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Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Beginner’s Guide to Taking the DSLR Plunge


I recently had the opportunity to upgrade my DSLR through an awesome online deal. In the process of setting up and playing with my new camera, I got to thinking about the road I've taken from casual point-and-shoot photography to using more serious photography gear. I decided that rather than bore you to tears with a deeply technical review of the camera, I thought I’d take this time to relate why I finally took the DSLR plunge and cover some of the things that you should consider if you’re on the verge of taking the same plunge.

My recent upgrade involved moving from a Canon T2i to a Canon T4i for only $130. I did this by purchasing the deal described in this post, and then selling my T2i body plus the 18-55mm lens from the T4i kit. It was a relatively minor upgrade, but I ended up with a camera that has a faster processor, articulating touch screen, wireless master capability, and better low-light performance for a relative pittance. Wait, $130 is a pittance? Not really, but once you take the DSLR plunge, you’ll see why it starts to feel that way.

So why do I call it a plunge? Aren't we just talking about buying a nicer camera in the same way that one might compare a Honda Accord to a BMW 5 series?

No, not at all.

I was once guilty of thinking that way about DSLRs, but I've come to realize that they are really more like Pandora’s box than a simple camera upgrade. A DSLR most definitely is a nicer camera than a point-and-shoot, but you won’t necessarily end up with better pictures, and it can’t always replace a point-and-shoot. It took me a very long time to realize why, and I’d like to help others avoid some of that frustration. Read on to find out what I mean and learn if you're ready to take the plunge.

Stepping to the precipice

For years I snapped away with 35mm cameras and even Kodak’s 24mm APS system. All along I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I’d typically end  up with one or two pretty good shots, and the remainder of a roll that barely rivaled today’s Instagrammed cellphone pics. I wanted to take better pictures, but hadn't yet found the motivation to learn more (the cost of film was certainly a deterrent).

The purchase of my first digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix 2500, along with my wanderlust for travel, served as kindling for the fire that eventually became an all-consuming interest in photography. Finally I could see the results immediately (and cheaply), try different things until I got it right, and capture more quality memories from my travels. See the shot I got by means of pure luck during my travels in southern Egypt:

Accidental excellence from my Nikon Coolpix 2500. Aswan, Egypt December 25, 2002

Whenever I bought a camera, I searched for one that could take the best possible picture in “Auto.” I didn't want anything to do with that “Manual” stuff. I read reviews, pored over specs, and got sucked in by exaggerated marketing materials promising amazing scene modes that would deliver magazine-quality prints at the click of a button. I went through many cameras, and I finally ended up with a Canon PowerShot G7 as my final step before the DSLR cliff. Canon’s marketing department promised me it was the closest thing to a DSLR. I was too afraid to jump just yet so I believed them and spent the next four years shooting with the G7.

The G7 really was a nice camera, and I loved it up until it finally died with the dreaded E18 lens error. It took great pictures…sometimes. Rather, I should say that I sometimes took great pictures. I never had a clue what I was doing, or what really made the G7 better than a cheaper model. Thanks to my DSLR experience, I now know that its quality was partly due to a larger than average sensor and maximum aperture, as well as nice image processor. Back then though, I was simply snapping a way in blissful ignorance (I miss those days). I relied on a combination of luck, a high-quality camera, and what people told me was an “eye” for composing a good shot.

The problem I eventually encountered, was that I wanted to take great pictures more often than sometimes. I wanted to know how in the world journalists took such mind-blowing images. When the G7 died, these reasons led me to my first step off the cliff. The final step that pushed me over was the impending birth of my first son. His days as a child wouldn't last forever and I wanted to capture them in as stunning clarity as I could. I thought, “To hell with point-and-shoots. Let’s get serious and go all DSLR. My pictures will look amazing right out of the box.”

Man was I wrong.

A DSLR will not replace your point-and-shoot

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have come to love my DSLR and what it can do. It’s just that once upon a time in a land not so far away, I actually believed that I could use my DSLR as my sole camera. This was a bad idea for a number of reasons.

The first is simply the sheer size and weight of these things. Even with just the kit lens on a T4i, you’re looking at a 1.7lb camera. Step up to a higher quality lens like the 17-55mmf/2.8 lens that I use now, and you’ll be dragging along 2.7lbs. We won’t even get into the huge zoom lenses or the pro-grade weather-sealed camera bodies. All that bulk can really weigh you down on a trip. For me, the flexibility I get with a DSLR, and the quality I get from my nice lens can be worth it at times, but just keep this concern in mind.

