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:

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.

Photographing Festivals

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

Our first weekend in Tokyo,  just happens to coincide with one of the largest festivals in Tokyo.  Even luckier, it’s right in our neighborhood of Asakusa, which makes it easy to pop in an out over the course of the 3 days of festivities.  Since many of the students are going on Sunday, I thought I’d give a few pointers that came to mind as I’ve stopped by to shoot a little bit.

Research:  See if you can find out a schedule, and try to gain an understanding of the significance of the festival activities.  In the case of Sanja Matsuri, the Japan Guide website is a good source of information.  This allowed me to be on site for the opening ceremony.

Prepare:  Charge your battery, empty your memory cards (and bring extras) and wear good shoes!

Experience:  Festivals are a great time to meet people and have a good time.  Don’t get so caught up in documenting the experience, that you forget to experience it.

Eat:  Fair foods around the world are a treat!

Photographing a chaotic event like a festival can be a challenge.  So, how do you bring order to the chaos to make interesting photographs?

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

Consider the background:   If you know that a certain activity, like a procession, is going to occur, then position yourself so that you can have an interesting background.   Look for large, simple structures, that can act as a framing device, or that will look good blurred when using shallow depth of field.  Even better, choose a background that gives a sense of place to the action happening in front of it.

Observe other photographers: When I got the festival on Friday, I wasn’t sure of the route, so I noticed a few photojournalist, and paid attention to where they were positioning themselves.  No, I didn’t steal their spot, but it did give me some ideas of where to stand, and what I wanted as background shots.

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

Get above the crowd:  I thought I’d have an easy chance of this, until one of the photojournalist I mentioned earlier, set up his step stool! Look around to see if  you can stand on a rock or stairway or get on someone’s shoulders like this little guy.

Pay attention to details:  The little things are the adjectives that make the story interesting.

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

Use all of your senses:  Listen for the sounds, if there are drums, there is a party!  While walking back to my hotel this afternoon, I heard the sound of drums, so I followed my ears to find a procession with children playing the drums, and carrying the shrines.  Doesn’t get much more adorable than that.

Photograph the crowd:  Festivals are not all about the parade or procession, the crowd enjoying themselves is also part of the story.

Eat:  Photograph what you eat.  Vendors are often more willing to let you photograph them if you’ve just purchased something from them.

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

Be mobile:  If you’re going with a group, it’s best to divide into pairs.  If your intention is to photograph, then more than 2 people can have a difficult time navigating a crowd.  Better yet, give yourselves a meeting place, so that you can follow the pictures, without keeping up with a crowd a friends.

Follow the Procession:  There are often good shots to be had as the parade waits to turn a corner, or allow the next float to catch up.

Linger:  Don’t be in a hurry to leave..  It’s not over til the Kabuki Theatre performs.  Just as I thought the festival was over I hear a drum beat, then a flute… next thing I notice there’s a Kabuki performance beginning on a little stage beside the shrine.

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


So you’ve got a new camera, now what?

Photography students learning about all the features on their cameras. (Emily Naff)
Photography students learning about the features on their new cameras.

You’ve done your research and decided on a camera, then as you start to unpack the box, a little panic sets in.  Now what?  What in the world are all these buttons and symbols on the lcd screen?   You could put it in auto mode and start clicking away, but which is auto mode?  How do you turn the flash on, or off?  How do you focus?  Why are the pictures blurry, or too dark, or too light?

All of these questions and more will be answered in the Basic Photography Class that I’m teaching in Japan this summer. This next series of articles is geared toward the new photographer who wants to learn how to take control of the image making process to make more creative photographs.

So let’s start from the beginning. Make sure your battery is charged and you’ve got a memory card inserted into the camera.



