Everybody knows that really good photographers have really big cameras. In fact, a tried-and-true method for quickly discerning whether or not another person is skilled at making images is to assess whether their camera is bigger than their head. If the answer is yes, then they are indisputably a Photo God. If the answer is no, then you are clearly dealing with a lowly amateur.
I jest, I jest. Camera size and skill of photographer are – similar to most other tools and instruments – unrelated. Buying a bigger camera will not, by itself, make anyone a “good” photographer. However, it is readily evident that there are different sizes of cameras out there, and the kernel of truth in all of this is that different sizes of cameras are most certainly designed to fit different needs and do different things.
A Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera – whether digital (DSLR) or not – is defined by a design which permits the photographer to look and photograph through a single lens. To do so, it employs a mirror that moves (hence the reflex in the name) upon releasing the shutter, thereby exposing media placed directly behind it with exactly the scene previewed. The remainder of this article will briefly summarize why one might want to use a camera like this and what matters when one is faced with buying one for the first time.
First, why is a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera useful? The crux that has always defined SLR cameras – and the best reason for using one – is that they give a person (the photographer) a great deal of control over many aspects of the image-making process. Starting with the ability to switch lenses and trickling down to fully manual modes of operation, SLRs can be used for just about any type of photography – often the more specialized the better. The catch, of course, is that they require some knowledge to be used well and that they are bigger, heavier, and more expensive than their point-and-shoot counterparts.
But oh how they can sing. And they’re not that big, nor that difficult to use. For the person who wants to move from taking to making photographs, a DSLR (and from here on out it could be digital or film, my advice would be the same) is an invaluable and important step to make. Any initial enthusiasm for such an investment can be quickly lost, however, once coming face to face with the many options out there – there are a lot of them! Three thoughts about taking the plunge:
Conquer body issues
Step One: Start out by determining the type of lens, or lenses, that you require or want
SLRs are fundamentally different from point-and-shoots because they have (at least) two principal components. Instead of having a integrated “camera” what you really have with an SLR is a “lens” (which channels and controls the light) and a “body” or “back” (which handles the media as well as offering additional controls). So, lens + body = SLR camera. Savvy?
All of this matters because one component is more significant than the other. And although this can come as a bit of a surprise, what matters most is THE LENS. The camera body – though still important – is a glorified film holder. Lenses are what we see through, and what make the biggest difference in what are eventually presented as photographs. Good lenses tend to last when looked after, while camera bodies suffer more mechanical wear and tear and also become technologically outdated more rapidly. And finally, a poor lens severely limits what even the best camera body can produce, while a good lens can still crank out excellent work on the most modest of bodies.
Think about what it is that you shoot, or plan to shoot, and figure out what kind of a lens or lenses might be optimal. If you’re purchasing a complete SLR, then you might see “kits” that pair an entry level lens and body together. If you’re thinking bigger, then seriously consider putting your hard earned cash into your lens or lenses and sticking with a more basic body. A likely scenario is that within a few years you’ll grow out of or wear out your first camera body and will require a new one, and you’ll be a happy camper if all you have to do is slap your favorite workhorse lens on the next generation of bodies.
Here’s another bit of strategy. Opting for a fixed lens (set focal length, no zoom) can have the double benefit of: a) being more economical in terms of price; and b) forcing you to move around when you are composing a scene through the viewfinder (good practice for learning how to be in the right place at the right time). Grab a cheap body and a nice fixed lens in a medium focal length – you might come out cheaper the above-mentioned “kits” and actually have an more advantageous setup.
Loyalty is not dead
Step Two: Choose a camera manufacturer
Once you know what you’re looking to shoot and have thought about what lens or lenses you require, get out there and familiarize yourself with the current DSLR camera lines. There’s not much of a cottage industry for these things, so it is the case that most of the major camera players offer similar products at similar prices. There will be a slew of details and comparisons to review to your heart’s content but a key consideration, actually, is the fact that you will be materially invested in one company for the foreseeable future.
First, each manufacturer has a different type of “lens mount.” The lens mount is what attaches or fixes the lens to the body. The variety out there means that you can’t just put any lens on any camera – typically the lens is made by the same company that makes the camera. There are aftermarket firms that make lenses for different cameras as well as conversion options out there, but it’s good to know from the get-go that you’re very much investing in a “line” of lenses. And you already know from Point #1 above that lenses are a key consideration, so do your best at figuring out for your needs who has made the best ones to-date, and take a stab at who you think might make them in the future.
It follows that once you amass a few lenses, you will be somewhat tied to a particular brand of camera body. And the camera body, to some degree, can determine some of your options for accessories such as remotes, battery packs, etc. So, the big call involves the consideration of what lens + body (+ price) fits you right now, balanced with figuring out which manufacturer will most likely fit your needs in the future. Chances are you won’t start over again from scratch (buying lens and body), and if you have to you won’t be all too happy about it.
To name names, a good place to start is with Canon and Nikon. They are – indisputably – the biggest and most successful makers of DLSRs (lenses and bodies). That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the best, but becoming aware of their current offerings and then striking on from there would not be a poor strategy for the newcomer.
Get ready to put it in your head
Step Three: Wear it out
Now this is going to sound bizarre, but it’s not enough to hold a camera up to your eye – you’re going to have to put it in your head. One reason that photographers tend to stick with the same or similar cameras year after year is that they have invested a large amount of time and energy into essentially absorbing that machine into themselves. Doing photography becomes a whole different ballgame when the camera is part of your body, so to speak. This is true for all cameras, but it is perhaps most important for wielding a SLR.
The thing will initially feel like a bit of a beast in your hands. The key to taming it is knowing it. Make sure you know the fundamentals (shutter speed, aperture, ISO), then figure out how you can use your new camera to control them. Switch between manual and autofocus, practicing ad nauseam (manual focus is a huge skill, and so is auto actually). And once you start to perform the physical and mental gymnastics of shooting enough, they will start to become ingrained in you. You’ll find yourself wanting to maximize depth of field in a shot and stopping down the aperture almost subconsciously, all the while making sure that your shutter speed is still quick enough for handheld shooting. And it is when those things start to become internalized that you can really concentrate on what is actually going on outside the camera.
You can start this third and final step well before you ever obtain a SLR. There’s a ton of information out there on the basics of photography, and if you’ve got that foundation in place and are ready for the new tool, chances are much better that you will be able to sink your teeth into it right off the bat and get somewhere. And remember that those fundaments don’t just apply to SLR cameras either – figuring out how to mess around with them on a point and shoot or nearly any other type of camera is equally important. And do keep in mind that success really comes from knowing a camera and what it can do well – not from simply what type of camera it is (or if it happens to be bigger than your head).
Good luck! And if you have any comments or questions, by all means shout ’em out below!