Getting Started in Photography on the Cheap

This post is a bit of a departure for my blog here, but I recently took up photography as a hobby, and wanted to share some quick tips for other beginners looking to do the same. Photography can seem overwhelming between all the different camera types, specs, lens, etc. If you wanted to go all out, you could easily drop $10,000+ on a setup, but what I want to talk about is how you can still take really great photos while spending far, far less money.

A Word on Specs

If you've ever looked at a spec sheet for a camera, you've no doubt been dizzied by thhe absolute cluster of jargon and details. However, there's really just a few things you need to pay attention to in order to pick a good camera.

Sensor Size

The sensor size of a camera is the chief determination of what quality of photos it can take. The larger the sensor size, the more light the camera can capture, and therefore, the sharper and more detailed your photos will be. The average run of the mill point-and-shoot or your smart phone's camera usually has a sensor size of 1/2.3". The next major step up is called a 1" ("one inch"). Comparatively, the difference between 1/2.3" and 1" is roughly similar to SD vs HD, in terms of difference in image quality. Then you have "four thirds"/"micro four thirds", APS-C, and "full frame" or 35 mm, each progressively better. The jump between 1" and four-thirds is not as dramatic, but APS-C to 1" is comparable to UltraHD vs. HD. Full frame is the top sensor size, and literally means it's directly comparable to 35 mm film, whereas each of the others are some subset of 35 mm. Even that is probably more information than you need. Suffice to say that as sensor size increases, so does the hit to your pocket book.

1/2.3"

1/2.3" is the domain of the $200-300 point-and-shoots, and although smart phones typically have sensor sizes slightly smaller, they can be considered to far within this group as well. That means two things: 1) your smart phone is generally a pretty capable camera and 2) there's not a whole lot to validate buying a $200-$300 compact, if you already have a smart phone. However, a dedicated camera can give you some important abilities, which I'll discuss in a bit.

1"

1" sensors put you into the $500-$800 range for a compact camera, though you can sometimes find deals below $500. This is pretty much the largest you can get in a true compact camera that is still "pocketable" (even if just barely).

Four thirds

Ironically, four-thirds generally will only set you back $250-500 for the camera body, but that part is key. Generally, at this point, we're talking about mirrorless cameras, which sit somewhere between a compact and a DSLR. Mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lens (whereas a compact has a fixed lens that can't be switched out). Lenses can run you anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to $1,000's. Still, a mirrorless is a great option if you want get a good camera that won't break the bank (initially, at least) and also gives you the ability to incrementally increase your investment over time. The downside is that until you get all those additional lenses, you may be somewhat limited in what you can shoot and they aren't quite as portable as a compact.

APS-C

Here we're into DSLR country, the camera bodies are more expensive and you have to worry about those additional lenses. Personally, while there are hobbyists that go out on a DSLR, I'd say you should stay away until your hobby becomes a profession. If you start doing shoots for clients, then go get yourself a DSLR. Otherwise, just go with a mirrorless if you're ready to take your photography to the next level.

Focal Specs

In terms of buying a camera, this really only applies to fixed lens devices such as compacts and smart phones, because you're "stuck" with its focal range. On mirrorless and DSLR cameras, your focal range depends on the lens you attach. Plainly and simply, you want to look at two things: the actual focal range, which is listed as something like 24mm-100mm, and the "f-stop drop".

focal range

Focal range relates to depth of field and how close or far you can be to the subject you're shooting. This determines how much your camera can "zoom" in/out. The low end (24mm) is your wide-angle and the high end (100mm) is your telephoto. However, the actual terms "wide-angle" and "telephoto" speak of ranges of focal lengths. Generally, wide-angle is anywhere 24mm or lower, while telephoto is 200mm or more. While not true telephoto, 100mm can be considered a sort of pseudo-telephoto, and can still get some good effects. If the camera you're looking at can't get to 24mm or below, your ability to do wide-angle shots will be affected, while if you can't get to at least 100mm on the high end, your ability to shoot telephoto will be affected.

f-stop

Without getting too complex, the f-stop is your aperture. Simplistically, aperture controls depth of field or how crisp/blurry the background of your subject will be. If you enjoy close-up photos of people or things with blurry backgrounds that really make the subject pop, those are shot with low f-stops (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8). Often the camera will be advertised with an f-stop like "f/1.8-2.8". This means that the lowest f-stop is 1.8, but it's only available at the wide-end of the focal range. If you increase the zoom (telephoto), the f-stop begins to drop off, sometimes gradually, sometimes drastically, to the higher range, f/2.8 in this case. This is important because some cameras will have drastic drop-offs from f/1.8 to f/5.6, which is already in the medium range of apertures.

