With Black Friday looming and Christmas around the corner, it’s a good time to look for deals on cameras. A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me for advice on purchasing a first DSLR, so I thought I’d share some thoughts. I am not making any specific camera recommendations because I haven’t been keeping up on all of the latest models.
Figure out whether you really need a DSLR. There are lots of good reasons for it, but don’t just get one to have a new toy. This mentality will most likely get you a boxful of expensive camera equipment that you won’t appreciate. Do you want to take more artistic photos? Do you just want to take better-looking photos in general? What sorts of subjects are you going to shoot? Do you want to make big prints? Answering these questions will help you determine which features are important to you and which accessories you’ll want to invest in upfront. It’ll also help you figure out whether a point-and-shoot can satisfy your needs. The Canon G-series (the latest is the G10) is a line of outstanding point-and-shoot cameras (and you can can plug an external flash into the hot shoe).
Figure out your budget. This is crucial. Sky is the limit when it comes to purchasing a camera and gear. Don’t forget to set aside money for extra batteries, memory cards, and a bag to lug your gear around with you. (And a flash and monitor calibrator, if you listen to my advice.)
Strongly consider an external flash. If you are planning to take a lot of indoor photos (and who doesn’t?), the ability to bounce the light off a ceiling or wall (instead of aiming it straight ahead) makes a striking difference. If I lost all of my camera stuff and had to reacquire everything, I’d get the 50mm prime first and this second.
Strongly consider a monitor calibration tool. Every monitor is different. When I first started goofing around with my images I didn’t know why all of my prints were oversaturated (they looked way too red). It’s because my monitor was too cool (in color), so whenever I made corrections I overcorrected.
Figure out what mount your friends have. Canon/Nikon (or something else, but these are the most common) – it’s not that important from a quality standpoint because they are all good, but it is from a lens-borrowing standpoint. Wouldn’t it be great to take your friend’s wide-angle on vacation? Or at least a test drive before getting your own?
Don’t buy more camera than you need. The more expensive models are only worth the money if you need the features. They have better build quality, are usually weatherproofed, can shoot more frames per second, have better sensors (for better low-light photography), and (slightly) better processors (The high-end models also have full-frame sensors). Some new models can also shoot HD video. The important thing to realize here is that a digital camera body is a computer, so in a few years you’re probably going to be upgrading anyway. For casual photographers it rarely pays to ride the front end of the technology curve. Just remember that a lot of really great photos were taken with the previous generation’s models.
Figure out what lens you want. Most first-time DSLR purchasers aren’t really sure what they want. On the Canon side, the 18-55 IS kit lens is a decent starter lens. The 50mm f/1.8 prime ($90) is also a no-brainer; getting a body and 50mm is not a bad way to go if you’re trying to save money. It’s great if you can postpone any decision to purchase an expensive lens until after you’ve had a chance to see how much you enjoy using the camera and figure out which end of the zoom spectrum you’re more interested in. I do a good amount of research at fredmiranda.com, always keeping in mind that many of the reviewers have a lot more money than I do. Three observations: you get what you pay for, IS is a very, very nice feature to have on a lens, and exceptional lenses are very heavy.
Do more with less. No matter what you get, there’s more to research and buy. Make a decision and be happy with it. Instead of reading more gear reviews, get out there and take photos.
My first DSLR is a Canon Rebel XT, purchased nearly two years ago when the XTi was already out. At $500 it was the cheapest body I could find at the time, and it’s served me well. It’s been a great camera to learn on, and even though I really enjoy photography, next time around I’ll probably stay at the low-end of the Canon line rather than jumping up to the 50D level.
Some gifts you regret giving the moment they’re opened. Unfortunately for Jen, the Canon 580EX II was one such Valentine’s Day gift. It was a very thoughtful surprise gift, and even though I have no idea of how to use it effectively, I immediately rigged up my 420ex as a slave and started photographing my poor wife. I’m excited to start using it and now I think I’ll be paying more attention to Strobist.
When Jen’s classmate offered to let me borrow his Canon 100-400mm f/4.6-5.6L ISLens, there was no way I was going to turn him down. Within a day or so I took my first trip down to the Charles River. I came across a pair of geese that arrived at our lunch dock and made their way up to the park.
