Beginning Photography: One Mans Journey into Madness

A Useful First Post, or How I Learned to Love the Internet

I decided my first post will be sort of useful.  I know, all my friends and family are shocked.  Anyways recently I was bitten by the photography bug.  And bitten hard.  It may be infected but will probably just wait and see if the swelling goes down.

(New reader warning: if my off the wall “humor” bugs you now, give up on this site entirely because it only goes downhill to pun-land from here)

Like most hobbies photography will take all the money you can throw at it, plus blood for good measure.  If you are reading further I am going to assume you want to get started in photography or at least see what it might take to do so.

What Kind of Photos Do You Want To Take?

Oh because the gear you need isn’t daunting or pricey enough, you have to bring different equipment to photograph different things.  Shocking I know.  Since I am new to this field much of this may or may not be paraphrasing Scott Kelby’s excellent book, Digital Photography.

Landscapes

Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska Summer 2007

Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska Summer 2007

Landscapes are fun, they are probably my favorite type of picture to take.  Something about a beautiful scenery evokes deep emotion in people.

Mandatory gear:

  • Camera body (if you are using a DSLR, if not your lens is built in)
  • Wide Angle Lens, 10-20mm is a pretty popular zoom lens for most people
  • Tripod – Don’t even think of shooting without one.

Helpful Gear:

  • Remote Camera Trigger – device that lets you take a photo without touching the camera and making it move (even super tiny vibrations add up)
  • Really nice tripod head – ball heads are very pricey and very good at holding your camera where you want it.
  • Knowledge of how to enable mirror lock – camera specific setting that most modern DSLR’s have.  Makes it so the little mirror inside stays in position instead of flipping up and down, again reduces vibration in your photos to make them tack sharp.
  • Telephoto lens – sometimes you can get cool landscape shots by cropping in really close and it is hard to do that without a telephoto (note: super close ups aka macro are their own section)

Portraits

PadenFamilyWinter

My Family posing after a long day of riding snowmachines, Spring Break 2009

Portrait shots are those of people, usually at a range slightly further than you would stand when talking.  99% of Facebook photos are these in one way or another.  Weddings are the other big source of these I would put those out of newbie range so if you want to start there find a good book and someone to train under.

Mandatory Gear:

  • Camera – duh.
  • Tripod – seriously, get used to carrying one around.  Pro’s shoot with them all the time and it is one of the reasons their shots look way different than most photos.
  • 100mm Prime Lens – this is a very common lens for portraits for a reason, it makes very good looking photos of people with minimal effort.  Plus you aren’t lens to nose with them when taking the shot.

Helpful Gear:

  • Fast Lens – The “speed” of a lens refers to how large the aperture is, or in less technical speak how big is the hole that light goes through.  A fast lens has a larger hole to let more light through in the same amount of time compared to a “slower” lens.  f/1.4 is a typical fast lens in the 50-100mm range.
  • Flash – not the one built into your camera, all those do is add redeye to people.  If you want good looking photos you need a better flash and to not point it straight at people.  Look for flash tips in a later post, probably some time after mine arrives in the mail.
  • Reflectors – these are shiny (yay) flat objects that you arrange to make the light go where you want.   They come in white (reflects the light), gold (makes it look like sunlight, helpful for outdoors shots), silver (cooler than gold) and others I am probably not aware of.
  • Strobes – also known as big ass external flashes that can be arranged where ever you want more light to come from.  Again, tons of variations here and check my helpful links page for some sites that can tell you way more than I can about them.
  • Backdrop – the cheesy sunset they made you sit in front of for your school photos.  I prefer a nice white one but that may be because mine is a white queen sized sheet that was bought on sale that gets taped to the wall.  If it isn’t in focus you can’t tell what it cost.

Macro (really close up)

Close up of potted plan

Close zoom of potted plant in my room

Macro are those really cool looking super close up photos of things that are normally small and unnoticed.  Since I don’t yet own a macro lens the best I could do was zoom in with my telephoto as close as it could and move the tripod forward until it couldn’t focus any closer.  For scale the trunk in the above picture is about a half inch in diameter.

Mandatory Gear:

  • Camera, Tripod, Remote Trigger – you can’t take decent macro shots with your camera wavering all over the place so don’t try unless you have the hand stability of a T-1000 robot.
  • Macro Lens – this is a special lens that will get you a 1:1 ratio of the object to you camera’s sensor (the camera’s retina).  Since your sensor is around 30mm to a side but your photo may be over a foot wide depending on the megapixels this gives you an enormous increase in size.  A fully framed house fly on an 18 MP camera would be something like 10 inches wide depending on printer settings.  These usually come in 100-180mm sizes.