ISO

ISO ("eye-so" or "ee-so" across the pond) is a rating of sensor sensitity. The higher the ISO the more sensitive the camera is to light, meaning greater ability to do low-light and night shots. However, ISO comes with a huge grain of salt: the higher your ISO, the more digital noise will be in your photos. As a result, the goal is to always use the absolute lowest ISO possible.

Digital cameras will actually have a range of ISO speeds, generally from 100 to 6400 or higher. The important thing to note here is this range. While you'd almost never want to shoot at something like ISO 6400 unless you had no other choice, the fact that the camera can go there means that it will have better resolution and less noise in the still high, but lower ISOs of 800, 1600, etc. Again, if you can shoot everything at ISO 100, then you should, but having options is always good. Be careful about what are often called "extended ISOs". Sometimes cameras will advertise that they have ISO 100-6400 with an extended ISO of something like 12800. For the purposes of what we're talking about here, that spec useless. While it means that the camera can technically shoot at extreme low-light, going to the max native ISO (6400 in this case), and especially into the extended range, would produce photos with a totally unacceptable level of digital noise. Really, the only thing these photos would ever be good for is reminiscing over while looking at them on a relatively low-resolution device. If you were to print them out, it would look like something Monet might have created if he had access to Microsoft Paint.

Megapixels

This one is a red herring. While megapixels matter to an extent, pretty much any good camera is going to have enough, no matter what the number. Take the iPhone 6, which is considered to have one of the best cameras on any smart phone, yet still only shoots 8 megapixels. Camera manufacturers like to feature this spec front-and-center, because somewhere along the line it fell into the consumer conciousness as a "more is better" feature on cameras. That's usually not the case, though. Having a ton of megapixels can actually degrade image quality, by introducing more digital noise into your photos.

Now, Disregard Everything I Just Told You

Well, maybe not everything, but ultimately the single greatest spec of any camera is the person holding it. You can take an awesome photo with the dinkiest point-and-shoot and an absolutely horrible photo with a top-of-the-line DSLR. And, it's in post-processing that your photos will reach their maximum potential, not in the camera.

You

To take good photos you need to develop an "eye" for shots. This is about knowing how to compose what you're seeing in the view finder of your camera so that the maximum range of light is captured and the subject of the photo is pleasing to the eye. I won't go into great detail about composition, so if you're not familiar with the more artistic concepts of photography, I'd recommend picking up a book on the topic or just wandering around the web. Also, looking at the photography of others, especially those who are considered "good" photographers by others will help you get an idea of what you should incorporate into your own shots.

Post-processing

Post-processign means taking the image from your camera and bringing it into some software program designed to allow you make changes to photos. This could be Lightroom or Photoshop or some other software. Personally, I would recommend getting Lightroom and/or Photoshop. With Abode's Creative Cloud licensing, you can actually get a combo of Lightroom and Photoshop for only $10/month, which is a very low price of entry. Learning to use something like Lightroom will let you create absolutely amazing photos with very little work overall.

The key to successful post-processing is two-fold: shooting RAW and maximizing the exposure. To that end, make sure the camera you eventually settle on can at least shoot raw and has a histogram display. If you can do those two things, which together maximize your dynamic range, even with a smart phone camera, you'll have no problems getting great photos.

RAW

RAW means that your camera literally records everything it sees to your digital medium (SD Card, etc). If you shoot in something like JPEG, the camera makes corrections to the image and then saves a compressed (lossy) version that discards the extremes of your exposure. While you can edit this JPEG, you'll have a limited range of edits that you can make and every edit that you make will degrade the quality of the image further.

