In case you missed it in my September monthly recap, I decided to take the leap and upgrade to a DSLR! I went for a Nikon D7200 with a Nikkor 200-500mm lens.
Both are available on amazon:
As promised, here is my unfiltered honest experience of upgrading to a DSLR from a superzoom/bridge camera. I’ve almost had it for an entire month so I figured this was a good time to give my initial impressions. Read on for how I chose the Nikon D7200, what settings I tried, what went well and what went horribly wrong (with example photos of both – eek!) and of course was it worth it??
As you may have read in some of my earlier articles, I am a huge fan of superzoom/bridge cameras like my Canon SX50. Nothing beats the price point, how lightweight they are and the surprisingly good photography results! However, they have certain weaknesses that I was curious to address: birds in flight and shooting in low light. I also think the image quality on some DSLR shots are a cut above what I was getting with my Canon. I was seeing these pictures on Instagram and Flickr and beginning to wonder if I could achieve the same quality shots by upgrading to a DSLR.
Upgrading to a DSLR: How I chose the Nikon D7200
Figuring out which DSLR to upgrade to was a process in and of itself. Over the last year I starting making a list of the cameras used by photographers I liked on Instagram and Flickr. Two cameras kept showing up over and over again: the Nikon D7200 (or its predecessor the D7100) and the Canon 7D Mark II. This gave me my starting point.
Full-Frame versus Crop Sensor
As I started to research these cameras, I realized when you’re buying a DSLR you first have to make a decision about whether you want a full-frame sensor or a crop sensor. As a basic explanation, full frame sensors capture the entire frame (equivalent to the size of the old 35mm film) and crop sensors are smaller so only capture a portion of the frame and crop the rest out.
Full-frame cameras are generally larger, more expensive and there is definitely a feeling among full-frame photographers that these cameras are “better.” On the flip side, I read many reviews that said for wildlife photography crop sensors are better because they give you extra reach. My Nikon D7200 has a crop factor of 1.5%, so if the lens is at 500mm you get a shot equivalent to using a 750mm lens.
The downside of this is that crop sensors don’t always perform as well in low-light and shots can have more “noise” than those taken with a full-frame sensor.
Which is Better?
If you google this topic, there are a million conflicting articles about it and at the end of the day you have to make a decision. One of my favourite articles on this topic that really helped me make my decision was written by a full-frame shooter who was “forced” to rent a Nikon D7200 (crop sensor) while his full-frame D750 was being repaired. Needless to say he was surprised by the results!
I’ll admit it, when I first decided to rent this camera, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a crop sensor… The first few days I kept looking at the limitations, and comparing to the D750 , but after getting used to this camera, I grew to love it…As the week neared to an end, and the return date for the rental crept up, I really dreaded having to send it back. The D7200 is an excellent, capable camera- and one I’ll be adding to my camera bag soon.
Both of the cameras I had already ear-marked were crop sensors and since I couldn’t see a good reason to spend even more money, crop sensor is what I went with.
Nikon versus Canon
Another age-old debate and one I actually couldn’t care less about is whether you go with Nikon or Canon. I was just looking for the best camera to suit my needs as someone upgrading to a DSLR from a superzoom camera and not wanting to spend a fortune. I would have been happy with either brand.
Canon 7D Mark II versus Nikon D7200
One benefit of the Canon 7D Mark II it that it has a higher frame rate than the Nikon D7200 (10 frames per second versus 6 fps). I’ve discussed frame rate in my article about warbler photography. The higher the frame rate, the more you can freeze individual moments of a bird in action. On the other hand, the Nikon D7200 has a slightly larger sensor and higher resolution and I read quite a few reviews that said the image quality and sharpness is superior to the Canon.
At the end of the day both are great cameras and for the price I couldn’t beat what the Nikon D7200 could offer (it’s about $500 cheaper than the Canon). Furthermore, Nikon has a great lens (the Nikkor 200-500mm) that has rave reviews and again, for the price, I couldn’t find anything similar for Canon.
In total for both lens and camera I spent $3,295 CAD including tax.
So after making my big purchase, I excitedly brought the camera home but unfortunately the skies clouded over and it started to pour with rain! This actually ended up being a good thing as it gave me time to learn some of the basic controls at home without the pressure of being out in the field. The very next morning I was booked to go out with a bird guide to a sparrow field and I was hoping for a lifer Clay-coloured Sparrow. Nothing like the pressure of a brand-new camera when you’re hoping for a lifer!
I did some basic research online and decided I would start by shooting in Aperture Priority Mode and leave the camera to choose the shutter speed. This was the complete opposite of how I’d been shooting with my Canon SX50 (I always used Shutter Priority Mode), but it was the most recommended method for DSLRs that I could find online.
I figured I would start with ƒ/5.6, the widest open aperture on my lens, which would let the most amount of light into my camera and keep the shutter speed high. I familiarized myself with where the buttons were to change the ISO, the aperture and exposure compensation and took few sample shots around my house. I chose evaluative metering (for no other reason than I had to pick something to start with). I also decided to take my shots in RAW which is something I never did with the Canon (RAW is an alternative file format to JPEG).
First Day of Shooting
The next morning I was out fairly early to meet the guide and my Mother. She did a triple take when I got out of the car with my new camera and lens! I handed my Canon SX50 over to her and said:
I need you be the back-up photographer since I have no idea what I’m doing!
The first thing I noticed was, of course, how heavy the Nikon D7200 was compared to my old camera. My arm was shaking by the end of the morning! I realized I would need some type of strap or holster to make it easier to carry the camera around.
