The 10 commandments for choosing a digital camera

10 rules to buy a digital camera

1) All things equal, newer is always better

The technology doesn’t walk, it runs! Think: faster processors, more megapixels, better control software, and all of this at a cheaper price too.


2) Size – often – matters

A larger sensor will be always better than a smaller one OF THE SAME GENERATION, even if they both have the same amount of pixels. Larger photosites (this number is often referred as “pixel pitch”) will give you cleaner images compared to smaller ones. It’s like trying to collect rain: obviously you will get more water the bigger the buckets you use are; the same goes with light and photons. And the difference will not be noticeable only at high Iso, even if the higher you crank the sensibility the more dramatic it will shows.


3) Three is the magic number

I stressed in the point before “of the same generation”. Every 3 years or so the improvements in technology let you obtain the same quality you used to get with a large sensor of the previous generation with a smaller, “younger” one. Obviously the big sensors of the same generation will be still better than the small one – see previous rule – but at some point the quality you are getting is high enough that image quality alone stops to be a worry, and other things like portability or weight comes into the equation.


4) No, wait: two is the magic number!

A 2-time increase in megapixels let you notice with ease the differences even in prints of the same size – and not only pixel-peeping. With this I mean that it will spot the difference not only the trained eye of a professional, but the layperson’s too.


5) Decide how big do you want to print

Given the amount of megapixels that are packed into the latest cameras it starts make sense to reverse the question. Not: how many pixels has the camera? But: how many megapixels do I need? This basically depends on how big you wanna print: so decide this first, and keep in mind that for the odd large print, at least with subjects like landscapes and architecture, you can alway combine various shots to increase the resolution your camera is capable of.

See my previous post: How many megapixels do you need

6) The chip matters

The images just captured go from the sensor to a pre-processing chip (for example the Canon Digic or the Sony Bionz); this before being saved as raw files. How this chip handles them makes a lot of difference, even if you compare two cameras with the same sensor but different chips.


7) Firmware matters

In a rapid market like the photographic one products get often released when there are still a few, yet undiscovered, faults. So before making a definitive judgment on a camera be sure that the firmware – the little control software that makes the camera work – is not at its first iteration. Think, for example, what happened with the Fuji X100: almost awful when it hit the shelves with its first firmware, it got better and better with each update and now it is a terrific camera.


8) Raw software matters

Raw files are a bit like a musical score; the song – the image – is in there, but the interpretations can vary a great deal. Choice wisely, and test the files from a new camera with various raw converters before judging its quality.

You can see how much this matters here: The importance of choosing the right raw converter


9) AA and IR filters can rob sharpness

AA filters are expressly designed to rob sharpness, so not a big surprise. But also the infrared reduction layer put on top of the sensor can wreak havoc with your lenses, especially if they are wide-angles. This, supposedly, because of the thickness and the refractive qualities of this additional layer of glass. There is some evidence, for example, that once you remove the IR glass from a problematic – with wide angles – camera like the Sony A7r the corner smearing goes away. And this is probably why a prehistoric – in “computer-years” – camera like the Leica M8 can still deliver pretty great results, thanks to its ultra-thin IR filter.


10) Last year is good enough

Cameras are now basically computers with lenses, and unless you got paid handsomely for your work is better to trait them just like ones. That means don’t go after the last novelty; buy instead a camera presented in the past year. It will not be cutting edge, but it will still be exceptionally fast and good. As an added bonus, it will be way more probable that the manufacturer will have released, in the meantime, a few firmware fixes to iron out all the problems found by the early adopters – see point 7.


Why I switched from Canon to Sony: an update

Tasso forest

Now it has been a while from my switch from the Canon Eos 5D Mark II to a Sony Nex 7 (yes, not A7). And in the meantime I’ve learned a few more things.


You can find the previous post here: Why I switched from Canon to Sony


Control layout

I was afraid the Sony control layout looked more like the one on a tv remote that the one of a camera. I was completely wrong. Yes, the Nex menu system is kinda awful; but once you configure the various buttons to do what you want them to do you don’t have to dig into the menu practically anymore, and the Nex 7 becomes actually faster to operate than the Canon.

The only drawback is the absence of custom memories; it would be certainly nice to have them, but again given the level of customizability of the Nex 7 every function is literally at a button press distance anyway.