There are also places where DSLRs simply aren't appropriate due to their size and noise. For example, I like to take pictures of my meals when I order a unique dish abroad. Every time I picture pulling out my 17-55mm lens with its huge 77mm opening, I can’t help but laugh at how absurd that would look. See what I mean below as my DSLR attempts to devour my wife’s old Canon SD1100IS:

My DSLR eating a point-and-shoot for lunch.

Aside from their size, DSLRs are also LOUD compared to a point-and-shoot or smartphone. Every time the shutter button is depressed, the mirror mechanism that makes up the "R" in DSLR, has to move away from directing the image to the viewfinder in order to permit light to expose the sensor. This action makes a loud "thwack" sound, that will certainly draw attention to you in a quiet setting.

Another challenge to using a DSLR, is something that took me a very long time to figure out. Picture after picture kept turning out blurry. I just couldn't understand why I couldn't get a picture in focus with a very expensive DSLR, when my old G7 handled the task effortlessly. Months later, I finally figured it out. Depth of field! You’d wear out the scroll wheel on your mouse reading this post if I attempted to explain depth of field (DOF) here. Instead, I’ll point you to this link and this video as staring points. 

The key point I’d like to make is that with all settings the same (focal length, aperture value, and distance from the subject), a DSLR will have a much shallower depth of field than a point-and-shoot. What I mean, is that the forground or background will be far more blurred with the DSLR. You’ll often hear this called bokeh (Japanese for ‘blur’). While this is often a desired effect, and the reason some people use DSLRs, it can be maddeningly frustrating if you’re a new photographer and don’t know what is happening. I now know this to be a result of the much larger image sensors in DSLRs, and the properties of the lenses they use.

An example of how magnified this effect is in a DSLR, can be found by combining close proximity to the subject you are photographing (1-2 feet), and an aperture value of say f/2.8 or lower. This can lead to an area of focus (front to back) that is so shallow that you may only have someone’s nose in focus, and everything from their eyes and beyond is blurred. However, a point and shoot could easily have the whole face in focus. Even standing slightly farther back, if you have multiple subjects that aren't exactly side by side, one may be in focus and the other may not be. This iOS app really helped me understand this principle (along with this one).

Take the time to really read up on DOF before getting a DSLR and you will save yourself a lot of frustration. 

An area where a point-and-shoot often performs well is macro photography. I’m talking situations when you want to take a picture of something that is mere inches in front of your lens. A DSLR can certainly do this very well, and certainly better than a P&S, but only if you have the right gear. A Canon 60mm Macro lens for a T4i will run about $400 (or more). On the other hand, just about any point-and-shoot has a macro mode that will often produce very acceptable pictures and save you a ton of money. With my 17-55mm lens, I’m limited to a minimum distance of about 14 inches (and then the shallow DOF issues REALLY become a problem). Again, a DSLR can do a fantastic job here, especially if you want to photograph insects or flowers, but you may still want a point-and-shoot around for some macro situations.

For some these days, a smartphone will function just fine as a point-and-shoot alternative to their DSLR. For me though, the more I learned about photography, the more my iPhone’s lack of manual controls frustrated me. In the end, I ended up with an S95 (and now an RX100) as my alternative for times when Big Bertha isn't appropriate.

It’s not all about the Pentiums baby

I’d like to slightly disagree with the immortal words of Weird Al Yankovic and say that actually it’s not all about the Pentiums baby. Or rather, it’s not all about the DSLRs baby.

So much of photography is the photographer: Their vision, their eye, their technical skill, and sometimes, simply the pure dumb luck of being in the right place at the right millisecond in time. I've been guilty myself of the spray-and-pray approach. That’s the thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack  you hear when someone like me points their camera at something and then goes, “Oh look at this great picture I got in the middle of the twenty I just took!”

Don’t buy a DSLR thinking you need it to get great pictures. You don’t. A master photographer can snap a picture that will steal the hearts and minds of million with an iPhone. Hell, I bet a real pro could use one of those supermarket disposables and still pull off magic. Don’t lose sight of what’s important…the picture and the moment. Update 1-1-13: Check out what a pro did with a 2 megapixel Buzz Lightyear toy camera

Sometimes the best pictures I've taken don’t even come from a DSLR. For example, take a look at the shot I got below when flying with Team Oracle this past summer. Much to my incredible surprise, it was picked as an editor’s choice image on 500px (a site frequented by some amazing photographers). What did I take that with? A little Canon S95 point-and-shoot. What setting was I on? Auto. Yes that’s right, auto. Sometimes focusing on the moment is far more important than worrying what your shutter speed or ISO sensitivity are set to.


