Friday, October 15, 2010

Building your first Photography Kit

I really enjoy helping people learn about a topic I’m passionate about. Like zombies. And photography. Photography probably being more practical… but ya know. I’ve just recently in the last year began building my photo/filmmaking kit. I’ve stretched myself thin buying the camera I want and a couple lenses. So I want to take a few minutes and give some lessons I’ve learned from others, and learned from my own experience (sometimes the hard way…) so that maybe you can improve, or at least get off to a better start than I did.

Now, it should be known, this may not work exactly right for everyone. But I will assume you’re a starving student like I was, choosing to buy equipment instead of eating, like I also did. However I don’t recommend this. Most artists’ work doesn’t become famous until after they’re dead. But that doesn’t mean you should rush the process. :p

Camera Body
All right, so you’re looking into a new camera, possibly your first. DSLRs are a beautiful way to go. Though they’re expensive to start with, they don’t have, as many recurring costs like Film will. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, which refers to the off set position of the lens and the eyepiece. A mirror reflects the image coming through the lens (which is upside down) up into a pentaprism, which flips the image right side up and makes it viewable for the photographer. When the camera trigger is pulled, the mirror is flipped out of the way, and then the film (or in the case of a DSLR the sensor) is exposed, creating the image. If you want more information about the process of film being exposed… uhh, we’ll go into that later. Right now I’m trying to help you build your basic kit. Stop distracting me :p haha

Why was all that important? It wasn’t really… except now you’ll understand why it’s called an SLR. So what brand do you buy? And then what model? Well… personally I feel this is based on a few things:
What are you doing with this camera? Is it strictly photography? Videography?
What’s your budget? Sky’s the limit? You’ve been saving for three years?
And finally what’s your experience level? A beginner may want something a little easier to learn on than something more "higher end."

**I’ve only used Canon’s and Nikon’s. So that is where my focus is going to be. I’ll stick more with Canon’s because that’s where I’ve been investing my money and in my opinion they’re the better camera. There’s nothing wrong with the other brands, but I’ll be referencing canon’s specifically as I don’t have as much personal experience with other brands.**

I think the biggest obstacle you’ll find is budget. Yes, it would be awesome to own the sweetest, fastest, hottest piece of technology out on the market… however if you’re just beginning, you’ll probably find this unnecessary. Both Canon and Nikon (and probably others as well) have several different models that fall into the different price ranges you’ll be looking at. For your first camera body, whatever your budget is, 2/3s of that should be for the body. Roughly. Just remember, camera bodies will come and go, lenses are the real investment.

So what are you doing with this camera? If it’s just for junior’s soccer game or family outings and you’d like minimal control of your functions… then I’d recommend a consumer level hand held camcorder. They’re a couple hundred dollars and they’ll do what you want. And this blog won’t apply too much to you.

Some of the things that should help determine which camera is in your best interest are the features. Things like:
The ISO rating (in DSLR terms, this is representative and not quite the same thing as it is in film.) which represents the sensitivity to light of the sensor. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” you’ll find in your image.

The size of the sensor. The larger the sensor, the more shallow Depth of Field (the amount of the shot, which is in focus) can become (which is one of the big reasons while moviemaking with DSLR’s is become so popular. This also increases the cameras sensitivity to light, allowing it to be used in lower light conditions with less noise.

How many pictures it can take in a second (though this is really only a crucial thing in sports photography and performance photography.)

These are some of the factors you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. Depending on what you’re using your camera for will help determine which camera to get.

So what are you using this camera for? I got off on a tangent a little bit trying to get you thinking about you’re really wanting to accomplish here. Traveling, and taking photos of the family. You’ll probably be fine with a simple point and shoot camera. However if you’re looking at something for art, portraits, or possibly sports photography then a DSLR is the way to go. Now evaluate whether you really need that “recording video” function. Is it really necessary? It is becoming standard on a lot of cameras, so you may not really need to worry about NOT getting it and instead you’ll just have it as an option.

