Getting Started

There was a time when I fancied myself as a pretty decent amateur photographer. I had a nice rig (a Canon EF-1) with some nice lenses, filters, and flashes. I use to shoot several rolls of film a week, which turned out to be fairly expensive just getting the film (I shot slides mostly) processed.

This was taken in 1972 in Thailand using my Canon EF-1 35mm.

After getting married and starting a family I found that more and more I had to choose between buying necessities and buying film. If I were single I would not have minded going hungry for the sake of my art, but my wife made it clear that she had no intentions of subscribing to such bohemian ideas. Sadly, I sold my SLR (Single Lens Reflex) and bought an inexpensive snapshot camera so that I could at least take family photos when the occasion arose.

Over the years I often thought about taking up the camera again, especially since digital photography has made the hobby somewhat cheaper by putting the entire process of idevelopingi and printing the photos squarely in the hands of anyone with a computer. With applications like iPhoto and Adobe Photoshop Elements, amateurs and professionals alike can not only take a good shot, but play with the image to make it the best it can be. And todayis consumer cameras are marvels of automation. With them, if you can point and click you are almost guarantied to get a decent picture.

However, my long suppressed artistic side is awakening, now that the kids are grown and I have a little extra time and money on my hands; I want more than to take decent pictures, I want my still-lifes to dance, my portraits to entrance, and my landscapes to take your breath away. To get those kinds of photos I figured Iid need a digital SLR (DSLR). The problem is that DSLRs tend to be pricey suckers. Also, back when I was learning to use my Canon there was a fairly steep learning curve involved.

So, the big question is: Do I have that kind of time and that kind of money to step up to a DSLR?

You may be asking yourself that same question. If so then this series of articles is for you. In iThe Postulant Photographeri I intend to tell you what I learn as I venture into the realm of iserious photographyi. It is my hope that my experiences may help you decide whether your next camera will be selected from the vast array of increasingly capable and affordable consumer cameras, or from the many new DSLRs now available, also I talk about what to do once youive decided to become a photographer too. Iill discuss the accessories, software, and hardware the modern photographer needs to ply his trade. Finally, Iill talk about some of the photographic techniques Iive discovered, and am still discovering in my quest to get the most out of my old/new hobby.

In this first article Iim going to discuss the DSLR and a process you might use to buy one.

Whether DSLR?
If youire like me, you probably have a pretty nice digital snap-shooter (my term for small, relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras) and you are likely pretty happy with it. After all, snap-shooters are convenient, easy to use, and can take great snap shots. And the latest pro-sumer cameras, such as the Canon S3SI blurs the line between cameras the average Joe or Jane might use and those a professional would keep in his or her arsenal.

So, why would anyone pay the extra bucks, sometimes hundreds of extra bucks, to buy a DSLR?

In a word: Control.

DSLRs offer the user unprecedented control over the camera, and so, over the resulting photograph. Good DSLRs offer a wide range of interchangeable lenses, filters, flashes, and more and include options that let the photographer do anything he or she wishes.

Want to keep the aperture open for several seconds to catch light trails? Need to under-expose a bright shot on purpose, or over-expose to iburn-ini the image? Do you want to play with your depth-of-field? Do you enjoy extreme macro-photography or love to take sweeping high resolution panoramas? Perhaps you enjoy taking extreme close-ups of distant objects. Itis hard to do many of these things with a snap-shooter, they are designed to take very good pictures in a variety of situations the average person might encounter. The problem is, the pictures you want to take are not average.

If you really want to creatively stretch the limits of photography, you need the control a DSLR can give.

You may have been put off by DSLRs thinking that they are too complicated to use. After a fashion, youire right, they can be a hand full, but, like any precision instrument, if you learn how to use it you will get a lot of use out of it. The nice thing about todayis DSLRs is that the learning curve has been shortened substantially because of all the automagic functions featured on these cameras.

Arenit Consumer Cameras Good Enough?
With every new model makers bring to the market, consumer cameras get better and better, and you can take some really great photos with them. Telephoto lenses are the big thing now; models from every major manufacturer sport 3x, 10x, even 12x optical zoom lenses with image stabilization. Couple that with a host of automagic settings and youid be amazed at the quality of photos these new cameras can take.

I bought a Canon SD-4005MP snap-shooter about a year ago and it is quite a jewel (The Canon SD-450 is available now). The photos Iive managed to take with it are wonderful, but I started running into the limitations of the camera pretty quickly. For example; the SD-400 has a 3X optical zoom, which is fine for about 80% of most photographic situations, but becomes severely limiting when you want to shoot that bird in a tree, or get a nice candid shot of your niece. (Donit bother using the digital zoom features of any camera; digital zoom attempts to magnify the image digitally and the result is often less than spectacular. Itis best to take the shot with the highest optical zoom you have available and magnify the photo with your post-processing software.)