A few ground rules to help you get started:

  • Never insert or remove a memory card with the camera powered on. Doing so, could corrupt the data on the card, making the images unusable.
  • Do not remove or change lenses with the camera powered on. This can increase the amount of dust inside the camera. It’s a good idea to the hold the camera with the lens opening pointing down, to prevent dust or debris from falling into the camera while changing lenses.
  • Format your memory card before you start to shoot.  This will ensure that the card will work best with your new camera. You will also want to reformat your card once the images are downloaded and backed up. Reformatting will erase all the data on the card, but it will also prevent corruption. This is better than simply deleting all images, or deleting images one by one. You may need to refer to your manual to find where the format option is found. It is usually buried in a menu.
  • For your first day or two of shooting, go ahead and set it to Auto or Program Mode.
  • Auto mode will make all exposure setting decisions for you, including f/stop, shutter speed and probably ISO.
  • Program mode will allow you cycle through different combinations of aperture and shutter speed settings. On most cameras this is accomplished by turning the rear dial. With this setting you want to avoid shutter speeds lower than 1/125 of a second, to avoid images being blurred by camera shake, or use a tripod.
  • Make sure your lens is set to Auto Focus (AF)  If the auto focus is not focusing on what you want, then you may want to switch it to manual focus (MF) or learn how to adjust the focus points in your camera.
  • Turn on IS or VR on your lens, if it’s an option. Camera shake is a result of camera movement during a slow shutter speed, some lenses will have VR (vibration reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization) to help prevent camera shake. With these lenses you can usually use slightly slower shutter speeds.
  • Don’t worry, I’ll explain shutter speeds and aperture settings in a future blog post.
  • Keep that manual handy!   You’ll need to refer to a lot in the beginning. I’ll use this blog post as a way to help explain some of the concepts that will help you decipher the manual.

Choosing a Camera: Part 2

This Blog post is Part 2 of a series with advice on buying a camera.

Choosing the Camera Brand:  For years, the answer has usually been “Nikon” or “Canon”.  I’ve always compared that choice to the Ford/Chevy or Mac/PC debate.   There are strong opinions  and valid reasons for choosing one over the other. For students who are majoring in Photography, I have always given the following bits of advice:

  • Go to a camera store, like Dury’s in Nashville.  Hold the cameras in your hands, see how the ergonomics of the camera feels for you.  You might find that one or other is easier to hold, or the controls seem more intuitive… Then purchase the camera from that store,  if you purchase online, then that store might not be there next year. You also more help with warranty support and a friendly face to ask for advice when considering future purchases.
  • Do you have a photography mentor? If you have a good friend, family member or professional mentor that you might call with questions, or swap equipment with, it will be easier if you shoot with the same system.
  • Consider future purchases:  One of the most daunting aspects of a new camera purchase is the idea of buying into a “system.” Each camera system has it’s one lens mount, so you can’t mount a Canon lens on a Nikon body…and vice versa.  So once a photographer has invested in one system and ones multiple lenses it is more difficult to switch camera brands.
  • Lenses and Accessories:  For years, most professional photographers have chosen either Nikon or Canon systems. These brands have strong brand loyalty, and offer a lot of flexibility because of the sheer number of lens and accessories that are available for the systems.   If you look at lens made by other manufactures like Tamron and Sigma, you’ll notice that the lenses are offered with either a Nikon mount or a Canon mount.  This is the primary reason why I tell students who are interested in pursuing photography at a professional or serious amateur level to purchase on of those two brands.   Sony has recently been making a push to enter into the professional market, and they actually make the sensors for Nikon cameras.  At the time I am writing this blog, the lenses available for their cameras are still limited, but there are adaptors that be used to convert most lenses with a Nikon or Canon mount to fit on the Sony Camera.
  • How much money do you have to spend?   When shopping for cameras, you will often find good deals on a kit that includes a body and lens (or two) and other accessories.   The lenses included in these package deals are often referred to as the “kit lens.”  This combo of body and lens are often packaged for new photographers who need a simple set up that provides flexibility for a variety of situations.   The downside to this setup is that these “kit lenses” are usually not the highest quality lenses offered by the manufacturers.  You can often find faster and sharper lenses by purchasing the body and lens separately.

Avoid loading up on gadgets and gizmos right away.  Wait until you’re are more knowledgeable about photographic terminology and your own personal needs.  If you are just getting started, it’s okay to start out with an entry level camera and kit lens.  All new digital SLR cameras are going to have the basic functions that you need to learn photographic fundamentals. You can upgrade your lenses later.

And most important: Cameras don’t take pictures, photographers make them.  It’s your vision and knowledge that operate the equipment.  The camera is only the tool, the photographer is the creative force behind the lens.   My Philosophy on Gear.

Boats returning to Abraao after a day at Lopes Mendes Beach, Ilha Grande, Brazil (Emily Naff)
Boats returning to Abraao after a day at Lopes Mendes Beach, Ilha Grande, Brazil.

