Before you make an investment in new camera equipment, it’s a good thing to know what you plan to do with it. I know it seems like there’s an obvious answer. You’re going to take pictures with it…duh! But, if you look past the obvious, you’ll realize that every time you buy a new piece of equipment, you’re also making an investment in the time it takes to learn how to use it, in the storage space it takes to carry it, and the additional add-ons you’ll need to buy so it works the way you want it to.
So before I buy new photo toys, I try to figure out how the new equipment will fit into my lifestyle. Will I use it a lot? Will it make my photography better? Can I do something similar with the equipment I already have? I know I have a limited amount of accessible space in my Roadtrek Agile motorhome, so I need to make sure I get the biggest bang for my buck.
But this story isn’t about what I would buy. It’s about you. So, take a minute and think about the subjects you really like to photograph. If you’re the type of photographer who only likes to take pictures of one thing, such as birds, or landscapes or your grandkids, you’ve got some easy, though not necessarily cheap, choices to make. But if you’re the type of photographer, like me and my wife Rochelle, who like to shoot anything and everything, your choices are much more difficult.
To help you out, I’m going to offer a couple of recommendations for each type of photographer you might be. One will be inexpensive and small, and the other will probably test your limits.
If you’re the person who never takes a picture without a person in it, then you want to make sure you’re capturing memories that will last a lifetime. In fact, you probably want them to last several lifetimes as you’ll certainly want to pass on your photographs to future generations. The easiest way to do this is with a camera phone or a good compact camera. You don’t need a big lens, just one that’s flexible enough to capture one person or a whole family at once. And, if you’re using a phone or a compact camera, make sure to take your photos in good light. The last thing you want to do is use that little flash. Trust me, you’ll hate the results
If you’d like to develop your skills as a portrait photographer however, then you’re going to have to move up to a mirrorless camera or even a DSLR. There are lenses for both of these types of cameras that are specially made for taking professional portraits, and I have to tell you right now that they don’t come cheap. And if you’re really serious, you’re going to have to learn about off-camera flash photography, and buy all of the equipment that goes with it. And I have to tell you from experience; it’s hard to fit all of that stuff in a motorhome.
No matter which method you choose to capture your people portraits, make sure you protect them so they don’t disappear. And the best way to do that is by remembering to be redundant. Don’t just save them on your hard drive. Hard drives crash. Don’t just save them on-line. On-line companies go broke. And certainly don’t just save them on CDs. Writable CDs only last a few years. Oddly enough, the best way to save your photographs so they’ll last is to print them.
Now if you spend most of your time visiting gorgeous places, and I think that’s just about everybody who owns a motorhome, you’re going to want a camera that takes great wide-angle shots. Again, a phone camera or a compact will do the trick. Most of them offer acceptable wide angles of view, and the results will look great on Flickr or Facebook. But if you’re thinking how nice your landscape photography will look on your living room wall, I think you might be disappointed in the results you’ll get from a little camera. Instead, try a small, mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses and get yourself a nice wide-angle lens. A 16-50mm lens is great for landscape photography. It won’t be too hard on your budget, and it won’t take up a lot of room either. And if you’re thinking you want to blow up your photos to poster size prints, make sure you’ve got enough megapixels to do the job. These days, 16- to 24 megapixels is pretty much the standard.
If birds and wild animals are your thing, then you’re going to have to pony up a bit more cash to get yourself a new bridge, super-zoom camera. It shouldn’t break your bank, but plan to spend $400 or so for the camera. Don’t forget that you’ll also want a camera bag, a filter or two, a big SD card and maybe an extra battery. It really adds up. But it pales in comparison with what the professional wildlife photographers end up paying for their equipment. A 400mm lens can cost over $10,000. Yes, $10,000, I didn’t mistype it. And that’s just the lens. And if you’ve spent that much on the lens, what’s another few thousand dollars for a new camera? That is the extreme though. You can probably outfit yourself with a nice camera and a less expensive 400mm lens for less than $3000. Just remember you’re going to have to store that big old lens somewhere, and you’ll be carrying it around with you too. If you have medical issues, like a sore and aching back, this is not the solution for you. Stick to the bridge camera.
Rochelle loves to take pictures of the little things we come across. For her, there’s nothing more fun that trying to capture a butterfly in flight, or the details in a simple dandelion. If you’re a budding macro photographer, you’ll be happy to know that most compact cameras are actually great at capturing close up, or macro, photographs. There’s some science involved in this having to do with the distance of the lens to the sensor, but I stopped paying attention to science in the 10th grade. For me, I’m just happy with the results.
If you want to take your macro photography a step further, get yourself a nice DSLR and find a dedicated macro lens to go with it. Real macro lenses, offering a 1 to 1 magnification are always prime lenses, and usually come in 35mm, 50mm and 100mm lengths. I prefer the longer 100mm lens because you don’t have to get your face, or your shadow, right into the action to get the shot. However, these lenses will cost you upwards of $1,000. Zoom “macro” lenses will give you some nice details, but with a typical 4 to 1 magnification ratio, you won’t get the itty-bitty details you’re craving for.
There’s one more type of photographer I want to mention. They’re the people who always seem to be the ones to capture the cool little scenes and events that life provides. They’re called “Street” photographers and their motto is “Never Leave Home without Your Camera.” And there are more of them than you think. So many, in fact, that a few of the big camera companies are making new cameras just for them. They’re small, like a compact camera, but they have big sensors and great lenses built in. They’re made to go in a pocket, but when they come out of the pocket, they take a photograph as good as a big full-frame DSLR. One of the best examples of this new breed of camera is the Sony RX-1. Definitely worth looking into if street photography is your style.
These are all some great solutions for specific types of photography, but what if you’re like me and you want it all, and then some? Well, there’s really nothing as flexible as a DSLR. The sensor in a good APS-C camera (smaller than the more expensive full-frame cameras) is more than sufficient for big prints. And you also have access to a huge number of lenses that will help you get great photographs of just about everything. However, and this is important, don’t scrimp on your lenses. The difference between a great lens and an inexpensive lens is just as wide as the difference between satisfactory photos and ones that will make you proud to hang on your wall.
Bottom line, you can save yourself a lot of money, and carry around a lot less equipment if you can narrow down your photographic aspirations. But if money and space is no object, then I say “Go for It!” Photography is a wonderful hobby that you can easily enjoy for the rest of your life.