It’s been a lot of fun to shoot with this lens, as 400mm stretches a long way. It is quite heavy and large. The image stabilization helps to smooth out some of the motion when handholding, but having additional support probably goes a long way towards getting sharper images. The lens zooms as you extend the tube outwards. It took me quite a while to figure out how this mechanism worked, but eventually I discovered the tension ring and twisted it in the “smooth” direction to loosen it, allowing the lens to extend.
One of the big advantages to using a SLR over a point-and-shoot is being able to shoot in manual mode, opening the doors to more creative photography. Manually setting the sensor sensitivity (ISO), aperture, and shutter speed for the correct exposure can be quite satisfying. I especially enjoy it because it involves doing some simple arithmetic in my head. It boils down to figuring out the appropriate sensor sensitivity and the amount of light you allow to hit the sensor. The amount of light allowed to hit the sensor is determined by how wide the shutter is opened (the aperture) and for how long (the shutter speed). That’s all there is to it.
Shooting digital means that you get instant feedback and taking pictures is free. If you have time to set up for a photo, you can fiddle with the settings until you get the exact right exposure. Another great way to learn is to use one of the other camera modes (like aperture or shutter priority) to suggest starting values and then tweaking those. These modes also very useful when you’re under some time pressure but would still like to have some control over your camera.
So here’s what’s going through my head when I shoot manual:
Pick an ISO: A lot of digital cameras, when left to automatically set their own ISOs, seem to pick particularly high values for them (indoor scenes can be quite dark). A high ISO can introduce a lot of noise into the photo. For black and white conversion this is not a huge deal because it looks like film grain and can give your photo an artsy feel. I haven’t gotten around to purchasing it, but Noise Ninja is supposed to be quite good. Another solution is to invest in the new Canon 1D Mark III, which produces images with a lot less noise at high ISOs. I typically try to stay at ISO 400 or below.
Figure out your effective focal length: The actual focal length that I’m shooting with is 1.6x what it says on the lens (since I have a Rebel XT, which does not have a full-frame sensor). This is important for the next point.
Figure out your shutter speed: When handholding, the shutter speed should be at most the reciprocal of the actual focal length because camera shake is accentuated by long focal lengths. So for my 50mm prime, which is actually 80mm, the shutter speed should be at most 1/80 sec. Image stabilization technologies go part of the way towards allowing photographers to relax this requirement, as do monopods. A good tripod gives you even more flexibility here.
Start with the “Rule of 16″: To get the proper exposure in bright sunlight, at f/16, the shutter speed should be the same as the ISO (1/100 sec for ISO 100). Recalling the descriptions on films with different ISOs (100 for sunlight, 200 for cloudy days, indoors with flash, 400 for indoors, assuming other settings equal) gives me a very rough estimate of how much light to expect in non-bright-sunlight settings. This gives you a baseline to work with; since you’ve figured out your shutter speed you can now calculate the appropriate aperture after reading through the next point.
Change stops: The Rule of 16 can only take you so far; indoor lighting situations can vary a great deal so you’ll probably need to change the amount of light that hits the sensor. If you start reading about photography techniques, you’ll run into the word “stop.” The difference in the amount of light between two stops is a factor of 2. To double the amount of light, double the ISO, divide the f-number by 1.4 (sqrt(2) to be accurate), or double the amount of time that the shutter is open. If you don’t need to change the amount of light but would like to change something else, you will have to change the other variables to compensate. If you reduce the aperture number by a factor of 1.4, which widens it to allow twice as much light in (and also narrows the depth of field of your image), you should either halve the ISO or the shutter speed to preserve the exposure. The f-number is inversely proportional to the radius of the opening, and the amount of light is determined by the area of the opening. Photography might be too easy had the aperture measure been determined to be proportional to the area of the opening.
Check the histogram: The image histogram is an incredibly important tool, something I check after just about every single shot I take. It’s not good enough that you are not clipping shadows or highlights. For best results, the histogram should be located to the right as far as possible, even if that means your photos look overexposed. You’ll thank yourself later when you go to post-process because there is a lot more information content on the right side of the histogram. This has to do with the way that digital sensors are different from traditional film (Thanks to CRV for pointing this out to me).
