Just some random thoughts for people deciding to get more into photography and not knowing much about the gear involved. Keep in mind that once you have some basic equipment to capture quality images (try making a large print of an image taken with a cell phone, it won’t be pretty), you still need to know how to use the gear to make a quality image, and you need to decide what pictures to take. Just because you change your camera doesn’t mean that your images will suddenly be better than the ones you were taking with a cell phone or point-and-shoot camera. You need to study the craft; learn how to work with flash, learn computer editing techniques, get comfortable with hyperfocal distances or bokeh, etc. You also need to be creative and create images that are different or that tell a unique story. You’ll notice that I don’t talk about brands in this article, because it doesn’t matter too much; you’ll get a good image out of most of the major brands. One of my favourite photography quotes:
Chef to Photographer: “Wow, that’s a nice photo, you must have a really good camera.”
Photographer to Chef: “That was a great meal, you must have a really good stove.”
- Lenses – This should be your first consideration as it’s probably the most important. I still remember going for coffee with a well known photographer for advice and, among many other things, he said “Most of the bodies from the major manufacturers are pretty good these days, it doesn’t really matter which one you get. But get the best lenses you can afford.” You’ll often go through many bodies in your photo career but your lenses will be with you for a while. So…How many lens choices does your brand have? Do they get good reviews? Does the brand you’re considering have specialized lenses for the type of photography you like to do? Are they sharp in the corners and…do you even care about the corners? Are they weather sealed? Are they lightweight? Do they have the same filter size so you don’t have to mess around with multiple filters or adapter rings?
- Zooms vs. Primes – This section won’t be too conclusive; this topic comes down to personal choice. Zoom lenses are really convenient and have really great quality these days. But, primes (lenses with a single focal length) still usually have better image quality. I’ve shot with zoom lenses for most of my photography but recently I got a prime, a Voigtlander 15mm lens for my Sony. It is fully manual, I have to set aperture and manually focus it, which is a bit of a pain. But, the quality compared to the widest end of my Canon 17-40mm is much better; the corners are sharper and there is much less distortion. Zooms can save you from having to carry a bunch of primes in your bag, but keep in mind that primes can be pretty light. Also, if you need a high aperture lens, primes will be lighter than a high aperture zoom. When travelling, people will often take a light zoom or two and throw a light high-aperture prime in their bag for those situations that require it. Keep in mind that some prime lenses are manual focus only, which isn’t for everyone.
- SLR vs. Mirrorless – People often ask me which camera to get when they’ve decided they want to get more serious about their hobby. I often point them to mirrorless as I think that is the future of cameras and I love their lightweight nature. People think that a big impressive looking camera is needed but it doesn’t really matter, unless you need to project a professional image (showing up to shoot a wedding with a tiny camera doesn’t really instill confidence in the client). Those small mirrorless cameras often have the same sensor inside and they’re half the size and weight. Many people like the electronic viewfinder instead of the SLR’s viewfinder, which is looking through the lens, because you can see what the image will look like before taking the shot (in many cases) and you can see the photo without having to look at the screen on the back and possibly miss the next shot. Focusing speed can come up in discussions too, but mirrorless are almost as good, they’re getting better every year, and for most people they will be good enough. A thing I don’t like about mirrorless is that the sensor can get dust on it more quickly than SLRs because there is no mirror in front of the sensor keeping the dust away.
- Weight – This has become a key issue for me lately. I’ve been on multi-week trips in hot countries and carrying the gear around all day really wears on you. Plus, if something is big and heavy you won’t take it with you as often when you head out the door. Keep in mind that it’s not only the camera body to check but also the lenses. And, if you’re doing sports shooting or low-light shooting, you’re going to want high aperture lenses than are significantly heavier than lower aperture ones. Recall the mirrorless paragraph above as low weight is one of their strengths, but the advantage is a bit lost if you put a huge lens on it. It’s a mystery to me when people complain that something like the tiny mirrorless Canon M3 doesn’t have enough large aperture lens options. Those lenses already exist for their SLR cameras; those people should either use an adapter and put one of those big lenses onto the small mirrorless body, or they can just use one of Canon’s lightweight SLRs. Also keep in mind whether or not you need your gear to be built like a tank. I had Canon bodies in the past which were built for really heavy use, but it was a lot of extra weight that I was carrying around for nothing; I don’t bang my gear around and I don’t shoot in rain or sandstorms.
- Megapixels – If you’re only going to be posting/sharing/selling images for use on a computer screen it doesn’t really matter too much. When you’re printing you want more pixels. Don’t believe the people that do pixel calculations by dpi (dots per inch) and conclude that a 20 megapixel camera can only print up to a relatively small size like 13×19 inches. I’ve made nice prints from low megapixel cameras. And regarding 20 megapixels specifically, I’ve made 40×60 inch prints and the printer said I could have even gone larger if their printer was bigger (it was a full frame camera though). But, the more megapixels you have the more you can crop, and the less you have to worry about how a large print will turn out. Plus, the industry keeps advancing and editors may request higher sizes as more megapixels become the industry standard. Keep in mind that many editors will want a minimum number of megapixels; if you have less than 12mp you will probably have issues.
- Sensor Size – When I switched to a full frame camera I remember wishing I had done it a long time before. To me the pictures look much much better. I even have trouble shooting with my APS-C sized sensor when I go on vacation because the photos don’t look nearly as good. I find the image is much cleaner, detailed, and vibrant. Noise will be the biggest issue, which can affect sharpness, but this is when editing and zooming in on the image; when looking at a small size or not zoomed in the pictures can look good enough. Keep in mind that the depth of field can change between sizes; basically, the smaller the sensor, the more depth of field you get. So if you’re doing portraits, a bigger sensor will help you blur out the background, and if you’re doing landscapes you can get nice sharpness from near to far with a smaller sensor. But, usually landscapers want to be able to print big, and a bigger sensor gives better quality for this. Also, keep in mind that a larger sensor will require a larger camera and also larger/heavier lenses.
- Sensor Performance – This is another aspect of the sensor; not just its size but how well it performs. Recently, most sensors will be good enough. But just a short while ago (I’m referring to Canon’s previous generations of sensors) this was a big deal, especially for landscape shooters. You want to have good dynamic range, which is the difference between the bright areas and the dark areas; some cameras can keep more detail in those areas than others. You also want good shadow recovery, which is important when there is a high contrast scene and you want to underexpose a bit to keep detail in the bright areas and then brighten the dark areas when editing. This would happen a lot with sunrise/sunset shots, or weddings when you have a bride in a white dress but a groom in a black suit. The problem is that brightening dark areas introduces a lot of noise (noise is like grain in film), but some sensors are better than others. When I switched from a Canon 6D to a Sony A7R2 the difference was like night and day in terms of shadow recovery; but now the new generation of Canon sensors have gotten better. Also, an anti-aliasing filter can be a consideration. This is a filter put over the sensor avoid moiré, but it makes the image less sharp. Moiré can be seen in close parallel lines and fabrics. This is a personal preference on what you want and is based on what you shoot. I shoot landscapes, so moiré isn’t a concern, but a wedding photographer might want that AA filter. Apparently, as you get more megapixels in the camera moiré isn’t as much of an issue.
- Features – Keep in mind that there is more to the camera than just the sensor. For example, there’s an Olympus mirrorless camera that just came out using a micro four thirds size sensor, but it costs over $2000 because of all the features it offers. You may want to shoot action scenarios and will want really fast focusing that can follow a moving subject, combined with a high amount of frames-per-second shooting speed. You may want to do landscapes, where frames per second don’t really matter to you much, but you’d want it to be able to focus well in low light. Maybe you like to do video and would want a touch screen (for easy focusing) which can be moved around so you can see what you’re filming if you’re in front of the camera. Maybe you shoot weddings and want a quiet camera that is fairly good at everything. Or, you might just like the grip and button layout of a certain camera and want to be comfortable shooting with it for long periods of time.
- Tripods – I do mainly landscapes or architecture shots and I use a tripod for about 99% of my shots. Something I’ve learned over time: don’t get the cheap ones from Walmart. Get a decent one and it will last a while and be much nicer to work with. If you need a light weight one you can get a carbon fibre tripod (expensive) or a small tripod for travel. Also, get a ball head, it’s so much easier than the pan/tilt heads with three different handles to deal with (but sometimes I’ve wished I had a pan/tilt head in order to shoot a vertical panorama).
- Filters – Again, get decent ones. You don’t want to get a nice lens with great, sharp glass and then put mediocre glass in front of it. If your lenses all take the same size of filter that would be great. You don’t need most filters, but the ones that you should probably get (at least for lanscapes) are a polarizer and a neutral density (“ND”) filter. The polarizer will minimize reflections, saturate colours, and help separate clouds from the sky (deepen the blue of the sky). Be care though that your skies don’t end up looking weird when you’re using a wide angle lens. The neutral density filter slows down the shutter speed so you can do interesting things with subjects/elements that are moving. You can approximate this by taking multiple shots and combining them with software, but that’s up to you if you want to do that. Landscapers might also want graduated neutral density filters (“grad” filters). These are half clear and half shaded, which help you tame high contrast scenes. You can try to deal with these scenes with HDR photography (taking a dark, medium, and bright photo and then combining them in software) or by having a sensor that can handle a high contrast scene. With all filters you should check reviews ahead of time to make sure they don’t add a colour cast to your images. For example, my current ND filters make my photos a bit purple. The standard for quality filters seems to be Lee filters, they’re good, but you pay for it. Also, keep in mind that if you’re shooting toward the sun you’ll probably want to take all filters off or you’ll get flare.
- Bags – You’ll probably want a big one to hold all/most of your gear but also a smaller one for when you just want to go out and keep it light. For travelling I prefer bags that look run down and have no logos. I’d recommend that you go on ebay and get a canvas messenger bag and a padded camera insert (check the measurements to make sure it fits). If you need to get to your camera quickly you should do a messenger bag or a sling bag. Both can cause problems over time because they use only one shoulder, but at least you can switch shoulders with the messenger bag. If you have a lot of stuff you can’t beat a photography backpack. I would recommend one where the access is through the side that sits against your back; that way you can put it down on a dirty/wet surface if necessary and not have to worry about your back getting dirty/wet when you put it back on. Also, check if it has a rain cover included. If you get a canvas messenger bag you can get a waterproofing spray.
- Memory Cards – Get a respected brand name, for reliability; you don’t want to lose your shots, especially after shooting a wedding or being on a once in a lifetime vacation. I don’t usually get really big cards, just in case it fails; I use many smaller ones. Another consideration is the cameras that have two memory card slots. Some use one for stills and one for video, some use one for RAWs and one for JPEGs. You might be able to use one as an exact backup of the other, just in case, but I’ve never had a dual slot camera so I’m not sure on the settings available. Other than reliability and size, another issue is speed. If you have a higher megapixel camera it’s nice to have a faster card so you don’t have too much downtime. You’ll have the card for a long time so it’s not a big deal to spend $10 more for the faster card; you’ll be glad you did.
- Review sites – Below is a list of some gear review sites that I think are really good and use regularly. Also look on youtube for reviews by Tony Northrup, Dustin Abbott, or Christopher Frost (lens reviews).
That’s about it for now. As usual, feel free to send me an email if I’ve missed anything, I’m at email@example.com.