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:
- Read up on photography and practice, practice, practice.
- Carry my DSLR around more regularly.
- Purchase a prime lens.
- Consider getting a flash and learn better lighting and exposure techniques.
- Resist the temptation to buy too much gear too soon.
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:
- It is higher quality. (It takes sharper pictures and has a less complicated, more rugged construction.)
- It does better in lower light.
- It gives better bokeh (blurring of the background).
- 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.)
Ken Rockwell recommends the Nikon SB-400 as a good starter flash. Advantages this has over the built-in flash of my D40 include:
- Much faster recharge, allowing quicker photo taking.
- Ability to bounce the light off of a ceiling to make the light seem more natural.
- 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.
RESISTING THE TEMPTATION TO BUY TOO MUCH GEAR TOO FAST
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.
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.
- 35 mm f/1.8 Nikon Lens
- SB-400 Flash
- 18-200 mm VR Nikon Lens
- 10-24 mm Nikon Lens
- 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.