Dynamic range

The fact that you can’t operate the auto bracketing with the remote still bugs me, but: given the extremely good dynamic range of the Nex 7 sensor, especially when compared to the Canon one, I am not forced to resort to HDR so often anymore, if at all.



The resolution of the Sony, especially if you develop the raw files with the donation-ware RawPhotoProcessor, is simply awesome. To put things in perspective: it is the first digital camera I own that blows the sharpness of the pictures taken with the Hasselblad – even using slow film or T-max 100 – out of the water.

To be fair, resolution-wise the Canon was almost there too, but its files screamed “digital!”, especially when interpolated to print bigger than the native resolution would allow. The Sony ones, instead, and especially in black and white, looks they have been shot natively on b/w film. Yes, even when they are interpolated to a bigger size. I love it! And I can’t wait Sony pulling off the hood their rumored 50 Megapixels full-frame sensor… (it should be released in 2015, it should be full frame, and it could be – finger crossed! – Foveon-like too). Cropping the central square section of such a sensor would leave us with a “virtual” one of 36 Megapixels!


Wide-angle lenses

With the Canon finding a sub-35mm lens – at a fair price, let say under 1.200€ – that was plenty sharp without having tons of chromatic aberration has proven nay impossible. The best approximation have been the Olympus Zuiko 28mm f/2 and f/3,5 – and yes, I used for years the Canon 24/1,4 version I, but while sharp it had really too much chromatic aberration and spherochromatism for my taste, way beyond the limit that is fixable in post.

The Nex 7, on the other hand, paired with a Voigtlander 15mm f/4,5 is giving me terrific results, with just a hint of CA at full aperture that both RPP and Lightroom remove automatically.


Small lenses

More – and this not only with regards to wide angles: when you buy lenses for a DSLR you are often forced to go after the wide aperture, big, heavy kind. That is: if you want a lens of excellent quality.

There is no practical reason for this; it is just that there is always some moron in the marketing department of pretty much every camera company that has decided slow lenses are for amateurs – so they can be just so-so quality-wise – while fast lenses are for pros. This is obviously bullsh**; but it is how it is, so even if you shoot landscapes you are forced to lug around beasts like the 24mm f/1,4 or the 135mm f/2 Canon.

Again, compare this with the 15mm Voigtlander: I have actually often to check if the lens is still in my pocket, because how small and light it is.

Rangefinder lenses

I have the strong suspect, based on what I experienced on 35mm film cameras, that a good deal of the amazing detail I’m seeing with the Sony compared with the Canon may depend on the fact I’m using rangefinder lenses of Leica heritage. I snatched at an extremely good price a complete set of Minolta M-Rokkor: a 28mm f/2,8, the 40mm f/2 dubbed “the water-lens” and the 90mm f/4. Like I said they are Leica design, and in the case of the 90 probably Leica assemblage as well, and it shows.

I still remember that in my 35mm film days I had the bad idea to compare the 40mm (another sample, not the one I use now) against my favorite lens at the time, the Nikon 35mm f/2 AF. Suffice to say the Nikon looked like it was broken… And no, because the flange-focal plane distance is too long you cannot use rangefinder lenses on a DSRL (actually you can, but only in macro). And please, keep in mind that with the Canon I used anyway Zeiss and Leica R lenses; it’s just that they aren’t – and can’t be, tele lenses being an exception – the same optical scheme.



After reading many reports all saying how energy-hungry this camera was, along it I bought three spare batteries. It turns out that I can go an entire day of shooting, in the snow, with just one.

Please keep in mind, though, that I’m not your typical digital shooter. Probably because of my film background, when I come home with 100 or so shots, including bracketing, HDR, and panoramic ones, has been really a busy day. For comparison, when I’m out shooting film I can come back with just 8 shots – even if around 15 is more likely. I guess I’m a photographic Scrooge!

Tasso Forest, pine trees

Tilt with the Olympus 35mm f/2,8 Zuiko Shift

I used this lens extensively on the Canon, especially to combine images for boasted resolution and / or for panoramic shots. Now with a simple chinese adapter I have been able to add the tilt movement to an already awesome lens. And all for the astronomical price of 20 euro. 🙂


Weight and snow stick

Lastly, the Sony is so light, even when mounted on the L-plate I used with the Canon (I had to sand the “bumps”, but I didn’t feel to spend 70 euro for another L-plate…), that it sits nicely on a snow stick I modified a while ago with the addition of a tripod quick release clamp. This means that when I’m out with the snow shoes now I can choose, depending on the difficulty of the track, if I feel like carrying a tripod or not.


