Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part IV   10 comments

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado's San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

This is the final installment in this short series on learning photography.  Check out the first three posts on this topic for tips on how to make the most of your time and money when you set out to get serious about making images.  Enjoy some images from my most recent two trips.

WHAT LENSES TO GET: QUALITY

Quality is number one in the lens arena.  When I bought my first serious DSLR (a Canon 5D Mark II), I made the mistake of buying a Sigma 24-70 mm. lens with it.  I never was happy with that lens, and ended up returning it for a Canon.  Of course you can’t do that in most places, but I had bought it in Singapore.  The guys in the shop were very surprised to see me return almost a year later.  I had told them where I was from so they didn’t expect to ever see me again.  But I like Singapore. It’s a fine place to break a long flight to somewhere like India or Nepal, a convenient jumping off point for Borneo, Indonesia & PNG, and the atmosphere (and food!) on the street is great.

After some spirited negotiation, I traded the Sigma in for a Canon and from that point on stuck with quality, mostly Canon L lenses. There are important exceptions to the L rule regarding Canon.  Not really knowing Nikon I can’t say for sure, but I expect it applies as well.  There are a few non-L Canon lenses that match the image quality of L lenses.  One example is the EF-S 17-55 mm., an excellent lens made specifically for crop-frame cameras.  Another is the 100 mm. macro (the older, non-L macro).  Conversely, there are a few Canon L lenses that have somewhat lower image quality (though all L lenses have high build quality).

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

With Nikon there isn’t such a clear way to tell which lens has better build/image quality like with the red ring of Canon L lenses.  But Nikon lenses with gold rings and “ED” in their names generally represent higher quality.  Bottom line is you need to evaluate lenses on a case by case basis. Even some 3rd party lenses are worth considering.  Though I can’t vouch for any Sigma or Tamron lens, I do know they carry good models.

I can personally vouch for Tokina’s wide-angle zoom, the 16-28 mm. f/2.8, and pretty much anything made by Zeiss is quality both in build and clarity (and will put a dent in your wallet!).  Note that Zeiss has traditionally made only fixed (non-zoom) lenses with manual-focus only.  However, they’ve been departing from that practice lately, building zooms for Sony.  They may be about to do the same for Canon and Nikon.

Note that I haven’t mentioned any kit lenses. That’s because I think you should try to eschew kit lenses, even starting out.  If one comes with your camera and you’re sure you can make a little money by selling it, by all means get it and sell it off.  Or use it until you can afford to upgrade.  Once again there are exceptions.  The Canon 24-105 mm. f/4L is sold as a kit lens with their 5D cameras, and though some will argue, this is a very good lens.

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains, San Juan Mtns., Colorado

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains: San Juan Mtns., Colorado

WHAT LENSES TO GET: FOCAL LENGTH

When starting out you should probably just go for the “wedding setup”.  If you’re like me you loathe the idea of shooting a wedding (or even attending one, hehe!).  But that doesn’t mean you won’t do very well in a wide variety of situations with the lenses that most wedding shooters go with.  That is, a mid-range zoom in the neighborhood of 24-70 mm. focal length plus a 70-200 mm. zoom. This focal length (24-200 mm.) is mandatory for you to cover. You don’t necessarily need to cover every millimeter of it of course; for example, if you plan on going with fixed-focal length lenses.  But try to cover most of it.  Slightly less important (unless you’re into landscapes, where it’s a necessity) is a wider-angle zoom in the range starting at 14-16 mm. on the wide end and going up to 24-40 mm. on the long end.

Okay, that’s two to three lenses, depending on money & whether you will be doing a lot of landscapes.  I would, early on, add a fast 50 mm.lens, fast meaning one with a wide maximum aperture (f/1.8 or so).  This will allow you to shoot in low-light without spending a ton of money (50s are cheap).  If you are indeed going to be shooting indoors with plenty of portraits (such as weddings – ugh!), you’ll need to get faster, more expensive lenses.  In a zoom, this normally means a maximum aperture of f/2.8.  If you’ll be doing a lot of landscape or general photography, lenses with maximum aperture of f/4 are just fine.  I wouldn’t go slower that that except for lenses longer than 300 mm.  And I wouldn’t go with lenses that have a variable maximum aperture.  Again, this leaves out most kit lenses, most of which have variable maximum apertures.

