Getting started with digital photography: “What camera and lenses do I need to buy?”

I often get questions from friends on how to get into digital photography from an equipment perspective. Here’s generally what I would share with them.

A few things to get started on terminology: There are much more comprehensive descriptions on the web but for convenience I’ll include some here. A “zoom” lens that can “zoom” from a low to a high e.g. 24-105mm focal length. Prime lenses have 1 focal length e.g. 50mm or 200mm. “f” = aperture and means how big the hole that lets light in is. Many lenses start around f4-5. This is OK but for low light you need a “bigger” aperture e.g. f1.4. Bigger = hole size, not the # – I know, kind of confusing, right? Crop vs. Full frame means you get to use more of the “wide end” of your lenses. And a more “traditional 35mm look to your photos (see this site for a detailed description).

I’m a Canon customer, but you can’t go wrong with Canon or Nikon. The competition is good as it keeps driving innovation and improvements up and cost down. Canon’s XTI and XSI ranges are worth looking at for the less expensive end of the scale. If you are after midrange you might be prepared to spend a bit more. 50D or the rumored upcoming 60D would be good. A friend just bought a 7D and loves it. I shoot the 5D MKII but you are getting "up there" with price. The 5D MKII is outstanding in low light and the 21mp sensor means you have more to “play” with if you need to crop in on a part of an image.

Lenses, which to start with? Generally I don’t recommend get a "kit lens". Rather I prefer to purchase a body only. Then spend my money on good glass. The lens will have the biggest impact on quality, and I think you will really notice it.

Why not a kit lens? While you can get very good kit lenses (f2.8 24-70mm was available with the 5D MKII “kit”) they can also be rather cheap. Included to “get you going”. While at first you will be impressed with image quality vs. your point-and-shoot or “pocket camera” the limitations of these lenses will quickly assert themselves. Plus if you really liked that 24-70mm and you sell the 5DMKII to get a 3D (a rumored future Canon camera) or a 5D MKII when it comes out or a 1D MIV (wow) then you either sell the lens to make your “used sale” complete or you sell the camera without all the parts in the box (i.e. the lens) and you might have to knock the price down a bit. Glass will outlive a camera body, remember that.

If you are just getting into digital photography I can’t recommend the 50mm lens enough. On a crop body this is 85mm i.e. “zoomed in” more. You will love the results and it will force you to get more experience (moving around) to frame your subject which will in turn develop your eye. This lens will be good for low light and indoors for all your social and family shots. I recommend the Canon f1.4 50mm which is about $300-350 and gives you significantly better low light capability than the 1.8 version. Why? Because 1.4 means it is open wider than a 1.8. An f4 is “stopped down” or closed even further. Remember those “apertures” I mentioned earlier?

To make any further lens decisions you need to consider the following question "What do I want to photograph?" The 50mm will give you great indoors shots and can be used for street photography, its light and easy to carry around all day. If you are interested in either landscapes or artistic abstraction you will want to consider a wide angle. Wide = 35mm or less on a full frame body for instance. On a crop you may like to consider the 10-22mm). If you want to get up close for candid shots without being in the subjects face you will want to consider or lenses with longer reach such as 100mm, 200mm or 300mm. Such lenses also “compress” an images elements which makes for very attractive portraits.

Do I need a zoom lens? For travel it’s worth considering weight and zooms can be great for this. I have the 24-105 f4L and it’s a great all round lens and will give you great wide on a 5D/5DMKII but is cropped (1.6x) on a 7D, 50D, XTI/XSI etc. Multiply by 1.6x for crop i.e. 38-168 for this lens. Zooms give you flexibility at the expense of image quality. This isn’t as big a problem as it used to be but it still holds true.

Far, far away? If you start to specialize in very far off subjects especially ones that are not that big, such as birds you might start to look at a “prime” (one that does not change focal length) 300mm or 400mm. These are expensive and you can rent them from local shops or www.lensrentals.com

Up close and personal. Macro lenses serve two key purposes. Firstly they can be used for photos of the very small which opens up a whole new world of photography, with its own challenges and rewards. Secondly it can be used to get close to your human subjects and really isolate specific features. The Canon EF f2.8L 100mm will go as close as 3cm versus say a 1.4 50mm which has a minimum focusing distance of a few feet!

I hope these prove to be some helpful ideas to get started. You can also consider Sigma and Tamron lenses. When you do so make sure you read some of the top websites like dpreview.com to get some perspective on what people thing of the gear. I generally stick with Canon lenses now after a really bad experience buying a Sigma, the lens wasn’t that bad but I got ripped off at a tourist trap near the Warf in San Francisco. Either way I was burned 🙂

Let me know how you get on.

P.S. Other gear you may wish to consider: An external flash will be necessary for some cameras i.e. the 5D/5DMKII. But most cameras have one built in. These vary in quality and you may want to get a modest external one that plugs into the “hot shoe” slot on top of your camera. Get a good bag – the more you get into photography the more of a habit bags can become. Get rechargeable batteries and a good charger for your flash. One for daily use, one for hiking, one for long trips… you get the picture. A “Rocket Blower” for getting dust out of your camera’s insides, and lenses. A Lens pen. A spare battery. Extra and fast memory cards. I may write more detail on these extras at some point in the future.

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