Hey all! So the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of friends and acquaintances hit me up asking me what a good SLR and lens is for someone who’s just starting out and wants to shoot with an SLR. After the first couple emails, I decided it might be easier to put it all in blog form (though I’m sure there are already dozens out there already).
Obviously, if you just want me to tell you a camera and lens, this is going to be a bit more in depth. If that’s the case, just go to Canon or Nikon, find something in your price range, and click the buy button.
But if you want advice on something more customized to your needs, then this is for you!
So first off, a couple basics:
DSLRs vs. Mirrorless Cameras
DSLR means Digital Single Lens Reflex. Popularly, this has been relatively synonymous with any camera with a changeable lens. But lately, that’s not so universal. The D is easy — it’s a digital camera and doesn’t take film. But the Lens Reflex part refers to the mirrors inside the camera body. When you look through the viewfinder, you see the light coming through the lens, hitting an angled mirror, and bouncing the image into your eye. When you take the photo, the lens is pulled back, and the light strikes the digital sensor behind it.
Nowadays though, you have the option to go Mirrorless. These are smaller cameras that also have changeable lenses, but they have no viewfinder. The light goes directly through the lens to the digital sensor and your only preview is on the back screen of the camera. This is very much the future of digital photography, but for the beginner, most of these are very expensive, but do often boast features many of the DSLRs are fighting to keep up with.
Now, it should be stated right off the bat that I’m a Canon guy, so it’s all I know. Nikon also produces excellent cameras and lenses, and what’s nice about the Canon vs. Nikon Debate is that they’re in many ways neck and neck with each other in terms of quality and features. So if you feel you want to buy Nikon, you can still read through this blog, but should I recommend something specific for Canon, just run a quick Google search for comparable Nikon products, and you’ll likely find the parallel model.
Beginner grade camera bodies are constantly changing. What I started with back in 2010 was a Canon XTi. Good luck finding one of those these days, almost seven years later! My second camera was a Canon T3i Rebel. I think the new starter level of the Rebel series has gotten up to T6i, and boasts far better quality.
The point being, with starter bodies, it’s tough to go wrong. Megapixels are fine and dandy and as a starter, you’re not needing a lot. For the most part, Megapixels refers to how many pixels are in one image (think the pixel-length of one side multiplied by the pixel length on the other). It’s just the total. The higher the Megapixel-count, the larger you can print off your photos without quality-loss, and the closer you can crop an image in post. Not important stuff for beginners.
The only other big factor that I look for in camera bodies is Low-Light Quality. There are three main ways light is used to make an image: the shutter speed (how long the light is allowed to hit your sensor), the Aperture (how wide the opening is in your lens to allow light in), and ISO (the digital sensor extrapolating the light — the fancy in-camera version of brightening up your photo in post). This is called the exposure triangle.
Shutter speed doesn’t change much, and Aperture is a lens feature we’ll discuss later). ISO, then, is what we want to consider here. 50 or 100 is the normal baseline. Cameras these days can go up to 256,000! (The ISO typically doubles each time you bump it up, so you go from 100 to 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 128,000, 256,000). Now, the thing with ISO is that the further you bump it up, the more noise and grain is added to your image as the camera tries to brighten up light that isn’t there. It’s why your front-facing camera on your phone, in a dark room, looks grainy and pixelly as hell. Even the best cameras when cranked to too high an ISO will get this way. It’s a limitation of tech.
Low-light capabilities will be one of the first things you start to notice being a limitation with your beginner-level camera. Taking photos at Christmastime, indoors, for example, will quickly teach you the limits of your gear. The best part about limits? That’s how you learn to shoot — you workaround what you have. When I reached the limits of my low-light abilities on my t3i? I bought a flash. Boom! My skills had to skyrocket!
So, do you have some extra money to spend on a camera body beyond the cheapest model offered? I’d advise you to do some research into “Low Light Quality for Entry Level Canon DSLRs” and see which one the reviews recommend.
At the moment, I’ve been hearing some of the best stuff about the Canon SL1, but that’s constantly in flux.
Now, lenses are where the real meat and potatoes hit. There’s a LOT to talk about when it comes to lenses.
Let’s first take a look at a typical lens on Amazon and begin to dissect just what the hell all these numbers mean.
First of all, your Focal Length. Focal length is “the distance between the center of a lens or curved mirror and its focus.” It’s what people are referring to when they talk about their “24mm” or their “35mm” or what have you. Is it important to know all about the mirror and center and all that? Not really.
What you need to know in relation to this number is how the photos look. 10-24mm is the ultra-wide range. You get shots like this, which is shot at 24mm:
You get a nice, wide shot, that fits a lot into the frame. Of course, the wider you go, you get distortion. It starts to make stuff in the center of the frame smaller, and the edges of the frame stretched wider.
Think of a fisheye lens as the most exaggerated of this.
24mm is still considered wide, but isn’t as extreme as a lens in the 10-24mm range.
35mm is relatively standard as a way to get a wider shot without much distortion.
50mm is very little distortion and gives a nice look for portraits. Standing in roughly the same spot, this is what a 50mm looks like:
While this is a horizontal image where the other is shot vertical, you can see it’s a bit closer in than the other. We call this “telephoto” as opposed to “wide” or “ultrawide”. Telephoto lenses mean you’re getting an image closer to your subject while standing the same distance away.
The 50 is a lovely focal length, particularly for shooting people (the human eye is said to see somewhere between 30-50mm itself). However, most beginners will quickly learn that the 50 is a bit annoying to shoot with because you can’t, say, take a selfie with it, or get a good shot sitting beside someone. It’s a bit too close. Cellphones are typically in the 24-35mm range these days. And since we shoot with cellphone cameras the most, that’s a good point of reference.
Anything upwards of 50 is only going to exaggerate the effect. 85mm? 135mm? 400mm? You’re going to be shooting people’s nosehairs from 20 feet back.
Meanwhile, if you’re shooting portraits of people with a wide lens, you’re going to distort their face in an unnatural way that doesn’t look genuine. Maybe that’s your goal! Maybe a bit of wacky distortion is fun! But maybe not just starting out.
So which focal length do you buy?
Depends on what you’re shooting!
Is your goal landscapes? Go wide! You can capture those wide mountains and get all the scope and majesty into your frame! The drawback? If you’re not very close to the mountain range you’re ogling, you might find it to be quite small in your photo (think of trying to get that full moon shot on your phone).
Is your goal portraiture? Go ahead and start around 50mm or 85mm. You might have to stand back from your subject a bit, but if you plan to specifically shoot planned out images, 50 and 85 are very workable lengths.
But what if I want something normal? It works as a day to day lens, but maybe also for landscapes and people?
Zooms vs. Primes
This might be where you want to get a zoom! So in the Photography World, “zoom” doesn’t mean “close up” — that’s “telephoto” remember? “Zoom” means that it can change focal length, and isn’t fixed on one length all the time.
So, a “10-22mm” lens? Zoom! You can adjust it to any focal length within that range! Most Kit Lenses (the lens that comes standard with the camera body you buy) are zoom lenses, to allow the beginner to find the range they prefer.
The drawback to zooms? Though the quality of zooms is getting really good these days, Prime lenses are typically sharper and cleaner lenses. So if you really love that INSANELY sharp detail, you’re going to have better luck with a prime.
The other drawback to entry-level zooms? Well, first we have to talk about Aperture.
Aperture is the size of the opening of your lens. Think of it like the Iris of your eye. When it’s bright out and there’s a lot of light, that iris shrinks to allow less light in. When you’re in a dim room, that iris opens up. Lenses are the same!
The aperture is written as a number called an “F-Stop”. This is because the aperture, rather than being a universal fixed size that produces the same results in every lens, is thought of as a ratio between the focal length and the size of the opening. Why? Not important. What’s important to you is what it does.
Apertures typically cover a range of f/1.2 to f/22 or so. 1.2 is the brightest, widest opening. 22 is the smallest.
When shooting wide open, at something like f/1.2, you get a bright image, but also a TON of what’s called Bokeh. Bokeh is that creamy, super-blurry background that you likely relate to high quality photos.
Typically, the lower that aperture number, the better the quality lens.
So as a beginner, you likely can’t afford a 1500 dollar lens that’s an f/1.4.
Something more in your price range is going to start around f/4.0. Is that bad? No, but it doesn’t let in as much light in low-lighting conditions. So you could find yourself in a dim room, unable to get decent images without leaving your shutter open for too long and getting something blurry (or using a flash).
The drawbacks to a lot of entry-level zooms? As you zoom in, the aperture will often get smaller. This is presented as a range on your amazon listing.
What it means is that at 10mm, your camera can shoot at f/3.5. But at 22mm, you can only go down to f/4.5. So as you zoom in, if you don’t change your settings and you’re shooting wide-open, your photo will get darker.
Is it the end of the world? No way! If you’re outside shooting landscapes, you’ve got enough light to just bump your shutter open a bit more. If you’re already in a dim area? You might find you can only shoot as wide as you can zoom.
Crop Lenses and Bodies
Another important thing to consider is Crop Lenses and Crop bodies!
There are two sensor sizes on most DSLRs. One is called a “crop sensor” and the other is a “full-frame sensor”.
A crop sensor is smaller than full frame (think “cropped down”). Just about every beginner DSLR is a crop sensor. Full frame gives bigger images at a better quality.
Curious if the camera body you’re looking at is a full-frame or crop sensor? Check the specs. It’ll tell you.
Why does it matter? For camera bodies? It doesn’t matter much. You’re gonna get a nice image regardless.
For lenses though? Lenses it matters.
There are two different types of lenses: Lenses built for crop cameras. And lenses built for Full-Frame AND crop cameras.
Canon’s EF lenses are built for full frame sensors. You slap that 24mm EF lens on a full frame camera, you’re ready to go. The picture you get back is a 24mm wide photo that shows you everything.
If you put that 24mm EF lens on a CROP sensor camera, the sensor is smaller and your image? Well. It’s cropped down. Think of the sensor automatically cropping your photos down before you even put them on your computer.
Is this bad? No. It’s just not totally a 24mm shot. It’s a cropped 24mm shot. The ratio being that your 24mm lens is going to look more like what a 35mm would show you. Your 50mm? More like an 85mm.
But! They make lenses specifically for crop sensors! These lenses are true to size! Canon uses the EF-S indicator for their crop lenses. A 24mm EF-S lens on a crop camera gives you a 24mm photo!
A 10mm EF-S lens on a full frame camera? It gives you this:
Because the lens narrows the view down to the same size as the crop sensor. The full-frame camera is just too big of a sensor! It reveals all the black around the narrow, crop lens.
Can you put a crop lens on a full-frame camera and then crop it down in post? Sure. But it’s a smaller photo and takes more work.
Why do I tell you this? Because crop-lenses are WAY cheaper than full frame lenses. But, if you get super hooked on this Photo Hobby of yours, your lens won’t be able to go up with your camera, and then you’ve got lenses sitting around.
So what do you do? You can go either way. If you don’t expect to upgrade your camera body, sure, go for the crop lens. It’s better quality than a full-frame lens at the same price (typically). But paying for quality lenses is also in many ways more important than the body you buy. So figure out what you want and go for it!
The second lens I ever bought was a crop lens. Does it just sit around and gather dust now? Sure. (Except for when I need photos for blogs like this!). Was it still worth the money even though I only used it for a year and a half? I think so!
Off brands are something you also want to look at! Will a Nikon lens work on a Canon camera? No, not without adapters and headaches. But companies like Sigma, Rokinon, or Tamron make fantastic lenses that work across the board (just make sure it says “For Canon” or “For Nikon” in the header!).
I’m a big fan of Sigma. They made the second lens I ever used and the quality was fantastic. Now that they’re rolling out their Art series of lenses (cheaper than Canon’s fancy L-Glass, but still a bit much for a beginner), I’m dying to buy a couple. They’re fantastic.
If you have a focal range in mind, feel free to put that into Amazon or Google and see what off-brands might be offering, then read the reviews. There’s a lot of quality stuff out there that doesn’t have to be the same brand as your camera body.
The designator for Canon and other brands crop sensors and full frame:
- Canon: EF-S (EF for full frame)
- Nikon: DX (FX for full frame)
- Pentax: DA (FA or D FA for full frame)
- Sigma: DC (DG for full frame)
- Sony/Minolta: DT
- Tamron: Di II (Di for full frame)
What I recommend:
If you’ve got some money, you’ve got a couple options. Full-Frame cameras run upwards of $1500.00. That’s probably out of your budget.
So you start with the crop body. I recommend the Canon SL1. I’ve heard lots of good stuff.
As far as lenses? You CANNOT go wrong with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. It’s $100.
Study that for a second. EF — it’s a full frame lens (works with both crop bodies and full frame bodies AND it upgrades if you upgrade your camera — It’s the first lens I bought and I still use it to this day). It’s widest aperture is 1.8. That’s unheard of for lenses at this price. You get great photos in low light and that artistic bokeh in the background. All for a hundred bucks. It’s called the nifty fifty and it’s KILLER.
But that’s a 50mm prime. Maybe you want something wider. Maybe you want something that you don’t have to stand six feet from someone to get a medium-shot.
Well shoot, grab the 50mm anyway and learn it. It’s a gem to keep in your bag for those moments when you want it. But then I’d recommend also adding a wide or ultra-wide crop lens to your bag as well. Do some research into what’s cheap and what’s in the focal range you want.
I started with the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6. It was around $400 back then but it was SUCH a fun lens. Ultra-wide for portraits always cracked me up, and it was gorgeous for steadycam video and nature shots.
Even today, as I pulled it out and slapped it on my 6D, I was impressed at the sharpness of the image! It’s fun as hell.
Or you can just go with the SL1 and the kit lens package, slap on a nifty fifty, and then you’ll be off to the races!
Feel free to leave any questions in the comments, or reach out via email. I’m always happy to clarify!
Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, the short story collection Into a Sky Below, Forever, and the forthcoming Amarricages. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team, and now lectures across America. For five years he led the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. He’s also a portrait photographer and conceputal artist based in Northern Colorado. Follow him on Twitter: @KarlPfeiffer