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What plans do you have with a DSLR camera?

Last updated: Jan 10, 2015 at 4:26 AM CDT (level 8 update - plans changed and more in-depth details provided)

1 Introduction

Since around March of 2014, I've been wanting to upgrade my camcorder to something better. Why? There are several reasons for it. If you'd like to donate you can do so through obtaining gift cards at Amazon using my E-mail address. My E-mail is at the bottom of the main index, but I'll "encrypt" it here (for antispambot measures): ulillillia (the same E-mail I've had since June of 2000) hotmail (just how hot remains to be seen) spec com. Any amount that Amazon allows is fine. These will be used mainly toward the purchase of lenses. I can cover a good chunk of it, but donations will only accelerate it. Thanks for any donations. This document is a work in progress and any details and plans may change so check for updates every now and then.

1.1 My history with basic cameras

Before I explain why, let me explain my brief history with cameras and photography. I started out with a regular film camera, often using ISO 400 film, sometimes ISO 200. This was back in 1999 or so. I didn't know anything about photography. All I knew was that you were to just point the camera and press the shutter button, using the flash when in a dark area. (Un)Fortunately, regular film cameras have given way to digital cameras.

For a few years after this, I've always borrowed my parents' cameras. The first used floppy disks (640x480 photos anyone?). The next one used internal memory (surely 1152x864 is fun). Then the last one used an SD card (remember the days when SD cards were around 128 MB?). As time advanced, I didn't really learn any of the more advanced stuff, only ever using the cameras as point and shoot ones.

Then, one year, around Christmas of 2004 or 2005, I wanted to get my own digital camera. I got a cheap point and shoot type that could also record video. This camera was 7 megapixels (something like 3072x2304 pixels) and could record video at 640x480. At the time, that was all there was - HD was barely in its infancy (much like 4K is today). At first, I mainly used it for stills but I gradually got into videos, especially once YouTube came along. This camera, however, had 2 flaws present, one major. The first is that there was always a dead pixel present, always a full red. That's the minor thing. The major problem? Under bright light, when recording video, that camera would make everything a very strong magenta color.

1.2 My camcorder

1.2.1 The early days

With ever more focus into video, I wanted to get a camcorder. This was during Christmas of 2009 (2008?). This camcorder, the Sony Handycam HDR-CX110 could record 1920x1080 video (full HD) at 30 fps (interlaced, technically 60i). It had touchscreen for setting up basic things like exposure, focus, white balance, as well as standard-issue things like the clock or formatting the memory card. I started out with a 16 GB memory card that was speed class 10. I then got a 32 GB memory card that was speed class 6 as vacations resulted in needing more storage.

At first, I only used the automatic settings on my camcorder. That is, autofocus, autoexposure, and auto white balance. I often found that some of the shots I had were just overexposed or underexposed. The only way to best capture this was to manually control the exposure so that got me into the manual controls for the first time. At first, I didn't use it much but I used it more frequently. Then came the focus. Autofocus wasn't too reliable as, when the zoom really went up, even if I placed the camcorder on a steady surface with the subject a good 1 meter away (0.8 meters is the focus limit at the max zoom), it wouldn't focus. So, again, I had to take manual control of that. After I realized that I could see better detail on that tiny 3-inch screen than I could with my own eye, I got into getting extreme closeups of things. The closeups of my sister's pumpkin plant and piece of standard wide-rule writing paper are really amazing for the level of detail they contain.

Another area of advancement is the obtaining of a tripod. This has significantly stabilized a lot of the video and it even, when used in a smart way, allows for extended reach, for extra height in handheld shots, way higher than I could otherwise reach.

1.2.2 Encountering the limits

As time went on, I began to realize the shortcomings of my camcorder. I made several attempts to capture the stars but the camcorder just wouldn't pick them up... or so I thought. It took the writing of a program of my own using 32-bit floating point precision, frame blending 60 frames to remove a good chunk of the noise (done by simply averaging the pixels in the same spot across 60 frames), multiplying these colors by about 7.5, subtracting out about 160 to 180 to get rid of the constant bright white background, then multiply this by about 5.75. It took all that effort just to get... only magnitude +2 stars at the faintest? I could clearly see +5 magnitude stars in the area I was capturing, almost +6. (Magnitude is an astronomical term, in this case. A star that's +1 for the magnitude is 100 times brighter than a star that's +6.)

