good for zooming in on things far away. A 10-22mm is a zoom lens that only captures wide-angle photos (you can’t capture a bird far away). A 70-200mm is a lens that only captures telephoto images (you can’t capture a room full of people).

Aperture

The aperture notation on a lens dictates how wide the diaphragm in the lens opens up to let in light. It is written out with an F (e.g. “f/5.6″). The more light it lets in, the easier it is to take a low light shot. For every increment the f-stop number goes down, you double the light that goes in. For example, when taking a photo at an aperture of 2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second, to get the same looking photo with a lens that only goes to 5.6 (it opens up only a quarter as wide — see link above for reference), you’d need a shutter speed of 1/5th of a second. And let me tell you, despite telling myself otherwise numerous times, the human hand rarely takes a steady shot at 1/5th of a second. It will be blurry because of unavoidable hand shake. Essentially, without boosting the ISO (see below) or having a lens with image stabilization (IS) you won’t get the photo to come out well with 5.6 but you will at 2.8. Lenses with low apertures are thus more desirable as they prevent blurry photos but also more expensive / heavy.

  • Zoom lenses occasionally have a range of minimum apertures (e.g. 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6). What that means is that it opens up to f/3.5 at 18mm but it can only open up to f/5.6 at 55mm. In between, it’ll be something between 3.5 and 5.6. Some zoom lenses have a single, fixed minimum aperture. All prime lenses have fixed minimum apertures because they don’t zoom.
  • Plan on shooting with a tripod all the time? Aperture isn’t as important since the camera will be completely stationary. On the other hand, if you are like me and think toting a tripod on your back absolutely everywhere you go for photos is crazy talk, aperture remains important.
  • Maximum apertures are rarely listed outside of the technical specifications as they’re rarely used in practice.

Image Stabilization (IS)

IS stands for image stabilization; very handy because it compensates for the unsteady hand effect I just mentioned. It’s not a silver bullet but the technology allows for significantly better shots. It is also cheaper to get a lens with IS than a lens with a larger aperture. Taking a shot at a shutter speed of 1/5th of a second with IS means it’s much more likely to come out passable than without. Of course, IS only compensates for your hand shake. If your subject is a moving pet or kid indoors, you still need a low aperture with a fast shutter speed to freeze the action or you’ll get motion blur as they travel across your photo. For non-action shots, having IS is as good or better than a low minimum aperture.

  • IS technology is sometimes described in reviews in terms of how many f-stops it can simulate. Typical technology compensates for 2 f-stops (e.g. 5.6 to 2.8) but some can do 3 f-stops (e.g. 4 to 1.4).

Ultrasonic Motor (USM)

With an ultrasonic motor (“USM“) autofocusing becomes significantly faster (especially in high action situations like people dancing or playing sports), significantly quieter (photographing people without drawing attention, not tipping off animals with focus whizzing noise), and you can manually focus the lens without having to flip the focus switch from Autofocus (AF) to Manual. If the switch isn’t flipped to manual, manually focusing a camera while on AF without USM technology causes damage. It’s handy but I don’t manually focus very often and autofocus works just fine for me most of the time. The split second improvement in focusing speed is noticeable but, personally, the biggest benefit from USM is when I hand my camera to someone else, I don’t have to worry about them accidentally rotating the focus ring instead of the zoom ring and damaging my lens.

Stepper Motor (STM)

STM stands for Stepper Motor and is a applied to a new range of Canon lenses which feature a new design of focus motors which, along with a new iris mechanism are designed to eliminate (auditory) noise during video recording. It’s a more precise version of a regular focusing motor but still has the same direct connection to the lens focus group, which means manual focus has to be implemented using a focus-by-wire arrangement whereby moving the focus ring by hand sends a signal to the motor to move the focus group. In comparison, a USM consists of a pair of concentric rings which vibrate at high frequency to rotate back and forth, an arrangement which permits the user to move the focus ring to directly move the lens element, achieving full time manual focus without damaging the motor. Stepper motors are better at producing smooth, precise incremental movements, such as those required by contrast detect AF and AF during video. Ultrasonic motors are better at jumping to the right focus point as part of a phase detection system. Unless you take a lot of video with your camera, STM will not make a big difference. In my videos, I’ve never noticed the focusing motor noise from my non-STM lenses and my subjects don’t move out of focus range but your mileage may vary.

Less important:

Macro

All lenses have a minimum focus distance. Anything closer and the lens will not be able to autofocus on it clearly and the camera won’t snap the photo (unless you switch it to Manual focus and force it, but then you’d still have a blurry photo). It’s rare that you run into an issue with minimum focusing distance unless you’re trying to take a big photo of something like a flower or insect (i.e. fill up the whole photo with it). However, if that’s something that you’re interested in, pay close attention to the minimum focusing distances. If they’re too long, you’ll need to get a “macro” lens which has a shorter focusing distance. Half of them are fairly affordable at entry level prices.

Diffractive Optics (DO)

A rare few telephoto lenses come with diffractive optics (“DO“) in their name. It denotes that the lens is using lighthouse technology (a Fresnel lens construction) and a special lens coating to dramatically reduce the amount of glass required for manufacturing compared to a conventional lens. The practical takeaway is that DO lenses are dramatically shorter in length and much lighter. Canon is working on making more lenses like this as there are only two now and neither are entry level.

Coin: 10 Reasons It’s Not a Nightmare

Tom’s Guide published a piece called 10 Reasons Coin Card Could Be a Security Nightmare that starts off with a great summary of what Coin is but then goes on to excessively magnify the risks of using Coin and their likelihood. This alarmist piece does not accurately portray real usage and real risks of Coin, doing a disservice to those who are uninformed about the product. Read on to see what Coin is as well as an accurate assessment of the security risks it does and does not have.

First off, the great intro:

Last week, thanks to a successful press campaign, San Francisco-based startup Coin raised $50,000 in 40 minutes from strangers willing to wait nearly a year for a digital wallet.

The Coin card, a credit-card sized black plastic rectangle with an LCD screen that will sell for $100, is due to hit the market in summer 2014. It will contain a programmable magnetic stripe that can be swiped through any standard card reader at a retail store, gas station, ATM or so on.

Up to eight credit, debit, ATM or loyalty cards— any card with a magnetic stripe — can be “saved” on the Coin card, giving users seven fewer cards to carry in wallets or purses.

What follows this are the ten “nightmarish” issues the article brings up. Responses are provided underneath each to show that, while the issues are perfectly valid to raise, in reality their magnitude and incidence rate is blown out of proportion.

alt

Coin is a connected device that can hold and behave like the cards you already carry. Coin works with your debit cards, credit cards, gift cards, loyalty cards and membership cards. Instead of carrying several cards you carry one Coin. Multiple accounts and information all in one place.

  1. Card issuers may not take kindly to customers skimming their own card data onto third-party devices.
    • This may be true but the jury’s still out on it. I don’t think Coin is a big enough player for them to care substantially and the Coin demographic is a young, affluent, technology savvy group that would cause significant bad publicity for card issuers if they hindered Coin’s roll out.
    • Coin is essentially like duplicating a physical key. It may look different but it works exactly the same way as the original. Neither the lock you insert a key in nor the POS/point of sale device you swipe your card through knows whether it’s the original or a duplicate; if it authenticates, you proceed. Similarly, card issuers aren’t able to tell if you used your originally issued card or Coin.
  2. Stores and other points of sale might not accept the Coin card — and there will be a downside if they do.
    • It’s imprudent to not carry a back up credit/debit card and just rely on one card — Coin or otherwise. I carry two credit cards in case I have a problem with one; it’s called being prepared. The same philosophy should apply with Coin.
    • The article says that Coin won’t be accepted by people tendering a transaction. In reality, the majority of the time most people swipe their card themselves and it’s never handed over. If some contentious cashier has an issue, bust out the back up card.
  3. Coin card users may only be able to use the devices for a short time.
    • It’s great that the US is getting the same EMV chip-based security technology that Europe has been using for a decade. And yes, Coin won’t work in Europe due to the lack of an EMV chip; that’s not a surprise and something that they mention upfront. However, I doubt EMV adoption will move so fast that Coin will be unusable. I give it a good 2 or 3 years before you really need a chip in order to use a card in the US. There’s  lot of people with a lot of cards floating around that would need to be upgraded and there will be legacy point-of-sale devices for a long time coming. Thus, “a short time” could last quite a while.
    • Next generation Coin is already being designed with EMV.
  4. Card thieves would love to steal data from the Coin card.
    • Sure, as long as they’re within 25 feet / 7.5 meters of you. Also, the article is wrong in that you can actually lock the card. It auto locks when you go out of range and can be set to lock to just the selected card when you hand it over to a cashier.
    • It’s unlikely that a cashier is going to skim all your cards while standing a few feet away from you when all your cards are available. If a restaurant server whisks your card away to run it and wants to skim it, he’ll get just the one card you selected — same as if you handed him that one card.
  5. Conversely, the Coin app card reader could let anyone become a card thief.
    • Card skimmers already exist. Does that mean no one should use credit cards? Or that a product with legitimate uses shouldn’t exist? I don’t know how Coin prevents you from importing cards that you don’t own. My guess is that the same name has to appear on all the cards. Credit card skimmers are also much less conspicuous than Coin’s smartphone card swiper.
  6. If you pair it with your smartphone, it’ll be useless if you lose your phone, or if your phone’s battery dies.
    • Again, everyone should have a backup card. For example, I have an AMEX and carry around a MasterCard because some places do not take AMEX. You might as well tell me I shouldn’t get an AMEX because I can’t use it everywhere I want to be (cue Visa ad).
  7. If you break the Coin card, lose it or leave it behind, you’re stuck with the cash you happen to have on hand.
    • Again, everyone should have a backup card. I’d never walk out the door with one credit card. I’d never walk out the door with just Coin.
  8. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) security is unproven.
    • If you’re afraid of BLE then you should never do commerce on WiFi, either. With WiFi, you can be 100 feet away and capture data being transmitted. With BLE, someone is going to have to be pretty close to capture your data during a transaction. It doesn’t seem like an efficient strategy for high-tech credit card thieves. Maybe if you setup a computer in a Silicon Valley Starbucks near the cashier you can capture a couple Coins over the course of a day assuming the patrons sit down after buying their drink so you have time to hack the card.
    • To be clear, the phone doesn’t do anything in the course of a transaction except tell Coin it’s close by so it’s okay to let it be charged. Quite a bit of hacking has to be done to actually break into either the phone or Coin.
  9. Hackers might be able to access credit-card data by hacking your smartphone.
    • If you’ve ever bought or logged into anything that has your credit card saved (e.g. Amazon) on your phone, you’re still at risk. Hackers can also get into corporations and merchant servers where they store credit card data.
    • The Coin app is a potential liability because it’s yet another place where your data can be stolen from, but the risk is small that they’re going to spend effort breaking into or creating malware targeted at an app used by such a small pool of people.
  10. Hackers might be able to steal your credit-card info by breaking into Coin’s servers.
    • Or hackers might be able to steal your information by breaking into Target, TJ Maxx, Sony, the University of Maryland server that has every student who graduated since 1998, and so on. It’s a more efficient (and profitable) use of a hacker’s time and effort to set his sights on a large corporation rather than skimming individual early-adopters or targeting a start-up’s small user base.

