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Building Your First SLR Outfit

I get a lot of requests from beginning photographers asking advice on building a camera outfit.    I don't pretend my advice is the RIGHT way -- unfortunately that does not exist.   Hopefully however, this will give you some direction and help keep you from making foolish and expensive mistakes.

SLR:  1) a body by a major camera maker 2) manual focus (NOT auto focus)  3)  "match needle" or equivalent exposure metering ONLY (NOT some sort of AE Exposure system)

WHY you ask?

1) SLRs by major makers will be easier to get repaired and maintain their value longer.  Who are the major makers as far as the US market if concerned ?  In no order:  Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta, Olympus, Leica, Konica, Contax / Yashica bayonet mount,  cameras with the ubiquitous "Pentax" screw mount or "K" mount.   Which SLRs to USE?  See Profile.

2) If someone really wants to learn about photography and appreciate its nuances, there is no substitute for manual focusing.   AF may be fine for later when they learn what they are doing, but manual focus for a beginner is a VERY VALUABLE LEARNING TOOL.    DON'T buy a AF camera with optional manual focus -- the beginner will get lazy and use AF whenever they can.

3) If someone really wants to learn about exposure and appreciate its nuances, there is no substitute for MATCH NEEDLE exposure taking, other than going one better and using a hand held exposure meter.    Forget all the fancy smancy fancy  Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Programmed Exposure modes on that new plastic wonder the camera store salesman is frothing at the mouth to sell you so they can get that $2 spiff back from the manufacturer.   If the beginner has any of the fancy exposure modes, they will USE them and fail their photographic educational process.  If they CAN'T use them, the camera will force them to learn.

Basic 3 lenses:  50/1.4 for low light,  24/2.8 for wide angle shots, 100/105 /2.8  for portraits.  These three lenses offer a striking difference in perspective from each other, and will fill most photographic needs.  I prefer single focal length lenses over wide to tele zooms because single focal lengths are almost always faster and sharper.     Buying lenses with too  similar viewpoints is a waste when you are building your 1st outfit on a budget.

Basic Accessories:  Quality 2x Converter which will give you a 200 with the 100/105 as well as close-ups,  quality flash with rotating bounce flash and adjustable f/stops,   a set of close-up lenses when you need shots even closer, a quality tripod with easily adjustable head (avoid the lightweight ones which can't keep a camera steady), polarizing filter.  Don't buy the infamous UV filters for "lens protection"-- they are just a camera store profit builder.    You will also need a quality lens cleaner, such as OFR, and a quality lens cleaning chamois.  In camera bags I tend to choose Tamrac, but you can actually make your own fairly easily by adapting luggage.  In my opinion avoid expensive looking aluminum cases ... it's like carrying a sign that says "steal me."  If you shoot B/W you need at least Red and Orange filters.  Try B/W infrared, it's a trip and well worth the effort.   

Things to add later: 80-200/4 zoom (not the 80-200/2.8 that will break your pocket book and your back) if you like sports or fast moving subjects,  500/8 mirror lens for long distance tele shots (the interchangeable mount Tamron 500/8 is an excellent choice).    Full frame fish eye or 17/18 mm super wide.   If you shoot studio flash, you will need a quality meter which reads both flash and ambient light.   Minolta, Gossen, Sekonic are among the best.

Darkroom:  To be serious about photography you need to learn to develop your own B/W film and print it.   The Beseler 23C is a great relatively inexpensive enlarger, use Nikkor, Schneider, or Rodenstock enlarging lenses.   If you have the bucks, the best 35 enlargers are the Leitz Focamat Ic or V.     In my opinion forget color printing -- it has been replaced by film scanners and PhotoShop.

Manufacturer's or Independent Make Lenses?:   Given a choice between two lenses with essentially the same specs, I buy the original manufacturer's lenses.  Generally they are better made and sharper than independent lens lines, though as computer designed lenses improve, the optical differences are getting smaller.  The big difference is likely when you go to sell or trade in your lens.  Used independent makes take a much bigger hit in the resale department and are harder to sell on top of that.  That said, two independent makes that stand out in my mind are Tamron and Sigma.  Both offer some very interesting optical designs which are often fine performers.  Tamron is especially interesting with its Adaptamatic manual focus lenses which allow the lenses to be used on many different SLRs just by changing the adapter.

Things to Avoid: people who want to borrow your camera gear,  people who want to buy equipment from you on a payment plan,  expired film or paper, internet camera lists that allow themselves to be dominated by a small group with terminal email overflow (don't mistake massive posting for expertise),   repair shops which don't seem familiar with your camera, people who want to borrow your last $20 when you need film, people trying to talk you into doing photography work for free because it is such a good opportunity for you (ha ha ha).

OK, so your uncle says you need one thing,  your friend says you need something else, and the local guy at the camera store said they were both wrong.    No problem,  let THEM take your pics for you.  Or, maybe let them take their pics and leave you alone.   At least two famous photographers I can think of became very famous only using the standard lens.  Remember it's the photographer that takes the pic, not the stupid camera.  

My point is a lot of different people will recommend different things based upon their own use and background.  You need to find what is best for YOU and forget what anybody else says, including me.

Lots of luck on finding your way, but just remember, no one gets out of here alive.

Lots of luck on finding your way, but just remember, no one gets out of here alive.


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Revised: November 26, 2003 Copyright  1998-2002  Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved.    This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind.  Information in this document is subject to change without notice.  Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.