DSLR & Lens Recommendation Needed
September 2, 2014 4:15 AM   Subscribe

What DSLR should I buy my wife to photograph murals? Assume we know very little about cameras.

My wife's job takes her across Texas. She's told me she sees a lot of murals in small towns, and she'd like to photograph them as a hobby. Christmas is coming up, so I can start putting a little bit of money aside from each paycheck to buy her a camera.

I don't really know how to prioritize the features of a camera. I looked at a Pentax K-50 that comes with an 18-55mm lens, and that seemed to fit the bill. My understanding is that the K-500 is essentially the same camera for $150 less, but it doesn't have as much weather resistance. I'm not sure how important that is.

Is an 18-55mm lens good for this type of project? What about the 55-200mm that some kits come with? Are there any other body/lens kits/combos you would recommend for a project like this? Assume the murals are mostly outdoors. They tend to be on public or semi-public property, where she can pretty much choose whatever spot she wants to use to shoot. She has a rental car for these situations. She sometimes has to fly to the town, so if she's going to take a tripod, it's going to have to get small (or just be used on trips where she's driving and not flying). I'm not sure how important a tripod is for something like this (or a monopod?).

I'm not too keen on buying used, but maybe that's the way to go to get more bang for the buck. I'm afraid of buying something that doesn't work properly. I'm not even entirely sure what questions I should be asking. Let's say I have a soft budget of $600, and would be happier to go under that (also trying to buy the kid (and myself) a whoopass telescope), but could go over if it's going to really be worth it.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd definitely go for the wider lens, as murals are often wide or tall. I wouldn't get the tripod yet; modern cameras are much less susceptible to camera shake than they used to be.

You might not even need an SLR. I put mine away for two years after getting one of the Canon compacts, the S100.
posted by scruss at 4:42 AM on September 2, 2014

The Pentax is probably a fine choice. I don't know if this is the case with the Pentax, but kit lenses (the ones sold with the camera) don't generally have great reputations. I might go with a prime lens instead for around the same cost. Be aware though that you wouldn't be able to zoom if you went that route, and you'd probably want to figure out beforehand (maybe by renting a camera/zoom lens combo?) what focal length is likely to be most useful. Definitely don't choose the 55-200mm, that is not going to be wide enough.

As long as she's only shooting the day and outside, she's not going to need a tripod. The Pentax has some built-in image stabilization and she will likely have enough light even on overcast days. For shooting indoors I would either recommend a faster lens (like this 35mm prime or this 14mm ultra wide prime) or something like a Gorillapod, which is a lot more travel-friendly than a tripod. She'll need the SLR model.

I always recommend buying used for digital photography equipment; you really get a lot more bang for your buck. I bought my last 2 cameras used, saved a couple hundred dollars on each, and never had any problems. I bought from B&H, they have ratings on all their used equipment so you know what condition it's in.
posted by matcha action at 4:55 AM on September 2, 2014

In addition to DSLRs, look at mirrorless cameras. Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony each offer excellent choices.

There are also many excellent point and shoots, but your wife probably wants a wider lens than they would offer.


Pentax makes excellent cameras. The K-500 is a perfectly good choice - it's an entry-level camera with a pentaprism viewfinder and two control wheels, and that's a great deal. Olympus, Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. are all also fine competitors.

For your wife's purposes, the only real downside to Pentax is that it's harder to buy Pentax stuff in-person, unless you live near a dedicated photography store.

Weather sealing is nice, but not necessary. Generally speaking, even when a camera is not weather resistant, you will need to go inside long before the camera does. A few drops of rain aren't going to kill your camera. Weather resistance is for monsoon season, or getting splashed with beer, so then you clean the camera (and WR lens) off with a faucet. Again, it's nice, but not necessary.

The 18-55 kit lens for Pentax is as good as the rest. It's fine. It's especially good when stopped down. If I were your wife, though, I would consider getting an ultrawide zoom. Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina make several excellent ultrawide zooms. Pentax also has their own models, but they're expensive.

Also consider Canon cameras: Canon just released an affordable ultrawide which apparently gets great reviews.


When it comes to buying cameras:
- Buy used from a reliable dealer, like B&H or Adorama. They offer their own warranties. Used cameras present so much more value than new cameras. Cameras depreciate very quickly, even though technological differences across models are often either minor or incremental. I would much rather have a used "middle-tier" camera than a new entry-level camera, with the exception of the K-500.
- Skimp on cameras, splurge on lenses. I would much rather have an entry-level camera with a nice lens attached, as opposed to a more expensive camera with just the kit lens.
- Use Hugin (or equivalent) to generate panoramas. You can get excellent results even without an ultrawide.
- Everything is excellent, and nobody notices. You can get a lot done with cheap equipment. Many years ago, kit lenses used to be really bad. Now they're all pretty damn good - they're just not fast, and they're not as silent or tough as more expensive lenses. This is especially true if you're primarily looking at images on a computer screen, especially if you're using some sort of lens correction. The same goes for cameras. I used to use a Pentax K10D from 2006, and it was excellent. Up to ISO 1000 or so, its images were just as good as those of any other comparable camera, from 2006 or 2014. Newer cameras are nicer, of course, but the changes have been largely incremental. My newer K-5 does much better in low light, and it takes video, and so on, but as far as a photo taken at ISO 400 goes, viewed at even a fairly high resolution, you're not going to notice a real world difference.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:11 AM on September 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

What Sticherbeast says, but consider either Cannon or Nikon, primarily due to the the large lens selection available for each.
posted by sammyo at 5:35 AM on September 2, 2014

Let's say I have a soft budget of $600, and would be happier to go under that (also trying to buy the kid (and myself) a whoopass telescope), but could go over if it's going to really be worth it.

