Buying your 1st digital SLR

The biggest obstacle in a beginning digital photographer’s way is often that lens that was bundled with their digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex camera.)

The marketplace is awash with digital slr cameras touting fantastic resolution and tons of features but most 1st time buyers don’t realize how complicated these cameras really are.

Invariably that camera kit is something like a Nikon D40x or Canon Rebel XTi with a 18 mm to 55 mm zoom lens and a 1GB or 2 GB memory card. Or worse, they get a camera  with a 28 mm to 135 mm lens.

So just how complicated are these cameras? In terms of function, and how they operate they are

  1. not user-friendly.No longer is it a simple matter to change something like a very basic setting on a camera.In the analog film camera of yesterday, all you needed to know was how to set the ISO or film speed, set the aperture, shutter speed, read the exposure meter and how to load and unload the camera.
    –essentially there were only 4 settings you needed to know to work any camera.     

    I intentionally didn’t count focussing because I expect everyone knew how to look in the viewfinder and turn the barrel of the lens until the image in the focussing screen appeared sharp.

  2. not intuitive.These days all these very basic settings are hidden under multiple layers of menus. To change let’s say something as basic as the ISO, you have to hold down one button and turn one of two possible dials.Even after you do that, you can’t be sure if that’s right. For instance you might think you’ve changed the ISO because you see the numbers on the LCD change from 100 to 125 to 160 and 200. Well, that could also be the shutter speed you just changed.Unless you’ve read the manual, how can you be sure? To further complicate matters, some cameras even let you choose settings that are 1/3 of a stop. Shutter speeds on film cameras used to be 1/1000, 1/500. 1/250 etc.Now there’s in between settings like 1/1250, 1/640, 1/350 etc. No wonder novices are overwhelmed.
  3. Bear in mind, we haven’t even considered those “digital settings” like choosing compression or quality or file sizes, white balance, formatting the memory card or auto focus sensor and motordrive modes to name just a few.

  4. extremely confusing.I didn’t realize how confusing all these numbers can be to a novice until midway into my teaching an introductory digital photography class.I think I was telling my students to set their exposure for 1/125 of a sec at f11. One of my students looked up at me and asked if that was the focal length she was supposed to set or if it was the ISO.Perhaps it was my failing as an instructor that left her befuddled, but boy, did I learned something that day!There are way too many variables on the digital SLRs out there especially if they are 1st time users. And on those zoom lenses they buy with their cameras, I hadn’t even explained to them that the aperture on their zoom lenses are variable. It is f3.5 on the 18 mm end and f5.6 on the 55 mm end!

There was a lot of wisdom in the days of film photography when camera manufacturers bundled a SLR with a standard 50 mm lens. It meant beginners could concentrate on getting their exposure right, without contemplating why a lens had one aperture opening on the wide angle end and another on the telephoto end. Composing by moving closer or moving back instead of zooming in and out using a variable focal length lens showed beginners not to get lazy and explore their subject by moving around

It is all these reasons that I find myself recommending that 1st time buyers buy a 50 mm fixed focal length lens with maybe a aperture of f1.8 to start their adventure in photography. Sure,that standard lens is more expensive, but in the long run, novices will learn faster. A lens like a 50 mm f1.8 is extremely versatile.It allows you to shoot in low light.It is small and compact and is actually an 80 mm lens when you factor in the 1.6x magnification factor.

The worst lens kit out there I’ve seen is one of the range from 28 mm to 135 mm. When you factor in the magnification factor of 1.6 x, on the long end, that is actually a 216 mm lens. A 216 mm lens with an slow aperture of f5.6 is extremely limiting. That means they can only use that lens in the bright outdoors. Typical exposure for a sunny day at ISO 100 is about 1/500 sec at f 5.6. The moment the sun goes behind a cloud, they have to increase the camera’s ISO.

So if you’re new to photography and you’re shopping for a digital SLR, consider buying a normal lens or what used to be called a standard lens–the 50 mm.