Your first camera | Picking your poison

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I get asked every so often about cameras, to buy this or that? Well, it’s been a while since I’ve gone down that road… but I definitely remember the struggle and indecision. If you’re looking to take that jump into the DSLR field, read on as I recount my own fun (and sometimes costly) adventures.

nexno Step one is of course getting the camera. You’re faced with a variety of options, form factors, and price ranges. For example, if you want something more like a compact camera, but want the ability to change lenses, you might consider something like the Sony NEX, Panasonic Lumix, or the Olympus PEN. There are disadvantages to consider with cameras like these, like the lack of viewfinder, expensive peripherals, and that they look like toys… And because I have little experience with cameras like these, I won’t go into anymore detail about them. These little guys may look cool, but if you plan on stepping up your game in the future, just get a real DSLR.

Buying the body:

Choosing a more traditional, full size DSLR grants you more control as well as giving you access to a larger selection of used peripherals to play with, like lenses, flashes, shutter releases, etc. You’ve got a lot of different options to choose from. My first body was chosen pretty much at random on Craigslist because it was cheap. I suggest you take the same approach. It was a Canon Rebel XT and I shot a bunch of pictures with it. I bought some used lenses and shot a bunch more pictures with it. Indoors, outdoors, at concerts, events, everywhere. And only until I developed my own particular style of shooting, and learned the limitations of my camera, did I decide I needed an upgrade.

Some pictures taken with my Rebel XT:

I found that I switched settings like white balance and ISO often, and frequently shot in low-light situations. Learning that Nikon had the edge in noise control, and from some random internet source that “Canon is designed by engineers; Nikon by photographers,” (i.e. more buttons and less menu navigation) I made a switch to the Nikon D90 and haven’t looked back. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate that everyone use Nikons. I do recommend that everyone experiment and learn their particular shooting style and habits. The X camera vs Y camera debate can be found all over, but I think the only true answer is to pick the camera that feels best in your hands, that you feel comfortable controlling! Remember: the camera is only a tool! Stuck between two or three cameras? Try using Snapsort.

Below are some D90 pictures:

Megapixels:

misinfo-image-lg Don’t fall for the megapixel trap. Unless you’re going to be shooting for billboards (and even then..) you really don’t need to worry about getting a gajillion megapixel camera. See that chart over there? You’ll find that even at 3 megapixels you can print and 8×12″ at a “good” 192dpi resolution. And that’s more than plenty for websites. I wont go into the details, but for more information on megapixels and resolution, and how they affect print size, click here, or check out this website.

Memory Card Class:

You’ll need some digital “film” to store your images on, that’s where the memory cards come in. But which one? And what class? Basically, the higher the class, the faster the card. So if you plan on doing a lot of sports or action photography, where you’ll be holding onto the shutter release constantly, you’ll want a high class card. That’s what they say anyway…

I tested a class 4 vs a class 10 card once, not really all that scientifically mind you, and noticed no difference at all when recording with high-resolution RAW files. I noticed a slight difference when lowering image quality to pitiable JPG quality images. I would say save your money and just get class 4’s, but you can find class 10 cards for roughly the same price…so why not?

Lenses:

The unsung heroes of photography. Let me clarify: if you want the best possible picture you can get, with a limited amount of money, spend more money on your lens than on your camera body. The quality of your image is a result primarily of the optics that you’re using and not the camera that took the picture (although it does matter, sometimes).

If your body came with a kit lens then that’s as good a place to start as any. They generally offer a decent focal range to play with, the most common being 18-55mm (18-105mm is also common). So go out and shoot with it for a few days. What end of the spectrum (18 or 55) do you find yourself at the most? Are you missing a lot of shots because you’re too close, or because you’re too far away? Poor lighting, or…what? If you find yourself backing up a lot to get the entire picture framed then you probably need a wide angle lens. If you experience a lot of noise in your images due to low light, then you’ll benefit from a fast lens (low f-stop). Just pay attention to where and how you’re shooting and you’ll be ready to buy your next lens with no questions of whether or not it’s “right for you”. (You don’t want to use the kit lens forever, do you?)

