If you’re reading this and love to travel, chances are you’ve thought about a investing in a pro camera setup. I’d been dreaming of one forever and upgraded to a Canon Powershot point-and-shoot around Christmas last year, but come Alaska, Panama… Aruba… OK, all these crazy things are happening in my life! It’s about time to jump.
It’s no small decision, these cameras. There are a bajillion options and everyone you ask has a different opinion and as cliche as it sounds no one can really decide what’s best except for you.
Choosing your first pro camera setup is a major time and financial investment.
Between scouring the internet, talking with friends, colleagues and finally performing osmosis with the professionals at B&H HQ in NYC, I spent two solid weeks going through the decision-making process, then another two deciding if I loved my camera and studying the basics of aperture, etc. to gain an entry-level understanding to compile this post. That said, I truly hope it will help you along your way!
Decision #1: Establish your First Pro Camera’s Purpose
This may seem obvious but having your use and subjects clearly, narrowly defined is critical. Saying “general use” here is like going to ATL to catch the next flight out — you could land in Tokyo or Tallahassee.
My Choice #1: Travel, landscapes, mostly still images and street photography.
If you’re the first you know to enter this arena, start with DP Review, B&H Photo Video and Wirecutter for trustworthy starter reviews and to get familiar with common terms. If possible, go to a storefront and talk with a knowledgable professional in person. Best Buy and B&H have designated Educators and Salespeople (see: commission), so be clear that you have no intention to buy that day up front so you’re routed to the right expert.
Decision #2: DSLR or Mirrorless
Mirrorless are the new breed of DSLR’s, sans-mirror. This makes them lighter and more portable. A disadvantage is that they’re new so it’s less likely you’ll be able to share lenses with other photographers right now, and less current lens selection overall. Fast-forward five years and this will no longer be the case.
Image quality between the two is a hot topic — DSLR-lovers say a mirrorless can’t possibly compete with higher-end DSLR lenses, mirrorless lovers say they have bigger image sensors and that DSLR-lovers are just stuck in their ways. Poke around at images on Flickr by a model you like of each and decide for yourself. It’s agreed upon that Mirrorless outperforms for video.
Mid-range DSLR’s are generally less expensive (for now – mirrorless cost less to produce and will drop in price over time), and are also more likely to be found Used. Standard rule on Used is don’t purchase over 20-25k clicks (average lifespan is 200-250k clicks). Photography Life dives into this in more detail.
My choice #2: Mirrorless. I won’t miss any potential image-quality from the DSLR’s because I never knew it, and I want the lightest load and longest life-span, since I’m just starting out. Solo travel in mind, these also don’t have the conspicuous “look” of a big, expensive DSLR, and I plan to take this baby everywhere. Nikon D7100, you’re out.
Decision #3: Body
Decision #3 and Decision #4 go hand in hand as your body will determine your lens availability, but this in itself has two things to consider: brand and model.
It’s important to pick a camera with a software that easily makes sense to you — brand — and most simply, that feels good in your hand — model (also, features like weather-proof, wi-fi, time lapse, continuous shooting, etc.).
Find out what lenses interchange with the body you’re looking at up front. For example, Olympus and Panasonic share the popular micro four-thirds lenses. If you have close pro-photographer friends, being able to share lenses is a bonding experience, can lighten the load on group trips and save money, so it might be worth considering to match. Also, more quantity again means more likely to find Used.
My choice #3: I’m more excited than I was buying my first car at this point and am jumping through to Decision #4 with the Olympus OM-D E-M5. I hear the Sony a6000 has an easier user interface, but the Olympus is weather-proof. Let’s just look at the lenses.
Decision #4: Lenses
Lenses are a whole other world. Really. When I overhear people talk about cameras, I now conclude that they’re probably talking about lenses. A high-caliber lens is mostly always going to cost more than your body. (This was news to me.) Jumping back to step #1, you need to decide exactly what you’re going to use it for.
There are three characteristics to each lens:
Zoom or Prime
Focal Length (mm)
^Media break brought to you by a hazy day at Inwangsan in Seoul, South Korea.
1- Zoom or Prime:
Prime lenses shoot only one, standard image width. Image quality on a Prime lens at any focal length will be higher than on a Zoom lens on the same focal length. Prime lenses are beneficial for lighter-weight and looking low–key, but you only have the one option available which could mean carrying more lenses.
Zoom lenses offer variety in exchange for a morsel of image quality and front-bulk. By technical nature, zoom lenses are more likely to get damaged over time.
My choice: Zoom. Once I learn more about what I shoot most I’ll grab a prime for the image optimization, but right now zoom will cover my bases.
2- Focal Length (mm)
Focal length is the angle of view at which your camera will capture images, i.e. how wide/narrow your shot is. This is everything. The smaller the focal length, the wider the image capture.
Generally, you want smaller focal lengths for landscape, architecture and street photography (Wide Angle – 35 mm and below), mid-range for portraits or close-ups (Normal – 35-120mm) and high focal length for far-away subjects (Telescopic – 120+ mm). The longer the focal length, the more affected your photos will be by shaky hands.
*These lengths are for 35mm Full-Frame Sensor cameras. Most DSLR’s and Mirrorless are not full-frame, but this is the standard. Cambridge in Color has a translation calculator based on your camera’s crop factor.
Don’t worry if you’re confused at this point — these numbers didn’t mean anything to me until I spent a full day in the streets snapping away. I learned a lot that day.
My choices: I love landscapes, and street photography, so I definitely need a low focal length. I’d also like to be able to get some quality shots of my family and friends when I’m home, so I’ll need a standard-width. I like the idea of a telescopic zoom lens, but it seems bulky for travel. I’ll hold on that for now.
3- Aperture/F-Number Range
To truly understand Aperture, you would need to learn the entire subject of photography, which some beautiful minds dedicate their entire lives to.
Look out for a future Introduction to Aperture post to skim the surface details, but for purposes of choosing your lens, generally, the lower the f-number (which inversely means higher aperture) available, the better.
Note that some lenses will have an aperture range based on focal length, which will require a different technical setup to achieve the same shot on different settings. Some cameras have the ability to “Auto” save a setting, to alleviate this.
Confession time: I spent about an hour with my expert at B&H NYC and picked two incredible lenses for the Olympus E-M5: 12-40mm f/2.8 (24-80mm on a 2x crop factor) and 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 (18-36mm on a 2x crop factor). I was walking around looking at tripods. …And I kept thinking how the camera felt a little slippery in my hand. Long-story short I decided I better at least play with the Sony a6000 before checking out — and completely changed my mind.
When I asked the rep for the body, it just felt better. The buttons did make more sense to me. It was lighter. I talked with the Sony guy and found I could get a similar lens setup to the Olympus for ~$1k less. And it had Wi-Fi capabilities (so that’s how all those professional images get on Instagram in live-time – this is important for me in blog-world)! The Sony E-mount has less overall lens selection than the micro four-thirds system, but it could match closely what I had picked out already.
Lesson learned here: physically hold all of your top options in your hands, up front.
I swerved at the last minute and opted to save $1k with the Sony a6000. If I didn’t like it in-action, I’d come back and return it before I left NY. I was mortified to go back to my expert and tell him this, but he gets commission off my sale so it was important to face him instead of being shy about it.
My Decision #4: I decided on the two E-mount lenses that would give me the most flexibility: both zoom, the 16-50mm f/3.6-5.6 (24-76mm by full-frame standards on a 1.5x crop factor) and the 10-18mm f/4.0 (15-27mm by full-frame standards on a 1.5x crop factor). Reference Decision #2 for standard focal length uses.
Decision #5: Accessories
Congratulations! You’ve just picked out a pro camera setup that is going to change the way you capture moments in the world. Be so, SO excited! Now you just have to add on a few trinkets and gear to optimize and protect your investment.
Here are the necessities:
How Instagram got popular, IRL. Filters cover your lens glass and serve a dual purpose of protecting the lens and enhancing your image in a variety of ways. There are UV, skylight, protection, polarizing, neutral density, color correction, color, glass, gelatin, etc. Here’s a great breakdown of what each is good for.
Being obsessed with skylines, a tripod is a need-item for me, but sticking to my theme I also can’t be bothered to carry something bulky. Opted for the super-portable Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom Flexible Mini, because of its size and flexibility. It has a level on the mount to straighten out shots and the legs are super flexible so I can wrap it around a tree branch! Test the mount in-store with your lens before purchasing.
If you’re investing in an equipment setup like this, in my humble opinion you’d be crazy not to insure it, and honestly what’s a couple hundred dollars at this point, in exchange for peace-of-mind? Warranties cover everything but theft so call up your home-owner’s, rental or travel insurance policy also and add it to your plan there too, then you’re set under all circumstances. Warranties can only be added within the first 30 days (or according to store policy where you purchase), and will help hold the value of your equipment over time should you decide to sell for upgrades later.
Walked out of B&H without a camera bag thinking I’d find a better deal on Amazon and later found everything was the same price. I opted for the ONA Leather Messenger instead of the popular waxed canvas version for the same reason I opted for the warranty: protecting my investment. ONA bags are reputable and stylish, and perhaps most importantly to me, they don’t look like camera bags (again, solo wandering in mind). Leather was a better option than the cloth since the Sony a6000 isn’t weather-proof, and I can’t think of anything worse than being pre-occupied by camera-worry when I’m hanging out by a waterfall or dancing in the rain. It’s hands-free and the perfect size for my camera and extra lens with a little space for my iPhone and travel notebook.
Decision #1-5 Recap
To recap, here’s my full round-up:
And… the happiest ever version of me in my newfound natural habitat in Kyoto, Japan:
Leave your camera know-how or questions in the comments below, and lmk what you think of my first few upgraded snaps!
Note: Unfortunately for me nothing listed here was sponsored in any part, but if you choose to buy any of these products based on my recommendations, it would be super cool if you used the links from this post so I get a small referral credit, at no additional cost to you. Thanks in advance!