Pro ready cameras at amateur prices

No matter what kind of outdoor writing you do, you’re smart to carry a camera. But choosing which to tote can be a tough decision. Thousands of options entice, ranging from the cost of a nice dinner out to a down payment on a house.
It doesn’t help matters that the line between professional and consumer quality is getting blurrier by the minute. Case in point: Santa brought one of my son’s friends a slick little GoPro camera for Christmas that straps to his ski helmet. It happens to be the very same model my employer uses for point-of-view shots on our TV show, “Team Elk.” It clearly works equally well for fourth graders or broadcast TV.
And you’ve almost certainly seen what the newest smartphones are capable of — freakishly sharp photos from a lens the size of a pea and HD videos capable of filling the widest of widescreens. So good, in fact, that you may be left pondering if your camera bag is still worth its weight.
I somehow still see fit to sometimes haul a lens heavy enough to improve my car’s winter traction when stuffed in a back seat. Truly massive glass has its place photographing tiny birds and (hopefully) distant bears. But in general, I still believe a modest DSLR with 2-3 lenses is money well-spent for most outdoor writers. That outfit will allow you to capture everything from shallowdepth- of-field portraits to distant subjects in all sorts of different light that smartphones still can’t compete with. And as an added bonus, newer DSLR bodies can film highdefinition video with a cinematic look and feel.
Professional lenses remain a substantial and safe investment. But how much cash to blow on a good camera body is much less clear. My foray into digital DSLRs began a decade ago with Canon’s first consumerlevel DSLR: the six-megapixel Digital Rebel. Many pros at the time picked up the 10D — same sensor as the Rebel but a more durable body and a faster frame rate at twice the price. I wore out that Rebel’s shutter eventually, and moved onto a Rebel XTi — same sensor as Canon’s pro-oriented 40D, but somewhat slower to focus and again a slower frame rate and cheaper plastic body.
Then, as Canon rolled out its 7D, I finally made the leap to a higher end, unable to resist the pull of its HD video capability. I attached the same lenses as I’d put on my Rebels, but with much better results. Yet I soon began to wonder if I should have a waited, as less than a year after the 7D hit the streets, Canon placed the same 18-megepixel sensor into the Rebel-series at less than half the price I’d paid— $1800 versus $700. Canon soon after gave the Rebel a hybrid AF sensor to run its newest video-friendly STM lenses — in the process leap-frogging its pro-line with an appetizing feature brought directly to the consumer level.
Three years later, the 7D has withstood all I could throw at it, but I’ll have to think hard about whether to stay with pro-level body when I replace it. Camera bodies, regardless of how expensive, inevitably grow long in the techno-tooth after two years and are truly fossilizing at age four. At less than half the price, a consumer body might not be quite as durable or weather resistant, but if they can last through three years of hard use as each of my first two Rebels did, you’ll be that much closer to being able to afford a replacement.
So here’s my advice: unless you’re hard on gear, use your camera daily and have a true need for lightning frames-persecond speeds, take a hard look at what the consumer level has to offer no matter what camera brand you choose. ◊
Paul Queneau grew up in Colorado hunting, fishing and backpacking. He started with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine as an intern and is currently the conservation editor. Contact him at

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