Then forget a DSLR. I'm a DSLR advocate; that's what I shoot, and I'm not giving it up no matter how many people say it's too big, too heavy, etc. It's the right tool for me. But in order to reach that "worth it" bracket, you need to spend considerably more than $600. You aren't going to get a DSLR and lens anywhere close to that price range that will impressively outperform (for this purpose) the kind of new, top shelf point-&-shoot camera that same $600 will buy.

What about the 55-200mm that some kits come with?

Not for murals, no. This will be moot if you buy a point-&-shoot. The Canon S-series mentioned above is terrific, as is the Sony RX100 series. But if you do stick with your DSLR plan, you want a wider lens. Even 55mm will be tight for your purpose, and 200mm will be useless except for small excerpts from murals. Look in the 16–35mm range. And stick with a zoom lens, not a prime. Again, this is advice I don't follow myself (I shoot primes) but I'm not shooting murals. For your purpose, the ability to zoom in and out will be important.

I'm not sure how important a tripod is for something like this (or a monopod?).

It depends on the light. If she is shooting in daylight, then a tripod is probably unnecessary. (Forget monopods.) You can usually get sufficient shutter speed in daylight. On the other hand, a tripod is always a good thing if not strictly necessary, and most people who are seriously shooting architecture or landscapes wouldn't be caught without theirs. You can get one cheap; especially for a point-&-shoot, there's no need to buy an expensive tripod. But if size is a concern for traveling, then I might suggest trying a few shoots without it before committing.
posted by cribcage at 7:00 AM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I own two professional DSLRs with thousands of dollars of lenses and I will let you in on a secret.

The iPhone is the best camera for photographing wide/long/tall murals. Instant panoramas, easily composed and of very high quality... or at least high enough for a hobbyist.

If she wants to get into photography more generally, yeah, Pentax is probably fine... but at this point in time and technology, for a hobbyist, there's little reason not to go mirrorless.

Canon EOS-M and Sony NEX I think are the best choices with a slightly larger sensor than the Micro-Four-Thirds cameras like the Fuji X series or Olympus OM. But those will do fine as well.
posted by j03 at 7:10 AM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

My Canon DSLR is quietly gathering dust with its expensive lenses (including the gorgeous 100mm f/2.8 macro lens that I really want to use!) because my iPhone is always on me and generates beautiful panoramas when I want them.

But yes, seconding others above - if you're set on a DSLR, look at Canon and Nikon for the extensive lens selection, stay away from the kit lenses - even a fixed 50mm f/1.8 lens would be a great start, and unfortunately, prepare to spend a lot of money (or buy used).
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:09 AM on September 2, 2014

We use pentax k-5 and above dslrs and love them (we switched from canon) but it's true that a canon s series point and shoot may work really well too. If it's not wide enough she can shoot up-down and side to side panoramas in raw then stitch them together. However I'm not sure the point and shoot does as well in low light , that may be a key factor if she sometimes encounters these at dusk etc..

Carrying around a dslr and lens (es) is a lot if all she's interested in shooting is a mural or two each place she goes. I find it worthwhile for myself since I love photographing everything.

A weatherproof lens is much heavier and more expensive than a regular one so a weatherproof body is key only if you will buy at least one matching lens and would troop on in a rainstorm (I will) and you would not want to use a camera raincoat. However one of our weatherproof lenses has external zoom sliding parts and once it gets wet autofocus slows down then stops so I need a raincoat anyway.

That time I dripped ice cream on my camera dial it was really nice to be able to just rinse it off though.

Penax lenses new and used are widely available, we have bought off craigslist, ebay, b&h etc. The cool thing about pentax is that the image stabilization is in the camera so you can use old pentax base lenses and still get stable shots.

Lastly , a mirrorless camera may work just fine for murals but we found ours frustrating/impossible to use for action situations so I wouldn't consider one for all-around use.
posted by Anwan at 11:18 AM on September 2, 2014

Everyone who is saying just buy a decent point and shoot should just keep using their phones. a DSLR is unique in that it offers a through the lens viewfinder. The viewfinder provides a 95% to 98% accurate view of what will be photographed. They also offer virtually zero shutter lag and of course a myriad of lenses flashes etc.

