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Reflecting on 10 months in the world of (amateur) photography - lessons learnt

EGouws | Camera and Photography Basics | Published Oct 19, 2011

It was ten months ago since I bought my first DSLR. Before that I had endless pleasure with my Canon PowerShot A530. I guess that's why it is still in my bag!

I knew nothing about photography at that stage. I just knew that I want something on which I can put different lenses. I decided (after asking some friends with DSLR's and those super cool extra long lenses) that I will choose between Nikon and Canon. At that time, the 550D with 2 kit lenses was available at a fairly good price, at almost every shop in town. Also the Nikon D "I cant remember what one" with THREE lenses, for about $100 less. 

So I decided on the latter. Nikon with THREE lenses. I assume all the other people looking for cameras over that festive season decided to go for the Nikon. So there was only one Canon kit available. I took that one. A nice Canon 550D, with a 18 55 and 55 250, with a nice bag and a 4GIG memory card. 

I immediately went off to the beaches to go take awesome pictures. I still didn't know a thing about aperture, shutter speed, ISO and the whole bunch. So "Auto" was the thing. My friends were really impressed with the 55 250 lens. Especcially on the longest end.

"WOW, that one must take awesome pictures" they commented frequently. I also believed that, and went of to Google to see if one can even get longer ones. I firmly believed that it is important to get the finest detail of the distant lion's eyelids, while the whole world was happening around me.

Ten months later I've spent considerable time to understand the basics of photography and lenses. There are really usefull tutorials on the web, free of charge. My kit lenses were sold to a local second hand dealer, and I made some (strange?) additions to my gear, which is as follow:

Canon 550D

Canon 24 105 L f4 EF

Sigma 10 - 20 f3.5 EF-S

Canon 50mm f1.8 EF

Canon EOS 500n / Rebel G 

Canon AE1 Program (with a whole bunch of 30 year old lenses)

Canon 50mm f1.8 FD

UV filters and Circular polarisars 

The following are the lessons I've learned, and I hope anyone that is currently in the situation that I found myself in 10 months ago, will learn something.

Selling my kit lenses: the second hand market is an active market. One can find good deals out there, and will for sure be able to recover costs if you have redundant equipment. As a novice, you can get good deals on entry level equipment (like the kit lenses) to use for a while in order to learn the basics and to establish what focus lengths you will need. You can buy from second hand dealers to be sure you won't be burnt with fakes.

Keeping the Canon 550D, eventhough the 600D has a cool swivel out screen that can be tilted and turned in 400 different directions: the camera is only a tool. You don't need ISO setting of 700 000, 80 frames per second shooting, and megapixels counts to infinity. If I had bought a Canon 1000D, I would've had more cash to fund an extra memory card and spare batery. The latter will help you to shoot at 10 megapixels for a whole day long! (Rather than to shoot for half a day at 18MP without battery power!)

Canon 24 105: I've established that this is the focal range that I use the most. My old kit lenses helped me to discover this. I bought this EF mount lens (which fits on all Canon EOS cameras, even the old EOS film cameras) to cater for the possibility that I might upgrade to full frame in the future. The polariser filter helps to reduce lens flare and all the other nice things about polarisers. And off course for landscape work I think a polariser is a must have. The image stabiliser helps for low light shots, so I don't have to carry a tri pod with me. (Yes, I'm lazy.) This lens is also a work horse and can handle severe "punishment".

Sigma 10 - 20 f3.5: I needed a ultra wide for the crop sensor camera for landscape work. The 18 55 was simply not wide enough. I decided on the Sigma model, as at that time I had to save some money. As it is widely reviewed on the net, this lens is not the best in its class. But perfect for an serious amateur and hobbyist. This lens doesn't has image stabilizer, but with such short focal lengths, it is rarely needed to use a shutter speed of less than 1/16 (remember to apply the crop factor), so it is still perfect for low light handheld situations. Use a larger aperture (and f4 is larger than f8, and more light enters the lens!) and increase the ISO to 400, and you will be fine.

Canon 50mm f1.8: at first I was dissappointed with this prime. Although as a complete novice, I understood what a prime lens was. I had to zoom with my feet (which is good for a guy that doesn't visit the gym). In all the reviews one will learn that it is excellent for low light situations, due to the large apperture, and that 50mm is a nice focal lenghth. Also called "normal". I didn't know that the effective field of fiew increases to that of 80mm on a crop factor sensor. And handheld shots below 1/80 is just ruined with camera shake. Nonetheless, using a prime is good for you (or it is for me), because you have to learn how to properly compose the picture with the absence of a zoom range, because the lenses is almost weightless, and cost almost nothing. This all is topped with excellent image quality. Nowadays I use it on my Canon Rebel G film camera to utilise the real 50mm (film cameras has no crop factor!). This lens is a must have and keeper for all beginners and amateurs. (If you want the same field of view on a crop sensor, invest in the more expensive primes in the 30mm range).

Film  cameras (Rebel G and AE1 Program): yes, I stil shoot film. Before christmas I will develop my own film. It is fun. I don't care whether film is better than digital, or the other way around. I just like it! The fact that every click costs an amount of money, and the fact that you don't see your results immediately, forces one to concentrate on taking good pictures. And both my film cameras, with UV filters, a Canon 200mm FL, Tamron 70 210, Canon 50mm FD, Kenko 2x converter, carry bags and batteries costed less than $150. And the Canon Rebel G works perfectly with my 24 105 and 50mm EF lenses! (Do the maths: I can shoot and develop and print about 10 000 pictures and it will still be cheaper than only the 550D handset!).

What did I do wrong? And what can other beginners learn from my experience?

Amateurs don't need top of the range full frame handsets. Entry level models (like the Canon 1100D) are great. Or buy a good second hand (from a trustworthy source). By saving on the handset, you will have spare cash for and additional battery, memory card, tri pod, UV filters (to protect the lenses!), and perhaps a good training course.

Use the kit lenses until you know what focal lengths will satisfy your style. Then continue using it for another 2 months, just to be 100% sure. If you are in doubt, don't sell them!

Make time to learn the basics. Even my old PowerShot A530 has a manual setting, and this cheapy is sufficient to use as a training set if you don't want to buy before you know the basics. I will strongly recommend to take a beginners course. Some training institutes even present courses with their own equipment, so then you can test and train on the spot before you buy. 

Most important: for every 20 minutes that you stare to your computer screen reading about photography, you must spent at least 1 hour out in the field / street / beach to shoot. That's the only way that you will learn! 

Brand:: I think brand is a personal choice. Do your own homework. I use Canon because the Nikon was sold out on the specific day that I bought my gear. Besides that I have no preference to any specific brand. 

(Please excuse my grammar and spelling. I speak a foreign African language that is not closely related to English!)