Macro of a Bird of Paradise taken with the Canon SD-400.

I like macro-photography and the SD-400 does a really nice job in that department as well, but its lens just isnit sharp enough to capture the details Iim looking for. I also wanted to take better portraits. The flash on all snap-shooters, most pro-sumer cameras, and even those built in to some DSLRs yields pictures with well lit faces, but thereis usually nothing very interesting about the photos; everyone looks like theyire getting their picture taken.

Now Iim using a Olympus Evolt E-500 DSLR with a 14 - 45mm and a 40 - 150mm zoom lenses these days. I keep my SD-400 around as a backup camera and for the occasion when I need to shoot something quickly.

Snowy and Red Egrets taken with the Olympus E-500 and the 40-150mm lens.

The lenses that come with the E-500 offer a range and clarity of photos I could only dream of with a pocket camera. And the flash, while still a pop-up, has options I never knew existed, like a timed delay flash, which offsets the light from the flash so that the object in the photo gets exposed to only a portion of the light from the flash. Itis one way to reduce glare and that deer-in-the-headlights look in pictures taken with many snap-shooters.

But There Are So Many...

There are a lot of DSLRs to pick from. The Olympus Evolt E-500, for instance, is a good choice for serious amateurs and pros on a budget; it is highly regarded in every review Iive read on the camera, and with good reason. It is small, light weight, yet it feels solid in your hands. The controls are easy to learn and use, and the kit lenses, while not the absolute best there available, are more than adequate for a vast majority of your photographic needs. And the camera with both lenses will only set you back about US$900, less than $700 at some Internet sites, making it quite a bargain.

Other great cameras in the same price range are the Canon Rebel XT and XTi, the Nikon D50, D70, and D80, Sonyis new A100, and the new Pentax K10D. There are other cameras in the sub-$1000 price range that are worth a good look as well.

When deciding on which camera to buy my suggestion is to go to a reputable camera review site, like DPReview or DCReview, and go through each of the cameras listed, paying close attention to details that matter to you, like the availability of quality lenses and accessories, and resolution (measured in megapixels (MP)).

Narrow you list of DSLR candidates to 5 then go out to your local Best Buy, CompUSA, Circuit City, or quality camera shop and get your hands around each of the cameras on your list. Donit be concerned about cost just yet, just think about how the camera feels in your hands and how easy it is for you to get to features you think youill use a lot. Look at the fit and finish of the cameras, check how easy it is to change media cards, batteries, and lenses.

Finally, if you have any friends or relatives who are pro photographers, get their recommendations. Be aware that some people are brand fanatics, and will tout one brand over another for no particular reason other than personal preference, which is fine, but it should not color your choices.

Once you have all the facts, and know which camera fits your needs, find the best price by shopping around both online and at your local brick and mortar stores. Sometimes you can find really good deals at your local camera shop that you just canit get from the Net.

Service is also a reason to consider buying locally. Good camera shops will have trained personnel who should be able to answer your questions about cameras, lenses and whatnot. When your equipment needs servicing, a good brick and mortar camera store is indispensable.

Regardless of which DSLR you decide to buy one thing will be clear, the pictures you take will be better, on average, than those taken by a cheaper consumer camera.

About the Olympus E-500

Iive had the E-500 for a little more than two months now and I have to say that I find more things to like about the camera every time I use it.

Olympus Evolt E-500

Like all DLSRs available today, the Olympus E-500 will hold your hand by running fully automatic if you want, or it will let you run amuck photographically speaking if you desire more artistic control. One nice feature the E-500 offers is what Iill call the quasi-manual focus modes: The E-500 has two auto-focus PLUS manual settings (Single auto-focus plus manual and continuos auto-focus plus manual). These modes let the camera do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to focusing, but allows you to fine tune the shot by manually focusing right before you take the picture. This feature comes in handy when you want to play around with the depth-of-field (the area of the photo thatis in focus) to add interest to your shots.

Another great feature about Olympus is not on the cameras it offers, but on its website; Olympus offers some really useful how-tos aimed at helping you to get the most out of your new camera.

Olympus is not the only camera maker to offer such help, so when you are deciding on a camera take a look at the manufactureris website and check out the free tutorials which can speak volumes on how easy it is to perform the different camera functions.

Thatis it for now. Hopefully, this article will help you decided if stepping up to a DSLR is the right move for you. In my next article Iill talk about the hardware youill need to support your new hobby.

Until next time; happy shooting.