New to Photography? – which camera or lens to buy

What is the best camera or lens is like trying to answer the “how long is a piece of string?” question.

I’m often asked to recommend a camera or lens for somebody starting out in photography – I find it difficult to give a definitive answer most of the time as the choices are so numerous.

Nikon or Canon – Ford or Holden?

What camera is best is a bit like the Ford and Holden debate. You’re either a Nikon user or a Canon user. While there are other brands, when it comes to DSLR these are the two big brands.
I use Nikon, not because I don’t like Canon or because I drive a Holden, just because it was the camera I was given to use when I started my career and I’ve continued to use them for nearly 20 years.
I have driven both Holden and Ford in the past but now have a love of French cars, which is beside the point…

I have photographer friends who swear by Canon and won’t consider using anything else. Each to their own I reckon as long as you get the shot – right?

Starting out in photography can be an expensive exercise and the initial outlay can be huge if you haven’t done your homework.

The great thing is you can always add to your kit over time as you improve and develop your skills.

Most manufacturers these days have cameras at many different price-points, with 1 or 2 zoom lenses which cover focal lengths anywhere from 18mm up to 200 or 300mm. This sort of focal range should cover most people for most photographic subjects and situations.

The “disadvantage” for want of a better word with these zoom lenses is they are not particularly “fast” and don’t always have the best optics or elements. For most of us that won’t matter and won’t be noticeable, but for the serious amateur wanting to go to the next level you might consider investing in some “nice glass” and getting either a few fixed focal length lenses or a zoom with a consistent F-stop of 2.8 for serious speed and shallow depth of field.

Fixed focal length or zoom?

Again there are two schools of thought about fixed focal length and zoom lenses. Fixed focal length means your lens is 28mm or 35mm  or 50mm or whatever focal length and thats it. There is no zooming from 28 up to 50mm or vice-versa. Some say fixed focal length is old-school and the technology in zoom lenses these days means there is very little blur, quality loss or vignetting like there use to be with some zoom lenses.

I like fixed focal length lenses because I like to be involved in the shoot. By that I mean if i’m too far from the subject I physically need to move, I can’t zoom-in as this changes the focal length and therefore the effect I want. I will often change lenses 5 or 6 times during a shoot as I strive to create the image I want. I could use zoom lenses and not have to change them so often but I choose not to.

Zoom lenses are great for particular applications – wedding photography and press photography both spring to mind. Both of these disciplines often involve capturing moments very quickly as they happen and zoom lenses are ideal for this sort of thing. One doesn’t have time to fiddle around changing a lens during a wedding or a press event as the moment can pass and you’ve missed it!

You need to move fast at a wedding to not miss the moment

What do I use?

I use Nikon gear. I have worked as a press photographer and used zoom lenses, typically 18-55mm and 70-200mm both f2.8 and both perfect for that sort of work.

Now I use fixed focal length lens for most of what I do – for family portraits and commercial portraits I most often shoot with my 85mm or my 135mm depending on the outdoor location. I might also use a 24mm or 50mm to include the background into the shot.

The correct focal length can help you achieve the result you want

What should you choose?

Obviously we’re all driven by our budget so far be it for me to suggest anybody go out and spend thousands on a kit you might not benefit from.

Try to invest most of your budget in your lenses as these can last a lifetime if cared for well. Camera bodies generally don’t last forever with most DSLR’s having a finite number of shutter-releases before they need replacing. (I’ve heard it can range from 100,000 up to 200,000 depending on the brand and model)

Your lens choice will depend on what you want to photograph most. For portrait photography choose a lens with a focal length from 80mm up, to help you isolate your subject from the background, landscape photography will require wide angles, for sport you’ll want telephoto from 200mm or 300mm.

Wide angle lens for landscape photography - Bermagui Point

Then there are specific purpose lenses like macro photography and tilt/shift lenses for architecture.

Once you have your camera and lenses you can start to think about lights – speedlights and strobes. But thats for another post…

The most important thing in my opinion is to gain an understanding of what effect you can achieve by using different focal lengths. Zooming your lens shouldn’t just be about getting closer or further back from the subject, it should be about creating an image with particular subject matter and compositional elements linked to your choice of focal length.

Try to choose the correct lens for the subject and regardless of your choice of camera learn to use it, read the manual or take a course, the reward for effort can be ten-fold and your next lens or camera purchase will be an informed one.

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One Response to “New to Photography? – which camera or lens to buy”

  1. alan sadleir says:

    Excellent presentation of learning to get into
    photography. well done again Darren