So, you want to start taking photos. Or, you want to start actively improving your photography skills. I’m no expert, but fellow blogger and friend The Dame in Spain wondered aloud about cameras, and I decided that since I’ve read into it perhaps a bit more than the average bear, and have some hands-on practice with different cameras and lenses, I’d weigh in with my opinions.
Street scene in Beograd, Serbia. Shot using a Canon 6D and 50mm 1.8 lens.
First off, I’m going to discuss cameras and lenses for every day use type things, like food shots, lifestyle captures, and my favorite, travel. Most important thing probably is to know that the lens is more important than the camera body if we’re talking DSLRs here. I just had to look that up, it’s “digital single-lens reflex” camera. These are the bodacious ones you see nearly everyone carrying around these days. True story: I saw these listed as great hipster accessories. “Accessories?” Sure, if you have hundreds of Benjamins to drop on an accessory. Whatever, buzzfeed. When I travel, I must say I quite blend in with the other Asian tourists (thas raycess) since I swear, everyone and their mother (well, not my mom), has a DSLR these days.
As a tangent, I wouldn’t overlook the convenience of using a smaller point-and-shoot for travel. That might be blasphemous to say in the photography realm, but the first camera I traveled around with was a Nikon COOLPIX point and shoot, and it really was foundational for me as I learned how to manipulate light. Because really, in my unprofessional opinion, that’s what separates a DSLR from a point-and-shoot: greater power to manipulate what light you have. If you go this route, make sure you have some manual capability on the camera, like I did with the Nikon COOLPIX, so you start to learn about aperture and shutter speed. The reason my mom does not have a DSLR is because I got her a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas, and it was a beefed up version of my first camera. I got her the Nikon COOLPIX L830. She will be able to do everything she wants to do with it, without sacrificing quality for her purposes. There is also a semi-new product out there called the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) that is also compact, but more on that later. Oh, and one last thing, don’t worry too much about how many megapixels the camera has. Most cameras these days have plenty.
There are a lot of resources on the internet about photography. At the end of this post, I’ll list some of the blogs and resources I’ve turned to repeatedly. One caution that is nearly obligatory is, as they say: the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s only to say, you can have the greatest equipment in the world but if you are caught in a moment without it, and all you have is, say, your iPhone, then guess what? Your iPhone just became your best camera. If you’re never going to lug around a heavy DSLR, then you shouldn’t get one. Easy as that. In fact, I bought a lens off a guy I found on Craigslist. The reason he was selling all his equipment was that he had decided he really only needed his iPhone. It was the best camera for him.
Santorini, Greece. Shot using my Canon 6D and 24-105mm lens.
But back to equipment. After fiddling with my Nikon point-and-shoot pretty intensely for about a year or so,* I decided to go the DSLR route because I wanted to have more control over manipulating light. I wanted to be able to dial down the aperture (i.e. open the “eye” of the lens more) in low light situations or to capture fast-moving objects with a quicker shutter speed. Since I was shooting handheld, vice using a tripod, and since I was using natural light instead of a flash, aperture and shutter speed were big deals to me. So, I took the plunge and bought what is often considered the ideal entry-level DSLR: the Canon T3i. I got it on Craigslist. It came with a kit lens of 18-55mm; pretty standard. I never shot with that lens. If you can, just buy the body. I also found a 50mm 1.8 canon lens on Craigslist. Dame in Spain, I recommend this setup for you if you’re truly committed to learning how to use a DSLR. I still use the 50mm 1.8 lens, even though I’ve since
upgraded changed which Canon body I use. That’s because the lens is the best bang for your buck in the photography world. Yep, the whole world. I’ve entertained the thought of getting the 50mm 1.4, which is a “faster” lens (wider aperture) to yield even better bokeh (the nice blurred background effect), but am not convinced it’s worth the extra money. Notice the bokeh in the below images. On the left, I use the shallow depth of field to focus attention on the ice cold diesel coffee sitting in front of me (Canon 6D, 24-105mm lens). On the right, to make a photo of the rose garland more interesting (Canon T3i, 50mm lens).
So, to get a little more specific, the T3i is what they call a “crop sensor” camera, which is different than a “full frame” camera. “Full frame” indicates that the sensor is 24mm x 36mm, which harkens back to film days when people shot on 35mm film. “Crop sensor” is anything smaller than that. Here, here, and here are some more articles on this. The reason I went with the T3i was because of price and ubiquity. I could easily find one on Craigslist for the price I was willing to pay. I decided also to go with Canon instead of Nikon because I think at the time, I decided the lens family was one I wanted to be loyal to. This becomes important once you start acquiring more lenses.
