5 Pieces of Photography Gear to Consider as Your First Upgrade

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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

5in1reflector

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

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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!

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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

3. A good solid tripodcreek-131031-028-Edit

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

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4. An external hot-shoe flash or speedlight (speedlite)

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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

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5. Walk-around lenscreek-131028-056

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

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Neil Creek is a professional photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been shooting with a DSLR since 2004, and blogging about his experiences since 2006. Neil has authored five ebooks and a video training course, all designed to help others improve their photography. View Neil's folio at his home page. Learn about his publications here.

  • squbg

    Nothing beats high end glass and a great flash

  • smcilree

    You along with many others recommend adding a fast 50mm lens. Do you actually mean a normal focal length lens? For a full-frame camera the 50mm would be a good choice, but for an APS-C camera a 35mm would be closer and for an MFT camera a 28mm would fit the bill.

  • Aidan Morgan

    Since most people still don’t use full-frame cameras (even with the increasingly affordable options out there) I’m betting that he means the standard 50mm that people throw on their APS-C DSLRs.

  • Angela Heidt

    I love my 50mm, was the first piece of extra equipment I added. Great post!

  • anotherview2

    My suggestion: Move up to better gear when you sense the shortcomings of your present gear. Otherwise, I generally agree with the author on additional gear.

  • JvW

    Before you spring for a 50mm prime, even a ‘cheap’ one, maybe you should ask yourself what you want to use it for. Tape your kit zoom to 50mm and see if that focal length is useful to you, indoors and/or out. Then try it at 35mm if you have a crop sensor, though many full frame people like 35mm more than 50mm too. To buy a 50mm just because it’s cheap may not be the best investment if you never put it on your camera because it’s the wrong length for your kind of photography.

  • Scott Benson

    for canon cameras if you use a 35mm on a APS-C camera it equals a 56mm lens

  • DRSL

    Good recommendations for the 1st upgrade. Practical and affordable.

  • MartyD

    In the 35mm film SLR days, I had a 50mm lens. The only other lenses that I owned were a 75-250mm zoom and a 2X teleconverter. To tell the truth, I used the telephoto far more often than the 50mm. My go to lens now is often a 24-75mm f/2.8 telephoto. What advantage would a 50mm f/1.8 or even f/1.4 give me over my current lens choice other than a stop of light, which I can easily overcome with a one stop increase in ISO? Am I miscounting stops? something else??

  • Zero Equals Infinity

    On full frame, the 50 is a classic. Henri Cartier-Bresson used a 50mm lens almost exclusively for his street photography. It is an outstanding lens to have in the arsenal, and I use my cheap and cheery 50 on my D800 with some regularity.

    The other thing is, a nifty 50 will get you into foot-cropping, and that can help a lot with creativity. Using a zoom all the time makes me lazy, whereas the 50 makes me think and approach a subject with a limitation that results in my taking better images most of the time.

    On a crop sensor the nifty 50 becomes a go to portrait lens, (almost exactly the right focal length.) And 50’s are not all on the cheap end of the spectrum. They range from the $100.00 cheap and cheery to the $10,000.00 Leica Noctilux. For night-time shooting, night-club or band shooting, it is a great lens. It goes with me everywhere, whether I am using my D7000 I/R converted camera or my full frame.

    Just don’t leave home without it.

  • Felonius

    f/2.8 to f/1.4 is two stops (2.8 -> 2 -> 1.4). 2.8 to 1.8 is a stop and a third. A 50mm is generally going to be sharper for less cost over a zoom. The 50 has been around for ages, and most manufacturers have got it down. Zooms have been, too, but there’s more going on in there to not quite work out. Yes, your 24-75 is going to be a lot more flexible, and will give great performance, but it’s also 4x the cost for a loss of two stops of light.

  • Mark Stanley-Adams

    a 50mm at #2?.. while it’s a ‘nice-to-have’, I’d be tempted to rather combine that with #5 and get a great walkaround with a range which includes 50mm. Apart from that, it’s a solid list of very practical and useful suggestions.

  • Drims

    As an amateur, the real benefit of 50mm f/1.8 for me was learning. A prime makes me think more and take my time before shooting.
    Now it’s my goto lens when I’m practicing and just looking for good light.

  • I skipped 50mm altogether and got a 28mm f/1.8 for a normal prime on APS-C, and later 85mm f/1.8 for portraits. Very happy with both, especially the 85mm (see photo). The 50mm f/1.8 is impossible to focus in low light.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/tankhimo/9231156941/in/set-72157634535472712

  • walwit

    Agree, that lens may be good for static, well lighted subjects otherwise it often gets out of focus pics.

