I’ve been asked by several of you what kind of camera and equipment I shoot with. I’m happy to share, but should preface that I am NOT an expert (very much still a beginner), and like most other novices, I simply had an interest and started exploring on my own.
I have not been perked or paid to mention any of the products below – I’m just a fan spreading the word on products I’ve come to love and I’ve linked to the sites where I like to purchase. This post got long, but I wanted to be thorough. Below is a run-down of how I got into the photography thing and the equipment that makes up my photo bag.
HOW I GOT STARTED
Two years ago, my lovely friends and family went in on some gift cards and helped me purchase my first dSLR camera for my birthday, a Canon Rebel XS. I looked at other brands, but I had been using a Canon point-and-shoot that I loved, and the menu setups just made more sense to me with the Canon. I know plenty of people who love their Nikons – I don’t think you can go wrong either way.
While I am feeling ready to upgrade to a newer model with a couple of bells and whistles I wouldn’t have known what to do with a couple years back (discussed further below), I do love my current camera. The body fits well in my hand, it has plenty of power and capability for my hobby-level of interest, and is incredibly user-friendly.
It has taken me some time to really learn my camera. For the whole first year I had it, I rarely took it out of the auto modes and I shot solely with the kit lens (18-55mm) that came in the box. A few months later, I added an external flash. This was PLENTY to start with – even in auto, my photos were already a much better quality than I could ever get on my phone or my little point-and-shoot. Just playing in the landscape (mountain), portrait (face), and macro (flower) modes gave me so much more photographic power than I’d ever had before.
One of my resolutions in 2012 was to learn how to go manual and challenge myself to create my own settings and stretch myself a bit. After a couple of classes at a local store, and working my way through a series of great books (listed below), I felt ready to learn what else my camera could do. For me, this has been a huge lesson in patience – I want to instantly know and understand it all (and have PERFECT photos) – and as much as you can buy the gear and read the books – it means nothing if you don’t get out and practice, practice, practice. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
I reasoned with myself that I had to practice before I could invest in any more equipment. So as I shot more and read up on what all those weird numbers meant, I added a couple of additional lenses to my gear and have been learning first-hand the differences and the limits/possibilities of what each one could do. I stay very much at the “inexpensive” end of the scale when it comes to equipment (it will only ever be a hobby for me, and in photo world, “inexpensive” can still be pricey!). Some of the most helpful research to me, as I was deciding what to buy, was to read blog posts like this one that peek into the camera bags of other beginner photographers. I found it so helpful to learn what others had invested their hard-earned cash in and why they liked each product, so I could assess for myself what I wanted for my own purposes.
THE PRODUCTS I USE AND LOVE
(I usually edit my photos to varying degrees, but for this purpose, I’m showing you pics straight out of the camera (“SOOC” is apparently the cool kid lingo for this!) so you can see exactly what the various equipment can do).
- Camera body and lens#1: Canon Rebel XS (and kit lens included: 18-55mm f 3.5-5.6) — Don’t buy any other lenses until you’ve played with your kit lens for a bit. It’s amazing how much just this lens can do. The pan of kale above was taken with my kit lens. If I don’t know what to expect in a photo situation and can only bring one lens, I choose this one because it’s the most versatile of the lenses I own.
- External flash: Canon 430EX I love this flash. You can bounce the light up/down/right/left and it’s not just for using in dark situations. I use mine in broad daylight to avoid dark circles under subjects’ eyes. An external flash can look much more natural that the little pop-up one that is on the camera body. It sits further from the lens so you don’t have as harsh of shadows, and you can direct it in different angles to get even more natural lighting (aka no “deer in headlights” images). It takes practice to learn how to get different results, but if you put some time in, you can get the hang of it! In the photo above, the hallway was dark/shadowy with only an overhead fixture to give any light. I bounced the flash off the white ceiling to get much more, even, light in the shot. Any pro would tell you it’s definitely not perfect, but my beginner self is plenty happy with the major improvement!
- Lens #2: Canon EF 50mm f 1.8 This lens is my favorite for up-close detail shots and some portraits – major background blur is possible with this one and the extra low aperture allows for clear pics in lower light situations. If you don’t want to spend much on equipment, this lens is a “best buy” – although it has a plastic body and is super tiny, that also equals smaller price point. It’s a prime lens meaning you won’t be able to zoom in and out with it – your own two feet become your zoom and you want to use it only in situations where you can move around to adjust as needed.
- Lens #3: Canon EF-S 55-250mm f 4.0-5.6 A photo instructor recommended this lens as “the” beginner telephoto (aka zoom) lens for Canon users. Yes, you can pay more to zoom farther, and in lower light conditions, but for me, this is plenty. This particular shot was taken by me up on our deck, of Page way out in the yard, about 30 yards away. With my “regular” (kit) lens, he would have been just a blip in the frame and to zoom in this far in photoshop when editing, he would become pixelated. In short, this lens rocks my world for capturing far-away subjects.
- Lens #4: Sigma 10-20mm f 4.0-5.6 I call this one my “big kid” lens. Canon makes a version of this lens but it’s about twice the cost of my Sigma and although I use this lens quite a bit, this was plenty for me. The first thing I notice when I switch to this lens is just how heavy it is. I definitely wouldn’t shoot with this for very long without a neck or wrist strap for some added support. I bought this lens for a variety of reasons. Because I take so many photos of my home, I no longer have to back myself into a corner only to miss half of the room in the shot. This ultra wide angle lens lets me capture so much more of the room – although distorted – to give a better sense of what’s in the space. UWA lenses are also great for landscapes – something I plan to take plenty of during our upcoming trip to Hawaii. I originally bought a cheap (as in less than $100) fisheye lens for these same reasons and was very disappointed with the quality – the edges of my photos were super blurry and the distortion was SO extreme that everything looked too weird/artsy for what I was going for. This lens is certainly not for taking up close shots of people or things (majorly weird results!) but for stepping back and capturing more of a scene or room, it’s perfection in my book.
