Camera and Gear Buying Guide – Part 1: Where to Start

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This is part three in a Camera and Gear Buying Guide .  Read the whole series:  Part 1 – Where to Start (this article), Part 2 – Essential Accessories and Part 3 – Upgrade Philosophy.

The holidays – and lets face it, year end bonuses (hopefully) – are fast approaching, and many of us are starting to think about what we would like to upgrade in our photography kits. Maybe you have a wealthy uncle that wants to set you up, or you’re just looking to save money or take advantage of the hoilday sales. Whatever the reason, many of you are looking for advice. And so I have decided to share my wisdom and experience in this multi-part series. Though this article falls into the spirit of the holidays quite well, the advice that is contained within is really wisdom that can be applied at any time of the year.

For this first installment, we’re going to focus on the very beginning – where to get started. This installment is really for the beginners. For the purpose of this article, I am going to assume that you are looking to buy (or be gifted) your first seriou camera. And by serious camera, I mean a camera that allows you to individually control the aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focus independantly. Though there a few exceptions, most of these camera systems will have detachable lenses, and so we will address the camera body and the lenses separately. But before we get into that aspect, we need to think about the camera system as a whole.

Now there’s a lot to cover here, so I apologize in advanced for the length of this article.  But we don’t want to short change you with viable information.  We also don’t want to leave out important components – you can’t take a photo without a lens.  So this first installment is going to give you advice on every piece of equipment necessary, at a minimum, to get you out there and shooting.

Buying Into A Camera System

The camera system is, of course, the camera body plus the lens. When you are buying your first camera, you’re really buying into a system – the full spectrum of products that are designed to work with the specific brand that you have bought into. The camera system includes all of the lenses, flashes and accessories that are made for a specific camera body.  When you buy into a system, you’re restricting yourself to only that spectrum (though it’s not as restrictive as you might initially think).  Selecting a camera system is a very important consideration and it should be taken very seriously.

When you’re considering a specific camera system, you should look at everything that is offered. Even if you don’t expect to use specific products in the near future. What you don’t want to happen is to be using your camera for five years before deciding you are limited by lens options or the offerings of their proprietary flash systems. Be aware that in many cases, especially with the most popular brands, many of the complimentary products are not necessarily made by that brand. Sigma, Tamaron and other companies make lenses that mount directly to some of the top selling camera bodies, for example. This helps to broaden the field of what’s available.

Which brand is best? Any photographer must get this question at least a handful of times a year, even if their job description does not include writing articles for a web magazine such as my own. To be blunt, there is no clear cut answer as to which brand is best. Each brand has it’s own advantages and its own disadvantages. And while we like to jump into the debates to defend our preferred brand, the reality is that such arguments are moot. Even the cheapest camera available on the market today is astronomically better than the cameras than Ansel Adams was shooting with. That said, when you take the entire camera system into play, there are two brands that really stand out on top: Canon and Nikon. I can say that with confidence because both offer great optics, great ISO response, easy-to-use interfaces and so on. Each also offers an unfathomable number of lenses and accessories for their systems. Most importantly, when it comes to the industry as a whole, the two combined easily carry three-quarters of the market. Therefore, most of the third party lenses and products are designed for one or both of these brands. This includes software and books that are written with one brand or the other in mind.

Now that’s not to say that the other brands don’t have their place. Brands like Olympus and Sony certainly have a niche within the consumer market. Many photographers are happy with these brands. Olympus, for example, seems to have created a nice place for itself with its four-thirds cameras – cameras with detachable lenses that fit nicely into ones pocket. If street photography and covert operations are your thing – and if you can’t afford a Leica – one of these four-thirds cameras may be perfect for you. But for everything else, you’re best to stick to one of the big two brands. It simply comes down to offerings and support: Their camera systems offer far fewer lens options and accessories designed for their cameras. There are also far fewer people using these other camera systems, so support and discussions between other users of the of the brand are going to be less common.

In the end, whichever brand you choose, please be aware that you – the photographer – are the cause for your photographic works. Your camera cannot turn you into a fantasic photographer, nor can it make your work awful without your help. A better camera is not going to make you a better photographer.

The Camera Body

So we’ve set quite a bit of groundwork and we’ve chosen a camera system. Next it’s important to choose the camera body itself. There’s a lot of misconceptions about what is important when buying a camera body.  The pixel depth, for example, isn’t as important as you think.  Anything above 12 megapixels is going to serve your purposes, unless you need to print poster-sized portraits.  If you’re just starting out and aren’t selling your photos, then you’re not going to need anything more than that.  I also wouldn’t focus too much on the modes available.  Nearly every D-SLR is going to offer Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Automatic, Program mode and a few other pre-set modes (portrait, landscape, etc).  These pre-set modes can be completely ignored.  If you truly learn how to use your camera, these pre-sets become unnecessary.  And the size of the display isn’t going to make much of a difference (any more) as you shouldn’t be reviewing or editing your photos on a tiny lens anyhow.

