Tips for Building a Camera Kit
With so many options today, it’s hard to know where to start when selecting a new camera body, lens, and camera accessories. Below, I lay out a strategy I wish I knew when I was starting to take photography more seriously.
Beginner Photographer Buying Tips
As the old sayings go, ‘The best camera is the one you have with you’, and ‘the camera doesn't make the photographer.’ These should be your guiding principles when starting out. To the first point, you need to think about what it means to buy and use a high end camera. Are you going to buy it and never want to take it with you because it was too expensive, or it’s too heavy? There’s no point in getting a camera if it’s just going to sit on a shelf and look cool. Secondly, you don’t need the best camera body, or that three thousand dollar lens to take good pictures. Cell phone cameras are becoming quite impressive these days and for some people that may be all the camera they ever need.
This brings me to my next point. You should continue to use your camera until you reach its limitations. In this day and age many folks feel like they constantly have to upgrade their electronics every year to stay relevant, and I’m here to say that’s just not true. Technology is advancing rapidly, but just because things are a year old two old, does not make them obsolete. Keep this in mind as you look for your new camera, some people are willing to sell last year's model at a discount so they can have the latest and greatest.
I first started off on a point and shoot film camera back in the days before digital cameras and cell phones existed. I remember when Kodak advanced film came out and I thought it was the greatest advancement in photography since 35mm. From there I upgraded to a digital point and shoot camera. This allowed me to save lots of money on film and developing, and I was able to see what I was shooting as I shot it. Next, I started to borrow a DSLR from my dad when I was going on a trip somewhere. The photos were much clearer and could be printed at larger sizes. This was also what got me into modern DSLR cameras, and started me down the path to more serious photography. I purchased my first DSLR, the Canon 60D, in 2014. This was my workhorse, along with the Canon 24-105 L Lens. However, I was starting to dabble in astrophotography and with the 60Ds fairly poor low light capabilities and crop sensor, I just wasn’t able to get the shots I wanted. Which was exciting, because I knew I had finally reached a point in photography where I needed to upgrade!
Enter the Canon 6D Mark II. This camera pretty much checked all the boxes for me. It’s full frame, which was something I was looking to upgrade from the 60D, and it wasn’t all that much heavier or bulkier. It’s also better in low light and at higher ISOs, which is great for astrophotography. A major selling point for me was the ‘flippy screen’. I had become accustomed to it on my 60D and liked it for things like macro shots, selfies, and when shooting video. I read and watched a lot of reviews before purchasing and noticed that there were not too many drawbacks, and certainly no deal breakers for me. It was significantly cheaper than it’s pro model contemporary the 5D Mark III, and an upgrade from the previous 5D Mark II model.
In the future I could see myself moving to a mirrorless camera. The big drawback to the DSLR is that they are relatively large and heavy. Couple that with a heavy piece of glass and your carry-on just became a workout tool. Mirrorless cameras are smaller, and their lenses seem to be much lighter. The major drawback here for me is the electronic viewfinder. I am not sure I would like using that.
So you can see there’s no real silver bullet to the question “what camera should I buy?” You’ll need to do some research and see what camera is available that meets your specific photography needs. To help you decide I suggest trying to answer the questions below:
How much am I comfortable spending? Determine how much you’re willing to spend, and how much you’re willing to lose if something were to happen to the camera. “If you can’t buy it twice, you can’t afford it.”
Which camera manufacturer is right for me? There’s lots of great options out there. Some of the major players are Canon, Sony, and Nikon. Each with slight differentiators.
What am I going to take pictures of? - The research to find what camera does that the best.
Do I want a full frame sensor or something else? Full frame sensors are pretty close to 35mm. Cropped sensors are about 65% as big as a full frame and images actually appeared zoomed in compared to full frame.
Should I go DSLR, mirrorless, or some alternative? Mirrorless cameras are all the rage these days but they can be expensive and require new lenses.
What’s More Important, The Camera Body or the Lens?
When I bought my first DSLR I was primarily focused on the camera body itself. While this is important, I would argue that the lens you select is even more so. Having a fast, sharp lens is likely going to be the better investment in the long run. Especially if you stick to a single brand and can continue to use that lens on future camera bodies.
This is one area I would have focused on more when purchasing my first camera kit. Although I did purchase the Canon 24-105 L, and for being one of the cheapest L lenses available, it was still pretty good. I liked the wide range of focal lengths it offered, and as it was my only lens, I liked that it gave me lots of options there.
Another tip I would give is to think about your overall kit, and number of lenses from the beginning. This is something I definitely did not do and it ended up costing me more money in the future. The strategy that I ultimately went with was to purchase two main lenses, as that was all I had room for in my bag. I really liked my 24-105, but there were many instances when I desired more zoom. Examples would include wildlife and sightseeing tours.
Ultimately I decided on the Tamron 24-70mm and perhaps one of the best lenses Canon has ever made, the Canon 70-200 F4. As you can see, this allowed me to zoom out all the way to 24, or zoom in as far as 200mm, with two lenses and without doubling up on lenses with the same focal length. There are many factors that should go into your lens selection, most importantly ask yourself what sorts of pictures you are primarily going to shoot. If you only shoot bird photography, you’ll want to focus on lenses with the ability to zoom in much further. Conversely if you are only planning to shoot landscapes, you may consider a more wide angle lens.
