School Me On Cameras

Les, Oleg-I’m specifically looking at you here.

Alright, the background.  Forever ago, my camera was a tough little Olympus Stylus 600. It did its duty with snapshots and the like.  And it’s an all-weather camera so I never had to worry about getting it out in the rain.  When TheHolsterSite was born, it even spent some time trying its best to take nice shots. And it was passable.

But oh the noise! And the hot spots.

There are hot spots
Or a strangely velvety texture. And yeah, there's my butt again.

Or with the more colorful options, we’ve got washed out or distorted.  Clearly, it was time for a change. Enter the Nikon Coolpix P80.

Serious game changer.  Sure, it’s still just a Honda Civic, but it’s got a stick shift. And it can take some pictures.

Yeah, you’ve seen that holster.

And how about the one that will be featured on March 16th on ABC’s In Plain Sight?

So yeah, it rocks and I love it.  But I’m starting to hit its limitations.  The P80 has a simpler (dumbed down) version of the controls of a real life Nikon DSLR, so I am very strongly leaning in the Nikon direction so as not to restart my learning curve.  I figure that the pictures will have that kind of quality jump again once I upgrade to better hardware.

So, I am looking at the Nikon D3100 unless someone can convince me that the Nikon D5100 is really worth $200 more. (Yes, it does much better video and has better sound options, but I don’t use those things much.) As far as I can tell, the 5100 does everything the 3100 does and then some.

So, what say you, internet experts?

Updated for clarity: Yes, I know-better light=better picture.  Hence why I’ve been able to get really awesome shots with the P80.  I’ve also maxed out what I can do with the P80. I’m leaning towards the D3100 so I can invest the price difference towards a better lens.  Also, I need options for off-camera flash for when I can’t set up my…er…creative backyard studio (canvas panels and a portable projector screen). I’ve reached the point where I need the hardware upgrade and that’s what I’m asking to be schooled on.  Thank you for your help so far.

18 thoughts on “School Me On Cameras”

  1. Not to make yer hubby jealous, but can we see another pic of yer butt?

    (don’t tell him I posted this, or I’ll never get my holster….)

    Just kidding.

    Did you ever sell that URL?

  2. Not a huge Nikon fan, I go for Pentax personally, but if you don’t need the extra features, and don’t anticipate needing them, then I see no point in paying for them.

  3. Whatever camera comes on my phone is the best camera for me. According to the internets it is apparently easy to take a picture of your butt assuming you have a mirror. No one has asked for a picture of mine though so I haven’t tried it.

  4. I shot 35mm SLR until I went digital–in part because I dislike on-camera flash. I suffered through digital point and shoots until I bought a Pentax K-x DSLR about a year ago when it was fairly cheap on

    A DSLR has huge advantages in certain circumstances, especially if you don’t have control of the lighting or action–response time is faster, focus is faster, you can play with depth of field (where the foreground is in focus, but the background is intentionally blurry) and low light performance is much, much better.

    However–most of the problems you are complaining about could be fixed with better lighting. I’m guessing that you used the built-in flash for the pictures of the black holster. For close ups of shiny or glossy things, stock on-camera flash is rarely the best way to take the picture. (most of my close ups were of watches for Ebay). Either use more diffused light from an off-camera source, or diffuse the flash.

    I’ve used white paper, wrapping tissue or a translucent plastic cup between the flash and subject with good results. I would also take pictures outside on an overcast day.

    Even better results were when I controlled the lighting. I wound up setting up a light box and using a tripod, and got great pictures with a really crappy camera. A light box is nothing more than sheer fabric over a lightweight frame between the lights and the subject. A couple of cheap portable lamps with bare bulbs, move them around until the shadows and highlights are right, then take the picture with the flash turned off. is an old blog post where I described my method at the time.

  5. Short of it… No if paying $200 is a bit more than you’d like to spend then its not worth it.
    Long of it… The key to photography is lighting. Having poor lighting = bad pics. The body of the camera only holds the sensor for which light is absorbed. The lenses however are your key. Better the lens the more light that is allowed in and this is always a better piccture. I’m not sure on Nikons (I’m a Canon guy) but good lenses don’t come on the camera in a package deal and they start out at over $300. I’m sure Oleg will tell you his lenses were a tiny bid more than that (read- forfeit of first born child). Camera bodies are almost all alike, your lenses are where the investment is. The question is, are you willing to invest that much??

  6. Honestly, the best advice I can give you — as a former newspaper photographer — is to go to the public library and start reading books on photography — specifically you’re looking for books with an emphasis on lighting and controlling the light.
    That’s the picture — in most cases.

    You can improve product photography with a couple of lamps, and some inexpensive light modifiers or reflectors.

    You’re aware of the light — hot spots, velvet texture — now it’s time to learn how to control it. Unfortunately gear won’t solve that problem by itself; it’s kind of like relying on the gun on the nightstand to protect you, without ever learning how to shoot…

    Good luck — and feel free to hit me up with questions.

  7. Lots of great advice above. I’m a Canon guy (for now; vaguely considering a change) but the sticker on the front doesn’t make a big difference.

    One of the big differences that jumps out at me is the swiveling display on the 5100. They both have live-view shooting, and if you’re doing product shot from a tripod that can be a huge advantage – or at least much easier on the neck. Is it worth $200? Up to you.

    The 2MP difference between the two is inconsequential; the 5100 has a slightly higher ISO range but, again, that’s not a big deal (and the noise at the high end is unbelievable).

    For my dime, the 3100 would probably get the nod.