Keep your equipment’s limitations in mind: Photos tend to be sharpest when you don’t shoot at your maximum (smallest f-number) aperture and you’re not at the extreme ends of your zoom lens. Sometimes this is hard to avoid doing, especially when you use the long end of a zoom lens. When handholding my 70-200mm f/4, I can see the image through the viewfinder move around, which makes me quite paranoid. Around dusk I’ll typically set the ISO to 400, keep the shutter speed to 1/640 sec or less, and aperture to f/5.6 at its widest. If the photo is overexposed, I reduce the shutter speed first before fiddling with the others.
So usually when I’m taking a photo I’ll set the ISO to something appropriate, Figure out my minimum shutter speed based on the focal length, figure out what aperture would be appropriate for that shutter speed (by consulting the Rule of 16 if I’m outdoors), and go from there. Having a lot of light available outside gives you a lot of flexibility; once you get indoors everything is much, much dimmer. A decent flash is pretty much a necessity. If you can’t use a flash (maybe because you don’t want to kill the ambient lighting) you may find yourself pining for new equipment and features, like lenses with extremely wide apertures, image stabilization, and camera support (monopods and tripods). You also begin to really appreciate bright, natural light.
After writing most of this I searched around for similar resources and found an excellent guide to exposure calculation. Definitely worth a read; important points are in bold.
Several of my friends/readers have been contemplating the jump from a Point & Shoot to a DSLR. A few of them are being held back by the sizable initial cost and the wide array of cameras and lenses. I definitely sat on the decision for many months before finally deciding to take the plunge. I haven’t regretted it at all; then again, it’s only been about four months.
You can get away with purchasing a body, prime lens, and external flash. On the Canon side, the low end is a Rebel XT ($500), the widely recommended 50mm f/1.8 ($70), and a 420EX or 430EX external flash ($250 for a new 430EX, you could get lucky like me and buy a used 420EX from a friend for a big discount). There are similarly-priced components from other manufacturers as well, but I am not familiar with them.
I’ve been quite happy with the Rebel XT body so far. My impression is that spending more on the body will get you better build quality, a higher continuous frames-per-second rate, and more sophisticated light metering and focusing (which are extremely helpful when you don’t have time to set up for a shot). The XT is quite small, which I like. In any case, the body is the most replaceable piece of gear; like all things silicon-based, new versions will be faster, smarter, and more power-efficient.
The 50mm is the lens that I shoot with the most. It doesn’t zoom at all, so you’ll be moving yourself around as you try to frame subjects. It feels quite cheap, is loud, and occasionally has trouble focusing on dark subjects, but the image quality is great. f/1.8 tells you the widest aperture of the lens, which is a measure of how wide the shutter is allowed to open when you take a picture. A wide aperture makes it possible to take pictures in medium/low-light situations and also with a very shallow depth of field.
This lens can guide you towards your first big lens purchase (while giving you time to save up and convince your spouse to let you get a nice L-series). Maybe you find yourself taking a lot of landscapes (suggesting a wide-angle, like 12-24mm). Or you want to take pictures of your kids playing outdoor sports (telephoto zoom, like 70-200mm). Or you like getting close-ups of flowers and insects (macro). Or you just want to get something for everyday use (regular zoom, like 24-105mm). Note that the f/1.8 will spoil you; be prepared for zoom lenses to start around f/2.8 or f/3.5 (which, at their widest, allow in 41% and 26% as much light as the f/1.8, respectively). If you’re addicted to the wide aperture, you’ll probably have to go with another prime.
The external flash is an absolute necessity; the built-in flash is small and cannot be pointed in another direction. The Canon 220EX flash can’t be redirected either, and this is bad because bouncing light off a ceiling or wall results in much more natural-looking lighting and opens a lot of doors for creativity. If you end up upgrading the flash down the road (say, to a 580EX) you can use your 420 or 430 as a slave unit, which will fire at the same time as the main flash.
Of course, it’s still quite a big investment and future purchases will probably be larger than this initial investment, so don’t try to fool yourself into thinking that it is going to be a cheap hobby. In the interest of full disclosure, you’ll want to purchase a big CompactFlash card, rechargeable batteries for the flash, and photo-processing software. But at least you’ll be able to get a good sense of how much you enjoy taking pictures with a decent setup. Even better, you can get started immediately instead of spending the next few months agonizing over what lens you want to get.
