Choosing Your Gear
Gear can be a seductive thing for photographers. There’s this misconception amongst most newcomers to photography that without the pro gear they will not be able to make professional images. It’s simply not true.
Granted, the pro gear will give you better optical quality and perhaps more bells and whistles, but as far as image quality goes, it all comes down to how you use it to make whatever images you’re trying to make. I’ve seen photographers with the very best gear available making the most banal and pointless images and I have seen photographers using the most rudimentary gear make some of the most spectacular images simply because they knew how to get the best out of the gear they have and they exercised an often ignored or under-developed human quality, namely vision.
Unless you’re obsessed with pixels and bokeh and flare and optical aberrations, you will be quite capable of making exceptional images with even the most modest of equipment. Sure, we all want to have the very best, but getting there needs to be a carefully plotted course of needs versus wants. The trap I fell into when I was first starting out in photography was convincing myself that unless I had that Nikon F5 or that 80-200mm f/2.8 lens I would never make great photos. And so began a very long and financially crippling obsession with gear. I went from a nikon F60 to a Nikon F5 in the space of 2 years (with a lot of others inbetween). Then I decided that I had to change brands, so I sold all my Nikon stuff and bought Canon digital stuff. Then Canon kept bringing out better digital bodies and I couldn’t afford them, so I ended up selling the Canon stuff and bought more new Nikon stuff. I got poor really quickly and my photography didn't improve at all.
I was focusing more on gear and less on subject matter. And that problem dogged me for much of my life as a photographer. I was never happy with my gear. I think I am now finally at a place where I have more gear than I will ever be able to appreciate and I am very happy with it. I also find myself less distracted by the newest camera and lens releases because I am happy with what I have. I also know now what it is I want to do with the gear I have and as a result my vision is starting to come through in what I shoot for myself. As David duChemin preaches, “Gear is good, vision is better.” and that is a credo I am striving to live by these days. We have to find a balance between those things. Okay, so with all that preamble said, what gear should somebody who is new to photography be looking to invest in?
This is a very genre specific question and it’s something I get asked a lot by many people who are taking an interest in photography for the first time. I've approached this lesson with that person in mind.
The first thing you need to ask yourself is this: What types of photos do I want to take?
The answer to this question will give you a starting point on the map of gear acquisition. Most of the people who ask me for recommendations are not really serious photographers, but they would like to buy equipment that they can take on holiday, or use to photograph their kids playing sports and use without too much fuss. They don't want to know about f/stops and dynamic range. They basically want the Swiss Army Knife of cameras.
There are a lot of entry level cameras to choose from and these days there are very few being made that aren’t producing amazing image quality at a variety of different applications. I actually can’t (and don’t) keep up with the camera releases at the bottom end of the market, simply because there are new ones out every time I open my myYahoo page and look at the RSS feeds I have there from a number of camera review sites. We are certainly spoiled for choice and I suppose it’s like trying to get a handle of what new smartphone to buy these days. A minefield awaits.
For Casual Photographers
Brand wise there are the two main players, namely Nikon and Canon. Both of these companies have been around for a long time and have built up formidable lens and flash systems around their products. They have cameras at every level of user proficiency and you can go crazy trying to decide which lenses you should buy.
A lot of the lower end Canon and Nikon cameras will often be sold with bundled kit lenses, such as the 18-55mm and 55-200mm zoom lenses. I don’t have too much experience with these lenses but on the lower end cameras they certainly give you a wide range of options photographically. You get a moderate wide angle for the times you want to go on holiday and take wider shots, plus you have a telephoto lens that you can use to photograph kids playing soccer or other sports. I would happily recommend these kits to those people who are probably never going to become serious photographers, but who want those Swiss Army Knife features. The systems are affordable and you will seldom have any difficulty reselling them later because everybody knows those brands are the ones the pros use.
There are other brands to look at, including Sony, Samsung, Pentax, Fujifilm and the system I am now using, Micro Four thirds, which is supported by Olympus and Panasonic. However, apart from the Micro Four Thirds system which has models in all the user segments, the other brands are slanted more towards intermediate users and this is reflected in the pricing of those systems. There are very few sub-$1k systems available from those brands. The Sony, Samsung and Fujifilm ranges in particular are still evolving, especially on the mirrorless front, so the pricing of those products is more in the $1-2k range. There are also much smaller markets in the west for these emerging brands than there are for the two big players, so reselling could be an issue later on.
For the casual photographer therefore I would look at the entry level DSLR options from Canon or Nikon. You can build onto those systems easily and there are lots of lenses and bodies available to buy second hand.
For Serious Photographers
This is where it starts to get a little tougher to make recommendations, mainly because there are so many more options and the choice of brand and format becomes more of a factor to consider.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, I started on Nikon, moved to Canon and then moved back to Nikon, before now settling on Olympus. Somewhere inbetween there was a brief, but voracious love affair with Leica (a brand that I don’t think any intermediate photographer is going to want to dip their toes into just yet). My takeaway from using all those systems is that they all have their plusses and minuses. They all do the same thing at the end of the day too. Make photographs.