One key annoyance I've grown to know with my camcorder is the touchscreen. I've often missed shots because it takes so long just to adjust the exposure and focus. Tap this, tap that, tap that, adjust the exposure as needed, tap that, tap that, adjust the focus as needed. What could take maybe 2 to 4 seconds on a better quality camera ends up taking 10 to 20 seconds on the camcorder, 5 times longer.

1.2.3 Seeing stars

This section is to explain the process I had to use just to get the stars to be detected on my camcorder. I will write it later when I can.

1.3 Beyond the camcorder

With my camcorder's shortcomings getting in the way and the lack of flexibility it has, I've been wanting to upgrade to a better camera. It now feels like a beginner's toy. First, I'd like to capture the stars without having to go through the long-winded route with the programming just to kind of get them. Second, I hate having to spend so much time digging through menus just to set the focus and exposure. Third, the interlacing in the recorded video is bothersome. Fourth, the video quality is only mediocre. Fifth, the camcorder performs poorly in low light settings, resulting in insane amounts of grain. This is mainly due to the small 1/4" sensor. A four thirds sensor is 5 times bigger on each side allowing for much better light collecting potential.

To work around these shortcomings, I have to get a new camera. I spent a good 12 hours searching for a better camera using Digital Photography Review to find a camera. I looked at several. I found that DSLR cameras were more advanced than that of the point and shoot types. I also found that, frequently, these cameras were poor for video, having a 4 GB limit (from FAT32 on the memory cards - who uses that ancient file system any more these days?) and, the worst part (and also some laziness) is a 30-minute maximum time limit. The time limit is mostly a tax evasion thing for the European area. I'm not in that area so I shouldn't be affected. My laziness remark is that the limit can be added in if the shipment is to go to that European area, but not if it ships elsewhere and that's nothing more than a simple if statement (in C, as pseudo code):

VideoDurationSeconds = FramesCaptured/FrameRate; // 53,946 frames at 30,000/1001 fps (NTSC standard)
// means 29 minutes, 59.9982 seconds, just under the 30-minute limit

if (VideoDurationSeconds >= 1799.0) // if just shy of 30 minutes, assuming a 1-second "safety margin"
   StopRecordingVideo(&CurrentVideo); // stop recording the video currently being recorded

As to the 4 GB limit, what's so hard about starting a new file when 3.99 GB is reached? Buffer the overflow into memory then write the extra on the card and save that output quickly at first so it catches up then continue on with the normal pace.

At first, I was looking forward to the D5300 from Nikon. It met most of my needs, except for the 4 GB limit and the fact new files don't get created. A hack existed for the D5100, a rather old camera, that worked around both the 4 GB and 30 minute limit and I considered that for a while. After some more time, I thought I could just use the camcorder for longer video, using the D5300 for the shorter stuff.

But then I was suggested the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3. Not only did this camera not have a 30-minute limit and makes new files when 4 GB is reached, it's quite dedicated to video recording but it's also decent for stills. It covers both of my needs very - video and stills. While it does have some weak points in dpreview's review, they generally don't apply to me. WiFi? Nope, don't care for it. Color loss with JPG? It offers RAW (an uncompressed format) that doesn't have that problem. Low light issues? This will have an effect, but only slightly. It's way better than my camcorder for what I'm seeing. From what I can tell, ISO 5000 or 6400 has the same amount of graininess as what my camcorder has when maxed (and advertising for my camcorder remarks on it being ISO 1600). That means 4 times the light sensitivity in that area alone, let alone a bigger sensor and a quality big-aperture lens (more on lenses in section 2).

At the moment, I intend on getting this new camera sometime around Black Friday (November 28) of 2014. This is usually the time that the prices for items like this really drop.

1.4 Video demonstration

This video demonstrates how good my camcorder is and its weak points. It also explains why I want to upgrade my camcorder to a DSLR camera. This video is at half the size of the original resolution.