Another image I took that weekend was from my DSLR. It is a heavily cropped, noisy image, yet it still reached "Popular" status for a period of time on 500px:

Torching the runway

So what I’m saying is don’t buy a DSLR right? No, what I am saying is definitely do buy one if you want to learn about photography, but don’t think you need one to produce a great image. People will care more about what you capture than what you captured it with, or whether the image is a perfectly crisp noiseless image. 

Start with a DSLR, not a mirrorless camera

This is of course only my opinion, but here’s why. A DSLR will force you to learn photography basics. A mirrorless camera like those from Sony’s popular NEX line are nice but, at the time I’m writing this, still have a number of significant limitations. Many lack viewfinders, and the ones that have them are very expensive. Compared to mature DSLR camera lines, may lack a wide selection of lenses. All but the most expensive don’t have rapid access to the P/A/S/M shooting modes and ISO controls. Finally, many desire these for their diminutive size (myself included), but once you slap a zoom lens on them, most are nearly as large (in terms of depth) as a DSLR. Thus, they still require a camera bag or sling to tote around.

These days, many nice entry-level DSLRs can be had for as little as $400-$600. For that price, you’ll get an optical viewfinder that will allow you to get very up-close and personal with your photos in a way that holding a camera at arms-length simply doesn’t permit. The typical DSLR stance used when looking through the viewfinder will also help you maintain a steadier hand as well.

You’ll also get a wide array of lenses and that vastly increase your chances of picking up some cool gear on the second-hand lens market for a good price. Sony is developing some nice lenses for the NEX line, but the selection is still a bit limited and very pricey.

Most DSLRs are also designed for rapid access to all of the camera’s critical features with just your thumb and index finger. On my Canon T4i, I can change settings like the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focal length, focal point, and trigger the flash, all without taking my eye off the subject, or moving my hands much at all.

If you well and truly want to know why images turn out the way they do, and how to manipulate a camera to its fullest, a DSLR is the best way to start. Mirrorless cameras may turn out to be the future, but for now stick with the big guns.

What helped me improve, and how can you improve as well?

The first step was learning the how the trifecta of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO relate. In the process you will start to understand DOF. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t learn these things, you are totally and utterly wasting your money with a DSLR. A lack of basic knowledge in these areas will cause you to take worse pictures than you did with your point-and-shoot. I thought I understood them before buying my T2i, but I didn't and it really made the transition a bumpy one.

Next, learn more about shooting photos in RAW and don’t be afraid to try it out. I’m still struggling with this myself because RAW files are huge and require additional post processing on a computer. Often I don’t want to spend the time to do all that extra processing. Also, due to their large size, shooting RAW images will reduce your burst capture speed. This is a problem for me as I like to shoot fast moving aircraft at airshows.

The benefit of RAW is that you are working with the original image as it was captured by the camera sensor. In contrast, the standard and easily distributable JPEG, is a compressed version of the image that has had in-camera processing for brightness, contrast, white balance, etc. Sometimes when a camera’s white balance is set to auto, you’ll end up with images that have a terrible color cast. If you are shooting in JPEG, your white balance is set in stone once the picture is taken. With RAW, you can change the white balance to whatever you want after the fact. Also, RAW allows you to do quite a bit more to improve white and black levels during post-processing on a computer. 

Once you've learned those basics, start paying attention to what others are doing. All digital cameras these days attach the critical information about an image like the shutter speed, ISO, aperture, focal length, date, time, and even camera and lens type, using the EXIF standard. You can read this EXIF data by looking at the properties of an image file on a computer. Some sites will strip this information out when posting images to the web, but other sites like Flickr are awesome at preserving this data. I love to see what settings pros like the official White House photographer use when shooting some seriously important subjects and events (click any image and select Actions-View EXIF Info). Granted, the pros are using much nicer equipment than I am, but it really helps me to see what types of images the various settings can produce.

The next step to improving was taking a photography class. In my case, I was required to take an Art credit for a degree I’m completing. I chose a college-level digital photography class. I really enjoyed that class because it forced me to get out and shoot pictures. Ultimately, that’s the only way you’ll really learn. Get out there and snap away. The class also forced me to shoot subjects and styles that I wouldn't ordinarily choose to shoot. This really helped me understand how much of photography is art and not just science. Take a look at some of the pictures I had to submit for one of my assignments below or click here:


Another step I took was to join a photo club. I'm lucky enough to have a very organized photo club available to me through my employer. That club is a treasure trove of individuals with similar interests, a wealth of real-world experience with photography, and a never-ending enthusiasm for the hobby. They hold monthly salons that encourage members to shoot photos with a specific theme. The winners get the honor of having their work exhibited in the hallways of the office. I haven’t yet participated in those, but I've also learned a great deal by attending “lunch and learn” sessions that cover topics like cold weather photography, underwater photography, flash photography, and more. I am sure that similar groups exist all over the world. Find one in your area, or participate in similar shooting challenges like those featured on Gizmodo.

