Buying a New Camera

Festival in Asakusa, Tokyo, May 2014 (Emily Naff)

Young Photographer at Sanja Matsuri Festival in Asakusa, Tokyo

Which camera should I buy?  As a photography teacher, this is one of my most asked questions. Unfortunately giving a camera recommendation is not easy or straightforward.  Choosing a camera is a personal decision with a lot of factors to consider, so it is important to know your goals for your photography and to understand the pros and cons of different types of cameras.  I’ve written some blog posts in the past on buying a camera and choosing between and SLR and Compact cameras, but I wanted to update that advice with information about some of the newer options and terminology being used to describe the different types of cameras, and for this year’s students.   Warning… long blog post ahead.. because not all things can be explained in under 140 characters.

There are lot of different types of cameras available these days, with different manufacturers using different ways to describe the cameras in their line-up.  I’m going to try to simplify those choices as much as possible while talking about the pros and cons of some of these options.

 (© Emily Naff)

Asakusa Temple, Tokyo, Japan.  Having complete control over camera settings such as aperture, shutter and ISO allows a photographer to be able to photograph in difficult exposure situations such as night photography. These controls are now available on many different camera systems.

Equipment for aspiring professional photographers

In our photography program at Nashville State Community College, we require our beginning photography majors to have an SLR camera.  Traditionally, SLR cameras have been the choice of professional photographers.  Nikon and Canon have been the primary players in that field. While many other camera manufacturers make quality cameras, if you want to expand your system or need maximum compatibility with professional lighting gear and accessories, more options are available for Canon and Nikon shooters.

SLR (single lens reflex) camera design includes a mirror and pentaprism at the viewfinder, so that what you see through the viewfinder is exactly what the lens will capture.  When taking a picture, the mirror moves up out of the way to allow the light to hit the sensor (or film) plane.  That reassuring sound you hear when pressing the shutter release button is usually more the sound of the mirror than the actual sound of the shutter.  Unfortunately, these mirrors make the camera body bulky.

Within the SLR category, cameras manufacturers tend to offer 3 levels of cameras.

Entry Level: designed for the beginning amateur photographer.  Lowest cost, usually comes with kit lenses as part of a package.  Available everywhere, good deals can often be found online and at the big box retailers. Many students start with these, and they’re perfect for learning camera controls. However, if you’re serious about being a professional, you’ll quickly learn the limitations of these cameras, and the kits lenses that they came with. If entry level is all that’s in your budget at this time, then definitely get started with one of these cameras, they are great cameras to learn on!

Mid-range: designed for advanced amateurs and professional shooters.  Higher cost than the entry level, with more advanced features.  Camera bodies are usually designed to stand up to a bit more wear and tear.  Kits and packages are also available for these cameras, and often the lenses sold in the package are slightly better than the ones sold with the entry level cameras.  (see below about lenses)

Professional: designed for professional shooters.  Are often full frame sensors, more advanced features and weather sealing. Priced accordingly.. If you’re in the market for one of these, then this blog post is probably not for you.

Camera models are constantly being updated, so I’m not mentioning specific models in this blog post.  DP Review is my recommended source for camera reviews.

Factors that impact image quality:

The chef hands us the freshly grilled snapper. (© Emily Naff)

The chef hands us the freshly grilled snapper at izakaya restaurant in Tokyo.  Shooting with a fast prime lens allowed me to shoot in the dim light of the bar. (35mm 1/50s at f/1.8 ISO 800)

Sensor Size: SLR cameras typically have two sensor size options.  APS or Full frame.  Full-frame refers to a sensor that is the same size as a 35mm piece of film, this made for an easier transition for pros switching from film to digital.  Lenses designed for their film cameras worked the same on their digital slrs.   The APS sensor is smaller than the full frame sensors and results in magnification of the lens.  The exact magnification factor varies slightly with different cameras, but is roughly 1.5.  What that means is that a lens with focal length of 50mm on a full frame sensor acts like a 75mm on an APS sensor.  While there is debate over how much sensor size impacts image quality there are a few aspects of the full frame that professionals love, images can be enlarged to a larger size without pixelation, or you can crop the image more and still retain a high resolution image. Micro-Four-Thirds sensors are even smaller than the APS sensors, resulting in an image magnification factor of 2x. There are several Micro-Four-Thirds cameras on the market that are getting awesome reviews and many discussions about the fact that size is not everything when it comes to the sensors.

