My Camera & Gear & a Few Thoughts

This is what happens when I try to take photos of Will now.  He retaliates by trying to eat my camera…

It seems like everyone is in the market for a new camera lately.  My sister-in-law and I are trading emails about a new camera for her, a few friends on Facebook have asked me what kind of camera I use and I’ve gotten a few comments on this here ol’ blog about it as well.

So, I thought I’d share my two cents, I tend to do that around here anyways.

Let me preface this all by saying I know nothing about photography and cameras and lenses and accessories.  Truly.  I’m an amateur and a minimalist and a cheap-o when it comes to my camera.  I know the basics of adjusting aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and I shoot in manual most of the time, but whatever knowledge I’ve acquired doesn’t come from books or classes.  It mostly just comes from taken hundreds and hundreds of photos and figuring out what works as I go along.  Oh, and from a quick tutorial with our wedding photographer a few years ago, thanks again Stephen!

If you already have a DSLR and are looking for some good tutorials on the interwebs, I highly recommend checking out Pioneer Woman’s Photography section on her website.  She does a really nice job of walking through a lot of the basics and gives tips for how to set up many popular types of shots like silhouettes, macro shots, etc.  If you have Photoshop software, she also has a lot of “actions” available for download, if you are into that sort of thing.

Ok, moving on to the real camera talk:

I shoot on a Canon Rebel EX DSLR.  It is the most basic, entry-level DSLR that Canon offers.  It came with a kit lens, a wide angle 18-55mm lens that I still use today.  It’s a great camera for anyone just learning how to use a DSLR and it’s got plenty of power and features to give you room to grow and learn.  I’m still always learning new ways to make my camera work better and more efficiently.  In good lighting and even not-so-great lighting, its a champ.  As long as you set the white balance yourself, the colors and lighting are pretty true to life (though sometimes using the auto white balance setting yields some wonky coloring). The shutter is fast, the shots are generally really clear and the on-camera menu and adjustment options are really self-explanatory and easy to navigate.

About a year ago I started getting weird error messages and really slow response times from the shutter but since I downloaded a firmware update from Canon (the operating system for the camera) I haven’t had any more issues of the sort.  Cameras are mini computers, they sometimes need updates too, I guess.

My only other beef is just that the ISO range is a bit low for Chengdu’s gloom, it only goes up to about 1600 and you start really seeing the graininess at around 800.  This isn’t the camera’s fault though.  It’s a great range for an entry level DSLR, its just that Chengdu is sort of an especially dark and gloomy place 80% of the time.  Additionally, I’m finding that the autofocus point selection feature has gotten a little less accurate the longer I use my camera; or perhaps I’m just noticing it more now that I shoot at such low apertures so often.  I don’t actually know if this is a camera problem or a me problem though.  I have a pretty wicked astigmatism and its possible that it just makes it difficult for the camera to track my eyeballs.

At some point I acquired a basic filter that lives on my zoom lens and a suspiciously inexpensive, used telephoto lens without any image stabilization.  I’m going to go ahead and say that my telephoto lens was one of the most useless and most ill-advised purchases I’ve ever made.  You really need a tripod to get clear shots with a long lens without good image stabilization built in, and I don’t have a tripod yet.  Don’t be like me.  You probably really don’t need a telephoto lens, you certainly don’t need one without image stabilization.  Thank goodness mine was used and not so expensive to begin with.

At the Japanese Cultural Festival

A rare, mostly clear photo taken with my telephoto lens.  Note that its a really sunny day here at noon!  That’s the only time this lens really works for me!

Before Will was born I did my research and bought my nifty fifty: a 50mm 1.8 prime lens.  Prime lenses have no zoom, or rather, to “zoom” you move yourself closer or further away from the subject.  The 1.8 aperture setting is how I get those shots with the crisp foreground and the blurry background.  I love this lens.  You can usually find it on Amazon for between $110-$120 which is basically the most amazing deal in all of photography.

It’s a great lens for shooting people up close, its a wonderful lens in low light, and its nice for food photography if you do any of that.  It’s also a great lens for really learning how to use your camera in manual.   Honestly, I think that if you are planning on really learning how to use your camera and using it often, I’d say go ahead and buy this lens right away.  It’s lovely.  There are other similar lenses that might give you a wider aperture range or the ability to shoot closer to your subject (you can’t get super close with the 50mm, its not a macro lens) but they cost a lot more.  Unless you are really serious or you do a lot of macro (super up-close) photography, you probably won’t miss the extra capabilities of the more expensive lenses anyways.

The power of the nifty-fifty.  That “black backdrop?”  It’s actually a brown desk but its so blurry you can’t tell.

Up until a few months ago, I edited all of my photos in basic, free, iPhoto.  I recently broke down and bought Photoshop Elements.  It’s a much, much, much cheaper version of Photoshop (about $100 versus $600).  Honestly, I bought Elements mostly so I could start learning how to edit photos in case it ever would become a useful job skill, and it is way more software than I really need.  I don’t tend to do much editing (no time, no patience!) so I probably didn’t really even need Elements; but Lightroom was more expensive and I cheaped-out.  In retrospect, Lightroom’s organization and basic editing capabilities would have probably been more appropriate for the minimal editing and maximal organizing that I do.  Again, be not like me!  Spend your money not cheaply but wisely! 🙂

So that’s my gear, plus a few SD chips, (you should have at least two I think) an extra battery and a very tiny but very good quality camera bag.

I’ll admit, there are about a gajillion things I would love to buy to support my photography habit.  A bigger camera bag would be really useful, I should really just get a cheap lens hood already, and an external flash probably would have been helpful here in Chengdu.  In a few years I think Chris might actually wear me down and get me to buy a bigger, nicer camera.  Yea, I’ll admit it, I do occasionally lust over the big fancy cameras I see around me in China.

Chris is totally my enabler with photography, by the way.  He’s super patient when I’m taking three dozen shots of a trash can  and he’s the one who’s always trying to get me to buy new equipment.  I’m the one who shuts him down since I just feel like I should totally max out my knowledge and capabilities of whatever I’m using before I even think about upgrading.

If you aren’t totally bored with the camera talk yet, I’m going to write a few thoughts I have about this whole DSLR and hobby photography thing.  Feel free to click away now if you aren’t interested.

A few years ago, Chris bought me my Canon Rebel XS DSLR as a birthday/Christmas/your-old-camera-is-dying-and-was-sort-of-a-piece-of-crap-anyway gift.  I’d been shooting for a few years on a digital Kodak something-or-other that allowed me to shoot in “manual,” but without any of the fire power of a true DSLR.  In other words, between the time I pressed down on the shutter button and the time the shutter actually opened again to take the shot, most of my subjects were already about a mile down the road.

The Rebel XS is Canon’s most basic entry-level DSLR.  It’s one of the most popular cameras sold on Amazon.  Even so, shooting with it was a total revelation to me.  I could fire up to 3 shots a second!  My shots all looked so crisp and shiny!  The details were sharp, the colors so vibrant! I practically slept with the thing for the first few months.

Shooting with my Rebel around picturesque D.C. I actually started to think I was a decent photographer.

Chainlink and a door

Back when I thought I was a decent photographer but actually wasn’t.

Then we moved to Chengdu and all of a sudden I realized how little I knew about photography and how totally mediocre and average my photos really were.  I felt like the worst photographer in the world.

Little Boy with Delish Fried Snack

Look at how blurry!  This could have been a great shot if I had known enough then to take my time and make sure I was focused on the right subject (the kid, not the pants of the guy in the background).  The air that day wasn’t any great help, but had I known how to adjust my settings a little better, it could have been a much nicer shot.

Between the visible air pollution obstructing shots and the greyness of the city streets (there is kind of an absurd amount of grey concrete used in this country) all of my shots suddenly felt blurry and blah.  I stopped shooting indoors for awhile because I just couldn’t figure out how to take a clear shot.  It wasn’t until we had Will and I had some serious motivation to figure things out that I learned all of my crap-condition-work-arounds that I use today.

men in the tokyo fish market

The light in the fish market wasn’t much better than a normal day in Chengdu and yet, this shot has so much more warmth and depth to it than the one above, still a little blurry though!  I still have lots to learn!

In short, I took decent photos before because I got lucky.  These days, if I take a decent photo it’s because I got lucky or because I worked my butt off to figure out how.  I’m really grateful to have spent these past two years in Chengdu.  Without months and months of attempting and failing to take nice photos in crap-tastic conditions, I wouldn’t know a thing more about photography than I did 6 years ago.  I’m hoping when we get to a place with better light and more picturesque scenery, all of my practice will pay off with better shots.

And here’s where I’m going to say something about DSLR cameras that I hope might be useful for anyone considering an upgrade from a basic point-and-shoot:

On your average sunny day with a nice subject and clean air, any average person shooting on a DSLR is going to get a better picture from that camera than anything they could ever take on a point-and-shoot.  Hands down, end of story.  That’s why DSLRs are so popular, at least once in awhile they can make all of us feel like professionals.

If you live in a place with sunshine and you just really want to take really pretty photos and you have some money to burn, why not, get an entry-level DSLR like the Canon Rebel XS or the Nikon D40/60.  You really won’t regret it, I promise.

On the other hand, if say you are an average person shooting in really low light with lots of air pollution and sort of grey, washed out subjects, your basic DSLR on its most automatic settings is probably not going to be a huge improvement over a point-and-shoot.  You may be a little disappointed with your camera’s performance unless you really make an effort to figure out how to use it.

And on the third hand, if me and a professional photographer traded cameras for the day, the professional photographer would still get better shots on my mom’s point-and-shoot from 1995 than I could take with his professional equipment.  There’s a reason we still hire wedding photographers and photojournalists after all.

In other words, great equipment helps, but digital photography is about more than equipment.  At its most basic, its a skill to learn; and at its most inspiring, its a real art form.

As for me, I have no hope of becoming an artist with a camera.  I don’t have the temperament or talent for it.  On the other hand, I do hope to keep getting better at recording what’s happening around me in a way that makes me happy and/or helps me see the world differently.

That’s the fun thing about photography as a hobby.  You can always get better.  Unlike drawing or other art forms, you don’t need amazing fine motor skills or great hand-eye coordination.  You aren’t going to “ruin” a month or more’s work with one mistake the way you might with a painting.  You really just need an eye for composure and the patience and desire to keep learning.  I always think my last batch of photos of Will is great until I take the next batch and all of a sudden the old photos look so basic or poorly composed compared to the new ones.  I might think I know what I’m doing taking photos of Will, and then I go out into the world and realize I have no clue how to really photograph real life in real time.  But I’m still trying to learn.

It’s almost time for Will to wake up from his nap so I’m going to step off my soap box now and just say I totally dig my camera, I totally don’t think you are being indulgent or crazy to spend $450 on a DSLR you don’t know how to use yet, I think its a great idea.  However, its worth it to learn how to shoot in manual because you will be amazed at the photos you can take when you do, it just takes a little time and practice.


One thought on “My Camera & Gear & a Few Thoughts

  1. Hey Dani. I loved reading this. Very informative and so true! A photographer friend once told me how frustrated she felt when people asked what kind of camera she used, as if the camera did all the magic. I can’t wait to hear about your latest purchases!

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