It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but every so often I actually do manage to take my own advice. Case in point came over the weekend while shooting a play that a friend of mine directed. Not knowing where I’d be able to find seating, and wanting a degree of flexibility in my shot options, I decided I’d pack the camera with the 28-300mm lens attached. All done, right?
Even when I’m traveling light — body, one lens, small bag — I try to be careful not to travel too light. My D600 has two SD slots (each of which usually has an 8GB card in it). My battery, rated for 1,500 shots or so, had been charged that morning. And with an all-in-one lens, it’s not as though I needed to carry my big bag, with my other four lenses. I could easily have shot the entire evening on just two memory cards and called it a day, in theory.
That’s all well and good, except that at some point, theory collides with practice, and that’s when things start to get hairy. In this case, things getting hairy involved my first memory card flashing an error message about fifteen minutes into Act One. Luckily, I hadn’t packed only the camera, lens, and monopod; I also had a spare battery, four spare memory cards, and a cleaning kit. I was able to pop out the defective card (which at least retained the shots I’d already taken, even though it’s now dead as a doornail), put in another, and continue shooting.
I understand as well as anyone that camera gear is bulky, heavy, and sometimes quite literally a pain in the neck to lug around. I don’t necessarily suggest carrying every last piece of your kit everywhere you go. There are times you just don’t need everything. At the very least, however, make sure you have enough. Have “spares,” whether it’s an extra lens if you’re shooting somewhere hazardous (if you fall and clobber one lens, you’ve got something else to shoot with), an extra card (because they can, and do, fail) or a spare battery, even if you’re in the habit of keeping them fully charged (if you’re shooting in the cold, your battery life shortens markedly; you can warm the battery back up in a pocket, but you’ll still need something with which to shoot in the meantime). Cleaning supplies are also a must; it doesn’t even have to be an elaborate cleaning kit. Just one of those lens cloths in a neoprene pouch can be a lifesaver if your lens gets smudged, or if your glasses get so filthy that you can’t see the viewfinder properly.
How ’bout you? What are your absolute essentials when you’re traveling light? Have I left something out? Sound off in the comments!
Probably not for the last time this year, I’ve fallen short on my own project, which was to shoot one photo per hour today. The point of this exercise — which I’ve actually done at other times, and will likely revisit at some point soon — is to get you in the habit of shooting. Nothing more, nothing less. On Day 8, we’ll start getting a bit more specific about elements of photography. Stay tuned!
Today’s assignment is to find something in transition, or that will soon be in transition, and to photograph it. You’ll come back to it later this year for an “after,” though you may also want to revisit it periodically at other times of year to chart its progress. I’ll confess that I’m using a photo from November for my Before in this instance; it’s from the boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, and reflects what a part of it looked after Hurricane Sandy.
If you’re reading this right now in the Northern hemisphere, odds are better than even that it’s flippin’ cold out; if you’re reading from the Southern hemisphere, bookmark this and save it for a rainy (or rather, freezing) day and come back when you need it. Today we’re going to talk about one of the most fundamental things for cold weather photography: keeping your hands toasty, since nice gear doesn’t count for much if your digits are frostbitten.
There are quite a few options when it comes to gloves for photographers; I’ll be listing a few and discussing the pros and cons of each.
Let’s start with Thinsulate gloves. These are great when it comes to keeping your hands warm in cold weather. When it comes to shooting? Well, now, that’s something else again. Thinsulate’s great when it comes to keeping the cold out, but it can also feel like your hands have turned to sausages. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel the controls under your fingers, and equally difficult to finesse things like function keys and touchscreens. Even gloves that are designed with fingertips that can work with touchscreens tend to be a bit too bulky to ensure getting it right the first time, and if you’re trying to catch a skittish deer or a bird in flight, you really don’t want to miss the shot because your gloves decided you’d rather adjust your white balance than, say, your exposure settings.
Another option are gloves or mittens that allow you to remove the top portion to leave your fingertips exposed. These work fine in principle, since it leaves your fingers free to manipulate dials and buttons. Problem is, you end up either having to yank them off every time you want to shoot or change a setting, or you just say the hell with it and leave that part off, in which case you’ve got cold, numb fingers. That won’t do either.
So you can try thin leather gloves. Some are insulated, so they’re warm. They’re also thinner than many cloth gloves (though they can be stiffer in some cases), but they can still be clunky and stiff unless you’re dealing with driving gloves, which aren’t particularly practical in the cold. So leather also may not be your best bet.
What to do? There are photographer’s gloves out there, but like everything else marketed to photographers, some can be a bit pricey. Luckily, unlike some things made for photography, you’ve got good — and inexpensive — alternatives. Case in point: a pair of Hatch Specialist all-weather shooting gloves that I recently received for Christmas. They’re designed for hunters and law enforcement. It’s a different kind of shooting, but the principle’s the same when you get right down to it; you need the gloves to keep you warm, but otherwise, you need them to stay the heck out of the way. The gloves I’ve got perform pretty well in both respects. They have a degree of touch sensitivity that allows me to be a lot more confident when I’m changing settings on the fly.
Three cautionary notes about these gloves: first of all, I don’t know where they get off calling these “all-weather.” Granted, they’re water repellent (not waterproof) and warm, but not quite as warm as my bulky Thinsulate gloves or my nice Isotoners (one or the other of which stays in my jacket pocket for the times when the camera’s not out). The Neoprene material feels like it’d likely be sweaty on a hot day, though at that point you’re not likely to need gloves for photography anyway. The palm and finger surfaces of the gloves also conduct cold. The other evening, shooting in what felt like low 30’s/upper 20’s (Farenheit), my hands and fingers stayed warm enough, at least until I had to actually use my camera, or open doors; in both instances, the rubberized parts of the glove reminded me in no uncertain terms that I was gripping something cold.
Second, regardless of the type of gloves you decide to use, make sure you wear them. Cold temperatures, especially if you factor in wind and/or precipitation, can do a number on your hands. No matter how good a day’s shooting you have, it probably won’t compensate for things like frostbite or nerve damage. Third, make sure the gloves fit. If you’re doing something — like shoveling snow — that doesn’t require much dexterity, a little extra bulk or tightness isn’t a terrible thing. But when the whole point of a particular pair of gloves is to make it easier to get your digits where you want ’em, even the right glove in the wrong size isn’t going to be your best option.
Any other suggestions or input? Sound off in the comments section!
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It’s easy for us to convince ourselves that our photography’s just plain awful. There are times — at least on a picture-by-picture basis — that this is true; after all, none of us, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, does our best work 100% of the time. The point to today’s exercise was to shoot something awful on purpose. It’s a reminder that being truly terrible takes hard work, and that as long as you’re always improving in your craft, there’s no reason to be down on yourself or your photography.
Happy Saturday. I’m a bit late posting today’s assignment, having spent an evening shooting. That’s okay; today’s assignment is/was an easy one… you can photograph any old thing you want. Now enjoy your weekend (don’t forget to come back for tomorrow’s assignment) and get out there and shoot!