The serious photographer should have in his or her mind, before even deciding on a camera system, what kinds of photographs they want to make. This will make it easier to pick a system. Are you looking to do wedding photography? Do you want to do photo-journalism? How about landscapes, portraits or macro photography? Will you be getting into flash photography? Are you going to be printing really large prints?
All of the main systems will give you gear that will enable you to do those types of photography, so you need to look at each system very carefully and decide what is most important to the kind of work you want to do. Let’s look at bodies first.
Canon and Nikon have concentrated their camera business on the DSLR format. If you don’t know what that means, basically it is an abbreviation for digital single lens reflex. The light enters the camera through the lens, bounces off a mirror that is positioned at 45˚ in front of the sensor, is then reflected onto a focusing screen and then either by prism or other mirrors is inverted into a viewfinder that you look through to frame your photos. When you press the shutter button to take a shot the mirror flips up, the shutter opens and the sensor is exposed to light, which is then converted into a digital image that gets stored on the memory card. It’s a complex system that has some advantages, but also has some disadvantages for photography. More on that in a bit.
Within the DSLR eco-system of the two main players are a couple of different sensor sizes. There is what is commonly (and irritatingly incorrectly) referred to as “full frame” sensors, which are based on the traditional 35mm film system of old, and there are what is known as APS-C sensors. The APS-C sensors are smaller sensors that are a crop of the traditional 35mm frame. The Nikon system refers to these two different sized sensors as FX (full format) and DX (cropped format). Canon don’t bother with a designation like this, which can make it a little difficult to pick out the full format and crop format models from their lines.
Both manufacturers make lenses for each of the formats, but because both formats use the same size lens mount, it is possible to use lenses designed for the larger format on the smaller format. It’s also possible to put lenses for the smaller format onto larger format cameras but the image circle is reduced and as such the frame isn’t fully covered with those lenses. Nikon FX cameras deal with this by masking off the parts of the frame that are not covered and essentially make a photo with less pixels using the centre part of the frame. I’m not sure if the Canon system does the same thing, but what I can tell you is that there are not all that many APS-C lenses designed for serious use as there were at the beginning of the DSLR revolution when we didn’t have the full format 35mm sensors. Nikon seem to have pretty much stopped developing DX lenses and have turned their attention to updating their extensive range of FX lenses.
Nikon are also bringing out more and more cheaper FX bodies these days, so for the serious photographer I would suggest looking at the 35mm full format bodies rather than the APS-C ones. You can pick them up at decent prices second hand, especially the older top end pro bodies like the Nikon D3 and Canon 1DS. I just saw a Canon 1DS Mk3 selling locally for the equivalent of about $1100k. That’s a very, very nice camera that offers a 21MP sensor and a full range of features that a pro would use.
However, having said that, there is a benefit for wildlife photographers in using the APS-C formats mainly because you have a couple of benefits when using telephoto lenses designed for the full format on these crop format bodies. What happens is that because the crop format is only reading the central part of the image circle, the often less optically pure outer edges of the projection onto the sensor are cropped off, meaning that from edge to edge of the cropped frame you will see less light fall off and also sharper corners. The other major benefit is that you get what appears like a closer view of your subject than would be the case if you were using the same lens on the full format. In layman’s terms you get a tighter view of a subject. I will go into more detail on this in another lesson, but suffice to say that wildlife photographers prefer the smaller sensor size because of these factors.
Some DSLR’s are better at some things than other DSLR’s are. For instance, if you are aiming your creativity at the studio photography, or landscape side of things, you don’t need a DSLR that shoots at 10 frames per second or needs to track focus of low flying aerobatic aircrafts. Your needs will be perfectly suited with a higher resolution sensor that you can shoot at lower ISO values. Similarly, if you are intending to become the next Al Bello of the sports photography world you are not going to be well served with a camera that only shoots at 5 frames per second and starts producing more noise than a death metal band at moderate ISO values like 1600 (I’ll get into more detail on these issues in other lessons). These are camera specs and traits that you will need to research online. There are many, many sites out there that provide free equipment reviews. Wherever possible it’s a really good idea to rent the kind of camera you would like to use to see if it is going to fit with the type of work you want to produce.
- lots of bodies and lenses to choose from
- good resale from the main brands
- covers most photographic needs adequately
- excellent battery life
- Mostly quite large and heavy bodies
- lenses are big
- pro level gear is hugely expensive
- optical viewfinders are not always practical
- sensors attract a lot of dust
We now live in an age where mirrorless cameras have fully come into the serious photographers sphere of interest and this has sparked many an online debate as to whether a DSLR is actually advantageous in any way to mirrorless cameras. Personally I have completely moved away from DSLR’s to mirrorless cameras, but for many other photographers the mirrorless cameras don’t quite break the hold that DSLR’s have on their needs just yet. Let’s first have a look at what a mirrorless camera is.
As the name implies mirrorless cameras don’t have that 45˚ angled mirror in front of the shutter. When you take the lens off a mirrorless camera you stare directly at the sensor, which can be a little unnerving at first. The imaging process is slightly different to that of a DSLR. What happens is that because the sensor is always exposed to light and there is no complex optical system of prisms and mirrors to bounce the light up into an optical view finder, the mirrorless cameras make use of electronic view finders (EVF’s). The live view that is being picked up by the sensor is transmitted to the EVF so you are seeing a digital representation of the unfolding scene in front of your lens.