  • C Sab

    Same here. My first lens aside from the kit lens.

  • Mike

    50mm plus off camera flash, definitely !

  • Vince

    Recently I bought a 17-85mm canon EFS USM lens.Since its a wide angle lens, Is it a right lens for wedding photographer? Im not a proffesional.

  • Vince

    Recently I purchased a 17-85mm Canon EFS USM lens as it is a wide angle, my aim is to use it for weddings ocassion.Please advise if it is accesible on this ocassion?

  • Arvind

    Its not only about light gain per stop it increases diameter of the lens (f stop) resulting in selectivity of the lens in low light as well as much shallower depth of field which yet no one of the above considered in discussions. I extensively use 50mm/1.8 Nikkor for formal portraits. Yet I have to be closer to the person making him bit more conscious but that’s only when its too close. But works well with APS-C with crop factor turning g it near 70mm 1.8

  • Marcos

    Have any of you used this Neewer NW680/TT680? I am a beginner and find the built in flash on my T3i to not be enough. So I was thinking of getting it.
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E3K94T6/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=1AD2N18LVS1OI&coliid=I1GGCGJPP2IF7Q

  • Andrea Costa

    About point two, for M4/3 users now there is the excellent Olympus 25mm f/1.8 (35mm-equivalent FoV of 50mm). As with the older 45mm f/1.8 (one of the best selling M4/3 lenses), sharpness is excellent corner-to-corner even wide open, autofocus is almost istantaneous and rendering is lovely.

  • ninaa

    I use the Brixton the most of the time. Also for work with the rMBP
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  • webmaster403

    Very happy with both, especially the 85mm (see photo). The 50mm f/1.8 is impossible to focus in low light.
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  • Bob

    $100 to $200 for a tripod? Wow, what kind are you purchasing here? I have found an inexpensive place for tripods is Good Will. Sure, you might not be getting ever feature you could find in a $200 dollar tripod, but for $10 dollars you can get a tripod that works great and often is almost brand new.

  • Neil Creek

    The kind of tripods I recommended in the article are the entry level tripods from the big name tripod makers. I also said that department store tripods should be avoided. You don’t want “inexpensive” because they are not built as well or as stably as manufacturers who specialise in camera equipment. You’ll end up with a wobbly piece of equipment that does not do the job and you’ll have wasted the money you spent.

  • ??? ???

    Ona makes nice bags but they are overpriced .
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  • Ira Crummey

    Aside from the slight Canon bias (really, the “most famous is probably the Canon 50mm f1.8”?) this article hits on all of the must have items. For my wife’s Sony kit we have the Minolta Maxxum 50mm f1.7 and for my Pentax gear I have both the FA 50mm f1.4 and the F 50mm f1.7, excellent lenses. I have a variety of flash units from Pentax and Vivitar (old 285 units) along with remote triggers. Two tripods, a lightweight and an ancient Manfrotto 055. My walk around lens is usually a 28-70mm f4 and I do need a 5-in-one reflector. Good article.

  • noel

    great post! i already have reflector, fix lens, and external flash, maybe i need to know more about another lens.

    15minto.blogspot.com

  • Anna Heath

    Great suggestions 🙂 I would also add a macro attachment to this list. The Raynox 150 (or the greater magnification 250) is fantastic quality at a pretty low price (about £40 GBP), and really opens up new photo opportunities. I love mine, and it’s saved me from forking out a fortune on a dedicated macro lens.

  • Johan Bauwens

    The 50 mm f1.8 (or f1.4) is a lens I regret buying. I love my 85 mm and 35 mm though (both on crop and fullframe).

  • Joe B

    The article should that these lens choices are for full frame sensors, and recommend crop sensor equivalents, if there are any. The 50mm might still be a choice, but for different uses than on a full frame.

  • dan

    or consider the 560 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004LEAYXY/ref=ox_sc_sfl_title_1?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER
    get it off the camera – set on manual – but trigger with the slave and your in-camera flash set to low. the 560 is only $35

  • doninoz

    I have the Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L…very fast but a little heavy for what it is. But I like it and use it a lot

  • usmale9659

    Nikons 50mm 1.8 is great in low light for me.

  • Maria R

    Since I have the Nikon D3100 I bought the Nikkor 35mm f1.8 which they said it’s pretty close to the “nifty 50” lens. Approx 52.5mm. It takes really sharp pics and the bokeh is nice too. It’s a keeper lens. Question – is it good to get the nikkor 50mm f1.8 too or get something else for everyday use other than the kit lens 18-55mm.

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