Neil Creek is the author of our newest ebook Photo Nuts and Gear. In this post he offers some advice to the beginning photographer about the first upgrade they should buy for their camera.
So you’ve been getting into this photography thing pretty seriously ever since you bought that “good” camera you wanted. It turns out that you really enjoy photography, and you think you’ll be doing it for a while. You want to know what cool camera gear is out there, and you know there’s a lot, but what should you get first?
Where to start on the photography gear upgrade trail
When you’re just starting your photography journey, it’s intimidating how much gear there is and how much it costs. It’s obvious that some photos are impossible without certain gear, and sometimes it’s not obvious when gear has helped a photo.
I’ve been shooting and helping new photographers to get the most out of their gear for years, so I have a few suggestions for great first investments in photography to suit your varying interests and budget.
1. A 5-in-1 reflector
Light is everything in photography, but sometimes you can’t quite get the right kind of light where you need it. A great example is outdoor portraits. With the light predominantly coming from overhead, there are often dark circles under the eyebrows. A reflector can be used to reflect some light back up into the face of your subject to fill these shadows.
A 5-in-1 reflector is cheap and very versatile. Built around a collapsible steel ring spanned by diffusion material, it has a reversible cover with four different surfaces. The diffusion material inside is great for turning full sun into bright shade, for small and macro subjects as well as head and shoulder portraits. I’ve even used it as a flash diffuser in a pinch. The cover has three reflective surfaces: white for gentle fill, silver for strong fill, gold for a warm strong fill, and a black surface for eliminating light to bring shade back to a scene which is too evenly lit.
This is an incredibly versatile tool at a very affordable price, and it neatly fits into the “laptop pouch” in camera bags which have one. This item should be in every portrait photographer’s kit.
Who is this for: photographers on a budget who shoot in natural light
Approximate cost: $20-50 depending on size
2. The Nifty 50 lens
Lenses are a critical part of the optical system that creates the photographic image. Unfortunately almost every lens choice is a compromise between price, speed, image quality and more. Plus, lenses are expensive!
There is one lens however that is possibly the best of all worlds: the 50mm prime, also known as the “Nifty 50”. Several lens makers have their own or similar versions of this lens, but the most famous is probably the Canon 50mm f/1.8. This lens is small, fast (thanks to its wide f/1.8 aperture), tack sharp and extremely affordable. If you are looking for an excellent portrait lens that will take well exposed photos in low light, it’s hard to go past the Nifty 50 especially if you are on a budget.
These lenses aren’t without their weaknesses of course: cheap plastic body construction keeps the price and weight down, but negatively affects the durability; weather sealing is also thus not an option; it is notoriously slow to focus in low light; there’s no image stabilization; andthe focus ring is very small. Despite all this, it is hard to resist the appeal of professional level image quality, at a hobbyist price.
Who is this for? Anyone looking for a high image quality, fast, small lens on a budget
Approximate cost: $100-200 depending on brand
Photographers are always limited by the amount of light, and without adequate amount, you are forced to make compromises with your settings. When you have to use a slower shutter speed you risk getting blurry photos from camera shake. A tripod fixes that. By providing a stable platform you can almost eliminate camera movement from short, to incredibly long shutter speeds.
Not only does a tripod fix the problem of a shaky camera, it opens up whole new photographic and creative opportunities. Seven of the eleven special effects photography techniques discussed in my ebook Photo Magic use a tripod. A Tripod is possibly the most versatile piece of photography equipment you can buy. You will be able to try photos and techniques otherwise impossible.
Buying a tripod can be like walking through a minefield however. There are so many options from the very bad to the very expensive so it pays to do your research. For a first time tripod for a small DSLR user, I recommend one of the base end models from the big name tripod makers. I go into a lot of detail in Photo Nuts and Gear on choosing the right tripod for you. One tip – avoid department store tripods!
Who is this for? Photographers shooting in low light, with macro subjects, landscapes, and creative low light photography such as light painting.
Approximate cost: $100-200 for a first tripod
4. An external hot-shoe flash or speedlight (speedlite)
A flash unit or speedlight is often one of the first big purchases camera owners make, and unfortunately it’s very easy to pay more than necessary. The flagship units from Canon and Nikon are very expensive and packed with features, many of which a new photographer won’t need. I personally recommend buying a cheaper, manual power, third party flash first. The ETTL, or auto exposure, feature of the expensive flashes is handy, but I find that manual power control is pretty easy to master, and it will save you a lot of money: enough to buy one or two more flashes for the price of a flagship model. Manual flashes are also compatible with the more affordable radio triggers that let you fire your flash off the camera and enter the amazing world of Strobist photography.
Flashes adds a good deal of versatility when shooting in low light, but their real power comes when you get them off camera. A couple of flashes, triggers, light stands and simple modifiers can utterly transform your photography, and add creative options that match those offered by a tripod. A little research and careful spending can put all of these within reach for the about same price as a top of the line flash from Nikon or Canon.
Who is this for? Photographers shooting indoors in low light, Strobist wannabes
Approximate cost: $100-200
Like most people, you likely bought your camera with a kit lens. These lenses are often good enough for most photographers, but unless you buy a top end DSLR (which come with higher quality lenses as standard), they’re not going to be the best you can find. Most kit lenses are a bit slow, a bit soft, a bit “plastic-y”. If you’re getting serious about being a photographer, you’ll probably want something better. A walk-around lens is one you leave on your camera by default, and use all of the time you don’t have a specific need for another lens. As such, most of your photos will be taken with it, and you’ll probably want to upgrade it once you can afford to grow your lens collection.
There are a lot of options available, so you need to think a bit about how you use your camera, and what features are important to you. You will want to consider:
- how heavy is the lens
- how often you shoot in low light
- what frustrates you most about your current lens
- whether you’re always wanting to fit more in your shots or if you want to bring distant things closer
All of these issues will affect the best choice of walk-around lens for you. Be prepared to possibly spend a lot of money. Lenses are expensive, especially high quality ones. Since there are so many options and factors to consider it’s hard to offer much practical advice in a blog post, but I go into a lot more detail in Photo Nuts and Gear. In short however, be prepared to do a lot of research to understand your options and how to choose between them. A good walk-around lens will get a lot of use over many years, and the quality of your images will be impacted by the choice you make.
Who is this for? Someone who is taking the first big step into turning photography from a pastime into a serious hobby
Approximate cost: $300-1800