Decisions, decisions, decisions

For those of you who read my two previous posts about understanding the SLR and lenses, I hope you understand a little bit more about how cameras and lenses work. There is definitely a lot more to it, but the most important thing is to know what you’re getting before you buy a camera kit, which is the main reason for these posts. In this post I’m going to go into some details and a little advice that’s good to know before you purchase new gear.

The most obvious deciding factor when buying gear is budget. Buy what you can afford and do NOT go into debt because of me. Getting into photography definitely costs more than knitting and scrapbooking but prices on digital cameras have been falling so rapidly and the technology has improved so much in the past few years that just about any of the latest cameras will get you on your way. I am familiar with Nikon and Canon, which are my recommendation, but I am sure the other brands work well also. Whichever camera you chose, try them out in the store, check the return policy, and take it home and play with it.

If you’re just starting in photography, I recommend borrowing a camera for a day and see how you like it first. I have heard of many people who buy an SLR, only to leave it in the closet everyday because it’s too big or they think it’s too complicated. If you’ve tried one already and you know you want one, then the first thing you have to understand is where you are planning to go with your photography. If you aren’t picky and you just want a camera without shutter lag, just about any of the entry level cameras like the Canon Rebels or Nikon D40 or D60 will work for you. Don’t go crazy and think the expensive professional cameras will give you better results than these little cameras though. The more expensive cameras may actually be more dificult to learn on because they don’t have the automatic preset functions and intuitive menus found on consumer models. Yes, they are capable of taking better pictures, but only if you know how to use the camera.

For those of you who actually want to learn the artistic side of photography, I recommend what has long been taught in every photography school I know but never been to, “keep it simple.” Don’t buy the most expensive camera you can afford, but get an inexpensive one, and a nice normal 50mm equivalent prime lens. Remember what I said about prime lenses? Better optics, larger aperture, lower price. In the future, when you feel you’ve outgrown the capabilities of your camera body, you can upgrade the body and continue using the same lens. The neat thing about using a prime is that is forces you to compose your shots more creatively. You have to “zoom” with your feet, move around, get in awkward positions, and that is when you learn to see the shot before you take it. Once you have this in your head, you can learn to dial it into the camera manually so you get it nearly as you imagine it.

Why do you say 50mm equivalent? This is where things are a little more complicated. The focal length numbers were made for 35mm film cameras. So 50mm on film is 50mm. But on a digital camera, the “film” or sensor is actually smaller than the size of 35mm film (they do this because a larger sensor means you get less sensors per silicon wafer when they’re fabricated, so they take longer to manufacture and are more expensive). So what’s going to happen when the lens sees an image larger than the size of the sensor? The image is cropped. Only the center part of the image is recorded because that’s where the sensor is, meaning our angle of view has been significantly narrowed. Instead of seeing at 50mm, we’re now looking at 75 or 80mm (depending on who manufactures the sensors, they have different crop ratios, which are typically 1.5x for Nikon and 1.6x for Canon). Soooo… a 50mm equivalent lens will be 50/1.5 or 1.6, which is at about 30-35mm.

On Nikon, I used to use both the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (45mm equiv) and the Nikon 35mm f/2D (52.5mm equiv). They are both excellent choices and are very capable lenses, but the Nikon is what I still use today. However, if you get a Nikon D40 or D60, don’t get a Nikon 35/2 because it requires a focusing pin motor thing that the D40 and D60 don’t have, so they won’t have autofocus. Instead, go with the 30mm f/1.4, but be aware that these lenses have some sample variation, meaning quality control at Sigma doesn’t make sure they all function well. On Canon, you have several choices that will all work beautifully. Of course there’s the Sigma 30mm f/1.4, but if you want to stick with Canon, you have the choice between a 28mm f/1.8 (44.8mm equiv), 35mm f/2 (56mm equiv), or the expensive but really really good 35mm f/1.4L. The 28/1.8 focuses faster and more accurately than the 35/2, but I hear the 35/2 is sharper. I haven’t tried them all, so you might want to go to a local camera store and try them out yourself.

That is my basic advice when purchasing your first SLR. A nice 50mm equivalent lens will give you about the same field of view as your eyes, making the learning process more natural. It doesn’t distort perspective and angles like a wide angle or compress and magnify like a telephoto. Once you understand more about your camera and lens you can start playing with other lenses, learn how their focal length affects the image, and you can use these characteristics to create some interesting shots.

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I will need a cliff notes version of all this information for Kevin right around Christmas time. =)