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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Buying Your First Camera 
by Vivid Light Staff

The one question we receive more than any other is "what camera should I buy?"

Let's face it, for someone new to "serious cameras" the market is pretty damn confusing right now. There are numerous manufacturers, each with multiple models, and every model has dozens of features. Everyone has conflicting advice on what brand is best and what features are important. Then there's the whole digital vs. film argument. So how do you decide?

We're going to break it down, explain the different grades of cameras and the important features that are common to all brands, and have you ask yourself some questions on how you want to use a camera. This will give you the ammunition to make an educated choice. We'll even give you some basics on digital cameras.

Camera Grades 
A question that many buyers ask is how can one camera cost $200 and another $2,000 when they're both made by the same company and they both just take pictures. After all, how different can a camera be?

The difference lies in the type of user the equipment is targeted for. Price, quality, speed and ruggedness are the chief factors that differentiate one grade of camera from another. For the sake of this article we'll divide equipment up into four loosely defined categories: junk, consumer quality, advanced amateur, and professional quality gear.

Bear in mind that many cameras overlap two of these groups.

Junk - The name speaks for itself. It's not particularly well built or reliable, and in some cases it's terrible, but it finds a following because it's cheap. Occasionally people fall in love with something because it's junk. The popularity of a particular Russian camera comes to mind. It's so bad that when you take a picture you never know what's going to show up on the film. Some people find this fascinating. Go figure.

This equipment is kind of like an old, beat up car. It may get you where you're going most of the time, but it won't do the job particularly well or with any style, and it will eventually leave you stranded at the worst possible time.

Consumer Grade - Want a nice step up in quality from your point and shoot camera? Something you can use to create nice 8x10s that you can hang on the wall? A camera that is lightweight and easy on the wallet that is also to learn? Welcome to the consumer camera world. More cameras are sold in this category than in any other because these cameras are designed to fit the needs of most people (consumers). Consumer cameras are great tools for folks who want to take good quality pictures but who don't necessarily want to be photographers.

The down side is that if your photographic aspirations grow, you may find these cameras can't grow with you. Advanced features can be difficult to use and are often unavailable on this class of camera. The upside is that the knowledge you need to learn to get good portraits or sports shots is encapsulated into smart modes on the camera. This makes it much easier to get good if not great photos.

These cameras and lenses are the family cars and mini-vans of the camera world. Reliable and dependable, they're what you find in the majority of garages (and camera bags).

Advanced Amateur - Faster, heavier, more rugged, and more capable than consumer grade equipment. These cameras and lenses are designed for photographers who are serious about their photography but don't necessarily make their living doing it. At the upper end of this category are bodies and lenses capable of consistently producing professional quality images. Want to make prints 11x14 or larger? You'll definitely see a difference with this group, a difference that is often noticeable in smaller prints as well. But there is a steeper learning curve to consistently get that quality and this gear is priced higher - sometimes significantly higher than consumer grade equipment. This stuff is so good that pros often use it as backups for their more expensive pro gear.

These cameras and lenses are the 4x4 pickups of the camera world. More powerful and able to take more abuse than the average family sedan. They'll work hard without complaint for years and don't mind when the going gets a little rough.

Pro Gear - When pros go out to shoot they have to come back with the image every time - no excuses, no re-tries. A pro camera and lens has to work in 130(F) degree heat, minus 30(F) degree cold, dust storms in the Sahara, constant exposure to moisture in the rain forest, and then be able to withstand getting run over by a 300lb ballplayer on the sidelines of an NFL game. These cameras are built heavy and tough. They feature shock resistant frames made from exotic metals, multiple gaskets to seal everything, and they are torture tested for all of the above-mentioned conditions and more. Their shutters and mechanical parts will still be going long after the same parts have worn out on an advanced amateur camera. Beyond all that their mechanics and optics must be the fastest and highest quality in the world. Gear that lets the photographer down simply doesn't last in the pro world.

There are no compromises in lens designs either. No sacrifices are made to keep down weight or cost. Speed is a priority. Pros have to use slow fine-grained films. That means their lenses have to be as fast as possible. The only thing that matters is the quality of the image. As a result, pro level telephoto lenses are huge and heavy enough to club a charging water buffalo. Only the most dedicated amateur would be willing to carry around a pro setup on their vacation.

All of this ruggedness and sophistication comes at a price. Professional equipment is expensive, and worth every penny to the folks who make their living using it.

These cameras and lenses are the tanks of camera world; big heavy and powerful. No matter how bad the conditions and no matter how much punishment you heap on them, they'll just keep on going through conditions where lesser equipment would break down. But this invincibility comes with a steep price. Those big telephotos you see on safari and on the sidelines of NFL games can cost as much as a compact car.

Questions - be Honest with Yourself 
What kinds of pictures do you want to take? If the answer is family, kids, vacation, etc. then a consumer camera is your best bet. If your desire is to grow as a photographer and explore photography as a hobby, then something in the advanced amateur class is probably best for you. If you're planning on climbing mountains or trekking rain forests and expect to be none to gentle with your equipment, then you may want pro equipment right from the start.

If you're looking to get serious about photography ask yourself what kinds of photography you want to do. When you buy an SLR you're buying into a camera system. That system includes everything from pro telephotos for shooting at great distances to macro lenses for shooting very small items, even microscope attachments for shooting really small stuff. If you want to push the envelope in any way take a hard look at what each system offers in that area.

If you just want to do the vacation stuff, every major manufacturer has quality optics in a variety of price ranges and there are major lens manufacturers such as Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron that offer lenses for a variety of cameras. Stick with these major brands and it's hard to go really wrong in your purchase. Stray into the land of the off brand and you may get a rude surprise. Store brands Quantary and Promaster can be good bargains as well as these lenses are usually produced by one of the three aftermarket lens companies and are usually near duplicates of one of the lenses in their lineups.

Everybody's got 'em, but they're not always based on fact. When I was looking for my first "serious" modern SLR some years ago as an upgrade from my old manual, I heard from almost every camera store guy that there was one brand that was head and shoulders above the others. One brand offered the greatest flexibility, was the easiest to use, and was the most durable. The problem was that if you pooled all the opinions, every brand was the best!

The truth is that today's cameras, by and large, out-perform their predecessors in almost every way. They really are that good. But they all work and feel a little differently. Go to camera stores, pick them up, and try them. If you're looking to get serious about photography, look at the lens and flash systems as well. Which ones do what are important to you? Don't get caught up in thinking you need a feature because somebody tells you that you do.

Most importantly if someone is condescending, walk out. There's too much competition to waste your time on someone who's not listening.

How do you want to use it? 
Be honest with yourself here. If what you really want is great shots of your kids' ball games then things like faster shooting modes to catch action and a zoom lens will be important. Want to shoot beautiful scenics on your vacation? Make sure you add a wide-angle lens or a zoom lens that covers all these ranges (more on lenses in a minute).

Common Features 
It's incredibly frustrating. Why are there so many different names for the same thing?

When a manufacturer comes up with a new feature, the first thing they do is trademark the name. That way no one else can market the XrayVision2000. But the reality is that within a year every other manufacturer will have their own version of the XrayVision2000, all of them will have different names, and potential customers will be standing at the counter with puzzled looks on their faces.

Whether that feature is important is entirely up to you. To see a description of features common to most SLRs click here

You're Buying into a System 
If you're looking for a basic consumer SLR any one of the offerings from the big four will do nicely (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax). Just try out each camera with a lens covering one of the "standard" lengths (28-80mm, 28-105mm, or 28-200mm), and pick the one you're most comfortable with.

If you have ideas that you might want to go further with photography you have to realize that you're buying into a system. That system includes cameras, lenses, flashes, cables, cords, camera backs, etc. That means you should investigate those parts of the system that correspond with your interests. If you want to do macro work (pictures of very small things) and brand A supports it much better than brand B, that alone should be enough to sway you.

Also critical is to find out what doesn't work with the camera you're considering. Just because brand A has a great macro lens doesn't mean that it will work with the camera body you're looking at. The best guide here is the camera's manual or the specs posted on the manufacturer's Web site. Don't just take the word of the person behind the counter. There are so many possible lens/camera combinations that its just too easy to make a mistake. Even if they seem sure ask them to double check the manual.

