myriad choices of camera equipment available to the beginning photographer
can be bewildering. Today's cameras feature such an extraordinary range
of options that it's often difficult to know where to begin your research.
It helps to remember that the camera is just a tool, a way to help you
apply light to film.
So before investing in your first piece
of equipment, ask yourself a few questions. What type of pictures do
you want to take? Do you like photographing people, or are you anxious
to try close-up photography? Are you looking forward to wildlife photos?
Your answers will give you a foundation from which to begin.
You don't have to worry about addressing
all possibilities right away. But beginning with the right system will
ensure that you will have the opportunity to build your camera outfit
*Note - Though this was written for
the 35mm it also applies to digital cameras.
Your first consideration is which camera
to buy. If you're pretty certain that you're going to make this your
hobby, you should begin with as good a 35mm camera as you can afford.
The most versatile type of 35mm camera is the SLR, or single-lens-reflex camera. Unlike the typical point-and-shoot camera, which uses a separate
viewfinder for composing pictures, the SLR employs the same lens for
viewing the scene as it does for recording the image on film. This gives
you more control over composition and focus, because the scene that
you record on the film is exactly what you see through the camera's
The 35mm SLR is especially versatile
because you can change lenses to suit your specific needs. With the
more sophisticated models, you also have the options of changing your
viewing screen and adding motor drives and other accessories.
Today's SLRs range from the basic, manually
operated type to highly sophisticated models that have electronic controls
for everything from exposure and focus to built-in film advance. Consider
how much control you wish to have over your images when choosing which
features are important to you.
The camera's method of handling exposure
is the first thing you'll want to consider. Do you want manual exposure
control, or are there times when automatic exposure (AE),
or automatic metering, will best suit your needs? The primary consideration
is how much control you want. Some photographers consider manipulating
exposure an essential part of their work-they want complete control
over factors such as motion, depth of field, and color. But if you enjoy
composing and shooting without having to fret too much over settings,
you may find that the automatic option is right for you. Or if you do
a lot of action photography that requires speedy shooting, a fully automatic
option may suit your needs. Many of the fully automatic models come
with a variety of exposure modes: one mode selects your aperture as
well as your shutter speed; other modes allow you to choose the desired
aperture while the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed; or
you can select the right shutter speed and let the camera select the
Keep in mind, though, that automatic
settings are not foolproof. Because complex lighting conditions, such
as bright sunshine and deep shadows, can fool a camera's meter, automatic
metering provides an accurate exposure only about 80 percent of the
time. You'll still need a good understanding of f-stops and shutter
speeds, so that you can override your camera's choice when necessary.
Automatic-metering cameras generally include a manual option, so you
have complete control whenever you wish.
It's important to know what metering
method your camera uses, so that you can understand how it arrives at
its choice of exposure settings.
Center-weighted metering measures all the light in the viewfinder, but concentrates 75 percent
of the meter's sensitivity to the center portion of the camera's viewing
area. This is great when the subject is in the center of the picture.
Spot metering is more specific, concentrating the meter reading to a center circle
that ranges from 3 to 10 percent of the viewfinder. This type of metering
is handy when you want to precisely measure a portion of the scene:
a spot meter can read the light off an animal in the field without incorporating
any of the background light into its calculation. This ensures that
your main subject is properly exposed.
Matrix metering considers brightness, contrast, and distance to determine the best exposure
for the image area. This method of metering probably provides the highest
degree of accuracy, even in complex lighting conditions.
Whatever method your camera uses, you
alone are the judge of what exposure is best for your subject. The keys
to successful exposure are to know in advance how you want the photo
to look, and to understand how your camera arrives at its suggested
You'll also want to know what range of
shutter speeds is available on the camera. Most cameras have fast shutter
speeds that are adequate for most applications-1/1000 will cover nearly
all of anybody's needs. But if you intend to capture special subjects
at close range, such as racing cars or galloping horses, you may want
to have shutter speeds that go higher.
Take a close look at the slow end of
the camera's range, however, to make sure you have the versatility you
need for low-light conditions. Some cameras only go down to Ya second. We don't feel that this is slow enough for many of the shots
we like to take; many of our photos require shutter speeds of 1/2 second or longer. We like shutters that will provide an accurate exposure
to 4 seconds. Many cameras have a "B" setting that allows
you to open the shutter for as long as you hold down the shutter release.
These are fine for very long exposures,
but when you want an exposure of only 1 or 2 seconds, they're not accurate enough.
