2010 - Oceanside, CA
NOTE: The links pictured here may not remain active, nor are they necessarily the best prices available. They are for educational reference only. Search around and compare. Make sure any used camera comes with a battery and charger. As well, these are strictly my OPINIONS. Yours may vary.
So you're pretty serious about photos, you think. Maybe even considering an offer to second shoot a wedding to get some experience. But you only have a compact camera and a couple cool shots of friends on your FaceBook. Oh, and a couple hundred clams to shell out on some gear. Where should you begin?
As a professional, I have done a first-rate job of wasting money when I first started out. I bought what I saw others using, and they might have done the same. I had no real idea why I should have certain contraptions, but had them I did, in abundance and often to little effect. Diffusers that came from Gary Fong's enviable fridge; over-priced plastic brushes to clean dust from the lens; enormous camera bags to hold my growing ego until I had more than two lenses. So, I'd like to help you avoid that route.
I want you to know in the first place, purchase what you feel comfortable with. For many people, photography is a very rewarding hobby. For some it even becomes a legitimate career or means of side income. If you start with very cheap equipment, you may become discouraged by the results. For instance, Rebel series cameras have excellent image quality but lack of a thumb wheel on the back can make them difficult to control and adjust in fast-paced environments (as most paid shoots are). That thumb wheel lets you immediately adjust your shutter speed, rather than holding down one button while turning another wheel. Besides, xxD cameras are mostly metal, like Robo-Cop, and clearly that worked out for him. However, buying something more expensive and then finding out you are not so interested as you thought can be very disheartening, too!
WHERE TO BUY: I recommend first-time buyers to purchase used equipment from a reputable seller. To me, there are four: BHphotovideo, KEH, Adorama, and someone you know well enough. Each of these will let you return the camera within 14 days if something doesn't seem right. Craigslist may also be an option in your area. Check an option if you live near larger cities. Be smart about it. This may save you $50-150 on each item, but may seem like more work and stress. I've done it, but only as a seller. It turned out well.
IS IT RELIABLE? Personally, I can attest that buying used camera gear has worked out well for me. Most cameras can shoot nearly 100,000 images before showing signs of detrimental wear. Few photographers hit that point; they sell to upgrade, or because they lost interest.
As well, good lenses are often sold just to upgrade. For instance, the Canon 50mm 1.8 is $100 new. The next-best 50mm lens is $350. After that, the top version is $1400. Start at the bottom, and decide from there what you need! Usually going up the scale is like this, in terms of build and image quality:
Cheapest: C+ to B+
Middle range: B+ to A-
Most expensive: A- to A+
Keep in mind, the C+ lens may have B+ image quality but a cheap-feeling body. As well, less experienced users often find even the worst SLR lenses to be miles better than what they were used to from point-and-shoots. To the initiated, most image quality issues are only visible in very large prints, like 16" x 20" viewed up close. However, another part of cost is how large the aperture opens. A larger aperture allows more light in, so that you can shoot in low-light without flash or at lower ISO settings, meaning less image noise. Larger apertures also create more dramatic focal blur in front of and behind the focus point. That costs money.
What I suggest: Depending on what you can afford, and what deals are available at the time, second shooters should get a DSLR with a two control dials. For Canon uses, this means something in the xxD range, like the 20D, 30D, 40D, etc.
The 20D is the least expensive, around $300, though I bought mine new six years ago for $1500! The image quality is very good in decent lighting, but suffers from image noise as all mid-range cameras do at high ISO speeds.
Images I've taken with the 20D:
The 30D has identical image quality to the 20D, but has a noticeably larger screen. Screens don't make images better, photographers do. Still, being a year newer, a 30D may have less wear on it.
If money were not an issue, the 40D is a gem for what it is. Slightly more mega-pixels (no difference in real life for print size) but a more modern sensor, which equates to better tonal range out of the box. My 40D files require less editing than my 30D or 20D files did. It manages highlights and shadows better, and has live-view, though I do not often use it. Most importantly for me, the 40D includes three customizable settings on the mode-dial, allowing you to jump right into pre-programmed settings with the turn of a wheel. For instance, I have one set to go right into exposure bracketing so the camera snaps off three images, one bright, one middle, and one dark. I blend these in Photoshop to account for really broad tonal ranges that would have been over or under exposed otherwise. Then I rotate the mode dial and go back to normal shooting. Lastly, the 40D has an automatic sensor cleaner that works. I have no problems with dust appearing in photos as I did with the prior two cameras, which can be an annoyance. Be prepared, though -- the 40D can be quite expensive.
Images I've taken with the 40D:
As for lenses, I recommend starting out with these:
Canon EF-s 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II- used $99 -
This lens will do well outside with good light, and fine indoors with bounced flash. It goes from pretty wide to a bit zoomed in. It's not a super-zoom. Long zoom ranges usually indicate poor quality. This lens also has IS (image stablization) which will help prevent blur caused by hands shaking at long shutter speeds. The lens is small enough to take everywhere while you learn.
Canon 50mm 1.8 II - Used $80 to $90 -
The famous "nifty fifty" is fifteen times less expensive than the priciest 50mm Canon makes, but to new users it is a dream come true. If feels a bit chintzy, and the focus ring is a joke, but the image quality is nice. Because the resale value on these used 50's doesn't go down, you can probably resell it in a few years for the same amount you paid. This lens doesn't zoom, and it won't give you any more reach than the 18-55mm, but it has an aperture which opens three times larger at the same focal length. This means that not only can you get very dramatic focal blur, but you can shoot at ISO 100 or 200 (no image noise) when you would have had to use ISO 400 or 800 with the other lens, due to the small amount of light coming through the f/5.6 aperture. If you don't get this now, you'll cheer later.
Besides these, I highly recommend getting a second battery (BP511A) and several 8GB CF cards. As well, dump the original strap for something very secure and comfortable. I use an Op/Tech Pro with attach loops and quick-disconnects, and it makes my job less fatiguing... in fact, a pleasure.
For cleaning your lenses, I swear by a big makeup powder brush from the local drug store, some breath, and a soft shirt. Most pros I meet adopt this system because it works. Gimmicks don't.
I would skip the giant camera bag for now, and get a LowePro lens pouch to put your spare lens in while shooting. That way it's there at your side, ready to go, or can be tossed in a purse or pack without drawing a "hit-me" sign on your back, advertising all your nice gear. It seems thieves like bags of lenses more than lone cameras.
Yes, there are other things I recommend but not yet. These will give you a leg up and help you to know just how interested you are. The lenses will be easy to sell for similar amounts if you upgrade later, and the body would become a backup or nice gift to another student.
Remember, it's not about gear so much as getting out there often, shooting and letting others critique your work. Like music, looking at good photos might help you adsorb their style and technique.
PS: If this post was helpful to you, please consider sharing it with others. Thanks!