While none of us had National Camera Day circled on our calendar as a big thing, it’s a good opportunity to take stock of what cameras we use and why. So we polled the ExtremeTech staff to offer you this roundup of how each of us currently approaches our photography and our choice of cameras. It turns out we cover quite a range of possibilities, from iPhone and Android smartphones up to multi-thousand-dollar DSLRs. –David Cardinal
David Cardinal: Nikon D850
Every time I buy a DSLR I think it will be the last, and that smaller, lighter, options will make them obsolete. But for me, not yet. I love the full-frame sensor on the D850 (pictured, top) , which lets me get great image quality even in low light. And for me, Nikon’s controls are more intuitive than those on similar Canon or Sony models. That means I’m faster at getting the shot — which is essential for wildlife and sports photography. Nikon also has an unsurpassed selection of compatible lenses, so I can fit my camera out for just about any kind of photography.
Nikon has also merged some of the best aspects of its prior DSLRs into this one model. It has the super-capable 153-point Autofocus from the D5, shoots at 7fps in a nice upgrade from the D810, and features a class-leading 45MP sensor that can still grab images at ISOs up to 25,600. If Nikon wants its DSLRs (and potential full-frame mirrorless models) to stay relevant, though, they’re going to need to move faster to incorporate the innovations found in smartphone cameras. Now that my phone can do HDRs, focus quickly, and makes capturing panoramas super-easy, there are less situations that require lugging a 2+ pound camera and expensive lenses. It’s even possible to do some really-interesting safari photography with a smartphone now, like I did on a recent trip to Africa with a Pixel 2 and Mate 10 Pro.
Ryan Whitman: Google Pixel 2 XL
I have a somewhat expensive “real” camera — a Sony a6000 . However, that’s exclusively for work. I only use it when I have to take high-resolution photos of phones and other devices I’m writing about. I don’t think I’ve ever used it to take a personal photo because smartphone cameras have just gotten so good. Specifically, the photos I get from the Pixel 2 XL constantly blow me away.
The Pixel 2 XL has an optically stabilized 12.2MP main camera with phase detection and laser autofocus. There’s no secondary camera module like so many other high-end phones, but the Pixel isn’t about gimmicks. It’s about taking stunning photos with the power of computational photography. I’ve used phones with fancy triple camera systems that can’t touch the Pixel 2 XL with its single sensor.
The key to making this camera amazing is Google’s HDR+ system, which addresses the shortcomings of mobile image sensors. Even the best smartphone cameras have small lenses, so they can’t pull in very much light. Taking longer exposures mitigate this, but then you end up with blurry images. Optical stabilization in the camera can help with that, but you’re still left with noise from the small smartphone sensor.
HDR+ changes the calculation by capturing multiple quick burst shots every time you snap a photo. Google uses AI to align each pixel in the photo and replace the pixels with an average across all the shots. You end up with sharper images with amazing dynamic range. That means you can retain detail in both light and dark areas of the frame. HDR+ can also reduce noise to almost nothing without causing a “watercolor” effect like other camera apps.
The Pixel 2 XL consistently takes the best photos I’ve seen from a smartphone. When most other phones would offer up a poorly exposed mess of noise and blur, the Pixel comes through. It’s impressive even in very low light or with harshly lit outdoor scenes. This is true of the Pixel 2 XL and the smaller Pixel 2, which has the same camera hardware. Even if Google doesn’t change the camera hardware on the Pixel 3, HDR+ ensures it will still be in the lead.
Grant Brunner: Apple iPhone 8
Despite having plenty of experience with manual-only SLRs and DIY photo development in college, almost all of my photography these days gets done with my smartphone. Specifically, I take my pictures with an iPhone 8. It doesn’t have a built-in optical zoom or proper interchangeable lenses, but the convenience and ubiquity of a smartphone wins out for me every time. After all, I never leave my phone behind.
For snapshots, the built-in camera app is just fine. But when I’m taking a picture at a particularly important moment, the extra precision and utility that Camera Plus 2 offers is hard to pass up. For just three bucks, I can shoot in RAW or TIFF, manually fine-tune the exposure, and quickly touch up the photos on the go. It’s certainly not a necessary part of taking excellent pictures on an iPhone, but it is a handy tool with a very reasonable asking price.
For added stability, I have a Joby GorillaPod with a smartphone grip for tabletop use. That same grip also attaches to a larger tripod, so that’s particularly useful for long exposures or video recording. I don’t use them often, but these accessories make more complicated shots feasible — doubly so in low-light environments.
A bevy of clamp-on lenses do exist to modify the optics, but they tend to be exceedingly difficult to use with a case. And since disassembling the outer shell whenever I want to take a picture does away with much of the convenience, I simply don’t use them. Still, it’s a nice option for those of us who desperately need magnification or fisheye effects.