Focusing Screens and Viewfinder Accessories
The focusing screen is the piece
of glass inside the camera on which the image is viewed. Take a look
at the screen inside the camera you're considering. Most cameras come
with a split-image screen, which works by aligning the image in the
center of the viewfinder as you turn the lens's focusing ring. Most
cameras come with a stationary focusing screen that can't be changed,
so be certain you're comfortable with it before you buy.
Still, some cameras do offer interchangeable
screens. With this option you can choose from over a dozen different
screen types. We prefer a clear matte screen for many field situations,
because it lets us view the entire image without distraction. Or you
may find it easier to compose and focus using another type of focusing
screen-for example, some have grids that help you line up horizons and
vertical lines. While we don't change our screens much, we like having
the option to customize our cameras to suit our preferences.
If you wear glasses, you might also benefit
from an eyepiece correction lens, an attachment that screws onto
your viewfinder to help you see more clearly. Some manufacturers make
adapters for a wide range of eyesight requirements, so ask your camera
shop's staff what's available for your camera.
Manual or Auto-Focus?
The new auto-focus options let
you shoot quickly without fussing with fine focus. This is especially
handy if you're shooting moving subjects, such as children and wildlife.
We use Nikon's automatic-focus tracking, which automatically engages
when the subject moves, and locks onto the subject even if something
else momentarily gets in the way. Also, the autofocus feature can give
you an accurate reading in low-light conditions where your eyesight
may fail. And all auto-focus lenses give you the option of switching
to manual focus for tighter control of your subject.
Make sure your camera has a depth-of-field
preview button. This button stops down the lens to the designated
aperture setting so you can see exactly how you're shooting the scene.
When you view the scene with your lens wide open-the typical procedure-you
don't get a good idea of your depth of field. The preview button shows
you how much of the scene is in focus before you shoot.
Motor-driven film advance is also built into many of the new cameras. Some cameras offer a range
of film advance speeds, which allows you to set the speed that's right
for your situation. A simple I-frame auto-advance conveniently moves
your film ahead after each shot. A low-speed advance shoots 2 frames
per second-perfect for filming a sequence of events. High-speed advance
shoots 4 or more frames per second, to maximize your chances of capturing
that peak moment of action.
As wonderful as all these camera options
are, it's your lens that'll really tell the tale when it comes to the
quality and appearance of your images. Since you can use your SLR with
an extraordinary range of lens options, it's important to understand
some of the basics of lens construction before you select the lenses
that are right for you.
Angle of View
Lenses are described by their angle
of view, the amount of area that they show in front of the camera.
Angle of view is determined by the focal length of the lens,
measured from the optical center of the lens to the film plane.
Chances are that your new camera came
with a 50 or 55mm lens; these are called normal lenses, because
they provide an angle of view that's close to that of the human eye,
about 45 degrees. They're good all-purpose lenses, so start shooting
with this size before you decide what your next purchase will be.
Lenses with short focal lengths are called wide-angle lenses. These show more of the scene than the eye would
normally see if looking out of a simple viewfinder frame. A wide-angle
lens accomplishes this by bending the light that passes through it,
optically shrinking everything it sees and fitting more onto the viewing
screen. The extreme end of the wide-angle spectrum is the fish-eye
lens, which optically distorts a wide area and fits it into the
viewing area. These lenses can practically see backward-a 6mm version
can take in as much as a 220-degree angle of view. Fish-eyes are fun
to play with but impractical to own: their application is very specific
to scientific and architectural types of work.
A practical choice of wide-angle lens
for your basic outfit starts at 24 or 28mm; these provide you angles
of view of about 84 and 75 degrees, respectively. They're the lenses
of choice for landscapes. But they're also handy when you're shooting
on the run: the picture angle is large, the depth of field is wide,
and you can shoot fast without a lot of worry about focus. And because
the optics usually offer larger aperture openings, you can shoot in
a wide range of lighting conditions.
Remember, wide-angle lenses shrink everything,
so your subjects can disappear if you're not close enough! Wide-angles
also distort the images somewhat, so certain features can appear disproportionate:
if part of your subject is closer to you, it will appear oversized compared
to the rest of the subject. This is well illustrated with the "trophy
fish" shot: a fisherman holding his fish in front of a normal 50mm
lens will have a nice fish; but take that same photo using a 28mm lens-now
that's a fish!
