Photography tips: First edition, gear, gear and more gear!

There is a massive amount of info on the internet to help you improve your photography. The point of this blog is to inform a novice photographer who is looking to improve the quality of their photos or just learn some new tips.   I decided to start blogging on this topic because over the years I’d get questions from friends, family, co-workers time and again. What should I buy? What’s a good camera? What do I need and how did you take that photo?!

This 1st blog post will focus on the “gear”. I’m not going to cover every piece of equipment out there, but I’m going to cover the basics of what I’d buy if I was starting at square one.

This is just my opinion but knowledge on photography generally falls into 3 broad areas and I’ll blog on each of them eventually.

  1. The gear!  All the cool stuff you need to make great photos. Cameras, tripods, various lenses, filters, flashes and on and on.
  2. The technical stuff.  How the camera works, understanding what an f-stop is, what ISO is,  adjusting settings and the giant world of post processing images in computer programs.
  3. The “art”.  This is about seeing and making great compositions that cause a viewer to pause and contemplate the subject. There are some general “rules” you can learn about composing great images, but remember breaking composition rules is always allowed in the world of photography!

The gear.  When I first got into photography around 1998 shortly after getting married and at the dawn of the digital camera,  I mistakenly thought I needed expensive equipment to take great photos. In some cases this is true, but it’s not a requirement to make compelling images. Some of the best photo’s I’ve ever seen were taken on low-end consumer grade digital cameras that cost a few hundred dollars. What I came to learn is that developing a strong understanding of how your camera works and marrying that knowledge with some basics in creative composition is what takes you to the next level in the quality of your images. You don’t have to know everything but you need to know some core things about your equipment to really use your camera creatively. If all you ever do is leave the camera in the “A” or automatic mode, you really limit your creative possibilities.

Don’t go nuts on gear! Have you ever heard of the military industrial complex? I like to say there is a photography industrial complex. There are thousands of manufacturers out there working to part you from your hard-earned dollars….and let me tell you in my early years they did just that.  It’s important to know that there will always be the next new thing or must have gadget that “will transform your photos”. Try not to get too distracted with all the gear possibilities and stay focused on what matters most to you.

Cameras! Hey what about Smartphones?!  Yes, I know the stats, more pictures are taken on smartphones than any other device by a large factor. I may do a blog on that at some point. That said, Smartphones still have some significant disadvantages when it comes to creative composition and technical capability compared to an SLR camera.  Smartphones are a great complement to an SLR for its versatility and ability to quickly capture a scene to help you refine your composition or quickly capture a fleeting moment. Also some smartphone tech is bleeding into SLR cameras (like wireless support, integration with mobile apps and more) and some SLR tech is bleeding over to phones (like Iphone 7 low light capabilities for example). For now I’m going to focus on what pro and amateur photographers are using today and that’s predominantly SLRs.  I recommend you start with a good solid Digital SLR camera that supports interchangeable lenses like a Canon Rebel or Nikon D series camera. Another possible option is what is called mirrorless ILC (Interchangeable lens camera).   Sony, Olympus and a few others are releasing some great “Mirrorless” cameras these days.   Mirrorless cameras are evolving quickly so worth considering.  Mirrorless aren’t quite as capable as an SLR in areas such as light sensitivity and image quality but they are cheaper, lighter and improving all the time.  If you look at my Badlands post these were all taken with a mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M1. Overall I was impressed with most of the image quality, particularly ones in full day light. Here are some examples to give you and idea of the size differences between a comparable MILC and DSLR. As you can see the mirrorless is much smaller and lighter, which is appealing if you are walking around all day with a camera and extra gear.

Canon 5d Mark III on left, Olympus OM-D E-M1 on the right. The Canon has a 17-40mm lens and the Olympus has a 12-40mm, so close in range. Both are pro class lenses. 

So why are mirrorless cameras and lenses so much smaller? You can skip this part if the reason doesn’t matter to you.  An SLR camera has a mechanic shutter that remains open until you press the shutter button. With the shutter open it reflects the image (light) coming through the lens to the viewfinder to the top of the camera. What you are actually seeing is a reflection off a little tiny mirror in the camera showing you what the light is reflecting through the lens. When you press the shutter the mirror retracts and the light is exposed directly to the sensor capturing the image, then it swings back open again so you can “see” through the lens.  This is why if you watch closely you’ll see the viewfinder go dark for an instant when you press the shutter. I know complicated isn’t it? All the parts that contribute to this fancy dance add size and weight to the camera. The lenses that accompany DSLRs also tend to have more glass elements in them to improve image quality. Mirrorless cameras have no mechanical shutter or mirror to reflect the light. The light goes directly to the digital sensor which is displayed on the camera LCD on the back showing you a live view of the scene. (Note some DSLRs support live view as well…and I highly recommend this feature). Most mirrorless cameras don’t have a viewfinder on the top of the camera and if they do it’s showing you a digital image not an actual mirror image of the scene. All of this is what makes them much lighter, less parts inside both the camera and the lenses.

When choosing a camera, if possible go try out a few different options at a camera shop. Costco has a pretty nice variety of entry-level DSLRs on display. Poke around and play with a few to see how you like the way it “feels” in your hands. Pick it up, turn it over hold it up to eye level, try moving some of the controls both while you are looking at them and while you have the camera at eye level. Can you easily find the controls? Does it seem intuitive to you?   I’m personally partial to Canon, but my very first SLR was a Olympus and as you can see I’ve come back to them to try mirrorless. There are many great quality cameras from a variety of manufacturers. If you like reviews, two of my favorite sites are Tomsguide and DPreview.

When and where to buy? If you are on a budget, consider used. There are always new models coming out and people selling their old equipment, much of it in like new condition. If you go used proceed with caution and make sure you can return to a reputable seller if there is an issue. Check the sellers history (in the case of ebay) and ask many questions before buying. Get close up pictures of the camera or lens and ask about any repairs or damage before committing to the purchase.  If you prefer new, buy near Christmas as this is when you’ll see some of the best deals.  Also consider getting the “old” model right after the mfg releases the next-gen of the camera. Often retailers are discounting the old model to get it out of inventory. This is how i bought my mirrorless Olympus.

Where to buy is preference. Im comfortable buying over the internet but you may not want to do that for your 1st purchase. Most camera equipment is made in Japan or southeast asia so it tends to get shipped in on the coasts. I’ve personally found B&H Photo Video out of NY to be one of the best online camera shops.  (they also have a massive store in Brooklyn but I’ve never been there). They have very good pricing, great inventory and great customer service.  If you want to buy local, just know that you may pay a little more in a camera shop, Costco, Walmart etc but it may be worth it to be able to touch and feel before you buy.

Tripods! What you’ll come to find is that often great photos were taken from a camera mounted on a tripod. There are many reasons to have a tripod 1) it forces you to slow down, take time and compose. 2) It allows you to steady the camera to avoid blur in your photos caused by camera shake.  3) Some images, like close up or macro, require getting very close to the subject in often awkward positions. The tripod can really help in these situations.

There are a wide variety of tripods made in various materials ranging from expensive but lightweight carbon fiber to aluminum (popular) and steel.  Generally carbon fiber tripods are the most expensive.  I recommend trying out a few different options at a camera shop. Retail camera shops are few and far between these days but if you have one nearby this is an item worth experimenting with before buying. Generally you’ll want to get a tripod that is strong enough to hold your camera with your heaviest lens.  If you get a tripod that has a “center post” which adjusts up and down, make sure you get a tripod that is tall enough to be at standing eye level with the center post in the full down position.  I recommend this because in many cases you won’t want to extend the center post much as this will make the tripod “top-heavy” and unstable causing the very shake you are trying to avoid. Also if you end up doing macro (close up) photography, often you’ll need to get a tripod very low to the ground and in odd angles. A center post that can’t be removed will immediately make this nearly impossible. If you do get a tripod with a center post, make sure it can be removed if needed. Unfortunately when you research tripods some manufactures list the max height of the tripod with the center post extended to max height. Again, this is a mistake I learned the hard way and why I recommend trying out tripods in person.  So get a measuring tape, stand up and measure from the ground to your eye level in inches. You’ll want at least this as the max height of the tripod with the center post down, not fully extended. Also, as you do more work in nature with uneven surfaces you’ll come to find that having a tripod that can extend above your eye height is useful. There will be times when the ground is uneven and you need to extend the tripod legs beyond what you normally would on an even surface. In this photo below I was standing on a hill with 2 tripod legs fully extended down the slope. Without the extra height of the tripod legs, I would have been bent over trying to look into the view finder. I stood watching this deer slowly move up the hill for about 20 minutes until the light was just right. If I had to crouch down for 20 min my back would have been killing me. _MG_8067-Edit-2-Edit-Edit

Some of my favorite tripod manufacturers are Really Right Stuff (RRS), Manfrotto, Gitzo and SLIK, but there are many more. Today I own both a Manfrotto and RRS. Top is the RRS pro tripod with no center post. Bottom is the Manfrotto with a center post half extended. Close up of a ballhead.

Ballheads. I bet you never thought that would be a word in your vocabulary! That said learn it because it will make your life much easier. Again another costly lesson I learned. I started with a somewhat inflexible complex adjusting head on my 1st tripod that had all these different dials and levers I had to adjust and it drove me nuts. Ballheads are much easier to manipulate as they can basically turn in nearly any direction you want with just a quick spin of a dial , swivel the head and spin the dial back again to lock it in. This will save you a ton of frustration when you are composing shots.  There are many brands out there but I use a Really Right Stuff ballhead with quick release plates. Again, you don’t need to go expensive here, get the basic one to start. Manfrotto has some reasonable priced ballheads too. Also these ballheads tend to be universal fit meaning you can just screw them on to nearly any tripod, so you can have a Gitzo tripod with a RRS ballhead. This is an area where mix and match can be useful. Initially you are fine just sticking with the whole setup from one tripod brand.