In your budget range please look at the Nikon line. and try to buy from Nikon's refurb store. Often you can get recently discontinued outfits for a hundred or more off. The D3200 at $399.00 is a wikkid good deal. (I paid $650 new). it will do 1080p full HD video and has the long awaited live-view. It does not have built in WiFi or GPS. But really, cmon... The 18-55 kit lens is all right in most cases and has very little distortion (fish eye) at its widest. I have it and a 35mm f2.0 prime, and the 70-200 zoom. Covers a lot of bases, but like any DSLR more lenses = more weight. Also check out the Speedlight Sb300. a good flash will make you want to take more pictures, especially if it has a soft diffuser
posted by Gungho at 11:57 AM on September 2, 2014

In addition to DSLRs, look at mirrorless cameras. Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony each offer excellent choices.

I adore my m4/3 mirrorless, but if my major use case was wide angle I doubt I'd have ever bought it. The smaller sensor size makes finding anything wider than 40mm equivalent cost prohibitive for this amateur,at least.
posted by solotoro at 1:17 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the OP's benefit, let's point out two things. First, parallax error is neither the best advantage that DSLRs have over other types of cameras, nor even necessarily an advantage over many modern point-&-shoots. Second, while the iPhone has a neat camera and there are indeed professionals who make it work for some purposes, there are concrete reasons why a hobbyist shooting outdoor murals will see marked improvement in switching from, let's say, an iPhone 5S to a Canon S110.

DSLRs are awesome. IPhones are neat, too. But beware people's favored biases. No disrespect intended anybody, but guitar forums are full of a certain type of gearhead who seems worldly and yet you'll notice they always circle back around to suggesting the Fender '65 Deluxe Reverb. Every tool is the right one for some job. Make sure you're focused on your particular circumstance.
posted by cribcage at 1:42 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far.

She doesn't have an iPhone. She has a super crappy Samsung that takes somewhat decent pics of the nephews. She's asked for a DSLR for about 5 years now.

The camera will be used for more than just murals (family gatherings, vegetables in the garden).

My current plan is to save, buy an entry level with a kit lens, and eventually get her something wider when I can afford it. I want to at least get the camera in her hands so she can start to learn how to use it.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:46 PM on September 2, 2014

A lot of great advice upthread.

I'd like to chime in with another perspective:
Whether you go with DSLR or mirrorless, make sure you get one with RAW capability. It's a whole other world of forgiveness when you shoot RAW.

Re: DSLR: N'thing buy used. Nothing beats the value. You don't need this years model.
posted by Thug at 2:52 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, all the models I'm considering have the option for RAW. One thing I learned yesterday, however, was that RAW isn't a standard format like .jpg or .gif. I was told that different manufacturers, and even different bodies within the same manufacturer, will export RAW differently.

We have no post-processing software yet. Honestly, the screen on my Lenovo looks horrible, so I'm not even sure how to color correct when I can barely tell the difference between the blue and the green on MeFi and AskMe. I suppose if we have a shot that needs some touching up we'll find a way.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 3:01 PM on September 2, 2014

RAW isn't a standard format like .jpg or .gif.

That's true, but generally speaking, it's a problem that only exists for brand-new cameras and only for a few weeks after their release. Post-processing software is updated regularly to handle various cameras' Raw output. For instance, it's widely expected that Canon will announce the 7D Mark II later this month. It should be available before Christmas, and I expect Lightroom and iPhoto will also be updated as necessary before Christmas. As long as you are talking about a major manufacturer's camera—Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc—Raw might as well be a standard format, because every current software will be able to handle it.

I suppose if we have a shot that needs some touching up we'll find a way.

Raw files need post-processing. That's what they are designed for. If you aren't planning on "touching up" your photos unless you find "a shot that needs" it? Then forget Raw and shoot in JPEG. Your photos will look better. When your camera converts an image to JPEG, it is applying a light post-processing to each image. When you shoot in Raw you are telling your camera, "Nah, don't do that stuff, I'll do it myself." If you aren't actually going to do that stuff, then better to let the camera do its thing.

For the record, Raw does get overrated. First, it isn't actually raw. ("It holds exactly what the imaging chip recorded." No, it doesn't.) Second, its primary value is in being able to adjust (apparent) exposure levels, and arguably white balance. Once you move on to changing things like color, sharpness, etc, then you can work in TIFF, etc just as easily as Raw. And that's why, returning to your previous concern, you don't need to worry much about standards: you do need one program that can read your Raw files, but you don't need all your programs to be able to read your Raw files. You can work just fine with a new version of Lightroom and a very old version of Photoshop.

But yes, Raw files need processing, by design. Ultimately that's part of why you buy a larger-sensor camera like a DSLR, because you can kick around its pixels a lot more than you can with something smaller. This is not a digital-era thing. It's what photographers do.
posted by cribcage at 4:07 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh I guess I should update this.

I got the K-50 with the 2 kit lenses. She discovered the camera accidentally before Christmas, so I took the little extra money I had and blew it on a 50mm manual prime that was made in the '60s, and it's awesome.

The camera has worked great. She shoots full auto, I try to keep it in either aperture priority or full manual. It's been great so far....

...except I had to send it off to Pentax a couple weeks ago because the widget that controls the aperture of the auto lenses malfunctioned, so I could only use the manual lens (everything else came out completely dark). That was under warranty, however, so it was honored, and although I understand anything that has moving parts is subject to breaking, it does concern me a little that it happened so early.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:55 PM on May 8, 2015

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