I assume that whoever reads this has dipped into the odd photography book and or has a basic grasp of such parameters as shutter speed, aperture, ISO etc. But I'll still try to be clear about everything in case you don't.
My credentials; I'm a reasonably competent amateur, if a top notch pro is a 10 then I think I'm around a 6 or a 7 (I don't mind admitting that there's always more to learn).
Once upon a time I worked in a film processing lab, I also blacked out a kitchen and printed my own black and white prints as well. I was deeply ambivalent about the whole process though, as I felt I was fighting to acquire sufficient skill to attain the results I wanted. So for me the semi-magical creation of images from lumps of silver on celluloid staled. Film for me felt constrained and I regard the sentimentalisation that surrounds it now as a bit perverse and regressive. I know there are some for whom this is not the case- good luck to them. I sold my gear, trashed my negatives (which I regret) and got a bit depressed about photography.
Perhaps it was the endless sequences of 80's family portraits in my day job...they haunt my dreams still.
But all that has changed. The digital imaging revolution has made this the best time ever to explore your desire to create and record images; yet a confusing whirl of expensive esoteric products and software has arisen to potentially impoverish the budding photographer. Furthermore, every new cycle of camera models seems to relegate the previous one to the dustbin. Which is perhaps as discouraging for many as the days of film (I constantly hear of people who have taken photography courses but have found it all 'too difficult').
This needn't be the case, for the silver lining is that older gear has become very cheaply priced on the second-hand market and, because of rapid model upgrading, is often in lightly used condition. So do you need the latest and greatest? Can you trade your way to essentially free gear (spoiler; yes you can)? What is a good model/brand/type of camera to go for?
Camera forums are, oddly, often of little help as most commentators there want to vicariously spend your money and nobody they would talk to could possibly want low-end gear (they're serious photographers lol).
Kelly's my (glamorous) guinea pig; she went from total non-photographer ten years ago to taking some really good shots today. I've watched her closely to see what she finds difficult or easy as she composes and shoots, and her satisfaction level with the outcome. It's worth also noting her (and my) utter distain for the technological aspects and the snobbery surrounding them; like many artists she already has a good eye and just wants great results as easily as possible. She is extremely impatient, doesn't want to spend money on gear and so I needed to acquire camera gear that gives great results easily and cost very little money. This is how we did it. I hope it helps someone.
You'll need a dSLR (digital single lens reflex) and I'll tell you why.
Many older digital cameras (in particular mid-range, not entry level, dSLR's and up) are made to the highest standards simply because the old-skool element in many Japanese production companies haven't been able to ween themselves away from making them to the same excellent build quality as their classic film equivalents...if you know your models and makers. Second-hand these can go now for 5-20% (!) of their original retail price, particularly if you buy as a kit and sell excess items separately. You know these names already; Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Minolta (now Sony) etc.
Secondly. The dSLR, for all its slightly awkward shape and size, is the best camera to use by the new photographer for a number of reasons. This might seem counter-intuitive since these cameras look complex, but they're usually very straight-forward in operation and any question you have for a common model is easily resolved by a quick trip to a good internet forum. You will learn good photographic technique easier and faster and take better pictures with a dSLR. In particular with the better handling mid-range 'semi-pro' models.
1: Everything about a good dSLR is immediate. It responds right away so that you don't even notice it happening; this is vital as it allows you to think with less distraction about the image. If you have a bright lens and a quality glass viewfinder, the shift from your eye to the subject requires minimal mental adjustment; when the mirror blanks the view as the shutter fires it feels as natural as a blink. The key word here is natural, it feels natural.
This direct forthright quality engages the photographer and encourages confidence and immersion; it is rewarding.
2: The chunky size; pick up a dSLR, the large buttons and dials fall to hand in a comfortable way, as they should do since it's based on a refined 50+ year old design. Ergonomics are a real thing and it does matter. However marvellous all those tiny compact cameras are technically, they aren't comfortable for sustained use. We are now seeing extra battery grips/ handgrips/thumb hooks etc as 'must have' accessories for the latest teeny mirrorless gems that still don't fit normal sized hands. A little weight and size is good. It commits you to holding the camera and lens properly and this aids concentration. Concentration helps you take better pictures as you tend to shoot an extra shot or two or try another angle, exposure or other variable. It helps you to feel 'serious' about it, and I'm being serious; your mindset is vitally important.
Say to yourself 'it's worth taking the camera', get a good bag, limit your lenses, think about if you need a strap/what type of strap etc and you'll get over the mental block of a minor inconvenience.
3: A dSLR kit actually allows for simplification; this is because we are all different in what we choose to photograph. As you or I develop as photographers, we can use the versatility of a dSLR's considerable lens and accessory options to shoot exactly as we wish. If you experiment in one direction but end up choosing another, the excess gear can be sold or put aside for when you do wish to use it. A quick lens change and an ever-ready bag can transform your massive telephoto nature rig/studio portrait/macroflash camera to a neat holiday snapshooter.
The counter to all the above is that the very newest compact camera models ( also including massively expensive pro dSLRs) are blessed with better sensors, but this leads to point four.
4: The quality that can be squeezed from a camera 2 or 3 generations removed from the current can still be outstanding, far better than you need it to be, and can create printable images of exhibition scale. A camera that was used to make great images 5 years ago will still make great images today. Think of an older camera with plenty of life left in it as a massive fridge full of classic film and free processing. It seems a shame not to use it, doesn't it? Furthermore, with the application of continually advancing software with regards to noise reduction, tonal enhancement and sharpening, that 'film' quality ( i.e. your older dSLR result) actually gets better over time.
Also, and not a minor consideration, camera gear that has cost you relatively little money can be used with less paranoia regarding damage/loss/theft (another mental barrier).
If you've followed me this far, you might then ask 'okay but what camera brand and model among the massive array of options should I chose?' I'm not going to start a brand war here; I'll just tell you what I chose and why, but believe me there are many great choices... look for the beautifully built but 'obsolete' and you're on the right track.
My choice; the D200 and D300 Nikons, or, if you have the money (I don't) their sibling the 'full frame' D700.
My reasoning? They're very widely available, often auctioned with easily-resold accessories, in particular the Nikon 18-200 VR (vibration reduction) lens and Nikon sb600 flash. Find out what these kits typically go for on your local auction sites- so you know what to bid to- and perhaps wait for an auction that starts at a high enough or fixed price to discourage competition. Buying bulk items then reselling separately really can make money- do it a couple of times and the proceeds can mean that your camera body ends up being free.
We like the Nikon D200/300s because of their wide metering compatibility. This means you have a massive second hand and vintage lens choice, right back to '70's film gear; 40 years worth of Nikkor (made by Nikon) and third party Nikon-mount glass is a very important resource for the frugal photographer. This includes many cheap manual focus and very high quality (Ai & Ais) fixed focal length ('prime') lenses because these bodies will meter them.
You'll be buying well-proven build quality and reliability. The D200/300s are probably some of the strongest cameras made; solid bricks of weather-sealed magnesium alloy. If they have a few K's on the clock they should continue to play nicely with you for a long time because the most likely failure danger-zones are when new ('lemons'), or once you start to hit a six figure shutter count. There are many, many D200 and D300 bodies that list on auction sites with 20-60 thousand clicks; these are the ones to go for. Also, you'll get a battery common to half a dozen very popular camera models (quite important). In summary- a deep back catalogue of versatile accessories is a very good thing.
If you shoot Raw (high quality 'digital negative' files), then the Nikon '.nef' files are supported by all image editor programs like Photoshop.
As far as learning photography from scratch is concerned, the button and dial set up on dSLRs is the way to go; you press down an external button and move a dial to change settings. It's as simple or as complex as you wish. You can experiment and easily see why and how your results change (this is how Kelly tweaks her exposure because she doesn't care enough about optics to learn the principles). As an aside, many otherwise nice 'entry level' dSLRs make you dive into menus for common adjustments, or are missing vital external buttons; menus are horrible when you're in the midst of taking pictures.
There's the speed factor too. Fast operation, fast accurate autofocus (particularly the D300), big image buffer (meaning you can take a lot of photos without the camera slowing down) and a truly decent nice, bright viewfinder. Did I say fast? The D300 is still near the gold standard as far as autofocus is concerned. This speed capability aids even slow, considered photography by removing consciousness of the camera and allowing concentration on the image. And, most importantly, these two cameras are superseded by the D300 's', D7000, D7100, D7200 amongst 'Dx' size sensor dSLRs plus a slew of new 'full frame' models.
Below is our D300 with the classic Tamron 17-50 f2.8 lens (the 'f' number is important, it tells you the brightness of a lens - a small constant number is what to look for), as a suggested setup. Look at the nice big roomy grip and the large well spaced buttons and dials.
A freebie that could last us an easy decade.
There is no reason that you can't do this too; you're on the Internet aren't you?
So what does this particular set-up give us?
Well, for starters, a very nice tough and meaty walkabout, general usage wide to normal to modest telephoto camera with low light capability.
It's also a nice portrait combo and focuses close enough for garden/nature/detail work.
When it comes to starting as a photographer I think the biggest problem is being confident enough. No one except a photo nerd like myself wants to read the manual (though you should, just sit down with a glass of wine or whatever); so many people fuck up perfectly good photos by having the wrong settings on their camera and then just throw their hands in the air thinking that it's 'not for them'.
But don't be afraid. I'm here :-)
Do a full Reset (usually a two button press on most cameras and at the front of the manual if in doubt).
Bung it on P (for Program), Auto for White Balance, .jpg fine (for Quality), Matrix for Metering, a single central Focus Point to aim at and an ISO (light sensitivity) of around 400. Then check your Focus Mode (should be 'S' for Single).
Now go outside in good natural light in the morning or late afternoon and take some pictures; this should give nice initial results and create an encouraging starting point.
I'll write some more on this subject at a later date; I do hope this will help more people enjoy photography as much as I do now.
- The Lovely R.