The Sparrow Field
Within a few minutes of arriving at the sparrow field, the guide began excitedly calling out the sparrows he was seeing. Before long, he said “Clay-coloured!” Wow, one of my first shots ever with the new camera would have to be of a lifer!
As I was trying to take the shot, I realized that the focus was weird! My Canon would focus on one point and then stay focused there, whereas this camera would continuously focus wherever I moved it. Since the sparrows were in a thicket with a lot of branches, I had a hard time getting it to stay focused on the bird.
I also kept forgetting to check what shutter speed the camera was setting (since I was used to setting this myself), but luckily it was a bright day so the speed stayed high. The sparrows, being the skittish birds they are, were also fairly far away so I wasn’t sure what the quality of the shots would be like.
When I got home, I truly had no idea if any of the shots would turn out! Luckily things worked out quite well and I was pleasantly surprised with what I had achieved. I was amazed when I loaded the pictures onto my computer how much more you could crop the shots without losing quality. This was definitely a good thing as I had noticed the reach of the new lens was quite a bit less than the Canon’s 1200mm equivalent zoom and we hadn’t gotten that close to the sparrows.
Since I had taken the shots in RAW, I quickly discovered how slow the uploading and editing process was. These files are huge and take much longer than JPEGs to load onto your computer (easily 3x as long). I also thought my computer was going to have a meltdown while I was trying to edit the shots! Plus, storage space quickly becomes an issue!
How the Rest of the Month Went
After my first day of shooting, I realized I had to figure out how the focus worked on this camera. I learned that you can set what type of focus you want (continuous, single-point or a hybrid of the two) and you can choose the focus area (up to 51 focus points). I decided to leave the focus on continuous, but I discovered a button on the back of the camera that you can press and hold to lock the focus. This button is amazing! I’ve played around with the focus area and I haven’t really settled yet on one I like the best. This is a good article that goes into more depth about DSLR focus.
I switched to shooting in JPEG format again for a while, but decided to give RAW another try and I’ve stuck with it. When my exposure is off, I find you can do amazing things when you’re editing a photo taken in RAW! You just have to allow more time for the pics to load onto your computer and invest in a big external hard-drive. I’m okay with both of those things if it means I get better shots!
The overall quality of the shots is amazing compared to the Canon SX50, even at times when the lighting isn’t great. I would also say I get a better ratio of keepers to throw-outs each time I go out shooting. Since it’s October, the skies have generally been cloudy here so I haven’t even had a proper chance to try the camera out in fantastic light.
I also LOVE how much you can crop with this camera and still end up with a good picture!
I’ve gotten used to the heaviness of the camera and lens so that isn’t bothering me. Although on days I’m going for a walk and want to have a camera with me just in case I see something, I will bring my Canon.
Being able to take shots of birds in flight is fantastic!! I don’t think I ever got one decent shot of a bird in flight with the Canon, so I love that the DSLR opens up this possibility.
Aperture Priority Mode
I’ve had mixed results using Aperture Priority Mode. Part of the issue is that I’m so used to adjusting the shutter speed myself, I find it weird to just leave the camera to do it. I also keep forgetting to check what shutter the camera is picking and I’ve had a few blunders with shots that have turned out blurry. I am debating moving to full manual mode so that I can go back to choosing my own shutter speed. I just worry about having too many settings to adjust and missing shots in the moment.
Getting a blurry photo of my lifer Boreal Chickadee was definitely my biggest disappointment of the month! Especially as I had spent 2 days trekking around Algonquin Park to find them. The issue was I’d been shooting birds in the sun, so I turned the ISO down. When we found the Boreal Chickadee, I didn’t have time to adjust the ISO and the camera chose too low of a shutter speed.
The ISO controls are really annoying on the Nikon D7200 – I can’t find a way to do it while holding the camera up to my face. You have to push and hold a button on the left side and then move a dial on the right-side. By the time I took the camera down and increased the ISO, the Boreal Chickadee was gone 🙁
Which Aperture to Choose
Furthermore, I haven’t completely figured out which aperture is best for different circumstances. When I was photographing a large group of ducks swimming by, I chose a larger ƒ-stop hoping that more of the ducks would be in focus. This only worked to a point. Conversely, I’ve taken close-up portraits of perching birds using the smallest aperture ƒ/5.6 and parts of them are out of focus.
Upgrading to a DSLR was a great decision for me, but I’m aware that I have a lot more to learn to get the most out of the Nikon D7200. I would advise anyone thinking of upgrading to master some of the manual settings on your bridge/superzoom camera first, otherwise the learning curve will be too steep on a DSLR! Despite feeling like an expert with my Canon SX50, I now feel like a complete novice with a DSLR and it can sometimes be overwhelming. Also, you shouldn’t expect that you will instantly get amazing shots just because you upgraded!
However, I’ve already taken shots that are better than what I achieved with the Canon SX50, so I’ll take that as a win!
To see how my photographs have evolved, take a peek at my Flickr gallery.
One thing you need to be aware of if you are upgrading to a DSLR is there are a lot of other costs in addition to the camera and lens. I’ve put together a guide to the Must-have DSLR Accessories for Wildlife Photography that describes what you will need and how much you should budget for!
Part 2 of this series is now available! Mastering Manual Exposure For Bird Photography
Looking to upgrade to a DSLR? Read my DSLR Buying Guide!
*If you’re considering purchasing a Nikon D7200 or a Nikkor 200-500mm lens and you chose to do so by using one of my amazon links, I will earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that will go towards the costs of running this website. This is greatly appreciated!