As I'm often asked about my recommendations for camera gear, I've put together a list below.
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Considerations before purchasing:
Obviously, the most important consideration is what sorts of scenes you want to capture.
The camera body has impact on:
While the lens can greatly assist these needs with:
And lastly, don't overlook size & weight. The 22lbs of camera & glass that I carry on some (not all) trips does get a little tiring.
As they say, "The best camera in the world is the one that you have with you"
My Nikon familiarity will show through here, but you can get a sense of the considerations.
In general, the main brands of Nikon and Canon are pretty comparable. Some will see a subtle "look" between the two, due to the image processing within the camera. While your 3 lenses from 1984 might motivate some bias, the practical use of old lenses on new bodies often has a lot of limitations.
In recent years, the most dramatic improvements have been around handling low light though higher ISO. A few years ago, using ISO levels above 1000 would have been risky. Now, even entry-level DSLR's such as the Nikon 3200 or Nikon D5200, can handle low light much better. Remember the significant impact of a 2x "stop" of light allowing 2x the shutter speed!
This can greatly help with the frequent desire for capturing sports- whether indoors, an evening, or just a really cloudy day. Further, this can compensate for less costly lenses that reduce the light, especially zoom lenses with variable maximum aperture.
I'd suggest the next consideration is the ease of use for handling different situations, perhaps rapidly together. Some bodies have helpful "SCENE" modes such as Night Portrait that work really nicely. It's important to be able to change settings for the scene as you go from inside the dark building to outside in brilliant sunshine. Try it out to see how much effort it takes to change for specific modes - before the family walks away!
OK, this is where the investment is best made. There are two types of lenses, aside from some corner case lenses such as those used for macro or architectural photography.
Zoom lenses provide great flexibility to change focal length to frame the scene just as you want. There are a wide variety of ranges. While a 9-400mm lens would sound like a dream, optics make that impossible. So, there are usually ranges like 18-200 or smaller, such as 24-70 or 70-200.
Most "kit" lenses are something like 18-55 or 55-200. While not the most rugged with their plastic feel, they are great "walk around" lenses that work well in reasonable light - and they're also reasonable weight.
One upgrade to consider would be something like an 18-200 with Vibration Reduction (see further below).
So what's the downside? Well, the main one is that most zoom lenses have a variable maximum aperture. That is, as you "zoom" in, the amount of light is decreased. That's why the lens will have a label such as "f/3.5-f/5.6" or even "f/3.5-f/6.3', indicating the range of that maximum aperture. As we discussed in class, that's a big impact of 2x or 4x less light. So, while you think zooming in helps capture that amazing shot at the basketball game, it's suddenly harder to freeze the motion or you even end up with a dark photo.
"Pro" level lenses have a fixed maximum aperture, often around f/2.8 or f/4. These investments in "fast glass" don't trade off light for magnification. However, they certainly have a trade off in cost, size, & weight!
For Nikon, the set of three pro lenses are
While zoom lenses provide variable focal length, prime lenses have a fixed magnification. With that comes increases clarity due to the greatly simplified optics. For the same reason, prime lenses typically allow more light in - often 1 or 2 stops more - that's 2x or 4x the light. That's a big difference, allowing you to use a shutter speed at 2x or 4x! However, with the fixed magnification, you're only way to change the frame is to move yourself - not always possible with a street or cliff next to you!
For Nikon, the Nikkor 50mm has been a standard forever - available in f/1.8 or even f/1.4 aperture. Others such as 85mm can be a good fit for portrait photography if you're in control of the setting in a studio.
Vibration Reduction / Image Stabilization
This technology has been around for a while and is now available in a lot more lenses. Similar to the "anti-shake" feature in a handheld camcorder, the VR/IS mechanism actually moves the optics ever-so-subtly (but quickly) to compensate for an unsteady hand. This will be advertized in the same "stop" benefit, meaning being able to take a photo at 1/30th that otherwise would motivate 1/30*2*2=/125th.
However, this ONLY applies to blur caused by handheld shake - NOT by the motion of the subject. So, it's great to take photos of a piano recital from 200' away after you've had 3 expresso's - but would not be very helpful during a horse race.
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More to come: