Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Improving My Photography

nikon_d40 One of my New Year’s resolutions is to use this year to really learn the ins-and-outs of digital photography.  I take a lot of photos, but am embarrassed to say I typically use my DSLR more like a glorified point-and-shoot rather than taking full advantage of the manual controls.  This is the year I aim to change that.  To get started, I’ve been reading a lot of books and photoblogs by guys like Scott Kelby and Ken Rockwell.

My current strategy to accomplish this goal is to:

  1. Read up on photography and practice, practice, practice.
  2. Carry my DSLR around more regularly.
  3. Purchase a prime lens.
  4. Consider getting a flash and learn better lighting and exposure techniques.
  5. Resist the temptation to buy too much gear too soon.

nikon 35 mmPRIME LENSES

I currently have a Nikon D40 with the 18-55 mm kit lens.  One of the pieces of advice I read frequently is to replace this with a fast “prime lens” (non-zoom) as the first lens to buy to replace my kit lens.  The advantages of this are:

  1. It is higher quality.  (It takes sharper pictures and has a less complicated, more rugged construction.)
  2. It does better in lower light.
  3. It gives better bokeh (blurring of the background).
  4. It will force me to learn better composition.  By removing the ability to zoom in and out, I will be forced to move around a lot more in order to get the right angle and lighting for each photo.

For my D40, the near-universal agreement on the prime lens of choice is Nikon’s 35 mm f/1.8G AF-S DX lens.  This sells for $200 most places and gets fantastic reviews.  On a D40, this is roughly equivalent to a 50 mm lens on a traditional film camera, which was the focal length favored by my photojournalists and photographers over the years.

While a fixed lens has the obvious disadvantage of not being able to change its focal length (zoom), I find that using my iPhone’s fixed-length camera on a regular basis has trained me to be less concerned about this.  When taking photos with my iPhone, I rarely yearn for the ability to zoom in on a photo.

Coincidentally, the day I started drafting this post, I met a friend at a bookstore in Georgetown and he offered to loan me his 35mm f/1.8 lens.  I’m deeply grateful and have been having a ton of fun experimenting with it.  Below are a few photos I’ve taken so far.  You can see more here.




Needless to say, I’m having a lot of fun with this and am amazed at how much sharper it is than my 18-55 mm lens and how much better it does in low-light situations.  (I expected this beforehand, but it’s different to know about it and to actually experience it.)

nikon sb-400FLASH

Ken Rockwell recommends the Nikon SB-400 as a good starter flash.  Advantages this has over the built-in flash of my D40 include:

  1. Much faster recharge, allowing quicker photo taking.
  2. Ability to bounce the light off of a ceiling to make the light seem more natural.
  3. Longer range.

A flash like this would allow me to start learning more about lighting and how to compose photos for the best exposure.

Follow the link above to see an example of a photograph Ken took of his grandmother with the flash pointed directly at her vs. one where he bounced the light off the ceiling.  What a difference!

If you’re interested in learning more about flashes and lighting, be sure to check out the excellent blog Strobist.



While I’d love to have a gear collection like Scott Kelby, before I jump in whole hog, I need to take time to better hone my skills and convince myself whether or not an advanced pocket camera like the Canon S90 would do 90% of what I’d like a camera to do?  The S90 gives full manual control, has a fast f/2.0 lens, and is small enough I’d carry it just about everywhere.  On the other hand, the S90 has a much smaller image sensor and smaller lens (meaning less light-gathering ability) than a DSLR, and is constrained to a 3.8x zoom.  Below is a (cropped) shot I took a few weeks ago using my D40 and my dad’s 70-300mm VR zoom lens.  It is the type of photo that I could not have taken with the S90.

DSC_2347 - Copy

One of the big advantages of starting off with the 35 mm f/1.8 lens is its low-light capability and relatively small size and weight.  It’s an ideal, affordable lens to start off with and one that would remain useful even after my lens collection expands.  While I eventually hope to add an 18-200 mm zoom lens to my arsenal (an especially good lens for travel) the 35 mm f/1.8 is one lens that would still merit a place in my camera bag for low-light situations.  (Such as in a church or museum where flashes are not allowed.) 

Long-time readers of this blog know I am fanatic about traveling light, but this two lens combination would offer fantastic versatility both lenses to make them both worth their weight.  (I’m also fanatic about capturing and sharing photos from journeys.)  The other lens I would likely consider for travel would be a wide-angle (10-24 mm) lens for taking photos of landscapes and architecture.

gorillapod To sum up, my shortlist of gear I would eventually like to get is:

  1. 35 mm f/1.8 Nikon Lens
  2. SB-400 Flash
  3. 18-200 mm VR Nikon Lens
  4. 10-24 mm Nikon Lens
  5. Gorillapod
  6. Canon S90

One of the nice things about photography is that it makes for a great lifelong hobby.  There is always more to learn, it’s a great way to connect with people (both your subjects and other photographers), it inspires you to look at your surroundings in a different way, its creative, and is something that ties in perfectly with travel.  Not only that, but it’s great fun too.

I’m looking forward to learning more.


Shawn said...

You say "coincidentally," I say "providentially."

I also have the sb-400, per Rockwell's recommendation, and would have lent that to you, as well.

Andreas R. Fugl said...

Hi Brian

Seems like you have been paying heed to Mr. Rockwell's recommendations regarding cameras and lenses.

He's also the reason for me buying a 35mm f/1.8 AF-S for my D40 and I haven't regretted it. As you travel alot, I believe you will like the very light and compact solution that a D40 and the 35mm makes, even with the hood attached.

What I especially like, is that you're not afraid of handling it. When I want to haul it along, I just wrap it in some towels and put it in my bag. As the hood is connected to the main body of the lens, everything is very rugged.

Besides the 35mm and the kit lens, I've invested in a SB-600 flash. I use it to play with strobist stuff, and rarely on-camera. The D40 simply gets too top-heavy with this combo. For your usage, definitely stay with Sb400.

I've also just bought a Canon S90. I've yet to put it through it's paces, but the low-light performance (at the wide end) comes close to the D40 with the 35mm, and clearly surpasses the D40 kit lens.

With your needs for photography equipment I'd definitely consider just hauling along a compact such as the S90.

Kind regards, Andreas

fm said...

Hi Brian,

Glad to hear you're aiming to learn the ins and outs of digital photography and looking to Scott Kelby as a resource for learning.

I work for Peachpit Press and we publish a lot of his material. I thought you'd also be interested in Scott's latest video, Photo Recipes Live: Behind the Scene where Scott shows you how he recreates some of the looks in his The Digital Photography Book series. Check it out here: