I own a DSLR and take a lot of pictures, which makes me an authority on the subject of cameras and photography, and guarantees that every time my shutter snaps, magic happens. It said so right there on the receipt.
Now, that is obvious nonsense, but I get asked a lot of questions about cameras anyway. I carry around an SLR sometimes, so people ask me what camera should I buy or how do I take better pictures, just a bunch of stuff I don’t always have answers for. Honestly: my occasional hobby is buying cheap, weird old lenses and filters off Craigslist and seeing what kind of pictures I can take with them, because I think not knowing how things are going to turn out is fun, but that’s the extent of my qualifications.
I take a lot of pictures, go me, and some of them come out OK.
But this little rant was brought on when I saw someone just recently with obviously no idea what they were buying drop two grand on a camera they’ll likely never really use, much less take a decent picture with. The most cringeworthy bit was when the person asked which, of a prime or zoom lens, would “take better pictures”.
So I thought I should get this out there. Having done this in an amateur capacity for two or three years, here’s entirety of my thinking on buying and using cameras.
The first thing is: don’t buy a DSLR. Just don’t. Get yourself a competent point-and-shoot. Don’t skimp on the memory card; buy a large one from a reputable brand, but buying last year’s cameras on sale is a good idea. Don’t spend a lot of money; just learn to use it well enough that you can go from off and in your pocket to on and taking pictures in one motion with one hand. Fiddle around with the menus until you’ve turned off digital zoom and the flash, carry it with you wherever you go, and when you see something you’d like to take a picture of, take a picture of it.
Take lots and lots and lots of pictures. Don’t take the kind of pictures you think you should take; take pictures of the things you find interesting. You’re taking the whole picture, not just the subject; frame the subject in the shot. Move around, just for the change in perspective, and take more pictures.
You can expect to take a few dozen or hundred pictures for every one that’s even kind of good, and strangely as you get more experienced that number will get higher, not lower; the bar you set for yourself will get higher faster than you improve. But now that pictures are just about free that’s a good thing: failure is more informative than success when you’re just starting out. The Rule Of Thirds will get you a long way here, so keep it in mind.
So by and large what kind of pictures are you taking? What works well, what doesn’t? What is great, what isn’t and why? Are you zoomed all the way in most of the time, or all the way out? Are they mostly scenery, mostly people? Plants, cars? Are they mostly moving, or are they sitting still for you? With that information, do you still enjoy taking pictures?
Are you still interested in getting better at this? If so, and with all that information, consider buying yourself a DSLR, maybe.
You can blow up a 6 megapixel shot to a 20″x30″ print and they look great, so megapixels are an irrelevant metric. This is doubly true in this modern age where virtually all your picture-viewing happens on a screen; your top-of-the-line 1080p HDTV is a whopping two megapixels; extremely expensive computer monitors might go as high as three. All cameras, and indeed almost all lenses, have been better than that for a couple of years.
Buy used, if you have that option; expensive cameras do not promise good photos, and digital camera prices drop like a rock. I shoot Nikon, but from what I hear the rule of thumb is “If you shoot things that are mostly moving, Canon. If you’re shooting things that mostly aren’t, Nikon”. That said, when you see a guy winning a Pulitzer with a $30 piece-of-crap Holga, you’ve got to know that ultimately the technology is secondary. If you’ve had your point-and-shoot for a year and haven’t shot a few thousand pictures with it, looked at them and thought about them, don’t buy anything, why are you even doing this? If you don’t go places just to take pictures of whatever’s there, don’t waste your money; if you don’t take a lot of photos, having a lot of camera won’t help.
If you’re buying the camera as a kit, as entry-level DSLRs are often sold, you will often have the option to upgrade to a slightly better zoom lens. Did your point and shoot spend all its time zoomed all the way in, while you took pictures of stuff a ways away? If so, and if you have the means, spring for the longer lens. If not, save your money and in a couple of weeks or months buy the cheapest prime lens you can find.
You now have more camera than you’ll likely ever need. You can learn a lot about the bells and whistles that modern cameras provide, but my advice is to the same as it was for the point-and-shoot; set it to JPEG-Fine and no-flash and take lots and lots more pictures. Keep your point-and-shoot in your pocket anyway; as always, the best camera you can get is the one that will be in your hand when the shot comes along.
If anyone has any other advice, I’d love to hear it. That’s all I have.