CHOOSING THE RIGHT SYSTEM

Often I am approached by an amateur photographer asking what camera I would recommend. For anyone serious about photography, this is far too short-sighted of an approach. You must first consider choosing a camera system before selecting your camera.

A digital SLR is a very flexible platform upon which you can build an entire system of camera bodies, lenses, flashes, and accessories. Every manufacturer has proprietary mounts and attachment points so that the camera and accessories can be designed to work together beautifully. Before buying a camera for the first time, consider the company as a whole, including their lens selections, flash options, and professional lineup.

Too often I hear of photographers that sell all of their gear in order to purchase an equivalent set from another company that just released “the breakthrough camera.” Realize that camera companies go through cycles. A manufacturer will work on updating their professional camera lineup and afterward start releasing consumer cameras with features borrowed from their latest pro cameras, so a company’s selection might be better or worse depending on what part of the cycle they are in currently.

Camera companies will also go through cycles among themselves. One company may release a breakthrough product, only to be outdone six months later by a competitor releasing a better product in the same class. Those who jump ship to get the latest marvel will often be disappointed to see their original company come out with yet a better product. Each time a photographer sells his gear to switch systems, he is losing money that could have been invested in better gear in his current system.

The best course is to simply see where the company as a whole is focused. Some companies prefer to stick to consumer markets, where others will lean toward their professional lineup. Amateurs that are looking to develop their skills and opportunities should look to invest in a system from a company that offers products at their current skill level and better to have gear available to grow into.

WHAT COMPRISES A CAMERA SYSTEM?

A camera system is a set of gear built around a camera body that will include lenses, flashes, release cords, memory cards, and other items that are specific to that particular camera, usually made by one camera manufacturer.
A beginner may start with a simple system, such as a consumer camera and a wide angle lens. The real advantage of the camera system is that one part of the system can be upgraded without sacrificing the rest of the system. For example, an amateur that has an older camera body can upgrade to a better one without needing to replace his lenses or flashes. I recently made the jump to a full frame camera and had to sell a few of my lenses, but the majority of my collection is fully compatible with the new camera body.

Some companies offer more advanced wireless flash systems than others. This could be an important consideration for those interested in portrait or on-location photography where bringing studio lighting would be problematic. Others may have a wider selection of telephoto lenses, which would be important to the sports or wildlife photographer.

Whatever system you choose, be sure that the company is moving in the same direction you are and stick with it once you start investing in gear. Remember that it is the experience and skill of the photographer that makes great images, not cutting-edge equipment.

SELECTING THE EQUIPMENT

CAMERA BODIES

Once you have chosen a particular company to invest in, your first major decision will be picking a camera body. My recommendation would be to allocate as little money as possible to the camera body to meed your current needs. Camera bodies become obsolete faster that any other part of your system, so only buy what you need right now and keep in mind you will need to upgrade every 4-5 years. Bigger does not always mean better, and more expensive is not always more powerful. If you intend to do a lot of sports photography, long focal lengths and fast burst rates will be your key features. In that light the $3000 Nikon D800 with a 1x crop factor and 4fps does not look as good as the $1100 Nikon D7000 with a 1.5x crop factor and 7fps. Give weight to the features you know you will need and try not to worry about the rest as much.

LENSES

When picking your lens selection, do not fall for several common misconceptions. First, do not feel that you have to have every focal length covered. Often if I am packing light I will only take a 35mm and a 80-200mm. What about the range of 35-80mm? What about wider than 35mm? I do not usually need it. You can crop your photo or move backward with your feet to make the most of what you have with you. Secondly, there is no such thing as a quality “do-everything lens.” Lenses with ranges like 18-250mm or 28-300mm’s offer convenience at the cost of quality and speed. When not on assignment, I would rather go out with a fixed 50mm and only look for 50mm compositions that will turn out great than a “do-everything” lens and come away with poor images. Have a good mix of wide angle and telephoto lenses. Some photographers “think” in wide angle, and some “think” in telephoto. By “think” I mean that they tend to see compositions at those focal lengths. Find out what you prefer and put most of your money into lenses in those focal lengths.

ACCESSORIES

Make sure that after you buy your camera body and lenses that you have funds left over for a few more essential (although granted not as fun) pieces of gear. Memory cards. Buy name brand (SanDisk is my favorite, Lexar and PNY are also good) and get several. If your camera only has one slot, be sure to buy smaller-capacity cards. If you shoot all of a wedding on a single card that dies, it is much worse that if you shot it on five cards and one of the five goes bad. If you have two slots, just put in two large-capacity cards and set them to duplicate each other for immediate backup. Be sure to buy several spare batteries too. Charging a battery takes time, and if you run out of power you will be helpless until you can spend a few hours near a power outlet.

TRIPODS AND SUPPORTS

Depending on the type of photography you do, tripods will either be extremely important, or extremely important. You need to get one, and spend the money to get a good one. I like tripods from Manfrotto because of their quality for the price. Be aware that good tripods come in two parts: the legs and the head. Often stores will offer bundles, but if not keep in mind you will need to buy both parts. If you shoot video, there are a myriad of support systems from the floaty-effect Glidecam to shoulder-based rigs.

SELECTING A BAG

It seems like today there are as many choices of camera bags as cameras! I typically use three types of bags: a shoulder bag (Urban Disguise 50) from ThinkTank Photo for everyday use and most assignments, a large photo backpack from Lowepro for storing gear and for long treks, and an extended holster-style bag from Lowepro that will hold a pro body and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. If I had to choose one, I would get a standard shoulder bag because you can change out gear without taking it off.

Whatever your decision, be sure that your combination is something you do not mind carrying around everywhere with you. A camera left at home is a camera not worth having.

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