If I had gone down the path of professional photography, an SLR would be a no-brainer. But even back in college, I knew that wasn’t the right fit for me. Instead, I leaned heavily on a high-end point-and-click in years past, and now my phone handles my needs just fine. Sure, more control would be nice every now and them, but I’m very content with my current setup. If nothing else, I get fewer hecklers and puzzled expressions in public without the conspicuous neck strap and giant lens.
Jamie Lendino: Olympus OM-D E-M10
I’m probably at the absolute starter end of figuring out what makes good photos. My camera gear is fairly pedestrian, but I consider myself super lucky because I probably wouldn’t have bought it at all if it wasn’t on closeout. And now that I’ve got it, I have a ball whenever our family visits an arboretum, or a park with public artwork. It gives me something fun and geeky to do while we walk around, since I clearly can’t spend a single minute away from fiddling with some kind of electronic gear or other.
I use an Olympus OM-D E-M10 mirrorless camera, along with several Micro Four Thirds lenses: the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 (28-84mm equivalent) kit zoom lens; a 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 telephoto lens; and my favorite, a fast prime f/1.8 17mm lens (35mm equivalent) that my wonderful wife bought me for Christmas a few years ago. It’s with this latter lens that I’ve learned basic things like using Aperture Priority mode to blur the background and get some real bokeh. Now everyone knows what bokeh is because of the phone camera wars, but several years ago I had no idea. Separate from that, I’ve also experimented with a tripod at night and the 300mm-equivalent telephoto lens to get some shots of the moon and whatever planets happen to be in view.
I’m still learning, but I really enjoy tweaking shots after the fact using Lightroom; the sheer number of tools in the box is amazing. Apple Photos also delivers surprisingly good to my eye, possibly because it contains the leftover algorithms from Aperture, which is what used to be the main Lightroom competitor before Apple nixed it several years ago.
I’ve also got an iPhone SE that I use for casual shots; before that, I had a Nexus 6P that had a much superior front-facing camera, but a rear camera that was always too slow to capture my rapidly speeding-up toddler. And I still have trouble squaring what platform I prefer for storing and maintaining photos. I’ve bounced back and forth between Google Photos, Apple Photos, and Adobe Lightroom, and local versus cloud storage; all of them have their benefits and faults. Don’t be me; all that happens when you switch back and forth is you lose track of your favorite albums, and sometimes the metadata on photos get damaged. I’m still pruning duplicates from a Google Photos import gone awry and it’s been several years.
Bill Howard: Canon 7D Mk II
Since ninth grade, I’ve been shooting photos for non-profits, professionally, and personally. Now, I shoot a lot of the car photos to accompany my ExtremeTech reviews. It’s fun to see if I can match the best photos in the PR handouts. A smartphone beats the snapshot cameras our parents and grandparents used; many were fixed-focus and sometimes fixed-exposure. I’m never without it on the road, but I also carry a lot of gear.
My current road kit includes a Canon 7D Mk II plus a Canon 7D as backup and to have a second lens readily available. The lenses are:
· Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom lens, equal to 16-35mm on a full-frame camera.
· Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom lens, especially for low-light situations.
· Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens.
· Canon EF-S f/3.5-5.6 18-135mm zoom lens for video.
· Canon 1.4X lens extender
Also in the bag are a Canon 600EX-RT radio-controlled flash. a Canon ST-E3-RT S Speedlight Transmitter (flash controller, allowing the flash to be used off camera for fill light), spare Panasonic rechargeable 2550-mAh AA cells, spare Canon camera batteries (expensive versus off-brands, but reliable), and polarizing filters for each lens. It all goes in a ThinkTank Photo Streetwalker HardDrive backpack that also holds a 15-inch laptop. I’m searching out carbon-fiber tripod legs that fit in my carry-on suitcase and a detachable pan head for video.
Left at home are two more Canon flashes; a ring flash (for close-ups of auto switchgear); a 7-pound 300mm Canon f/2.8 lens for sports, auto racing, and pets; a Canon 100-400mm zoom lens; a two-battery grip for day-long shooting sessions (more than 1,000 photos or four-hours continuous-on); an aluminum monopod; a bunch of heavy tripods in my family dating to the 1960s; light stands; big rolling bags for local photo shoots; backdrop papers and fabrics up to 8×20 feet; and a pair of Paul C. Buff Einstein studio flashes with radio remotes for lighting up poorly lit hockey rinks and basketball arenas.
