For those of you who want to start out at photography, these are my suggestions on what gear you should buy, and of course subjectively-based on my (limited) experience. If you want to know more about my gear, just click on the thumbnail.
If you already have a digicam, that’s all you need to get started. There’s no need to go higher than 5 megapixels. Leave that high-pixel job to an SLR. If your camera has 5-megapixels or higher, there’s no need to drool everytime a newer camera comes out with a megapixel more camera resolution, no matter what that salesman might say. And if all you’re gonna take are family snaps or anything general, you won’t even need 5-megapixels, but if you’re looking to start out at photography and you already have a 5-megapixel digicam, that’s all you really need.
Even if you have a fancy D3, you’ll still want a pocket-able digicam for those situations where lugging around your big, bad DSLR would not be ideal. While I do recommend that you bring your main camera everywhere, the point is to always have a camera, any camera, with you. It will make the difference between shooting a good photo or no photo at all. Of course, you don’t get as much control, and a 5-megapixel digicam can only produce half of the MPs that a D200 can give, but that really doesn’t matter when I’m just printing 8x10s.
Going the SLR Way
If you’re like most amateur photographers, money is a precious rare commodity. I would recommend that if you are just starting out with photography, go buy yourself a film camera. If you buy a basic film SLR it will cost you a fraction of the cost of a D40x, allow you to hone your technique and teach you the discipline of the shot. While it’s perfectly OK to fine-tune your shot with the LCD, rich amateurs (or kids with rich parents) with a really expensive digicam can easily be spotted. And you really don’t want to fall into that same group.
Now many of you are thinking, “but I’m going to be taking a lot of bad shots, and film will burn a hole in wallet.” Well, that’s the part that will ensure disciplined shooting and making sure you know what you’re doing before you take a shot. Forget fancy on-the-edge experimental shots for the moment and focus on the basics. And if you want to save on cost, don’t buy professional film just yet, unless you’ve graduated into that. Buy consumer ISO 100 film and just shoot. Don’t have it all printed either. Just have them developed to a contact print, or better yet to a CD. A roll of ISO100 will cost you less than P100 and the CD transfer is around the same price. It will take you around at least 100 rolls of film to warrant the cost of a D40x. And that’s one roll per CD. If you have your film developed en masse, they can put 2 maybe 3 rolls on a single disc, saving you more money. DSLRs also depreciate quite quickly, and you wouldn’t to waste away your hard-earned DSLR on practice.
Time to go Digital?
Only you can decide that. If you’ve got money to burn, by all means jump right it. If not, bide your time and money and experience. The next question will be what DSLR to buy. Don’t bother asking me a Nikon vs. Canon question, I’d recommend a Nikon for personal preference.
My D200, which I bought for myself with my hard-earned money. If you haven’t read about it yet, read about my purchase here. The D200 is just a great camera to have. It’s exposure meter is great, it has a nice big LCD, controls big enough to use even with gloves, and a built-in flash that can be used as a commander unit to a limitless number of slave CLS flash units. While I wouldn’t recommend this for a beginner (you’ll be wasting your money on an expensive D200, and you’ll be wasting your D200 while learning as well), it’s a great camera for those who have had experience with film or one of it’s brothers like the D40 and D80. Heck, if you have money to burn, beginners, please buy this camera as well.
You need a tripod.
I could end with that, but I need to explain further. A tripod will enable you to take steady shots where hand-holding your camera will incur blur.That said, you need to know how to use your tripod as tool and not as a crutch; learn when to use it, and when not to. Get a tripod with a quick-release lever (most do anyway), so when the situation arises, you can quickly remove your camera and run. A spirit meter is also an added bonus. To those of you who don’t know what this, it’s that little piece of glass with water and a bubble inside to help you see if your tripod is level. Great if you have it, but sometimes it’s better to rely on your mind’s eye through the viewfinder. Whether the horizon should be level or not should be up to you. Also, weight is another consideration. While a light tripod will allow you to travel light, the heavier ones are sturdier.
