With holiday season around the corner, I anticipate that more people than ever will be asking me for camera advice! I’ve finally decided to put everything in one blogpost. If you ever get sent here in the future, it’s not because I don’t care, but because this will be the consolidation of everything I know when it comes to cameras! Also, note that a lot of this is my personal preference and is not representative of what all professional photographers think, my friends, you can feel free to chime in with some of your favorite products in comments!
1. You are not looking for a DSLR
Unfortunately, I can’t help you much here, and I get a lot of these questions, I just don’t have the time to research them. I’ve consistently been satisfied with the performance of Canon P&S. In addition, if you want a prosumer P&S (something better than a camera you carry to a club, so it is chunkier), consider Canon G-series cameras or the Panasonic LX3 (or whatever the updated version is). Several pros carry those cameras around as their leisure camera. Use review websites such as cnet.com and dpreview.com to guide your camera selection and good luck!
Some terminology and preferences I’m going to throw out before we move to DSLRs.
Cropped vs. full sensor: Most DSLRs have a “cropped” sensor. Any lens you mount on the camera body will have its range multiply by a factor of 1.5x. A 50mm will look like a 75mm lens. Until you get a D700 or better with Nikon, or a Canon 5D Mark II, you will have a cropped sensor. Professionals should aim to get a full-sized sensor camera. In Nikon, full frame cameras are noted with “FX”. Warning – if you started out with a cropped sensor camera in Nikon you might have a series of lenses with the “DX” marking. These lenses will continue to function as cropped sensor lenses on a full frame camera. In other words, you’re better off not having them.
ISO performance: Most people say that DSLRs are “faster”, but it’s actually a function of two things: the aperture of your lens and the ISO of your camera body. Your lens has almost nothing to do with the speed of your camera itself. DSLRs can now go really high in ISO range, but really, the uppermost ranges are typically useless and noisy. For those who want to know, I shoot most of my reception and dancing photos at ISO 2000 and 2500 and that is WITH flash and a lens at aperture 2.8. Typically if you want good performance in the dark you need the upper bound of the ISO range to be at least 1600 if not 2000.
Aperture: Aperture is how much your lens can open. The more it opens, the more light it lets in, the faster it is. This is noted by the f-stop on the lens – it looks like a number like f/1.8, f/2.8. Basically, the smaller the number, the faster the lens. Most professional lenses are f/2.8 or faster. Most kit lenses – the starter lenses that come with cameras? A dismal f/3.5 I really think starter lenses are useless pieces of plastic, and if you’re serious about photography, don’t get them.
Megapixels: I don’t care how many megapixels a DSLR has. It doesn’t matter. And what I mean by that is, it does allow you to make larger prints, but a camera with more megapixels isn’t always necessarily better.
2. You are looking for the most entry-level camera
Maybe you’re a parent who wants great photos of their kids without too much fuss. Maybe you’re a college student who can’t deal with P&S photos. I will exclusively speak Nikon/Canon from now on because you can’t go wrong buying either brand. If you’re looking for an entry-level camera, both lines offer options under $1000. Any of the Canon rebels, any of the Nikon DXXXXs (4 digits), they will get you great DSLR photos but what they may lack is ISO performance, focal points, and other bells and whistles of upper models. In addition, you might even want to consider buying used cameras off of Craiglist. The only thing you should watch out for, at that point, is how many actuations a camera has had. Actuations = the number of times the shutter has been pressed. The shutter of the camera as well as its sensor wears out over time and that’s why DSLRs lose value. For you, the kit lens might be best because you might not be investing in good lenses in the future
This was a photo from the FIRST engagement photoshoot I EVER did (they are now happily married, 3 years and going strong!).
I photographed it with a Nikon D50 – a weak camera by today’s standards, but hey, it worked
I want to stop before #3 and emphasize that should you want to make a living or part living out of photography, learn the relationships between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity, and understand how a camera meters and how to over- and under-expose. You should understand these because otherwise a DSLR in auto mode in your hand is not going to be that powerful as it can be.