No matter how much you love photography — and I like it quite a bit — there are days when you really don’t want to leave the house. Maybe it’s snow, rain, 90-degree heat, or it’s just not a fit night out for man nor beast. The challenge on days like that can be finding something, anything, to shoot. So try the view from your window, and see where going nowhere takes you.
Let me preface this by saying that I intensely dislike having my photo taken. And taking my own photo seems even worse in some way, because… well, it just seems odd taking your own picture. Or maybe I’ve just been on Facebook for too long, and have seen too many silly shots of people with serious duckface, or too many half-assed shots in mirrors. So I’m not sure how I’m going to convince myself to take my own photo for the next twelve months (I’m stubborn even when I’m talking to myself). But I’ll worry about the next one next month.
A Little Inspiration:
Some time ago, I did a short tutorial on shooting self-portraits, and you can see that here. If you’d like to see a photographer who’s raised the self-portrait to an art form, Cindy Sherman would probably be the sine qua non.
Today starts the first month of the First 10,000’s 2013 365 Day Project. Since that’s a bit of a mouthful, from now on I’ll be referring to it as 10,000/365.
Last year’s project was a bit of a mess. I had the bright idea of starting off mid-year, which didn’t work too well; the fact that the project itself had no logical order probably didn’t help matters much, either. So this time out, I’m starting on January 1, and also organizing things in a way that will hopefully be a bit easier to follow. The first month’s projects will be geared toward photographers who are just getting started, or toward photographers who’d like to brush up on their fundamentals. Each exercise will give you a fragment of your camera’s capabilities to work with, so that by the time the month is out, you should be pretty comfortable with it, and how it works. When next month starts, we’ll be delving into some fundamentals of composition and finding your own visual “voice” and style.
But for now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Below this post, you’ll find the first day’s assignment. If you’d like to see what’s ahead, you can head to the project page. If you’d like to share with others who are doing the project, head to our Flickr group page. And if you have questions or suggestions, contact us. Meantime, let’s get shooting!
Let’s get started. On the first day of the project, I’d like you to choose a landmark and make its picture. Choose carefully, because you’re going to be shooting the same place on the first of each month for the next year. Sound intimidating? Don’t worry; see this — and each of the next 364 days’ projects — as a challenge, or better still as an invitation to stretch out. How many angles, times of day, and details might you be able to wring out of a single subject? Well, you’re about to find out.
A little inspiration:
Claude Monet painted a famous sequence of paintings of the Cathedral at Rouen, France. You can read more about that, and him, here. Photographers have also revisited the same landmark from time to time throughout their careers, as Lewis W. Hine did during the construction of the Empire State Building. The George Eastman House holds much of Hine’s work, and has made it accessible online here.
You’ve been to the camera shop, bought your camera, gotten it home, and unboxed it. It still has that new camera smell, even. So, stick the battery on the charger, wait two hours, and you’re good to go, right? Well, not exactly. Your camera probably comes with a quick start guide, which will tell you not to charge your camera in the bathtub or put saltines in the SD slots. Anything beyond that, you’ll need the manual. The only problem is, if it’s your first time with an SLR, it may take a while for you to figure out what you need to set up for optimal performance; it’s a challenge finding something when you didn’t even know you needed to look for it. To save you some time, I’m going to give you a list of things you can do to make sure your camera’s ready to give you its best shot.
Now, granted, you can get acceptable photos on an SLR straight out of the box. As long as there’s a lens on it and it’s turned on, you’ll get a photo of something if you point the camera at that something, focus, and press the shutter release. However, something with as many options and controls as an SLR has needs to have some kind of factory default settings, and “one size fits most” just might mean that you’re that guy or gal who falls outside of that “most.” Let’s take a look under the hood at some of the more common camera settings that you might want to tweak.
Firmware Update: This should always be your first step with a new camera, and it’s not a bad idea to check periodically after that. The firmware is the software that runs your camera. Whether your camera’s a relatively new model or it’s been on the market for a bit, go to the manufacturer’s website and search for firmware updates. You’ll find an option in the menu to view the currently installed version of the firmware. Compare versions; if the numbers match, you’re good to go; if, on the other hand, the website shows a more recent version, update it. While you’re on the manufacturer’s website, download the PDF manual for your camera, and put that on your smartphone or tablet for easy access later.
File Formats: You’ll generally have the option of choosing RAW, JPG or both. If your camera has a single card slot, choosing to shoot both can mean gaps between shots. If there are two slots, you’ll usually have the option of JPG on both cards (with one card slot acting as either backup or overflow), RAW, or RAW+JPG, with RAW files being written to one card and JPG to the other.
Picture Quality/Size: If you’ve just landed a thousand miles from the nearest camera shop and you need to make an entire week’s worth of photos fit on a single memory card, you have one of two options: take fewer, more carefully shot, photos, or just use a really small file size. Otherwise, use the best quality and the largest file size you can, since the only way to get a smaller file size is to shave a significant amount of data off each file. For some purposes (like shooting for the web), you can likely get away with something that uses more compression, but if you plan on cropping, editing, or (especially) printing, you’re going to want as much information in those files as you can get.
Color Settings: At the very least, you should be able to choose from monochrome, desaturated, normal, and varying degrees of additional saturation. I suggest shooting color (I explain why in this article), but the type and degree of saturation you choose is a matter of personal preference.
Noise Reduction (NR): This comes in two “flavors”. There’s Long Exposure NR, and High ISO NR. Long Exposure NR generally only comes into play with long exposures, or repeated long-ish exposures; you’ll notice noise, or color artifacts, that occur when the sensor heats up from the extended use. High ISO’s, meantime, will give you different kinds of noise (grain, chromatic noise) that NR can handle. NR sometimes works quite well, but it can also lead to loss of detail. If your camera loses detail in the upper reaches of the ISO range to begin with, excessive NR just makes a bad situation worse, so use it sparingly.
ISO and White Balance Settings: This is a matter of personal preference. I generally try a few test shots under relatively controlled conditions (i.e., shots under a single light source, and multiple light sources) to see how reliably the camera chooses white balance. Most SLRs do a good job of it, so Auto White Balance isn’t such a bad thing. Auto ISO, however, can be a mixed blessing. That’s especially true if your camera has a habit of boosting ISO when its ISO performance at 1600 and above is spotty. Take a test shot in low light with auto ISO (or three shots at 800, 1600 and 3200) and check the results. If you’re happy with the results at 800, but not as much past that, there’s normally an option to limit how high the Auto ISO will set your ISO in low light. You can either use that, or just adjust ISO manually as needed (which I’ve found to be an easier option).
Metering: Matrix metering is generally reliable, but there are times (like shooting a bright subject against a dark background, or vice versa) when you’ll want to use either spot or center-weighted metering. If you’re not sure, set it to Matrix/Evaluative metering, and use the other metering modes as needed.
Exposure Compensation: This is strictly optional. I’ve noticed that every Nikon I’ve used has tended to overexpose slightly, especially in bright light, so I usually set the EV to -.3 and just leave it there, though there are times that I’ll change it (if I’m using a polarizing filter, or when I’m bracketing an exposure, for instance).
