Love My Camera Part 2: Matching the Results You Want to the Camera Gear You Need

Ok, you read Part 1, and you have a conceptual idea of what you want your new camera to be able to do for you. But how do you turn that list of desires into a shopping list? Here’s a few common things that people would like to do with their cameras, and the corresponding equipment that will make it possible.

If you’re just starting out, you might want to read this article that explainsย crop factors and how that affects what you see through the viewfinder.

1. I want to get in close to the action, without having to physically get too close to my subjects.

You’ll want a telephoto or zoom lens. For capturing your kids at a moderate distance in the back yard, anything from 100mm to 200mm should be fine. Any more than 200mm gets very difficult to hand-hold without shaking – you’ll need a fast shutter speed, and maybe also a tripod or monopod.

2. I want blurred backgrounds so that my subject really stands out.

There are two ways you can achieve this. With any lens, the more you are “zoomed in”, the closer you are to your subject, and the greater the distance between the subject and the background, the more likely your background will be nicely blurred.

You can also use a lens with a wider aperture – the maximum f-stop number will be a low one (like 1.4 or 2.8). Using these lenses at their widest setting (the lowest possible f-stop value) will help you blur out the background. You can get a great 50mm prime lens for Canon or Nikon that is f1.8 at its widest setting.

3. I want to get really deep blue skies.

You will need a polarising filter. You buy the correct size to fit the diameter of your lens, and just screw it on the end. Circular polarises have the ability to rotate on the end of your lens, which increases and decreases the effect. It’s like buying sunnies for your camera – it cuts glare and enhances colours.

4. I want to take portraits indoors using flash, but my on-camera flash gives me washed out faces with harsh shadows.

A speedlight will help fix this. You can “bounce” the light off the ceiling or other surrounding flat surfaces, to give a nice even light. Speedlights are also a lot more powerful than on-camera flashes, and can also be used in manual modes to give you greater control.

5. I want to take photos of my kids on stage in a dimly-lit auditorium. And I will be sitting 30 rows back.

I hope your credit card is warmed up! You can get fantastic lenses that combine great zoom and a wide aperture, but they don’t come cheap. Often you’ll get a kit lens with an excellent zoom range, but the widest aperture you can achieve is around f5.6. If you really are keen for good results, save your pennies and invest in something like a 70-200mm f2.8.

Something else that will help in low-light situations is a body with a good ISO range. ISO is a measure of how sensitive the sensor is to light. A low number (e.g. 100) indicates a low sensitivity, but will give you the clearest image. A high number (e.g. 1600) indicates a high sensitivity and will allow you to capture images in low light. The trade-off is quality – high ISO = “noise” artefacts in your image. The better quality body, the better it will handle high ISO settings. For example, my first DSLR was way to “noisy” for my liking at anything above 320, so I was really limited. My current camera body performs beautifully even at 1600, giving me tons of flexibility to get great images in all kinds of dodgy light. It is one of my two favourite things about my current camera.

6. I love taking photos of my kids playing sport, but I seem to miss the action shot most of the time.

Most DSLRs have a “burst mode” option that allows you to take continuous shots for as long as you hold the shutter down (until you camera needs a break to copy all the files to your memory card). Look for a camera body that has a high frame rate (it could be anything from 3fps (frames per second) to 12fps. That way you can get your focus right and shoot a few in burst mode. This is also a great way of showing an action sequence.

You’ll also want a fast memory card too, so you don’t get slowed up waiting for the camera to write to the card.

7. I want to take close-ups of bugs and insects.

There are a few ways you can achieve this, but the simplest is to buy a macro lens. They allow you to get right in close and fill the frame with your tiny subject. There are some modification options for standard lenses to make this possible too, but you’ll have to research more elsewhere – I’m not a guru where that’s concerned.

8. Sometimes the kids are just too cute and I want to catch some video of their antics, not just photos.

Quite a few DSLRs now have hi-def video capability built in, so you can switch between still shots and video quickly and easily. Keep in mind that you can only record relatively short snippets (roughly 12 minutes I think, don’t quote me…) as the censor will overheat otherwise. It’ll also chew heaps of space on your memory card, so buy a big one if video is your thing.

9. I don’t want to change lenses, is there one lens that does it all?

Unfortunately, the short answer is “no”. The reason there is such a huge range of lenses available is that there are pros and cons to every lens. Prime lenses are usually fast (have a wide aperture) and sharp, because the optics are designed to produce a great image at a single focal length. But zooms are great too, because you get lots of flexibility in how you frame your subject, without moving your feet. The payoff with zooms is that they aren’t as sharp all the way through their range, and often can’t achieve the same wide aperture that primes can. Lenses like an 18-200mm let you capture a whole range of different shots, from wide-angle landscapes, to close ups from far away (and is a really popular option for travelling). But the quality is just not going to be as good as a lens with less range.

My advice is to find a good balance for your needs: choose a lens of the highest quality you can afford, with the shortest zoom range you need for flexibility, and the widest aperture possible. It’s all a trade off between sharpness, aperture and zoom flexibility – and of course, cost!

10. I want to take photos of my son’s cricket match, but I don’t want to hold a heavy camera all day.

When you’re in the same position for a while, a tripod or monopod will make life that much easier. Unfortunately, all tripods are not made equal, I could write a whole post on choosing both your tripod legs and head. Suffice to say that investing in quality is my top recommendation – putting your expensive camera gear on a flimsy plastic tripod is a recipe for disaster!

For a little bit of weight relief, but great manoeuvrability, a monopod could be a good option for you too – you can change direction and angle almost as quickly as if you were hand-holding, but you don’t have to take the weight. It also provides some stability to minimise camera shake, and doesn’t take up much room.

Two more general hints:

  • The kit lens or lenses that come with your camera will be of a comparable quality to the body you choose. So an entry level body will come with entry level lenses, and a pro body will come with a high quality lens. You can buy bodies and lenses separately, but buying a kit is a little cheaper than buying the individual items separately. Often the kit lens is a good choice for first time DSLR shooters, but if it’s portraits you’re interested in, a prime lens can be a good investment. Both Canon and Nikon make an affordable 50mm f1.8, which will give you heaps more flexibility to shoot in low light conditions and achieve a shallow depth of field (blurred background).
  • Megapixels actually aren’t that important. When digital cameras first came out, more was definitely better. We started at 1, 2, 3 megapixels, and it went up from there. Now it’s nothing to see 12, 18 or 20 megapixels, even in a compact camera! Bigger pixels are better than many pixels. 10 megapixels on a full-frame sensor is better than 14 megapixels on a compact camera’s sensor, because each individual pixel is much bigger and can capture and hold more light information.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, so if you’ve got any other scenarios you’d like tips on, leave them in the comments.

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