  8. I’ll echo the above, lighting is where the issue is. On-camera flash will almost always give you a hot spot, even using a DSLR. I’m a Canon guy, but as stated, almost all camera bodies are the same with minor variations in where the buttons are and how many focal points, etc (to extend your car analogy, its like trying to choose between a brown leather gearshift handle and a skull-shaped one…and whether or not your sun visor has a lighted mirror on the back side vs an unlighted one…no biggie. Although those skull shifters are pretty sweet…). Your DSLR is going to come with a basic lens, probably a 35-80mm, and your more affordable lenses are going to have an f-stop of around 4-ish (the lower the f-stop, the wider the apeture of the lens, which allows more light in, allowing faster shutter speeds in lower light conditions; also, the lower the f-stop, the narrower depth-of-field, so that your subject is in crisp focus, while stuff in the background, outside the focal range, is blurry, which really makes your subject jump out). I would recommend investing in a nice 100mm macro lens, those will let you focus up close, get a good narrow depth-of-field (in some cases, this can be measured in inches, so that one pocket on your jeans is in focus, while the other isn’t), and also let in a good amount of light. But, with a light box, you’ll have adequate light on your subject, so the stock lens will work fine.

  9. Others have already said it, but I might as well reiterate – lighting is key, with lens aperture being not-too-far behind (in my opinion).

    Those “hot spots” in your pictures are a product of the teeny, super-powered flash attached to point-and-shoots these days – that light bangs out of the camera, reflects off anything it can, and then the smallish aperture and stupidish brain in the point-and-shoot does not know what to do with the suddenly-bright segments of the picture.

    In my opinion (and I am nowhere near a pro, and certainly not in Oleg’s league), you need three things, with another being nice, but not necessarily a “need”: 1. A way of providing diffuse light to your subject. For me, with macro, I use the fluorescent under-cabinet lighting we installed in the kitchen, plus the generic kitchen lights, plus a little clip-on garage light thingie if I need it.

    2. A tripod. This allows you to not have to use flash (because flashes are not diffuse) by instead leaving your shutter open longer and collecting more light. This tends to lead to a more balanced light field, but, of course, can only be used on still life.

    3. A camera that can take pictures in RAW format. Google and Wikipedia can explain why, but HDR is God when it comes to getting your lighting right.

    4. A camera with a wide aperture. I LOVE my Sigma 30mm prime for my Canon DSLR because it can go all the way down to a f/1.4 stop, which lets you take natural-light pictures in amazingly dim environments. Of course, it has a 62mm wide lens, so point-and-shoots simply cannot compete, but pretty much every DSLR out there has an equivalent.

    In reality, “good” pictures can be achieved by P&S cameras; they just require a little work. Of course, so do “good” pictures from a DSLR.

  10. The D3100 is a very good camera. JayG is getting great photos out of his. The D5100 is a slightly better still camera. It’s a much better video camera. I’d go with it if you’re planning to do a lot of video.

    A hotshoe flash makes a world of difference. I have the older SB800 which was about $450. It’s great and I guess if I could only have one flash that would be it. But as a starter flash I’d recommend the SB400 for $125. I have both and I wind up using the SB400 more often because it’s smaller and lighter.

    The SB400 puts out a lot more light than the built-in flash. It also lets you swivel the flashhead up to bounce the light off of the ceiling. Bouncing spreads the light over a larger area which looks 100x better than the typical deer-in-the-headlights look of direct, on-camera flash. (Google “bounce flash.”) The only downside of the SB400 is that it can’t bounce in portrait orientation mode, only in landscape orientation.

    You can get any Canon or Nikon hotshoe flash off camera with a $15 Zeikos flash sync cable from Amazon. I sometimes use two Zeikos cables to trigger flashes in a $25 white photographer’s umbrella to take portraits.

    That’s the other nice thing about a hotshoe flash. You have a lot more options in terms of modifying the light – softening it, applying gels to color it, etc.

  11. I like Nikons. All the good shots on my blog are with my old beat up D40 (with non-kit lens and if I need a flash, a Speedlight SB-600.)

    I tend to use my Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 Primary lens for probably 95% of my stuff, it drops down to f/1.8 and focuses fast. It’s a bargain of a lens to boot.

    But as others have said, lighting is what will get you in a lot of photos, especially the portrait/product ones like you have above. Get a good flash unit like the SB-600 with a head you can adjust to bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall, and it’ll help a lot. Your first pic, for example, is really washed out and has a ton of glare from the front facing flash on the camera, so lots of detail is lost, especially around the gun itself where there’s a massive flare.

  12. I agree, you need better control of the light. Even a couple of the clip on reflectors with floodlights will let you turn the flash off and see what you will get.

    Ideally, your camera would have a flash socket and a cable release, and you could run an external flash setup. Or like my studio setup, with slaved flash so the camera’s flash would trigger the White Lightnings.

    But at this stage of the game, just stable light bright enough to get the cameras lens to stop down so you will have some depth of focus, and a decent tripod are all that are really necessary.

    And yes, pick up a book on photographic lighting at the library. And take a nice bare tabletop, and an egg, and see what you can do with lighting.

    Digital sure makes it a lot cheaper than it was in the cut film days.


  13. Jennifer – if you want a basic upgrade from a Point and shoot(even a good one) without a high initial outlay, have you considered buying a used body from the likes of Adorama or B&H? A D40 can be had for 250 dollars, leaving more money to be spent on glass, tripods, lights(there are some cheap chinese light kits that work pretty good on ebay these days) flashes, etc. When you decide you need more camera, you can sell it to recoupe your loss, and use your gear with the new body, or keep it around as backup/loaner/rough use/etc body.

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