If you can buy a camera kit, get a camera kit. That is, if you don’t have a camera body already. You’ll save a little bit than shopping for a separate lens. But if you already have a some lenses, don’t bother buying a kit unless the kit lens is really good (like the 18-200mm VR kit lens for example). Also, consider if the lenses you already have are compatible with your new camera body. There are some who would argue that the kit lenses suck. They don’t really suck, they’re just not good as the more expensive ones. But of course! Duh! Point is, if you already have a few lenses, you won’t want a kit lens. But if you’re just going to buy your first SLR, get a kit.
Most basic kits have these lenses, varying in degrees. Some will have the 28-85mm like my F55D film camera, while other kits may offer you 18-135mm. For starting out, there’s no need to blow your budget with more powerful kit lenses. Save it for a better investment. The wide-to-medium-zoom range of these lenses will be adequate for 80% of the situations you’ll encounter, covering landscapes, cityscapes, portraiture, still photography, street photography, basically most anything.
Telephoto Zoom LensesIf you’re into the 20% of the situations that the wide-to-medium zoom lenses can’t cover, you can get a 70-300mm F4/5.6 G lens really cheap. This is perfect for candid shots or outdoor sports, but at F5.6 at maximum zoom it will be quite slow for indoor sports shooting.
Super Zoom Lenses
These lenses cover both the aboved mentioned lenses’ capabilities, like the 18-200mm AF-S VR lens. The advantage of these is that you can bring one lens instead of two or three. But it comes at a bit of a cost. My advice, if you already have a wide-to-medium zoom lens, stick with it until you can buy one of these. If lens changes doesn’t matter and you want to go the cheaper route, go get the two lenses I mentioned above. No VR though, but you’ll have your tripod for these long zooms anyway.
A lot of people don’t like Cokin filters because they’re made of plastic, instead of glass, and as such, easy to get scratched. I say, take care of your stuff. And even if it gets scratched, it’s cheap enough to easily replace. The advantage of using Cokin filters system is that is independent from your lens diameter. With traditional screw-in filters, you’ll have to buy each and every filter for each and every lens that you own. But with Cokin filters, you just have to buy the holder, the right lens adapter, and you can use your filters on just about any lens you have.
Cokin P-Series filter holder and lens adapter ringsThis is the first thing you need to have to start out with Cokin filters. Why the P-series? Well the A- is restrictively small and will cause vignetting with wide-angle lenses and is quite limited to smaller lens diameters. The X-pro series however, is a tad too large, and much less common than the P-series. Now that you have P-series filter holder, you need to buy a lens adapter (it’s cheap) for whatever lens you have. And when you buy a new lens, you don’t need to buy your filter set all over again, just the adapter ring and the filter holder will happily slide in with your new lens.
Gradual neutral-gray Filter
When you’re going on a budget, go with a gradual gray filter. Some may argue that a circular polarizer would be more useful. Unfortunately, it’s about 4-5 times more expensive (You can buy a gradual grey, warming filter, a filter holder, and a lens adapter and the polarizer would still be more expensive). A gradual grey filter is just about as useful, and will open you up to a lot of creative possibilities. What is it use for? Say for example you want to take a picture of a beautiful coastal scene. On a sunny day, you’d normally get washed out skies and uninteresting clouds. But with a gradual gray filter, you can keep the beach at the proper exposure, while making the sky a stop or two lower.
If you have a digital camera, this will be your next filter purchase. The circular polarizer acts to block out reflections and haze from your shots by polarizing the light that goes through your lens. In simple words, your skies will look bluer, your seas will be clearer, your foliage greener, and your glasses will have less reflections. The circular polarizer also acts as a neutral-density filter since it’s about 2-stops darker.
In the age of film, warming filters was one of the more important filter considerations you’d make to make your photos richer. With digital, you can get buy fiddling with your balance, nevertheless the warming filter can still give you that extra “warm” feel if your creativity demands it. Since it’s cheaper than the gradual grey filter, I’d urge you to go get one for those just in cases.