If none of the above convinced you of how overboard the article has gone, the last paragraph really clinches it:

“It’s not a good idea to let ANY online company, from Amazon.com down to Pa Kettle’s Hi-Fi Repair, store your credit-card data. The consequences of a data breach, all too common these days, are just too high.”

If your level of risk tolerance of privacy/security is such that you are comfortable, like many people, with saving your credit card in your Amazon.com account, then Coin is fine for you as it presents an equivalent level of risk. If you are risk averse to storing your credit card in such a manner and find it to be a “nightmare” storing your information online, Coin isn’t going to be any better as it won’t offer you any more peace of mind. The rest of us can breathe easy. In short, are there liabilities? Of course, but the chance of experiencing them is miniscule.   Fear of an unlikely event (like getting struck by lightning) shouldn’t be a reason to prevent adoption of a useful tool (forgoing an umbrella during a rainstorm) — quite simply because, like with Coin, the benefits outweigh the costs.

I’ve happily ordered Coin and I’m looking forward to having it arrive shortly. Look for a full review soon once I’ve had a chance to use it.

coin_horizontal_brand

Get Coin prior to summer for $50 before the price jump to $100.

New York City Subway Map – High Resolution

Despite a lot of searching online, I’ve had a hard time finding a high-resolution map of the New York City subway system. To its credit, the NYC MTA has a subway map on its website and has a downloadable, printable PDF. However, there’s no official high quality image file to work with (and no original source file). Thus, I created this:

New York City Subway Map

New York City Subway Map (click for high resolution)

The thumbnail above is low resolution but you can click-through to a 12702 x 15337 pixel PNG map of the subway system. At 1200 dpi this prints 10.5″ x 12.75″ and at a lower DPI you can enlarge it even move (600 dpi = 21″ x 25.5″, 300 dpi = 42″ x 51″) — great for poster board or blowing it up for a conference/booth.

Google Glass Explorers Invitations Available

As most of you can tell, I’ve been beta testing +Google Glass since June. Google is expanding their pool of beta testers and I have two invites to give out. Purchase necessary. Let me know if you’re interested in one of them and why you would be a good fit by Saturday, November 9. Thanks!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/supermjr/posts/10102224794535768

Google+: https://plus.google.com/117730076110633798473/posts/Y9kyAbh31A2

Mario with Google Glass at NYC Glass Headquarters

Mario with Google Glass at NYC Glass Headquarters