7 DSLR features that are worth upgrading your camera

A fully articulating screen is a great quality-of-life feature.

If you listen to the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony, you will need to upgrade your DSLR every few months. It seems that before you can get used to your brand new camera, the manufacturers unveil a new set of “must-have” features.

How do you decide what’s worth the upgrade and what features are better waiting for the next model? I evaluate camera features in two main categories:

  • Quality of life – this feature so improves the photography experience that I can’t imagine having to live without it again.
  • Quality of image – this feature allows me to create far better images than my previous camera could under the same conditions.

 

My megapixels are bigger than yours

Remember the megapixel wars? Without any established or uniformed way to differentiate the new model from the old models, camera manufacturers started an arms race with megapixels.

We could create great images with five MPs, but camera manufacturers told us those weren’t enough. We needed six MPs, then eight, then 10, and 12. The latest count from Nikon and Sony, 36 Megapixels for the D800 and A7r respectively.

At some point the escalation became overkill, but without the ability to say my megapixels are bigger than yours, how do we choose? Here are seven features worth evaluating before you upgrade.

 

1. ISO range

ISO is the new megapixel, or so it seems. Each year, the new ISO range climbs higher and higher, leapfrogging the previous models.

ISO, of course, is your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the darker the scene you can photograph without a tripod, because your camera can capture correct exposure with faster shutter speeds.

Like film, higher ISOs usually come at the expense of image quality. In film, we’d see speckles we called grain. In digital, we call those imperfections, noise. Newer cameras have been extending the ISO range with each release giving us not only wider ranges but the ability to shoot at higher ISOs without seeing as much noise.

This year, Nikon released its new flagship DSLR, which sports an ISO range from 50 - 409,600 equivalent. It’s scary to think what might come next.

If I’m evaluating ISO of a new camera, I’d want a minimum of double the range of my current camera. That gives you an extra stop of light. I’d want more than double ideally, but less than that isn’t worth the hassle.

 

2. Screen size and features

In the last five years, most LCD screens have only increased from 2.5“ to 3”, but in that same time, the screen dots jumped from 230,000 to 1,040,000. As a result, when you review your images, they will look much clearer and sharper. You will also see the results when you use live view to compose or shoot video.

If you are upgrading from one of the early models – 2008 time frame – you will notice a significant difference. From a newer camera, the improvement might not be a good enough reason to upgrade.

A fully articulating screen is one quality-of-life feature that doesn’t get enough credit. These are the screens that can flip out and swivel. Most LCD screens are fixed to the backs of cameras.

Once you shoot with a screen that moves, you will wonder how you ever lived without it. It’s great for shooting low angles without having to get your face down on camera level, or shooting over crowds without needing to tiptoe. Just move the camera into place and pop out the screen and point it toward you. This is a feature you won’t regret.

 

3. Durable design

Body construction and design are a couple of the more noticeable differences between an entry level DSLR and some of the more advanced models.

Your entry level camera is smaller and compact. It is also much lighter, since it is constructed of plastic. Further up the range to prosumer and professional cameras, the bodies are larger and constructed of the more durable magnesium alloy. These bodies boast features like weather seals that are also dust resistant.

Is the larger body worth the upgrade? That depends. If you are planning to give your camera a workout in a wide variety of unpredictable conditions, then you will definitely want the sturdier body. Wedding photograpphers, photojournalist and nature photographers have all come to appreciate the extra protection.

If you value a smaller footprint and plan to shoot in controlled environments, the lighter cameras might be good enough for you.

 

4. Wifi and social features

If you take a great picture and don’t immediately share it to Facebook, does the picture really exist? If the answer is no, then you might consider the newer wifi-enabled cameras with social sharing functions. Now you can take a photo, transfer it to your phone using wifi, and post to your favorite social network. Some of the latest Samsung models even have 4G built in, so you can post right from your camera. (Now what will you ever do with your phone?)

 

5. Image processor

The effect of a newer image processor is a little more difficult to quantify, but it doesn’t stop the camera marketers from bragging about it. Every couple upgrades, you’ll see them extolling the virtues of their newer processor. Generally speaking, this provides a more responsive camera, as images are recorded much faster with each improved generation. You can also expect better image performance, as the new processors can yield better image ISO performance as well as greater dynamic range.

Two generations of improvement should be enough to realize the quality-of-life improvement.

 

6. Auto focus capability

Better auto focus can affect both your quality of life and the quality of your image. Early DSLRs offered just three auto focus points. It kept the camera simple, but photographing fast-moving or unpredictable subjects was definitely more challenging.

