By David Mao:
Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a professional photographer, I have certainly come a long way since I purchased my first DSLR. I have gone from once only marveling at the wonder that was manual focusing, to now having shot engagement parties, graduation portraits, composite headshots, and many other formal events.
Along my journey, I have undergone the seemingly never-ending cycle of equipment upgrades, as have the millions of photographers before me. There are a variety of reasons why one may wish to upgrade his or her photography equipment: sharper images, better contrast and saturation, creamier bokeh, faster aperture, different focal length, etc. But if you haven’t realized already, photography isn’t cheap—good glass will burn massive holes in your wallet. Luckily for me, I have received a lot of help from more established photographers about how to save money throughout the process. Today, I’m writing this post to pass on the knowledge to those of you who are where I was when I first started, and are thinking about taking the steps toward bringing your photography to the next level.
Good Glass is Forever
Okay, not really. But for most people, I would recommend investing in quality lenses before upgrading the camera body. There are many reasons for this. For the same amount of money, better glass will result in a significantly larger improvement than will a better camera body.
Lenses also hold their value better than do camera bodies. Camera bodies, especially entry-level DSLRs, are often replaced. Canon releases a new iteration of their Rebel series DSLRs ever year, and replaces their higher end DSLRs, such as the 5D series, once every 4-5 years. Compare that with their lenses—the current Canon 35 L lens was released in 1998 and the Canon 135 L lens was released in 1996. Both have not undergone a single change in over 15 years. With that, it makes sense to invest in a lens that most likely will not be outdated in a couple years rather than a camera body. The resale value of a lens (more on that later) holds better for that reason. Once you have a solid arsenal of lenses, you can upgrade your camera body. But watch out! Many people upgrade their crop-sensor camera bodies to full-frame bodies. Some lenses, such as the EF-S lineup for Canon and the DX lineup for Nikon, only work on crop-sensor camera bodies, so keep that in mind if you ever plan to upgrade to a full-frame camera body.
Find Your Focal Lengths
Before purchasing lenses willy-nilly, I recommend you take some time to think about what you want to shoot and find the corresponding focal lengths. Are you mainly planning on doing portraits? If so, you should start off with a 50mm or higher prime lens. Both Canon and Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8 is a great starting prime lens for portraits, especially on a crop sensor camera body. Are you planning on taking photos of your children’s sports games? If so, you might want to invest in a telephoto zoom lens. Landscape? Probably a wide-angle lens. Play around with the focal lengths of your current lenses. If you have a kit lens, set it to 18mm and see if you like it. Do you want it wider? Or do you want a longer focal length than your kit lens can provide? I would recommend you go to a store and try out a lens to see if the focal length works for you before investing hundreds of dollars in a purchase.
Prime Lenses versus Zoom Lenses
This boils down to two factors: what you want to do with photography and how much money you’re willing to spend. Unless you primarily do events in which moving around is difficult, I would recommend you start off investing in prime lenses. For the same amount of money, prime lenses offer exceptional quality when compared to zoom lenses. To illustrate why, say Canon has $500 to spend manufacturing a lens. Zoom lenses are much more complicated—they need a ton of moving parts and tubes for their zoom capabilities. Because of that, Canon would have to spend a good chunk of the money into making sure those parts work. Compare that to a prime lens—because they don’t zoom, these lenses are much more simple. Therefore, Canon would have more money to spend on the glass itself. There is general consensus that for pure image quality, you cannot match a zoom lens to a prime lens counterpart. So unless you’re willing to spend 2-3 times the amount for a high-end zoom lens, a prime lens will deliver much better quality photos. I personally shoot with all prime lenses—my primary go-to lenses being the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art and the Canon 85mm f/1.8.
Buying and Selling
I recommend two paths to take in order to save money when it comes time to purchase your equipment. The first is to use Greentoe.com. I have saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars by using this site. For example, several months ago, I purchased a brand new Canon 6D for $400 off the retail price!! Also, their staff and customer service is truly top notch. I have started threads recommending the company on photography forums, and have seen only positive feedback from the community. The second, if you would rather save more money, is to buy used gear. Now this is definitely more risky than buying new equipment from Greentoe, but you can save even more money. There are several great sites to buy and sell equipment that I strongly recommend over typical buy/sell sites like Craigslist and eBay. Photography-on-the.net and Fred Miranda both have great marketplaces for used equipment, as well as excellent forums for photographers of all levels. Their communities are full of knowledgeable and established photographers. I purchased my Canon 6D, tripod, and high end lens filters from Greentoe and several of my lenses, used, from photography-on-the.net.
Those are the basic tips that I have! Hopefully you’ve found them to be helpful. If you have any further questions, feel free to reach out to me on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/davidmaophotography or at firstname.lastname@example.org.