2 The deal with lenses

2.1 A quick overview

When you buy a DSLR, usually, it's just the body only. There's no lens included with it like your point and shoot camera. This means, in addition to the cost of the camera body itself, I need to get a lens so I can use it in the first place. Lenses often go for about $150 to $600, usually closer to $300. There's a lot of terminology involved. Here's a brief overview (note: I'm no expert on this and quick comparison samples will be provided later on):

Aperture: this controls both the light input received by the lens and the depth of field. This is indicated as f/3.5, roughly typical for most lenses. The smaller the f-stop number, the 3.5, the more light the lens can bring in but the shallower the depth of field is. f/2 lets in 4 times as much light as f/4 and 8 times as much as f/5.6. When working with dark settings, something like f/1.8 or bigger (like f/1.4) would be optimal. When needing to have as much stuff in focus as possible, usually from doing close ups of things, a smaller aperture like f/16 or f/22 would be needed. For optimal sharpness and minimal diffraction, a lens is at its best 2 to 4 full stops smaller than the largest aperture it has. That is, if a lens is rated as f/1.4, then optimal sharpness occurs from f/2.8 to f/5.6.

Crop factor: a "magnification" of sorts when compared to a full frame sensor. The DMC-GH3 has a micro four thirds sensor which means it has a 2.077x crop factor. Crop factor also offsets the depth of field by the same ratio. With a lens that uses an aperture of f/4 on this camera, the crop factor would make it as if it was about f/8.3 for the depth of field equivalent (note: I'm not exactly certain on that).

Depth of field: the amount of the scene that's in focus, controlled primarily by the aperture. A smaller aperture, a bigger f-stop number, means a greater depth of field making more of the image in focus. A larger aperture, a smaller f-stop number, means a smaller depth of field, putting less of the scene in focus (useful for muting out backgrounds when your subject is in the foreground).

Digital zoom: a type of zoom where only the center part of the image is kept and is upscaled. Upscaling provides no extra benefit. The only benefit that digital zoom has is that it takes effect before lossy compression occurs. With RAW files being used, it's best to do this kind of thing in basic image editing. Plus, you preserve the whole scene anyway so why not? Avoid digital zoom - it's almost completely useless.

EV: the exposure value. This value is logarithmic and is generally based on powers of 2. Each 1 point higher means a doubling of light intake. An EV of 15 would be the case with ISO at 100, shutter speed at 1/125 second, and an aperture of f/16. If I used ISO 400, a 1/8-second shutter speed, and an f/4 aperture, EV would be 5 instead or roughly that of moderately lit indoor setting.

Focal length: this controls the amount of "zoom", in a sense. The longer the focal length, expressed in millimeters, the narrower the field of view covered. Focal length multiplied by the crop factor determines the equivalent of a 35 mm full frame camera. Lenses have either 1 or 2 of these values present such as "14-42", a typical zoom lens. Unlike your point and shoot cameras, the "10x optical zoom" doesn't mean anything. 10x optical zoom only means that the telephoto focal length (the 42) is 10 times higher than that of the wide angle focal length (the 14), such as a 14-140 mm lens.

Grain: the random noise in an image. While the object might be gray shade 100, for example, you might see it as 98 or 103 instead and the next pixel adjacent to it would be something different. Graininess is often controlled by the ISO setting and noise reduction methods in the camera. An ISO of 1600 versus 100 might have that same shade of gray range from 88 to 112 instead of 97 to 103 and ISO 6400 could have it range from 80 to 120. How intense the graininess actually is depends on the camera and the sensor. Something like the Sony alpha 7S has surprisingly little grain for ISO 25,600 due to its design. My GH3 needs ISO 1600 for roughly the same noise level.

ISO: this controls the sensitivity, and thus graininess (random noise), of the sensor. Unless working in a dark setting, ISO 100 to 200 is usually optimal, sometimes 400. Compared to ISO 100, ISO 800 is 8 times more sensitive, making for a much brighter scene, at the cost of some grain.

