You have found the inspiration, maybe in an upcoming family trip, maybe a newborn, maybe on social media... you are ready to step up your game when it comes to capturing in digital those memorable moments in your life. You already know a point-and-shoot camera won't be sufficient and are looking for an upgrade. With so many options, where to start?
Imagine it is 4:00pm and you haven't had lunch yet when you enter a buffet restaurant and are given ONE plate. You are so hungry! and everything looks good you start grabbing food quickly filling up the plate and then you realize there's no space for the protein. Argh!
Something similar is prone to happen if you do not educate yourself on what you really want/need for your photography before stepping foot into the store. The salesperson might have the best of the intentions but they are there to sell. Your eyes will go bananas with all the cool stuff available and your imagination will run wild; believe it or not, baby steps in the right direction will take you farther away than sprints in multiple directions.
Continuing with the buffet analogy. There are stations for salads, protein, sides, and deserts and usually you choose something from each station to have a balanced meal unless you have specific dietary needs. Here too, you'll be choosing from different categories: Camera body, lenses, accessories. And let's not forget to consider your personal goals, budget, and current capabilities as you build your rig.
I am going to explain, with as few technical terms as possible, the basic categories available for the camera body and the lenses. I'll use comparisons and examples but if you are still keen on reading more technical details, I have also included some (non-sponsored) links.
Note: This is not a photography tutorial.
#1: Camera body
There are three types of camera bodies to choose from: full frame, cropped sensor, mirrorless. Most brands will have at least one model of each type however, a discussion of brands/models is beyond the scope of this article.
The most significant difference is the sensor. Wait, what is a sensor? It is a physical component inside the camera that captures the light coming through the lens and translates that information into a digital image.
1. DSLR full frame: This is our benchmark. Traditionally, the choice for professionals and committed aficionados for its image quality though it can be pricier (starting at $1,000 up to ~$6,500). The sensor is based on a mirror system.
2. DSLR cropped sensor: The sensor is also based on a mirror system but this mirror is smaller. How much smaller? it varies by brand/model. It basically means the scene captured is a fraction of what a full frame captures as if you had gotten closer to your subject. The size of the resulting image is not necessarily "smaller", just narrower by the same factor on all four sides.
Also, because the sensor is smaller, the camera captures less light and that has a direct impact on the quality of the photo, mostly noticeable in low-light scenes but fear not, the resulting image is still great quality for your social media, family albums, and even a poster print for your office.
See image for an illustration of the crop. (for technical details, check this article).
The price is attractive, as low as $600, and the quality tradeoffs are reasonable unless you are looking to go pro with low-light photos.
3. Mirrorless: First launched in 2008, this camera is based on a system that requires no mirror (surprise!) thus taking a significant amount of weight off your hands, literally. When walking for hours with the camera around your neck, every ounce counts!
Because there is no mirror, this camera type usually doesn't offer a viewfinder, wait! what is a viewfinder? I figured you would ask, so here is an image identifying the viewfinder and the LCD display. Both are used to visualize the scene and compose before taking the photo.
I personally LOVE my LCD display! It can swivel in/out/up/down and at an angle saving me lots of back pain however, the viewfinder is extremely practical because it saves me battery and avoids struggles with sun glare on the LCD.
In the last few years this camera type has gained lots of market share with amateurs and professionals alike. I have not used a mirrorless on the field yet though I've seen the work of others that use it and more than once I've felt tempted to get one myself.
Update: I had the opportunity to try out the mirrorless Canon EOS R5. Canon engineers included a digital viewfinder which works neatly. They also included a feature to turn off LCD automatically to save battery. Though weight-wise, it was about the same plus I had to add a lens port converter. I was in LOVE with its 46 mega pixels resolution. But I wouldn't recommend it for a beginner's kit, too complex and too pricey.
If you want to read more technical details and are not afraid of tech jargon, I suggest these links (not sponsored): Mirrorless vs DSLR Cameras and Cropped sensor vs Full frame just remember to come back here to complete your rig.
Once you have decided the camera body, you can start looking at specific models. Top features to consider include:
* Resolution. This is measured in megapixels (MP). Mega..what? Imagine that the photo is made up of many many dots and each dot is one pixel. The more dots, the better definition of the image thus the larger number of MP indicates a better resolution. These days you can expect a number greater than 20MP. For a good 8"x10" print, you only need 12MP.
* Shooting modes. The "auto-mode" gives control to the camera to select the best settings, it also limits your creative mind. You'll need additional modes that let you take control yourself, like the "manual-mode", "aperture-priority", "shutter-priority". Also the "Bulb" mode is handy in very specific applications with additional equipment.
* High speed shooting. A function that allows you to take many photos very quickly with a single push of the button.
* Video capabilities. Newer cameras can produce better video quality than many traditional camcorders which is a big plus to save you space, weight, and money. 4k is the maximum video resolution available today. Videos take much more space than still images which is a reason for considering high capacity memory cards.
* Autofocus and manual focus: Having both options gives you more flexibility. I struggle with the focus myself as my eye sight is not very good, so having the ability to point and let the camera focus is very welcome. The more points available, is better.
* LCD touchscreen. One would think this is standard though it is not. It is easier to use the screen to select/change settings that pushing buttons.
* WiFi connectivity. Allows you to connect to the camera via your mobile, you can control the camera settings and shoot remotely. It is also possible to download to your mobile via wifi (though it can be slow).