Today, it is not uncommon to see an entry-level DSLR with as many as 39 auto focus points with 3D capability.

If you are photographing birds in flight or action sports, you will definitely appreciate the flexibility this provides. If you are focused on flowers in a botanical garden, it might not be as important.

 

7. Menu options

My first DSLR was a Nikon D50, which I quickly upgraded to get the more advanced features in the Nikon D200 menu. I wanted the ability to control multiple speedlights wirelessly from my camera. In fact, I found a signficant increase in the overall capabilities available to me in the advanced Menu options.

If you only need to point and shoot, a simple menu might be enough. If you anticipate using more sophisticated set ups, then a more extensive Menu will be worth the upgrade.

 

But is it right for you?

There are quite a few features that are worth the upgrade, but are they worth it for you? Of course that depends on what you will be shooting and where. These seven features will provide enough of an improvement in your quality of life or image quality that you won’t be disappointed.

Best Camera Review Sites

Bob was in the market for a new camera when he turned to his Google Plus community for answers.

He'd compiled a list of a few of the review sites he normally consulted and wanted to know if we had any suggestions.

Great question. With so many options for a new camera or lens, it's hard to know where to get reliable advice.

Here are nine sites I regularly check when I want a camera review I can trust.

CameraLabs - Is another great source for in-depth reviews. Reviews are long and detailed -- some running almost 15,000 words with plenty of example photos for each. Camera Labs' brainchild, Gordon Laing says his reviews take two to four weeks to complete. If you can read his analysis from start to finish, you will appreciate his thoroughness. Check him out when you are in encyclopedia mode.

CNET - I don't typically go to overall tech sites for photography information, because I'm not a fan of the mile wide - inch deep approach. CNET is an exception, however. They have a fairly good library of camera reviews -- both written and video. While CNET is a well-established technology publication, their reviewers always use a personal approach. You know why the individual didn't like the lens; it's a nice touch. The other thing that I appreciate is that they focus just as much on quality-of-life features -- how the buttons feel and work -- as they do on the technical specs. Too many reviewers get lost in technical nuance and ignore the important considerations like "this feels cool."

DigitalRev - DigitalRev TV creates some of the most entertaining and irreverent camera reviews I've seen. You might want to keep the volume down at the office, as the host is known to drop some salty language on occasion. The reviews are always fun and don't take themselves too seriously. They also do a lot of this camera vs that camera analysis. If you can't decide between two different models, I'm guessing they've done a comparison video for it.

DPReview - This is one of my first stops for camera research. I trust DPReview for in-depth analysis that covers just about every spec that might be important to me. If you like to pore over technical details of your camera purchase, you'll find plenty of data to consider. I also like their side-by-side comparison tool. Choose any combination of the cameras or lenses you are comparing, and create a grid of all their features. Now you can compare apples to apples.

FroKnowsPhoto - Fro Knows. Pho-to... (that's how he says it) Jared Polin creates a lot of training videos at froknowsphoto.com, but I'm a big fan of his reviews. He shoots his video overviews in a local camera store, then goes out in the field to test the gear, and includes screencasts of him opening and showing his images. Useful and entertaining. 

Imaging Resource - This is a great site where you can expect rigorous testing. They strike me as the engineers of the camera review space, meaning they will be precise and no frills. You want facts. They got facts. For instance, they brag that they will track metrics like shutter delay, shot-to-shot cycle times and battery consumption rates. Their emails are dense with information and few pictures, but as I said, if you want facts, they got facts.

Ken Rockwell - I enjoy reading Ken Rockwell's site, and that isn't popular to say in some circles. Ken has a very deep database of reviews on just about every camera and lens, going back decades. I've found him to give very clear and useful reviews. There is a school of thought that Ken is biased toward Nikons and can't be trusted. The way I see it, Ken is clearly opinionated, which means you will always make enemies. He is worth a read when you evaluate several sources.

Steve Huff Photo - If you are in the market for a mirrorless camera, you should check out Steve Huff. He is well regarded for that genre, although he still dabbles in some DSLR reviews.

ThomHogan / DSLRbodies.com - The blog title might say DSLR, but Thom Hogan is a well respected Nikon professional. If you are a Nikonian, you want to hear what he thinks about your next camera. His background is all Nikon, but he isn't afraid to take the company to task when he feels it is warranted. Good practical, advice.