Focus Mode: From the number of AF points that are active, to whether you’re using continuous or single-servo AF, you’ll want to choose the mode that best fits the kind of shooting you do (or anticipate doing). Here, again, your manual will prove invaluable (you see a pattern emerging here?)
AE/AF Lock: You’ll be able to choose how this button “behaves,” and whether it’s going to be used for Exposure Lock or Focus Lock. If you haven’t used this feature before, it may help you to shoot for a bit and revisit it when you’ve a better idea of which one you’ll use most often.
Shutter Release: You can usually program your camera not to take a photo if the AF isn’t locked in (which can be helpful, frustrating, or both, depending on the circumstances).
Set Up Your LCD: There are usually multiple display options with the LCD: levels of brightness, grid lines, virtual level, exposure information, histogram, and quite a bit else. Cycle through your options, and see what works best for you. Some of these things matter more if you’re shooting more in Live View than through the viewfinder, while others will be related more to your Playback menu. The options here aren’t quite limitless, but they’re close enough that covering the lot of them would take us quite a way off-topic. Just bear in mind that this is one thing (out of many) to take into account and adjust.
Program Your Function Button[s]: Not every SLR has a Fn button, but several do. These come in handy when you have a button on the back of the camera that changes a function you use often, or if that function’s buried in a menu. Usually the Fn button is easily accessible with the camera at eye-level, so this makes it easier to change something without having to lower the camera. If you’re just getting started and you’re not sure what to program the Fn button for, don’t worry about it; after a week or two of shooting, you’ll get ideas. Some cameras that feature a DOF Preview button will also allow you to reassign that to another function as well.
User Customizeable Settings: Some cameras allow you to customize menu banks so that a single press of the menu button brings up your most frequently used settings. Some have user-assignable softkeys (like a dedicated Fn (function) button, or the ability to reassign another function to your Depth of Field preview, for instance). Your mode dial may also have the ability to assign a series of settings that can be pulled up with a quick turn of the knob. In any of these cases, give some thought as to the kinds of shooting you do, and how these options affect your workflow when you’re shooting. User preset banks are great for the times when you need multiple settings changed all at once and quickly, while customizeable menus come in handy for features that can’t be assigned to a user preset, or for those things that you may not use often, but that you need to access quickly when you do.
Adjust Your Viewfinder’s Diopter: With the camera in autofocus, choose an object that’s easy to focus on, and use the diopter — it’s the little wheel thingy next to your viewfinder — to adjust the viewfinder’s magnification. IMPORTANT: However you plan on shooting normally — with or without glasses, contacts, a monocle, et cetera — adjust the diopter for that. You’ll need to see clearly to verify that the AF system is focusing on the thing(s) you had in mind, to say nothing of focusing manually.
Check Your “Extras”: Some things aren’t exactly mandatory, but can be helpful depending on personal preference. These include things like a framing grid in your viewfinder, an electronic level, vignette control, lens correction, AF confirmation beeps, and a host of other features.
I’m admittedly glossing over a vast numbers of menu options here. My purpose, however, is to get you started; for the rest, you have the manual. And for Pete’s sake, please RTFM! In the meantime, besides getting your important more-or-less permanent settings the way you want them, there’s another reason that this initial setup helps: as you’re navigating the menus, you’re familiarizing yourself (even if only a bit) with the different options baked into the camera. There’s no substitute for the manual (even the camera’s Help function, assuming your camera has one, requires you to find an item in order to pull up the available information about it), but getting acclimated in this way helps to demystify the camera (especially if this is your first one) and gets you used to the idea of actually using some of the great things that are now at your fingertips.
One thought in closing: The first time or two that you try this, it’s not uncommon to get lost in the maze of menus, submenus, and options, and have a “WTF?” moment where something seems irreparably screwed up. If that’s the case, don’t despair. Your camera will have an option to reset all your menu options back to their factory defaults.**
*I should note that I’ve shot Nikon almost exclusively since I’ve started shooting DSLR’s, so a lot of the nomenclature I’m using here is from what’s in their menus. If you’re using another brand, they may use different terminology. If all else fails, open the manual. **If that doesn’t work, despair freely. Or just take it to the shop, and they’ll get it back in working order. See why it’s important to buy local?
Two days’ worth of options for photographic projects and you STILL can’t find something to shoot? Sheesh. Slackers. Here are some even shorter photo projects (which, incidentally, you can throw into your 365-day, 31-day or 52-week projects to break things up if you’d like).
7 Day Photo Project: Give yourself one week to find your theme, gather your gear, shoot, edit, and display/share your work. Document the process.
I know, I know. You work five days a week, and you set aside your weekends for cooking, laundry, competitive Scrabble, or antisocial behavior. Set aside one day per month to get out there and shoot something. You may even find yourself liking this photography thing (again), and wanting to graduate to a more frequent shooting schedule. Here are some prompts for a once-a-month shooting schedule:
Once-a-Month Photo Project:
12 Guys’/Girls’ Nights Out
12 Group Shoots
12 Buddy Shoots
12 State or National Parks
12 Landmarks/Historical Sites
Maybe the thought of even something as simple as shooting ONE DAY A MONTH has you curled up in the fetal position, sobbing quietly. Just for you, a special project:
One Day Photo Project:
SHOOT SOMETHING, GODDAMMIT! (Repeat daily)
If you have ideas, thoughts, or suggestions, feel free to comment below, or to email firstname.lastname@example.org. More projects will be coming in the next couple of days, and the “Official” 10,000/365 will launch on January 1. Stay tuned!
Yesterday, in addition to announcing the impending re-launch of the 10,000/365 project, I listed a series of prompts to create your own unique project. I understand that a 365-day-long project might not work for you, for one reason or another. Maybe you like a little structure, but you’ve got something going on in March or thereabouts. No long-term commitments for you! Okay, here are a few projects you can undertake on a month-long basis:
31-Day Photo Projects:
31 Rainy Days
31 Days of Awful Lighting
31 Mundane Days
31 Day Chance Project
31 Crappy Weather Projects
On the other hand, maybe you’ve been shooting for a while — or maybe you’re still new at this — but you’d like to put your skills to a more in-depth test. Try these on for size.
52-Week Photo Projects:
52 Photo Essays
52 Photo Pub Crawl (drink — and shoot — responsibly)
52 Color Studies
52 Stations (h/t: Robyn Hitchcock)
If you have ideas, thoughts, or suggestions, feel free to comment below, or to email email@example.com. More projects will be coming in the next couple of days, and the “Official” 10,000/365 will launch on January 1. Stay tuned!
The New Year is coming. You’re ready. You’ve just gotten, or are about to get, your first (or fifth, or sixteenth) camera, and you want to shoot one of everything (just not necessarily in that order). You can take on the challenge that is the upcoming The First 10,000 365-Day Project (aka. 10,000/365), but if that doesn’t send you/float your boat/butter your biscuits, here are a series of prompts to help make your next 365 Day Project a success:
365 Movies: Use movie titles or scenes as prompts for your project.
365 Questions: Your photos can pose, or answer, the questions. It’s up to you.
365 Prop Project: I came across someone at El Morro in Puerto Rico who was carrying a stuffed hedgehog, and getting his (it was a he; I asked) photo at various places she visited. Try something similar.
