Now that the semester is winding down for my kids, they need something to keep them focused and thinking visually. Thankfully, PetaPixel put together a list of documentaries about photography to keep them entertained through the next few weeks.
It runs from Feb. 27 to March 2 (the first days are for students only), and one of these years I’m going to make it to the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
Throughout the week, I’m writing a series of posts about buying gear. As we near the end of the semester with graduations and holidays approaching, the number of questions I get from students about putting together a kit skyrockets.
So, now you have your camera, lenses and strobes all picked out. You’re almost ready to head out on your first assignment, but there are a few things you may want to pick up.
First accessory you should get, one that I order with every new lens, is a filter to protect the front element of your lens. This is the best deal in insurance, ever – a simple UV filter will keep dirt and fingerprints off your lens and, more importantly, protect that expensive front element from scratches.
There are lots of options, but a basic UV filter is what I go for – it cuts down on some ultraviolet light and doesn’t affect color transmission. Every lens will denote the filter size, either on the lens or inside the lens cap look for a number with a ø after it, that’s your filter size in millimeters. Prime lenses tend to be 49, 52 or 58 mm filters; zooms can be 67, 72 or 77 mm. But those are generalizations and I have 39s and 46s around here, too.
If you want to step up from the entry level filters, I really like the B+W line from Schneider Optics. In theory, I know these are much better filters. In practice, I’m not sure my work warrants them …
If you go new on the camera body, buried in the box will be a shoulder strap – complete with the manufacturers brand and, perhaps, model emblazoned across it in bright, primary colors. The strap is perfectly useful, but I almost never keep them – they are straight pieces of cloth that advertise I either bought a very expensive camera or am a total tool and willing to advertise their products wherever I go.
For years, I have turned to the Domke Gripper straps, usually the one inch wide ones for smaller cameras with the swivel ends on them. The center section of the strap is canvas, smooth on one side but with rubber strips embedded on the other to keep it from sliding off my shoulder. The ends are a very strong nylon and connecting them is a swivel which keeps the strap from ever getting tangled up.
The rubber will eventually start to work its way out of the canvas, but at $15 a strap, I’m willing to replace them every few years.
Recently, a couple of companies have started making a different kind of strap that anchors to the bottom of the camera not the posts at the side. I reviewed the Black Rapid strap a few years ago for the NPPA and understand that some may really like this. I’m a little too old-fashioned to go for the bandolier-and-gun-slinger motif, but if I was carrying just one camera I might move to that system. I really liked the way you could lock it in place, out of the way and the $60 strap was very well made. Another company, Custom SLR, also makes straps like this with a lot of accessories, including a tripod plate if you’re on and off of tripods a lot.
Almost as diabolical as the relgion-esque debate between Nikon and Canon is the debate over camera bags. Everyone feels their choice is the only choice … and they are right. The bag that you work out of, whether a shoulder, sling, backpack or belt system, has to work for you.
The go-to bag for years was the Domke F-2 – owning one was like a right of passage, you wouldn’t be taken seriously until you wore out one. (I’ve worn out … um … four?) Domke makes a full line of shoulder bags, from small to ridiculously large and I’ve owned … um … 15 of them? For me, their construction and usability were unparalleled.
Several years ago, a new company was launched on the west coast that has both great shoulder bags as well as suitcase-style roller bags and a fantastic belt system. Think Tank Photo was launched by two designers and two photographers – Doug Murdoch and Mike Sturm, Deanne Fitzmaurice and Kurt Rogers – and have taken the pro market by storm. After decades of slinging heavy bags, I now have a chiropractor that comes to visit me – it was time to move the weight off of the shoulders and onto my hips. I still sling a bag from time to time, but if I’m out for hours, I’m more likely to use their belt system with a couple of pouches.
Aside: Students, if you’re going to order something from them, come see me as I have a discount code that gets us a little kickback.
The last and either most or least stylish option is the photo vest. The greatest one was once made by Banana Republic, but they stopped producing it years ago. It looks like someone else has started making it again, though. The other common one out there is the PhoTOGS from Domke.
One last piece to get you started would be a tripod. (And, if you’re going for long glass, a monopod.) This is a tool you’ll toss in the trunk of your car and grumble about buying until you absolutely need to have it. Depending on what you shoot, that could be once a week or once a year – but when you need it, you need it.
If you search online, you’ll get thousands of options. But, really, there are only two brands to consider – Gitzo and Manfrotto. Each of them make a full line of tripods and monopods, in aluminum and carbon fiber, large and small, sturdy and cheap.
Much like a great lens or spouse, if you choose well, it’ll last you a lifetime.
Random Other Things
It is very easy to become a gear geek once you get into photography. The list of tools and toys is nearly endless and you will always want just one more thing. It may be a Rocket Air Blaster to clean your sensor or a simple three axis bubble level, but if you think you need it, someone else has probably thought the same thing, too. Go look – it’s okay when the giant B&H Photo catalog shows up in the mail to shuffle off to an easy chair and circle everything you wanted, just like the holiday catalogs when we were kids.
But, at the end of the day, what you need is a desire to tell stories that matter. The gear we have access to today is so much better than just a decade ago, but study the work that the masters did and understand it wasn’t the cameras, lenses, strobes or bags that made those photos – it was people who cared.
Throughout the week, I’m writing a series of posts about buying gear. As we near the end of the semester with graduations and holidays approaching, the number of questions I get from students about putting together a kit skyrockets.
It is the bane of almost every young photographer and many seasoned ones – what to do with the dark. With the current generation of cameras having ISOs that approach the national debt, more and more shooters are just cranking up the gain and going all available light.
And, often, it looks terrible. Realistic, perhaps, but the image quality is rapidly approaching what a smartphone produces.
There’s a story I heard years ago about a group of students who approached the legendary Robert Gilka and asked him his thoughts on strobes versus available light. His responses: “I’ll use any damned light that’s available.”
Having studied under Gilka, I believe that story to be true.
Learning strobes (or flash or speedlite, use whatever term you like) is one of the most technically challenging things in photography. You need to understand how batteries and capacitors interact, you need to understand how light is shaped, how light falls off, how light reflects, how light illuminates and how light shapes your subjects.
Get any of those wrong and your images look horrible. Get it right, though and … good gracious, the world is a stunning place to work.
The argument many photojournalists will make is that they don’t want to alter the scene, they don’t want to bring something to a moment that wasn’t there naturally. And I get that, I really do and, often, I’ll go to ultra low shutter speeds and very wide apertures to capture that setting.
But cameras and the human eye do not see in the same way. A camera captures one exposure, wherever thou place it. The human eye adjusts on the fly, allowing your brain to capture highlights and shadows without concern for the dynamic span between them.
Strobes, used well, allow you to compress that dynamic range and capture an entire scene.
A few weeks ago I saw Gregory Heisler speak at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar and he is one of the masters of studio and portrait lighting. He was talking about his work and his new book, 50 Portraits, which I highly recommend. In his talk he said there are two ways to look at lighting – creating it from your own mind or, and I love this phrase, motivating the actual.
As journalists, I think we should be motivating the actual – looking for ways to increase the quantity of light without altering the quality of it. What I usually do and teach is motivating the actual. I just didn’t know what it was called.
Since we’re on media, another book you must get if you want to learn how to use small strobes is Joe McNally’s Hot Shoe Diaries. No one rocks a speedlite like McNally and this book takes you deep into the problematic weeds and through to the other side. A must read.
One last piece of media … two years ago, McNally and David Hobby, who goes by The Strobist online, teamed up for a bus tour across America teaching scores of photographers how to light. When they were done, they created a DVD of the event. I attended the Atlanta stop and was, expectedly, floored by how good it was.
Small Lights, Big Lights
Strobes come in different sizes and powers. What we will use mostly are generally called speedlites – they can slot into the hot shoe on the top of your camera, though you’ll want to get them off camera as much as possible.
The other option are lighting kits and they come in all shapes and sizes. You can put together packages from companies like Paul C. Buff which are very good and very affordable or go all the way to separate heads and power packs like the Speedotron system.
What you buy will be determined by what you’re shooting.
To start, though, you’re going to get into speedlites. The flexibility is great on these and will let you learn how to light without overwhelming your brain or budget.
Both Canon and Nikon have dedicated flashes for their systems. They will allow manual control (where you tell the flash how much power to push out) up through full TTL modes (where the camera and flash will meter light output through the lens as you make an image).
Aside: There is a lot to learn about strobes, how they work, how they don’t work, what they can and cannot do. Many years ago, I produced a short handout on flashes, which you can download and take a quick look at. Some of it is dated, but the core material is still of some value.
There are couple of features you’ll want in a speedlite. The first is power and that’s rated by what’s known as a guide number. (If you want, you can use the guide number of a flash to calculate exposures. It’s easy, but cumbersome.) The higher the guide number, the more light a flash can push out. More, as they say, is always better.
The second feature you’ll want is the ability to bounce the flash, meaning you can tilt the top of it up and some odd angle. This will let you, well … bounce the light of the ceiling so you can alter it’s direction and quality.
Third up is the ability to swivel the head so you can … bounce light off of the walls.
All of those assume you’re keeping the flash in the hot shoe on top of your camera.
Nikon and Canon have two usable levels of speedlites right now. For Canon, the big one is the 600EX-RT, which runs around $500. For years, on digital cameras, Nikon was eclipsing Canon on strobes – this is the flash that finally evened everything out. I have this and am very happy with it.
The second level down for Canon is the 430EX II which is about half the price at $260. It’s a little smaller, but also significantly less powerful – it has a guide number of 141 versus the 600EX-RT’s 197.
The second thing I won’t leave home without is a gel set, and Rosco has worked with Hobby to create the Strobist Collection – 55 Cinegel color correction gels to help you balance your daylight-colored flash with whatever lights you find yourself under. At $25, it makes an excellent cheap holiday gift …
The Nikon strobes come with a little diffusion dome, and I love a diffusion dome, but you have to order them separately for Canon. I have used the StoFen Omni-Bounce for decades, it seems – great light quality and, for just $12 hard to beat.
There is a world of strobe accessories out there. Both Canon and Nikon have remote possibilities built into their systems now allowing you to control multiple flashes from one position. (Nikon’s system is still a little better and, yes, I’m calling out Canon for not catching up on this.)
There are lots of light modifiers out there, too. Things like umbrellas and stands are good places to start, especially if you’re going to do some portrait lighting. Adorama makes their own line of stands called Flashpoint which I’ve used and am happy with, along with their companion umbrellas. Note that to connect the two you’ll need a bracket.
Honl Photo makes a lot of cool light modifiers, their grids are very well regarded.
It’s a very dark world out there – light it up.
Throughout the week, I’m writing a series of posts about buying gear. As we near the end of the semester with graduations and holidays approaching, the number of questions I get from students about putting together a kit skyrockets.
Just a few more posts to get through this week – strobes will be tomorrow and random accessories on Saturday.
But for today, let’s talk about camera bodies. We’ve already discussed the sensors earlier, so we don’t need to dive into that. By now, hopefully, you’ve read up on lenses as well as where to buy these things and whether you’re going new or used.
Camera bodies fall into three categories, I think: Consumer, Prosumer and Professional.
If you’re going to be making a living with these things, I think you need to stay away from the consumer level cameras. These cameras exclusively have the APS-C sized sensors, but that’s not what makes them poor choices.
They are slow and not built for daily use. The viewfinders are difficult to work with if you wear glasses. The controls are not setup to be very intuitive and the menu structures can be very complex. Trying to set one function that you use often can take far too many pushes on buttons and twists of dials.
I will tell you that I start my students on consumer level cameras, but that has more to do with cost than anything else. I find them to be very small for my hands and, as I wear glasses, I struggle with seeing both the full frame and the metering info at the bottom of the viewfinder. And that full frame? It usually isn’t – you’re usually seeing a cropped version of the frame, showing about 92-95% of what’s being recorded. Since I hammer my kids for edge control, that can be a problem – it may force you to crop, thereby throwing away perfectly good pixels in your workflow.
The accessories are limited at this end of the spectrum, as well. All of the lenses and strobes will work, but the specialty items may not be there. Things like a vertical battery grip or a wireless transmitter just may not exist. (Although the Eye-Fi makes up for that last one in spades, provided speed and battery life isn’t crucial to you.)
Over the years, I have had a growing suspicion that camera manufacturers calibrate their meters differently at this level. It seems to me that the consumer level cameras are biased towards a little bit of overexposure. My suspicion is the average shooter is more likely to underexpose their image and is not as worried about protecting highlights. I haven’t tested this very thoroughly, but anecdotally, it seems to hold up.
Please, please do not take what I say next as a slam on Nikon because I admitted earlier I shoot Canons: There is something about the way those three cameras render JPGs that I – I – do not like. I have seen files from several versions of each of them and there is something about them that I don’t like.
Also, I think they are not durable enough for what we do.
The files out of those cameras looks better, to me, but I’m still not convinced they will hold up over time.
If you’ve been reading along all week, this is probably what you’re looking for. When you hit this point, you start adding not features but quality to those features. If you look at the specs and compare them to the consumer grade gear, you’ll see a lot of similarities – similar resolution, similar modes, etc.
But what you won’t see in the specs is the higher level of responsiveness you get here. You also start getting lots of accessories as this is the class of camera serious photographers gravitate to. These cameras will hold up a lot longer and there are lots of professionals that are in this range.
Most of these cameras are still in the APS-C sensor range, but a few get to full frame.
Starting again with Nikon, you’re looking at the D300s ($1,450, body only). I know a lot of photojournalists who are using this camera and its predecessor, the D200, was my last Nikon body – and I think it was one of the greatest cameras I’ve ever owned.
If you want to go full frame, Nikon has the D610 ($2,000, body only) to offer you.
For an entry level full frame, Canon has the EOS 6D ($1,800, body only).
Which brings us to the top of the line cameras. Here, you start to lose some features (like built in flashes, which are pretty useless to the pro) and pick up things like better weather sealing, highly advanced autofocus systems, much lower shutter lag and better monitor screens. You’ll also have more options for video and a ton of accessories.
There are two paths you can go here – general assignment work, which will give you a smaller camera but lower burst rates, or sports and breaking news, which gives you similar image quality but in a very robust body that is designed to shoot at 10 or more frames per second.
Nikon’s entry here is the D800 ($2,800, body only) and Canon’s is the EOS 5D Mark III ($3,300, body only). Both are excellent cameras and you can get the vertical battery grips (which will hold two batteries instead of one and give you a vertical shutter release, something many of us really need to help balance the camera). They each have phenomenally sensors, though Nikon is winning the megapixel war at 36.3 to Canon’s 22.3. But … well … unless you’re shooting billboards, I’m not sure that matters too much anymore.
I’ll let you take a deep breath here.
The Nikon gets you a 16.2 MP chip, 11 frames per second and full 1080p video. The Canon gives you 18.1 MP, 14 frames per second 1080p video, as well.
So, the smaller, lower priced bodies give you more resolution, but the larger, more expensive ones give you speed. Which do you need?
There aren’t many, really. Sure, Sony, Pentax and Olympus are selling what look like similar cameras, but they do not have the full system to back them up. You will find some really nice cameras out there, but if you can’t buy the accessories you need to grow your business, that’s a dangerous and potentially expensive path to start yourself on.
There’s also the Leica cameras which I so love … and cannot afford. But that’s a specialty item and not really appropriate for general news photography.
So, Which Ones?
Note the plural – I would never head out on an assignment without a backup. Ideally, you would have two identical bodies so the controls would be familiar, so you could move from your wide lens to your telephoto seamlessly.
But when you’re starting out, that probably won’t happen. You’ll probably end up going used and getting one body that’s a generation older – and that is fine. But look for cameras that are similar in design so the controls are reasonably consistent. A Canon 1DX and an SL1 would be a nightmare combination … but a D800 and a D300 wouldn’t be bad at all.
For me, starting out, I’d put together a business plan that would support purchasing a pair of either Nikon’s D300s or Canon’s 7D. That would let me do 90% of daily news work at an affordable price point. Both have been out long enough that there are some on the used market, too. (KEH.com has a D300s in EX condition for $750 right now and a 7D for $850 in similar condition.)
I have always held that you put your money into glass. In the film era, there were two ways to improve the technical quality of your images (beyond your skill set): better film and better glass.
About six years ago, I transitioned from Nikon to Canon gear. It was a decision of convenience and politics, not because I think one system is significantly better than the other. On a shelf at the other end of my office sit some of my old Nikon cameras and lenses – two of those lenses I purchased, used, in 1989; the third, used as well, I acquired in 1993. They still work just fine.
Today, with the rapid advancement and relative fragility of camera bodies, I still think you should put your money into glass. While you may not need to update your camera bodies every few ears, you probably will. The pace of advancement may be slowing, just a touch, but it’s still the camera that has a greater effect on image quality – and you will always want, but not need, the best image quality.
Put your money in glass.
There are two characteristics when it comes to lenses that we usually talk about: focal length and speed.
Focal length is delineated in millimeters and is the first thing most people mention when talking about lenses. The “standard” lens on 35 mm (or, to be more current, full frame) cameras is a 50 mm lens. The phrase “standard” comes from measuring the diagonal of a frame and using that to determine the “standard” point of view. It’s a little arbitrary, but it gives you a good jumping off point.
Focal lengths with a lower number than 50 mm (35 mm, 28 mm, 24 mm, etc.) are generally considered to be wide angle lenses. (This assumes we’re dealing with full frame sensors. As the sensors get smaller, the normal field of view requires a lower focal length lens. Smartphone cameras, for instance, have very small sensors and have a normal focal length around 4 mm.) As the focal length decreases, the field of view increases – you see a wider area in front of you.
Above 50 mm, we move into what is known as the telephoto range where the images is magnified by the arrangement of elements within the lens. We could go deep here, but let’s just accept that a camera “lens” is usually made up of many individual glass elements designed to bend light in different ways.
When talking about focal length lenses, we break all lenses down into two categories: prime or zoom. A prime lenses is also known as a fixed focal length lens, meaning it has one magnification power. Prime lenses can be wide, normal or telephoto.
Zoom lenses have the ability to rearrange the elements within it to vary the focal length of the lens. These are now, by far, the most common types of lenses out there. If you shop around online, you’ll usually see cameras sold as either body-only or in kit form – those kit lenses (which we’ll talk about a little later) are invariable zoom lenses, usually going from the wide angle end of the range to a short telephoto. The most common kit zoom now is a 18-55 mm.
Adjacent to the millimeter rating of a lens is another odd number and it’s displayed in two ways. Some lenses will show you a 1:2.8, others may show f/2.8. In both cases, that is describing the maximum aperture of the lens. Apertures control how much light a lens can transmit to the sensor. Apertures you must remember are ratios, hence the colon or slash in the designation.
A wider opening, which will appear to be a smaller number, will allow you to shoot in lower light situations and give you a shallower depth of field (depth of field being the second thing apertures control). So, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 (or 1:2.8) will allow more light through it than one with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 (or 1:5.6).
Aside: Aperture numbers are fairly bizarre. On older lenses, you would see full stop markings (stops being the descriptor for doubling or halving the amount of light) that would run from f/2.8, say, through f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, f/11, f/16, f/22. Newer lenses use either one half or one third stop intervals, giving you much more precise control.
Prime lenses will always have one maximum aperture denoted on it. Some of the better zoom lenses will, as well, but some will show a variable aperture on it. That standard 18-55 mm kit lens will show a 1:3.5-5.6 next to the focal length markings, for instance. What that means is that at the wide end of the zoom range, the maximum aperture if f/3.5. But as you zoom in, changing the magnifying power of the lens, that maximum opening gets smaller and allows less light to pass through to the sensor.
Does this matter? Well, if you will only be shooting in bright sun, then it doesn’t matter very much. Except that it does limit your ability to control depth of field. Another characteristic of lenses, though, is that they are not at their optical best performance when shot at maximum aperture. Closing down the aperture by about one stop on most lenses will radically improve the sharpness of a lens.
So, if you’re zoomed in all the way with that kit lens and you want to improve the optical performance of the lens by stopping down, you need to shoot at f/8.0. Does that make a big difference? Well, if you were shooting the same scene with the same camera with a fixed 50 mm lens that had a maximum aperture of f/1.8 (the most common 50 mm out there now), stopping it down would bring you to about f/2.8. Which is three stops brighter than than f/8.0. And if you are doubling the amount of light every time you open up one stop, that means you need eight times as much light to shoot at f/8.0 as compared to f/2.8.
That’s a lot of light.
If you’re looking at zoom lenses you will see two distinct ranges – those with variable maximum apertures and those with fixed maximum apertures. You will also note a pretty big price swing. For instance, Nikon has two telephoto zoom lenses in their lineup right now – a 55-200 mm f/4-5.6 and a 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens. How big is the price gap? The variable aperture lens costs $246, the fixed aperture lens is $2,400. Almost ten times the cost.
Aside: Both of the lenses also include Nikon’s Vibration Reduction system, similar to Canon’s Image Stabilization. These systems work to counteract motion from the camera allowing you to shoot at lower shutter speeds. These systems Do Not help overcome subject motion so don’t really help in sports situations.
Now, that extra money gets you something beyond larger maximum apertures: It gets you better build quality. Many of the kit and lower end lenses are designed for consumers, consumers who will shoot the holidays, a few birthdays, some snapshots of vacation and then the first day of school. (I worked in a photo lab for a while and was surprised at how many people had two birthdays, for the same kid, at the ends of a roll of film. In a year, they’d shot 36 frames …)
Some of the kit lenses will have plastic lens mounts – not very durable and subject to flexing. Many will have all plastic construction – again not very durable. While not all of the higher end lenses will have weather and dust sealing, they will fair much better in the field and are designed to take years of use (not abuse, never admit to abusing your gear).
Another area the lower lenses will have problems is with the front element group – over time, these tend to loosen up which will cause sharpness issues. Not always, but it’s common enough to watch out for.
Nikon and Canon mark their highest quality lenses with a special code – for Nikon, it’s ED and you’ll see a gold ring on the lens; for Canon, it’s L and you’ll see a red ring on the lens. That’s their way of saying those lenses are the best they make. That’s not to say non-ED or non-L lens won’t work, but those lenses usually have the highest build quality and additional coatings to improve the performance of the optics.
There are aftermarket lenses out there, as well – lenses made by independent manufacturers that work with the main brands of cameras. (I should note that Canon and Nikon have different lens mounts so you can’t use one brand of lens on the other brand’s camera.) Tamron, Tokina and Sigma are the big ones here, and some folks will talk about Carl Zeiss lenses, too, but they tend to be atmospherically priced. Some of these lenses are very good, but they have the same durability issues as the lower end lenses from Nikon or Canon. Shop carefully.
Aside: I recently got a chance to see some of the newest Sigma lens and was very impressed with the build quality. Sigma for years was an after-thought, but the new lenses look very, very well built. I was shocked when I hefted one a few weeks ago. This is not a paid endorsement and I haven’t shot with any yet, but I hope to soon.
What To Buy
Well, that’s a really good question. Only you will know what you will be shooting, so here’s what I would carry in my bag if I were to go back to general assignment news photography:
- A Short Zoom: Depending on whether I was full frame or crop sensor, this would be either a 24-70 mm f/2.8 or a 16-35 mm f/2.8, the latter being wider for the smaller sensor.
- A Long Zoom: Regardless of sensor size, the 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens is the workhorse of news photography. I’d spring for a VR or IS version as I tend to work in lower light situations.
- A Fast Prime: The 50 mm f/1.4 lens for both Canon and Nikon is an excellent portrait lens and let’s me work with one quarter as much light.
- A Super Telephoto: Sports and Courts were my specialties when I was a wire service shooter, and my 300 mm f/2.8 was the lens of choice. If I was doing more college and pro sports, I’d go a little longer to a 400 mm f/2.8, but that’s a big price jump.
That kit, with two cameras, would cover 95% of what I shoot. But if I were to specialize in something else, say lit portraits, then I might step down on the maximum apertures a bit. Canon makes a very nice 24-104 f/4.0 lens that is excellent for portraits; Nikon has a 24-120mm f/4.0 lens, as well.
There are some specialty lenses you may need, too. A macro lens will let you do extreme closeup work; a fisheye lens will let you get some cool special effects – but be careful and don’t use effects as a crutch for content.
The key is to know what you’ll be shooting and to do your research. If you buy cheap gear, it will wear out fast and fail when you need it most. Which is every time you go to use it. You will not last long in this business if your response to not getting an image was that your gear failed. Editors and clients don’t care – they hired you to produce an image. If you don’t produce it, you’re not going to get hired again.
Be a professional.
Over at The New York Times, David Carr takes on the issue of unpaid internships in media organizations.
Is this a big deal? Yes.
These internships are by their very nature discriminatory. Only a certain kind of young person can afford to spend a summer working for no pay. According to sources at the major publishers, more than one in five of these plum spots typically go to people who are connected one way or another.
Unpaid internships typically provide people who already have a leg up a way to get the other leg up.
Here at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, we give academic credit to our students for completing internships. This fall, under our new department chair, we are enforcing the policy that to receive credit, our students must be paid.
That makes me happy.
When it comes to professional-class cameras, there are two distinct options within each of the major manufacturers lines: full frame or crop sensor cameras. There’s also a lot of confusion about what a “crop censor” camera is and a lot of different terminology used.