Outside of these review sites, when you are in research mode, you can also check user reviews at the big camera stores like B&H Photo Video, Adorama, and even Amazon. You might scan them for recurring themes across people who own the gear you are considering.  Like any unmoderated comments on the internet, I would not rely too much on any one user's advice. Expect outspoken, oppinionated and sometimes irrational. I find value in the aggregate. If 200 users all say the lens is slow and annoying, take note.

Finally, while this post is about finding other photographers' reviews, there is no substitute for your own test drive. Before purchasing any high-priced item, I'd rent it for a weekend and form my own opinion. Sites like lensrentals.com have the added benefit of providing their own reviews.  Roger Cicala, president of LensRentals often gives "Roger's Take" -- a short two to three paragraph dish on popular cameras and lenses.

We are truly in the information age. There is no excuse for making an uninformed decision about a camera purchase.

 

Your turn

What are your favorite camera review sites? Have I missed any? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Fast primes lenses: take pro looking photos without spending pro money

In the lush and balmy Botanical Garden, Debra just couldn’t make her camera do what she wanted.

When she took a close up picture of the flowers, the background was too busy. It just wouldn’t blur out.

On some photos, the whole image turned out blurry. Then the camera said she needed a flash. She really didn’t want to use a flash.

What should she do? She knew what the professional photos should look like, but she wasn’t getting them.

This is one of those times when the tools matter.

Debra was shooting with the kit lens - the 18 mm to 55 mm lens that comes with many cameras. It’s great for a lot of situations, but in a low light or busy scene, it struggles.

For the photos Debra wanted, she didn’t need to buy a $2,000 lens. For as little as $200, she could have solved her problems and created magic.

“Do you have a fast prime lens?” I asked.

“A what?!”

“A fast prime lens. It’s a lens that lets you get a very wide f-stop, but it doesn’t zoom.

 

What is fast?

We evaluate most lenses using two sets of numbers -- the widest aperture or f-stop and the focal length or zoom.

For example, the standard kit lens that comes with many entry level DSLRs is an 18 mm - 55 mm f/3.5 - f/5.6.

Fast refers to lens’ lowest f-stop number. The lower the number, the wider the lens will open. In the case of your kit lens, its widest opening will be f/3.5. That’s not too bad, but there’s a catch. It only opens to f/3.5 at the widest focal length, 18 mm. 

Of course that lens will zoom to 55 mm. As you zoom in, the widest aperture will begin to restrict progressively. At the 55 mm end of the lens range, the widest aperture will be f/5.6.

Why do you care? Your f/stop helps you create depth of field -- the amount of space in front and behind your subject that is in focus. If you want a very shallow depth of field -- or a blurry background -- using a low f-stop can be helpful.

You will also care in low light situations. If your f-stop is narrow, f/5.6 for example, then you will need to compensate with either a higher ISO or a slower shutter speed.

Both of those choices have their drawbacks. A higher ISO can create more noise in your image; a slower shutter speed can lead to camera shake.

To avoid both of those challenges, professional photographers tend to treasure lenses that can use a very low f-stop.

 

Why the professional lenses cost so much

The 24 mm - 70 mm f/2.8 is a clear favorite for most professional photographers. Many will also add the companion 70 mm - 200 mm f/2.8. Those lenses can range from $1,800 to $2,400 depending on the manufacturer.

Why do they cost so much? Unlike the kit lens, when you zoom with these professional lenses, the maximum opening of the aperture remains at its widest point, f/2.8. That is very helpful if you are photographing in low light. It also helps you create a more shallow  depth of field.

These are two options that could have helped tremendously in a low light situation like the Botanical Garden. But they are very expensive options.

 

Why the prime?

A prime lens is the less expensive alternative. You can usually get them with a very low f-stop, usually f/1.8, but they have no zoom. That means you zoom with your feet.

If you are willing to forgo the zoom on your lens and move your body, you can save thousands of dollars. More importantly, you can get the kind of performance that you tend to see in more expensive professional cameras.

At the Botanical Garden, I used a $200 50 mm f/1.8 to blur out the background and capture images free of camera shake. I didn’t need a tripod or a flash. Would a tripod have been helpful? Yes, but not necessary.

If you want a lens that lets you take professional looking photos without spending professional money, start with a fast prime.

 

Canon 50 mm f/1.8. Photo by Richard C.

Nikon fast primes -- 28 mm f/1.8, 50 mm f/1.8, and the 85 mm f/1.8. Photo by Dustin Gaffke.

DSLR fast prime recommendations

Wide Angle

If you are shooting indoors in small spaces, you might need a wider angle to capture the whole scene. This is also useful for travel and architecture. On a full frame camera, you will see a wider peripheral view. On crop sensor, or entry level to consumer DSLRs, you view will look similar to your eye.

