You just purchased a new camera, or maybe you got one for Christmas. You have decided that photography is for you. But now what? What do you do with this piece of technology? If you are not sure how to proceed or are a little overwhelmed, I am going to give you some insight.
Getting a Lay of the Land: Fully Understand Your New Camera
First, you should read the owners manual that came with your camera. Read it cover-to-cover with the camera in your hand. This will allow you to understand the specific features that your manufacturer has built into this technically advanced device. The manuals are amazingly helpful and often just cast aside. Some manuals even have a section at the end for your own notes!
Once you have a working knowledge of your camera, you need a working knowledge of photography itself. Do you understand aperture, shutter speed and ISO? Do you understand how they are all working together to give you creative control over the photos that you are about to embark on taking? If you need help there are plenty of photographers (myself included) who teach people how to use their cameras. If your budget is limited because you have just invested in all this gear, you can find tons of free info online these days, too. Here are a few tutorials to get you started:
• The Exposure Triangle Explained for Beginners: Learn all about the 3 main settings of your camera – ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
• Understanding the Reciprocal Rule in Photography to Take Better Photos: Discover what the reciprocal rule is and how to use it when determining your shutter speed.
• 15 Overlooked Camera Settings for Any Photographer: Learn the different shooting modes, how to make quick exposure adjustments, and other shooting aids.
• What is Aperture in Photography?: Discusses the aperture setting and how it affects your photos.
• All About Autofocus: Learn the difference between focus area and focus mode.
• Learning To Leave The Matrix: Discover the different metering modes and how they affect your exposure readings.
Picking a Genre and the Right Lenses for Your New Camera
If you understand the functions of your specific camera and how a camera works creatively, then you need to figure out what you are going to focus on shooting and what you’ll need to make that happen. Within each genre of photography there are lenses that are more suitable than others. But when you’re starting out you don’t want to invest in a bunch of specialty lenses when you’re not even sure what genre you’ll stick to. It’s better to choose something that is good in almost all situations.
You may have purchased your camera body with a kit lens. This kit lens is probably a zoom and probably in the 24-70mm or 24-105mm range. Let’s start with zoom lenses specifically in this range. Before the age of digital photography, zoom lenses where frowned upon. Photographers deemed them less sharp than their fixed focal length (prime) counterparts. Though fixed focal length lenses still produce an unbelievable sharpness, zoom lenses have come a long way in a very short time.
The benefits of having one quality zoom outweigh a bag full of fixed focal lengths to cover the same subject matter – especially with the quality we are seeing in lens manufacturing these days. A 24-105mm zoom will cover a plethora of focal lengths, takes up a tiny space in your camera bag, and provides a massive weight savings over a bag full of fixed focal length lenses. Higher quality zoom lenses that maintain a fixed aperture like f/2.8 or f/4 throughout their zoom range are more expensive. The benefit, though, is that these lenses are typically sharper than their variable-aperture counterparts.
Your kit lens can function as the basis for building a lens system around what you plan on photographing. The 24-105mm zoom lens is probably one of the most versatile lenses on the market. That is why you often find these lenses shipped with the latest and greatest camera body. This lens works really well for travel, nature, sports, documentary, portraiture, weddings, and street photography. While no lens can do it all, a zoom in the 24-105mm range is about the closet you can get.
The 24-105mm is also an amazing lens for walking around a city that has higher theft rates. You can put this zoom on, put your camera around your neck and leave the rest of your camera gear in the hotel room. Most thieves are not going to tangle with a camera around a person’s neck. They will grab a pack on the ground, though, when you are focused on shooting photos. Going out lean is best.
You may immediately think about stars when we discuss night photography but night photography begins when the sun is gone. Think about shooting people, cities, and yes, also the stars. The best night photography lenses have apertures less than f/2.8. Manufacturers such as Leica take this to the extreme with their Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95. Yes, that is correct, this lens has an aperture of f/0.95! Leica claims that it out-performs the human eye. If you have a camera that takes Micro Four Thirds lenses, you can also try Voigtlander Noktons, which also have f/0.95 maximum apertures.
One little detail about lenses that are designed with low-light conditions in mind is the quality of the lens’ bokeh (the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image). Many of the lenses produced by Canon, Sony, Leica, and Nikon for low light also happen to have fabulous bokeh – the out of focus areas are rendered extremely smoothly. Ever seen a photo of out-of-focus lights and the lights look like mini hexagons? That is poor bokeh. A lens with great bokeh would render those out-of-focus lights like perfect little circles.
The other spec to look at is a lens’ coma performance. Coma is an aberration that can make stars look more like streaks at the edge of the frame when shot wide open. Chromatic aberration can also show up in night photography as glowing edges around the brightest stars. A lens with a reputation for low aberration and distortion is a good choice.
Explore night photography in these tutorials:
Portrait photographers love to have aperture lenses below f/2.8 with amazing bokeh just like night photographers. However, they are looking for the larger aperture openings to create shallow depth of field (DoF) behind their subjects and less for low light performance. They also prefer lens focal lengths to be between 50-100mm. Lenses in these focal lengths tend to create far less distortion than, say, a super wide angle 16mm (which is favored among night shooters). So night photography lenses and portrait lenses don’t overlap too much unless you compromise with a zoom. If you want to shoot in a studio without a lot of bokeh then you can save a little money and not get a lens with such a wide maximum aperture.
Explore portrait photography in these tutorials:
You have decided that you want to shoot brown bears in Alaska. Your starting point for lenses just raised the money bar. Your basic wildlife lens is something like the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II. This lens is sharp and probably the best bang for the buck. Sony has just released an internal focusing Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens that’s receiving a ton of positive reviews as well. With a price tag just shy of $2k, this could be a wildlife photography game changer.
However, you won’t stop there. You are going to start looking at big glass. Really BIG glass. Lenses like 400mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4. These lenses are very expensive but there is a reason for it: the quality of the components, the attention to manufacturing processes, and just the sheer volume of materials needed for their extreme reach and fast maximum apertures. Before you sink money into anything too specialized, make sure you you review what it takes to photograph wildlife in these tutorials:
Architecture and Tilt-Shift Lenses
Shooting architecture is probably the most specialized genre of photography there is. It’s most helped by a special lens called a tilt-shift lens. Tilt-shift lenses are unique in that they let you tilt and shift the perspective of your field of view. These lenses allow you to make the vertical lines of a building perfectly straight. They also allow you to shift the horizon so that a building doesn’t look like its falling or leaning over. They are extremely cool but are a bit of a learning curve to operate. Here are some tutorials to get you started:
Getting Outside: Travel, Adventure, and Landscape
Want to shoot adventure sports, landscape, or travel? This is the most flexible genre of all and covers anything from fine art landscapes to street photography and beyond. There are 3 great zooms suitable for just about any subject on the planet: 16-35mm, 24-70mm (or 24-105mm), and 70-200mm. If you can only pick one, then 16-35mm is great for landscapes/cityscapes while the 24-70mm is ideal for portraits, street photography, everyday candids, and travel. The 70-200mm is great for sports and wildlife. Whatever you choose, it’s best to find something with some amount of weather protection. Take in some of the tutorials and guides below to figure out which area is the most interesting to you:
You certainly don’t have to pick a genre right away and, at first, whatever lens that came with your camera will be good enough. But this will help you get on the right path once you start wanting to specialize! Fortunately, you can experiment before committing by renting a lens!