Category Archives: Starting off

Everything You Need to Know When Buying Your First DSLR

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.

Camera Bodies

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.


The best exposure triangle chart you’ll ever see.

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:


Portland Waterfall 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:


Portland Waterfall at 50mm

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.


10mm (crop lens). See how the center of the image is smaller, and the ends are stretched? Often fun! But not always flattering. 

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.


24mm, f/1.2. Wide lens, wide open. That blurry background.


24mm, f/10. Wide lens, small aperture. The background stays much clearer. 

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!


EF-S? That means it’s a crop lens.

A 10mm EF-S lens on a full frame camera? It gives you this:


10mm Crop Lens on a Full Frame Camera

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.


10mm Crop Lens on a Full Frame Camera Cropped Down (to simulate a Crop Sensor).

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

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Day One – Vlog Six. First Night.

First night in le back seat of le car. Answering some questions, providing some more details. Getting harder and harder to keep these under four minutes!

Transparency. A look at my novels.

Perhaps transparency is the bane of romance, removing that intimacy of pursuit, of mystery, or suspense. But I want to be clear to you guys. I’m as normal as any one of you, only I’m climbing the coattails of a break and trying to ride high enough to feel the wind in my hair, spread my arms, and lose myself.

Today I want to let you in on my novels, to give you a glimpse of these stories I always talk about but never seem to indicate follow through.

To do that, I must start at the beginning.

Inspired by authors like Tom Clancy and John Grisham and Stephen King, among others, seventh-grade Karl, with the first hints of gel in his hair and a desperation to land himself a pair of contacts, was absolutely fascinated by the sense of epic storytelling found in these adventure stories he was reading, and decided to write his own.

A good hundred fifty pages in, I abandoned my first story, Not a Drop to Drink, after I lost the threads of the mystery, never really knowing what was going on behind the scenes when the action was over. I put the manuscript aside (but not without annoying my teachers about reading it to no end, first), but didn’t lose my dream of creating for others what had been created for me, worlds of friends and magic.

Toward the end of my sophomore year in high school, an english class with daily creative writing prompts (usually inspired by an image or a bit of song or a question), gave birth to an image, a gradual idea of epic scope that bubbled forth on a single handwritten page. Over the next few months, this image grew into a scenario, a theme, intertwined with daydreams and literary components, and the rest of the story was fleshed out in spurts for weeks on end (but with months in between), usually to hard rock music pounding out a scattered score.

High School Karl, check. Book finished, check. Pose with a copy of it for the internet? Okay.

The first draft of Hallowtide was finished the month before I began my freshman year at Colorado State University. Over the next three years, I’d polish the draft twice more before settling on something I was satisfied to publish. Summer of 2010 began the marketing stage, outlining agencies to query, letters and summaries and various materials that those important would want. I also loaned the story to a close friend, marking only the third to finish the story. Though moved, he pointed out a number of confusing places he wanted to see tweaked, and I decided to put the (at this point dragging) marketing on hold while I made the appropriate modifications.

But when going back to the story, the work again called my attention to what I saw as glaring disharmony in the writing. The story grew from a forced outline surrounding the idea of a boy traveling into Hell itself, and I’d never done a full rewrite, only various revisions, and so despite the work I’d put in on its modification, and my education in what good voice was in work, the novel never really held a strong base. Much of the plot was in large part forced to make sense, leaving gaping holes.

Though I’d patched those holes, many, and plugged up the writing itself, the whole looked more like an old wall, patched and mended and held up in places by the occasional support beam. It is an elegant wall, indeed, and speaks to a precision and beauty all its own, but what if, with my years of experience now, I rebuilt the wall anew, fresh, reflecting the same form as the first, the same brick, but with a deliberation and unity the first lacked?

So now, five years after the first draft, numerous short stories, poems, books, education, and other novel beginnings, Hallowtide screams for a full rewrite. And so, a few weeks ago, I brought the story back to the drawing board, back to the very beginning.

It’s a violent story, harrowing, horrific, and painful to read. And because of that, it must be perfect. A story will never be done, but what the writer settles on must be right, and I don’t feel that it is. I’ve finished enough before now that I think I know when a story is good enough, when it’s something I can be proud of. This isn’t there yet.

Yes, when I procrastinate, I photoshop covers for my stuff. Stephanie Meyer did it. Wait. Actually I'm not sure if that helps or hurts my case.

But for National Novel Writing Month in 2009, a story that had been itching within me finally found its way to the page. Four years into Hallowtide, I was burnt out and looking for something fresh. The story was at first called, When Something Extraordinary Happens, but later turned to A Matter of Seeing. And likely will change again. It’s a story about a ground-moving relationship’s stability and endurance in the face of the impossible and the irrational.

For this book, I approached the story in a different way, writing “Stephen King style,” which is to say, taking a situation and relying on the strength of the characters to drive the story along. Well they drove the story about 35,000 words (about a third of the way through the tale) before my need for direction took over and the story came to a halt, waiting for inspiration. That and it needed amounts of research I didn’t have time or access to. (Research scares me, damn you school system.) Now, the story waits for that touch of research and focus of mind to redraw the themes into a narrative, and push them to where they need to go. It still has a lot of work yet, but the story is too strong to be left forever.