Canon 28 mm f/1.8 - $450ish

Nikon 35 mm f/1.8 - $200ish

 

The Nifty 50 

Every camera bag ought to have a 50 mm lens, in my world. It is lightweight, fast, and inexpensive. This is a great walkaround lens.

On a full frame DSLR, your images will look relatively the same distance as they do to your eyes. On your entry level and consumer DSLRs, it will look like a slight zoom.

Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 - $200ish  

Canon 50 mm f/1.8 - $125ish 

You can spend more money on f/1.4 or f/1.2 versions of this lens, but unless you are a professional or a serious enthusiast, you won’t need the upgrade.

 

Portraits

Longer lenses make great portrait lenses because they are more flattening effect is more flattering on facial features. It also makes it easy to separate your subject from the background with a shallow depth of field.

Nikon 85 mm f/1.8 - $500ish

Canon 85 mm f/1.8 - $420ish

 

Nikon 105 mm f/2.8 - $900ish

Canon 100 mm f/2.8 - $600ish 

 

Longer focal length

Try these lenses for indoor sports where you can get relatively close to the action. You’ll be able to fill the frame and stop the action. They are also great options for portraits.

Canon 200 mm f/2.8 - $800ish

Nikon 180 mm f/2.8 - $900ish

Do you have a favorite fast prime? Share which one and why in the comments? Do you have a question about a fast prime? Ask that in the comments, too.

 

Links provided through my affiliate relationship with B&H Photo Video. Learn more here.

Scott kelby switched from Nikon to Canon. Should you?

Just the headline annoyed me: “Scott Kelby switches from Nikon to Canon.”

Scott’s choice of camera brand is mildly interesting to me, but the announcement that he switched brands -- as a news story -- really prompts other questions:

  • Why should I care?
  • What should I do with that info?
  • How will this impact the industry?

And here is the big question many people might actually ponder: 
Should I switch, too? 

That’s what really annoys me. Someone might actually consider switching brands based on Scott’s decision.

Who is Scott Kelby anyway?

Scott Kelby reached celebrity status as the author of almost 50 books on photography and Photoshop. He is the editor of Photoshop User magazine and co-founder of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. He leads the Photoshop World conference and also pioneered the World Wide Photo Walk. The man has is own Wikipedia entry. He’s a big deal.

As you might expect, an endorsement from someone at his level carries some weight. So when Scott Kelby, who is also known as a Nikon shooter, suddenly shows up toting a Canon DSLR, people notice and inquire. That’s why Scott Kelby says he made the video.

But why should I care?

I don’t. It’s mildly interesting to me. I take the same interest as knowing Michael Jordan wears Nike shoes. I don’t expect that donning Air Jordans will help me run faster or win a dunk contest. Jordan would still be Jordan in Reeboks.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter what camera Scott Kelby uses. He has a level of talent and skill that will produce incredible photos.

Then what should I do with that information?

What action should I take knowing that Scott Kelby changed brands? That depends. Are you considering whether to purchase a Canon or Nikon for the first time or are you already established on one of the brands?

Scott’s paid endorsement is a data point. He says that he likes the way the Canon 1DX represented skin tones and raves about the auto focus speed. If any of that kind of photography is important to you, I’d take note.

I’d also make note that Scott’s epiphany came after Canon offered a sponsorship. If Canon called me up and offered to send me a 1DX and 5D Mark III, I would be evangelizing for them by sundown. Just saying. 

What does this mean for the industry?

Kudos to Canon for snagging such a high-profile endorsement. What will it mean for the industry? It continues the conversation that Canon is the camera you need if you are serious about sports photography or high-end portrait work. There must be a reason the sideline of all those NFL games seem to uniformly feature the signature Canon white lenses, right?

I’m sure Scott’s endorsement will add to Canon’s aura of market dominance, but pros who have been shooting on Nikon’s their entire careers won’t give two flying flips. They won’t be changing. 

If you are considering which brand to buy, a Kelby endorsement could be a persuasive argument for aspiring sports photographers.

Should I switch, too?

Is Canon offering you a sponsorship deal and paying you to switch? No? Then keep what you have and go work on your craft. Take your Nikon/Sony/Leica/ whatever and put in the the work. That’s a more efficient path to Scott Kelby quality photos.

The folly of switching is that Nikon and Canon leapfrog each other with features and technology. If Canon has the best performer this year, you can believe the Nikon has a Canon buster that it will unveil within six months. Canon will introduce their Nikon killer in the next six months..and so on...and so on. 

Competition between these two will continue to produce great cameras for photographers, no matter which brand you select.

From entry level to professional, the technology to create great images exists in any new camera you select today. 

Camera layout, build, and other features become more important when you decide your photography niche. 

Before you buy in, you should rent both and see which feels best to you. Decide which one is best suited for the type of photography you intend to create.

Once you have the best answer for you, it won’t matter what camera Scott or anyone else chooses.

Review: 24" Pop Up Photography Soft Light Studio Tent Kit

Whether you sell on eBay, Etsy or your own ecommerce site, your pictures are one of the most important elements in your ability to increase sales.

The big time ad agencies rent expensive studios, but you have a fairly inexpensive option available. Try a tabletop photography studio kit.

I got a chance to test the YescomUSA 24" Pop Up Photography Soft Light Studio Tent Kit. This all-in-one solution helps photographers and web retailers produce clean images that showcase their products beautifully.

 

Why you would want one

 

You're an online seller

Imagine you are shopping online and visit a site that features just the product you want. You click on the image to get a closer look, and in the background you see the family pet, their living room, and other personal effects. On another site, you see a professionally photographed image with a clean white background. Which site makes you feel better about the provider?

For most of us, it would be the latter. When you sell online, the images you create become your store front window, so you want your store to be as inviting and professional as possible. When your images are compelling, you are more likely to convert browsers to buyers.

 

You're a blogger

If you are a blogger, you know that one of the big challenges you'll encounter is how you illustrate each post. A tabletop studio can be helpful if you need to photograph a more conceptual idea. If you blog frequently, you can create images specific to your posts without having to spend a lot of money on stock photos. 

 

Why you would want this one

YescomUSA's pop up studio tent is an inexpensive and practical solution. It arrives with everything you need to create your home studio:

  • A studio tent that pops up to a 24" x 24" size and collapses like a reflector or car visor.
  • Two lamps with 26W bulbs balanced to 5500k. This lets you set your camera white balance to ensure you get perfect color in your images.
  • Backgrounds in white, blue, red, and black
  • Tabletop tripod.
  • Carrying bag for the tent and backgrounds.

 

This table top studio is a great value because:

Getting a studio for $69 is a no-brainer price when you realize that you are getting a background, lights, stands and a tent. If you bought these items individually, you can easily pay $69 for each of these elements.

It provides everything you need to create money-making images — for a relatively small investment.

The lights and stands are pretty solid. They probably have the best build in this package. I can easily see using these lights for other situations outside the pop-up studio. You set up the lights outside the tent, so you have a built-in diffuser. That creates soft even light on your subject.

 

Why you would not want this one

If you put any mileage on this studio, you will likely need to upgrade quickly. While it might be a good value for $69, I don't think it is sturdy enough to stand up to a lot of usage. I only used it a couple times but always felt like I needed to treat it gingerly.

The tabletop tripod can handle a compact point and shoot, but I would be hesitant to use it with a DSLR. You might want to get your own tripod or guerrilla pod for better camera stability.

It doesn't come with any instructions. The kit should be easy to figure out if you've ever used studio lighting before, but I can see how a novice might be frustrated.

 

My recommendation

If you have occasional use for a portable studio, this is option is good enough. You can create your blog illustrations or sell your cool eBay products. The YescommUSA pop up studio will help you create professional looking photos. If you need to create images at a greater frequency, you might want to invest more money and get something that is a little sturdier.

 

Here's what the manufacturer says:

This brand new professional portable photo tent and lights kit is a perfect solution for producing photo and video for web retailers and commercial product catalog. Very easy to use and setup in seconds.

 

Best Solution for Your Portable Photo Studio:

  • Perfect for objects less than 24in., such as toys, accouterments, small furnishings and souvenir, etc.
  • Soften lighting for reducing overexposure and hot spots.
  • Seamless and non-reflectable background for less post processing.
  • Set up in minutes and fold in a carrying case for portability
  • For 110 voltage

 

Soft Light Tent:

  • 24" x 24" x 24" (more sizes are available in our store)
  • 100% pure white high-duty nylon fabric round tent
  • Translucent fabric gently diffuse the light to prevent shadows
  • Removable front door with slit for eliminating reflection of your camera len, great for photographing highly reflective objects such as silver and glass
  • Setup in seconds and fold up for convenient storage and travel
  • Excellent for table top use

 

Upgraded Lighting:

