Note: This was originally published in December of 2010.
Upgrading to a Full Frame DSLR: The path of least resistance and greatest ROI (Return on Investment)
Warning: This article is geared to the new shooter, the intermediate shooter, and the advanced amateur. The working professional has different needs and as such may choose a different path to upgrade.
It is Christmas time*. Time to spend that money that mom gave you or to get Santa to spend a little on you. Well, what would you like Santa to put under the tree for you? If you answered a brand new Canon 5D Mark II, a new Sony A900, or a Nikon D3 then get out your eraser and change that list. For most of you out there, this is the wrong way to go when you are building the ultimate camera rig. I know that a full frame sensor is tempting, but the advantages of the full frame are not as great as you might expect and there are ways of upgrading that will make you much happier over time.
The following is an overview of 12 steps to building a professional grade camera system with the ultimate bang for your buck. The purpose of the list is to provide an overview of upcoming articles and to prevent many of you from dropping some big bucks on a camera body this Christmas.
1) Basic DSLR Camera and Bag: I make the assumption that most of you already have step number one taken care of and you are ready for step number two. Just in case you don’t have a basic DSLR and bag, here is a quick guide to getting into the DSLR side of the camera hobby. Look for bargains. Often manufacturers will put together basic and intermediate starter packages. These most often will include a DSLR camera body, at least one kit lens, and sometimes will include a basic camera bag. These kits can be found online and at box and warehouse stores for between $400 and $1000. Buy the best you can afford because you are going to be married to the camera body and lens set for some time. However, remember that even entry level DSLR cameras take better photos than most professional 35mm film cameras. The biggest decision you have to make here is what brand to buy. Here is a giant secret, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Sigma, and a few other brands I am sure I have forgotten: they all make fine cameras. If someone tells you that Nikon or Canon is the only way to go, then just ignore it. Maybe that is true for them, but decide for yourself. Go to the store and handle the cameras. See which camera fits in your hands the best. Look through the viewfinder, play with the focus, ‘kick the tires a bit.’ Then get the camera that fits your budget and your future.
If perchance you already own lenses for an SLR camera then I recommend checking to see if those lenses will work on the same brand DSLR camera and sticking with that brand. Remember, all the major players make fine cameras.
2) Computer, Good Monitor and Color Calibration equipment: Over 50% of all photographers use an Apple Macintosh computer. I am not telling you to go buy a Mac, but I am telling you that I like the functionality of the Apple Computers. In the very least you need a computer that is fast enough to run programs like Photoshop and a monitor that can display the sRGB color gamut. If you plan on becoming a professional photographer you will need to acquire a professional monitor that can display most of the Adobe RGB color gamut. Regardless of the computer or monitor you purchase, you need to have a way to know that what you see on the screen is what will be printed. This is accomplished by the use of a color calibration system such as the ColorMunki system or the Spyder color calibration system. These system cost between $170 - $2000.
3) Software: If you bought a Mac, then it came with iPhoto. This is the best place to start, in my opinion. A program like iPhoto provides basic workflow control. A year from now I expect that you will have outgrown iPhoto, but it is an ideal place to get your feet wet. If you bought a PC then you need to think about workflow. Workflow is the management of your photo library. The gold standard for this on the PC is a program called Adobe Lightroom. On the Mac, Lightroom or Aperture both are gold standards.
“But wait!!! I thought you had to have Adobe Photoshop!!!”
You don’t need Photoshop. In fact, you might not ever need Photoshop. I know that many pros love Photoshop and can’t live without it. There are just as many pros that rarely if ever use Photoshop. I have Photoshop and I use it on occasion but in reality there are better ways to do most of my daily photo chores than Photoshop.
4) Books and Education: Read everything that you can about your camera, exposure, composition, and lighting. Then practice the things you have read about.
5) Filters: Purchase some basic filters such as a circular polarizing filter, a neutral density filter, and a warming filter. Companies like Tiffen often offer starter packs with all or most of these basic filters included.
6) External Flash: Buy the flash from the company that makes your camera. Buy the largest guide number flash that you can afford.
7) 50mm sub f2 lens: A nice lens like a 50mm f1.8, f1.4, or f1.2 is the first lens anyone looking to extend the capabilities of their camera should buy. Some people like to purchase only lenses from the manufacturer of their camera, however several lens companies make fine aftermarket lenses.
Items 8 - 11 do not have summaries presented in this article. However, rest assured they will be covered in depth in future articles.
9) Reflectors and Diffusers
10) Specialty Lenses and Accessories
11) Studio Lighting
12) Full Frame Camera Body: “Why last? It will take me two or three years to get all that stuff! I want one now! I am ready to start shooting weddings and portraits! I am ready, I swear. I have had a weekend course in photography, a kit lens, and I printed my business cards already!!!!”
I put this one last on purpose. I hope it does take a couple of years to get to the point of upgrading the camera body; it should. Cameras follow Moore’s Law. Simply put: the camera you can buy two years from now is going to be tons better than the camera you can buy today and it is going to be tons cheaper. Camera bodies will come and go. They have lots of moving parts and technology is always marching forward. By the time that you have developed a professional skill set and all the accessories a pro needs, you will have worn out the first and possibly a second camera body. However, those lenses and accessories will last a lifetime.
Photography can be an expensive hobby/profession. Great tools exist for people on every part of the learning curve. Be wise with your money and get some bang for your buck.
By the way, I hope that Santa treats you right this Holiday season.
* I am aware that many of my readers are not Christian. I use Christmas here as a literary tool and I hope that it is taken in that spirit. No offense is meant or implied.