365 Feet: Shoes, boots, pumps, pumped up kicks, bare feet, you name it.
365 Flat: Similar to Flat Stanley, print someone out — even yourself, if you’d like — and put them in your photos.
365 Revisited: Go back to things shot on a previous 365 and see how you’d do them differently this time around.
If you have ideas, thoughts, or suggestions, feel free to comment below, or to email firstname.lastname@example.org. More projects will be coming in the next couple of days, and the “Official” 10,000/365 will launch on January 1. Stay tuned!
We’ve spent the better part of a week covering various types of camera gear, and now you’re going to need a place to store all that swag. After all, camera equipment seems to multiply quicker than a hutch of randy rabbits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. But you’re going to have to find something in which to store and/or carry all of that stuff, and that’s where things get interesting. There’s no one size fits all solution. After all, it’s not just about finding something that fits everything; it’s also about whether it fits you, and fits your style of travel and shooting. Here are the most common types of camera bags, with a handful of specific recommendations thrown in for good measure.
Duffels: If you got one of those camera “bundles” that had a camera, memory card, and a few extra doodads, chances are that one of the extras was a camera bag branded with the company’s logo. These generally provide enough space for the body and a couple of lenses, along with a few other things. The problem — at least in my experience — is that their bulk belies a startling lack of space on the inside, and makes them a bear and a half (metric) to try to carry, since they tend to protrude and bounce if you’re using them with a shoulder strap. Add to that the fact that the company logo screams, “EXPENSIVE GEAR FOR YOUR THEIVING PLEASURE!” and you may want to consider other options. However, there are other duffels – like those made by Domke – that provide ample space, thoughtful design, and even a touch of style.
Waist/Holster Packs look like an oversized, tricked-out fanny pack. Some, like Tamrac’s 5515 Adventure Zoom, look very much like fanny packs, in fact. There are also bags like the LowePro Toploader, which have a longer, less discrete profile. Then you’ve got holsters, like the Think Tank Digital Holster 10, which bear a passing resemblance to a pistol holster (and, in the case of the Think Tank, have an expandable zipper at the bottom to accommodate bodies and lenses of different sizes). Most of these can either be worn on a belt or a specialized carrying system, and most will also allow you to attach a shoulder strap.
Satchels/Messenger Bags are great for the times you’d rather not call attention to yourself or your gear. The designs tend to place a premium on style and stealth rather than padding, so they’re not as well-suited to, say, a long hike. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to blend in on a city street, a satchel is just the ticket. Typically, you’ll be able to fit your camera (with lens), at least one spare lens, plus batteries, memory cards, et cetera. Crumpler’s Million Dollar Home series are beloved by many photographers for combining function with stealth, and Kata’s bags perform well also.
Slings shouldn’t be overlooked. I own a Lowepro Slingshot AW202, with which I’m quite happy (though it’s starting to get a bit cramped). Why? Better form factor than a duffel and better protection (and, in the mid- to large-range, more room) than a satchel, plus better weight distribution than either. While they’re not quite as comfortable as a backpack, they do provide much easier access to your camera and gear.
Backpacks work best when you have a lot of gear — a multitude of lenses, speedlights, batteries, bodies, laptops, etc. – and absolutely must carry all of it. Yes, they’re heavy, and bulky, and it can be a pain in the ass getting your camera in and out to shoot quickly. But they’re also better designed for the weight and bulk, and distribute it better on your body, making them ideal if you’re in the habit of schlepping a lot of gear, on foot, over long distances. Some also come with wheels for the times when you’d like to give your back and shoulders a break.
Hard Cases are worth considering if you’ve got to check your gear on a flight, or you’re worried about dust, water, shock, or any number of other occupational hazards. They’re padded generously, built like armored cars, and heavy as a baby rhino when they’re loaded (when the bag’s loaded, that is; stay away from drunken African fauna). They’re generally water-resistant (though some are billed as being waterproof). They’re also expensive, but much less so than having to replace your gear if it gets wet or terribly banged-up. Pelican makes some of the most-respected hard cases in the industry, though you can also get by with less-expensive alternatives from Promaster or relative newcomer Nanuk (whose cases, rather than being targeted at photographers, are touted for their flexibility for everyone from paramedics to geologists).
At the risk of sounding like a broken record (and at the risk of looking silly given that the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, in the interest of full disclosure), I don’t suggest buying camera bags online unless you’ve checked them out in person first (and if you’ve done that, for Pete’s sake, support your local camera shop, unless “your local camera shop” is a Best Buy in a strip mall on the highway, in which case feel free to buy wherever).
The differences in size and layout may look — and might even be — miniscule between one bag and another, but there’s no substitute for loading a bag up with your gear and seeing how it feels around your neck, shoulders and back. It’s not that different than buying shoes, actually, because a bad fit can lead to all sorts of discomfort when you’re schlepping your gear around for the day. The amount of room available varies from one to the next, so you’re going to want to give a lot of thought to what you’re carrying (and why), and what will be the smallest solution possible for that amount of gear. Besides checking for fit and finish, I also suggest checking out the bag’s degree of weather/water resistance. Messenger bags tend to be downright lousy in this respect (since most are open at the top, and still have significant gaps even with the flap down). Many bags have rain-repellent covers that you can deploy (especially from LowePro and ThinkTank), but check to see how much coverage they provide, and how easy it is to get them out of their pouch or compartment and over the bag.
Any suggestions, or personal favorites, when it comes to carrying a bag that’s stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey? Sound off in the comments below!
Postscript: If you’ve found the perfect bag and it’s not a camera bag, don’t despair. Head to http://clickwhirl.com/diy-camera-bag/ for tips on converting it into a serviceable camera bag. The same thing can be done with a hard-sided case or laptop bag, with the only difference being that instead of using the padded inserts found in most camera bags, the easiest thing to do is go somewhere that sells upholstery or fabric and buy thick, dense foam. You can then cut it to size, and cut inserts in the foam for lenses, flash, camera body, and anything else you’d like to squeeze in there.
Your purchases through the affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!
I’ve seen – and repeated, and believe to a big extent – the photographic maxim that it’s not the gear that matters. But that statement should always have an asterisk next to it, because sometimes gear does matter.* If you’re shooting with a point-and-shoot camera or a camera phone and realizing that A: you’re really enjoying photography, and B: you’ve started to hit some frustrating limitations with your current gear, you’ve probably given some thought to buying a DSLR or compact interchangeable lens system. As with the other guides that I’ve put out this week, the SLR guide (which you can also apply to Micro 4/3) has less to do with brands than with the questions it’s helpful to ask – sometimes of yourself, sometimes of the person at the camera shop – before you buy.
Do You Already Own an SLR? If you shot in the film days and still have a brace of lenses, it may be worth sticking to the same mount. Of course, there are caveats: if you used Pentax, Nikon, or Leica, more of those lenses will fit the manufacturers’ current models without adapters than the others. If you used Minolta (whose later AF lenses fit the Sony Alpha mount), Canon (who changed mounts in the 1990’s) or Olympus, your mileage may vary… some lenses will fit, while others will require adapters. Not all lenses will work perfectly on all cameras; you may lose autofocus or metering, for instance. But being able to use older lenses on a new body can represent a significant savings.