Spent some time last night working on pictures from Caroline and Brandon’s wedding. More pictures from: Jake Holt, the official wedding photographer, Grant, Jess & Cy.
Wedding photography looks like very stressful work. I’m pretty pleased with the way some of these pictures turned out but having to get a spectacular picture of every wedding “scene” is tough. I’m sure the extra flashes and L lenses make it a little bit easier, but probably not that much. I enjoyed chatting with Jake towards the end of the evening; at the time his biggest complaint was his back, from lugging around two big camera bodies.
Very early in the evening I switched to my cheap 50mm f/1.8 because of the low light. Lee generously gave me his flash diffuser, which was very helpful for reducing the harshness of the light from the flash.
A few friends I’ve talked to have been interested in getting a DSLR, so I figured that I’d pass along this piece of advice: seriously consider getting a Nikon because of the 18-200mm 3.5-5.6 VR (vibration reduction) lens. It can be purchased for $750 if you are lucky enough to find it. Sounds like a lot of money, but on the Canon side (if a competitor isn’t released) you’re looking at buying 2-3 lenses and switching between them to get the full range. Glowing reviews describe it as life-changing (1, 2, 3). The lens isn’t perfect (reviews mention some distortion at the focal length extremes and build quality isn’t the best), but overall it sounds awesome. Three of the guys at work have managed to get their hands on one, and a fourth is not far behind.
This past week I’ve almost exclusively been snapping away quite happily with my cheapest lens, the good ol’ Canon 50mm 1.8. It feels like a plastic toy and is very loud when it focuses, but it does take some nice pictures. It’s also very small, which makes it easy to take around.
I’ve had my Rebel XT for well over a month now. No regrets about making the switch from point-and-shoot so far. Some random thoughts:
It’s not that clunky. I’ve taken the camera everywhere with me, including two hikes. I’ve also biked with it. Carrying the camera bag around isn’t as bad as I thought.
It’s still easy to take bad pictures. Not all that surprising. At least now I know it’s mostly my fault and not the camera’s. I definitely am more aware of shaking-induced blurriness in photos than I used to be.
The XTi would have been nice too.. Occasionally I find myself thinking that it would have been nice to have the XTi’s extra autofocus points (especially the ones at the thirds), but overall I’m very happy with my decision. Especially since it meant that I stayed under budget.
Post-processing takes time. I’ve been shooting in RAW and tweaking each image a bit before converting to JPEG. Also, I need to do a better job of keeping track of metadata so that later on I can export to RDF and query my images with SPARQL.
I’ve controlled the desire to acquire new accessories. Next big purchase will probably be a decent tripod and ballhead, but that won’t be for at least a few months.
It’s easy to learn on your own. Favorite blogs include Digital Photography School and the similarly named Photojojo and Photodoto. There are also a lot of self-guided courses and podcasts. This is what I love about the Internet, though I’m sure I would benefit greatly from some formal instruction.
There are some drawbacks. Unless someone else knows how to use an SLR, I don’t end up in that many pictures (I guess that’s where the tripod will come in handy). Non-DSLR owners appear intimidated when I bust it out. Jen is about to kill me for taking so many pictures of her. And all of a sudden, a few hundred dollars doesn’t seem like it buys you that much.
I received my Rebel XT in the mail! I ended up picking it over the XTi because I felt like I could put the extra money ($200) towards a better lens. This is my first SLR of any sort so I can grow into it and use the next few years to figure out whether there are other features that I really want in a new body.
Haven’t had much of a chance to play around with it yet, but I’m planning on spending some quality time with it over the holidays (starting from Basic Photography 101). Looks like I’ve just committed myself to an expensive hobby. From what I’ve seen, sky’s the limit for spending when it comes to lenses, tripods, and other camera-related accessories.
For those of you who are also just getting started (ahem, Joy), here are a few free useful tools I’ve found: Microsoft RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer, Rawshooter Essentials (process raw files, thanks Elias), and Adobe’s Digital Negative Converter (for converting raw files to DNG).
It does seem a bit excessive to use this camera for a 96×96 icon for this post, but that happens to be the very first picture ever taken with this camera.