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Basics of Digital Photography: An Overview Of Essential Gear
The purpose of this article is to provide you with a quick, accessible overview of essential photography gear. This will introduce you to the equipment you will need to get to know if you plan to explore photography in greater depth. Ready to start branching off from point-and-shoot cameras? Then this should be a useful place to start, and a handy reference article for the future. So let's take start finding out about all the basics of digital photography gear...
Whilst film cameras are still available, most of us choose to shoot digital these days as our first choice. Digital cameras provide high quality combined with fantastic convenience. They also open up the fun of post-production to everyone, without the need for a darkroom. Here are the common types of digital cameras available:
Compact cameras are the most portable and lightweight camera option (excluding smart phone cameras). They feature a Live View screen, which projects the image directly onto the LCD on the back of the camera, and some even have a viewfinder too.
Higher end compacts have increasingly good resolution (number of megapixels), which is making larger and larger print sizes possible. But small image sensors inevitably hold back image quality and the ability to perform well in low light. Most compact cameras have genuine optical zoom (rather than 'fake' digital zoom) and the ability to manually set camera controls.
DSLR cameras are the largest and heaviest camera type available. They make use of interchangeable lenses, bringing excellent flexibility. Although sensor sizes vary, all models feature large enough ones to produce fantastic image quality and enable good performance in low light. High resolution also makes poster sized prints possible.
DSLR's provide the most freedom when it comes to choosing settings for everything from shooting, to image quality, to playback options and custom options. Viewfinders make composing photos easy, and some models include Live View in addition. Needless to say, DSLR's are the most expensive camera type, but prices vary significantly between entry level, prosumer and professional models.
Bridge cameras are basically beefed up compact cameras. They are intended to plug the gap between compacts and DSLR's, for those who require a really good camera, but are not ready to start using a DSLR. Bridge cameras have larger sensors than compacts, providing superior image quality and low light performance (though it still falls considerably short of most DSLR's).
No detachable lenses are used, but rather a single lens with greater magnification than is available on compacts. Both a viewfinder and a Live View LCD screen can be used for composing shots. One of the problems with bridge cameras is their notoriously short battery life.
Unlike the bridge or compact alternatives, mirrorless cameras feature interchangeable lenses, providing the flexibility of DSLR's. They also have much larger sensors than compacts, rivalling the size and quality of those in some DSLR's.
When using a DSLR camera you have a large choice of possible lenses. It can sometimes be a bit overwhelming with all the jargon that surrounds this area of photography gear. So let's take a look at the basic categories of lenses, what they each offer and the subjects they can all be used for.
Wide angle lenses have a focal length of 35mm or less. They take in a wide angle of view, making them ideal for capturing the foreground all the way to the far distance in landscape pictures.
These lenses stretch the relationship between close and distant objects, which can help to convey depth. Wide angle lenses are capable of producing a very large depth of field (the area in focus) and usually have a large maximum aperture (useful for low light shooting).
Standard lens have a focal length of 35-70mm. This produces a field of view which approximates to that of our own eyes. They produce a 'natural' seeming perspective and are ideal for things like documentary and street photography. There some outstanding value standard prime lenses on the market. You can pick up a new 50mm prime (fixed focal length) with a maximum aperture of f1.8 very cheaply indeed.
Telephoto lenses are long zoom lenses, with a focal length stretching from 100-300mm. Telephoto lenses with a focal length in excess of 300mm are often called 'super-telephoto', and these are very expensive pieces of kit. Telephotos are ideal for wildlife and sport photography, where you cannot/do not want to get too close. They have the reverse visual effect of a wide angle lens - compressing, or flattening, perspective. These lenses are popular for portrait photography because of their ability to isolate a subject from the background.
Macro lenses are specially designed for very close focusing. They make it possible to capture extreme close-ups of very small subjects, like insects, capturing fine detail and texture. Focal lengths range from about 40-200mm and macro lenses are often in prime lengths. Although they may seem quite specialist, macro lenses actually have a wide range of fun uses once you start trying them.
Tripods and support
Tripods, and other devices for supporting the camera, are an invaluable asset for photographers. Many shots are simply not possible without some support, such as long exposure landscapes, and others are simply much harder to capture sharply without it. Different tripods and tripod heads suit different purposes, so here's a primer for you.
Make sure you choose a tripod that easily supports the weight of your camera body and heaviest lens. As a general rule, choose a very sturdy and well built model from one of the leading manufacturers (like Gitzo, Manfrotto and Vanguard, for example). If you enjoy getting low to the ground - perhaps for macro work or to show foregrounds in landscapes - go for tripod legs that can splay out very wide and a central column that folds up or can be removed.
Don't be tempted to go for the cheapest option you can find, because it end up not being able to fully support your camera. I would also suggest considering the more expensive carbon fibre options, because they combine great stability with light weight for carrying around.
Tripod heads are generally divided into two types: pan-tilt and ball-socket. Pan-tilt heads enable movement along three axes and are very useful for panning with moving subjects. Ball-socket heads manouvre around a sphere, providing total freedom in all directions. Both options lock firmly into place once you have found the desired position for a given shot.