Let’s start with the term full frame – a full frame camera is a DSLR that has a sensor of approximately the same size as a standard piece of old-fashioned 35 mm film. Film was 36 mm wide by 24 mm high and for more than half a century the standard sized film for photography. If you dig around in your parent’s closets, you’ll probably find a 35 mm camera somewhere – everyone has one.
It was the standard for news photography starting in the 1950s as journalists moved away from Speed Graphics (with their 4 inch by 5 inch sheets of film) and TLRs (twin lens reflex, with their 120 mm wide rolls of film).
Crop sensor DSLRs, usually referred to as APS-C sized cameras, use a sensor that is smaller than an old piece of film, though Nikon and Canon have slight variations on the size. (Nikon, which calls this a DX sensor, uses a 23.6 mm by 15.7 mm chip, as does Pentax and Sony, while Canon uses a 22.2 mm by 14.8 mm sensor. Canon has also sold an APS-H chip, which is a little larger at 28.7 mm by 19 mm.)
At the top of the illustration at left, you can see the relative difference in size.
The first generations of cameras from all the manufacturers used some sort of a crop sensor chip. Because of the way digital sensors, either CCD or CMOS, are made, there is a higher failure rate and associated cost with larger chips. In the 1990s, when the first generation of cameras were being made, the technology didn’t exist to produce larger chips at a cost-effective price, hence the proliferation of APS-C cameras.
(Aside: Resolution, the amount of data that can be collected by a chip, is not directly related to the size of the chip. Common sense would tell you it is – if you have a smaller area, you can put a smaller number of individual light sensing cells. What has changed is the ability to shrink those cells tremendously, alloying very high resolutions from smaller sensors. There is a quality cost to this, though, as the smaller cells can have a harder time absorbing light, giving you lower quality in low-light situations. There is also a workflow issue as the higher the resolution, the larger the file size, the longer it will take to process images and the more storage you will need. Everything is a tradeoff.)
In 2002, Canon introduced the EOS 1Ds – the first full frame digital camera. Since then, Canon and Nikon have developed both full frame cameras and APS-C cameras as there has been a market for each.
So, if resolution isn’t a differing factor, what difference does this make? Full frame bodies are significantly more expensive than crop sensor bodies due to the cost of the chip, is there a reason to go full frame?
Let’s back up a moment and talk about what happens to focal lengths. First, focal length is focal length – it’s a measurement from the sensor to a point in the lens where the light crosses over when focused at infinity. Which is a lot of science, but think of it this way: the lower the focal length, the wider the field of view a lens can see and the greater the depth of field it will have at any given distance and aperture.
The phrase a lens can see is the key here for us. A lens is going to cast a circular image (see the second illustration at left), from which we crop a rectangle for our imaging purposes. Most lenses are designed to cast a circle a little wider than a full frame sensor can record, so an APS-C sensor, which is, by definition, smaller, is going to see a further cropped version of that circle.
Now, field of view is another term to think about as that defines how wide of an area we see. And this is where one of the most misleading terms comes out – magnification factor. Because a crop sensor camera sees a smaller segment of the imaging circle, many photographers refer to this as being a magnification.
So, some numbers. If I put a 300 mm lens on a full frame camera and a 200 mm lens on an APS-C camera, I end up with almost the same composition. (The “magnification factor” you’ll often hear is 1.5x.) Because the crop sensor camera is taking a smaller chunk out of the middle, while I may end up with the same resolution/file size, there is an optical difference in how the 300 mm lens will render the relationship between the foreground and background versus how the 200 mm, focused to the same distance, will render the foreground and background separation. The 300 mm lens will show more compression of the scene and give your subject more presence.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, if I put an 18 mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera, on a full frame sensor camera I only need a 28 mm lens to get the same field of view.
So which is better – full frame or cropped? My students know the answer here: It depends.
You have to factor in cost and image quality – not resolution, but the way your composition style works. For me, I like a lot of separation in my images – I really want my subjects to pop, so I have a strong preference for full frame cameras. (Although, my daily photo blog is shot with a half-frame sensored camera …)
The resolving power of the sensors is pretty close these days between the two sizes, but remember the density of the light sensing cells makes a difference in low light situations.
If I were to be shooting general news, I could probably get away with a crop sensor camera. And, for years, I did. I had to work to separate my subjects out from the backgrounds a little harder, but it was doable.
If I were doing sports now, I’d be on the fence. To get the separation I want I’d need to go to even longer focal lengths, so my preference would be full frame.
If I were doing landscapes or portraits, no question I’d want full frame. When you drop below about 50 mm, most lens will start to distort, making people’s noses appear larger than their ears. Again, I want that presence but not the distortion.
Which leaves us with cost. And, if you’ve read this far, you probably have some cost concerns. The top of the line APS-C body from Canon is the EOS 7D, and it runs about $1,400. The entry level full framer is the EOS 6D, which runs about $1,800. On the Nikon side, the D300s is around $1,450 and the full frame D610 is at $2,000.
In either system, you’re looking at a $400-500 gap from the top of the line crop sensor to the entry level full frame body – that can be a big gap to overcome.
There’s one more thing to watch out for when looking at which body you choose and that’s in the lenses. Almost every lens that’s made for a brand’s full frame camera will work just fine on the crop sensor body. But each brand has made a series of lenses specifically for their APS-C cameras and those will not work on the full framers. If the Nikon lens you’re looking at has “DX” in its name or on the barrel, it will not function fully on a full frame camera body. For Canon, watch out for the “EF-S” designation.
Those lenses tend to be consumer-grade lenses, but some of them can work in a professional’s kit. Just be wary if you think you’ll be stepping up to a full framer.
Throughout the week, I’m going to write a series of posts about buying gear. As we near the end of the semester with graduations and holidays approaching, the number of questions I get from students about putting together a kit skyrockets.
I am, by nature and nurture, cheap. Or, as we would say in my native New England, frugal. Or, as I would say looking at the paychecks I’ve collected, poor.
It’s a constant dilemma we face – there is gear we need to do the job, but we can’t afford the gear until we do the job. And, let’s face it, professional photo gear ain’t cheap.
So, can you use consumer level equipment if you want to make your living off your vision? My straight up, no reservation answer is NO. If you’re a pro, you have the skills, the vision and the business plan to warrant professional level gear.
Consumer level gear is not designed to work every single day – it will fail you eventually. Now I understand that everything will fail eventually, but the chances of the $600 consumer-level DSLR dying in six months of heavy use is much higher than a pro-level body kicking our ERR messages in the same time frame.
But that doesn’t mean you have to pay full price for everything. When I was starting out, I knew what pieces I wanted in my Domke bag. I also knew how much that stuff cost and how much I was probably going to be making. There was a significant gap in there.
So I did the logical thing – I bought professional gear but I let someone else write off the new box expense. My first Nikon F3HP was bought, used, from a friend who’d had it for a few years. It had some light scratches, but it worked great. I paired it with a pair of used lenses from my local camera shop, one wide and one short telephoto. Add in a used flash and I was off and running.
(Aside: This was not my first camera, which I bought when I was about 12. As much as I loved that little Ricoh, it wasn’t a pro-grade camera and had very limited expansion options.)
A quarter century ago, you could tell pretty quick if a camera or lenses was in good shape. They were mostly mechanical and the electronics either worked or they didn’t. You could test camera shutters for accuracy with a small device and in-camera meters against a camera you owned or a handheld meter. If you knew your way around lenses, you could work out if the aperture was working properly and if the helicoils were still in good shape for focusing.
Now, though … boy, things have changed. I’m pretty sure most cameras have the power to launch an Apollo rocket and there are a ton of electrical connections inside of them. And lenses aren’t any simpler, either – most of the new ones don’t have any mechanical connections to the camera, focus and aperture control are done by small motors in the lens barrel.
Is it worth it to go used still?
Let’s take a look at one lens for comparison. The 70-200 mm f/2.8 is a workhorse for photojournalists – you cannot survive in the news photography business without one. New, the Canon version retails for $2,500 (though there’s currently a $300 rebate on it). That’s a lot of change.
How about used? If you visit one of my all-time favorite online used camera retailers, KEH.com, you can drop that cost to … $1,600 for an EX+ copy.
Now, that used lens is the previous generation of the image stabilized model, but you’re looking at a $600 price difference – I’m not sure the new one is $600 better. It’s certainly not $900 better when that rebate expires.
Here’s the catch, though – what about a warranty? The reason I love KEH is because they warranty all of their used gear for six months. That’s not as long as the one-year warranty Canon provides on a new lens, but it certainly will give you enough time to know if your lens is in decent shape.
What about buying from private parties? If you know and trust them, sure. Sometimes folks buy things that are well beyond their abilities and decide they don’t want to lug around that big lens to take pictures of the grandkids. There are lots of reasons folks put stuff up for sale, most of them valid.
From online classified ads like Craigslist? Here’s where I get really nervous – if you don’t know the history and you don’t have the ability to test it thoroughly, you could get really burned here. Someone may have taken their pricey new kit and dropped it on a hard, rubber floor somewhere – not a scratch to be found, but it’s still taken a massive impact that may have knocked something ajar.
Another possibility is the item you’re meeting someone in a parking lot to buy is stolen. Tip for Teens: Before meeting, ask the previous owner to send you a copy of their receipt showing the serial number. If they don’t have that, get very suspicious.
And the worst case scenario is the item doesn’t exist, but you’ve agreed to meet someone you don’t know somewhere you’re not familiar with and you’re bringing a lot of cash. You know what happens next …
I would day that in the last quarter century, 85% of the gear I purchased was bought used. I don’t have all the fancy boxes or crisp paperwork and I do start with a few more scratches, but I’m just going to add to that patina over time, anyway.
So why pay for a nice box when what I need is a money-making lens. Be smart, go used, but be smart about going used.
Throughout the week, I’m going to write a series of posts about buying gear. As we near the end of the semester with graduations and holidays approaching, the number of questions I get from students about putting together a kit skyrockets. This is the first one, following will be entries on the types of cameras out there, lenses, specific bodies, strobes and random accessories.
It may seem odd to start here with a where to buy entry, but it’s critically important that you get this part right. Trying to buy the right gear from the wrong place will only cause heartbreak and financial loss. Developing a relationship with an organization is just as critical in commerce as it is in journalism.
Law of All Fingers: If the deal seems too good to be true, it is.