A good basic lens is the 28-80mm zoom lens. Every manufacturer has more than one lens in this range. Choose based on the level of shooting that you're targeting. An alternative is the 28-105mm lens. Advances in optics have made current 28-105mm lenses the same size and weight as their 28-80mm cousins, and there is rarely a huge price difference between the two. At the 28mm end of the lens you have a good wide-angle landscape lens. At the 80mm to 105mm end you have a good portrait lens.

A good lens to team with either of these is the 70-200mm or 70-300mm (actual focal lengths will vary by manufacturer). This allows you zoom in on distant objects, animals, or birds. This is also a good length for shooting local sporting events where you can get fairly close to the action. Most manufacturers offer packages with at least one of these two lenses, and some offer both as a package.

Usually one or both of the lenses in these ranges will offer macro capability. Macro is the ability of the lens to focus on small items very close to the lens. Some examples of macro photography include flower, insect, and scale model photography.

An alternative is the 28-200mm zoom which combines both of the above lenses, one manufacturer even offers this lens in a 28-300mm configuration. These tend to be consumer quality lenses, good for travel and general use but not great for serious photography. Early versions of these lenses got something of a bad reputation for quality but they've gotten much better in the last two years. One drawback to lenses with these wide focal ranges is that they often cannot close focus, meaning that you need to be some distance from your subject to take the picture. That can make them awkward to use at parties and indoor events where you can't help being close to your subjects. Again your best bet here is to check the manual that comes with the lens (though minimum focus distance will sometimes be printed right on the lens barrel).

Whichever combination you choose these lenses will cover most of the ranges that a beginning photographer will need. If as you progress your interests start to expand you'll start looking at longer, wider, and faster lenses.

Digital vs. Film 
This discussion is beyond the scope of this article and the details are always changing. There general rules that apply to buying a digital camera though.

If you're looking at a digital camera you'll need to be fairly computer savvy. Manufacturers claims about ease of use can be somewhat exaggerated. A big help in this area is the wide proliferation of locations that will now create prints from your digital camera's memory card in the same way they create prints from film. Another big help are the new photo printers that allow you to plug your memory cards right into the printer to print your own 4x6 photos. The cost of the paper and ink works out to be about the same as the cost to process film and you don't even have to have your computer turned on to print your images.

Everybody gets hung up on megapixels. Unfortunately buying more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get better quality images. The size of the image chip, the quality of the electronics and the quality of the lens all play a part as well. But as a rule of thumb you'll need a resolution of 1,200 x 1,800 for high quality 4x6 prints from your digital camera. That works out to around 2 megapixels and is based on a rule of thumb of 300 DPI (dots per inch) to produce a high quality print. For more reading on the ever changing subject of digital cameras read through our back issues. There's a lot more information there than we can fit into this article.

Mail Order 
So you've decided what you want. Should you buy it at a camera shop or should you buy it mail order? At a retail store you'll pay a little extra for a nice, sometimes opinionated, person behind the counter who'll hopefully answer your questions, have a clue, and hand you a camera at the end of the transaction. The upside is that you get to play with your new toy right now. There are a few unscrupulous shops that will try the high-pressure sell to force you into buying something right now. Whenever you encounter this leave. Something is fishy and you are likely to be the loser.

With mail order the Latin expression caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies in full. Mail order firms run the gamut from flagrant bait and switch shops to well run firms that are above reproach. If something smells fishy or if they are trying to push you out of the product featured in their ad into something else hang up and call someone else. The horror stories involving unscrupulous shops are too numerous to tell and far worse than you can imagine.

On the flip side there is a mail order house I have done business with for years. They have never been anything but professional and accommodating. When problems have arisen they've handled them quickly and professionally. The best way to find out who's good and who's bad is to ask people's opinions. Also check out our Guide to Buying Mail Order for specific advice.

U.S.A. vs. Gray Market Gear 
Gray market equipment is equipment that is bought overseas and shipped to the U.S. where it is sold for a lower price than equipment brought in through the U.S. distributor.