Histogram

A histogram is just a bar graph that indicates the "dynamic range" of lighting present in your image. Bars on the left indicate blacks and shadows, bars on the right indicate whites and highlights, and everything in the middle is your midtones (shades of gray). Your goal to be to fill as much of the histogram as possible without clipping either end. Doing this is how you capture a "good" exposure. You should also follow the principle of "shooting to the right", which simply means optimizing your exposure so the right part of the histogram is filled in completely, even if the left end starts to empty. Most of the detail of a photo is in the shadows, and by shooting to the right you maximize the dynamic range captured in your shadows.

Dynamic Range

The human eye is a remarkable image capture device. We can generally see something in the range of 10-14 stops of dynamic range. Meanwhile, a compact camera might only capture 5-7 stops and a DSLR might capture 8-11 stops. If you've ever seen some dramatic scene and tried to capture it with your camera, only to be disappointed that it doesn't look the same, you've hit upon the key difference between our eyes and the more limited dynamic range of a camera.

By shooting in RAW, you're ensuring the the full dynamic range your camera captured is saved. Shooting in JPEG would clip the dynamic range 1-2 stops on each end, meaning you're losing important visual information that can never be retrieved. By filling the histogram and "shooting to the right", you're ensuring that the camera is capturing the full dynamic range it's capable of and in particular, the most important parts of the range your eye is capable of seeing.

This is why post-processing is so important. Often, by following this advice, the actual image your camera produces will seem "off". It might appear blown out in the highlights or there may be large portions of very dark areas. In effect, the image looks either under or overexposed. However, since you're shooting RAW and filling the histogram, without clipping, the full dynamic range is there, and can easy be tweaked and accentuated in post-processing to look almost as good as your eye saw it.

Well, Maybe Your Camera Needs Just a Couple More Things...

I would say if you want to really work on photography rather than just snapping selfies of your and your friends with your smart phone, you should ensure that the camera you use will let you control what's called the "exposure triangle": aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. If your camera only works in "Auto", you'll always be limited in what you can capture. I'll briefly detail these three below, but I encourage you to find further reading. Having the right or wrong values for any of these can make or break your photo.

Aperture

Aperture controls depth of field and is measured in f-stops, i.e. f/1.8, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, f/11, etc. The smaller the f-stop (f/1.8) the larger the opening in the shutter is to let light in. The larger the f-stop (f/11, f/22, etc.) the smaller the opening in the shutter. There's a lot of physics and geometry that goes into why this effects depth of field, but it's probably just easier to say that small f-stops capture a shallow depth of field, meaning the background (and foreground) of your immediate subject is more blurry. Larger f-stops capture a deeper depth of field, making the background and foreground of your subject more crisp and clear.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how long the shutter remains open after taking the picture. The longer the shutter is open, the more light that reaches the sensor. On something like a sunny day in summer, the shutter speed would be very quick. Since there's an abundance of light, your camera's sensor needs only milliseconds to capture enough. However, at night or in a dark room, light is more scarce so the camera's sensor will need more time to gather what little there is.

Shutter speed is most important when capturing moving subjects. With a fast shutter speed, motion is frozen. Think of the photos you've no doubt see of single droplets of water being captured in spray. This was the result of a fast shutter speed. Sometimes, though, you might want to convey a sense of motion in your photo by creating blur trails. This is accomplished by using a slower shutter speed. Also, in low light situations slower shutter speeds are often necessary, which means freezing motion in low light is often an impossible task without serious professional-grade equipment.

It should also be noted that slower shutter speeds result in more digital noise in your photo.

ISO

I talked about ISO earlier. It's the sensitivy of the camera's sensor to light. ISO acts as a bit of an equalizer to allow you compose your shot differently than you would be forced to with a fixed ISO. For example, let's say it's an overcast day and you want to freeze the motion of your dog running in a park. You want to have a deep depth of field so that the background is sharp and crisp. That means you'll need both a high f-stop for your aperture (which decreases the amount of light that goes to the camera's sensor) and a fast shutter speed (which also decreases the amount of light that goes to the camera's sensor). If you were to also use a low ISO of 100, let's say, the picture would end up severely underexposed. However, you could bump up the ISO to 800 or 1600 and probably get a good exposure. This will of course introduce more digital noise into your photo, so you always have to balance the shot you want with the amount of noise you're willing to accept.

