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Buying Your First Camera
by Vivid Light Staff

The one question we've received more than any other so far has been "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 important features that are common to all brands, and have you ask yourself some questions on how you want to use the camera.  This will give you the ammunition to make an educated choice.  As for digital vs. film, that's a topic for another article.

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.

Consumer Grade - Want a nice step up in quality from your point and shoot camera?  Something that will take nice 8x10s that you can hang on the wall?  Light weight, easy to carry, easy to learn, and easy on the wallet.  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 they'll let you down.  Advanced features are sometimes difficult to use and often unavailable.  

These cameras and lenses are the family cars of the world.  Reliable and dependable, they're what you find in most 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-trys.  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.  Beyond all that, their mechanisms 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 so 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.

Questions - be honest:
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, or 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.

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 that 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, try them.  If you're looking to get serious about photography, look at their lens and flash systems.  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 soccer 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
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.  

Here are some of the common features you'll find out there and what they do for you.  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 one of the three "standard" lenses (28-80, 28-105, or 28-200), and pick the one you're most comfortable with.

But if you have ideas that you might want to go further with photography later on, 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.

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. 

Often one or both of the lenses in these ranges will offer macro capability.  Macro capability 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 model photography.

A recent alternative choice 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.  One drawback to lenses in this range is that they often cannot close focus, meaning that you need to be some distance from your subject to take the picture.

At 28mm to 300mm, these lenses will cover most of the ranges that a beginning photographer will need.  As you progress, your interests will expand and you'll likely start looking at longer or wider lenses.

Digital vs. Film
This discussion is beyond the scope of this article and the details are always changing.  Let's just say that if you're looking at a digital SLR you'll need to be fairly computer savvy and that manufacturers claims about ease of use can be somewhat exaggerated.   

Mail Order
So now 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 that nice, sometimes opinionated, person behind the counter who'll hopefully answer your questions, have a clue, and hand you your camera at the end of the transaction.  The upside is that you get to play with your new toy right now.  There are unscrupulous shops who 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, then 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.

New vs. Used Equipment
Modern SLRs contain a plethora of features.  So many that it's virtually impossible to test them 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 equipment they sell.  Unless you or someone you know are very knowledgeable about cameras I'd stay away from used as a first 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.

Exceptions to this rule.  A woman recently 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.  When the price is that low, and the camera is obviously in new condition - 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.  Also 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.


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How can one camera cost $200 and another $2,000










A nice step up in quality from your point and shoot camera



























Professional equipment is expensive, and worth every penny to the folks who make their living using it


















You're buying into a system







text and photography copyright 2001 Vivid Light Publishing