I’m a filmmaker though. Photography is fun, and occasionally it pays the bills. But I bought my Canon 7d to help with making movies. Not all models have a physical button you push to start and stop video recording. Some you have to go into the menu and do it that way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (the Canon 5d mk2 doesn’t have this function, but it’s sensor is bigger than the 7d resulting in a better image), however it’s annoying not to have a little switch on the body of the camera. Personally, I’d recommend you look at budget and see what you can afford. The Canon 7d gained popularity because it shoots 1080 at 24p (24p is the closest to cinema film cameras that digital cameras have come to so far.) and really gives it that filmic look. It also has other options like shooting at 30 frames per second, or 60 frames per second.

**Tangent to clarify. For those that are wondering: 1080 is what is defined as “high definition.” If you have a HD TV, it is probably 1080 pixels vertically. 24, 30, 60 are the number of frames per second in relation to the number of times a screen is refreshed. “P” or progressive and “I” for Interlaced refer to the way the image is refreshed. I can go into that some other time. Or feel free to Google it. There are a lot of people who are better informed than me. Or at least will explain it more clearly haha.

So really, when determining the body, it’s about budget. I wanted the 7d because it had the features I wanted. I happened to get a really good deal on it, but normally it’s going to cost you roughly $1600-1700 just for the body. The Canon Rebel t2i has almost identical internals as the 7d, but is half the price because it’s ISO isn’t as high, and its build isn’t quite as good of quality. Still a really good camera though. It can be found here.

To kit or not to kit lens…

Everywhere you go, you’ll hear professionals complain about the kit lens that comes with the camera. And they’re right too. It is not a great lens. It usually stretches from a wide angle to somewhere in the 100mm range and the largest aperture it has is usually f3.5. Which is not that great. Really, your decision to get the kit lens or not should be based on your budget again. If you’re set on the canon 7d and have an extra $2000 for lenses, don’t waste money on the kit lens. Buy the body, and take that extra $200 you saved and put it towards a better lens. If you’re already struggling and know that “2/3’s” of your budget for a body is stretching it, get the kit lens. It’s not a lens that will blow you away, but it will get the job done. And sometimes, when you’re just getting started that’s the most important thing. I did not buy a kit lens. Instead I bought a couple of prime lenses and found myself really wishing I had a lens with some focal variability. I eventually bought something a little better than the kit lens, but I’m already looking to replace it.

So look at your budget and decide what you can afford. And for the rest of this, I’m going to assume you’re reading this and wanting to shoot for filmmaking, not really photography. However, this will still be useful for beginning photographers, I’m just going to talk more about it from the filmmakers stand point as that’s what I know more of.

So regardless of what you’ve decided about your kit lens, you might want to look at some other lenses. If you’re going with Canon, you’re going to hear about the L series lenses. The cream of the crop (I’m not even sure what that saying means… but yeah) and the bee’s knees (again… weird way to describe awesome). And they are some of the finest glass you’re going to find. However… for filmmaking, these probably aren’t the way to go. First of all, their prices are very expensive for anything with an f-stop below 2.4. Second, they’re too sharp. A lot of reviewers complain that for filmmaking they are too crisp. I was surprised to see so many people say that you should NOT use L series lenses for Filmmaking with a DSLR.

Now, there are companies coming out with cinema style lenses that are designed to help the filmmaker bridge that gap between DSLR and Cinema lenses, some even modding their cameras to take cinema lenses (PL mounts, which permanently alter a DSLR’s body.). Companies like Zeiss, which are known for an extremely high focal radius, and sharp, fast glass. But these are going to cost you your first-born grandchildren.
That’s a bit extreme, but you get the idea. So lets look at some lenses that might be good if you want a kit with one, two or possibly three lenses.

The first one I bought, I adore and it’s probably the one that’s on my camera the most often. It’s a Canon 50mm EF 1.8, or the “nifty fifty.” It’s about $100 and for the price, you can’t go wrong. My only wish is that the focal ring we’re located in a different position, but… I won’t complain too hard at that price. For about $200 more you can get a 50mm 1.4 from canon, which I keep hearing is amazing. But that 1.8 works great for someone on a tight budget and I think it’s the first lens you HAVE to have for your kit if you’re going to be filmmaking.

**Note: this is a prime lens, and does not do any kind of zoom at all. That’s part of why it can have such a wide aperture and still be so cheap.

The second I feel is a must is one I wish I had known about earlier. It’s the Tokina 11-16mm EFS f2.8. I’ve used this lens for a project. It was awesome and having that slight variability in focal length was huge. It might be a little more spendy than you’d like to spend right away, so maybe save this purchase for a little later into your film career. It’s $700 and sometimes a bit of a trick to track down. I find several on, but if you’d like reviews to read, I’d recommend viewing the item on B&H.

**Note: notice the EFS after the focal length of the lens? Not in the link, but the actual description of the lens. That means it’s for a crop sensor, as found in the 7d, and t2i and 1d (although the 1d will vignette a bit with this lens). This camera was specifically built for the crop sensor in the named cameras. For full frame sensors, look for EF as found in the nifty fifty. All EF lenses will work on crop sensors, but EFS lenses won’t work for full frame sensors so keep that in mind. I’ll talk about that more later when I get to sensors.

Finally I think I think it’s important to have some variable focal length lenses, or zoom lenses. You’ll sacrifice larger apertures for affordability, but you’ll be able to cover a wider focal range. Which I think becomes important when you have to do some photography, or just to cover all your bases. This is an area where there’s a lot of debate. I’m still torn here, as I’m not sure what I want. I want L series lenses for photography, but that goes against what I said earlier for filmmaking. A lot of times, what I’ve read from the high-end professionals are: find two lenses that will cover your 28mm-100mm range, and then one that will cover your 100-300mm range. Chase Jarvis uses a Nikkor 24-70 and a Nikkor 70-200mm for his Nikon cameras. Although he’s a photographer. His video guy uses an 18-200mm Nikkor lens. It all just depends. For now… look for something that will cover the bases, and then later look to upgrade. That’s currently where I’m at.

Future Proofing:
This is kind of a simple idea: Bodies come and go, but lenses are the investment. Or lenses are forever. Lenses are a women’s best friend. Wait… well whatever version of this saying you, take and live by just remember that the lenses are what last. So when looking to buy lenses, for whatever camera you start to use, make sure they’re future proof. As in: EF lenses will work on all of Canon’s EOS DSLR’s. The EFS lenses will not however work on the full frame sensor found in the Canon 5d. So buying EFS lenses is fine, as long as you don’t upgrade to the 5d, which a lot of people seem to like to do. Just keep this in mind and pay attention to the lenses you’re getting. It would be awful to spend all your money on EFS lenses, upgrade to a 5d and realize you have no lenses to put on it. Shop smart! Shop S-Mart!

You probably know what a tripod is. It’s that three legged thing that stabilizes your camera. This is an essential piece of kit. And yes, you can buy tripods for as little as $100 and they’ll get the job done. This might not be a bad way to go. But if you’re looking for something with a little more class and something that acts more like a tripod used in filmmaking, then you’re looking for something with a “fluid head.” A fluid head simply allows for smooth pans (making the camera point left to right) tilt (look up and down.). There’s all sorts of cool and fancy things you can also get like hydraulic things that make the head piston up to get your camera higher, and spikes in the feet and things like this. You’ll also hear a lot of times that the only tripod worth getting is Manfrotto, or (insert another name here). What happens here is you end up paying more for the name than necessarily the quality of the tripod. Manfrotto is good, and you’d have a great tripod if you chose them. But there are several tripod companies that are less well known that work pretty well. However, this is an area that’s hard to tell you what YOU need. Personally I’d recommend going into a photography shop, trying several out with your camera on it, and then ordering it online (sorry small businesses…). There are a couple that you can get that seem to be pretty nice deals. The one I’m ordering comes with a bag for the tripod and dolly wheels. It’s $219, which is pretty hard to go wrong with.