Macro: having an object appear the same size or larger on the sensor. That is, if an object is 5mm long, then, in close focus, that object would cover 5mm on the sensor (about 1329 pixels for a resolution of 6752.5 pixels per inch). An object 5mm long appearing as 10mm on the sensor would also count as macrophotography. It's a nice way to bring out the hidden details you can't see with your eye. Afterall, when you can see the 8.7mm spacing between the lines of wide rule paper filling almost exactly 2/3 the vertical span of the sensor, that's a huge amount of detail that can be made out. Paper fibers would be easily resolved.

Optical zoom: the difference between the tele and wide, upon dividing them. A lens that's 14-42 mm for the focal lengths has a 3x optical zoom as 42÷14 = 3. Zoom has nothing to do with how close you can bring the object to the camera with a narrower field of view. A 14-140 mm lens has a 10x optical zoom and a 100-300 mm lens has a 3x optical zoom but clearly the 100-300 lens brings objects much closer to the view.

Prime lens: a lens with a fixed focal length. While it may seem like being unable to zoom is a bad idea, these lenses are special in 2 ways. First, they tend to have large apertures more easily available for a low cost. Second, they result in extremely sharp photos with a very high contrast. For low light settings, the low cost large apertures make for great potential in capturing the stars. For daytime settings, the large aperture allows for the lens to get sharp at bigger apertures so that faster shutter speeds or lower ISO settings can be used.

Stop: a term used to designate a doubling or halving of light intake. Whether this is going from an f/4 to an f/2.8 or f/5.6 aperture, from 800 to 1600 or 400 ISO, or a shutter speed from 1/125 second to 1/60 second or 1/250 second, it doesn't matter. Each stop is a change of 1 EV.

Tele lens Zoom lens: a lens that has an adjustable focal length. Zoom lenses are noted as a range of focal lengths such as 14-42 mm or 45-200 mm. Zoom lenses typically have smaller apertures, usually f/3.5 or f/4 for the widest, and apertures also tend to vary with the zoom, often noted as f/3.5-6.3. They also aren't as sharp as a prime lens. The greater the range of focal lengths a lens provides, the poorer the quality tends to be because of sacrifices that need to be made in the design of the optics to allow for that. This is why most zoom lenses you see tend to rarely exceed a 4x range (such as 12-50 mm being only slightly more than 4x, or 100-300 mm being 3x). There are a few exceptions though, but they cost a lot more.

2.2 My (updated) plan for lenses

My original plan has been changed quite a bit from when I originally posted this. I also have to plan for upcoming events, something I didn't consider earlier, not just starting out diverse and gradually extending the capabilities from there.

2.2.1 Getting started

Owned! Panasonic 14-42 mm f/3.5-5.6 - a typical kit lens. In order to use the camera, I need a lens. So, I went with something cheap but at least decent. The first lens I got was the 14-42 mm f/3.5-6.3 lens, typically a kit lens. While it's not very versitile, it's at least cheap enough with a good enough quality to be worth it. Even though it's kind of limiting and not so much what I'm after (I intend on selling it once I get enough adequate lenses), the photos I've taken with it are already well above that of what my camcorder can do.

2.2.2 2 lenses for the night

There are 2 lenses I'm considering for night and other low light scenes. In order to get the large aperture needed for low light settings, a prime lens is a must. For best results, I need a large aperture, but larger apertures tend to come with longer focal lengths. Since wide angle stuff is what I tend to use the most, I want the shorter focal lengths. I have the following 2 choices (ordered most likely to least likely and they're almost tied, 55/45):

Rokinon 12 mm f/2 - this lens doesn't have as big of an aperture, but it's a very wide angle one. Not only that, but it also has manual aperture control which is essential for when I go at filming things that varying levels of brightness like my annual fireworks show. Fireworks move fast but are very bright. So, I could film with this lens set to f/11, then, when the effects are over with, I can open the lens up to f/2 to bring in the hidden activities behind the scenes. When another firework is lit, it can drop back down to f/11. Another example of this lens's usefulness is that of that cave tour where a lot of areas were very dark then bright then dark, and so forth, not to mention the very bright exterior. With manual aperture control, I can quickly adjust light intake as needed without sacrificing the level of graininess (increasing the ISO). This lens will also be used for wide angle astrophotography. Set to f/2, ISO 800, and a few seconds of exposure and I can get some really good photos of the starry night sky.