Prime lenses:

501.8They offer the biggest bang for your buck. One such lens that deserves to be in everyone’s arsenal is the 50mm f/1.8 (or better yet, f/1.4) prime lens. Prime denotes a fixed focal length (i.e., no zooming), the low f-stop of 1.8 means that you’ll be able to shoot in very low light situations, and create a good amount of bokeh if you want. They end up being cheaper than zoom counterparts because, well, they they have less complicated parts and pieces. They’re simpler creatures but are often optically superior because of it. With a 50mm prime not only will you have an awesomely fast lens, but you’ll probably end up a better photographer. You’ll be forced to move to frame your subjects! Think of it as a forced photography lesson in not relying on your zoom so much, and learning how to use those legs you’ve got.

Also remember that lenses retain their value quite well, so you’ll likely be able to recoup your cash on those experimental purchases. In my arsenal,  after going through a lot of other lenses, I’ve finally narrowed it down to three: 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, and 17-50mm f/2.8. They’ve all got their own personalities and I’m usually caught pondering far too long which I should bring (usually, all of them…)

Oh, and here’s a little tip. If you’re curious about how a lens shoots, search for it on Flickr. For example, if you want to see how the beastly 70-200mm f/2.8 shoots, without dropping the big bucks, you can easily find a group of dedicated shooters on Flickr.

Camera Strap

Get rid of that camera strap that came with your camera. Do it now. Not only does it advertise to potential thieves, but it just looks fugly. And–it depends on what you shoot–but I bet you use the camera strap just as much as the camera itself. If you shoot events, concerts, street photography, or any other style that requires instant camera readiness, you’ll absolutely benefit from a loop style camera strap. Let me introduce you to one of my favorite purchases, the Luma Loop:

This thing is convenient! Unfortunately, the Luma Loop is no longer being sold due to a ridiculous patent (details here). You can always get the Black Rapid strap (which I find chunky), or go with the C-Loop (looks promising),  and maybe give Luma Labs’ new Cinch design a try (probably what I would go with).

Post-process

lr Since we’re on the topic, it’s worth asking what you’re going to do with that butt-load of pictures on your hard-drive. Well? What are you going to do? Let me introduce you to the post-processing world. And let me clarify: by post-process I mean everything you do to your digital images after you put them onto your computer.

My post process:

  • Move digital images to folders on a redundant array of hard drives (i.e. RAID)
  • Categorize images based on dates shot (i.e. folder titled “2012-05-15” contains everything from May 15th, 2012)
  • Import all images to Adobe Lightroom to critique, rate, delete, and perform basic/global edits
  • Advanced editing of favorite images in Adobe Photoshop
  • Convert and print or digitally publish images on website, Flickr, etc

Not everyone is going to have the same method, but one thing that will definitely make your life a whole lot easier is getting proper software to deal with your images. There are a few to choose from, each with their own particular benefits, but what they all offer that is essential is a non-destructive workflow! This means when you edit an image, you’re painting on top of a transparency so to speak–you’ll always be able to alter your changes or go back to the original image.

Adobe Lightroom is popular, and my personal choice. I know a few professionals that use Adobe Bridge, and it works for them, I just don’t see it as a tool developed for photographers in the same way that Lightroom is. We’ve also got Corel AfterShot. And if paying for software isn’t your thing, then you might give IrfanView a go.

Other things…

Get a lens pen. Face it, your lens is going to get dirty.

Some people use UV filters as a cheap measure of lens protection (Check your lens cap to determine the size you need). It’s also a good idea to use the lens hood that came with your lens.

If you’re just carrying around one camera 51h3Wy7R5DL._AA300_ with one lens, it is not necessary to buy some fancy bag or case to put your camera in for every moment you aren’t using it (it’s a different story when you’re carrying around a portable studio). I know, it feels good to have it tucked away and safe. But I’ve never once damaged my camera just walking around with it strapped over my shoulder. You have to be conscious of it, of course, but your camera is not some delicate flower; it can take a few casual knocks here and there (don’t test this for me). When I do need more equipment than I can fit in my pockets, I use a Kata Rucksack.

Well that’s it for now. Go shoot, go learn!

 

 

 

 

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