Optional Gear:

  • Circular Flash – these are those flash rings that you see around the lens on certain (macro photographer’s to be specific) cameras.  It is so they can get even lighting on really close objects, where a normal higher mounted flash would miss part of the object because the lens itself would block the light.
  • The ability to not frighten small insects and animals – if you can talk to nature you might become one of the worlds greatest macro photographers.  Ant #347, what are you doing?!  Drag that leaf more to the left.  Perfect, hold that pebble!

Travelling

CaboMexico

View from our hotel in Cabo, Mexico December 2010

The only reason I included this in a separate section is because usually you want to travel somewhat lighter.  At least if you aren’t a pro on a photo shoot.  The one piece of equipment that will save you here is a nice zoom lens.  They are often in the 15-100mm range, which is what you use almost all the time.  For reference what your eye sees is very close to 50mm.  Buy a really nice lens that covers wide angle to telephoto and then you can save yourself the trouble of changing lenses when you are trying to have fun on vacation.

Selecting a System

This is what most people would call choosing your favorite brand, or vendor lock in depending on how pessimistic they are.  In the digital camera world right now the two biggest by far are Canon and Nikon.  Sony, Pentax and others still exist but not to the same degree.  If you are just starting out I would strongly urge you to go with either of the two largest for several reasons.

First reason is they are very well known and well supported.  The internet as well as your local stores will have all the main parts and obscure accessories you might need.  Plus the technical skills to deal with things that go wrong.  Additionally there are tons and tons of product reviews as well as third party lenses and other things.  The smaller the camera manufacturer the less likely the rest of the world makes stuff that will work for you.  That said you could possibly (key word is possibly) get good deals because you are not one of the herd.  But your pick on eBay won’t be nearly as plentiful.

I personally use Canon.  Not to say there is anything wrong with Nikon or any of the other brands (besides the fact that I loath them).  I started with a Canon Powershot point and click, then a SX20IS and now a Rebel T2i.  I chose this camera body for several reasons, the foremost being I have friends and family with Canon and being able to share gear to at least try them out is nice.  Since I am only familiar with Canon and Canon compatible products they are what will be covered from here on out.