Also at home is a million-photo PC workstation I wrote about that holds that many photos (about 10TB worth), a Canon tabloid-size scanner for capturing family photos dating to the 1800s, a Nikon film scanner, and a 40TB, eight-drive Synology backup server. The PC runs Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, plus Portrait Professional for quick retouching of faces (but PP doesn’t let you easily switch between PC and laptop).
A friend at one of the major camera companies told me the major difference between Canon-Nikon-Sony-Leica lenses and third parties (especially Sigma-Tamron) is ruggedness. Optical quality is quite close, but the manufacturer lenses are better suited to the day-to-day pounding a photojournalist’s rig gets. Plus Canon will fix any Canon component in a day and get it back the next day (if you’re a pro).
The secret to shooting cars is to use a polarizing filter to knock reflections off windows and the paint. It makes a huge difference. The best angle is a front three-quarter, meaning more side than front, hopefully showing both headlamps. Except for extreme close-ups, running the car through a car wash is all the cleaning you need. Scout uncluttered-background locations, which can be a hilltop, the repeating brickwork of the side of an office complex, or a steel retaining wall that has tired reddish-purple.
Long lenses get you closer without intruding, or if there’s a cordon around a politician, rock star, or the accused in cuffs. A 70-200mm lens is great for youth sports, school plays, the bride and groom coming down the church steps, or the first sermon by the new minister. Before you buy an even longer lens, get a high quality lens extender for the telephoto you have. If you start to shoot video, get a silent-motor-focus lens meant for video. You can also use it as your main zoom lens, but my Canon 18-135 is painfully slow to make initial focus. Wide-angle lenses let you shoot entire rooms at once (for Airbnb) or a group of kids up close.
The best time of day to shoot cars, people, and scenery is often around dawn or sunset with no shadows and dramatic color shifts. Overcast days are good, too. On sunny days, turn a portrait subject so their face is in shadow and you’re shooting in the direction of the sun (yes); increase the exposure by 1 EV (one f/stop) if you can.
If I did it again, I might go full-frame, because Canon doesn’t make many crop-sensor camera (such as the 7D) zoom lenses that are f/2.8 at all apertures. With a full-frame all I’d need on the road are the Canon 16-35 and 70-210 plus extender and flash. Or I’d look at mirrorless cameras and Sony would be a contender. For those sticking with DSLRs who don’t shoot at much as I do, the Canon 80D at $900 matches the $1,400 semi-pro 7D Mk II for picture quality. When you buy cameras, camera plus lens kits save you about $100. But the “51-piece camera kit” come-ons are often camera, one or two lenses, and 48 pieces of low-cost junk.
Joel Hruska: iPhone SE
Reading over my colleagues’ responses, one fact has become crystal-clear: I’m utterly outclassed.
There are a few things I’m pretty good at, like troubleshooting PCs; a few that I used to be pretty good at in college, like singing; and a few — okay, probably more than a few — where I am truly awful. One of these is taking photos.
“It can’t be that bad,” said one former colleague. “Take some shots, send them over to me, and I’ll fix them up in Photoshop.”
“I’m going to need you to retake these,” the same individual wrote, a few hours later. “Did you get Cheetos grease on the lens or something?”
It’s not just that I don’t particularly like having my photo taken (in the words of one commenter, I look like a bald, fatter Seth Rogen). That’s common. Plenty of people don’t like sitting for photos in which they’re virtually certain to emerge looking like the misbegotten spawn of a manatee and an aardvark. I’m even more likely to wreck a photo from behind the lens as from in front of it.
Terrible as they are, my photography skills have benefited, however marginally, from the release of better smartphone cameras over the years. Having upgraded from an iPhone 5c to an iPhone SE earlier this year, I can say the camera is better, with quicker autofocus — and that actually matters when your hands have a tendency to shake slightly. Given my wretched overall level of skill, additional storage capacity for photos is beneficial. When I actually shoot something, I tend to take a lot of photos, because I’m basically hoping the Photography Gods will smile upon me in a random shot. Moving from 16GB to 32GB of storage via upgrade (and the faster photo speed) both paid off here as well.
The one feature I badly wish Apple would have added to the SE this year is DIS. Next time they revamp the SE hopefully they’ll drop it in.
Although the sample size is small, our staff choices echo a couple major industry trends. First, the point-and-shoot is quickly disappearing, with double-digit market share decreases year after year. It has been replaced by increasingly capable smartphone cameras. Even my trusty Canon G9 X doesn’t see as much action now that I’ve got a couple good smartphone cameras. Second, Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs) are digging in and holding on to the top segment of the market. Overall, their sales are more-or-less flat, although there is a definite shift from DSLRs to mirrorless within that segment. –David Cardinal
Now read: PCMag’s Best Digital Cameras of 2018