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Photography

How to Build an Excellent Camera and Lens Kit

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Over the four years that I've been using a digital SLR, I have bought, traded and sold more lenses than I could count. It's been an interesting journey as I've traded zooms for primes and traded primes back to zooms again. If I had it to do over again, I would have definitely made different decisions. In today's article, I'm going to share with you my tips on building a complete camera and lens kit.

Your First DSLR & Lens

If you have not yet purchased your first DSLR, you are faced with a decision that can be a bit daunting. However, you are in a good position to make an informed decision about choosing your gear. While purchasing your first DSLR, it is important to consider the first lens as well. You can purchase the camera alone (you'll find these labeled as "Body Only") or with a variety of lens options that the manufacturer may offer.

In a matter of keeping costs low, most camera manufacturers do not package their best lenses with entry level cameras. The lenses the package with these cameras are often referred to as "kit lenses." If you are purchasing a camera with the kit lens, chances are that it will be something like the 18-55mm - a common offering by DSLR manufacturers.

On focal length alone, this isn't a bad choice because you can cover all the way from wide angle to short telephoto length. However, the optics of these lenses will not deliver the sharpest image and don't offer great apertures, so you may soon find yourself wanting more. Also, this lens simply can't cover the deep zoom ranges that trips to the zoo or sporting events call for.


Both Canon and Nikon offer basic 18-55mm lenses with their entry level cameras. These lenses are typically made with plastic bodies and are decent to start with, but you may soon find yourself wanting more in terms of zoom range, sharpness and aperture.

In choosing your first DSLR, my recommendation would be to buy a little less camera body than you were considering, and use the savings toward a slightly better first lens, or to purchase a second lens with the savings.

If there is one piece of advice that I could offer to every beginner and first-time purchaser, it is that you should pick a system (read brand) and grow with it.

Every six months, one of the big SLR players is going to release their latest and greatest camera. I see far too many beginners jump back and forth from one camera maker to another. People who do this typically are not worried about lenses and instead spend their money on upgrading camera bodies, losing invested value in the process. If you choose instead to stick with the same brand and only upgrade the camera body as necessary, you can gradually grow your ideal lens kit.

The Next Lens

If there is one thing that I have learned in these four years, it is that money is truly best spent on good lenses. Early on, I was trading cameras every few months and found my image quality improving rather slowly. In time, I realized that sticking with the inexpensive kit lenses was hindering me in the quality of work that I produced, as well as the scenarios that I could make photos. The slow f/3.5-5.6 kit lens simply did not achieve the visual look that I desired in my photos.

In choosing your next lens, think about the ways in which your current lens lineup does not fit your shooting needs. Do you find yourself wanting to shoot more interior shots, highlighting architecture? Consider an ultra wide lens. If you are looking for a great portrait lens, consider purchasing your first 50mm or 85mm prime lens. If you can't get close enough to the action, a longer telephoto zoom like a 55-200 or 70-300 is a great choice.


From left, a wide angle lens, a medium prime lens, and a telephoto zoom.

Purchasing lenses opens the door to new compositions and shooting situations. Adding your first long zoom opens the door to reaching subjects that were previously out of range. Adding a fast (wide f-stop) lens may allow you to make photographs in darker environments. As you are able to add lenses to your collection, it may not make you a better photographer, but does facilitate the options available to you as a photographer.

The best thing is to ask yourself "what do I want to capture that I can't currently?" or even "how can I capture what I already shoot better?". Asking yourself these two questions with the mindset that lenses enhance your photography - not create the image itself - can help you to remember that gear does not make the photographer.

Buying Used

Purchasing used camera gear may come as a foreign concept to many. When I was starting to build my kit, I can admit that I was very hesitant in buying someone else's used glass. However, four years into this hobby, I can no longer imagine purchasing equipment brand new. The cost effectiveness simply does not make sense for my situation.

Let's take for instance my personal camera, a Nikon D300. Its replacement, the Nikon D300s has largely phased out the D300. It includes an added video feature and dual card slots - nice additions, but nothing that my job requires. The D300s is currently selling for around $1600. In contrast, the D300 is frequently available used for a little more than half of that when purchased used.

Not everything is wisely purchased used. Keep in mind that in many cases, a warranty is non transferrable if it is even still in effect. Also, high value to cost lenses like the 50mm f/1.8 are often just as expensive used as new. Careful price comparison as well as being patient in the search are the best ways to get a great deal. Consider keeping some notes on "good" prices on the lenses to spot a great deal.

If you're ready to purchase used lenses, you might be wondering about the best place to purchase them. If you are in a metro area, then Craigslist's Photo/Video section is a site worth checking out. As with anything on Craigslist, the results can be a bit of a hit or miss, but closely monitoring it can yield some great deals. Online, there are some sites that offer lens trading and sales. KEH is a highly respected outlet for buying great condition used lenses. Auction sites like eBay are another option, although without the ability to inspect before buying, it should be approached with it an additional level of caution.


When inspecting a lens, make sure to pay close attention to the condition of the optics as well as the functions of the lens such as autofocus and f-stops.

When purchasing a used lens that you can inspect, there are a number of factors that you should check. First of all, make sure to bring a camera on which the lens will work. If the person will not allow me to test the lens on the camera, it should be an automatic deal breaker.

After attaching, make sure that autofocus is working at a variety of ranges. Check that you can make photos at a variety of f-stops and that the metering works. Examining the lens itself, ensure that the elements are clean (but not to the extent of allowing minor dust or spots to ruin the sale) both on the front and rear of the lens. Finally, make sure to examine the lens body in good light. If there are marks on the body of the lens, it's a good opportunity to haggle on price a bit.

Continued Growth

Building a full camera and lens kit takes time and a variety of gear. In filling out your camera kit, don't forget to cover the bases of all of your shooting needs. As you continue to upgrade gear, you may not only be adding lenses but jumping to f/2.8 zooms and even faster primes. Don't forget to add handy gear like flashes as well.

Nearly every photographer requires a wide angle lens at some point. A fast prime is worth its weight in gold regardless of what you are shooting. Very few photographers find themself in ideal lighting conditions all of the time. A fast lens can bail you out of a tight shooting spot. Additionally, the shallow depth-of-field is a look desired by many portrait photographers. Telephoto lenses - either zoom or prime - can be pricy additions, but allow you to reach your subjects.


In time, I've been able to create a camera kit that covers all angles without breaking the bank.

Filling out your lineup requires you to constantly examine the way that you shoot and find ways to improve it. It can be tempting to add the fancy fisheye or other specialty lens, but filling a full featured kit requires wise purchasing.

Conclusion

Building a complete camera kit allows you to cover a vast variety of photographic scenarios. Keep in mind that if you invest in a system and wait for good deals on gear, you can create a complete kit without breaking the bank. Consider your needs and kit shortcomings with each purchase and you will have a kit that meets your needs.

If you have a horror story about building your camera and lens kit, please post it in the comments. And if you've struck gold and had good luck, please let us know how you did it.

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