The Best Camera in the World
Regular readers will remember that I had a bit of a rant last week about the choices some people make buying a DSLR camera for the first time, specifically the focus on an advanced camera body at the expense of the lens. I promised to explain why it is that those cheap bundle lenses are worthless and that’s exactly what I’m going to do today.
Of course, just telling you what not to buy is not that helpful, so my plan is to also give some recommendations of good choices to make. Ultimately, as I said last week, the best camera in the world is whatever you have with you at the time, because the gear alone does not make a photographer. It does help, though.
Buying a DSLER Camera – The Importance of a Good Lens
The most common mistake new photographers make is buying a DSLR camera body bundled with a cheap lens. You could argue that a good bargain is always a good thing and you would be entirely wrong. When I bought mine, I got a Canon 400D body only and saved the small amount extra I would have paid for the bundle lens, putting it towards a good lens instead – a Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8.
I did this because the lens is the most important part of the camera. The quality and number of the glass pieces inside it make all the difference between a good, clear photo in any conditions and a rubbish picture in all but perfect lighting. It is the light which is passing through this glass which creates the picture. The way to tell a good lens is that it should have fewer and larger pieces of glass in it. It should be big, heavy and expensive.
When you are shopping for a lens, there are three numbers which you need to look at: the focal length, the aperture and the price, in that order.
Buying a DSLR Camera – Focal Length
You first need to decide what kind of lens you need, depending on what kind of photography you are going to be doing. Different styles demand different lenses. If you are doing wildlife or sports photography, your subject is further away and you will need a longer focal length – 200mm to 300mm – in order to make the subject appear closer. If you are doing events, street and portrait photography, you generally want a shorter lens – anything from 10mm to 135mm.
The focal length which has served me the best is the 18-50mm range. Most bundle lenses have this range for the simple reason that it is the most versatile. It covers most situations which you may wish to photograph, so long as they occur at close range. I would strongly recommend this to be the focal length of your first lens.
Buying a DSLR Camera – Aperture
When you’re considering the focal length first, the temptation is to buy an 18-250mm lens, on the basis that it covers the full range. The problem is that it covers it badly. Rather than doing one thing well, it does a lot of things poorly, and the quality of your images will suffer as a result. You look to the aperture number to show you how good the lens is. This is the number after the ‘f’ along the side of the lens.
Let’s use an example: PowerBuy is currently selling the Canon EOS 70D body with a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens for 41,900 baht. This lens will only be able to achieve an aperture setting of f/3.5 at 18mm focal length, with the minimum figure rising to f/5.6 as you move up towards 55mm. This is defined as a “slow” lens. Compare that to my Sigma lens, which can stay as low as f/2.8 along the whole range. That’s a “fast” lens.
Yes, that paragraph was a meaningless mess of figures and jargon. Some of the translation will involve explaining quite complicated aspects of photography, which will have to wait for another post, but the short version is that aperture is one of the settings which controls how much light gets to your sensor, creating a clear image. If the figure is higher, it means less light is getting through. In order to get a properly-lit, clear image, you have to increase the amount of time the sensor is exposed by slowing down the shutter speed – hence, a slow lens.
Buying the bundle effectively means that you can only use you camera on sunny days for outdoor photography. If you try to use an aperture setting of f/5.6 in a dark room in the evening – such as for events photography – your shutter speed will have to be really slow to compensate. The slightest movement could become motion blur in your image, meaning that you won’t be able to use your camera without a tripod and then only if you’re taking a picture of inanimate objects.
As a rule of thumb, I try to stick to lenses that have f/2.8 aperture along the whole focal length, ensuring that I can use them in any conditions. Aperture settings have other effects on your image, which I will go into later, and having the ability to play with those effects is another bonus of fast lenses.
Buying a DSLR Camera – Price
Unfortunately, a result of paying close attention to the speed of the lens is that the prices rise exponentially. I recently saw a funny image on Facebook, showing a Canon camera and the dozens of lenses you can buy. The caption read: “Teach your kids photography and they’ll never have enough money to buy drugs”. It is funny because it is so very true!
To give you an example, my first camera body – the Canon 400D I mentioned before – cost me £400 in 2005. The Sigma lens cost £600, and that was a bargain. The Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens I bought next cost me over £1,000. Starting my camera kit cost me two thirds of my student loan allowance for one year. On the bright side, if you look after them, there is no reason why you should ever need to replace a good lens.
There are things you can do to mitigate the cost a little. While Canon lenses would be the best for my Canon cameras, third-party lenses do work very well and are much cheaper. Sigma and Tamron are both good, but some people have complained that the quality of construction is lower with Sigma (including me, because both of the aforementioned lenses have had problems). You can also buy second-hand and, so long as the lens has been looked after well, you could find some good bargains.
Canon vs. Nikon
If you want my advice when it comes to buying a DSLR camera body, you are wasting your time. The top manufacturers are Canon and Nikon and there is virtually no difference in quality between the two, despite what anyone says. Some of the others are catching up, including Sony and Fujifilm. Beyond that, it is purely a question of taste. I only chose Canon because the person who taught me used Canon, which meant I could borrow their lenses.
As for recommendations when buying a DSLR camera on specific models of body, anything I type now will be out of date within the year as newer versions are released. Ultimately, it makes no difference. The more expensive models have a few higher shutter speeds or ISO settings, a greater number of frames per second on continuous shooting mode and a faster processor, all of which can help, but the impact on the quality of your images is limited.
To put it in perspective, I have two Canon camera bodies: my now rather aging 400D and a second-hand 500D. Both are far from the “professional” level cameras such as the 5D and 1D. Both are no longer even in production – they are, effectively, obsolete. However, they both still work (most of the time) and, if I stick a good lens on the front, both are still capable of producing great images.