Did you notice I didn't mention a flash? many models include the flash, others offer the option to connect an external flash, however you won't need it much. Trust me, no flash is better than a poorly used one, there are better strategies to bring light into your image with much better results.
#2 The lenses
Most photographers (me included) will argue that any lens can be used creatively in almost any circumstance with great results. Still it is good to understand the capabilities and limitations of each. Price-wise, the range is wide from a few hundred dollars up to thousands mostly dependent on these three key attributes:
1. Focal length: Focal what? In practical terms, this is an indicator of how much of the scene will be in your frame. It is measured in millimeters. The smaller the number, the wider the captured image and the larger the number, the narrower the captured image is.
This image compares the scene captured with various focal lengths
Important to clarify: the final image is not smaller, just the scene is narrower. They all have the same resolution and dimensions.
This table summarizes the most common application of the focal length range:
Shorter than 16 mm
Longer than 50mm
Great (limited uses)
From here, we deduce that the most versatile lens will be in the 24-70mm range. Unless you already have a very specific interest, a lens covering this range makes a great first choice to get you started. A second lens, if you still have budget, can be more specific to your primary interest.
In terms of cost, the longer the focal length, the bigger/heavier the lens will be, usually more expensive too. The 70-200mm is almost double in size than the 24-70mm, that means you need to get creative to avoid camera shake (tripod, high ISO, strong and steady arms).
A longer focal length will also require more space between yourself and the subject in order to achieve a sharp focus.
2. Aperture: The most important thing to remember about this number is that it tells you how wide the lens opens to capture the light. The format is "f/number" and depending on the lens it usually ranges from f/1.4 (widest) to f/32 (narrowest), I know, this is confusing, suspend disbelief for now else it can get nasty very quickly.
A faster lens will always be more expensive, wait, what do you mean "faster"? Good question, thank you for asking. We say "fast" referring to how much time the lens needs to stay open in order to capture enough light to produce a good photo. When the aperture is open wider, more light comes in, thus a quicker "shutter speed" is needed. "Shutter speed" is the term used to say for how long the lens needs to be open.
Another property of the aperture to consider is that when the aperture is in the wider mode (say f/2.8) your image will have less depth of field, whatever is not your primary focus, will loose sharpness (i.e. will be blurry). Too fast! what do you mean "depth of field"? This term refers to the distance between the first object in your image to the last object that is still in focus. A narrower aperture (say f/10) will provide a greater depth than a wider aperture as more of your image will be in focus.
Let me give you some examples to illustrate this property:
Faster lenses (f/1.4 to f/2.8) are the preferred lenses for specific cases such as night photography, sports, and some wildlife. For everything else, f/4.0 to f/22 is a pretty good aperture range. Faster lenses are also more expensive and heavier as they require more parts unless you go with a "prime". Oh Yeah, "prime".... we'll review that term next, hold that question.
3. Zoom: The ability of the lens to change the focal length as a way to change your position relative to your subject. For example, when you go from 70mm to 200mm to get a close up to that bear on the road, you "zoom in". The opposite movement (from 200mm to 70mm) is called "zoom out".
Some lenses will loose aperture range when zoomed in. For example the widest aperture might go from f/2.8 to f/4.0 when zoomed in.
If the focal length is fixed, then the lens is called "prime". The tradeoff is that you gotta use your legs more to get closer to your subject but the lens is likely to be lighter and more affordable. However, I wouldn't suggest a "prime" as your first lens. You might want to discover your preferences and style before committing to a fixed focal length.
For technical explanations, check out this link: What you need to know before buying your first lens (not sponsored)
I am so excited you are still with me! it demonstrates your commitment and, hopefully, it also says something about my ability to keep you engaged too!
There is such a wide range of accessories, from general application to very specific uses and if not paying attention, they can easily inflate your cost very quickly. For now, let's focus on the ones that are considered must-haves in any starter kit.
* Cleaning cloth: Good maintenance to the glass on your lens is key, else image quality will start declining. To keep the lens clean from dust/mist/rain drops, use a lint-free cleaning cloth. It is so frustrating to find dirt spots in your favorite shot. An alternative option is the cleaning wipes used for glasses.
* Extra battery/car charger: It is so frustrating when the camera shuts down in the middle of your hike. It is wise to have a fully charged battery as a backup and the ability to recharge at any time. Three things drain battery fast: Use of LCD, cold weather, and long exposures.
* Memory cards: Nowadays you can find memory cards that go from 8Gb to 128Gb still two 64Gb could be better than one 128Gb. It would be so disappointing running out of space when the sun is setting over the horizon or in case of malfunction, knowing you have an extra card gives peace of mind.
* Carry case: The basic cases provided with camera/lens are great for storage; for walking in the city/hiking in the mountain you want to look into something more convenient and ergonomic that offers space to carry your accessories and you personal items (mobile, water bottle, etc.) A water-resistant backpack would be a plus.
I trust you are now feeling empowered to make the decisions needed to fill your plate properly. Just a few more thoughts before I send you off:
If you are still unsure of what your primary use will be, or if your budget is limited to get what you want, consider a rental or buy used equipment.
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE before the actual trip/event. You want to be familiar with the capabilities of the camera and with your own style. Learn where the buttons are and how they function while you also work on your compositions.
Remember, an expensive camera doesn't automatically translate to epic photos. The camera is only a tool. Your composition, your technique, and your post-processing will all influence the final output.
If you found this blog useful, consider sharing it so more people can benefit from this content and please, take a moment to leave a comment, I'd like hearing from you, what camera did you choose? What is your next step in your photography journey?