See the post: Winter is coming! A DIY tripod substitute for walks in the snow


On-off button

This may look like a small thing, but even after years of shooting Canon I never understood why they insisted in putting the damn on-off switch on the back of the camera. Maybe it is because before being a Canon shooter I used Nikon cameras for more or less fifteen years, but I find the position of the on-off switch on the Sony Nex 7, coaxial to the shutter button, simply perfect.

In a simple, swift motion I can turn the camera on or off without even have to think about it AND without having to change the grip or use both hands. Like I said this may look like a nuisance, but in reality it is one of the things that make the camera become “transparent” in use. Besides, this lets you save quite a bit of battery power, and you will avoid snapping a tons of pictures of your feet – unwillingly – carrying the camera, attached to the tripod, on your shoulders.


In conclusion: at first I was afraid I may have regretted the decision to switch. It turns out this has been the best choice I could have made. My back and I now are only regretting not having bought a Nex 7 before.


Why I switched from Canon to Sony

From Canon 5D Mark II to Sony Nex


You can read an update of my experience with the Sony Nex 7 here: Why I switched from Canon to Sony, an update


A few weeks ago I made the switch from the Canon 5D Mark II to a Sony Nex 7.

Yes, it is not a typo: I do mean Nex 7 and not A7.

So why I changed an amazing full frame camera for an APS-c model? Am I insane?

Well, after carefully studying the results I’m getting I have to say: not at all.

Quality-wise the two cameras give you pretty much the same results in the resolution department.

The Sony Nex 7 is quite a bit better at low Iso; the Canon leads by a few point at high Iso.

Given that my usual setup is with the camera firmly on top of a tripod and set at 100 Iso I didn’t care about the – slight – advantage of the Canon in the high Iso department.

On the other hand, the dynamic range it’s much better with the Sony. I’m getting almost 14 usable stops, compared to the 12 or so with the Canon.

Much better, still not a deal-breaker though. I take pictures in the woods mostly, and there the light contrasts can be extreme. The only thing known to humans that can handle them is a b/w film souped in highly diluted developer – I tend to use Rodinal at 1:200. Another possibility is HDR, obviously; but the results are often not quite so elegant.

Sony Nex 7 and Minolta M-Rokkor 90/4

So why switching if the quality remains pretty much the same?

Normally I carry a body with two or three prime lenses – the exception being the Vario-Sonnar 100-300 that however I take with me only when / if I know I will need it.

So a comparable setup – with lightness in mind but without compromising quality – may be:


CanonSonyWeight difference
5D Mark II938gNex 7353g-585
20/3,5 Nikkor UD420g15/4,5 Voigtlander Wide-Heliar113g-307
50/1,4 Pentax Super-Takumar262g40/2 Minolta M-Rokkor105g-157
135/2 Canon EF L794g90/4 Minolta M-Rokkor250g-544
Totals 2.414g821g -1.593g



Yes, I know that the Sony’s setup lenses are a bit darker, but again: I shot from a tripod! It’s much more important to me the weight difference. And no, going for darker SRL lenses does not guarantee the same amount of weight reduction, not in the least.

Even better, the entire setup (what is listed above, plus 4 spare batteries – that I’ve never needed for a day trip -, an additional SD card, a polarizer and a lens pen) fits quite nicely in a Lowepro small bag in which I could not fit the Canon 5D alone! In the other two pockets I carry a bottle of water and a first aid kit; the tripod goes on my back with the help of a camera strap (like a quiver).

This means that more often than not I can make without a backpack…and trust me, this is a HUGE plus. And an additional kilogram or so less I have to carry (I’m referring to the empty backpack alone, obviously).

When I really want to spare every possible gram – think: hikes in extreme uphill terrain – the Nex with this lens selection is so light that even a cheap (10€) chinese ultralight tripod is solid enough, with the help of a bit of dirt or rocks to weight it down if there is wind.

Another nice consequence of the diminutive size of the Nex 7, practically the “nail in the coffin” for my decision, is that I can carry it along the medium format film equipment without even noticing.

It takes the same space and weight of my meter, but with it I can actually take pictures!

I never, ever carried at the same time the Canon and the medium format kit. Well, actually I did it this one time, it was a nightmare, so I never repeated the mistake.