Let’s start with where not to buy. Once you’ve figured out what you need, a quick online search will start bringing up prices. Some of them will seem stratospherically high and some will give you that warm fuzzy feeling – Sweet! I’m totally about to score the greatest deal ever on this camera!
That warm fuzzy feeling when you find an item for 30% less than everywhere else is the slimy hand of a thief slipping into your pocket, fishing funds out of you and leaving you with a really sleazy feeling.
There are numerous web sites that show phenomenal prices, massive discounts from the mainstream retailers. They look fully professional and have on-site reviews praising the gear and customer service. And they are all lies.
If you fall for their ruse, a few days after placing your order, you’ll get an email asking you to call in to verify your credit card number. During that call, you’ll be asked if you want the battery for your camera. When you point out that it comes with a battery, they’ll tell you it doesn’t. What you bought is the body only. No battery, no charger, no strap, no manual, no software*. In most cases, there’s no warranty on the item, either.
What they’ve done is purchased the item on the gray (or black) market and emptied the box. By the time they’ve finished the hard sell, they will have charged you more than what everything would have cost you from a reputable dealer. If you refuse all the add-ons, they’ll tell you the camera is now back-ordered and they’ll ship it when it’s available – and you’ll find they have already charged your credit card.
To cancel the order, you’ll get a long run-around. And sometimes be charged a cancellation or restocking fee.
Later in this post, I’m going to list what I think are the top retailers. If you choose to order from another one, please, for the love of Oskar Barnack and all that is good in this world, do some research on the retailer. A simple search of the store’s name and “review” will tell you a lot about them. Some retailers have long lists of complaints out there.
How Local is Too Local?
If you don’t live near a major metropolitan area, the chances that you’ve got a great local camera shop are pretty slim. Not nonexistent, but slim. And if you do, you may have a strong desire to go showrooming.
If you go into a store to manhandle their demo models, don’t then walk out to your car and order it online for a few bucks less. That’s not fair.
Granted, sometimes small, local shops charge a lot more than online retailers. They aren’t selling in volume and can’t make up the price differences of larger places. You can always ask them to price match and some of them will.
Before you ask to see something, know what you can pay for it online. Be upfront with the sales staff – if you know their price is higher, ask them before you start pressing buttons and spinning dials if they’ll match an online price. If they say no, say (kindly) that you’d rather be putting money into the local economy and building a relationship but that a couple hundred dollars (if it is that much, and it can be) is too much of a gap.
Then, politely, thank them and depart.
Don’t be sleazy and tell them you need to think about it.
If I had a good local shop, I’d buy there and I’d be willing to pay a little more – probably 10%, but beyond that I’ll take my chances with an online order. If the item isn’t what I needed or wanted, the hassle of a return will make up the 10% price difference for me.
Which brings us to private sale ads like your local publication’s classifieds or Craigslist. If you really know equipment, buying used can be a huge benefit.
But, you have to know what you’re doing. If you buy from a private party you will have no warranty or recourse if there’s a problem. If you’re comfortable with fully testing everything, you can score a great deal. But today’s gear is so complex I’d be very hesitant to go this route. (More on new versus used in a future post.)
Online: So Many Choices
The latter two are the big, massive, everything-in-stock New York City stores. If they don’t have it, there’s a pretty good chance it doesn’t exist. You may be tempted to say you don’t trust anything in New York City and I’m with you on that – aside from these two places and a cousin who is a New York City firefighter, there’s nothing else there I trust.
But these two places have impeccable reputations amongst professionals. If you wander into their physical stores as a tourist, you’re going to be overwhelmed. These places are massive, high volume shops – the help is there (and phenomenal), but these are high caliber businesses. They will sell you something.
That said, their staffs are amongst the best trained in the world. They know product, they know what works and what doesn’t. They also know that selling you the wrong item will come back to haunt them.
Do I have a preference? Yes, but it has nothing to do with either store and entirely to do with one person. I have know Jeff Snyder for years and, when I need something, I turn to him. He has been a huge supporter of photojournalists for decades – he knows what we do and what we need.
Most of the time when I order, I do it online and on one of the last pages there’s a little pull down asking who helped me – even if I didn’t talk to him about that one particular item, I always give him credit. Knowing I’ve got a guy, even if I didn’t use him for that order, is truly valuable.
Next up is Amazon, which has deals with both Adorama and B&H Photo, so sometimes you end up ordering from them anyway. Amazon has a lot of stuff which they can ship you fast. On the big-ticket items, you’re not likely to see a big cost swing amongst the three as the manufacturers pretty tightly control the prices.
Note that Amazon is now collecting sales tax in many states and, while I’m okay with paying my fair share of taxes, you may not be as ethical as me.
Amazon’s real value can be in the reviews – their system is much more robust than anyone else so you can do a great deal of research on their site before adding something to your cart. (For me, the same showrooming standards apply.)
There are some other options out there. If you live in the northeast, EP Levine has been an excellent source for years. If you’re in the midwest, Roberts Imaging has a stellar reputation. Out west, Samy’s Camera seems to be the standard. Another option is Calumet Camera, with locations across the country.
All of those places have supported what we do as photojournalists – support them as retailers whenever you can.
* As a heads-up, all of the mainstream manufacturers post their software online for download in case you lose the DVDs they shipped with the item.