SLR Not-so-Newbie

So you took the plunge and plonked down several hundred dollars for that digital SLR camera you’ve been wanting. Some of your pictures are better than before. You’ve started playing with aperture width, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity, and figured out how they interact. You’ve started shooting pictures with low depth of field blurring your background into “bokeh”. You’ve figured out a systematic way to catalog your pictures, delete the out-of-focus and badly-composed ones, and most important of all, backup the good pics. You’ve even finished your first 10,000 clicks and started sharing your pictures on a photo blog. On vacation trips you now spend the same amount of time with your camera as with your spouse.

Now you are itching to spend some money and play with some new toys. What’s next?

There are several possibilities.

A Tripod. What, you don’t have one already? Buy one, it opens up the world of night photography to you. It has its uses for day shots too. Using a tripod makes you stop and take the time to think about the picture you are about to take. It lets you shoot waterfalls and landscapes like never before, with a slow shutter speed for a dreamy effect of flowing water. It also lets you shoot yourself with an SLR.

Lens upgrade? If you bought the kit zoom lens that was sold with your DSLR, you got a lens which is about f/5.6 at the long end and about f/3.5 at the short end. But if you’re paying attention to aperture width in low-light shooting, you’ll soon be limited by the slow aperture of this lens. The natural replacement for the kit zoom lens is then the constant f/2.8 zoom lens in the same focal length range. Canon and Nikon both make 17-55 f/2.8 lenses, but both cost over a thousand US dollars. At less than half the price, Tamron makes an excellent 17-50 f/2.8 lens that I’ve used extensively. It is also lighter and smaller than the corresponding Canon and Nikon lenses. Sigma has a similar 18-50 f/2.8 lens (but I haven’t used it myself). In addition to the versatility of f/2.8, these lenses have better sharpness and color than the kit lens. If cost is no object, and if you can sacrifice a little at the wide end, Canon’s 24-70 f/2.8 L lens is the one to buy. In my estimation it’s the best lens I’ve used, period. Given its reverse zooming design (it extends outward while zooming out to 24 mm) and its custom designed hood that provides the perfect coverage at every focal length, and its superb sharpness and color, it’s probably the best lens in its class that money can buy.

Long lens? The long reach of a 200 mm or 300 mm lens on a 1.6x crop sensor is quite fascinating. Again I recommend a lens with a constant f-number throughout the zoom range. The bargain in this category is the 70-200 f/4 L lens from Canon. The IS (image-stabilized) version of this lens costs about double, and if you want f/2.8 without or especially with IS, the price of entry is even higher. I’m perfectly happy with the 70-200 f/4 L without IS. With some practice I can hand-hold it for sharp shots at 1/100 on my 5D.

Flash? While the on-camera flash can get you by in the initial days, the addition of a hotshoe flash with a bounce head will open up a new dimension of lighting up scenes in low-light indoor situations. Flash bounced from the ceiling is my light of choice for indoor shooting nowadays. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the results are phenomenal.

Prime lens? This one is for the traditionalists. Get yourself a Sigma 30 f/1.4 lens (or similar) and walk about for a month with it. At f/1.4 you have barely any depth of field to work with, but you can shoot in really low light. The old equivalent of this was the 50 mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens. Which is still not a bad idea — Canon’s $100 “plastic fantastic” 50 f/1.8 is still part of my kit.

Macro? One of Canon’s undervalued gems is the EF-S 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens. It gives great color reproduction and sharpness, and is an amazingly good portrait lens. It’s also an excellent 1:1 macro lens that will open up the fascinating world of small things to your camera.

Superzoom lens? Canon, Nikon, Tamron, Sigma, etc. have all started to offer their “superzoom” lenses which go from 18 mm to a whopping 200 or 250 mm in focal length, with the long end obviously opening up to f/5.6 or f/6.3. While these lenses aren’t great for capturing low light, they make up for it with flexibility of use from their long zoom range. I haven’t used them myself, but some of them have promising image quality reviews.

Vacation? Head to the mountains or to the oceanside and take some pictures.

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One Response to SLR Not-so-Newbie

  1. Shakthi says:

    macro is mouthwatering. However, it’s quite easy to manage with only an iPhone 3 meg. I took 1000 pics over the last 5 days at Tahoe. Some are excellent.

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