Tasso forest

In the end, why I did not buy an A7 or A7r then? Well, I still could.

But quite frankly, unless I should suffer from a big G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) attack I think I’ll wait for next year, when Sony will almost certainly come out with a full frame camera with the same pixel density of the Nex 7, so around 50-60 Megapixels, and hopefully the same form factor – no big ugly fake-prism lump.

At that point I will probably keep shooting my medium format equipment just for kicks, but not for the quality it delivers anymore; and my back will be really, really happy.


Review: Sony Nex-3

Sony Nex-3 with flash raised


I bought the Sony Nex-3 as a companion to the Fujifilm X100, to be able to use wider and longer lenses while keeping the bag at a reasonable size & weight to travel without too much hassles.

Paired with the Sony 16mm f/2,8 pancake (24mm equivalent) and a 50mm f/1,7 Minolta MD (via an adapter) the Nex-3 is capable to cover, along the Fuji, almost all my photographic needs when I’m not specifically on a photo trip, and without dislocating my shoulder.

Yes, the Canon 5d Mark II and his Nikon equivalents are still the best choice quality wise, but sometimes they became too heavy. And the best camera is never the one that you left in your hotel room…

For this use, as a travel companion alongside the Fuji, the Sony Nex-3 is a mixed bag though.

Resolution wise is pretty good, I’ll say at least on par with the best 12 Megapixels sensors out there.

Raising the Iso uncovers quite a bit of noise, but it is well usable till 1600 Iso (with a bit of post production). I mean: it’s good, just not Fuji X100 good.

The unappealing thing about the Sony is the control interface. Quite frankly I hate the guts of his logic, mostly because it doesn’t have one.

Even after you personalize the back buttons, assigning Iso, Shooting Mode and whatever, control the camera more often than not requires to dig in the menu.

Even more disappointing, the behaviour of the camera changes in its own way; often you push a button and, instead of the function you wish to activate, a message pops up saying that “this function is disabled in this mode”. Which mode? Why? What I have to do to restore it? It’s all a mistery, so you find yourself messing around and pushing things till you enable the function again. And by the way, I use computers since the ’90, and I’m a programmer myself, so it’s not my problem but just poor engineering.

The other thing that make me nut is the focus magnification. It work like a charm with an adapted (manual focus) lens. It work like s…. with Sony lenses. Let me explain. With Sony lenses turning the ring along the lens enable the focus magnification (and this is wonderful, kudos Sony); but you may enable this focus magnification, if you are working in AF, only after the camera locks focus. So it’s pointless!

Speaking of crappy software, the process for updating the firmware is crap.

Let me explain: with every other digital camera that I know of you have to just copy on the card the firmware update file, than complete the process on camera.

Not with the Sony. You have to install on the computer the Sony software, than with the camera tethered follow the on screen instructions. I don’t like installing pointless software. I don’t like installing software that DO NOT RUN on 64 bit Macs and on Lion, forcing me to reboot in 32 bit just to update the firmware (to do so press the 3 and 2 keys at boot).

Frankly, on this I’m speechless.

On the bright side the focus peaking that turns red, white or  yellow (your choice) the areas in focus works perfectly, and it is almost more precise that looking at the magnified image on the monitor.

And the tiltable monitor it’s a fair substitute for a finder, given that, thanks to the focus peaking, it let you shoot from the waist much like with Hasselblad or Rollei.

Last thing: if you plan to use the Sony Nex-3 with extreme wide-angles like the wonderful Voigtlander Heliar 15mm you will be better served by its bigger sister, the Nex-5n; this because the Nex-3 sensor has troubles of color shift and soft corners with adapted (not Sony) wide angle lenses.

To all the others I strongly suggest the Nex-3 over the Nex-5n because, even if the last is undubitably better, the price gap is significant: you may find a Nex-3 for as little as 320€ in kit with the 16mm pancake, while the Nex-5n costs more around 650€.

In conclusion: it’s a good camera if you can live using it in almost full auto and / or with adapted manual focus lenses. I’d not buy it as a primary camera, but in tandem with a better one like the Fuji is strongly suggested.

On a “bang for the bucks” scale from 1 to 10 I’d say it’s a 7 1/2, maybe a full 8 if you can live with the crappy controls & software.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ User controls

Rating: ★★★★☆ Image quality