Lenses: It is important to realize that the quality of the lens is a huge factor in the sharpness and quality of your images.  Lenses that have wider apertures (like f/1.8, f/2 or f.2.8) allow you to shoot in lower light without having to raise the ISO, which reduces image quality.  These lenses are also often made with higher quality glass and are sharper.  Lenses that have a fixed focal length (prime lenses) also tend to be sharper than zoom lenses.  Upgrading beyond the “kit” lens is usually the first place I tell students start before upgrading camera bodies.

Operator Knowledge and Vision: All those buttons, bells and whistles don’t mean a thing on any camera, unless the photographer knows how to optimize the settings to take control of the image making process.  Shutter speeds to control motion, f/ stops to control depth of field, lens choice to determine field of view and compression or distortion of subject, etc… The reality is the level of control that the photographer wants over the image making process and the willingness to learn are factors in image quality.  It’s also important to note that great photos can be made with any camera, the photographer’s vision is the most important aspect of the creative process. See my Philosophy on Gear. 

 (© Emily Naff)

A class of my photography students in Japan learning how to use their cameras.  Study Abroad trip with TNCIS.

Mirrorless or MIL Cameras

Mirrorless cameras have removed the mirror and pentaprism, making the camera bodies smaller and more lightweight.  There are some really good options on the market.  Most compact and point and shoot cameras that many of us have used for years are mirrorless, as they use an LCD screen on the back instead of a viewfinder.   In the last several years there has been a rise in popularity among professionals for the MIL or Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens camera systems, that have much of the same functionality of the SLR camera without as much bulk or weight.

Within the MIL systems there are several options with different sensor sizes available.  Sony offers a lineup with full frame sensors, Fuji’s system has APS sized sensors, Panasonic and Olympus have a line up with Micr-Four Thirds sensors.  More and more professionals are switching to these systems, but as mentioned above, there are often limitations of accessories compatible with these systems especially for studio lighting. As a travel photographer, this will be the next upgrade I make to my camera system.

If looking at a mirrorless camera, I would go for one that also has a viewfinder.  On bright days, it can be hard to see the lcd screen and being able to look through a viewfinder can really help tighten up your compositions.

Bridge or Superzoom Cameras

Cameras in this category often have similar styling to DSLR camera, but do not have interchangeable lenses.  With only one lens available, this lens often has a large zoom range from wide angle to telephoto.  It’s important to understand that optical zoom is really all that matters when looking at the zoom capability, digital zoom is the same as cropping the image on the computer.  Speed of the lens is an important factor, lower numbers ie f/2, f/2.8 allow you to shoot in lower light without raising the ISO.   Most of these cameras have the functionality of an SLR, allowing the user to shoot in manual mode, and priority modes.  Some of them allow users to shoot with RAW files as well.  Ease of use and accessing the controls is an important consideration when looking at cameras in this category.

Compact and Advanced Compact Cameras

Compact cameras are often referred to as point and shoot cameras, when in Auto mode, the user should be able to just pick up the camera then “point” and “shoot” to take a picture.  The obvious advantage of these cameras is size and ease of use.  The standard point and shoot cameras are designed with ease of use in mind, and don’t allow much control for the photographer.  There is a range of these cameras often referred to as advanced compact that have manual controls built in, some of them even allowing the user to shoot RAW files.  Again,  lens quality and speed of the lens will have a major impact on image quality with these lenses.  I personally have one of these that I love to take when I’m traveling.  Sometimes after lugging the heavy SLR camera around all day, I just want to go out to dinner and relax, but hate to leave the camera at home.. a good advanced compact camera can fill in nicely, allowing a bit more control than the camera phone.

When purchasing a camera, how it feels in your hands is an important consideration, so nothing beats hands on experimenting with the camera.  In Nashville, Dury’s pro camera shop is the best option as the sales people there are very knowledgeable about their cameras, and they have a wider range of options than are available at your big box stores.




New American Gothic: Lewis Acres

Nicole and Mark Lewis of Lewis Acres. Centerville, TN

Nicole and Mark Lewis of Lewis Acres. Centerville, TN

Nicole and Mark Lewis were the initial inspiration for the New American Gothic series. They had posted a selfie with their rooster, Fricassee, that made me laugh so hard, I knew I had to photograph them and THAT ROOSTER!  We had such a fun time on this shoot, I loved having Mark’s mom on hand to assist. The only direction that I give the farmers, is that I want them to hold something that represents them and/or their farm and I’m looking for a few pops of red in the photo. Other than those two requests, I don’t “style” their outfits.  I may help them chose “this shirt or that shirt” “this prop or that prop” and spread out a wrinkle or brush off a chicken feather, but I want the photos to reflect their personalities (and the personalities of their animals). When Nicole asked if she should put a Bow-tie on Fricassee, I cracked up, because Nicole is known to have a thing about bow-ties (just ask Junior, the cat.) 