What Can You Spend? Start here. What you’re willing or able to spend is going to determine quite a bit else. If you’re budgeting for lenses along with the camera and something’s got to give, go cheap on the body, not the glass, and you’ll thank me later. Once you’ve figured out your price range, you can narrow it down to a set of bodies that fall within those price points.
What Category of SLR? Here, we’re talking about types rather than brands. Broadly speaking, your choices break down to entry-level, consumer, “prosumer” and professional, in addition to the usual divide between full frame or crop sensors. Because a camera is consumer-grade doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get consumer-grade photos out of it; a number of factors, including the quality of the lenses you put on the camera, and the skill level of the person behind the camera, will do just as much to determine that as will the body.
That’s also not to say they’re all the same. Each step up in a manufacturer’s lineup adds something that the camera “below” it didn’t have. By way of an example, let’s do a cursory comparison between the Nikon D5100 and the Nikon D7000. The 7000 has a larger, heavier body that’s sealed better against the elements, and uses more metal in its construction. It also has a built-in AF screw, more manual controls, dual card slots, better battery life… I could go on, but I think you get the point. A similar comparison between the entry-level D3xxx and the consumer D5xxx would reveal similar differences. Figure out the specs that matter to you, and buy accordingly. And don’t worry if your next-door neighbor shoots with a “better” camera (unless he offers to pay, in which case, he can be as opinionated as he’d like); after all, you’re the one who’s going to be using the thing.
New or Used? If you can find a used camera with a low to moderate number of actuations (clicks), it can represent a significant savings over buying new. A body that’s two to three (or more) generations old can run a fraction of the cost of something newer, and as long as you’re buying from a reputable seller (that is to say, a local shop and not Craigslist or eBay), it should be a safe buy. Used equipment is also good for someone who’s just dipping a toe in the waters, or just doesn’t feel like plunking down hundreds/thousands more on a newer model. The trick to buying an older body is to know what improvements have been made in technology since the model you’re looking at was last on the shelves. Each generation brings improvements in ISO, image quality, and other parts of the feature set, and knowing the differences between models allows you to make an intelligent decision on the kinds of tradeoffs you’re willing to make.
How are the Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked forum (dpReview, Canon Rumors, Nikon Rumors and the like) or a review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.
How’s the Ecosystem? If you’re married, or have ever thought about marriage, you’ve probably heard it said that you don’t just marry someone, you also marry their family. That also, in a roundabout sort of way, applies to cameras. You’re not just buying a camera body, after all; you’re buying a “family” of lenses and peripherals (speed lights, GPS dongles, video microphones, and lots more) to go with it. The investment in glass alone can – and likely will – run you at least as much as the cost of the body, if not much, much more.
And the lenses are more important, in a sense, than the body. Remember, the technology in your camera will become obsolete at some point. That doesn’t mean won’t still make photos (and very good ones). But you may find that in a generation or two, you may want to upgrade your body. Lenses, if you choose them carefully, don’t become obsolete; they hold their value much better (at least in the case of OEM lenses, though some aftermarket lenses retain value well).
If you’re buying a used body, you can usually find a good, and inexpensive, used kit lens. Your other alternative is to pick up a 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8 as your first lens. On one hand, you don’t get the convenience of a zoom lens. On the other, however, primes are great learning tools, in addition to being great for creativity and shot discipline. They’re also sharp, inexpensive, and fast. You’ll appreciate the flexibility you get in low light, or in isolating subjects with shallow DOF, that you won’t get to the same degree with a zoom unless it’s a very expensive zoom.
Examine the Guts: The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to lead with the megapixels. They’re the least of your worries. A higher megapixel count has its places, but also its problems. Higher MP counts mean larger files, which mean slower write speeds if the camera’s processor is poky, and also means that you’ll find yourself running out of drive space that much faster. If you’re trying to decide between two versions of the same camera (say, a T2i and a T4i), pay attention to the processors as well, since changes in the processor can mean better stills and videos, quicker write speeds, et cetera.
How’s the Build Quality? Although SLRs mostly share a very similar form factor — pentaprism or pentamirror atop a body that accepts lenses of varying types and sizes, usually with a grip of some sort — there are variations (some subtle, others not) in how those things are implemented, and how it all fits together. See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. If the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.
Controls – what you’ve got and how it’s laid out – also matter a great deal. Just remember that generally, more manual (more knobs, buttons and dials) means more money. The upside is that it can also mean fewer headaches, since those external controls give you the option of changing settings at eye level versus having to explore menus every time you want to change something. Even if the camera has more controls than a small aircraft, I’d still suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. You can and should familiarize yourself with the manual, but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.
Ready for Your Closeup? Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result. The one caveat I’m going to add before you get started: whatever lens you plan on using at first – a kit lens, a 50mm f/1.8, an 18-200mm – use that for your test shoot. You don’t want to put a 60mm macro on the camera to test it, and then go back home and shoot with an 18-55mm. You want the photos to look like they’d look as you would shoot them.
Now let’s get down to brass tacks. In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How about with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing? Is the viewfinder bright and easy to use for manual focus? Is the LCD sharp and clear, even in bright light? If you plan on using the video feature seriously, make sure you also put the video features through their paces.
Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the auto white balance? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor. Don’t forget that this is all about capturing your vision, so it’s all about what looks pleasing to your eye.
A Few Thoughts in Closing: Remember that you’re not done just because you’ve picked your camera. You’ll also want to consider the following:
Spare batteries: I strongly suggest a battery from the camera manufacturer, especially if you’re buying new.
Memory Cards: One for the camera, plus one spare (or one per slot if the camera has dual card slots, plus spares). Avoid Class 2 cards, and stick to class 6 or class 10, especially if you plan on shooting video or doing a lot of burst shooting.
Case: You’ll need some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place. There’ll be a case buying guide in this space tomorrow.
Strap: I know, your camera probably came with one. You want to hear the one thing that pretty much any photographer — die-hard Nikonian, ardent Canon fan, Sony partisan, etc. — can agree on? Ask them about the straps that came with their cameras. They’re uniformly scratchy and uncomfortable. Don’t do that to yourself, especially if you’re going to have it around your neck for any length of time. There are much better options, from the pricey but lovely Black Rapid to straps by MOD and Crumpler (the latter is my personal favorite, especially if you’ve got heavier glass on the end of your camera). Your neck will thank you.
Support: If you’re shooting with an SLR, I’d suggest investing in a tripod or monopod before putting money into additional glass. Even a mediocre tripod beats the best image stabilization system if you use it properly. Just don’t be stingy spending on a tripod. Yes, you can get one at a flea market for 25 bucks… and that $25.00 “investment” is all that’s going to be between your expensive gear and the pavement. Think about it.
Cleaning Equipment: I’ve written elsewhere about cleaning supplies for cameras, and rather than belabor the point here, I’m just going to suggest you check out that article:
There are other doohickeys and gadgets to go with your camera… speedlights, ring lights, reflectors, macro tables, backdrops, extension tubes, teleconverters, and lots, lots more. However, if you take the stuff above into consideration and choose carefully, you’ll have built the foundation for a solid kit, and a hobby — or an obsession — that you can spend a lifetime learning and perfecting.