After a while, I wanted to be able to shoot wider angle shots. Instead of buying a new full frame body, I bought the 10-22mm lens (also on Craigslist) to “imitate” the full frame. I put imitate in quotes because people are always trying to “upgrade” to a full frame because they think it’s better. I think you can make a case for either. With a crop sensor, your lenses will magnify things more, so you arguably save on that side of the equation, but sacrifice on the wide angle perspective a bit. Here are some shots using the wide angle:
In the case of the local fisherman and the boat, I was standing only a few feet away, but because of the wide angle lens, was able to capture a large swath of scenery. Had I been using, say, a 85mm lens (common portrait lens), I could have focused the viewer’s attention more on the fisherman’s face, had I wanted to tell that story.
At this time, I also had salvaged some lenses from when I was much younger, when my dad gave me a Pentax camera and some lenses to go along with that. And here’s where the * comes into play from above. The Nikon wasn’t my first foray into photography. When I was younger, I played around with an old Pentax film camera, took some classes, and still keep some of the lenses to this day. I discovered that for about $3-5, I could get an adapter that I could affix to the old lenses so that they’d be compatible with my T3i body. So, with the T3i, I was shooting with the 50mm, 10-22mm, which were both Canon, and also the 135mm and 28mm, both Pentax. I excitedly researched the old lenses one day, hoping I’d have miraculously saved, in my infinite wisdom and foresight as a child, some really valuable pieces of glass, but alas, they are just mediocre. But, they allowed me to practice with some different lenses. The reason I bring this up is to illustrate that I have tried a few more lenses than just the 50mm, but still recommend that one for lifestyle and travel photography. It’s the common photojournalist lens, along with probably the 35mm, because it lends a perspective that is similar to what the human eye sees.
So, to end this long ramble, after another year or so traveling around a bunch with the T3i and really enjoying myself, I decided I wanted to change yet again to another body and lens set, so I used a bunch of acquired credit card reward points one day on a killer deal at Amazon. I got the Canon 6D (full frame) with a “kit” lens of the 24-105mm, a lens that on its own costs over $1,000. The credit card points, Amazon deal, and money from selling the T3i body made it so that I paid around $300 for the new body and lens. Sí, es increíble. I noticed that Amazon would once in a blue moon drop its prices on certain camera and lens combinations; I lucked out and spotted this one at a convenient time. I did agonize over the Canon 5D Mark ii/i for a while, but eventually determined that, while being the popularly used camera by a lot of the bloggers I follow, the price tag wasn’t for me. Here is a set of really informative and interesting metrics on popular cameras and settings for Reuter’s 2012 photos of the year.
There are lots of other things I could go on and on about, but I think the best advice is to just get what you can put your hands on, and start taking shots and learning. The great thing that I think made me stick with photography this second time around and that alleviated some of the frustrations and patience-requirements of the learning curve when I was younger is the arrival of digital photography. You can take however many photos you want and there’s no extra cost of film development. This means you can take 10 millions shots of the same subject and switch the shutter speed or make minor adjustments to the composition or the angle you’re standing at without worrying about the cost of it all. And, on top of all that, you get instant gratification. You can immediately see how the image will look and adjust accordingly.
Hope this post helped! As promised, here are some of the blogs I’ve found helpful. I also sometimes stalk my favorite bloggers or photographers and try to dig up their tips and tricks, sometimes found in their FAQ pages, or through interviews.
Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin
Speaking of food photography, I really like the photographs by Molly Yeh at http://mynameisyeh.com/ who I’m pretty sure uses VSCO in post-processing, as well as Katie Quinn Davies’ work at http://www.whatkatieate.com/, and the dark and dramatic images at http://ladyandpups.com/. As far as coffee table books go, I found a copy of Annie Lebovitz’s At Work at a used bookstore, got a signed copy of Women of Vision at a NatGeo event, and also have Steve McCurry’s book Untold, all of which I really like.
This is kind of sparse, and does not contain everything I’ve read (obviously). In general, if I’m curious about something, I’ll look it up, and I haven’t yet been let down by crowd-sourcing the answers. “What is HDR?” for example. But Ken Rockwell’s page is great. I’ve also talked to journalists about what they use, attended events at NatGeo, and struck up conversations with photographers on airplanes. Seems like a friendly community, so I wouldn’t hesitate asking people you meet.
Above: LEFT – Tope festival, Costa Rica; Nikon COOLPIX, RIGHT – Hagia Sofia, Istanbul; Nikon COOLPIX.