Girl & her cat: Manual focus Carl Zeiss 50mm/f1.7 @ f1.7

It may seem bewildering the number of DSLR’s on the market, what with their varied specifications and lens choices. So the idea behind this piece is to try to cut through to what’s really important when considering your first purchase into this arena.

However before we start, it is so important to take on board that in the first instance, it is the photographer who takes a good photograph, and never ever the camera. An extremely high spec clever camera will not take a better picture than the lowest spec alternative if you shoot it on auto and have little appreciation of composition and light.

Camera bodies can basically be divided into two camps: those with Full Frame sensors (which emulate the traditional proportions of a 35 mm negative) and everything else. Although at the upper end of the budget scale, Full Frame cameras are far superior to “everything else”. The manufacturers put the most technology into these cameras resulting in higher quality imagery (assuming you can handle the machine), but more importantly, the sensors actual physical size allows for, amongst other things, a more pronounced differentiation between aperture stops – i.e. the change in depth of field with aperture choice. You’ve seen all those glossy ad images where the subject literally pops from the background? Well that’s shallow Depth of Field for you.

Okay, so the full frame sensor on it’s own doesn’t produce that pop, that comes from combining it with a lens shot wide open – aperture at f2.8 or larger, e.g. f2, f1.8, f1.4, and the more telephoto the better. Another bonus of the larger sensor is that the pixels aren’t so crammed together; the more spread out they can be the higher the image quality. And whilst on pixel count, it’s pretty meaningless really, simply a war between the major manufacturers to trick you into thinking it equates to better image quality, whereas all it’s really doing is filling up your memory chip/computer’s hard drive quicker. Sure, if you’re going to create poster prints you ideally need 12mp, but pretty much every DSLR these days kicks off with about 18mp, completely unnecessary. Further, there is a far greater choice of quality lenses made for full frame cameras.

The draw back to the full frame cameras is they’re Big, especially when combined with some quality glass.And it is the lens rather than the camera which makes the real difference to the quality of the captured image.
In fact, The Lens is Everything, so very much more important than the actual choice of camera.

My snow dog. Manual focus Helios 58mm/f2 @ f2

My snow dog. Manual focus Helios 58mm/f2 @ f2

This would be my recommended approach to anyone new to DSLR photography

In the first instance it wouldn’t necessarily be prudent to jump straight in and buy a new full frame camera body (new ca £900, body only) until, that is, you’re convinced that photography is for you. Your best bet is to buy one of the most entry of entry level bodies. These will typically have the same sensor as a camera double its price, except they won’t offer all the frankly completely pointless bells and whistles of their considerably more expensive relations. Don’t be sucked in by the hype, marketing, and sales people.

Bearing in mind that an entry level non-full-frame DSLR bites in at around £300 with kit lens, you can buy an early full-frame camera second-hand (eBay) without lens, for around £400 (do read between the lines when making such a purchase: you’re looking out for a previous owner who thought they’d get into photography, never learned the basics, were disappointed in that their super dupa state of the art camera didn’t produce results any better than their smart phone, it subsequently sat in the cupboard for years, and now they completely realise it won’t ever see the light of day again so they might as well sell it!!) For example, the 5D at around £400 or the 5Dmk2 at ca £800.

Citroen: Manual focus Yashinon 50mm/f1.7 @ f1.7

Citroen: Manual focus Yashinon 50mm/f1.7 @ f1.7

The entry level bodies will come combined with a “kit” zoom lens, and I can’t begin to tell you how dreadful these are. In some circumstances they do produce a just about passable image, but on the whole it will never be very sharp & will lack contrast with poor colour rendition, along with the real danger that you will probably blame yourself for its faults. So don’t hesitate to ditch the “kit” lens, sell it on ebay, use it as a paper weight, whatever, and buy something half decent. For example, both Canon & Nikon offer a 50mm f1.8 “standard” lens which retails at less than £100.

Much better are their 50/1.4 at around £250. And if you’ve got a bit more cash, Sigma’s 35mm f1.4 at around £700, you’ll use it forever. No, but really, one of the 50’s with a full frame body, that is all you need for the next year or so, until you get to grips with your new acquisition. (I’m a pro photographer who when not “working” only ever use a 50 or 35. If my subject is too far away I walk closer, and vice versa.)

I wouldn’t suggest buying any other kit, it will only confuse. Your initial mission is to become fluent with a single lens, shooting in manual. When you feel you’ve mastered this you could possibly consider buying another optic, by which point you’ll know which one. Alternatives to these fine contemporary prime lenses are the 1970’s – 1990’s manual focus lenses built for the 35mm film SLR’s of the period.. There are many 50mm ca f1.8 lenses out there, and absolute bargains at about £20+… plus a few extra quid for a simple adapter. All the pics in this article were shot on inexpensive, (well the Carl Zeiss was pricey), manual focus 50mm prime lenses – with full frame Canon body.

I wouldn’t suggest buying any other kit, it will only confuse. Your initial mission is to become fluent with a single lens, shooting in manual. When you feel you’ve mastered this you could possibly consider buying another optic, by which point you’ll know which one.

Keep your eye on the subject: Helios 58mm/f2 @ f2

Keep your eye on the subject: Helios 58mm/f2 @ f2

Any other kit: not really. Tripods are heavy and unless you’re a dedicated landscape shooter, and importantly understand what a tripod can do for you, it’s simply a heavy lump to hump about. Same applies to flash. None of these items will improve your photography until you understand what they can do for you, master the camera in its simplicity first.

You’re aiming to be able to take poetic imagery repeatable every time you take your camera out. This can only be achieved by controlling your camera yourself, i.e. in manual, and with an appreciation of the subtleties of light, all mixed with pleasing composition. So you’ve bought your camera, now it’s simply practice.

The process can be considerably speeded up with direction from an accomplished photographer. Like any art it’s all about practice, practice, practice with good guidance.
One of the true beauties of photography is that you will always improve your skills and abilities. It’s a lifetime adventure.

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