My Current Gear

Camera Gear

My current camera gear, more on the way

  1. Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Kit Lens – came with the camera.  Not a bad lens but definitely the cheapest in my bunch.  It has image stabilization (reduces shake caused by you not using a tripod) which helps but the focal range is fairly small to be a one size fits all lens.
  2. Canon 50mm f/1.4 - Super fast lens, if you need to do low light photography this is a great lens.  Retails for around $400.  I love this lens, it is super light but not cheap feeling in the least.  Only flaw might be no image stabilization.  But it will still capture photos while you are walking into walls because it is so dark.
  3. Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 - My super wide angle lens for landscapes.  Takes in a massive field of view for getting anything and everything in the shot.  Fast lens works great in low light.  They are kind of hard to find due to manufacturing shortage right now.  I literally bought my local stores floor model because it was the last one anywhere in town.
  4. Lowepro Fastpack 350 - The bag I use when I have to carry all my gear at once.  Lowepro calls themselves the trusted original when it comes to camera bags I have never had a problem with any of theirs.  Comfortable enough to hike with but nestles all my gear oh so snuggly.
  5. Lowepro Rezo 170 - Smaller bag that holds my camera, two lenses and extra gear.  Looks small in this photo but it really isn’t.  Barely holds camera with telephoto equipped.  Has a weather shield and tons of pockets.
  6. Slik PRO700DX Tripod - aluminum beast, amazingly stable but for how much it weighs it damn well better be.  It is sturdy, easy to use and tall which is nice because hunching over a camera sucks.  An upgrade to carbon fiber is wanted but need to start selling photos first.  You might be able to see the reflective tape I put on the feet to make avoiding it in the dark a little easier.
  7. Manfrotto 322RC2 Head - that’s right, the head doesn’t come with the tripod in most cases.  This one is operated by squeezing the handle to move the camera.  The built in bubble level is nice and it works well, even with large glass (photographer word for lens).  Bonus, whatever liquid they use isn’t water because it didn’t freeze even at -45F.
  8. Canon Battery Charger – the one that came with my camera, works fine.  Haven’t needed to buy another due to my copious number of backup batteries.
  9. Blower – used to blow dust off your glass without getting spit on them.
  10. LensPen - has soft bristles and a scrubbing pad for getting those more stubborn spots off.  Indispensable in the field.  I would recommend having one in each bag as they are cheap and light.
  11. Extra len/body caps – If you have a lens mounted there will be spare caps.  I keep them in my bigger bag just in case but if I had to lighten up they would stay at home.
  12. Extra memory cards – I like Sandisk because they are cheap and they work.  Get at least class 6 if you take many shots in one burst, class 10 if you can afford them or you plan on shooting video.  These are my small backups but better than not having any extras.  Recommend 16GB or larger for a high megapixel camera.
  13. Flashlight- or a headlamp.  Headlamp might be better but I have one in my car so it isn’t pictured here.  You would be surprised how often you are setting up or taking down in the dark and extra light rarely hurts, unless you are undead.
  14. Snacks – I like Clif Bars (Blueberry Crisp and Peanut Butter are the best) because they taste good and store well.  Power bars have a good calorie to weight ratio so just keep one or two in your bag for when you get lost in the woods trying to find the perfect spot for that deep forest tree shot that puts Ansel Adam’s to shame.
  15. Canon’s Remote Trigger - overpriced but not really because you need this to take tack sharp photos.  Or just use the delayed photo option in your camera.  One nice thing is the button locks down so you can take long exposure shots (over 30 seconds) without having to actually hold the button down yourself.  I prefer the wired one to the wireless one because the wireless is IR and only works if you are in front of the camera, making it all but useless for landscape shots.
  16. Filters – First off let me say these will destroy your wallet if you let them.  Second for every lens you have buy a UV filter, put it on and keep in on forever.  They don’t do anything optically but they protect the front of your glass from stupid things like walking into trees and rocks being blown around in the wind.  Always cheaper to replace a filter then have the lens repaired.  This is the Hoya 58mm Intro Kit, it isn’t a bad middle of the road quality wise place to start.
  17. Batteries – you’ll notice my stack.  I have all different brands because the Canon ones are $40 a pop and the knock-offs are $13.  In my experience they work as well but we will see if they last as long.  But at one third the price they honestly don’t have to work all that well to pay for themselves.  Canon LP-E8, Cheaper but still totally functional LP-E8.
  18. Lens cleaner – no idea where this one came from, but get one and keep it clean and in your bag.
  19. Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC USD - My telephoto lens and my current favorite.  It takes amazingly clear photos.  It has image stabilization so you can actually get clear shots at full zoom even hand holding it.  My only beef is on a T2i it doesn’t autofocus super quick but I’ve heard that on “real” camera bodies this isn’t an issue.  It also uses 62mm filters which means they don’t overlap with the much more common 58 or 77 ones.  I have negative things to say about this lens because I use it so much so don’t let that deter you.  It really does shoot as well as glass that costs over twice as much.
  20. Canon T2i Body – My baby and first true DSLR.  18 megapixels and a slew of functions that would make your eyes glaze over.  Seriously nice starter camera.
  21. Aftermarket Camera Strap – First this one doesn’t have Canon branded all over it.  Second it is neopreme which is both more comfortable and makes for a nice neck warmer in cold weather.  May need something different for the summer but really nice now.  Plus it has clips so it can be quickly removed, preventing it from becoming a wind sail when you are using a tripod.

So that is just the stuff that I currently have lying around but my wish list contains many items that you might find interesting depending on what you plan on doing.  Below is gear I have thoroughly researched and am probably drooling over and/or already order and is in the mail.  Not like “the check’s in the mail” mail, but like I have a tracking number and everything.

Recommended Gear – My Personal Picks

All Around Lenses

Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM - This is a very sharp lens with a nice focal range, going from super wide angle to telephoto.  It has image stabilization and USM, which is fancy Canon talk for really quiet and fast autofocus.  If you can’t afford the over one thousand dollar glass and want a single one to mount on your camera for an entire trip, this would be a good pick. *Update* I recently purchased this glass and have only taken it off when I am doing very specific other things.  It is as good as I had hoped and has an amazing ability to allow me to not change lenses all the freaking time.

Tamron AF 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD - This is a new lens but the reviews are looking very promising.  First of all the range is beyond enormous.  Second it is comically small and light for something that gives you an extreme telephoto reach.  Seriously, check out this review for some amazing pictures of what it can do.  If I didn’t have a telephoto lens I loved I would probably pick up this as my every day lens.

Canon 24-105mm f/4.0 IS USM - This is a Canon “L” (literally stands for Luxury) series lens.  You can tell by the red ring around the front.  That means you get the best they can make.  The red ring might also symbolize how empty your bank account is now.  I really really want this lens but that won’t be happening any time soon.  The photo quality is absolutely gorgeous.  Did I mention I want one?

Macro Lens

Canon 100mm Macro f/2.8 USM - There are two versions of this lens, this one which is a few years older and a newer one with image stabilization.  The new one is nearly double the price and reviews haven’t been kind to that difference.  The other one is also L glass but this one takes great photos despite lacking the mighty red ring of power.  When not in macro mode it can double duty as a good portrait lens, being a good focal distance for that.  This is the very next lens in my queue to buy.

Filters are a fairly large subject that I was going to add to this post, but it is already pretty massive so that will be for next time.  Until next time, go out and get some shutter time!

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