*For why the gear doesn’t matter, read this. For why it does, kinda, read this. Then take an aspirin, which you can probably find here. The first two links are my takes on the “gear doesn’t matter” argument, and that last one’s an Amazon affiliate link. Your purchases through that link help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!
**Incidentally, if you don’t want to spring for a new camera strap yet, consider a seatbelt cover. It’s not the most attractive option, but it’s cheap, effective, and surprisingly comfortable. If you end up with a pair, use the other one for the shoulder strap on your camera bag if that’s not already padded.
You don’t have to be a frequent visitor to photography forums to have asked yourself whether you should be investing in bodies or in lenses. My personal opinion, for what it’s worth ($.05, adjusted for inflation) is that if you choose your glass wisely, you’ll have an arsenal that you won’t outgrow, and that will be equal to any camera body you put it on. Your investment in lenses will probably surpass what you spent on your camera body, so it’s best to research carefully before buying.
Sometimes the latest glass really is your best bet, especially when there are performance issues addressed in later iterations of something, or when the design is significantly upgraded (quicker autofocus, better coatings, et cetera). The issue there is that the latest lenses also come with the highest price tags. When I posted Part I of the Lens Buying Guide yesterday, I hinted that there are ways to save significantly. There are two ways of doing this: one is by purchasing older lenses, some of which are still made (or were made in sufficient quantity that your local camera shop will still new copies in stock). Another option is buying used.
A word of caution before we get started: before buying a lens — new or used — consider whether or not you actually need it first. If you’re undecided, check out the Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Buying Anything and Everything, which is your handy Magic 8 Ball for buying camera gear. For the rest of you who’ve decided, here’s an annotated checklist for your next lens purchase. Some steps will apply mainly to purchasing used lenses, while others are a good idea whether it’s used or brand new.
1. Check your mount: Some systems, like Pentax or Nikon, are very flexible. Nearly everything ever made for Pentax SLR’s will fit nearly every Pentax SLR ever made, and Nikon’s used the same F mount on its SLRs since 1959, though not all lenses support all functions (see below). If you’re using another brand, your mileage may vary; if you’ve got older Canon, Olympus or Sony lenses, you can use older glass (in Sony’s case, lenses made by Minolta before Sony bought them out lock, stock and barrel), but in some cases you’ll need an adapter.
2. Autofocus (AF) Type: If you’re using an older film body that doesn’t autofocus, or if you prefer/don’t mind manual focus, AF stops being an issue. Some SLRs use a screw drive AF system, while others require the lens to use a built-in motor. Consumer SLR’s generally won’t have an AF motor, so lenses that require one in order to autofocus will only focus manually. If you’re used to manual focus, or if it’s a lens that’s as likely to require manual focus to work correctly (like a macro telephoto), an AF motor isn’t as much of an issue.
3. Lens Speed: Consumer zooms typically have a variable aperture, with many starting at f/3.5 at the wide end and stopping down in stages as you zoom in (typically stopping down to f/5.6 by the time you’ve hit the end of the zoom range). Prosumer and professional zooms tend to have a constant aperture throughout the zoom range (generally f/4 or f/2.8), but the size, weight, and cost of those lenses are going to be higher (often much higher) as a result. The cost of a prime, in the meantime, is dictated in large part by their maximum aperture. An f/1.4 will be more expensive than an f/1.8, which will be more expensive than an f/2 or f/2.8. The added speed does give more options when you’re trying to blur a background out of focus or shoot in very low light, but unless you need that all the time, it might be hard to justify spending several times more on a 1.4 for a fraction of a stop of extra light.
Now that you’ve got an idea of what you’re dealing with, it’s time to start getting a bit more specific about your research.
4. Check Reviews: As I mentioned yesterday, reviews can be a good indicator of whether a lens is worth your time and consideration. They’re not foolproof, but they’re certainly helpful. Poke around enough and you’ll see references to other lenses – sometimes older/newer versions from the original manufacturer, and sometimes alternatives from a third party manufacturer like Sigma, Tamron or Tokina – that may also be worth a look. If you’re looking for a single lens (let’s say a macro telephoto), make a list of your options.
5. Build Quality: This may be covered in your research ahead of time, but you’ll also be able to tell quite a bit from an in-person inspection. See if the lens mount and filter threads are metal or plastic, and also how much plastic is used in the rest of the body. Heavier lenses tend to be better-built, but they’ll also tire your neck and shoulders that much faster when the camera’s around your neck for any length of time. It’s up to you to decide whether you want (or may need) to sacrifice a bit for the sake of weight.
6. CPU vs. Non-CPU Lenses: Newer lenses will have a CPU or “chip” that communicates distance and exposure information to the camera. As with AF, if your camera doesn’t support those features, you may not need the added cost that they bring. If you can do without the chip (maybe you’re using a light meter, for instance, or maybe your camera can be programmed to meter without the chip), that’s another opportunity to save money.
Now that you’ve researched your options, it’s time to get down to brass tacks in the camera shop. Some of the steps below will apply more to buying a used lens than a new one, but many of them should be done whether it’s new or straight from the factory.
7. Inspect Filter Threads: Check to make sure the filter threads aren’t dented or stripped. Dents usually indicate that the lens has been dropped or mistreated, and stripped filter threads will keep you from using filters on the lens. Also bear in mind that larger filters are more expensive, so a polarizing filter that’s downright cheap in a 52mm size could be frighteningly expensive if you need it in 82mm.*
8. Inspect Front and Rear Elements: The “elements” are, in this case, the glass on either end of the lens. Make sure it’s clean, and free of chips/scratches. You’ll also want to make sure that the lens coating isn’t worn or cloudy.
9. Try the Zoom and Focus Cams: does the zoom work smoothly, or is it too stiff/loose? Is it working across the zoom range, or does it stop at a certain point (i.e., does it get to about 105mm on a 200mm lens and continue to “zoom” without actually changing distance)? Check focus as well, to make sure that it doesn’t feel too loose, and that the lens manually focuses accurately at different subject distances.
10. Check Aperture Function: The aperture blades should open and shut smoothly, and the blades should not be oily.
11. Bring a Flashlight: Open the aperture fully, and shine the light from both ends around the inside of the lens. Look for mold, fungus, bugs (yes, bugs; I’ve seen dead creatures in lenses) and any other kind of foreign matter in the lens. A little dust in the lens isn’t terrible (and is pretty much inevitable when you’re dealing with a lens that telescopes when you zoom – they breathe), but mold and fungus can turn a sharp lens foggier than a bathroom mirror. Not sure what a dead crawly in your lens does to your photos, and I’m not eager to find out… if you’ve had the experience, please share.
12. Check the AF: Slower lenses (f/3.5-f/5.6) are also a bit slower to autofocus. The reason for this is that a lens will go to its maximum aperture when it’s focusing (even if you have it set to f/16) in order to send enough light to the AF system. For this reason, a 1.8 will generally focus faster than a 3.5. Try the AF in different lighting conditions. Is it quick and reliable, or does it “hunt,” especially in low light? Also check the accuracy of the AF, and make sure it’s not front or back focusing.
