A few friends have emailed me for advice about getting a camera over the past year, so I thought I’d share some of the advice I gave them here:
What kind of point-and-shoot should I get?
Don’t bother. If you just want to be able to get snapshots of your life, get a phone with a high-quality camera. When I got my iPhone 4, I gave my point-and-shoot to my mom (who has since upgraded to a fancy phone with a good camera as well). I think the difference between a high-quality camera in those smart phones and the average point-and-shoot are becoming quite negligible, and the added convenience of the phone means you’ll actually end up taking more pictures.
I want a camera that can get DSLR-like quality photos but I don’t want to lug around a big camera. What should I get?
You should probably consider investing in Micro 4/3 mirrorless ILC camera. Both Panasonic and Olympus makes great cameras in this category. They’re compact, portable, and allows you to change lenses, perfect for traveling.
Okay, I’m getting a DSLR, what kind should I get? (We’re just talking camera bodies here…)
This is largely dependent on what your budget is and how serious you are about your photography.
If you don’t care that your camera is brand new, definitely check out craigslist. Photographers upgrade their cameras all the time and you can find pretty good deals on second hand cameras. One thing to be aware of, camera bodies (unlike lenses) do have a lifespan that can roughly be calculated by its shutter count or actuations (how many photos it has taken). This obviously varies with model, but a very rough average for the life of a camera is about 100k actuations.
I think the biggest difference between a consumer/prosumer camera and a professional camera is the sensor size. Consumer/prosumer cameras have a smaller sensor (cropped), while professional cameras will have a larger sensor (full-frame). A full-frame sensor, across the board, will get you better image quality and better ISO performance, meaning you’ll get better photos when there’s very little light.
Just for fun and on a budget – go with something in the Canon Rebel series or Nikon D#### series.
If you’re pretty serious but not ready to splurge on professional gear – go with either the Nikon D90 or Canon 50D.
You want professional quality gear – go full-frame. Full-frame cameras start a little north of $2,000. For Nikon, D600, D700 (which I have), and D800 are all fantastic options. For Canon, the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III would be a good place to start.
Nikon or Canon?
Don’t we all love a good rivalry? Honestly, both make excellent cameras (though it seems like Nikon might be winning in the pro market). When I was shopping for my first DSLR, I was deciding between the Nikon D90 and the equivalent Canon 50D. I ended up going with a Nikon because the reviews suggested that the body was sturdier and less prone to breaking. Nikon cameras felt a little bit more solid, while Canon cameras I tried felt a bit more “plasticy” (but really, the difference was small).
However, if you want to get into video, I would go with Canon at this point. For the longest time, the Canon 5D Mark II was the industry standard for videography. The new Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 that came out earlier this year both have fantastic video capability, but reviews suggest that Canon still beats Nikon on this front.
Both Ken Rockwell and Laurence Kim do great reviews of specific cameras and gears on their sites.
If you’re serious about photography, this is where you’re likely to make the bulk of your investment.
First off, don’t bother with the kit lens, it’s usually a poor quality zoom lens with a small aperture that they try to bundle with the camera body. It’s just a waste of money in my opinion.
Also, while Nikon and Canon both make phenomenal lenses for their cameras, if you want to save a little money and don’t care about brands, Sigma and Tamron make very good lenses for both Nikon or Canon bodies.
1. Prime (fixed) lens v. zoom lens: A fixed lens has only one focal length, meaning if you want to zoom in or out, you have to use these nifty things attached to your body called feet. A zoom lens, as the name suggests, allows you to zoom. Prime lenses tend to be much less expensive than zoom lenses for similar, or even wider, aperture and they’re usually much smaller and lighter, which is why I shoot predominately with primes, but this means I also have to switch lenses more often.
The above are the prime lenses I use the most. 85mm f/1.8 is my favorite and gets me gorgeous portraits. The 50mm f/1.8 is the first lens I had and is probably the most versatile. The 28mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/1.8 I use for the occasional landscape and large group photos. (Note that the 35mm is a DX lens, that means it’s made for the cropped sensor so I only use it on my D90).
