Changing cameras 2009

There's upgrades, and then there's upgrades.


Cameras are an investment. Not just financial, but in learning how to use the features best to suit your needs. It takes a lot to switch once you have got used to a camera.

For those who do not know, my main camera until now has been a Nikon Coolpix 5700. It's a neat little SLR-like camera, that has served me well since 2004. Or well, to be fair, the first one had a catastrophic failure in 2007 (the CCD became partly detatched at the start of a holiday, and needed a repair). I liked it so much that after the holiday I went to some trouble to find another one, to avoid having to learn a new camera. After the repair I then had two, and they still work well enough.

The 5700s have served me very well until now, and they have put up with some serious beatings. They have been subjected to sub-zero temperatures, been soaked with rain and sea water, pelted with snow and hail, been dropped, and taken caving. Yet they work. One of them has developed a bug in the contrast button that can make it think the button is pressed, and refuse to take a picture. The other has some dirt on the lens that can't be manually cleaned, and the lens occasionally gets jammed. Neither can automatically open its flashgun any more. But they work.

The Nikons have taken some stupendous pictures. They can do wonders with landscapes, sunsets and storms, and I am really happy with so many of the pictures they have taken. My galleries are a testament to them. The exposure-lock feature alone deserves much credit for that. They cope with long trips, taking around one battery every one or two days, though I could do with more.

The trouble is, the Nikons have let me down. They fail miserably to cope with low light. The ISO setting cannot cope with more than 200 - any higher and the CCD digital noise becomes unbearable. There is no anti-shake, making it impossible to take long exposures without a tripod. Long exposures (anything more than a couple of seconds) produces bright speckles of digital noise somewhat akin to a multi-coloured starfield. This is the camera that tries to fire the flashgun at a mountain at sunset, or on a cloudy day.

The zoom is high, but not high enough (only 8 times), and without anti-shake, full zoom typically is unusable anyway. Cropping out the distant subject of a photo often ends up with a blurred picture. The maximum resolution of 5Mpx is not great for this sort of use, even with steady shots. The zoom lens is annoyingly slow to operate, taking around 3 seconds to change from minimum to maximum.

Then there is the response time. At its fastest, the 5700 takes 10 seconds to start and take a simple picture. (In low-but-not-freezing temperatures, it can take an extra 10 seconds, while showing a blank screen for no apparent reason.) It takes forever to focus on a non-static or distant target, and for fast moving objects or in low light, it will give up focusing after several seconds of focus-cycle lock-up. After taking one picture, it takes a good 3-4 seconds before the next one can be taken, or closer to 10 seconds when using the flash. Wildlife pictures are just so hard with this camera, and taking pictures of birds is virtually impossible, especially without anti-shake.

So the time has come for a new camera, and this time it's going to be a proper SLR. I have tried plenty of other normal cameras; Praktica and Pentax film cameras, Olympus compact film camera, Kodak DC280, Kodak DC3400, Fuji FinePix A360 compact, Fuji FinePix S6500fd with its stupid oil-painting anti-shake, Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2, and loads of others in the way-back-when. The market is saturated with cameras, and there are plenty that would fit the bill. I could stay with what I know and get a more advanced Nikon. However, its very important to get a camera that really does fit the requirements, and without actually testing one in the conditions, it's just not possible to know if it really will cope.

Fortunately, I know people with cameras, and 4 of them have used the Canon EOS 40D in the exact conditions I will need a camera to work in. And it works very well. In fact, it does exactly what I need from a camera (it even allows pictures to be taken in SLR-like mode, for those sunset shots where it's important to see what the camera will see), and copes with all the situations that the Nikon fails with. I'm not saying it's perfect, and there are better cameras, but for the cost, it does what I need, and for now at least, I do not want a camera that takes higher resolution, or has a higher LCD DPI - I'm not taking poster pictures, and I want my batteries to last. It's widescreen format instead of regular screen format, which means I will have to work out what parts to cut off for wallpaper use, but I will overlook that.


The bag

A good camera bag is almost as important as the camera itself. My needs are demanding; I've tried all the different approaches for camera bags, and have a very strict set of needs that the bag must serve. As well as serving as a normal bag, it must be usable for long-distance hikes. This means it needs to work with a 30kg backpack. It must be able to stay on when putting on or taking off the pack. It must not obstruct my legs so I can step up or down without issues. It must not put undue stress on the shoulders. Even the small 5700 bag caused problems because it got in the way.