Then in the summer of 2010, a third story, inspired by experiments in form, surfaced on the internet via a series of blog posts, and I wound up writing 50,000 words in just over two month’s time, chronicling  the story of a girl who moved to Colorado to start anew. I’ve never had a story come so elegantly and easily before this. The act of sitting to write every day forced from me something often unexpected and at times gut-wrenchingly beautiful.

While the posts work nicely as a whole, they form only the first of a three part full story that explores the cracks in our world, the darkness between them, and life after death. Poetic, complex, and deeply cyclical and thematic, it’s perhaps my proudest work to date and still lingers nearly forgotten in the dusty attic of a blogging site.

Those of you clever enough may have found it.

So now, with the pressure of Hallowtide’s full rewrite lingering over my head, I wonder if it might be easier to finish one of my other works in progress before rebeginning the old work.

If I do, I think it will be the experimental story, The Fourth Wall (the full story including the blog entries from the summer) that goes first. It’s speaking loudest, though Hallowtide too often digs its way into my thoughts, as I think it always will. (It’s the first of a trilogy, by the way, the latter books speaking with an equal urgency.)

But school is busy, and sucks my free time. My job takes me on lecture circuits and to the Stanley Hotel on weekends to lead the public ghost hunts. When I’m not working on a deadline, I’m trying to find my head again.

But it’s bullshit to say I don’t have time to write.

A serious writer will always find time.

And so I’m resolving to start writing again, if only for an hour a night, starting at midnight, with the music cranked, with no other priority but to keep the story coming.

If there’s no other reason to post this entry, it’s to say that, and to hold me to it.

I want these stories done. I want them out. And one day, soon, I want them in your hands.

So tell me forum, which should I start with?

Just don’t say the one from seventh grade.

On Reaching the Front-Lines

I’m not sure if it’s the writer in me or the narcissist or the kid with the new toy (though it’s likely all three), but I’m quite excited to get this blog moving and hopefully generate some interest, discussion, idea-sharing and general merriment here.

I posted to twitter that I was interested in public opinion on blog topics – be they questions, queries, general thoughts to respond to or whatnot – and I’m thinking I’ll reply to one tonight. It’s only two thirty in the morning, I’ve a tumbler of cran-grape juice, the interwebz are quiet and I’m decently awake. If you have anything on your mind that you might want to query, please, feel free to share, here or there works fine by me.

Tonight, Mark Rushing (@adaptiveoptics) asks how my thoughts/beliefs in the paranormal may have changed after more rigorous investigation:

I thought this was an interesting question, not only for content, but because it’s been the second time I’ve been asked in two days.

To date, my perspective on the supernatural has not been particularly swayed one way or another. Ghost Hunters Academy was indeed more rigorous than any of my prior experience, which included a smattering of local cases, no personal experiences, and limited training. During much of the show there was heavy, heavy focus on the technical side of things, efficient setups (both botched and butchered, but successful too), and the education of proper procedure, which in many ways detracted from the full-on focus on the spirits. Our experiences and evidence were limited. There’s nothing at all wrong with this – we in fact got some neat evidence for a few cases. But nothing revolutionized my way of thinking.

I’ve always been a believer in the supernatural, it’s a faith that has stuck with me since I was young, coloring my interests, pursuits, and study. I’ve never had a significant personal paranormal experience before age twenty-one, but I’d always dreamt of a career within the field. Of course in the last few years I’d come to terms with the fact that there is no money in monsters – only the select few can cash in on it, let alone make a living. In 2007, I went to college to get a Liberal Arts degree in creative writing, my other sincere passion and best incorporation of the dark into my career, and so scientific pursuit of the supernatural was moved to the back-burner. Though I turned up the heat when I joined a local team, it became a personal curiosity to satisfy, a love still just beyond reach.

If anything then, this remarkable opportunity – a long-shot-turned reality that rocked my world and truly threw my life off the rails – brought me to the hard realization that I’m not only living the dream, but I’m actively at the front of a fluid field that, though at its peak and potentially changing worldwide views on the afterlife, is still living a fragile existence. It’s a pseudo-science that is constantly adapting, constantly changing, and constantly seeking grounding and support in the skeptical, science-minded, horizontal world we live in. It’s brought me to the realization that out of nowhere, I’ve become a part of this on the front-lines. It’s time to snap out of it – to change everything the world had pounded into me. I’m the hippie with his hair buzzed off in a pair of fatigues – my entire outlook is in shock.

I’m in it now.

It’s real now.

Thank god I see a lot of this coming together. My own personal beliefs and pursuits, my writing, my study of not only the supernatural but the thematic darkness (it’s the poet in me), my search for meaning and faith, a brainstorm of discovery. And what better place than a blog to think on it, to share with the community who wants to hear about it and work to sculpt not only the field, but life itself.

I’m not convinced I’ll make a difference, not even a tremor, but I’m a part of it now, and I’m excited to bring my tools to the table, if you’ll have me.

Thanks for the question, Mark. After seeing where this post took me, I’m not sure I could have suggested a better one.

Advice, then: when life hands you radical change, keep your mind open enough to change your perspective in turn and see what you can learn and share.