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma

MACRO OR NOT?

Unless you’re very sure you want to get deeply into macro photography straight off, I would wait to get a macro lens. Sure, you can skip the 70-200 mm. f/4 lens and get a 100 mm. f/2.8 macro instead.  This would give you a good portrait lens and of course allow macro.  But you’re giving up the flexibility of a 70-200, particularly in the landscape arena.  Instead of going macro right away, you can instead buy a Canon 500D close-up lens.  It screws on like a filter to any lens (doesn’t need to be Canon), yielding high-quality close-up images.  It works very well with a 70-200 mm. zoom lens, and goes for about $150.

ACCESSORIES

This is where many companies have sprung up trying to cash in on the photography craze.  Resist the urge to go crazy on extras.  You will need the following: tripod, tripod head, mounting plates, backpack or other camera bag, a filter or three, camera protection and cleaning stuff.  For the latter, get a couple very good cleaning cloths, maybe a lens pen, plus swabs and solution for the sensor.  You would think all lens cloths are the same, but they aren’t.  I really love my “Tiger” cloth, a large orange cleaning cloth made by an outfit called Kinetronics.

I like this type of rail fence, not just for its looks but because it is so easy to climb!

TRIPOD

While you don’t need to buy the best there is, you do need to go with quality here.  I would strongly consider a carbon fiber model if money allows, but a regular  aluminum tripod, though heavier, will do the job as well.  Manfrotto is one of several companies with well-built medium-priced tripods that come in both aluminum and carbon-fiber versions.  Just don’t go too cheap ($150 or under).  You can easily buy several tripods, not being happy with any of them, and end up going with a good one costing at least $200. The reason for this is the aggravation that results from using a tripod that is made cheap or is too lightweight.  Better to just pony up in the beginning.  Used is always an option with tripods of course, but make sure it’s only a year or two old.

That’s just the tripod legs.  You still need to get a head, and it may be best to buy your tripod and head separately.  You can either go with a pan- or ball-head. A ball-head will enable you to quickly pick any angle and lock it down. A pan-head is better for video and for panning. Unless you already know which you prefer, I’d get a ballhead.  Again, spend a little more and get a good one; at least $200 should do it.  One with an Arca-Swiss type of clamp is best, for its ease of use. It clamps onto a plate that you mount on the bottom of your camera (or lens when using telephotos).

Get a plate made specifically for your camera and match it well to the clamp on the ball-head. The same brand for both head and plate is good but not strictly necessary.  Check when you get it that the fit is perfect; if it’s not send it back and get a plate that matches.  You can’t afford to fool around with this, since all your expensive gear could go crashing if it’s not mounted very securely to your tripod.  By the way, I use an L plate, which wraps around one side of the camera, allowing it to be mounted vertically on the tripod head.  Though more expensive than a regular plate, it is much more stable and offers protection too.

A burnished looking landscape in central Oklahoma.

A burnished landscape in central Oklahoma.

BAGS

For some reason this is the hardest thing to resist going crazy on.  I’m not generally a gear-head, but I really love camera backpacks.  If I didn’t exert serious willpower I’d own a dozen.  Unless you see yourself doing only street photography (for which many prefer shoulder bags), or something like sports (where backpacks are clunky), I would just go for a comfortable camera backpack.  Backpacks aren’t just for hikers; they allow a lot of gear to be carried in the most efficient way possible.  We’re getting into the topic of travel here, so I’ll save the discussion of backpacks and luggage for another post.

