Taking good photos without a DSLR or 50mm lens

Today I saw (via Daring Fireball) a blog post on Prolost titled  “How to take good photos for under $1,000“. The author states a bunch of things I disagree with that I’d like to address. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about ‘serious photography’ and frankly I would probably have believed all this stuff myself five years ago.

Don’t buy a DSLR

DSLRs, even the entry level consumer ones, are big pieces of technology. The chances are at any given time you want to take a photo you’ll have left the camera at home because it’s too big and awkward to carry with you. There’s a reason the iPhone is one of the most popular camera’s on the planet, it’s effortless to have with you. Mirrorless “compact system cameras” (CSC) aren’t as small as an iPhone, but many are pocketable, purse-able or generally unobtrusive enough to have with you without getting in the way. What’s more the image quality between CSCs and DSLRs is basically the same. All that bulk in a DSLR is coming from supporting legacy lenses and mirror boxes to allow through-the-lens optical view finders, neither of which are necessary to take great photos but are instead throwbacks to the days of film.

The other, oft overlooked, factor with DSLRs is that they intimidate people. If you want natural looking candid photos of people who aren’t used to having big black cameras thrust in their faces, a smaller, more friendly looking CSC will help set them at ease.

Don’t just buy a 50mm lens

The so called “nifty 50” lens was standard in the film days, it’s a simple, cheap lens that lets you throw the background out of focus and provides a nice general purpose field of view. Perfect. The problem is on anything other than a 35mm film camera or expensive full frame DSLR it’s actually a 75mm equivalent lens. Suddenly it’s not so general purpose anymore. What this means in practical terms is that at the same distance to your subject on a crop sensor DSLR (like the Nikon D3200 or Canon Rebel that Stu Maschwitz recommends), you’ll see a lot less of the scene. Where on a full frame D800 you’ll see all 4 kids, on your D3200 you’ll maybe see just 2 and a bit. That means to get more people into the photo you’ll have to stand further away from your subjects, and that’s not always possible or practical. Forget about doing large family group shots indoors unless you have a huge room or want to stitch images together in Photoshop.

If you want to recreate that 50mm look on crop sensor cameras, you need something like a 35mm prime instead. These do tend to be a bit more expensive, but you’ll use it a lot more as it’s a more versatile focal length. You can also get some fixed lens cameras like the Fuji X100S or Ricoh GR, that have wide fast primes at 35mm and 28mm equivalent focal lengths which are even more general purpose. For reference the iPhone camera has a roughly 28mm equivalent focal length.

Do use Aperture Priority, but don’t then just set it and forget it

You’ll have way more fun with photography if you take some control back from the camera’s onboard computer. Don’t just shoot wide open all the time though, especially with a 50mm prime. People move, photographers move and in the time it’s taken you to focus, recompose, say “Cheese” and push the shutter button, the subject’s position will have changed enough that their eyes are no longer sharp but the tip of their nose is. Choosing an aperture for a given photograph is a compromise between available light and the depth of field* required to have your subject in focus. Like everything there’s no one size fits all solution and just going ‘wide open’ all the time isn’t a panacea for pleasing photographs. In the wrong circumstances it’s as likely to wreck as to make a picture.

*Depth of field is the area in front of and behind the point in space you have focused on. As your aperture gets wider (smaller f number) it gets shallower and as your aperture gets narrower (higher f number) it gets deeper. Depth of field also decreases the closer you get to your subject and the longer your focal length is.

Do use Auto ISO

The ISO capabilities of DSLRs and CSCs are amazing these days, it’s generally safe to go up to at least 1600 and even higher with some models (ISO 3200 is definitely usable on Fuji X series cameras). After that things can get a bit mushy and blotchy, so it’s a good idea to experiment to see what your tolerance for such artefacts is.

Only manually set your focus point if there isn’t a better option

Personally I like using the focus and recompose method, but it’s not necessarily the best option for all situations. If your subjects are moving around a lot and you’re using a wide open aperture you’re going to miss focus with this method. Lots of cameras these days have face recognition, if your camera has that and you’re shooting people: use it. Similarly cameras with good subject tracking AF will do a better job than you in many cases for moving targets.

Do Shoot RAW, but understand what it means

Shooting RAW is like shooting film in the sense that when you’re done you have a bunch of negatives that need developing to see the end result. Most RAW processors like Aperture, Lightroom and so on produce fairly flat boring looking default conversions so do expect to have to invest some time not only learning the tools but fiddling with sliders to get the look you want. If you don’t want to spend long periods faffing with the computer over the holidays, consider shooting RAW and JPEG mode, that way you get the immediacy of a hopefully nice looking JPEG and the option to go back and further tweak an image to your hearts content later on. Fuji cameras in particular shoot very pleasing JPEGs with great colours.

Don’t machine gun it

You’ll end up quite quickly with thousands of terrible pictures which you’ll spend hours sorting through trying to find the handful of keepers. Cameras these days have vast numbers of megapixels, and if you’re shooting RAW images that quickly means many tens of gigabytes which you then have to sift through, edit, organise and (hopefully) backup in perpetuity.

Instead actually think about your shot, where is your subject, what are they doing, would it be better if they moved a bit, or if you moved. Composition is one of the most important parts of photography, the spray and pray method works on the assumption you’ll get lucky  with a few shots and miss tens or even hundreds. Why not set out to make every shot you take good rather than leaving it to chance? The more you learn to compose your images nicely in the viewfinder or on the rear screen, the quicker you’ll get and more natural it will seem. Spray and pray is a crutch for bad photography.

Also again think of the intimidation factor of someone holding a big black camera in your face clicking away like a machine gun, it’s just not very nice. Not a good way to get the best from anyone remotely camera shy or young children.

Get a flash if you want to shoot in the dark

If you want to take really great photos in crappy light you need to use a flash. Ideally you want a flash you can angle so it’s not blinding your subject, but bounced off the ceiling or a wall to provide nice soft, even illumination. You can get a basic model which will be more than adequate for $50 or less. Pop it in your camera’s hot shoe, point it at the ceiling and snap away without worrying about crazy high ISOs or blurry low shutter speeds.

I think I’ll wrap this up here, hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought if the Prolost article was swaying you towards a DSLR+50mm combo.