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Dummies guide to SLR digital Cameras

Posted on Oct 9, 2007 by Paul White

So back in March of 2007 I finally got a real digital camera.  I was coming from the point and shoot world, so I had no reference going to an SLR digital camera.  There are many different brands models, ext...   One would typically only look at how many megapixels the sensor handled, but I soon learned there was much more to them then this.  The first thing is every SLR camera body is seperate from the lense.  That is you can switch the lenses to get better zoom, more light, or a wider angle of view. 

The first thing a man with an ego would want to know is what is the best camera?  Even though I didn't pick this, the industry leader is cannon.  More professional Photographers use cannon than any other brand.  If you watch football games and see these guys with monster lenses on the sidelines ( often getting run over ), they all use cannon SLR digital cameras.  SLR digtal cameras start around $700 and work their way up.  Cannon's Flagship is a 23 Megapixel Mark III.  If you have an ego that needs to be fullfilled and the general bragging rights, this would be the camera for you. Just be prepared to spend over $8k for the camera body. 

I am sure you are all wondering what camera did I buy.  I bought the Sony Alpha 100.  This would the first SLR camera sony every released.  The truth is Sony bought out Minolta / Maxium, and simply rebadged all their hardware.  This is nice because all the minolta lenses will also fit the sony cameras.

The Endless pursuit of Perfection

Cameras are just like Cars.  You can get a stock one, and then deck it out.  With cars you start off with your factory options, then do simple stuff like add a better muffler, headers, Air Intake ext...  Cameras are the same way but this is with the lenses.  The stock lense you get will be pretty good for most shots.  But depending on what you are shooting there is always a lense to upgrade to.  I have seen some photographers that use an arsenal of over 20 lenses.  Each one has its own strengths.  Just remember as you upgrade from your 50mm 1.7 to a 50mm 1.4  the lense can only do so much.  If you have spent thousands on lenses and are still not getting the shots you want, either you dont' know what you are doing or your camera body is not sophisticated enough.  You might need to upgrade to a newer ( more expensive ) camera body.  If your upgrade forces you to switch brands, then sell your old stuff on ebay.  Just be sure when you sell your stuff you sell everything seperately.  There are lots of guys who want your f1.4 lenses but not your camera body.  Then be sure to offer combined shipping, in case someone wants to buy multiple lenses.

Lenses for Dummies

Lenses can be measured by many Factors.
Aperature, Angle of View, Focal Length, Focus Speed

First thing you should know is lenses have a specific mount they were designed for.  IE a lense made for a sony alpha will not work on a cannon EOS.  Usually the mounts are pretty compatible throughout a brand.  If you bought a Sony Alpha 100 then you can use lenses that work on both the sony and Minolta's. 


Determines your field of focus, and how much light is coming into the camera.  These values range from f1.0 and up.  The Higher the number the less light your lense is letting in.  The lowest aperature lenses are able to capture shots with very little light, and with a very fast shutter speed.  As your Aperature gets higher, you have to leave your shutter open for longer.  If you don't have a tripod, or steady hand this will almost always result in motion blurr.  Also the lower the aperature the more expensive the lense gets. 

Focal Length

This is how long the lense is.  The longer the focal length the closer in you can get to your subject matter.  Also the longer the lense the narrower your field of view is.  Since the specs on lenses are usually given based on a 35mm frame ( from the film days ). a 50mm lense would make subjects appear close to what they appear by a nake eye.  Anything shorter than 50mm would make objects look zoomed out. Anything longer would make them look zoomed in. 

Angle of View

This is is most important when shooting tight spaces.  If you want to capture an entire room from the corner you will need a lense that has an angle of view greater than 90 degrees.  This usually means going up to a super wide angle lense or a fisheye.  Fisheye lenses or converters give you a 180 degree view with a distorted view.

Focus speed.

This is the speed at which the lense can get in focus when shooting in autofocus mode.  Have a lense that can focus fast is important if you are shooting sports or any event in which your opportunity to capture the action is very limited.  Cheaper lenses usually are much slower on the focus.

What can I expect?

First of all you will be amazed how good your pictures look in auto mode.  I can tell you from my own experience that the color and contrast of the pictures I take with my camera many times looks better than real life.  It would be nice to say it was the talented photographer, but it was really just the hardware doing all the work for me.

Is Film dead?

No of course not.  But film is getting more expensive in camparison.  I can go out and take over 1000 photos with my camera, and it doesn't cost me a thing.  While film I would have to buy 40 rolls, plus pay for developing. 

What about batteries don't digital cameras eat batteries?

Not at all.  I can get a good 500 shots with flash.  Then it only takes about 8 hours to recharge my battery.  Batteries are also cheap on ebay. I have found replacement batteries by third parties for about $10 / each.  I currenly have 3 batteries.

How expensive are lenses?

Depends on what kind of lense you want.  A cheap lense would be around $100.  a decent one would be around $600 ( retail ).  If you want Carl Zeis to custom design a lense so you can shoot monkeys in africa from a mile away, be prepared to spend over $100k.  And Yes there are die hard photographers that have done this. 

What lenses should I buy to get started?

First lense should be an 18-something( 65, 120, 200, 300) that will do for most shots.
Then get a fisheye adapter that can fit onto the end of this lense.  This will allow you to shoot interiors of rooms, allowing you to capture everything.  Next if you want to shot at night and truely capture the night ( meaning no flash ).  You need a fast lense ( low aperature ).  Get a lense with a f1.4 aperature if you can find one.  These will be a good foundation for shooting most things. 

Where can I find lenses for cheap?

Easy, check ebay.  I have bought all my lenses on there.  There are many photographers that decide to switch brands ( often upgrading to cannon hardware ), and the auction off all their stuff.  I have bought $500 lenses for $150 on ebay.  Plus if you buy a lense and decide that you want something better, you can always put it back on ebay and get most of your money back. 

Will a lense made for a film camera work on a digital camera?

Usually as long as the lense will fit the mount it will work.  Keep in mind that most lenses are made for a 35mm frame.  Digital cameras only have a 28mm sensor size ( on average ).  Some cameras have sensors that are a full 35mm giving the results as you get from a film camera.  So when reading the specs on a lense if it says it has a 114 degree angle of view, they are giving specs for 35mm.  On digital you would have closer to a 90 angle of view.

I have a cell phone with a camera isn't that good enough?

No,  Even though I have a sony k800i 3.2 MP cybershot cell phone it doesn't come close to my SLR in quality or performance.

Should I shoot in RAW?

Yes,  If you want your pictures to be perfect, RAW is the only way to go.  JPEG is fine too, but if you are shooing in bad lighting, RAW will give you more options later to clean up your photos.   The will require you to manually adjust your pictures from within a program like Photoshop CS3.  The nice thing is if your pictures were over exposed, under exposed, or the lighting was off. you can easily adjust these once in a RAW picture editor.   JPEG can store alot more photos on your memory card, but RAW will give you perfection. 

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