Why is it cheaper? Distributors set up service and distribution networks. They provide warranties, create catalogs and literature and provide repair service and spare parts. All this costs money.

Gray market cameras are purchased overseas through offshore distributors. Overhead in other parts of the world may be much lower, distributors may offer discounts on equipment they don't have to warranty, there may be an advantage in exchange rates, and in some cases equipment going to wealthy nations is simply priced a little higher.

Mail order houses that sell gray market goods will tell you that those goods carry a full warranty. Read the fine print. That warranty is provided and backed by the dealer not the manufacturer and distributor. That means that if something goes wrong under warranty you're at the dealer's mercy to fix the problem or replace the equipment. You'll also have to rely on the dealers service department to make the repairs. No manufacturer will repair equipment that was purchased on the gray market - ever. That means that five years from now, long after the camera or lens is out of warranty, and long after the dealer wants nothing to do with you, you can't go back to the manufacturer for repairs. Keep in mind that many "repair shops" simply send more complex repair work back to the manufacturer. Gray market equipment is simply returned with a polite note refusing service.

This has gotten to be such a problem that photographers who've bought equipment while working overseas have been unable to get it serviced in the States.

You can weigh this against the fact that most camera equipment will never need service of any kind during its life. But the savings on gray market gear usually doesn't amount to all that much money. In most cases we feel it's just not worth the risk.

New vs. Used Equipment 
Modern SLRs contain a plethora of features. So many that it's virtually impossible to test one in the store to make sure that everything is working properly. Reputable stores specializing in used equipment will usually give some sort of guarantee on used gear. Unless you or someone you know are very knowledgeable about cameras I'd stay away from used as a first camera - unless it's a very simple camera (such as a manual student camera). If you do buy used, remember that used is used. The seller, whether a shop or private individual, can't predict when or if that camera will fail. So don't complain if a year later it does.

There are exceptions to this rule. When we originally put this article together two years ago we had heard from a woman who'd picked up a used Canon Rebel at a yard sale with a 28-80 lens for $100. It was in the original box and the seller admitted he's only used it once or twice because he was confused by all the options. Recently we heard from a college student who'd picked up a Nikon FM-10 with a 35-70mm lens from another student at a yard sale for $100. Bargains are out there. When the price is that low, and the camera is obviously in good condition then what the hell - take a chance.

Lenses are another matter. If the lens is clear, works properly, and has no scratches or surface defects in the glass it's hard to go wrong. Shoot a test roll to ensure that everything looks good and you should be fine.

Important Extras 
You've just spent a good chunk of cash on your new camera. Get a good quality bag to protect it and your lens(es) from bumps, drops, liquids, and dust. 

Camera bags range from tiny to huge. 

Good quality is the key phrase here. It should be made of a strong abrasion resistant material. That material should also be water resistant. Very few bags are truly waterproof. Look for high quality zippers and look at the seams. If you can see light through the seams in a new bag put it back on the shelf. Those seams will only get worse with use. If you'll be carrying a lightweight consumer camera padding isn't as important as it is if you're carrying and advanced amateur or pro system. The heavier weight of those systems means that the bag will take more of a beating. For those systems look for bags that have dense foam inserts. Shoulder straps are important here as well. Look for well padded straps made from a grippy material that won't slide off your shoulder. Nothing is more irritating that having to pull at the shoulder strap every 10 steps all day long. 

Make sure you put a skylight (1A) filter on the front of all of your lenses to protect that expensive glass from damage. These inexpensive little things are cheap insurance against your investment in expensive equipment.

If your camera included a camera strap chances are it wasn't a very good one. Wider straps are more comfortable than thin straps, which have a tendency to dig in. Cheap straps can be rough and wear like sandpaper on your skin in hot weather. The good news is that good straps don't cost very much. If you're getting a heavier camera consider a neoprene strap for a couple of dollars more. This stretchy material acts like a shock absorber. Your shoulders and neck will feel MUCH better at the end of the day.

If you've bought a digital camera get a larger memory card. The cards that are packed with most digital cameras are so small that they're a joke. Better yet get two memory cards. Remember when the card is filled it's like running out of film unless you happen to be carrying a laptop or portable storage device around in your pocket.

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