  • Color temperature is 5500k, most perfect color temperature for photo taking.
  • Total 2x 45 Watts energy saving compact fluorescent spiral bulb
  • Average life of light bulb : 8,000 hours
  • Aluminum Light stand: 12" Min. - 21 1/2" Max.
  • Adjustable Stand with simple quick-release levers

 

Camera Tripod:

  • High-quality aluminum and steel frame.
  • Neck height ranges from 6" to 11", suitable for table top shooting.
  • Backgrounds:
  • Size: 41" L x 22" W
  • Non reflective high-quality cotton.
  • 4 different colors: Black, White, Red and Blue for best result.
  • Velcro design allows you to change the background easily and quickly.
  • Provide better contrast solution for all objects

 

Package Includes:

  • 1x 24" Soft Light Tent
  • 4x High-quality Backgrounds
  • 2x 26w Daylight Bulbs
  • 2x Light Reflectors
  • 2x Light Tripods
  • 1x Camera Tripod
  • 1x Carrying Bag for Tent and Backgrounds

 

Where to buy it

YescomUSA offers this product here.

 

Full disclosure

I don't have an affiliate relationship with this retailer and am not compensated if you purchase it. They did provide a free copy for me to evaluate, but there was no expectation that it would influence my review. This post reflects my unbiased opinion. 

The stories of Humans of New York now in print

My mouth almost hit the floor when I saw the Humans of New York book on the cover of USA Today.

You might remember that Brandon Stanton, the blogger who is taking a photo census of the Big Apple was a guest on our Free Photo Webinar a couple years ago.

Since then he has continued capturing tons of stories of humans across New York. Along the way, he’s attracted more than a million followers to his blog and now he has released hard cover book for sale.

USA Today included Humans of New York on their holiday gift guide, and I am adding it to mine as well. 

I’m not surprised to see that it rocketed to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. He’s an amazing photographer and storyteller.

I love to see success happen to good people.

Here is Brandon on our webinar.

He also inspired me to write this post: Better street portraits: What I learned from Humans of New York.

Pick up the book on Amazon.

Finding your favorite lens

At some point you've probably asked one of these two questions: What lens should I buy next? What lens should I use next?

While you might have settled on your perfect DSLR body, the search for the perfect lens can seem ongoing. 

 

Distance vs Speed

Camera manufacturers use two sets of numbers to describe most lenses -- the focal length and the maximum aperture. I like to think of them as distance and speed. 

Distance = focal length. Technically, your lens' focal length is the distance between the lens' optical center and the camera's image sensor. In plain english, it helps you determine how much of the scene you can capture. 

A shorter focal length lets you capture a wider area. It has the effect of elongating the objects in the scene. A longer focal length captures a narrow field of view and brings far away objects closer to you. It also has the effect of compressing objects in the frame.

Speed = maximum aperture. Aperture describes how wide the shutter opens when you take a photo. Aperture numbers work in reverse, so smaller numbers represent larger openings. Of course that means your larger number represents the smallest opening. 

We refer to a lens by the widest aperture it can use. Lenses that can open to a very wide aperture are known as fast or bright lenses. A kit lens will usually open to a maximum of f/3.5, for instance. Professional lenses usually open to a maximum of at least f/2.8.

A small number on your aperture also helps you create a smaller focus area, known as shallow depth of field. Photos with soft blurry backgrounds are easier to create with fast lenses.

 

Choosing your focal length 

In the range of focal lengths, you can choose among several categories:

Focal length ranges (based on a 35 mm film or full frame digital camera)

Wide Angle is a shorter focal length, from 10 mm - 42 mm. This allows you to capture a wider area left to right. This is a good range for landscapes, building interiors and group portraits. 

Standard/Normal range reproduces the scene the way it appears to the natural eye. A 50 mm is known a standard length.

Telephoto is a longer focal length, from 100 mm to 300 mm. This range is great for capturing subjects that are far away and bringing them closer. Between 85 mm to 150 mm is a great range for portraits because it de-emphasizes facial features and produces a soft background. Telephoto lenses are great for sports, nature, and portrait photography.

 

Functionality

Zoom lenses cover a range of focal lengths. You can move your subject closer to you or capture a wider area just by adjusting your zoom. Consumer level zoom lenses have a maximum aperture that narrows as the focal length increases. For instance, if you have a lens that ranges from f/3.5 - f/5.6, your aperture opens to f/3.5 at the widest focal length and restricts to f/5.6 at the longest focal length. Professional level lenses will hold a wide maximum aperture throughout the entire focal length range. That means you can zoom from 70 mm - 200 mm while holding an f/2.8 aperture. Lenses that remain fast throughout the zoom are usually very expensive.

Fixed focal lengths lenses have only one focal length, for instance a 35 mm only or 50 mm only. If you need to get closer or farther, you zoom with your feet and move back and forth. Fast prime lenses trade off not having a zoom with a very bright aperture. You can typically find a fixed focal length lens with an f/1.8 maximum aperture at a much lower price than a fast zoom.

 

Special effects

Macro lenses are used for extreme close up photography. They allow you to move the lens near your subject and capture life-sized replications of your subject. They are typically used to photograph insects and flowers.

Fisheye lenses capture a very wide field of view - as much as 180 degrees. To make that wide range work, the lens distorts the image and straight lines curve in a dramatic way. 

Stabilization allows you to use slower shutter speeds and not experience camera shake. Every time you depress the shutter you move the camera slightly. If your shutter speed is too slow, that movement shows up as camera shake. The picture looks slightly out of focus. Lens manufacturers help correct for that movement with extra stabilization. The camera corrects for the movement and allows you to produce a sharp image at slower shutter speeds. Canon lenses call this feature IS or, Image Stabilization. Nikon lenses refer to it at VR, or Vibration Reduction.

Within all these features, you can probably choose the ones that will go into your favorite lens. And with all those options, it is easy to see why the search for your perfect lens never seems to end.

Have you found your favorite lens? Tell me what you use as your 'go to' lens and why.

When should you upgrade to a DSLR?

Here is a question I get regularly:

"Should I buy a point and shoot or DSLR?"

You buy a DSLR when you are serious enough about your pictures to want to control every aspect of their creation. People who are really serious lug big flipping lenses and multiple camera bodies, and they don't consider it a burden. For them, it would be far worse to arrive at an opportunity with the wrong tools.

People who care more about convenience buy cameras that fit in their pockets or purses. Nothing wrong with either decision. It depends on what is most important to you.

Creative control vs. carrying convenience. That is the real question.

If the pleasure of creating a shot where you get to control every detail is worth more than the pain of packing a bag with a camera, several lenses, filters, a flash and so on....then a DSLR is for you.

If you cringe at the thought of carrying "all that stuff" that should be your first clue. With a point and shoot, you can always get a shot that's good enough. If you know what you are doing, you can get some shots that are great. No need to hang your head. Create your art with the tools you select.

If you know that having a big camera means you are more likely to leave it at home, don't do it. You can't take any great pictures from a camera you don't have. You are shopping for convenience.

Outside of that, let's look at the characteristics of each type

About Compact Cameras

Benefits of compact camera 

  • Convenience. Fits in a pocket or purse. No other lenses to carry. 
  • Great images without carrying a lot of stuff
  • Doesn't draw attention
  • Live view for exposure effects

Drawbacks of compact camera 

  • Not immediate response
  • Level of control varies
  • Smaller sensor impacts quality 

About DSLRs

Benefits of DSLR

  • Control & creativity 
  • Direct control of aperture & shutter speed
  • Change lenses for distance or speed
  • You look thru the lens for WYSIWYG 
  • Quality of a bigger sensor

Drawbacks of DSLR

  • Live view
  • Bulky to carry with lenses
  • Security

Bottom line - Convenience vs Control

For your first DSLR, buy the Nikon D5100

Completely Biased Camera Buying Guide recommendation

Nikon D5100 Digital SLR Camera

You know those end-of-year-sales car dealers use to clear out inventory? I'm willing to bet Nikon is having one of them, and that means you can get a great deal on an entry level DSLR.

I noticed that B&H Photo Video is selling the Nikon D5100 with a $200 instant savings, which means you can get the camera body for only $546. You can buy it with the 18-55 mm lens for $646, but if you can afford it, ditch the kit lens and go with better glass. I'd recommend either of these:

When Nikon introduced this camera, the body retailed at $799, and it is still as great a camera now as it was then. Reviewers have noted that images are just as good as the Nikon D7000, which could cost you twice as much. Think about that. 

Nikon has been refreshing its line with the new D4, D800, and D3200. Could a new D5200 be next? It's likely. I'd hazard a guess that could be motivating the sale. Whatever the reason, you can now pick up an excellent entry level DSLR for a steal.

Who should buy this camera?

If you are upgrading from your point and shoot to a DSLR, you can't beat this deal. The camera almost costs less than many higher end P&S models. 

If you are looking for a walk-around camera you can take everywhere and still not be weighed down by professional looking gear, you will be happy with this choice.


Why should you buy it?

This model was introduced as a step up from the then entry-level Nikon D3100. It packs an impressive array of features for the price.

