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I am a graduate student in image processing and computer vision, and I'd like to get into photography. I want to purchase a camera that isn't a black box, where I can experiment and learn about how and why. I also don't want to be buying another camera a year from now.

What is the suggestion for this case?

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If you end up getting into photography, no matter what you get you will learn the fundamentals and limitations of the equipment you do end up getting. That holds true for cameras across the board. I experiment with my 22 year old polaroid camera for example. –  dpollitt Jun 18 '11 at 20:20
    
There are many answers now. Could you please mark the accepted answer. This would make it simpler for people looking for answers here. –  Johan Karlsson Apr 19 '12 at 13:00
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4 Answers

If you have the budget for it, I highly recommend a digital SLR camera in the mid-tier "prosumer" range. Currently, that's the Pentax K-5, Nikon D7000, Canon 60D, and similar. The brand isn't really important from this point of view, although you may want to compare lens lineups. Read this earlier answer on Are there disadvantages to a prosumer camera for a beginner, aside from cost? for details, but the basic point is that these models have controls designed to be used easily. They don't necessarily let you do much more than what you could do with a lower-end model, but what they do offer is dials and buttons that control every important option directly and individually. This is far superior than having the same things buried several clicks deep in a menu.

Of course, this assumes a non-trivial outlay of money. And you'll probably want to budget an equal amount for lenses (and a flash) within the first year or two. That may be more than you want to jump in with, but if you do end up being serious about photography, you will not regret it. And the higher initial investment may even save money overall (note: link is fictionalized).

If you do feel more comfortable starting at lower price point, a high-end point and shoot like the Canon S95 (or whatever is current) will give you a lot of flexibility and be a good starting point. But you probably won't be completely satisfied with it very long. On the other hand, a Canon P&S camera will let you run CHDK, an open source firmware hack which could open up a lot of possibilities in line with your field of image processing and computer vision — if you don't get enough of that in your day (and night, knowing grad students) job.

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+1 if you get serious about it at all, entry level cameras can get tiring quick - from a UI perspective –  rfusca Jun 18 '11 at 20:14
    
Yikes! I agree entirely with your logic, but the d7000/60d are really pricey for a starving grad student :) Maybe I'll start a savings account. –  coffee Jun 18 '11 at 21:25
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@coffee - if you act now, you may still be able to get a D90 new, which has all of the requisite controls, etc., with only slightly less capability than the D7000 and at just over half the price. Sometimes coming into the game just at the point of a generational change can pay off. (The 60D's predecessor was discontinued too long ago for it to be "new stock" anywhere now, and I haven't seen hide nor hair of an older suitable Pentax in quite a while.) –  user2719 Jun 19 '11 at 3:17
    
In terms of last generation of more pro cameras, the price on the Pentax K-7 has dropped quite a bit. –  rfusca Jun 19 '11 at 18:46
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Amen. I have the Canon 500D, and operating in the manual mode is pretty cumbersome, as there is only one dial, as opposed to the two dials on the prosumer range. So given that the person asking the question wants to learn the how and why of photography, I would recommend the step-up to the prosumer range as suggested. But if you're on a budget it can solve the job. –  Pete Feb 8 '12 at 19:45
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I was in the exact same situation a year ago, and I decided (without much reason, really) to go with the Canon EOS 550D. Until now, this turned out to be a good choice:

  1. It's affordable with a student's budget.
  2. It is fairly mainstream (you will likely be able to lend equipment from other people)
  3. It allows you to shoot RAW.
  4. It allows you to manually set/disable a great deal of the options (e.g. you can turn of flash compensation).
  5. It allows you to (automatically or manually) trigger the shutter release from a connected PC.

The last three points are rather important if you want to implement e.g. a SIGGRAPH paper and use your camera to generate the images.

Of course, none of the above are characteristically for the EOS 550D. I am merely given you a list of things you should watch out for when buying a camera.

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Informative answer! Out of curiousity, is this camera the same as the rebel t2i? Googling this camera generally brings results for that instead.. –  coffee Jun 18 '11 at 21:11
    
@coffee — yes, same camera. For whatever reasons, Canon uses different names for the same models in North America, Europe, and Asia — in Japan, it's the Kiss X4. –  mattdm Jun 18 '11 at 21:33
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also, being a canon, you can use CHDK, which is probably something you will find interesting. –  JoséNunoFerreira Jun 21 '11 at 15:46
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I think that you need a camera where you could set the following;

  • The aperture
  • The shutter speed
  • The ISO speed

These are the basic of the exposure triangle. This has been true for many years now. All modern DSLR will have this.

Other things to consider are:

  • How easy and user friendly the camera is
  • The ISO "performance", how well the camera handles low light condition where high ISO numbers are needed. This should be without too much noise.
  • How fast/accurate the auto-focus is.
  • Go for a well known brand, like Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony etc.

If you get a camera with these capabilities you will be able to learn and experiment with. Then go from there.

Do not forget to buy an extra memory card. I still remember my vacation photos from Moscow being destroyed by a bad memory card. An extra battery is also good, but not crucial. Take this into consideration when calculating your budget.

Do not bother with megapixels for now, since you want to learn the technical bits of the programming. I would not bother with video recording capabilities, since this is not really necessary for photographing.

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you can add Pentax K-r to your selection. I have its predecessor K-x and I am very satisfied with it. The price should be much better for K-r compared to K-5, but it has still many useful functions and settings. As I know you can also use standard AA NiMH batteries as a spare ones (cheaper than to buy second accu pack). And Pentax has very good support for old film camera lenses - the old Pentax AF lenses should work without problems and much older without AF with some limitations.

This could expand your possibilities to do some "creative experiments" without paying high amounts of money.

PS: do not know, how about other countries, but important thing for me is that I can spend more than 20% off the price if I order filters and other small equipment via Ebay directly from HongKong - especially genuine Hoya filters etc.

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I have a K-x and am very happy with it too. You don't need a higher end camera to learn about exposure etc, and the UI of some entry level models like that is absolutely fine. –  PeterT Jun 21 '11 at 7:58
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