Nicole and Mark are a creative duo with a flock of chickens, a heard of cats, and a livestock guardian dog named Earline, who I witnessed playing with the chickens like they were puppies. Earline and Fricassee take their protector jobs seriously, sounding an alarm when a predator approaches, allowing the chickens to take cover.   I love the way that Nicole described the dog barking and the rooster cackling, “The whole show is quite impressive when you see it working all together…one of the many fascinating things that humans have lost touch with – the instincts and natural functions the Mother has built into its inherent structure.” This level of protection allows the chickens to be pasture raised, inspiring their slogan…happy hens lay healthy eggs.

The eggs from their happy hens of Lewis Acres are sold at The Centerville Marketplace and Centerville’s Farmers Market at River Park.

Like all of the farmers featured in this series, the talents extend beyond the borders of the farm. Nicole is a graphic designer and decoupage queen with an eye for style.  Her business Fondue Vintage Homewares specializes in switch-plate covers and lampshades covered in vintage wallpaper.  I’m only slightly jealous of her awesome collection of vintage wallpaper. You can see and purchase some of her creations on her Etsy store.  Mark plays the guitar, brews beer (with their homegrown hops), cooks a mean cornbread and wrangles chickens in addition to his day job at The Ranch, a world class recovery and rehab facility in Hickman County TN.


Prints from the New American Gothic Series will be on display at Toyzini Gallery (Stop #15) on the Arts & Ag Tour of Hickman County, May 27-28.  More info on the tour can be found at the Arts & Ag Website.

Photo of two farmers, American Gothic Style

Lizzie Wright and Jesse Higginbotham of Sugar Camp Farm. Bon Aqua, TN

Tallahassee May, Kipp Krusa and Sawyer of Turnbull Creek Farm

Tallahassee May, Kipp Krusa and Sawyer of Turnbull Creek Farm

New American Gothic: Sugar Camp Farm

Photo of two farmers, American Gothic Style

Lizzie Wright and Jesse Higginbotham of Sugar Camp Farm. Bon Aqua, TN

Sugar Camp Farm, Bon Aqua, TN, is this week’s featured American Gothic farmer photo.  Jesse Higginbotham and Lizzie Wright were great sports to take a break to pose for pictures on a hot August day, during their first summer of farming at Sugar Camp Farm.   The couple married in October of 2014, bought 78 acres and a flock of 21 sheep in January of the following year.  With a commitment to each other, and to a full-time farm life, they started a market garden in spring of 2015 and have been working hard to grow their farm.  In 2016, they began to offer CSA shares and are currently growing for 27 families, in addition to selling at the Richland Park Farmers Market every Saturday  morning.  

With a background in landscape design and management intensive grazing, Jesse has a deep understanding of the impact of overgrazing.  Together, they have committed to a style of grazing management that means more work for them, but is better for the land, the animals and for the people who later enjoy the meat on their dinner table. The animals are moved every 1-4 days to ensure that they get the healthiest grass without overgrazing the land, they do this with a series of portable solar-powered electric fences.  The pastured lamb meat can be purchased directly from them by pre-ordering before the meat is processed in the spring or at the farmers market.  Lizzie’s background includes a Master’s Degree in Forestry from the University of Missouri, specializing in forest ecology and management, which may explain why you’re likely to find her traipsing through the woodlands to forage for edibles. You can rest assured that she will never be guilty of over harvesting or doing anything to harm the health of the forest or the land.   The vegetables are all grown using biodynamic and organic methods.  All of this sounds like a lot of work?  It is, and they’ve been fortunate to get some great farm helpers.  Jesse’s dad, Tony, helps out at least once a week, and they’ve hosted a handful of farm interns, volunteers and “wwoofers.”  WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a network of organic farms that agree to provide room and board to folks in exchange for help on the farm.  