It's worth pointing out that you could also simply sacrifice something like depth of field and use a larger aperture. Or, you could allow a little bit of motion blur by using a slightly slower shutter speed. It's almost always preferable to compromise on aperture or shutter speed before increasing ISO as digital noise is a real problem. For this reason, you'll usually prioritize for one or the other of aperture or shutter speed. If depth of field is most important, you'll control aperture and use whatever shutter speed you have to in order to get a good exposure, or if freezing motion is most important, you'll control the shutter speed and use whatever aperture is necessary to expose the shot. This is so common that most cameras with any sort of manual control will often have Aperture-Priority or Shutter Speed-Priority modes that let you control that aspect while it basically treats everything else as if you were in auto.

Why It Matters

If you can control these three aspects with your camera, whether it's a smart phone or a DSLR, you'll be able to get the shot you want. Whereas, if you're forced to shoot in auto or "scene mode" at best, it'll be a lot more hit or miss. You'll find yourself looking at your photos and wishing that the background wasn't as distracting to the portrait you took of your friend or cursing because the guy running the football looks like a smear.

To Sum Up

The most important things to consider for your camera are:

  • The ability to shoot RAW
  • A histogram display
  • Manual control of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO
  • Sensor size (but can be sacrificed to save money)

What I'm Currently Using

I settled on the Canon G7 X. It has a 1" sensor size, manual controls, can shoot RAW and has histogram displays both when shooting (after pressing the shutter button halfway down) and on already shot images when reviewing them later. It has a lot of features that you usually only find on higher end cameras like an ND filter, though it's not all that important. There's better cameras in this category, like the Sony RX100 III or IV, but those can be as much as $650-$900, even if you're lucky enough to find them on sale. The Canon G7 X retails for $700, but is almost always available for $650 or less. I actually found a deal and got mine for $460.

That still may be cost prohibitive for you. I want to reiterate that you can stick with a smart phone camera, if it's capable enough. The Samsung Galaxy S6, for example, can actually shoot RAW. The iPhone 6 has a very capable camera, even if the built-in controls are somewhat lacking. You might, however, be able to find an app in the App Store that will let you control the exposure triangle and maybe even save RAW, though. Ultimately, the best camera is the one you have, and you, not the camera, are the most important part of the equation. You may not be able to do night photography or get certain shots you would be able to with a more expensive camera, but it'll still cover a lot of shooting scenarios. A $200-300 point-and-shoot may not give you much better quality than your smart phone, but you'll generally get a lot more control and the ability to shoot RAW and such that you might not have with your smart phone, depending on the model and manufacturer.

Here's a few resources that might be helpful.

  • Imaging Resource: I fell in love with this site when I was researching what camera to buy. They have great in-depth reviews of many camera models - anything from point-and-shoots to professional DSLRs. There's also a handy image comparison tool where you can actually look at images shot of different subjects at different settings from different cameras to get an idea of how well the camera you're considering will perform. Probably the best feature is their camera comparison tool that allows you to compare features and specs of two different camera's side-by-side.

  • Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan: Lightroom is an amazingly powerful tool to both organize your photos and do post-processing. I've only been using it for a little while now, but already, I can't imagine life without it. The Photography plan nets you both Lightroom and Photoshop for just $10/month, and since it's a subscription, you'll always have the latest and greatest features, without having to lay down for costly upgrades if you were to buy these programs outright.

  • How to Create Stunning Digital Photography by Tony Northrup: Simply just an amazing introduction to photography. He discusses not only how all the things like aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc. work, but how to use them to capture various types of shots effectively. There's discussion on composition and plenty of other good advice. The book includes video tutorials, as well, which can be accessed via snapping a QR code in the print version or by directly clicking a link in the ebook. There's also a huge community behind the book, both on the website and in the Facebook group for the book. I really can't say enough good things.

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