Buying Digital SLR Cameras

I’ve been shooting photography for about 5 months now. I’m not an expert, but I’m learning. I bought a 3 year old Canon Rebel XT on Craigslist from a fine arts student at University of Baltimore. She had taken good care of it and was looking to upgrade to a Canon 5D.

So I bought the camera and started playing around with it. I realized quickly that I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what RAW format was, and had no clue about techniques. Shutter was the only thing I understood. Aperture was sort of vague, and ISO I remembered from the good old days of point and shoot film cameras. I didn’t know how it all played together, and I’m honestly still learning. Good photographers never perfect their craft. They just keep tinkering until they know the art enough to make very educated guesses about angles, settings, white balance, etc.

I take my camera everywhere I go now. Out of every 100 photos, I toss 90. I insist on using pure manual settings, because there’s no better way, in my mind, to learn than to trial and error it. When I say manual, I mean manual. I manually focus. I usually keep my ISO around 200, but I can change that. Shutter and aperture settings are all adjusted on every shot.

Recently, I’ve had a number of people mention that they plan to buy their first DSLR camera. Some of these usually follow this up by mentioning really high-end cameras like the Canon 5D or the Nikon D700 as cameras they want.

My response is always the same… Why?

As rookie photographers, they don’t know why. They just know it’s better. Which is true, but that’s not the point.

Here’s what rookie photographers need to focus on when picking up a brand new DSLR camera.

It’s all about technique

During the early part of the camera career, the photographer should be learning about lighting. If you can’t shoot completely manual, you shouldn’t own a high end camera. That’s not to say that owning a high end camera should mean that you can’t use shutter-priority or aperture-priority settings. But, there are principles to shooting and understanding the balance between Aperture and Shutter is critical to taking great photos.

Here’s a primer. Shutter speed is, very simply, how quickly the lens shutter opens and closes. It is measured in “thousandths of a second”. My Canon lists a 1/16 second shutter speed simply as 16. Do the math. The quicker the shutter opens and closes (the higher the number), the less light that can enter the lens. On bright sunny days, you’ll use a high shutter speed. In a dark pub, you;ll use a low shutter speed.

But wait, then there’s aperture. The problem with slow shutter speeds (in a bar, for instance) is that since the shutter is open longer, the camera is more susceptible to camera shake. Long shutter speeds usually need tripods to ensure that no shake appears in the photo. Aperture is defined as “how wide open” the lens is. The higher the aperture number (actually, it’s a lower number as “the aperture is higher”), the more wide open the lens is, allowing for more light. In a dark room, a lower aperture will open the lens up more, to allow more light in allowing a photographer to use a faster shutter.

But then there’s focal length, which affects aperture. Confused yet?

My point is there is technique that needs to be learned and should be learned on a cheaper, lower end camera.

Here’s an example of some photos I’ve taken on my Rebel XT.

Nationals Park

  • Aperture: f/8
  • Shutter: 1/50 second
  • ISO: 200
  • Lens: Canon 50mm Prime (fixed) f/1.8

  • Aperture: f/5
  • Shutter: 1/800 second
  • ISO: 800
  • Lens: Canon 55-18 Zoom

Admittedly, this was altered because I shot in the RAW, a format that captures all data about a picture allowing for manipulation of the photo qualities after the fact. I used Apple’s Aperture 2.0. The photo was taken in broad daylight.

End of the day, rookie photographers can go and buy top of the line equipment but without a firm understanding of the techniques, it will not help them take great shots.

In Vegas, I went photowalking with about 80 bloggers and photographers. Jared Kohlmann of Pro Photo Rental brought high end gear and allowed me to shoot with a Canon 5D, a 24mm prime f/1.4 and a Fisheye lens. Here are some of the results:

Bellagio

  • Aperture: f/2.8
  • Shutter: 1/50 second
  • ISO: 200
  • Lens: Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye

Las Vegas at Night

  • Aperture: f/10
  • Shutter: 7 seconds
  • ISO: 100
  • Lens: Canon 24mm prime f/1.4

As a power user, after you’ve learned technique, you’ll definitely want a higher end camera because of the full frame. Lower end cameras, such as my Rebel XT, actually don’t capture all of what the lens can capture and crops the photo. Using lenses like the fisheye actually will not work on crop frame cameras, but you pay top dollar for full frame. As a rookie, these are things you just can’t worry about.

Enjoy your shooting!