Plates: you’ll want to get an extra ballhead locking plate too if you have more than one camera so you aren’t constantly having to unscrew the palate and switch it to swap to the other camera.

Lenses: If you are unsure what type of photography you are interested in, start with just the standard kit lens when you buy your 1st camera. Generally the kit lens will be either a single midrange lens like the one shown below (18-55mm). Sometimes the kit will also come with a telephoto lens like the 75-300mm to help you zoom in closer to subjects. This is a nice starter kit to get nearly anyone going. Most of the manufactures offer something similar.

Rebel kit
Image credit to Canon USA  

If you plan to do sports photography or take pictures of fast moving subjects (like kids)…I’ll cover that in a later blog post, but suffice it to say you may decide to invest in a higher quality telephoto lens. Getting good action shots in different lighting conditions and distances can be challenging. For example your kid charging down the basket ball court in a somewhat dimly lit gym from 25 yards away often takes a higher quality lens. Without a fast lens most of the images will turn out blurry and you’ll be frustrated. Entry level telephoto lenses just don’t cut it for “fast” shots, particularly in indoor or low light. But again, start with the reasonable priced stuff first.  You won’t need to get nuts like the guys you see on the sidelines at pro sports with the lens that look like they are shooting a bazooka, but you may need to step up to a slightly higher quality glass and it will make all the difference.

The dirty little secret about lenses! As you start to get deeper into creative photography what you’ll discover is that it’s all about the lenses.  And the lenses can be expensive as you move up in quality and capability. This is because they are finely engineered objects with precision parts inside. It’s not inexpensive to make a high quality lens.  The camera matters,  but at a certain point you’ll discover you want to upgrade to higher quality lenses to get better photos. This is where this hobby can get expensive.   When you get to this point it’s important to know what type of photography you are most drawn to as that will inform the type of lens you want to invest in first. Do you like to shoot super wide-angle dramatic shots. Do you like to shoot birds in flight or fast moving action sports (Canon 70-200 F4 or F2.8)? Do you like to shoot street scenes and architecture (tilt shift lens or 50mm f1.4)? Intimate portraits (100mm 2.8)? Close up macro shots of flowers (60 or 100mm Macro lens)? Knowing this will help you pick that 1st expensive lens to invest in. My 1st expensive lens was a Canon pro series 24-105mm L lens at about $750. It’s still my favorite lens to this day for its sharpness and versatility . It cost more than my camera at that time. This isn’t uncommon, but just realize you don’t have to do this. It’s just where many photographers end up when they want to move their photos to the next level. Don’t feel like you have to make this investment now, but just know that it may get to this point eventually. So when you get here you need to really know what type of photography you are passionate about so you can match that to the best pro lens. And make friends with a rich photographer so you can buy their used lenses when they upgrade!

Other must have gadgets: One of the best gear tips I ever got was …Hoodman Loupe! An absolute necessity for digital cameras so you can see the image on the lcd after you take it. Without this you’ll constantly struggle to see what you just took, particularly in daylight. Extension tubes: If you can’t afford a dedicated macro lens, these are an inexpensive way to modify a regular lens to allow it to focus much closer. Photo backpacks. There are hundreds of options here, so again do a bit of research before committing to a backpack. Or you can buy one of the 8 backpacks I no longer use! Don’t make my mistake and think you need a special backpack for every situation.

Filters.  If you plan to take nature photos, a few filters I highly recommend are a circular polarizer and a Neutral Density filter.  First the Polarizing filter. Both of these filters screw to the end of your lens so the light filters through to the image sensor. A polarizer can be used in many situations but most often used to darken sky’s to give a deep rich feel to the sky and clouds and to remove annoying “glare” in scenes. I use this filter nearly every time I’m in a forest taking photos. It helps to remove the waxy glare that often stands out in on leaves and other greenery where it’s reflecting the light. You just spin the filter as you are looking through your viewfinder and you’ll see that awful glare disappear. It’s like magic!  Depending on how bright it is you can also use it to generally darken a scene to show down action and get that smooth cottony look to water flowing…but this depends largely on how bright it is and the speed of your camera.

Image credit to 

The Neutral Density filter plays a specific role which gets a little more technical but bare with me. There are times when you are shooting a subject in daylight and you want to “slow” down the motion to get a blur effect, say a cotton look to a waterfall or running water in a stream. If it’s too bright out you may not be able to block enough light from the camera sensor to get the shutter to stay open long enough to get that blur look. This is where the Neutral Density filter comes in. You spin the filter and it adds darkening or light blocking without degrading the image quality. Think very expensive high-end sunglasses where you can dial how dark they go. You can adjust the darkness by spinning the filter to get the slow down effect you are looking for. Below is an example of a daytime shot where I used my Neutral Density filter to slow down the water flow by dialing it to block light to the sensor so the shutter could remain open longer without over exposing (making it look too bright). This effect works great for waterfalls and running rivers.


So I’m tired after writing all that so that’s it for now. I’ll be back soon with blog 2 on the “technical” stuff, then wrap up with the “Art” of photography.


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