The ISO tops at 6400 and performs well enough for you to get good shots in low light. The 16 MP sensor will give you enough information to create decent sized files for editing or making large prints. You have the flexibility of also shooting 1080P HD movies with full time autofocus. (Many of the older models wouldn't do this.)

I love that the LCD screen tilts out, so you can get shots at low angles without having to lie on the ground. (Don't underestimate this quality-of-life feature.)

Bottom line: This is a great little camera, and you really can't beat the price.

Read the DPReview in depth review if you want to go deep with the technical info.

Naturally, when you get the camera, you'll want to join me on my photo tours to learn to use it. (I couldn't resist.)

Note: The links in this recommendation point to B&H through an affiliate links, but the opinions are all mine. Click here to learn more about my affiliate relationships.

Do you already own a Nikon D5100? Tell us what you think about it in the comments.

The Completely Biased Camera Buying Guide

"What brand of DSLR should I purchase?"

We all face that moment of truth at some point -- when we struggle between what we want to say and what we are expected to say.

Buy a Nikon or Canon DSLR. Dump the Sony DSLR.

I recently had one of those moments -- a client asked me which brand of DSLR she should purchase. I gave my usual advice about sticking to Nikon or Canon. Another gentleman asked what I thought about Sony DSLRs. He was holding one at the time. I paused and gave a stock answer about Sony making DSLRs that get pretty good ratings. Its Alpha A55 SLR was named "camera of the year," by Popular Photography magazine last December.

I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but here's what I wanted to say. Don't buy any more Sony DSLRs! And if you have one, for God sakes sell it while you still can! I have a graveyard of Sony crap that is useless because Sony pulled the plug right after I invested my money. MiniDisc anyone? This is what Sony does. They jump into a market or product with great fanfare, and if it doesn't pick up right away, poof! It will be gone.

 

Stick with Nikons or Canons

For the last 50 years, Nikon and Canon have owned the SLR market. Today, they combine for 75 percent of the digital SLR market, according to technology marketing research firm IDC. That ain't changing anytime soon. People who own Nikons or Canons aren't ever going to sell their gear to buy Sony cameras. Sorry. Not gonna happen. Sony won't increase market share with existing photographers. 

 

The best Sony can do is pick off a few new photographers who don't know better or don't mind being novel. Will a sliver of the DSLR market be good enough for Sony? I say nope. They'll get bored and dump their DSLR line. You'll be stuck with a camera that Sony will sell off to some other company. Twenty years from now, my Nikon lenses will still work with Nikon's latest offering. I'll bet my MiniDisc your Sony camera will be orphaned. Buy your stereo from Sony and your DSLR from Nikon or Canon.

 

"Should I buy a Nikon or Canon?"

This is a debate for the ages. It's like Mac vs. PC, Ford vs. Chevy, Great taste vs. Less filling.

You can argue either side of the Nikon vs. Canon debate passionately and most camera owners often do. It really comes down to preference more than anything else. The camera lines are fairly evenly matched. Whether you start with a Nikon D3200 or Canon EOS t4i, you should be able to produce quality images without the camera getting in the way. The sibling rivalry continues all the way up the line to the Nikon D800 vs Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D4 vs Canon 1DX. A decent photographer should be able to use either option and create magic.

Just because there is parity, doesn't mean you should take this decision lightly, however. You will want to upgrade your camera body about every three years. Once you start investing in lenses, you will hang on to them forever. When the investment in expensive lenses begins, it is much less practical to switch brands. 

I shoot with Nikons primarily, not because there is anything wrong with Canons, it's just the brand I've used for more than 20 years. I get the opportunity to work with a lot of Canons when I teach, so I'm comfortable with most of the product line. I still feel most at home with a Nikon in my hands. 

Sometimes it comes down to seemingly small things like button placement and menu organization. Don't downplay these decisions. These are the quality-of-life options that will most impact your daily shooting workflow.

If you can, you should probably rent both and see which feels most comfortable for you. 

 

And so the Completely Biased Camera Buying Guide begins

There, I said it. And now that I'm in a venting and truth telling mood. Let's talk about all the other gear you might be interested in purchasing.

I'm working on a camera buying guide that answers all the questions you have been asking me. It is the truth as i see it, not the fake impartial dribble you find in most store-based buying guides.

I'll post my advice on this blog as I finish each section. You tell me if they answer your questions, or if you have follow up questions. I'll update the post. When I think we have covered most issues comprehensively, I will wrap it all up in a report I can give away. 

Next up: Should I buy a point and shoot or DSLR?