Thursday, August 12, 2010

SLR Basics 4: Starter Lenses

So you found a brand that makes bodies with the features you want and the lenses you want, all at a price you can afford. So what to buy?

Beginners should start with these 3 lenses, for they are the cheapest available yet also among the sharpest. Micro 4/3 will have different focal lengths (mm) but have similar offerings.
  1. Standard zoom: 18-55mm or similar (~$100, "kit lens" often sold with new entry-level cameras)
  2. Telephoto zoom: 55-200mm or similar (~$200, often sold with the above as a premium option)
  3. Fast prime: 50mm f/1.8 (~$100, sold separately) [m4/3 seems to lack this right now]
    Cheap, light and good characterizes the beginner lenses. Every lens besides them will be "worse": they'll cost more, be bigger and heavier and possibly even be less sharp. (I'm simplifying, of course.) What the kit lenses excel in is accessibility--they are affordable enough and capable enough that you can shoot many types of photos with only them--truly ideal for a beginner. I suggest these 3 to start with if you have no idea what you are doing. You will be able to gain photographic experience without spending much money.

    Manufacturers and retailers often bundle the first two zooms with a basic camera body in promotions. I would say that's the best value overall for camera + lenses.

    Premium kit lenses (those sold with more expensive cameras) are variants of the standard one, typically expanding the focal range of the lens; the 18-55mm is only 3x after all. As implied, the premiums both cost more ($300-1000) and are heavier. "Superzooms" with extreme zoom ranges (e.g. 18-200mm, which is 11x) give up sharpness too. But you may wish to use a premium standard zoom and no telephoto zoom at all, so the choice is ultimately yours.

    I would caution against using kit lenses intended for full frame cameras. These do not go wider than 24mm, and on an APS camera (i.e. most bodies under $2000) you will miss the 18-24mm range. (If you know better, then you know better. If you don't, just take my word for it.)

    Some recommended accessories:
    • At least two memory cards. SLRs use SD or CF, sometimes both. Sony models also take MS. I prefer 2 smaller cards over 1 larger card, even for the same total memory. This gives you backup--cards do occasionally malfunction, usually only temporarily but always with poor timing. If that was your only card, you're S.O.L. unless you reformat the card. But if you had a 2nd card, you can swap, keep shooting and recover the bad card on your PC later. (~$10-100)
    • An extra battery. Same reason as memory cards. I prefer OEM (branded) batteries--a camera already comes with one and I only need two anyway. Others use 3rd party batteries, which are often cheaper with higher capacities. YMMV. (~$20-80)
    • Bag. For travel and event shooting. Belt, shoulder or backpack, whichever you prefer. As long as you can easily remove equipment from it and find it comfortable to wear for hours at a time. Don't go overboard in capacity though--carrying too much slows you down and tires you out sooner. Neither helps your photography. (~$10-100)
    • Tripod with 3 or 4 segment legs. For stars, landscapes and studio work. Get one tall enough to reach close to eye level without extending the center column. Shorter than that will force you to bend over a lot. (~$10-40)
    • Remote control. Recommended for tripod. Touching the camera mounted on a tripod will make it vibrate, which can make images blurry. Remotes let you trigger the shutter without touching the camera, avoiding the problem. Corded remotes let you shoot "bulb", where you manually control how long the shutter is open. Wireless remotes let the photographer be in the picture, but cannot shoot bulb and are less convenient for tripod use since the wireless receiver is on the camera's front. (~$10-50)
    • Lights. For studio use. A kit of two fluorescent lamps and a diffuser for each is sufficient, perhaps with an extra reflector as well. Homemade/DIY is a popular option here. Lets you shoot sale photos, portraits, still life and macro. Flash variants cost more. (~$20-200)
    With photographic gear, the sky is the limit, so keep in mind that you can sink a lot of money without much effort. There is always something better out there. Don't go overboard.

    Especially if on a budget, hold off on buying beyond your starter kit until you've shot a few thousand frames. After that, you should know what types of shooting you primarily do. You can then invest in equipment specially designed for your needs. Experience will let you make more informed and relevant choices about your future gear.

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