Short Telephoto Lenses
A short telephoto lens (85 to 135mm) is a must for candids or family portraits: it lets you
fill the frame with your subject without having to get too close, so
you eliminate any perspective distortion. These lenses also have a shallower
depth of field, letting you put distracting backgrounds out of focus,
and more easily isolate important details in the landscape.
Long Telephoto Lenses
Long telephoto lenses are used for wildlife photography and sporting events. They pull in
distant scenes, allowing you to bring in subjects that would be out
of a normal person's range of view. There are a number of telephoto
lenses on the market, with a wide range of price tags. The quality of
the optics is crucial, so buy the best you can. Note the aperture opening:
lenses go up in price significantly if they can open I or 2 stops wider
than others. For wildlife, you'll want to begin with a 300mm or 400mm
lens. A 300mm is about the longest lens you can hand-hold, and anything
400mm or over will require tripod support. Serious wildlife photographers
also have super-long (over 400mm) telephotos in their gear bags. These
are expensive and heavy, but if you become serious about wildlife photography
you may eventually want to add one to your outfit.
There's a range of zoom lenses on the market, and they make a handy alternative to carrying a lot of
different fixed-focal-length lenses. But because the optical requirements
of zooms are more complicated, make sure to buy the best you can afford,
or you may be disappointed by the image quality. Keep in mind that a
zoom lens is a little heavier than a fixed-focal-length lens, so it
may be harder to hand-hold. It also may have a larger minimum aperture
than you could get with a fixed-length lens; this can be a problem with
wildlife photography, where your best shots often come at the beginning
or end of the day when available light is limited. A fixed-length 300mm
f2.8 lens may be affordable, but a 75-300mm f2.8 lens may be impossible
to find, or out of your price range. You're more likely to find a 75-300mm
f4.5-5.6 lens, but this will cut your ability to capture available light
Eventually, you'll want a range of lenses
that are roughly double one another. A great all-purpose field outfit
would probably include a 24mm lens, a 50mm lens, and a 105mm lens. From
there you should decide what lenses best fit the type of photography
you like. Our next purchase was a 300mm lens, because it's more useful
for wildlife than a 200mm is. Every photographer's ideal field outfit
is different. Don't hurry with your decisions. The more you shoot, the
better you'll understand your own needs.
A tripod is the single most important piece of equipment, after your camera and
lens. Mounting your camera on a tripod is absolutely essential for shots
that require a long lens, a slow shutter speed, or close focus. But
we also find that using a tripod all the time improves every shot we take: there is no question that we improve the sharpness of
our photos because we're not trying to hand-hold the equipment. Common
wisdom says you can hand-hold a camera if the shutter speed is at least
as high as the length of the lens you are using-for example, you can
hand-hold a 125mm lens if you're shooting 1/125 second or faster.
But if you have to shoot with that same lens at 1/60 second,
you'll need a tripod to prevent blurriness due to camera wobble.
We have long thought that the real reason
for the improvement in our images is that mounting the camera on the
tripod forces us to take our time. We set up the shot better, we compose
and focus better, we're probably more careful with the exposure, and
we're more likely to bracket questionable lighting situations.
Buy the sturdiest tripod you can afford
that fits your weight requirements. We often travel with two tripods:
one is a little lighter and can be packed easily; the other, our standard
tripod, is heavier and more stable. We really prefer this heavy one
and carry it on virtually all our trips. To make it easier to carry,
we wrap the legs with insulating foam so it can sit atop our shoulders
There are two major choices when it comes
to tripod heads. Pan/tilt heads have separate handles for every
direction of control. They provide precise movement of every camera
direction, but tend to be heavier and more time-consuming to use. They're
useful when you want to lock in one axis of adjustment while still being
free to move the others. For example, you can position a precise vertical
line, lock it in, but still have the freedom to swivel and tilt up or
The ball-and-socket head is lighter,
more compact, and a little faster to use, because one handle moves the
camera in all directions. This means that every time you loosen the
handle, all movements are free. We generally prefer this option for
If you do close-up work, you'll need
a tripod that works close to the ground. There are tripods with center
posts that invert, so you can get the camera to ground level. But we've
never gotten used to working upside down. Both our tripods collapse
all the way to the ground, so they can be used for close-up work when
we slip in a short center post. There are also a number of mini tripods
on the market, and while we can see the advantage of using them, they've
never given us the feeling of stability we want. But try one and see
what you think.