Monopods provide support with a single leg/column (foldable just like tripod legs), which the camera can be attached to directly or with a tripod head. They do not allow you to walk away from the camera and prepare the shot, for obvious reasons, but are a useful form of partial support.
In the absence of something to lean against, or prop the camera up against, when shooting at slower shutter speeds, monopods are very useful. They also have the advantage of being more portable than tripods.
Gorillapods and beanbags:
If you want support for a compact camera, but do not want to go to the trouble of using a normal tripod, there are some good alternatives. Gorillapods a mini tripods with bendable legs that hook around any nearby object, supporting the camera very solidly. Beanbags (which can also be used to support DSLR's) purposefully designed for camera support are also a good portable, cheap and effective option.
Filters might seem like the sort of thing that digital post-production has made obsolete. In many cases this is true, but there are still three or four filters that provide benefits that cannot be replicated in processing software.
Filters are available as 'screw-in' or 'slot-in'. The former attach directly to the lens, which can be a problem because lens sizes vary, meaning you may need several of the same kind for different lenses. Slot-in filters are square and eliminate this problem, because they make use of a holder that fits all lenses, and slot into it. Cokin filters are a good place to start using the slot-in system, whilst Lee filters are favoured by the pro's.
Neutral Density (ND):
Neutral density filters reduce the amount of light entering the lens, without impacting the colours of the resulting image. The extent to which ND filters reduce the brightness of light is measured in stops. With slot-in Cokin or Lee ND filters, you can layer up several of them to reduce brightness ubstantially.
Why would you use ND filters? So that you can reduce shutter speed to capture motion blur during daytime, and still end up with a correctly exposed shot. Popular subjects for this technique are waterfalls and coastal landscapes.
ND Graduated Filters:
ND grad filters are the same as ND filters, but only the top half reduces brightness, whilst the bottom half is clear. The purpose of this is to deal with scenes that vary wildly in brightness between the top and the bottom section.
A classic example is the sunrise/sunset landscape, with a very bright sky and dark foreground. ND grad filters allow you capture a bright foreground, without burning out the sky. The subtelty of the transition from dark to clear on an ND grad filter is quite impressive, and there are 'hard'/'soft' variants that determine this.
Polarizing filters have the effect of deepening, or saturating, colours, especially blue skies. They reduce or eliminate reflections, which means that colours appear stronger. Polarizing filters are a real asset when photographing water, because they reduce reflections, bringing through colours and capturing things beneath the surface.
Be aware, though, that shooting at right angles to the sun is the best way to cut out reflections. If you are shooting directly towards the sun, or with the sun straight behind you, a polarizer will have substantially less effect. Also be aware that polarizing filters reduce brightness by 2 stops, effectively doubling as a 2 stop ND filter.
UV filters reduce the murky haze thant can sometimes result from UV light. The result is clearer images with better contrast, in some conditions. Some photographers advocate using screw-in UV filters all of the time, simply as a way of protecting the lens. In most situations their ostensible purpose is not required, so they can work as a handy protective layer. This is a matter of personal choice.
It's important to use a purpose designed, protective camera bag for your equipment. But often having just one isn't enough to cover the various needs of photo walks, casual shooting, travelling etc. So here is a brief primer on the main types available.
Shoulder bags have a single padded strap that goes over one shoulder. Their major advantage is quick access when shooting. It's very easy to switch lenses, without having to remove the bag and take up unnecessary time.
On the downside, it's not possible to carry a DSLR plus two or three lenses, all supported on one shoulder, for very long. Also, some versions have a weak spot in the padding on the top flap, making the top of the bag a bit vulnerable.
Backpacks have space for a substantial amount of gear and also usually have additional compartments. In my Lowepro Fastpack backpack I can store a DSLR with lens attached, plus 3 spare lenses, spare batteries and memory cards, a Macbook Pro computer, a remote release device, Cokin filters and some food and drink.
Backpacks are ideal for travelling with or for taking on long photo walks. The weight is comfortably distributed over two shoulders and the padding is robust all around. Many backpacks also have a dedicated external attachment for a tripod.
So called Slingshot bags are a backpack style, but with a single strap that slings diagonally over one shoulder. They enable fast access whilst shooting and also contain room for more kit than the average shoulder bag.
Although the weight is well distrubuted, the single shoulder strap can make long shoots difficult with this kind of bag.
Modular Items and Beltpacks:
There are a range of smaller storage options available, such as vests, pouches and belts. These are primarily designed to assist pro photographers who benefit from quick access to lots of equipment during a shoot. But there are also options available for compact camera users who just need a very small bag/belt/pouch.
|All images courtesy of Amazon.com|
I hope you found this article a useful overview of the basic items of gear that photographers use. You can now begin exploring certain items in more depth and work out what kit is going to be right for you. Please feel free to leave your thought on the artilce in the comments. For more information on the basics of digital photography, check out the Digital Photography Basics and Photography Equipment sections.