I’m late posting this Friday Foto Talk, shame on me! My excuse is that I was in the woods for the last few days, away from internet and cell service. This is the 3rd in a 4-part series on learning photography. Not what to learn but how to go about it. This short series has mostly been aimed at those who have just recently begun to get serious about photography. But everyone will get something out of it. I believe every photographer, no matter how experienced, is a learning photographer. So be sure and check out the first two parts if this is your first visit.
My blog has deliberately steered clear of gear talk. I’ve talked about how best to use various kinds of lenses and filters to create various looks, but I’ve deliberately avoided brand names. I don’t believe brand has anything to do with the images you create. As mentioned in Part I, the goal is to buy just enough but not too much gear when you’re just starting on the road to serious image-making. Later on, if money permits, you can add on to your kit. You’ll know much better what will genuinely enhance your photography.
IS BRAND IMPORTANT?
Though brand doesn’t matter to the ultimate quality of your images, you’ll nonetheless need to decide what you’re going with at the beginning. Can you change your mind later and switch? Sure, it’s easy enough to sell a camera and lenses. (They go together: each brand of camera fits only lenses made for that brand, or 3rd party lenses with mounts specific to the brand.) Of course, if you change your mind you’ll lose some money buying new and then selling later. But more important than that, you’ll need to learn a whole different menu system. You don’t need to add to what you have to learn, so I recommend keeping things simple. Pick one brand and stick with that choice until you are a competent photographer (about two years).
It’s a fact that Canon and Nikon remain dominant. Sure, Sony has established itself, even among pros. Also, the new mirrorless compact format has made Panasonic a big player. But the big two are what most professionals continue to use. And they’ll be easier to sell if it comes to that. If you have plenty of dough, consider one of the luxury brands (Hasselblad or Leica). But remember, you’re just learning. Though image quality is what you’re going for from day one, there’s no need to go crazy just to produce your first 10,000 (worst) images.
If you are just now getting serious, if you are going to be jumping up from a point and shoot or your phone, you have a couple important decisions to make. First is format. You have the option to start out with the compact mirrorless format. You could also learn on a film system, like medium or large-format. I think the mirrorless format is a good option for beginners, but I’ll save that whole discussion of mirroless vs. DSLR for another post. Film has that cachet, but in the learning stage I’d go digital. Film is not dead (yet), but your learning curve will be significantly shorter with digital. The rest of this post assumes you are going with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) system.
I would seriously consider limiting your choice to Canon, Nikon or possibly Sony (again assuming you’re not splurging on a luxury brand). The best plan is to rent each for a weekend and see which you like using better. Canon and Nikon both keep their value somewhat better than Sony, a big factor later when you want to sell something. All three have a fairly intuitive user interface. All three are fairly reliable, but with any of them, you can wind up with a lemon. If you’re starting out with a used camera, your decision may hinge simply on what you can get a good deal on. Your decision will also depend on what lens lineup you like best, which brings me to…
BRAND & LENSES
I recommend renting before you buy here too. Perhaps the best option if you decide on Sony is to buy high-quality lenses made by a 3rd party which come with Sony mounts. Zeiss glass is very well regarded, but pretty spendy unless you buy used. If you decide on Canon or Nikon, you have a large lineup of lenses to choose from, lenses made by the same folks who make the camera. Expect these lenses to work a little better with your camera, in general, than those made by 3rd parties. When I say “work better” I’m not talking image quality. I’m speaking of electronics (quicker & more accurate autofocus, for e.g.). Sony has been relying on 3rd party lenses, but that includes a recent commitment by Zeiss to make zoom lenses for them. So Sony’s lens gap may be a thing of the past in the near future.
I honestly can’t recommend one brand’s lenses over the other. It is, however, widely believed that Canon does big telephoto lenses better than Nikon, and that Nikon does very wide-angle zooms better. In the middle of the range (~24-200 mm. focal length), the two are for all intents and purposes not distinguishable. Since this is where the lion’s share of our photos are taken, it really is a tossup between Canon and Nikon. Of course if you plan on getting into sport or serious wildlife photography, you may choose Canon because of its (slightly) better long glass. If you’re a landscape shooter, Nikon might be the one simply because you can get their excellent 14-24 mm. wide angle lens.
Though I’m primarily a landscape person, I don’t mind shooting Canon for the following reason: There are several good alternatives to the Nikon 14-24 mm. out there, made by third parties. And Canon itself makes two or three fixed focal length wide-angle lenses that produce the same quality as the Nikon wide-angle zoom. With landscape photography, the speed of autofocus and other electronic considerations are not as important in the wide-angle as the telephoto realms. You can even get a 3rd party manual-focus wide-angle lens (like a Zeiss) and be perfectly happy doing landscapes. Try manual- or slow auto-focus with wildlife or sport and you’re done for. So if you plan on shooting both landscape and wildlife, for example, Canon may hold a slight edge.
Now that I’ve succeeded in contradicting myself and, despite my claims to the contrary, recommended a brand (ahem), we can move on to what’s really important to a just-learning photographer. That is, what do I need to buy? Not what brand, what gear.
USED OR NEW?
If money is not a serious concern, buy new across the board. If money concerns you to some degree, buy a new camera but look in the used market for lenses. As long as you check out the merchandise before you buy, lenses are pretty easy to buy used. Cameras can be a little more iffy. I’m not saying quality used cameras can’t be had. I’m just pointing out how hard it is to decide that based on a quick examination in some Starbucks somewhere. If money is a big concern, start off with used equipment, including camera and accessories.
The reason money may be more of a concern than what you expect is that the most important factor in image quality is the glass (lenses) not the camera. Lenses are where most of your investment should be, and good glass is not cheap. You can argue that average lenses are fine to start out, but consider just one of several reasons for buying good glass to start out. When you’re trying to produce nice sharp images, it can be hard to distinguish softness related to lens quality from softness that stems from your own mistakes.
There is one more piece of gear where you need to start out with high quality. Can you guess? The camera perhaps? No, not in my opinion at least. You can get a good basic camera that is in the middle of the range and be fine. No, it’s the tripod and tripod head (more on that later). So to sum up, get a good basic DSLR to start, don’t skimp on the tripod, and buy lenses that you’ll be happy to keep using well after you’ve become good and have upgraded your camera.
CROP-FRAME OR FULL-FRAME?
If I was writing this a couple years ago I might recommend serious consideration to a a crop-frame camera, at least to start with. That’s because they tended to be less expensive than full frames, while still delivering great usability and quality. That advice is less true now that less expensive full frames (like the excellent Canon 6D) are on the market. It’s also less true because lenses continue to be designed and built primarily for full-frame cameras. Don’t misunderstand me. Most lenses can be used with either format. But since everything is at a longer effective focal length on a crop-frame, lenses at the wider end of the spectrum need to be built specifically for crop-frames; they won’t work on a full-frame.
So where does that leave us? I would make your decision based on what kind of photography you plan on doing most. If you really want to get into wildlife or sports, I’d go for a crop-frame; it will give you extra reach in terms of focal length. If you’ll be doing mostly landscapes, get a full-frame. If you’re going for portraiture, it’s a toss-up. But I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and recommend a full-frame camera if you’re not sure or you wish to explore a variety of photography. Your second camera could always be a crop-frame if you find yourself getting more and more into wildlife or sports.
That’s enough for now. I’ll continue with the all-important subject of what sorts of lenses to buy next time. Have a great weekend!