13. Check for Sample Variations: If the lens is reviewed well and your results don’t match, it could be a poor sample. This goes both ways, obviously, since it’s also possible to get a good copy of a lens that’s gotten bad reviews (I speak from experience here). If a lens performs worse than expected, ask to see multiples (and if it performs better than expected, be happy). If the person helping you is serious about photography, they’ll understand.
14. Pixel Peep: If at all possible, bring your camera body with you to the camera shop (and let me underscore, to the camera shop; they won’t let you do this in a chain store) to test the lenses. You’ll see how the lens performs on your camera as you’ve set it up, with all your quirks. I don’t know what in the hell they do to cameras at the camera shop, but it seems like every last thing is ass-backwards on them. Save yourself the frustration.
But I digress. Shoot plenty of photos, and then get them home. Look at them nice and close. How’s image quality? Check at different apertures, with different subjects and distances. Look for distortion, vignetting, lens flare, color fringing, and sharpness. Also look at the lens’s color rendition; some lenses will be warmer or colder than others, or a bit more or less contrasty. Remember to check various focal lengths and apertures, since a lens that tends to distort or vignette wide open at 24mm (for example) may perform differently when it’s stopped down, or when you zoom to 28mm.
If you’ve done all that and the lens passes with flying colors, it’s probably a safe bet.
Oh, and before I forget: If you’re buying used, consider buying a good UV filter, caps and a hood. Make sure the type of hood is appropriate to your lens type; petal hoods are a must for wider lenses, and bayonet mount hoods are much easier to use than their screw-in counterparts (besides which, they don’t always give good results on wides).
Do you have any tips, or have you scored a killer deal on a used lens? Share your tips and experiences in the comments section below!
*If you have lenses that take filters in similar sizes – one that takes a 72mm and one that takes a 77mm, for instance – consider buying the larger size along with a step-up adapter, and use the same filter on both lenses. Buying the bigger filter means a bigger hit to the wallet initially, but it’s a savings longer-term when you’re not buying two of everything.
Your camera is thoroughly broken in, and you know your kit lens like the back of your hand… its capabilities, its limitations… Its freakin’ limitations. Darnit. So you’ve decided it’s time for a new lens for your camera. Where do you start? Right here, of course.
There are several types of lenses, and while I can’t cover every last one of them (apologies to LensBaby fans, among others), I’m going to cover many of them here. As with yesterday’s guide, I’m not going to get much into brands. The aim, instead, is to familiarize you with your options as a starting point for even more research. Tomorrow, there’ll be another guide that will tell you what you need to take into consideration when you’re buying a new or used lens.
Let’s get started with the normal lens. It’s called that because its FOV (Field of View) roughly approximates that of the human eye. On a full-frame or 35mm camera, a 50mm lens is “Normal,” while on a crop sensor camera, lenses between 28mm and 35mm (42-52mm equivalent) closely approximate a Normal lens. The 50mm 1.8 is a great next step from your kit lens, since its simple optics and small size usually mean a lens that’s fast, light, sharp and cheap. There’s the added bonus that the faster aperture means more control over DOF (Depth of Field), pleasing bokeh (the out-of-focus circles of light that appear in photos taken with the aperture wide-open) , and more options in low light.
When you see a lens referred to as wide or telephoto, they’re using a normal lens as a frame of reference. So a wide angle lens is anything wider than a normal, while a telephoto is anything that gives you a narrower FOV than a normal lens. Your kit lens likely starts at 18mm if it’s a crop sensor (meaning it’s about 27-28mm equivalent), or 24-28mm on full frame. Wide angle lenses are most often used for landscapes and architecture, though some photographers swear by them for other purposes (like street photography) as well. When considering wides – especially wide-angle zooms – pay attention to distortion, especially at the widest end of a zoom lens. Many wides will exhibit barrel distortion, particularly if you’re shooting at or around the lens’s maximum aperture.
At the other end of the spectrum are telephoto lenses, which are anything over 50mm. Short telephotos (40mm and 60mm on a crop sensor, 60mm and 85mm on full frame) are popular for portraits because the perspective they offer tends to flatter the subject. Longer telephotos (in the 200-500mm range) are great for bringing the action in close.
Specialized lenses: There are lenses that may fall into one or more of the above categories, but that are designed for particular purposes. Perspective Control lenses are beloved by architects, for instance, because they allow the camera to be kept horizontal while shooting a vertical subject. This is done to eliminate the converging perspective that you’d normally get when shooting from the foot of a building and pointing your camera upward. Fisheye lenses provide a 180-degree field of view, which can be very useful for landscapes and certain types of architectural photography (and, in capable/creative hands, even portraiture). The optics of Macro lenses allow closer focus and often much sharper results than would be possible with other lenses.**
If you don’t have, don’t want, or can’t afford a particular lens, there are times that you can approximate the same effect in post-production (cropping, perspective correction and distortion in Photoshop, for instance, can mimic the behavior of a zoom, perspective control, or fisheye, respectively). Macro photography can be done with inexpensive close-up filters, although the results won’t be nearly the same as using a good macro lens. If it’s something you don’t plan on doing or using very often, there’s nothing wrong with taking a shortcut here and there. On the other hand, if you plan on doing a lot of something, or if the end result is critical (a paid job, for instance), then you’re better off spending the money.
Bear in mind that you can get primes for a huge number of focal lengths between 8mm and 1,000mm (or more), or you can purchase zoom lenses that will cover various focal lengths. These range from wide zooms (like the Nikon 20-35mm) to telephoto zooms like the common 70-300 and 150-500.*** The “trinity” of primes (35mm, 50mm and 85mm) can easily be covered by a single zoom (like a 28-85mm 3.5/5.6, a 24-120mm f/4, or nearly covered by a 24-70mm f/2.8), but bear in mind that there’s a significant tradeoff in terms of speed, and sometimes also of image quality using a zoom. The 24-120mm, as of this writing, retails around $1,300.00, and the 24-70 for close to $600.00 more than that. It’s easy to assemble the trinity and then some (throw in a nice macro, for instance), especially if you’re willing to go with older or off-brand glass. Which brings us to another question: what’s the best way to narrow down to a specific lens and brand? I’m glad you asked. We’ll take that up in this space tomorrow.
If you’re looking to buy a compact camera, you’ve come to the right place. Let me preface this little buyer’s guide with a little disclaimer, however. This isn’t going to be a typical guide, with reviews of individual cameras. There are a number of reasons for this. First, most compacts have the average lifecycle of a fruit fly. Second, if you pick nearly any manufacturer, you’re going to find some cameras that are awful, some that are acceptable, and some that are really good. Finally, and most importantly, my criteria for a camera — for everything from its controls to its image quality — may not be the same as yours, so there’s no substitute for actually picking them up and trying them. With that in mind, here are some suggestions as to what you should look for, ignore, or avoid from one camera to the next.
What’s It Cost? Start here, since quite a bit else will stem from what you’re able and willing to spend. You can get a competent compact for under $100.00, but venturing beyond that price point adds more features (some more useful than others) that you may find helpful, or even essential, for your purposes.