So what does matter?  Here’s a list of things that you should be looking for in a camera body (at a minimum):

  • Comfort – Don’t get lost in the technical details.  Comfort is very important.  If it doesn’t feel good in your hands, or if you can’t comfortably reach the controls with your fingers, you’re not going to enjoy using the camera.  Try it before you buy it.
  • Hardware Controls – Can you quickly change settings like shutter-speed and aperture on the body without using the menus?  In manual mode, can you control both of them separately?
  • Lens Mount Options -  You’ll need to know what can be mounted to the body.  Nikon, for example, uses a screw-drive on their older lenses to control the focus.  Their bottom-end camera bodies don’t have a screw-drive, and you will be forced to use manual focus if you have such an older lens (not that there’s anything wrong with manual focus).
  • Recording Media – Most cameras use either Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) media these days.  CF can be a little faster, but SD more readily plugs into laptops and other devices.  Choosing a media really comes down to preference.  But I warn you of the few proprietary options, like Sony’s Memory Stick, which ties you to a single supplier.
  • Continuous Shooting – For some of you, like sports photographers, this will be a big issue.  You may wish to find a body that has the highest frames-per-second.  Just be aware, sometimes this is restricted by your recording media, so read the fine print.
  • ISO and Noise – Read the technical reviews and check out the samples when it comes to ISO performance, especially at higher ISOs.  I would highly recommend checking test results over at Digital Photography Review.  If shooting in low-light is going to be common for you, you’ll really want to note how the higher ISOs perform.  You don’t want grainy photos.

One final note about the camera body:  You will inevitably upgrade in the future, so don’t buy a body that is beyond your skill level, even if you have the money.  You will only harm your growth and improvement as a photographer if you are outfitted with a camera beyond your skill level.

Your First Lens

Your first lens should be an all-around shooter.  Unless you have the money to buy a few lenses at the same time, I would recommend getting a wide-range zoom – something in the 15-100mm range.  Many of these lenses are going to be relatively cheap – some may even be offered with a camera body as a package (often referred to as “kit lenses”).  Are these the best lenses on the market?  No.  Will these be your favorite lens ten years down the line when you have money to spare and you’re a wizard at your craft?  Not likely.  But as a beginner, these are great all-around lenses that will hold you over until you can afford more or, more importantly, when you outgrow the lens.

Lenses are typically described with two major components:  The focal length (with zoom lenses, a range is provided) and the maximum aperture.  The focal length is measured in millimeters (mm) – the longer the focal length, the more powerful the zoom.  The aperture is a measurement of how large the opening is measured in terms of a fraction:  f/n where “n” is the important number.  The lower the “n” value, the wider the aperture.  Aperture is important for controlling depth of field and restricts the light getting through your lens.  The maximum aperture also seems to have the most impact on the price of the lens.  The larger the maximum aperture, the larger the price tag.  Don’t get discouraged, however.  If you can’t afford a “fast lens” – a lens with a large maximum aperture – it shouldn’t restrict your creativity.  It just means you’ll need to use a tripod more often.

As I mentioned, these wide-range zooms are often available as a package deal with your camera body.  If money is short, this is absolutely a cost effective deal.  You may save a few hundred bucks in some cases verses buying each separately.  But is the kit lens always the best option?  As a beginner, I would say that it will be in most cases.  Sure, there are better, faster lenses available with superior optical quality.  But as a beginner, I suspect it would be difficult for you to tell the difference.  My advice would be for you to save your money and consider one of the kit lenses, at least for now.

Your Second Lens

Technically, your second lens is an upgrade item which I will be covering in a future installment.  However, the lens I am about to recommend is quite affordable and it will have a tremendous impact on your skills.  So if you have some extra room in your budget, I’d highly recommend you pick up this lens.  The lens I’m talking about is the good old stand-by:  The 50mm prime (fixed focal length) lens.  These come in all varieties with all sorts of max apertures.  But the great majority of them have an incredibly large maximum aperture, superior optical quality (no moving lens elements), are often lightweight and quite affordable.  How affordable?  Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8D Nikkor lens is just over $100.  Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 is even cheaper.

So why the 50mm prime?  A 50mm lens is restrictive:  It forces the photographer to move about, consider alternative angles, framing and so on.  It’s a great learning tool and helps develop healthy habits.  With its large maximum aperture, it also lets you get some really narrow depths of field for some stunning shots.  With a nice reverse mount adapter, you can even turn the lens around and convert it into a very nice macro-lens.  Overall, the 50mm prime lens is a versatile, all-around lens that every photographer should have in their bag.  And since it’s cheap, it should be an early purchase.

Final Thoughts

So now you have yourself  a pretty good beginners kit:  A camera body suited for you, a good kit lens with a good focal range and hopefully a great 50mm prime lens.  These items make up the core of your photography setup.  It is around these elements in which you will build your toolkit.  One point that I cannot stress enough:  It is important to consider your skill level when upgrading, especially when it comes to camera bodies.  Though the newer cameras may have some bells and whistles that you would love to have, all cameras are capable of capturing great images.  So stick with your camera equipment as long as possible and only upgrade when you have truly outgrown your gear.

Next weekPart 2:  Essential Accessories.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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