LensRental.com Blog – Lenses: Don’t Collect the Whole Set. Good stuff.
Here’s what I’ll add.
Buy one or two consumer zoom lenses and no more
By consumer zoom I mean a zoom lens with a variable aperture and a maximum aperture of F5.6 at the long end. If your camera came bundled with a zoom it probably falls into this category. Pro zooms are typically a constant F2.8 or F4 (smaller numbers are better). You need a zoom or two to take care of day to day stuff. Birthday parties, vacation shots, that sort of thing. I think of my 18-105mm as the family lens.
Consumer zooms are limited because of their small aperture and moderate picture quality, which isn’t as good as prime lenses or pro zooms. Some people keep buying them and then wonder why their picture quality never improves. Once you get a couple of consumer lenses you need to invest in primes, pro zooms, or some other aspect of photography.
Buy a prime lens in a useful focal length
A prime lens doesn’t zoom. You zoom with your feet, walking closer or farther away. That can be a disadvantage, though lots of people find that a prime lens improves their skills. They learn to compose instead of just turning a zoom ring. The reasons you’d give up the convenience of a zoom are image quality, small size, light weight, ruggedness, and big apertures.
The wider aperture is a big selling point. Consumer zooms are typically F5.6. Even slow primes are two stops faster at F2.8. It isn’t uncommon for even affordable primes to be as fast as 2.0 or 1.4, which gives another stop or stop of light.
That big aperture will let you get pictures in conditions that are too dark for an F5.6 zoom, It let you shoot at a much faster shutter speed, which helps freeze motion and get sharp pictures. It also lets you set a shallow depth of field when you want. Shallow DoF lets you get artsy-looking photos or throw the background out of focus to isolate the subject, turning a snapshot into something greater.
Focal lengths of 35mm to 60mm (in 35mm equivalent) are a good bet. Those are useful focal lengths that you’re probably using a lot now. They’re also at a very human scale – for people pictures you can zoom with your feet by moving forward or backwards a few steps. Primes in that focal range can be had for very little money (in DSLR terms, at least). Nikon and Canon make primes in this range for $100 to $300 that make much better pictures than consumer zooms that cost three or four times as much.
Editing software is a way better bang for your buck than hardware. Taking the picture is part of the process. Post-processing is the other part. If you aren’t doing any editing of your photos at all, then any editing software (even free stuff) will massively improve your photos. At some point you’ll need something better than the software that came with your camera or free tools like Google’s Picasa (which I like and still use often for everyday photos).
Adobe Photoshop is the best known image editor. It has a million features, though that means the interface isn’t optimized for photography. Photoshop is great for getting an image to look its absolute best, but it isn’t oriented towards quickly reviewing and processing a large number of images. Intuitive it ain’t – you’ll need to take classes (Lynda.com is supposed to have good ones online) or do some serious reading to get the full use out of it. I use it at work, but can’t justify the $500 pricetag for my home PC. There’s a cheaper version called Photoshop Elements for $75 that’s supposed to have many of the same features, but I haven’t tried it.
A few years ago I finally switched to Adobe Lightroom and took a class to learn how to use it. Lightroom is sort of a cross between Picasa in terms of workflow and Photoshop in terms of photographic tools and quality. I still use Picasa for routine photos. If I want them to really look good I edit them in Lightroom. It was $200 when I bought it, but Adobe has cut the price to $115.
Buy a flash
Built-in camera flashes are weak. You can get much more light out of a hotshoe flashes, AKA speedlights or strobes or flash guns. I use a hotshoe flash all the time and not just for indoors or at night. Even in daylight you need a flash when you get under a tree or on the north side of a building. Even in full sun the flash helps fill in shadows or expose the subject when the background is bright. For walking around I carry a Nikon SB400. The Canon equivalent is the 270EX.
The other immediate benefit of a hotshoe flash is being able to bounce. The built-in flash tends to make ugly, deer-in-the headlights pictures where the subject is too bright and the background is too dark. Almost any hotshoe flash will let you aim the head up and bounce the light off the ceiling, which instantly makes flash photos look a hundred times better. The subject will be lit softly and the area around them will be lit up evenly.
If you want to go beyond bouncing, a flash will let you get into off-camera lighting with lightstands, umbrellas, and lightboxes. If that’s what you want to do, get at least a medium-priced flash like the Canon 430EX or Nikon SB700. The flash heads on those bounce and swivel, they have manual controls that are easier to adjust, and they have features that make them more useful off-camera.
Buy a tripod, maybe
You may find a tripod useful or not, depending on what kind of photography you do. I’m still using the cheapy $70 tripod I bought years ago because I just don’t use a tripod that often. It’s more useful if you do landscape, long exposure, or macro photography, or carefully posed portraits where you want sharp images.
I really started using the tripod when I started shooting video. You may not be able to tell whether a photograph was taken with a tripod, but there’s a night and day difference between a steady tripod video and a jumpy handheld video.
People think that because they can press the shutter release and get a photo that they don’t need classes to learn how to use a DSLR. You can buy a guitar, but if you don’t know how to play it you’re a guitar owner and not a guitarist. Same thing with photography. Find classes, join a club, read books, watch YouTube videos, and read blogs. Digital Photography School has free how-tos and inspirational idea every day.