- Camera bag: After toting around my first bag and figuring out how I like to organize and access my stuff on the fly, I switched to this bag and couldn’t be happier. It’s easy to sling out of the way and then back around front when I want to grab some gear. It’s super comfy and even loaded up with all of my stuff, it doesn’t feel heavy. I’m also a fan of bags that don’t at first glance look like a camera bag or have a huge CANON or NIKON logo on them…in my mind an “unmarked” bag is just a bit less of a target for theft.
- Tripod: I am still on my first tripod and while it’s on the very low-cost end of the spectrum, it meets my needs for as infrequently as I use it and it packs up small and is very light to carry. If it’s super windy or you’re on a steep incline, I usually use my bag or some rocks to stabilize the base. A little ghetto – but again, I’m a beginner and for now it’s working for me. For the most part, I use my tripod for when we’re taking a timed photo (and I want to be in the shot, too) or indoors when I don’t want to use a flash and need the camera to be very still in low-light situations (otherwise you get blurry photos). I took the above photo of our tree on a tripod with a long shutter speed to get the “twinkle” effect. (Proof that I’m constantly learning this photography thing…I took this photo in December 2011 and felt like I was the next Ansel Adams. I see now just how off my white balance is…whoops!)
- Software: I’m convinced that anyone who says they don’t edit their photos with software, is lying. Even if you get realllly good with your camera, there are some things you just can’t do without some post-production. I use Photoshop CS6 but if you’ve never used any photo-editing software, I might start out with something like Photoshop Elements, which is less scary but still plenty powerful.
- Outfits for your camera – the fun stuff: I have purchased straps and strap covers from both of these shops and have been very impressed with the quality (and cuteness factor!) – check out Sassy Strap and The Poppy Shoppe.
THE LESS GLAMOROUS STUFF YOU ALSO NEED
- To protect your equipment, you will want to put a hood and filter on each of your lenses. A photog friend of mine pointed this out to me and after I realized just how necessary they are, I sort of felt like a bad mother who had neglected to put her children in car seats. For as cheap as they are, and as much protection as they provide, you’d be crazy not to get them. Camera straps break, fingers slip, and things can get dropped. If I have the choice between shattering a $300 lens or a $10 protective hood or filter, I choose the latter.
- There are a ton of “cleaning” materials marketed and some can get pricey – in my experience you don’t need much, but should buy something – I keep this little tool in my bag and it’s great at removing dust and smudges.
- Finally, I like to keep a couple of memory cards (get the “HC” versions – they write much faster which equals faster shooting) and a spare battery and charger at all times. There is nothing more devastating than when the battery light blinks as a Kodak moment is happening right before your eyes.
HOW I LEARNED WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THIS STUFF
I don’t think it gets any better than taking an actual class at a photography shop. I took three different one-night courses and I can’t say enough about how MUCH and how QUICKLY I was able to “get it” because it was in person. But if classroom isn’t your style or you want to recap the info at your own pace later, I recommend the following books. I’ve bought several – some great, some not so much. Here are the ones that I would buy again and again:
- The Digital Photography Books, Volume 1 and Volume 2 – Scott rocks my world and rather than getting super technical on you (which can be overwhelming until you start to figure out what those “f” numbers and decimal points mean) he has a very layman’s terms approach and every tip is illustrated with full color photos.
- Understanding Exposure helped the whole trifecta of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed “click” (no pun intended) for me and understand how they all work separately and together. It’s okay if you don’t know what these mean yet – reading this book and playing with your camera (practice!) will help you get there as you explore beyond the auto modes.
- Get a book specific to your camera model. Rather than an overview of how to do something, a book specific to your exact model can take you step.by.step. through exactly what to do and all of the diagrams will match your camera exactly. Yes, the camera comes with a manual, but they’re tiny print, super technical, and light on illustrations (tough if you’re a visual learner). I couldn’t even tell you where my original manual is – I use this book instead and refer to it whenever I have questions.
I mentioned that I am hoping to upgrade my camera body soon. I am planning to move to the T3i for three main reasons. The T3i is, like my current camera, one of Canon’s entry-level, “budget-friendly” models, but with a few bells and whistles that my XS does not have. I apologize if this gets a little in-depth (I wouldn’t have understood my notes below, a year ago!) but for those who want the fine details, here is my reasoning:
- IR sensor/wireless ability. Right now, my XS can use a radio signal remote to fire the shutter remotely… but this kind of remote is a bit more cumbersome to connect and it sucks battery juice – more often than not, it’s dead when I go to use it, even with fresh batteries installed. I’m also limited to cords if I want to shoot with my flash set up elsewhere and not ON the camera body. Stepping up to this newer model allows me to go totally wireless with both remote shooting and flash units.
- Increased sensitivity to light. There are some great websites out there where you can plug in two camera models and compare all the nitty gritty details side-by-side. When you look at ISO (your camera’s ability to pick up details in very low light conditions), the T3i produces nearly two f-stops in light sensitivity improvement. This is HUGE if you are trying to photograph in dark, no-flash situations (kids’ concerts, dusk shots).
- Video ability. This is the least of my concerns, as we don’t shoot much video, period. This model allows for higher-resolution and zoom/focus capability when I AM ready to get more into that. As opposed to having to use my iPhone or a separate camera, I like that I could have video and still photos covered in one piece of equipment.
For those who could care less about any of this, I’m just hoping you’re still awake (or moved on to something more interesting!) but for those who asked and anyone else who was like me, hungry for some info, I hope this helped! If I was unclear or confusing – just shoot me a question in the comments and I’ll be happy to reply!