Spending time with other experienced photographers in clubs like that, will help you pick up nuggets like these: Set one of the buttons on the rear of the camera to control your autofocus rather than having this performed by a half press of the shutter release. This will allow you to easily set the focus and the exposure independent of each other. Once that setting is changed, you can focus with the rear button, then perform a half press of the shutter button to lock in the exposure using a point different from where you focused. This can be very useful when capturing an unevenly lit scene. This setting can usually be found in the Custom Functions menu on Canon cameras. In addition to that, set your autofocus to use only the center focal point, focus on what you want, then recompose the shot. This will give you much more control over what is in focus. 

Currently I am working on understanding lighting, and flash photography. There is so much to learn here as light is the key to everything in photography. Without light, you have no picture, and bad lighting can ruin an otherwise perfectly composed image. A good place to start here is understanding camera metering as well as how to use your histogram. I can’t even begin to fully explain this, as I’m still working to get it all down myself. Perhaps I’ll leave that for a future post. For now, understand that this is VERY important.

Finally, explore the Internet. There are an enormous variety of resources out there. Get out there on 500px or SmugMug and display your work. Feedback from others can be an impressive motivator. See what other people are doing and emulate them for a bit to learn the ropes.  Check out Digital Photography School, starting with this page.  I've found a great many useful tips on countless other sites, but I also like to flip through magazines like Popular Photography. There are probably better mags out there, but Pop Photo has a nice iPad version that I enjoy. Speaking of the iPad (or even the iPhone), if you have one, download Zite and set one of your news topics to be Photography. Zite will scour the web and expose you to other resources you may have never known about. I found the excellent PetaPixel website through Zite.

Welcome to the fray

Whenever I try to learn anything, the Internet is one of my first stops. This approach is of course fraught with danger as everyone has an opinion (including yours truly), and sometimes those opinions are wrong (I’m never wrong J ). Looking at photography forums you’ll find that there is a massive amount of endless debate on things like what lens is the best, or which manufacturer makes the best camera (I love watching Canon vs. Nikon debates).

As you observe all of this, keep in mind that everyone has different requirements. You've got everyone from wedding and sports photographers, to total amateurs debating about what to buy. The important thing is to think about what you want to take pictures of. Unlike a general purpose point-and-shoot, a DSLR can change its stripes as fast as you can change lenses. One minute you’re taking pictures of a little stick bug crawling on a leaf with your macro lens, the next you might be shooting a jet streaking by at an airshow with your zoom lens. Think carefully about what you want to shoot, and spend your money only after you've mastered the basics.

I often read posts from people online lamenting the fact that many people use nothing but their kit lens on a DSLR and never take it off. It really is terrible if you NEVER take the kit lens off, but there is absolutely no shame in buying a DSLR and keeping the kit lens on there for a very long time while you learn the basics. I am a gadget gearhead, so I didn't head that advice and spent $1000 on a nice lens much too soon. A nice lens will give you the opportunity to take better pictures, but you've got to bring talent to the table too. Absent of skill, the lens will only help you a tiny little bit (or even hurt you if it has a wide maximum aperture and you haven't learned DOF). 

Also, nice lenses are pretty damn heavy folks. I borrowed a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens from a friend this past summer (thank you J), which has a shorter focal length than my 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS lens, but offers much higher quality. In exchange for that higher quality, one has to accept a price that is about eight times higher, and a weight that is about four times heavier. Seriously, the lens weighs a little over 3 pounds. I thought my arm was going to fall off at the end of the day. I am pretty sure it helped, but I’ll never really know how much of an edge it gave me over my cheapo “kit” zoom lens.

Ready to take the plunge?

Photography is a very time consuming hobby. I am told it is also an extremely exhausting and demanding profession if you decide to take it that far. Personally, I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment when I look back at my photos, and my DSLR really helped me progress much farther than I ever would have otherwise. Remember though that it is also very expensive. Quality lenses pretty much start at $800 to $1000 and go northwards from there. That is precisely why I described $130 as a pittance at the start of this post.

If you are ready to take the plunge, watch for deals around the holiday season (and not just on Black Friday). I am sure there are other times during the year to find deals, but the sweetest I’ve found have been right around this time of the year. In December 2010, I bought my T2i kit with a sweet deal that gave me a reduced priced on the camera, as well as the opportunity to buy my 55-250mm Mark I lens for just $100 ($150 off). With that same deal, I also got an impressively high quality Canon Pixma Pro 9000 Mark II photo printer for just $50 ($400 off) after rebates. Again this December, I bought the deal I mentioned at the start of this article that included the T4i kit, the 55-250mm Mark II lens (which I kept after selling the Mark I lens), and nice bag for just $699 ($350 off).

I’ll leave you with this laundry list of things that may want or need (I’ll let you decide on your own which is which). Please Note: Most of these are Amazon referral links. I am not employed by Amazon, I just really like the experience I have had with them, and their prices tend to be among the very best. I also try desperately to receive some sort of compensation for the time I put in to writing these articles (many, many hours). So if you agree that the price on Amazon is good, use these links as a way of saying thanks. You get the same product for the same price, and I get a 4-6% referral bonus. Otherwise, B&H and Adorama are excellent and very reputable camera shops to buy gear from. In fact for spare batteries, don’t buy them from Amazon. There are lots of fake batteries circulating out there on Amazon.

The List:
  • Canon T4i: Or your DSLR of choice, but this is a nice one for getting started “inexpensively.”
  • Spare battery: This example is for the T4i. A spare battery is essential for not missing a moment. 
  • Camera bag: I like this one because it affords easy access to the camera without taking the bag off my shoulders. It can also hold a large second lens.
  • Wrist strap: Many prefer neck straps, but I prefer the wrist strap. It’s really a matter of personal preference and need. For the pros, this wouldn't do and they would use something more like these Black Rapid straps.
  • Giotto Rocket Air Blaster: Useful for cleaning dust off the camera sensor. It has happened to me, and the dust was noticeable in the image until I cleaned it off with a single blast from this. 
  • Fast UHS-1 SDHC card: This is the fastest one I have seen so far and you’ll really appreciate it if you decide to shoot in RAW. Buy two and keep one as a spare.
  • External Flash: This is a Speedlight for use only with Canon cameras. The built-in pop-up flash is usually a horrible thing to use, and being able to bounce the flash off a ceiling or wall can make a huge difference in your images. I purchased this particular model because of its compact size and low price, but I am quickly noticing its limitation of only being able to rotate vertically. You may want to consider a larger one like this one that can be rotated vertically or horizontally.
  • Lens Filter: Many photographers bristle at the idea of putting a cheap piece of glass in front of the expensive piece of glass that is your lens. I agree with them. This will reduce the quality of your pictures (but I am told not by very much). I mention it here only as it's a nice thing to have if you plan to shoot in inclement weather like a rainy day, or on a boat where you have water spraying up into the air. In those cases, it’s better to have a filter than not to have one. Don’t buy a super cheap $10 filter, buy a nicer one. This example is for a Canon T4i's kit lens. 
  • FishBomb Lens Filter Case: For safely storing the aforementioned lens filter.
  • Full-size Tripod with a Ball Head: I don’t own this yet, but I’m eyeing it. A tripod can be essential for certain shots, especially at night. I've heard Manfrotto is top notch, and I've seen this in the stores. It is nice and light (and expensive).
  • Joby Gorillapod with Ball Head: I use this one at the moment but it isn't a full-size tripod by any means. It's fun for certain situations though, like wrapping it around a chair. I can also mount my Speedlight flash to it using this cold shoe, and play with the T4i’s wireless master flash capability.
  • Remote Shutter Switch: This can be very useful even if you have a tripod, as it allows you to trigger the shutter without shaking the camera when you push the button.
  • Wireless Shutter Remote: This is handy when you need to take a family portrait with you in it. With this, you can wirelessly trigger the shutter while facing the camera.
  • LensPen: I use this to quickly clean the lens when I’m out shooting.
  • Adobe Lightroom 4: Cheap by Adobe standards, and an absolutely essential tool that can do wonders for your photos. If you’re a student or an educator, save a few bucks and buy this version.
  • Photoshop Elements or CS6): If you can afford it, CS6 is much more powerful than elements, but it’s also about eight times the price. For most, Elements is has plenty of features for photo edits that Lightroom can’t handle. Again if you are a student or an educator, buy this version of CS6 to save more than just a few bucks. 

I know this post was an enormously long one. If you've made it to this point, I congratulate you! You may indeed have the patience it takes to learn DSLR photography. If you skimmed to the bottom, thank you for at least giving it a quick scan. I really do appreciate the commitment it takes on the part of the reader to go through all this.

If this sounds like a lot to you, that’s because IT IS. There are many wonders that await you if you take the plunge, but know that you’ll have to put in a significant amount of effort if you really want to become a better photographer.  

If you have similar experiences or tips, please share them below! Also take a look at some of my work here: www.emmanuelcanaan.com/