Panasonic 25 mm f/1.4 - the only lens with a large aperture and widest angle with a decent enough price and quality. There's a 42.5 mm f/1.2 lens that's got an even bigger aperture, but it's way, way too expensive and the field of view it covers is a bit too narrow for my tastes. So, the f/1.4 lens will be my main low light lens. In fact, with this lens at ISO 2000, I can roughly match the view from what my eyes see at night from my balcony and I can still get a good 13 times more potential light input, at the cost of a ton of graininess.

2.2.3 Quick macro photography

52mm reversing ring - this is used to put a lens on backwards (exact item to be determined later). What good does that do? It allows for you to cheaply get some macro photography going. What's needed is nothing more than a reversing ring with the correct filter size for the lens. With this, I could get some serious extreme closeups of things. Forget that 1-inch flower only filling up 1/3 of the photo area, try having it so close, in sharp focus, that, if you could cover the whole thing, you would need a 24x36 poster size at 200 dpi to show it. That's such rich detail that you'll really see a ton of details in things you normally wouldn't see. The level of detail possible is really crazy. And the lower the magnification, the stronger the zooming in (note: unsure on this remark). But for $10 as opposed to a dedicated macro lens? Why not!

2.2.4 Mega wide angle

Panasonic 7-14 mm f/4 - this lens is extremely wide angle. Since I tend to use a wide field of view the most, I need a wide angle lens. This is the ultimate wide angle lens that works with my camera. It offers a horizontal field of view of 102.14° at its widest, 63.52° at its narrowest. With a field of view like that, it's hard to miss something. I could do a looping panorama with only 4 photos being needed. Of course, the maximum sharpness occurs near 10mm, according to reviews. To match the field of view in Platform Masters, I would need to use 11.56 mm (11 5/9 actual) as the focal length. The biggest problem with this lens is the sheer cost. It's close to $900 when new. I'll have to get it used and that'll still probably be $750 or so. This is the most expensive lens, but it's also much more geared toward what I can do. There is a much cheaper version, Olympus 9-18 mm f/4-5.6 that isn't as wide of an angle, spanning from 87.84 to 51.42° instead.

2.2.5 General purpose high zoom range

Panasonic 14-140 mm f/3.5-6.3 - this lens is designed with videographers in mind. With a quality build across the entire 10x zoom range, optical image stabilization, this lens is quite the beast. It serves as a great general purpose lens for almost everything. It also covers the longer focal lengths for a good zoom too. The only issue is that this lens isn't cheap. It's a good $600 or so. It's the second most expensive lens I'm after. Once I get this lens, that's about the time the 14-42 mm starter lens will be sold.

2.2.6 Going narrow

Panasonic 100-300 mm f/4.0-5.6 - for getting up close to something from far away when I can't just get closer the old fashioned way, this lens would cover pretty much the full range of field of view. This lens could also be used in astrophotography as, when Jupiter is at its closest point, at the maximum zoom (3.31° field of view or an average of 2.586 arcseconds per pixel, Jupiter would fill up about 17.4 pixels. It's not enough to resolve any detail, but it's enough for the odd ball to appear instead of a point. Of course, for real astrophotography, I'll need to get a dedicated telescope with a camera mount in order for me to really photograph Jupiter (or any of the other planets) in sufficient detail.

2.2.7 A fishy lens

A fisheye lens is the ultimate for wide angle, but it comes with a catch: the view is very distorted. That's why they're called fisheye lenses. If there's a way to figure out how the distortion is, it may be possible to write a program that stretches and skews the image or whatnot to remove those distortions and get a more rectangular view. I haven't looked into fisheye lenses much so I don't have any decisions on anything. But my main focus on this would be, of course, the widest angle possible. Seriously, these things can get 180° field of view with the right lens.

2.2.8 Into the microworld

While I have yet to look into macro lenses to any significant extent, a more dedicated macro lens, as opposed to just using a reversing ring, would result in much better quality.