Lizzie is also a talented singer and musician, and they have committed to providing opportunities for others to enjoy music on their beautiful farm.  They’ve hosted a series of House Concerts which have brought a wide variety of music to Hickman County, such as Curt Oren, Dana T, Dubb Nubb and Helen Vaskevitch. Join them this Friday, May 13th at 6pm for their first outdoor show and potluck of the season featuring Googolplexia and Matt from Bunnygrunt and on May 22nd for their annual May Day celebration and outdoor farm concert. You can learn more about them at SugarCampFarmTN.com  on Facebook or on Instagram.


New American Gothic

Tallahassee May, Kipp Krusa and Sawyer of Turnbull Creek Farm

Tallahassee May, Kipp Krusa and Sawyer of Turnbull Creek Farm, Tennessee

In honor of Earth Day, April 22, I would like to honor one of the stewards of our earth and release the first in a new series of photos, New American Gothic.

Tallahassee May has been farming with her husband, Kipp Krusa, and their son, Sawyer on 7 acres west of Nashville since 2003.  Their farm, Turnbull Creek, specializes in cut flowers and fresh produce, naturally grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  As co-owner of Fresh Harvest, an online farmers market, she provides vegetables and flowers from Turnbull Creek as well as meats, cheeses, eggs and an assortment of other goodies from local farms that fit the criteria of being sustainably grown, raised or produced.

The talent in family doesn’t stop with Tallahassee.  Kipp Krusa is a master luthier, building beautiful custom guitars, like the one he is holding in the photo.  Sawyer is just an awesome kid; smart, funny, kind and a budding drummer.  When I asked him to hold a tool that he would use in the garden, the only option was the flame weeder, because what 14-year-old boy doesn’t love to “play” with fire in a Mom approved way?

The New American Gothic photo series has been a fun way for me to highlight some of the sustainable farmers in Middle TN.  Stay tuned for more, this is just the beginning of what I hope to be a long-term project.  Really, it just a good excuse for me to visit other farms and hang out with cool farmers.

Prints from the series will be on display at Toyzini Gallery during the Arts and Ag Tour Memorial Day Weekend.

Photography Tips for Taking Pictures in the Snow

Snow is falling as my Basic Photography students are working on their first shooting assignment.  As I walked around the farm this morning to take pictures, I kept thinking about tips I wish I could share with them.

Photography Tip #1: Watch for the light!  As with all photography, interesting light can make any scene more interesting, a snowy, icy scene can be magical when the light shines just right!


Magic light on a snowy icy morning (Emily Naff)

Magic light on a snowy icy morning.

One of the first things to understand about shooting in the snow (or sand) is that your light meter will not necessarily give you the best exposure. If you notice your snow looks gray or dingy, you may want to slightly over expose the shot… not too much or you’ll lose important detail.  I usually find that 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop over exposure does the trick.



 (Emily Naff)

Look for contrast.  White or bright subjects will stand out more against a dark background.

These icy branches stand out against the dark background of the pine and cedar trees. (Emily Naff)

These icy branches stand out against the dark background of the pine and cedar trees.

Know that in the shade, you might might start to encounter a blue color shift.  Adjust your white balance settings if you don’t want it, or use it for creative effect

Zooming in for a tight shot allowed for a simple composition and contrast of the switchgrass and snow against the dark background. (Emily Naff)

Zooming in for a tight shot allowed for a simple composition and contrast of the switchgrass and snow against the dark background.

Use Manual Focus for more control.  Auto focus lenses are looking for areas of contrast to focus on. When the snow is falling it might have difficulty knowing what you want to focus on.  If you focus on the background, the snow flakes might not show up.  If you want the snow flakes to be sharp, switch to manual focus and pick a point closer to your camera to focus on.

In autofocus mode, the camera kept trying to focus on the trees in the background. Switching to manual mode allowed control of focus to make the falling snow sharp and to blur the trees in the background. (Emily Naff)

In autofocus mode, the camera kept trying to focus on the trees in the background. Switching to manual mode allowed control of focus to make the falling snow sharp and to blur the trees in the background.

Experiment with different shutter speeds.  Do you want to stop the falling snow, or have a little blur from the movement of the snow.  What shutter speed you want will depend on how fast the snow is falling.  Try a few different shutter speeds until you gee the desired effect… just remember to use a tripod or avoid shutter speeds that are too slow to hand hold. Really slow shutter speeds will make the falling snow disappear.

Snow covered pine branches against the backdrop of a hardwood forest. (Emily Naff)

Snow covered pine branches against the backdrop of vertical lines created by the hardwood forest in the distance.

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