If you want to go with an optional second bag, I’d get a smaller one for those times you want to carry only your camera and a lens (or two). You could get a smallish shoulder bag, or one of the Lowepro Toploaders, which have shoulder slings but can also be attached to an optional chest sling (I use this for XC skiing).  You can get a lens case that attaches optionally to the Toploader.  Then you have camera, two lenses plus accessories in an easily-carried, protected bag.

One more fall colors shot from my trip to SW Colorado in October.

FILTERS & OTHER STUFF

In the film days filters were a big deal.  Not so much anymore, since software can simulate most of what filters used to do.  One thing software doesn’t really simulate is polarization.  So I think a circular polarizer is necessary, especially if you’re into landscapes.  You can get just one that is the size of the largest lens you’ll use it on, then get step-down rings that allow it to fit smaller lenses.  I have two for convenience.  Neutral density filters are good to have if you’re into landscapes, and they come in handy in other situations too.  I’ve already posted on these in detail.

Should you get UV filters for each of your lenses?  It depends.  They don’t really do anything except help protect your lens.  But get just one scratch on a lens and you’ll wish you had bought one.  Despite what some say, they are more sure protection than a hood (which you should also use).  The main knock on them is they put another layer of glass between you and the image, potentially impacting quality.  So if you’re going with them you need high-quality UV filters (B&W brand or better).  If you’re pretty careful with equipment, I’d probably skip them.  But if you’re like me, rough on your equipment, they may be worthwhile.

Morning light hits rose hip leaves.

There is one more thing you should definitely get when you buy a camera, and that’s protection.  First off, get something to protect your LCD display(s).  Unlike lenses, these will scratch if you look at them.  The best option in my opinion are the thin, rigid stick-on covers.  Not the flexible stick-on film you buy in packages of 20.  I’m talking about the rigid ones you buy just one of, made by GGS & others.  They’re thin & inconspicuous and yet very durable.  Some even come in a package of two, one for your main rear LCD & one for the small LCD on top of many DSLRs.  Put them on as soon as you get the camera out of its box.  Also consider a rain-cover if you’ll be shooting somewhere with a wet climate.  Even if it’s just a shower-cap &/or thick terry towel (which is what I use), always have it in your camera bag.

Do you need a flash?  Some cameras have built-in flash, but these rarely produce good results.  In my opinion you should learn to shoot in natural light first, then later on, if desired, you can learn about using off-camera flash and other artificial lighting.  If you plan, right off the bat, to shoot indoors a lot, you might want to get a good off-camera flash plus accessories to get the most out of it.  I’d stick with the same brand as your camera, but you don’t necessarily need the top of the line model.  For instance, I have the Canon 430 EX II ($250) plus a synch cord (to fire the flash from above or to the side of the camera).  I also have a hand-held diffuser and reflector.  I don’t use this stuff much, but it’s all I need for fill light plus the occasional indoor portrait.

Well that just about does it.  Thanks for sticking with this lengthy post!  I hope it helped in your quest to get the right gear (but no more), and to lessen some of the sticker shock that comes with getting serious about photography.  Have a fun weekend!

Yesterday evening I was wandering around at sunset when I saw this barn sitting quietly in the day’s last light.

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10 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part IV

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  1. What a great post filled with useful thoughts.
    Your images are so beautiful and peaceful, with lovely restrained palettes 🙂

  2. Thanks for the tips. Your photos are so gorgeous!

  3. Another great post! HMM am I crazy? I have the Canon flash 430 but I’m finding that my baby slave is just the amount of light I want in many situations lately. You made me feel less guilty about my 3 camera bags. I wanted a very specific configuration which LowPro had and I use this one most of the time. Then I got another bag so I can take my computer if I want…seldom use. Then at a yard sale I got an awesome Canon leather bag for $20 which carries camera and 2 lens which I often use.

    Annette Arnold-Boyd
  4. Good thoughts, thank you for delivering them in a neat package.

  5. Lot so useful info here. Thanks. That last photo was a particularly nice moment to come upon.

    Melissa Shaw-Smith

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