Just remember:
Fluid head for smooth movements.
Some sort of leveling bubble, or some sort of leveling helper. DO NOT EYE BALL IT! Please. I beg you. Get a tripod with a leveling device.
A bag is nice.
Dolly wheels are totally unnecessary at this stage, but if they come with the tripod… why not.

Hopefully that helps a little bit. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but so much personal preference comes into buying the tripod, I really feel I can just say, “pick which one you can afford that you like the best.”

Here’s a list of several more things you really should squeeze into your budget. There are some things on here that I wish I had more of, and suffer from not having.

1. Batteries: I think when you’re just starting out; having a spare battery is probably sufficient. But two would be awesome. I desperately need a spare battery. Don’t make my mistake.

2. Memory cards: Whether it’s CF, P2 or SD, get spares. Odds are it’s going to be a CF or SD card (I don’t think any DSLR uses p2). The company I’m in love with is Transcend. I have two 16gb cards in both CF (400x speed) and SD (Class 6). Both have been used and abused and they haven’t even so much as had a hiccup. They’re a lot cheaper than the big name brands, but they’re the exact same cards just with a different label. You can pick them up on for ridiculous prices…
(SD Cards)
(CF Cards)
You will also want card readers for these as well…

3. A Bag to protect your investment. Now… keep in mind, big flashy very obvious camera bags are great for carrying your gear, and for letting thieves know what you’re packing. Try to find things that are inconspicuous. I’m studying abroad in Australia right now and my bag passes pretty well as just a regular backpack. And it holds a lot of stuff. But there’s others out there that to do just as well, and might save you a few bucks. Shop around; see what you like and check review. I’ll include the link to the bag I bought.
This bag is amazing for run and gun if you’re carrying a few lenses and gear. It’s been with me for 8 months now and hasn’t started to show any wear and tear while hiking or traveling to the other side of the world. I love this bag. Plus the left side panel makes grabbing your camera very smooth if you’re surprised by a nice photo opp. And the adjustability of the compartments inside allows me to store all the filters I could dream of. And cards. And hard drives. And everything.

Now the rest of these are not must haves, but highly recommended and are generally really cheap. If you can afford better than “really cheap” do it. Because you do get what you pay for.

1. Filters: like the bag protects your investment, a lot of people use UV filters to protect the glass on their lenses. When you’re just starting, it’s perfectly fine to use a simple Zeikos UV filter to protect your glass. Those other more expensive ones are better… but they can wait until you have the money to afford them. The nice thing about the cheap filters are they usually come in packs for $10-20 depending on the size of your lens and you’ll also get a polarizer and a florescent filter.
(link) (this is the exact set you should use for the nifty fifty.)

2. ND Filters: these allow you to cut the light entering the camera while maintaining the settings you’ve chosen (like aperture for example.) ND stands for Neutral Density. This aren’t really a priority, but you can also find them really cheap on I have seen some variable ND filters which will run you a lot more, but then you’re using one filter for up to four stops of light.

3. Lens pen: these are cheap and sometimes you can get them included in a kit that you’re buying on amazon (that’s how I got mine.) on one end is a brush that gets any large particles off your lens, and the other is a coal covered disk which picks up any smaller particles and removes smudges. At $10, you might as well…

So I think that’s it for getting you started… I really hope this helps. It’s a lot longer than I had intended, but feel free to leave me any comments below with specific questions that I might be able to help with. I had planned to write about sensors and depth of field, but this is already 7 pages in word without double spacing and a lot longer than I had intended. So yeah ☺ good luck and let me know how it goes.


  1. HUGE post my friend. Definitely gives some good insight. Keep it up!

  2. Great info.
    One change though.... white lettering on black-background is hard to read for long periods of time... my eyes are wigging out right now. :)