Equipment Guide: Buying your first camera


I’ve been asked this question many times, so I figured I’d just blog it. The answer to the question “Which camera should I buy?” really depends on your budget and your style. The first question may be easy to answer, how much money you have… but the second question might require some discovery. With that said, this guide is really written with a specific friend in mind but I am providing my rationale for each item I’m listing here so hopefully this will be useful anyone who stumbles upon this page**.

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I’m recommending Canon equipment here not necessarily because I think Canon is better, but because I shoot with Canon and I’m more familiar with the gear and because my friend who I’m writing this for is looking to buy a Canon. If you’re just starting off, I recommend you try out all the other brands too and see how you feel about them. IMO, a camera is a camera… but choose wisely because once you pick a platform you’ve got a lot of money invested in the lenses and probably won’t want to switch.

First, some plug:

  • Invest in good lenses first because they don’t obsolete, they keep their value and you can keep using them when you upgrade your body
  • Prime lenses are ideal for learning photography IMO. I have a post about this.

And some recommendations:

Bodies
In the digital world, camera bodies become obsolete just as fast as computers. About every 12 months, Canon announces a new model. Thus, I’d recommend saving money on the camera body now, and spending more down the road when you can truly utilize the additional features on the camera.

Some more thoughts when picking a camera:

  • Megapixels don’t really mean much. Anything over 8MP is more than fine for most things you will be doing with your photos anyway.
  • Look at the maximum ISO for the camera and read reviews on how well they perform at each ISO. ISO is the sensitivity to light; the higher the maximum ISO, the better your camera will perform in low light. A typical entry-level DSLR will have an ISO range of 100-1600 iso to 100-6400 iso.
  • Hold the camera in your hands. While I’d generally recommend buying it online because you can generally get a better deal, it’s a good idea to stop by a camera store and try holding these bodies. You’ll realize that the Rebel series have very small grips and if you have large hands you might prefer to go with the 50d.


Rebel XS – Currently the least expensive DSLR in Canon’s lineup. This will set you back around $400-500.

Rebel T1i/T2i – If you’re interested in also doing video.

50D – This body is targeted to the “prosumer”. It has many of the features of Canon’s higher end cameras, but without the hefty price tag. It also has a more ergonomic grip.

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40D with a 28-135mm lens attached.

Lenses
Some thoughts about lenses:

  • Primes! They’re cheaper and they generally produce better photos for their price (compared to zooms). One of the characteristics that you look for in a lens is the maximum aperture. That is–how wide can the opening become?
  • You generally want a lens with a large maximum aperture. The larger the opening (the smaller the f-stop number — eg. f/2.8 is a larger aperture than f/4) the more light can get through (better in low-light situations) and the more background blur you get (referred to as bokeh)
  • Why do you care about bokeh? Nice background blur/shallow depth of field is one of the things that will set your photos apart from those taken with a point and shoot camera.
  • Lenses generally keep their value, so treat it as an investment.

Some Terminology (Canon):

  • EF – Is Canon’s lens mount. EF stands for “Electro-Focus” and replaces its predecessor, the FD mount (which is not compatible with EF). The cameras I recommended here will take both EF and EF-S lenses. EF-S is a subset of the EF mount which will only work on certain camera bodies.
  • USM – Ultrasonic Motor is the type of motor used in the lens’ AF (autofocus) system. USM is typically faster and quieter than the standard non-USM motor used in cheaper lenses. If you can afford it, find lenses with this type of motor. You can tell if a lens has this feature by looking at the name. For example, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM has this feature, whereas the EF 50mm f/1.8 II does not.
  • IS – Image Stabilized lenses have special gyros in the lenses that detect movement or vibration and compensate for the shift to mitigate blur in images.
  • f/xx – The maximum aperture of a lens is denoted by f/(value). For example, the maximum aperture of the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is 1.4. Remember, smaller number means larger opening.

