I think itís great that you can go to Costco or Best Buy and buy a DSLR Kit, but I donít think kits (the camera and lens combo) are great things if your goal is to learn photography. Kit lenses are SLOW. When people buy that $700 camera kit they probably think to themselves, ďthis is the answer to all of my problems and itíll do all the work for me,Ē but what they donít realize is that the kit lens is slower than your old point-and-shoot lens was. So what to do? I suggest tossing the kit lens and replacing it with these five items that will put you infinitely ahead of that guy next to you in the checkout line who is perfectly happy with his DSLR Kit.
1. External Flash ($200-$450)
An image like this isn't possible without an external flash.
Sorry, but that puny little flash on top of the camera isnít good for much, although it is great for triggering bigger flashes. When there is not enough light to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze your subject, youíll need a flash to fill in the gap. Spare yourself a few weeks worth of bad photos by buying the mid-level or top-of-the-line flash made by your camera brand. Nikonís mid-level flash is the SB-600 and Canonís is the 430EX II. I know youíre probably thinking, ďI donít like the way flashed photos look.Ē Well, if you aim it at your subject and shoot full blast, I can understand why.
What I use: I have a few Nikon SB-900s. Itís the most powerful speedlight Nikon makes to date. How do you know if you should buy the mid-level or top flash? Figure out the difference in price and decide if that amount of money is worth that extra amount of light? For everyday use, maybe not, but for those few times you find yourself in a dark room and you need to shoot at f8, that difference will seem like a bargain.
2. Big Memory Card (under $50)
You should be shooting in RAW. Itís a pain, but the rewards make it well worth the trouble. To shoot RAW files you need more space. With the price of memory these days, thereís no excuse not to buy a big card. Big enough would be 8 GB. (Sure, weíll look back at this article in a few years and have ourselves a chuckleÖ 8 GB? Thatís small! Back in 2001 my ďbig cardĒ was 32 MB and I was happy!)
What I use: I have three 8 GB 300x Lexar cards, plus a grab bag of old 2GB and 1GB cards for emergencies. I can take about 600 RAW images per 8 GB card, and thatís plenty for me, for now.
3. Circular Polarizer ($60)
A polarizer can also help you attain a longer shutter speed.
A polarizer is a must if youíre shooting in bright sunlight. I donít like shooting in bright sunlight but sometimes you have no choice. Circular polarizers cut down on reflections and allow you to lengthen your shutter speed or use a wider aperture, whether youíre in blazing bright sunlight or trying to streak lights at dusk. Sizes vary, so make sure you buy one that will fit the lens you want to use it on.
What I use: I personally love Singh Ray polarizers. They fit in a Cokin holder, which means I can use a single polarizer on all of my lenses, regardless of the lensí filter size. These cost more, but one perfect image justifies that cost.
4. Tripod/monopod ($100/each)
Yes, Iím cheating a little since these are two items and you shouldnít think, ďdo I need a tripod or monopod?Ē since they each have their own specific function. I would buy both. I realize itís no fun to carry these around, but they are necessary. You want a nice night shot? You need a tripod. Shooting landscapes? You need a tripod. Shooting your son or daughterís soccer game? You need a monopod. If youíre shooting with a long lens (200mm or higher) you NEED a monopod to cut down on camera movement. Itís hard enough freezing movement on the field without introducing movement on your end. Need to follow action? You can turn on a dime with a monopod, because they are easy to maneuver. Using a monopod also means you donít have to bear the weight of your long lens and camera; you can let the ground support it.
If youíre trying to keep your camera perfectly still, you need the extra support of a tripod. Which tripod you choose depends on your budget, how much support you need, and how much weight youíre willing to lug around.
Professional tripods and monopods come in two partsólegs and the head. You can mix and match them to fit your needs.
What I use: Tripod Legs: Bogen/Manfrotto 3001; Tripod Head: 322RC2 Joystick Head.
This combo is relatively lightweight and easy to maneuver. It doesnít support as much weight as other combos, but it works well for what I need.
Monopod: Giottos 5 section Aluminum Monopod;Monopod Head: 234RC Swivel Tilt Head for Monopods
5. 50mm f1.8 lens ($100) Nikon Version/Canon Version
Having a 50mm lens is like having a turbo boost in your bag without the typical high cost of a fast lens. You can buy yourself a 50mm f1.8 lens for around $100. If you want those nice blurred backgrounds, this can do it. If you want to take a shot in low light without your flash, this can do that as well. If you want to zoom in and zoom out, this CANíT do that, but for $100 what did you expect?!
What I use: I actually have three 50mm lenses: a Canon 50mm f1.8 that I use on my Canon 50D and pass around for people to try during my workshops, a Nikon 50mm f1.8 also for the workshops, and a Nikon 50mm f1.4 that I use on my Nikon D700.
Other useful accessories that just missed the top 5:
- White Balance Card Ė These are great for white balancing, but since you can shoot RAW and white balance during post processing you can get away with not having one. I use the Lastolite EZBalance Grey Card
- Flash Diffuser Ė These can help you bounce and soften your flash, so you wonít turn your subjects into ghosts. I use the Harbor Digital Light Box.
- UV Filter Ė These protect your lenses. I donít know about you, but I donít throw keys or loose change into my camera bag, and I always have a lens hood on when theyíre not capped, so I go filter-less.
With so many lenses and accessories available, the task to figure out what you really need can be daunting, but these five relatively inexpensive items will put you well on your way to taking images that will impress your friends and maybe even make your spouse think itís a not such a crazy idea for you to by that $900 lens.