Canon 400D

There was another photographer at the magazine shoot I did this past weekend.  During some of the down time, while waiting for models to finish with hair and makeup, he and I got talking and, as photogs will often do, we ended up chatting about gear for a few minutes.  It wasn’t our main topic of conversation – no “my gear is better than yours!” nonsense – but I was very pleasantly surprised to hear that he shared some of my views on camera bodies.

Since he was acting as the behind the scenes guy, the other photog brought a Canon 450D and 18-55mm kit lens.  He has the whole standard Canon kit, of course: the 5D Mk II, the white 70-200mm f/2.8, etc.  But for his needs that day, he felt confident grabbing the consumer-level 450D and a kit lens and shooting in P mode throughout the day.  It was a very low pressure gig for him, and he seemed to just have fun, capturing the little golden moments as they appeared.  And with a light, agile little kit, that’s a lot easier to accomplish.

Back when I shot Canon, I had a 7D as a main camera, and a 400D as a backup.  By that point the 400D was several years old – and several models behind.  In reality it was only two models up from the original 300D Digital Rebel.  In other words, it was a pretty basic digital camera – nothing fancy, no hugely expansive ISOs, no insane 400-point cross-axis AF point spread, no 30 fps…you get the idea.  It was a small, basic, sturdy DSLR.

And I loved the thing.  It did whatever I asked it to do, without complaint and without failure.  If I wanted to travel light and shoot casual – for instance, if I was going to do behind-the-scenes work – I’d have grabbed it and probably the 50mm lens, and would have been completely confident in my ability to complete an assignment.

If I ever suffer a stroke and return to the Canikon fold, I would purchase a Canon xx0D or it’s Nikon equivalent without a moment’s hesitation.  Maybe the latest model, but more likely an older, possibly refurbished model.  Maybe a 500D or 600D.  And to be honest, I’d give some hard through to whether I’d buy a “more professional” model as my primary camera, or if I’d simply buy two of the Rebel-line models and just use them to death.

The fact of the matter is that the Canon and Nikon consumer-level models are excellent cameras.  For well under $1000, you can get a nicely featured, well-rounded camera, a solid kit lens, and be set to go.  If you’re a photographic generalist, which is to say you’re not shooting Formula One races, war zones, arctic wildlife, or something intensely technical, this is all the camera you’ll ever need.  Better lenses, yes, that’s a given – but in all reality you won’t outgrow this DSLR body.  Not really.  Sure, you might crave more focus points, faster AF, higher ISOs…but you won’t truly outgrow the camera.

(Especially in a studio setting.  I’m serious.  My 400D could shoot at ISO 1600 – that’s as high as it went – and so long as I was careful to make a good exposure, I never worried about noise.  It just wasn’t a factor.  And since most of my professional work involves flash, I hardly ever went over ISO 400.)

Does this mean that the DSLR race is over?  Of course not – the various marketing departments have nothing better to do than try to keep selling more cameras.  Models that nowadays offer marginal (if any real) improvements over the one before.  And there will always be photographers who are eager to throw gobs of cash at Canon and Nikon for the latest, greatest, super-pro camera.

But for the rest of us – and especially for photographers who are just starting out, or students who are just learning, my advice is to buy a Canon Rebel series (or the Nikon equivalent).  They are great cameras.  Buy one, roll the money you saved by not buying a 5D Mk whatever into some good lenses, and literally go out and shoot thing thing to death.

I mean it – use the camera so hard, take so many photos, that you actually wear it out.  Kill it!  I think you’ll be surprised at just how hard that is to do.  And in the process, you will learn a hell of a lot about photography, and about how to master your tools.  And if you actually manage to kill it, you’re out $600 – a bargain considering the experience you’ve gained.  At which point either get the camera repaired so you can kill it again, or buy another one.

By that point you’ll really know for sure if you absolutely, positively need a 5D, a 1D, a full-frame monster.  And if the work you are doing requires it at that point, fine.  Otherwise, I suggest you buy another “consumer-level” camera, some more good glass, and keep trying to wear it out.

End note: when I sold off all my Canon gear to fund my switch to m4:3 several years ago, the one exception was the venerable old 400D.  I kept it.  It’s shutter button had broken only a couple of weeks before I made the switch, and I don’t know if repairs are even possible, never mind cost-effective.  The 400D sits on a shelf in my living room now, next to an antique view camera that Mandy gave me for Christmas one year, and an unopened box of Kodachrome.  It’s a memento now, a trusted old companion put out to pasture.  I pick it up now and then and enjoy how it feels in my hand.  It’s a tool that never let me down, and that’s something I appreciate.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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