There are also other types of camera
supports designed specifically for use with long tele-photo lenses,
which are great for sporting, action, and wildlife photography. You
can buy shoulder gun stocks, or stocks that are supported on the chest.
A simple monopod may be enough support in certain circumstances. See
chapter 6 for more information on supports for wildlife photography.
Filters are glass disks that attach to the lens to absorb or modify the transmitted
light as it enters the camera. There was a time when purist photographers
refused to use any filters, believing that they should try to capture
the essential light just as it appears, rather than correct it or enhance
it in any way. And it's still true that special-effects filters or those
that radically change the natural colors don't play a role in traditional
nature photography. But there's
another category of filters that should be an essential part of every
field outfit. These correct the light so that the film sees what you
see, and help by bringing out rich colors or eliminating the glare from
bright reflected sunlight.
Many people use skylight or UV
filters religiously: skylight filters reduce the bluish cast on a bright
day; UV filters supposedly reduce the effects of haze, although we prefer
the results we get with a polarizing filter (see below). These filters
are also recommended for protecting the lens from scratches while you're
in the field. But we generally prefer not to have these filters on our
lenses: they just add an extra layer of glass that can get dirty or
smudged. Keeping your lens cap handy seems a good enough way to care
for your lens.
On the other hand, the one filter we
could not do without is the polarizer, which eliminates glare
from reflective surfaces and reduces the effects of haze. Colors are
more saturated-skies are bluer
and grass is greener-because you have removed glare that your eye might
not have even noticed. The polarizer works best when your camera is
pointed at a right angle to the sun. Just attach the filter to the lens
and rotate it until all unwanted reflections or glare are gone. The
one filter you cannot do without is the polarizer, which eliminates
glare from reflective surfaces and reduces the effects of haze.
Another filter you may want to keep with
you is an amber-toned warming filter, designated for increasing
strength by the terms "81A," "81B," or "81C."
These are light-balancing filters that adjust for the amount of blue
and make colors a little warmer, and are excellent for shooting in shady
areas that tend to be much cooler because of the higher percentage of
blue light. If you only carry one, try the 81B: its midtone amber color
covers most situations.
Neutral-density (ND) filters control the amount of light that enters the camera,
and are used when you want to slow shutter speeds or open the aperture.
We especially like a graduated neutral-density filter, which is half
skylight and half neutral-density; it allows us to give a landscape
the exposure it needs for full saturation while toning down the sky
a bit, so the intensity of the light doesn't burn out cloud detail.
Motor drives advance your film automatically. Many of the new automatic cameras have
built-in motor drives that can be adjusted to advance film from I frame
per second to as much as 5 frames per second. If your camera doesn't
have a built-in motor drive, it may be capable of accepting an external
There are certainly times when this feature
will come in handy-animal and sporting-event photography, particularly,
are enhanced by the ability to move quickly. But if you're more interested
in landscape photography or close-ups of flowers, you might consider
skipping this option. For one thing, a motor drive makes the camera
significantly bulkier. The other factor is that speedy film advance
can make it easy to burn through a lot of film! Sure, there are rare
moments when a burst of shots will help you capture the desired image,
but there are many more circumstances when a shot or two would serve
the same purpose. After all, even 5 frames per second isn't that fast
when you're shooting at a shutter speed of 1/250 second. Be aware, too,
that the motor drive can actually add complications if you're working
in hot or cold extremes (see chapter 9 for more information about these
There are a handful of other accessories
that will round out your field outfit. The first is the cable release, a small push-lever cable that screws into your shutter release and allows
you to squeeze off a shot without touching the camera. This prevents
you from causing any accidental camera shake. These devices are inexpensive
and very handy, particularly in close-up or low-light conditions.
A set of extension tubes is an
excellent and inexpensive way to get close-ups of your subjects. An
extension tube is a hollow, fixed-length accessory that fits between
your camera body and your lens; different lengths provide varying amounts
of magnification. We find them to be the most cost-effective way to
get sharp close-up images.
We don't go anywhere without a little
set of reflectors and diffusers. There are a number of
products on the market for bouncing a little light onto your subject,
but we usually make our own easy-to-pack versions.
We also keep a small flash in
our gear bag, just in case we need a little burst of light. We only
use this flash if it's absolutely necessary, because bouncing a little
reflected light creates a better, more natural effect. But every once
in a while the flash comes in handy. See chapter 5 for more information
on these and other close-up accessories.