Friday, March 11, 2011

Photography Friday--The Starter Camera Bag

Several weeks ago, my Mom's Group asked me to give a talk about photography, and I think we covered a lot of great info. I often receive emails asking similar questions, and so I thought I'd go ahead and write a series on the blog {plus, I've been slacking in the taking-pictures department recently, and perhaps this will help move me along!}.I haven't totally nailed down all the different topics that I'd like to cover, so if you have any suggestions or things that you'd like me to talk about, I'd love to hear from you!

With tax time upon us, I've noticed an influx of posts asking about what I like to call the "starter camera bag"--basically, someone who has a relatively new interest in photography and/or is considering buying a dslr camera for the first time. Today, I'd like to cover my opinions about the starter dslr camera bag--and please keep in mind that these are just my opinions, and some of them are quite unpopular!

1. The first thing you should ask yourself is whether you really need/want a dslr camera.
Dslr cameras are not for everyone, and there's no shame in that. It is possible to take some really amazing photos with a standard point and shoot camera. In fact, some of today's point and shoot cameras offer many of the features of a dslr camera (such as control over aperture), save for the ability to swap out lenses. My sister has a camera similar to the Nikon Coolpix P100 and really likes that it's like a point-and-shoot/dslr hybrid.

It's my personal opinion that if you think you'll mostly shoot in full auto, your money is better spent on a point-and-shoot camera than a dslr. There's often a mentality that the better camera you have, the better pictures you'll get...and as a general rule, that's just not the case. Ansel Adams once said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it," and I'm a firm believer in this statement. While better quality cameras have the capability to take better pictures, their ability to do so is often hugely dependent on the knowledge of the person behind the camera. If you're interested in learning to control your ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and focus on your own, a dslr camera might be a better fit for you.

2. Should I pick Canon, Nikon, or some other brand?
In my opinion, this is totally personal preference. I picked a Canon dslr because I used a Canon slr for my photography courses, and felt most comfortable with the setup and layout of the camera. Additionally, most of my slr lenses could be used with the dslr camera (though, the focal length is multiplied by 1.5--my 50mm slr lens functions like a 75mm lens on my dslr)  My best advice is to go to a store where you can actually hold the camera that you're considering in your hands. Make sure that the locations of buttons, menus, and toggles makes sense to you, and try out another brand or two to see if their setup makes more sense or less sense to you.

3. I've heard the kit lenses are garbage, so what should I buy instead?
Right off the bat, I need to tell you that my opinion goes against the grain in this area. It is not the popular opinion. AT ALL. See, I firmly believe that the kit lenses that come with 98% of dslr cameras are *not* garbage. In fact, people referring to them as being garbage really irks me. It almost seems like it's become a popular thing to do to bash kit lenses and imply that they have no use and just simply can't take good photos.  And it drives me crazy, because you absolutely CAN take beautiful photos with a kit lens. They are GREAT lenses for the price point. Check out this Flickr Group, cheekily titled Kit Lens Losers. You cannot tell me that there are not some absolutely beautiful photos in that group.

In addition, here's a few of my more recent photos taken with my kit (18-55mm) lens:






I can take high-quality pictures with the kit lens. So why all the hate? It seems to me that this kit lens hate often comes from two distinct types of people (a) professional/ more advanced photographers whose needs have surpassed that of a kit lens (more on this in a second) and (b) people who have little understanding of photography basics, but have picked up a dslr camera, are shooting in full auto, and are now wondering why they aren't getting the beautiful pictures they see on blogs.

For someone who is just starting out with their first dslr camera, the kit lens is a great versatile lens to learn on. It's my (unpopular) belief, that it's actually a good idea to start out with the kit lens, and really learn your camera. Get really familiar with the basics of exposure, depth of field, light, composition, etc. Find out which types of photography you enjoy and want to continue pursuing (i.e. portraiture, macros, landscapes, sports). If you begin to find yourself with a limitation that you can't work around, THEN consider purchasing a lens that would allow you to overcome that specific limitation--because there are definitely limitations when it comes to the kit 18-55mm lenses that explain why the serious pros don't use the kit lens on a day to day basis. The three that I hear most often are that it's slow to auto-focus (which can be worked around if you learn how to focus manually), that it isn't as sharp/contrasty as some of the pro quality lenses (which I will happily work around in Photoshop since I don't have the budget to spend $1500 on an equivalent pro-quality lens), and that it's higher f/stop doesn't allow you to easily shoot in the dark or achieve bokeh (blurry background) as easily.

While it's worth mentioning that there are plenty of times when you simply wouldn't want an f/stop lower than 3.5 because it creates a very narrow depth of field with a smaller portion of the photo in focus, that last limitation quickly became something that I couldn't consistently work around because I did want to shoot portraits with a narrow depth or field so that I could create that blurry bokeh in the background. So, I purchased my nifty fifty lens, the Canon 50mm f/1.8. And along with a 75-300mm f/5.6 lens (which was part of the package when I purchased my Canon Rebel XS) and my 18-55mm kit lens....that's what's in my camera bag. Yes, that's it.

Would I love to have the Tamron 28-75mm f/ 2.8 as a run-around lens with more aperture capability or the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 as a macro lens? Yes! And while I think I'm at a point in my photography skills that I could put them to good use, I also haven't reached the point where they are truly NEEDS opposed to WANTS {nor are they within the budget at this time}.

4. What about an external flash?
I'm really not a good person to give advice about a flash, because I don't own one. I prefer natural light photography, and tend to avoid a flash whenever possible. I've gone back and forth about purchasing a basic speedlite, but I'm not sure that I tend to do enough weddings or studio shoots to make it a worthwhile investment. I do have a Lightscoop, which I use with some frequency when taking pictures of Lizzy inside our house to bridge the gap between natural light and an external flash and would definitely recommend it!

5. I don't have time to read all your babbling. Sum up the Starter DSLR Bag for me?
Look for a basic camera body of about 10-14 megapixels--any brand will do. I highly recommend the kit lens in your starter bag, possibly along with a 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8 if you'd like to do portraits or have bokeh. I recommend the Lightscoop as a starting point while you decide whether or not you need a speedlite. I also highly recommend some sort of post-processing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom (Personally, I have Photoshop, but have only heard good things about Lightroom) to help you enhance the photos that you do take.

So, that's it! Please note that none of the products mentioned were paid endorsements...they're simply products I own and love or items that I have a lot of familiarity with and wish that I owned! As I said up top, if you have anything that you'd like me to cover as a photography topic, please leave a comment--two things that I definitely plan to touch on in the coming weeks are using the 50mm lens and how to pick a photographer for family portraits :)


  1. Wow, this was really insightful!! I really want to learn to take sme better pics of my children. Photography just makes me smile, lol

  2. Excellent article!

    I, too, don't get all the hatred towards the kit lens. I don't use my 18-55 all to often but when I do, I have no problems with it. And let's face it, sometimes the 50mm doesn't work indoors when you have limited space. I don't have the budget yet for a wide angle prime lens so for now the kit lens works just fine.

    I also agree that the kit lens is a great way to be introduced to the slr world. I think I would have been overwhelmed with my 50/1.4 had I got it right away. The kit lens definitely let me hoan in on my needs.

    May I add that Photoshop Elements is a great "starter" and MUCH cheaper photo processing software. I use the full blown PS version but I know so many have benefited from Elements. I even follow a professional photographer who uses it 100%!

  3. I loved this post all the way, I own a DLSR camera since a year ago and I totally agree with you, I haven't given it a decent use just yet.
    Love to take pics, but I have decided I need to take classes so I can give it the use it deserves.
    Thank for all the usefull info.
    also if you can recommend any site, info resource for begginers It'd be greatly appreciated.

  4. I have to say I love my external flash.... Our house is so dark in the winter time here and it seems near impossible some days to take a picture without it. I definitely bounce the light off walls/windows instead of pointing it directing at the subject (Jaxon) though. I hate the "flashy" look!

    I love my kit lens too! :)

  5. love, love, LOVE this post. I'm so happy to see that I'm not the only one who actually likes my kit lens. while I don't prefer it for the type of photography I'm attempting, it was a great starter lens for me and I learned SO much about my camera and my capabilities by using the kit lens.

    we have almost the same camera bag! I also invested in the nifty fifty (but at f1.4, which was a surprise upgrade from hubs!) and I just got a 55-250 for my birthday that I've been playing around with.

    great post, Meredith! love the advice! in my opinion, the best way to learn how to photograph is with lots of practice! :)

  6. The crop factor on Canon cameras is actually 1.6. :)

    I agree with you that for someone just starting out the kit lens actually isn't an awful fit if you have no idea what you will want in a lens in the future.

    I think a good speedlight (at least the 430EX or higher or canon) is great to have in your camera bag if you can afford it.

  7. Great post! For the longest time, my kit 18-55mm lens was the only one I had, and some of my favorite photos were captured with it.


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