How will you use it? Think about your typical subject matter, and what kind of shots you need, or expect, to get with the camera. When I bring my Fuji X10, I know I’m not going to get distance shots. The upshot – pardon the pun – is that I can always have a camera with me, and I can bring that camera with me places that I can’t get away with (or don’t want to take) my SLR. I’ve also used the compact for close-up shooting and put a zoom lens on the SLR for distance work. But again, that’s up to you, and what you want/need from it.
How Are The Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.
Let’s consider some of the most commonly discussed specs, and what they mean for practical purposes.
How Many Megapixels? The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to tell you that you want something with lots of megapixels. Don’t believe him. Especially on a compact, more isn’t necessarily better. A point and shoot sensor’s about the size of your thumbnail, which means 16mp is the photographic equivalent of stuffing ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. They’re not making the sensor bigger; they’re making the pixels smaller, which means that at some point image quality starts to fall off. A 10-12MP sensor will give you good quality, the ability to do some cropping, and better high ISO performance, all else being equal.
What’s the Zoom Range? I don’t suggest going too “long.” Here’s why: first, the greater the range on a zoom, the more complicated the optics. A lens that gives you 30x magnification sounds good in theory, but doesn’t look great on (photo) paper. There’s another issue with any long lens: high magnification doesn’t just magnify your subject, it also magnifies camera shake. If you’re shooting at 600mm equivalent in low light, you’ll notice (because of the slower shutter speed) that the camera’s picking up every last shake. This is true of long SLR lenses, too, but the added size and weight of SLRs make them easier to stabilize. You could put your compact on a tripod, but the added bulk and weight rather defeats the purpose of traveling light in the first place. At any rate, most of the better cameras max out between 105-120mm equivalent zoom.
How Are the Controls? Maybe the camera only shoots in full auto, with a handful of scene modes (portrait, sports, fireworks, etc.) thrown in for good measure, and maybe that’s all you need. On the other hand, maybe you’re starting to get serious about photography (or you’re already serious, and already used to an SLR or interchangeable-lens camera), and would like a higher degree of control. After all, more control means more options. Well, more manual means more money, but it can also mean less time spent spelunking in the menus, and fewer headaches, especially if there’s an assignable soft key among all the other knobs and buttons. I’d also suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. Yes, you can look at the manual (and you should), but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.
How’s the Build Quality? See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. See if the lens has a cap or those little doors, and whether the lens is threaded for filters. Look for a hot shoe or accessory shoe, and if the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.
Does it Have a Viewfinder? Most compacts don’t come with viewfinders. They’re mostly useful for shooting in bright light or at longer shutter speeds (it’s easier to stabilize the camera closer to your face than it is when you’re holding it out in front of you), but strictly speaking, they’re not 100% necessary. Viewfinders come in two types, Optical or Electronic (OVF or EVF). OVF is nearly useless for macro shooting on a compact (because of parallax issues), and an optical finder usually also has less than 100% coverage, meaning you have to second guess what’s going on outside the frame. An EVF, while it generally provides 100% magnification, doesn’t have the same resolution, drains the battery a bit faster, and also, in many cases, shows a bit of a jelly effect when you’re trying to pan.
How’s the Video? You’ll want to check the quality (whether it shoots in HD, for instance), and what that quality looks like to the naked eye. Also check the camera’s noise damping, and whether there’s a mic input and/or HDMI output (if you plan on using either). Video performance is usually competent, but — same as SLR video — the sound quality is a crap shoot, partly because of the mics used (condenser mics, which don’t pick up sound with great fidelity, and which pick up noises you didn’t even know your camera was making).
How Does the LCD Look? It doesn’t have to have the same kind of resolution that, say, a MacBook with a Retina display does. However, resolution does matter. If your opportunities for getting the shot are limited for one reason or another and you need to know if you got it right the first time, it doesn’t help if there’s terrible glare, or if the quality on the display looks like a bad VHS transfer of a 1920’s silent movie.
How Big is It? Compact cameras range in size from comparatively tiny, to “bridge” cameras which have the same kind of fixed lens that a compact has, but a body that’s closer in shape to an SLR. What you choose depends on how much the form factor matters, and how vital it is to you that the camera is truly compact. Added bulk means it’s not something you can stick in a purse or a jacket pocket (unless they’re big).
Is It Ready for Its Close-Up? Now, test shoot. Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result.
In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How ‘bout with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing?
Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the white balance? How reliable is the metering? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? How well does the lens handle distortion? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? Do you notice flare, color fringing, or vignetting? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor.
By definition, small cameras are about compromise. You’re giving something up — oftentimes lots of somethings — for the sake of portability. The other thing to consider is that compacts typically have a much shorter life cycle than SLR’s. It’s expected that an SLR will be on the market for at least two years (longer, in some cases) and be used even longer still. Therefore, there’s a lot more attention paid to the feature set, build quality, et cetera. Most compacts aren’t designed or built like that, ’cause in another year they’re going to be replaced anyway (there’s a lot of market pressure to turn compacts out quickly ’cause for a lot of manufacturers, the volume of sales of the cheap stuff helps keep the more expensive stuff afloat). What you need to decide is what things you absolutely can’t live without, and adjust accordingly.
But let’s assume you’ve narrowed it down to your final choice. You’ve picked your camera. Congratulations! You’re not done yet! You should also give thought to each of the following:
Spare Batteries OEM if it’s proprietary; if the camera takes AA batteries, invest in rechargeables.
Memory Cards One for the camera, plus one spare; Class 6 if you plan on doing a lot of video or burst shooting, otherwise it probably doesn’t matter unless it’s a higher-end compact.
Cleaning Equipment At the very least, pick up a microfiber cloth or two and keep them with your camera. They double to keep your specs clean, too.
Case Something water-resistant, preferably. Your camera might well fit in the pocket on your shirt, jacket, or cargo pants. But things can, and do, fall out of pockets. A case gives you some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place.
That probably sounds like a lot of stuff to consider. And, now that I read over all of it, I suppose it is. Here’s the thing, though: camera gear doesn’t come cheap (unless you’re buying a $40.00 Vivitar off the rack at your local drugstore). If you’re going to be plunking down a decent amount of money for any kind of gear – and lets’ face it, even $100.00 isn’t chump change – you want to make sure that the money’s well spent. A piece of gear that isn’t doing what you need it to, or that doesn’t work as expected, is frustrating, so spare yourself the frustration by doing your homework first, and then making your purchase.
I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but if you think I’ve missed something or would like to chime in, sound off in the comment section below.
*In case you’re wondering why I don’t do something like this for camera phones, there are far too many options, for one thing. For another, I don’t know anyone for whom the camera on their phone is a primary consideration. I’ve found CNet to be a reliable judge of camera quality on mobile phones, and would suggest that you start there.
**I should point out that I’m using “compact camera” to cover a slew of non-interchangeable/fixed lens options. I’m aware that there are some great options for compact interchangeable lens cameras (the Olympus PEN series, Sony’s NEX cameras, the Fuji X-01, the Nikon V and J series, among many others), but we’ll be taking those up another time.