3. You eventually plan on becoming a professional photographer
If you’re Nikon, start with D90, and please stay away from D80 or earlier (I had my D80 for about 6 months before I felt like trashing it). If you’re Canon, start with a 50D – no Rebels. If you cannot afford either, you could do #2 and get a used camera to at least build up a portfolio and then trade up, because again, getting your skills developed is more important than having top of the line gear. Eventually you will have to move up to the full frame cameras. Do NOT get a kit lens – start yourself off with a 50mm lens – both Nikon and Canon have one that’s right under $100. I still use my 50mm frequently. Shoot lots, rent some lenses (Calumet Photo has really reasonable rental rates if you’re in one of the cities it serves, otherwise, try LensProToGo), and immediately start understanding what lenses you’ll have to get. The lens is more important than the body once the body is decent. Here’s what I’ve personally found useful: 85mm or 135mm for really zoomed in portraits, 35mm and 50mm for photojournalistic, 24mm for wide shots. I rarely carry the 70-200mm because right now it’s not a range I personally want and it’s too heavy for me. This website – the-digital-picture.com – has GREAT lens reviews.
This was my D80 with the kit lens mounted the day I got it. I had so many headaches and dislikes with this camera from a professional standpoint, was very happy to upgrade
4. You want to be a wedding photographer
Get full frame cameras as soon as you’re able. Invest in about 3 – 4 lenses to cover the wide range. Learn how to use a flash and have at least one flash, if not two. My friends James Federico of The Feds teaches a great flash workshop in Boston. I know, I walked around touting “natural lighting” for a couple months too before Boston winters hit me. If you’re photographing in New England or other metropolitan cities with cold weather where we don’t have as many pretty outdoor weddings, you can’t not learn flash and do wedding photography.
This link is a list of my current equipment. Also, I use Nikon batteries – OEM only. I once tried third party Adorama batteries and they just sucked, wouldn’t charge well.
This is my Think Tank bag fully packed before a wedding, with the Shootsac nearby
Then you will also be hit with a plethora of options in terms of what bags to get. It’s really a personal preference and you may find yourself switching them out every now and then.
Here’s a list of what I have:
Shootsac - for every day shooting and holding my lenses. This is not a camera bag – you have to hold your camera, which is why it is a great bag for shooting. It is too flimsy to protect your lenses in transit
ThinkTank Airport International – This is the carry-on I use whenever I travel and I got it with the optional low divider set so my laptop can slide in on top. The only complaint I have about it is that the international version (which is slightly smaller than the Airport Security bag) doesn’t have the best attachment for the light stand. However, as long as your light stand can stay attached, airlines count it as part of your bag, and you can remove it and stash it beneath the seat in front of you when you fly.
This is a list of other things I’ve bought and found useful over the years
Sandisk CF cards – you will need a lot, and I don’t go above 8GB, in fact if I didn’t shoot that much at weddings I’d even stick with 4GB cards. Why? What if I lost a whole 32GB card of photos from a wedding? Better lose 2 hrs of photos than everything.
Eneloop rechargeable batteries – The only brand of rechargeables that last a reasonable amount of time
Backup system – I am not the foremost expert on backup systems, but if you are going to be a serious professional, a lot of your investment needs to be in this area. Preferably redundant, multiple systems! I currently use a combination of online, computer, portable hard drive, and DVD disc backup.
La Crosse battery chargers – charges batteries one by one, can do discharge, and you can control the rate of charge
LG External CD/DVD Burner and Drive – there must be updated versions of this, but this has become of my favorite peripherals. It uses only one USB portal, it’s cheap, works quickly, and I’ve had very, very few faulty burns
Sensor Swab – to clean your dirty sensors
Nikon lens pen – cheap, fast way to clean that lens. I always keep 2 with me
Moo.com business cards – people love my business cards because they’re quality.
5. You’re a friend of a photographer and want to gift them something
I get most of my gear from either Amazon or Adorama or B&H, but as you can also see, there many other places to get stuff. So cash is king! Don’t risk buying them books – many books become outdated quickly due to the quick development in computer software and camera hardware. Don’t buy frames either… professional photographers love making giant canvases of their work and these photographs come with their own frames.
Oh if you’re my friend and want to gift me something, feel free to donate to the Shang Chen Photography lens fund. Each of my next lens purchases will be around $2000! Hahah just kidding (about the gift part, wish I could kid about the lens price tag)
To end the post, me taking my meal break during Sue and Ryan’s wedding at the Boston Public Library, in the Bates Hall reading room no less! (Thanks Christina for the shot!)