2. Aperture (f-stop): This is probably the biggest determinant of lens price. The larger the aperture (the smaller the f-stop number), the wider the lens can open up, the more expensive the lens. The main benefits of having a wide aperture are 1) it allows in more light so you can shoot in lower light conditions, and 2) you can get a shallower depth of field (which I’ll discuss more in a later post about basic photography).
3. Focal length: This is how wide or zoomed in a lens is (##mm), the smaller the number the wider the lens, and in turn, the larger the number, the more zoomed in the lens. In general, 35mm and below is considered wide-angle, which is great for street photography, architecture, and landscapes, and if you get below 17mm, that’s considered ultra-wide or fisheye, and you’ll get a good amount of warping effect around the edges. 50mm is considered a standard lens, meaning what you see through the lens is what your naked eye will see, a fairly all purpose lens and a great lens to start with. 70-200mm is a good range for portraits. Anything above 200mm, you’re getting into telephoto territory (these tend to be big and heavy, and are great for sports, nature, and spying). One thing to be aware of here, if you are using a camera with a cropped sensor, the focal length you will effectively get will be about ~1.6x what it says on the lens. For example, my 50mm lens on my D90 body actually acts like a 80mm lens.
4. Macro: If you want to take close-up photos of very small things (insects, dew drops) you’ll need a macro lens (which is usually denoted on the lens as “micro”, don’t ask me why). It allows you to get very close to the object and focus on it. Normal lenses tend to require you to be a certain distance away from the whatever you’re photographing in order for it to be able to focus. You can also get macro filters to achieve similar results. I only need to take macro photos for ring shots, which comprises all of maybe 1% of the photos I take, and I don’t want to have to carry around an extra lens just for that purpose, so I use the filters.
What did you start with?
As I alluded to throughout this post, I started with a Nikon D90 and a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I still use both piece of equipment quite often (and can probably wax poetic about the 50mm for about a good half hour). The 50mm f/1.8 is about $100 and you will NEVER find a better bang for your buck in the rest of your photography career. If you’re brand new to photography, I would recommend putting the 50mm f/1.8 on your camera, set it to aperture priority, open the aperture to its widest (1.8), and go take some photos. This is the fastest way to appreciate the power of DSLRs and see the difference between this and a snapshot you get from a regular point-and-shoot.
My D90 plus the 50mm.
This is one of the first photos I ever took with a DSLR.
For wedding photography, I also have a full-frame Nikon D700 and use the D90 as my backup.
What about flash?
That’s a great question! Your camera will come with a flash unit attached. DON’T USE IT! Seriously. (Okay, maybe there are exceptions, but those are very rare occasions). I hate how the built-in flash unit is attached to the camera because it’s pointed straight at your subject, so if you’re taking a photo of a person, the flash will cause them to look completely washed out and create strong ugly shadows. It’s just not a good thing. Generally speaking, if you have a good camera with high ISO capability and a good lens that can open pretty wide, you won’t need a flash in most lighting conditions.
For those times when it really is too dark and you need some more light (especially indoors), get a separate flash unit. I have a Nikon SB-900 Speedlight. Most of the time, I attach it to my camera and point the flash up allowing the light to reflect off the ceiling, so it’s like I’m creating a light source from above, providing much more natural lighting. I also use the small bounce card attached to the flash so it pushes some light forward onto the subject. For wedding receptions, I have a second flash unit (SB-600) that I put on a light stand and sync it to the SB-900 with Radiopoppers.
There’s a lot you can do with flash and various off-camera lighting set-ups. The Strobist is a great resource if you want to learn more about the topic.
At the end of the day, your camera and gear can only carry you so far. Put an average quality camera into the hands of a great photographer and you’ll still get great images. High quality camera and gear will certainly give your greater control and flexibility in creating your images, so get the best your budget will allow, but then focus on the technique and the art. Good luck.