2.2.9 A telescope with camera mount

To really get into astrophotography, I can't just use a lens with a long focal length. It just starts getting impractical. To get Jupiter to fill the entire photographic area of my camera, I would need a focal length of 56 meters. That's just not practical. A magnifier mounted on the lens could also be used, but it's still not the best option.

2.2.10 The last 2 lenses

To round out the last of the prime lenses, there's 2 other lenses I'm somewhat interested in but they're very low on my priorities. One lens is a narrow angle (I'm leaning toward 85mm) large aperture lens. The other is an average angle (like 40 mm or so) large aperture lens. These are are primarily intended for daytime usage when I want to bring in detail of a faraway object as much as I can but retain great sharpness. It's not really meant for video recording. Astrophotography could benefit a little from it, especially if I want to focus on a smaller section of the sky.

2.2.11 Quick summary

To better summarize all the facts and figures for the plan I have, this table covers these details well (elements with data given and a ? following means I have from 80 to 95% certainty on the info, others with just a ? only means I have less than 80% certainty):

LensStarterWide nightMega wide
Lens type(s)ZoomPrime
Low light
Low light
Super zoomZoom
Low light
Low light
Focal length (in
mm; 35mm equiv)
Field of view (wide, tele)63.52-23.32°71.68°38.24°102.14-63.52°63.52-7.085°9.91-3.31°180°?19.67°?21.8°?11.64°
Zoom ratio3x1x1x2x10x3x1x1x?1x1x
Max aperture3.5-5.621.443.5-5.64-5.6??1.41.4
Min aperture222216222222??22?22?
Focus distance0.3 m0.5 m?0.3 m0.25 m0.3 m1.5 m????
Focus ring**YesYesYesYesYesYes????
Manual aperture***NoYesNoNoNoNo?Yes???
Weight (lb)0.360.60.440.660.581.15????
Thread size (mm)526746?5867????
Approximate price(new,
used†, in USD)

Table footnotes:
* Because I haven't really looked into these in more detail, I haven't made any decisions yet so the full details aren't exactly known. Estimates and targets are provided where possible.
** One key important aspect of a lens for me is manual focus. Unlike my camcorder which requires spending a lot of time sifting through menus (one of the key reasons why I got the GH3 in the first place), I would very much rather have a manual focus ring. Not only is it potentially 10 times faster than my camcorder, it's also a lot more convenient overall. I almost never use autofocus.
*** Few lenses have a manual aperture control on them. While there is the wheel on the camera itself to quickly adjust the aperture, having a lens that has a manual aperture control gives me access to much faster light input control for when I rapidly change from a dark setting to a light one and back again. This feature is not a must, however, it's just a nice bonus.
† Used is roughly what the item goes for when in "very good" condition. For my preferred "like new", take the halfway point between the stated numbers.

2.3 Filters

I generally prefer true color, as opposed to artistic effects like Sepia or grayscale. I've heard of filters being available. As far as I'm aware, the only kind of filter I'd be interested in is one that can significantly reduce glare from the Sun.

3 The rewards of a new camera

Just getting the camera alone is only part of the picture. Once I get it, there are plenty of things I'd like to do with it. The first step is obviously experimenting with it, to see how things like ISO, etc. fit in. Beyond that, I have a rock collection that I'd like to show. I only plan on posting a few of the rocks I have, like 3. Once I get some quality lenses, then I'll cover everything. Of course, it's not just my rock collection, it's a bunch of other things too.

Vacations, what few times I get to travel, will also be documented with exceptional clarity like never before. If (and when) I can ever get out of the ND/MN "cage", you can be sure I'll document it very well in both stills and video alike.

4 Beyond the DMC-GH3

The DMC-GH3, if it's as good as I'm thinking it is, should last me at least 5 years, if not as long as 10 years. Of course, technology improves so I may upgrade again, probably to something that can record 4K video, doing 1920x1080 HD video at 240 fps (yes, slow motion (the 60 fps progressive is a step closer to slow motion, in a way)), taking photos that are probably nearly 50 megapixels, and much more. My only concern is how long the lenses will survive. Will micro four thirds lenses no longer be used/made 8 years from now?