Monday, December 08, 2014

Q&A Monday: Which Camera Gear Should I Buy?

Today's question is from Sarah:

 I love your pictures and I'm getting ready to invest in another camera for Christmas. What one(s) do you use? 
 This is a bit of a tougher question for me to answer without knowing some of your criteria, Sarah.  What are your goals for photography?  Do you simply want better photos of your family and events? Or do you eventually want to learn enough to do portraits for your own family and friends? Are you on a budget?  I'll start out by sharing what I own and then I'll suggest what to buy depending on various goals.  I also want to say that though I shoot Canon and know its lineup of SLRs and lenses pretty well, Nikon is also very well regarded and has similar offerings.

Do you need the best gear?  Learning on what you have
My current set-up, which I've acquired over the 5+ years I've been doing photography, is definitely not for those who are just starting out or on a budget.  Nor is it necessary to get great photos.  I've heard from several well-known photographers that you should wait to upgrade your gear until you know what it is your current gear is lacking and what new features the gear you want will bring to you.  This really requires that you get to know the gear you have and work within it.  If you are a basic mom who shoots all your photos in "auto," it makes no sense to get the kind of gear I have because the quality of pictures I'd get if I shot in "auto" is about the same as you would with an entry-level DSLR.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of getting the shot you want, especially with landscapes, is all about the technique and the processing.  I shoot in RAW and then develop all my photos in Lightroom.

For example, here are the side-by-sides of some recent landscapes.  The first is of the Provo temple, what I got straight out of camera, then the second is my final edit.  You'll notice the first one is pretty dark.  The reason for that is that there were a lot of really bright things in the scene and I knew that if I didn't want blown out spots (parts where the scene has no detail because it is all white), I needed to underexpose.  I also knew that because I shoot in RAW, those dark portions had a lot of detail in them just waiting to be pulled out when I did my final edit.

As shot
Final Edit

This next one is from our trip to California.  The one from the camera is nice, but it lost a lot of the detail and the color that was in the original scene.
As shot

Final Edit
The same thing happens when I shoot portraits.  It sure helps to have good gear, but a lot of going from mediocre snapshot to stunning portrait has more to do with knowing how to read light, positioning, posing, and post-processing rather than having good gear.

That said, if you don't have any gear to begin with, how do you know what to buy?  To help answer that question, I'll start with what I have, then what I recommend for beginners and hobbyist photographers.

What I own & Use Most

For Professional Work and Landscapes:
Camera Body:  Canon 6D
Main Lenses:  Tamron 24-70 2.8 , Canon 70-200 2.8 L II
I also on occasion use: Canon 50mm 1.8 II a.k.a "the nifty fifty."  I did the vast majority of my photography with this lens for several years until I had the money saved up to buy my 24-70.
And for fun landscape work:  Rokinon 14mm 2.8

I'm not going to post photos taken with this set-up because honestly, the vast majority of what I post are taken with these lenses and this camera body.  I absolutely love it all and feel no need to upgrade at this point.  I only recently bought the Canon 70-200, which will probably be the most expensive lens I ever own.  It is amazing, but it it also heavy and built like a tank.  I got a great deal on it used from another photographer who needed the cash fast so he could upgrade his gear.  The only thing I may be buying in the next year is a good macro lens, probably a 100mm one.

My other set-up:
For hiking with my kids, walking around on a vacation, and other situations where it would be a pain to bring my big camera, I use my old camera with a good all-around lens.  That way, I still get decent pictures (in RAW so I can still process them the way I want) but I don't worry so much about theft or damage.

Camera Body:  Canon Rebel T1i  (This is an older version -- the T5 is the current offering)
Camera Lens:  Sigma 18-250 Macro f3.5-6.3  To be honest, this lens isn't that amazing.  We bought it because it has an amazing zoom range that means you don't have to constantly switch lenses when you are wanting to focus on something close by or far away.  It can take in a whole landscape or focus on a small bird at the end of the pier.  It isn't especially sharp or fast, but I get good results from it.  It's also my only "macro" lens, meaning it can focus when you are very close to the object you are photographing, so I use it for that type of work with great results.

My camera came with two lenses, the 18-55 and a 55-250.  Of these, the 18-55 was really soft and I prefer the Sigma.  The 55-250 was all right but not amazing.  It's quality is probably on par with the Sigma as well.

The following photos are taken with the Sigma and with the Rebel:

Gear Recommendations for those Just Starting Out

If you're just starting into photography, you'll be very happy with either the Canon Rebel Series or the equivalent in Nikon.  If you get a kit, you'll get the experience of using different lenses, figure out how your camera works and be very happy with the immediate improvement in your photography over any kind of point-and-shoot camera.

I did a bit of looking around and here are the deals Costco has:

Amazon has both cameras in various bundles.  Nikon's 3200 with two kit lenses is $500  but I wouldn't recommend this one because neither lens has vibration reduction (image stabilization). What I would recommend is one of the following:

You could also scour Craigslist, Ebay, or your local classifieds for used versions of these kits.  A lot of photographers start with this kind of entry-level DSLR and then upgrade, selling their old gear for good prices.  There's also forums on Facebook for selling old photography gear.  I'm a little squeamish about buying used from someone I don't know and I like the peace of mind of knowing Amazon or Costco will make it right if there is something wrong with my camera or lens, but if you are on a budget, the price difference can be huge.

Additional Purchases for the Hobbyist

If you simply want better photos and the experience of using a DSLR, the above will be fine.  But if you really want to learn photography and take your photos out of "auto" and into "awesome," you can spend just a little bit more and get much better results.

I recommend that in addition to the above kits, you also buy:

1.  The Nifty Fifty.  The best news is that this is the least amount you'll ever pay for a professional quality lens.  But the image quality is miles above the kit lens.  This is a prime lens, meaning there is no zooming in and out on your subject.  If you want to frame a whole family with this lens, you must step back.  If you want to take a picture of just a face, you have to step forward.  It's called "zooming with your feet."  :)
  • Canon's version is here  this is a 1.8 lens for about $125.  There is also a 1.4 version that is $400 but I don't think the extra f-stop is worth the difference in price.
  • Nikon's 50mm is here.  Same deal, this is a 1.8 lens for $150.  There's a 1.4 version for $450 but I think this one is the best bang for your buck.

2.  Lightroom (and maybe Photoshop) You'll also need, need, need Lightroom.  I would buy it even before any version of Photoshop, including Elements.  It's just the gold standard for photography processing.  You can't head-swap or combine two or more images or do the refined cloning you can in Photoshop, but it processes RAW images fast, multiple images at a time faster, and organizes and makes your workflow wonderful.  I use it on 100% of my images and then only pull an image into Photoshop about 5% of the time.

  • Lightroom can be purchased on its own for $115 from Amazon.  Photoshop Elements is $65.  From my experience, Elements does everything you need Photoshop for, for a lot less money.
  • If you really plan on getting into photography, however, it is absolutely worth it to buy the $10 a month plan from Adobe.  For $10 a month, or $120 a year, you get full access to the full-blown Photoshop, Lightroom, and Bridge.  This is what I use and I love it.  Amazon has a deal where if you sign up for a full year, you get $30 in Amazon credit.  
I hope that was helpful, Sarah.  Photography is so much fun.  I'm happy to answer any other questions about gear, technique or processing anyone might have.  

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