Advice to New Photographers: Buying a Camera

As a photography teacher, I’m often asked the question what “camera do you recommend?”  I realize that most people just want me to give them a specific camera and say “buy this one, it’s the best.”   Unfortunately, the answer I give is never that simple. Like most major purchases, buying a camera requires some knowledge and research.   For newbies, who are about to take their first photography class, the lack of knowledge about technical aspects of a camera can make the research and decision seem daunting.

Last week, I met the students who will be traveling with me to Japan in 2014.   Unfortunately, our orientation did not allow enough time to really delve into the questions about the all important camera question.  Since they need to have the cameras before departure, I thought I’d write this blog post with these students in mind.  My goal is that anyone who wants to learn photography or is considering purchasing a new camera will find this information useful. You might also want to read my Philosophy on Gear that I wrote before a similar study abroad trip to Brazil.

Pedestrian silhouette in New York City (Emily Naff)
Pedestrian silhouette in New York City (Emily Naff)

When beginning your research it is good to know the answer to these questions:

Is photography going to be a casual hobby, serious hobby or profession?   The camera manufactures tend to make different models for these categories: entry level, pro-sumer and professional.  Many of the functions are the same, but the pro-sumer and professional camera body tend to be better built to withstand the use (aka abuse) that the heavy users will subject their cameras too.

How much money do you have to spend?  It is generally the case that more money will get you higher quality equipment and lenses. If choosing between spending more money on a camera body or lenses, spend more money on quality lenses. In most cases, the glass, optics and speed of a better lens will be a bigger factor in image quality than the camera body.

Do you already have some lenses and other equipment from an film camera, friend or relative?  Is so, what brand is it?  What sensor size is it designed for?  If the lenses are from a film camera, they may work on a digital camera of the same brand. If they are from a digital camera, you’ll want to know if they are designed for full frame or aps-c sensor size.

What type of shooting do you plan to do the most?   Snapshots of friends and family, portraits, weddings, sports, action, nature, wildlife, macro, extreme sports, urban street, night or lowlight photography?  Refine your search by looking for articles and reviews on cameras and lens by including the type of photography in your search.

Do you need an SLR, or will a compact point and shoot do the trick?   I’ve written a few blog posts about the pros and cons of SLRS and Point and Shoots.  There are also some new types of cameras entering the market that are worth taking a look at.  Many of these new models  bridge the gaps between the pros and cons of SLR and Point and Shoot.  Some of the terms you’ll hear to describe these other options are “mirrorless’,”interchangeable lens”, and “micro four-thirds”.  I’m planning another blog post to explain those options, so stay tuned.

The students in my study abroad trip are required to use an SLR or camera with interchangeable lenses, so Part 2 of this blog post will focus on the decisions to be made when buying an SLR. Subscribe to the blog (bottom right of this page) to make sure you get Part 2 emailed to you.  Part 2 will also include helpful links to websites that will be helpful in the research process.

Bad weather makes better photos.

Sometimes bad weather can make more interesting photos.  Here are two examples of similar pictures taken in different weather conditions.  Often the blue sky and sunny days are when we think we we’re going to get the better pictures.  Sunny days might inspire us to have more fun and take a lot of pictures, but often the “bad” weather makes better photographs.  The unusual light and atmospheric conditions can create more drama, contrast and interesting textures in the sky.   Of course, personal safety and comfort is a factor in whether or not you can or should take the risks to capture the shot.   I would have loved to have stayed on the top deck of the Spirt of Peoria for just a few more pictures, but the crew of the boat had my safety in mind when they kindly “kicked us off” the top deck.

Sprit of Peoria is a paddle driven river boat that takes day trips and extended river trips along the Illinois River. (Emily Naff)
Sprit of Peoria is a paddle driven river boat that takes day trips and extended river trips along the Illinois River.  This picture was taken with the dramatic sky created by an approaching storm.


Sprit of Peoria is a paddle driven river boat that takes day trips and extended river trips along the Illinois River. (Emily Naff)
Sprit of Peoria is a paddle driven river boat that takes day trips and extended river trips along the Illinois River. This blue sky day is inspiring for the photographer, and this image would probably be the one chosen by a marketing firm, but the image itself is not as dramatic as the shot taken with the stormy sky.