Wednesday, 17 September 2014

First camera for the serious digital photography learner

What should be the first camera for someone seriously learning about digital photography?  My first serious camera was the Sony NEX-6, which I bought in early 2013.  Looking back with the experience and knowledge I have gained thus far, if I could go back in time, I might not buy it again.  This is not to say that the camera is bad; but just that I now have a better clarity on the criteria a serious digital photography learner should look for in his first camera:
  • Full manual control i.e. focus, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and white balance
  • Reasonable focal length range from wide angle to telephoto e.g. 24-200mm (35mm-equivalent)
  • Tripod mountable i.e. 1/4" screw thread at bottom of camera
Full manual control esp. of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed will allow the learner to understand and experiment with the exposure triangle.  If push comes to shove I will keep those three and ditch manual white balance and focus.  White balance can be easily changed in post if the learner shoots in RAW anyway.  As for manual focus, although it is useful in shooting landscape, macro, etc., one can probably still get by with just autofocus.

A reasonable focal length range from wide angle to telephoto will allow the learner to try out different focal lengths and eventually he will discover which focal lengths he likes best or shoots at most often.  That will sort of inform him what his next lens or camera purchase will be.

The last mandatory requirement is that the camera must be tripod mountable to allow for long exposure, massive depth of field, etc.  If the camera cannot be held steady, then the learner will be handicapped in exploring interesting areas such as night photography.  

The above three are non-negotiable.  The below five are good to have, though:
  • RAW format supported by third party software like Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom
  • Self timer or remote shutter release
  • Viewfinder
  • Built-in flash
  • Bulb mode
In addition to the white balance flexibility when shooting RAW, RAW gives the learner the most data to work with if he ever wants to dabble in post processing.  If the learner does not shoot RAW, although he definitely still can post process, he will have literally less raw materials to play with.

A self timer or remote shutter release, when coupled with a tripod, will allow the learner to reduce camera shake and ensure the picture taken is as sharp as possible.  It also offers the learner the opportunity to take selfies, group shots, etc.

A viewfinder is definitely useful esp. when it is bright and one cannot see the LCD clearly.  It also allows the learner to hold the camera in a more steady position compared to looking at the LCD.

A built-in flash will allow the learner to dabble in a little bit of flash photography.  Granted, the output is not going to be fantastic, and if the learner really wants to go into flash photography, he will eventually purchase off camera flash.  But a built-in flash does not incur additional cost and is infinitely more portable.

Last but not least, the bulb mode allows the shutter to remain open as long as the shutter button is pressed down.  This usually works best with remote shutter release.  Bulb mode allows the learner to shoot longer than the maximum shutter speed of his camera, and also at adhoc shutter speeds e.g. when shooting fireworks.

As an aside, one may wonder why interchangeable lens system is not included as mandatory or even good to have.  Because I think it creates unnecessary complications and risks for the beginning learner.  I have seen many beginners buy an interchangeable lens camera but never ever remove the kit lens.  Moreover, changing system can be expensive, hence it is more prudent not to be vested in any system unless one already has some knowledge in this area.  I speak from experience as I switched from Sony E-mount to Nikon FX...

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