When mirrorless cameras first hit the scene a few years ago the EVF’s were not that great. They were laggy and had somewhat diminished resolution, which meant that for action photography they were no good at all. Also, the sensors relied on a different kind of technology to auto focus the lenses, namely contrast detection, whereas DSLR’s used a technology known as phase detection. The latter is much better for tracking of moving subjects. However, over the past couple of years these mirrorless technologies have improved dramatically and on the more modern mirrorless bodies the EVF quality is exceptional, as is the auto focus tracking ability.
One of the many advantages of the mirrorless systems is that they are a lot smaller than their DSLR counterparts and in the case of the micro four thirds system (the one I use) the lenses are much smaller than most of those used by DSLR’s. When you’re carrying around a fair amount of gear for any particular job this becomes a critical factor in selecting a system.
Right, so now that I have explained what a mirrorless camera is, who makes them and which one would be right for your needs?
At the present time the open standard micro four thirds system (m43 or MFT) is by far the most well supported mirrorless system available. There are loads and loads of lenses being made by many different companies for this system and there are also two main manufacturers of bodies (and lenses), namely Olympus and Panasonic. Both companies have been around for almost 100 years and have fairly diverse product ranges. Neither of them exist purely to make camera systems, their main businesses are in other industries. The m43 system is at the leading edge of most technological innovations in camera systems today, with such astonishing features as in body image stabilisation (IBIS) and multi-shot high resolution pioneered by Olympus, touch screen technology on LCD’s, wifi, and now also affordable 4K video in the Panasonic GH4. It all makes for a very enticing camera system and since I moved to it I have become a very contented photographer gear wise.
But it’s not the only system out there for mirrorless cameras. The other serious players are Fujifilm and Sony. Fujifilm have developed a very well loved range of cameras in both rangefinder and DSLR like retro-styling. The sensors are technologically different to those used in many other cameras and as such they boast superior colour accuracy and dynamic range to that found in many other systems, including some DSLR’s. The lens range is increasing gradually, plus they have excellent firmware updates for older cameras, often bringing many new features to older bodies. The downside is that because it is a proprietary system there are not that many (if any) 3rd party lens manufacturers adding to the pool of options for this system. That said, you can adapt pretty much any lens from any maker onto the Fuji’s by using an adapter. You lose the advantage of auto focus and shutter priority metering, but that seldom seems to be a concern amongst the growing family of Fuji users.
The other major name in the mirrorless world is Sony. What Sony are doing with their range of cameras is a little confusing, simply because there are so many different systems within one brand to chose from. I’m still not quite sure what lenses work with what bodies, but what I do know is that they are the only camera manufacturer (apart from Leica) to be producing a full format 35mm sized sensor in a mirrorless camera, namely the Alpha a7 range. This larger sensor means you get better high ISO performance, shorter depth of field and of course in some models more resolution. At this time there are 3 different Sony a7 models on the market, each of which is tailored to a specific use. The a7 is a 24MP, general purpose body, the a7R boasts 36.4MP resolution and the a7S is a 12MP super low light sensitive, 4K video capable machine. Each body does well in some areas and not so well in others. If you think that this is the system for you, my advice is to research each one thoroughly before making a decision. They’re not that cheap either.
- some really amazing technologies (EVF, IBIS, wifi)
- pro level equipment is much cheaper than DSLR equivalents
- smaller, lighter systems
- growing market segment with lots of interest from enthusiasts
- can adapt lenses from any system for use on mirrorless bodies
- dust is less of a problem
- autofocus tracking not as good as DSLR's
- battery life is not as good as DSLR's
- resale value is poor
- some systems don't have a full range of accessories
- professional backup not as tight as it is from Nikon and Canon
DSLR vs Mirrorless: which one is right for me?
This is a personal thing. The only person who can answer this question is yourself.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this lesson, the most important thing to consider before deciding on which system you want to make your own is to nail down what kind of photography you want to do and then find the system that works best for that type of photography. Each available system has it’s own pros and cons for each type of photography, so you need to know what you want out of it before you go and lay down your money. Research, research, research! Ask me questions. I’m here to help you find your way.
As I wrap up this first lesson what I’d like to re-iterate is that once you have chosen your gear, please go out and shoot the daylights out of it. Don’t sit indoors on forums and blogs comparing your shots to those of other photographers using different gear and then surmise that you can only get the same shots if you change your gear. Change your attitude instead! Shoot every day and grow your vision. Learn all your camera’s functions, even the ones that you don’t think you’ll ever use. Make the camera an extension of your body. Make sure that driving the camera is as easy and natural as walking and chewing gum for you (I’m assuming that you can do those things!). The famous golfer Gary Player has a saying that I am somewhat fond of. He says “The more I practise the luckier I get.” It’s true for everything. Repetition is the foundation of excellence.
In the next lesson we will start to look at lenses and what you should be looking to invest in when you’re starting out.
This articles featured image is from:
Edited by Dallas