Prime

EF 50mm f/1.8 II – For around $100, you can get a lens that will get you very professional results. This is a prime lens so that means there is no zoom. At 50mm on these digital bodies, you’ll be fairly zoomed in making this lens ideal for portraits and still life photography. Its a great lens to start off with but if you mainly want to shoot landscapes, you may want to consider a different lens. Check out the Flickr pool to see what people have done with this lens: http://www.flickr.com/groups/99827226@N00/. If you can afford to spend a little more, go for the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. It has a nicer autofocus (AF) motor/focus ring and it has a slightly faster aperture (meaning that it can perform better in low light).


The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 is a great lens. 50mm used to be the “normal” lens on 35mm film bodies because the field of view closely mimicked the field of view for human vision. These digital camera bodies have a 1.6x crop-factor compared to 35mm film so (30mm * 1.6x gives you 48mm) which is very close to the normal field of view. I really believe that prime lenses are the best way to learn photography because you can focus on composition and exposure. This is a great lens to do that with. It has a HSM AF motor which is Sigma’s equivalent to Canon’s USM.

Zoom

If you’re going to be shooting a lot of landscape or stuck in tight spaces, you might want a zoom lens. Note that the 50d kit comes with the 28-135mm. I’ve shot with that lens for many years and I love that lens. It’s a good deal and a great beginner’s zoom lens. The other two lenses are very new in Canon’s lineup. They are a bit wider than the 28-135 so you get a wider field of view.


You’ll notice that the less expensive Canon zoom lenses have slower apertures than the expensive one which has f/2.8. If you’re going to be shooting in low light, it is best to get a zoom with a fast aperture. Also, these f/2.8 lenses do not change apertures as you zoom. The EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 will be f/3.5 when you’re zoomed to 28mm and f/5.6 when you’re zoomed to 135mm which is slightly annoying to compensate for. Essentially, this Sigma lens gives you that nice fast aperture for a relatively cheap price tag.

Telephoto

If you’re shooting sports, I recommend the 70-200mm. It is one of the cheapest L-series lenses you can buy (L-series is Canon’s high-end lenses that feature superior glass and build quality). I have shot with this lens for many years and still have not outgrown it. It produces stunningly sharp images and the AF motor is blazingly fast. If you are planning on doing portraits, the 85mm 1.8 is a great choice. It produces amazing bokeh and has a reasonable price tag.

Brian

Conclusion
Pick a body, and then pick one or two lenses to go with it. I started off with the Rebel XT. For a while my kit was the 28-135 with the 70-200. I used the 28-135 as my walk-around lens and 70-200 for portraits and shooting sports. If you have questions, want some recommendations or advice, feel free to leave a comment or email me at me at prenticew dot com.

Hope this guide was useful.

** – If you’ve stumbled upon this page some time in the future, its worthwhile to look at what’s new. Lenses won’t change very much but the camera bodies will.

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  1. #1 by Michelle Lee on August 15, 2010 - 7:49 pm

    So useful! Thanks Prentice this answers so many questions lol. :) I’ll look into it and of course have more questions. As always lol.

  2. #2 by Somjai Mahaguna on August 19, 2010 - 9:23 am

    Thanks for the excellent info. I’ll check into Canon & have AJ read your blog.

  3. #3 by Brian Ujiie on September 4, 2010 - 9:09 pm

    I’m famous! :)

  4. #4 by Brian Ujiie on September 4, 2010 - 9:11 pm

    Also, Sigma 30mm f1.4 is an amazing lens. I walk around with it more than my 18-55mm kit lens.

  5. #5 by Power Supplies on April 23, 2012 - 9:21 pm

    I want something cheap around 100 to 200 dollars and i was planning on getting a super 8mm camera because i LOVE the look they project but film is expensive especially when im using it to experiment and full around with at first. So does anyone have any alternatives? Something that can give me a great vintage look but film is much cheaper?

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