Deciding Which Lens to Purchase
When you are first starting out I would suggest some sort of zoom lens. This will allow you to try out different focal lengths and see what works best for your style. From there I would look into getting a prime lens. These lenses tend to be inexpensive, and will allow you to take a deep dive into that focal length. This is great practice. It can help you really stretch yourself as a photographer by forcing you to move to get the desired shot, instead of just zooming in. I currently own 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 100mm prime lenses. With the exception of the 100mm Macro lens, they don’t get used all that often, but I really enjoy the exercise and practice when I do use them. Each one has its own strengths and drawbacks and that adds to the creativity and fun.
Lastly you can consider more specialized lenses. These would include the previously mentioned 100mm Macro lens, a super wide angle fish eye lens, or even something like a 800mm super zoom lens. I would not recommend purchasing these lenses when you’re first starting out. Specialized lenses can be really limiting to the types of photos you can take, and may make simple shots difficult. If you think you might want something like this, try renting or borrowing one first. That should help you decide if it’s right for you.
Get a Camera Bag with Room to Grow (that you can carry on an airplane)
So you’ve got your camera, and you’ve selected your first lens, now you need some way of carrying them. The third essential item to any good camera kit is the camera bag. Honestly, this is one of my favorite pieces of gear. I traveled for work for many years, and if there’s one thing it taught me, it is how to compartmentalize. I’ll let you read into that as much as you like.
The camera bag you choose is important for a number of reasons. It can make or break your whole trip. Below are the criteria that I use when buying a new camera bag.
It needs to fit all my stuff. As my collection grows, so has my bag. When I had one body and 1 lens, I could get away with a traditional side sling camera bag, but as my kit grew to include things like a drone, I needed more room to accommodate more stuff. I suggest getting a camera bag that has some room to grow.
Fit under the seat in front of me on an airplane. You definitely don't want to have to check your bag full of camera gear when traveling by plane.
Easy access to my gear and accessories. For this I recommend back loading bags. They allow you to unzip the whole back of the bag and access your gear almost all at once. There are typically some smaller pockets that will allow you to tuck some things away, like cords and chargers but for the most part everything is instantly in view. This is a huge improvement over something like a traditional backpack.
The bag needs to fit my lifestyle. With seemingly infinite options for camera bags, you need to get one that fits with where you plan to take it. For me that’s a good travel bag. Something that I can pack full of gear and fly to a destination. You may need something that can double as a hiking bag and fit all the gear that requires. Or, you may need one that’s more stealthy for walking around the city doing some street photography. Whatever you decide you want to do, make sure to get a bag that’s up to the task.
In my experience, there’s no one bag that’s best for every situation, and you may end up needing multiple bags. I personally purchased a bag from Nomadic in collaboration with a popular YouTube streamer named Peter McKinnon, and i think it's as close to the perfect travel bag as anyone has gotten, but I carry a small messenger bag most days and leave the big bag at home.
Where do you go from here?
At this point you’ve got everything you need to start shooting, and that should be your main priority while you are learning. There’s no replacement for experience here. The best way to get better is to go out and shoot. Along the way you’ll find that you need certain things in order to stay in the field longer, or try some more advanced techniques.
For instance, long exposure photography is one of my favorite styles. In order to take those long exposures I needed to pick up a good tripod. This also came in handy while doing macro photography and getting family pictures at Christmas. Filters can come in handy to remove glare off water or darken skies for landscape photography. A flash or lights might be needed next if you find yourself shooting indoors most often.
You may also consider more specialized cameras at this point. I know I was excited to try out an adventure camera while SCUBA diving. I also really like having a drone in the bag. It doesn’t get used as much as I would like, but I enjoy the movies that I can make from the footage nonetheless.
My best advice for learning photography is to learn from those that you admire. Find someone you like through YouTube or Instagram, and go out and try to replicate their work. If you get stuck or need inspiration there are countless hours of videos on YouTube to help you out.
If you made it this far, I hope some of this advice was helpful. The main point is to not worry about what gear is the best, and focus on using the gear that you have. Photography is an art form and should be explored as such. There is no right or wrong way to do it, and everyone likes different things. Learn from those that have mastered the craft, but don’t be afraid to try new things.
I have added affiliate links to the camera equipment that I use below if you would like to check it out. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, or would like to see a review on any of the items listed below.
My Camera Kit
First DSLR: Canon 60D- https://amzn.to/3iiAe7H
Current workhorse: Canon 6D Mk.II - https://amzn.to/2YS5EKn
GoPro Hero 7 Black - https://amzn.to/3gjT5xb
Drone: DJI Mavic Air 2 - https://amzn.to/2VAiw5F
OG lens: Canon 24-105mm F4 L Lens - https://amzn.to/2CWcm9r
Macro Lens: Canon 100mm F2.8 Macro Lens - https://amzn.to/2NLBh1B
Everyday Carry: Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 G2 - https://amzn.to/2D4TkOx
Telephoto Lens: Canon 70-200mm F4 Lens - https://amzn.to/3dSkHb1
‘Cinema Lens’: Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art Lens - https://amzn.to/2ZycYd0
Nifty 50: Canon 50mm F1.4 Lens - https://amzn.to/2BlsVLR
Portrait Lens: Canon 85mm F1.8 Lens - https://amzn.to/31FBPyj
Peter McKinnon/ Nomadic Camera Bag https://bit.ly/3egpEdY
Previous Bag: Lowepro Protactic 450 AW II - https://amzn.to/38osTyS
Small Bag Lowepro Flipside 400 AW II - https://amzn.to/2VDxibW
Sling Bag - Kattee Leather Canvas Messenger Bag - https://amzn.to/2YRdZOj
Joby GorillaPod - https://amzn.to/3dZfPBf
Tripod - https://amzn.to/2BJFK2N
Memory card case - https://amzn.to/2YPbDQ4