The bag needs enough space to hold the camera, spare lens, enough spare batteries and memory cards for two weeks, and tissues to clean the lens. It needs to provide easy access to the camera. It needs to be rainproof, snowproof, and probably iceproof too.

Almost everyone and everything suggests a belt pack. But they are utterly useless in combination with a backpack, which has its own wide belt. It also gets in the way of the legs while walking. Mounting the bag on the backpack belt is useless as it not only gets in the way, but also cannot be kept in place when the bag is removed. A camera backpack fails completely due to awkward access, and physical impossibility when wearing a 30kg backpack. Some suggest the Lowepro Slingshot bags, which can be worn on the front, but they are so bulky that they block the view of your feet, and make walking downhill quite dangerous.

Lowepro also do a harness for hiking or biking, that allows the camera to be held in front of the chest or belly - the perfect place - while keeping the rest of the body free for a backpack. The harness works with most of their top-loader bags, which are nicely low-profile, and do not obscure vision. There is no way to mount the spare lens inside the bag, though Lowepro do several lens cases. However, they also do not see the need to provide a rainproof cover with a hiking harness. I guess they don't think people will hike in the rain - how wrong they are.

Think Tank Photo make similar bags and a similar harness, but they see the need for a rainproof cover, so given the choice, Think Tank win, with the Digital Holster 20, and Digital Holster Harness. A lens case from Lowepro (2S) can also fit under the same cover. However, none of the top-loader bags provide any useful way to attach the lens case to them. This short gallery shows what I put together in order to get around this problem, in the hopes that you can do the same if you want to. Be warned that mounting the lens case in this way does make the weight distribution a little lop-sided when the camera is not in its bag, but the harness should take care of most of that, and it's still better than any of the other solutions I have seen so far.

To start with, I tried just strapping the lens case to the camera holster, but that ended up crushing the camera holster, and made it collapse when empty. So, time to invalidate some warranties...


Cameras get used, and they get abused, and they do develop faults. When they do, they need to be repaired. With the Nikon Coolpix 5700, it's quite simple; something breaks or gets dirty (except the external lens or eyepiece), send it in for repairs. With the Canon 40D, it depends on what gets dirty, and what gets damaged. Since the lens is not part of the camera, it can be cleaned or repaired separately. A UV filter is always a good idea to protect the expensive glass of the lens.

The camera body, however, has no way to protect its parts when it's open, and changing lenses always has the risk of introducing moisture or dust, and needs to be done carefully. If this lands on the reflex mirror, it can be cleaned. If it lands on the CCD, it can be cleaned with care (it can also be sent in for cleaning). But there are other parts where dust can get that you cannot clean without invalidating the warranty.

Over time, the Nikon Coolpix 5700 cameras developed faults, the first camera more than the second. The first fault related to getting the camera wet, causing the contrast button to play up. The second was a major fault...


The Nikon was returned within a couple of weeks, with the CCD fixed. When asked how much was owed, Nikon replied that it was a known common fault, and fixed for free, even though the camera was not covered by any warranty. Can't fault that. However, they failed to fix the electrical fault with the contrast button.

The Canon was returned after 1.5 weeks, with the focusing screen replaced with a new one, and most of the dust removed (a couple of tiny pieces remain, but nothing compared with what was there before). Cleaning and damage arising from abnormal use are not covered by warranty, but both the screen replacement and cleaning were done free of charge, and shipping costs were also covered. Presumably the initial appearance of the oil was taken as being a fault in the camera, and the rest was dealt with as a result of that initial fault. The CCD was also cleaned, even though I never asked them to do that. Amazing! Of course, I have yet to see how they would handle an electrical fault, but I hope I never have to find out.

It is worth remembering for future reference, that the focusing screen can be easily replaced by the user (Canon even have a simple video tutorial on their site). However, cleaning it is often impossible. Once dirtied by any liquid, it simply has to be replaced, because any attempt to clean it will damage the textured surface. Dust can in theory be removed once the casing is open, but I have not tested that theory. If dirt appears on either side of the focusing screen, do not attempt to clean it with the focusing screen in place, as you will simply trap even more dirt above it. You will need the tool that comes with the new focusing screen to open the casing.