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Photography

Minimum Viable Camera: How to Get a Good Enough Full-Frame Digital Kit For Less

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What You'll Be Creating

What makes a camera good? Not great, not the best, but a good, reliable, quality tool that's fun and easy to use. There are many answers to this question. What I mean by a viable camera is that it needs to "just work" without fuss, for a long time.

You don’t need to have the latest and greatest camera to create superb photographs or work as a photographer. A photographer is much more than their camera or their equipment! As a photographer, you bring your experience, knowledge, and unique voice to any project that you touch. This tutorial will help you to assess your needs as a photographer and show you how to find the least expensive, yet highly viable, camera to suit your needs.

Let Your Camera Be a Tool For Making Pictures

It is so easy to get caught up in the rush of new photographic products that are constantly being added to the market. We photographers care deeply about our tools, and it's natural to be excited by new potentials. That caring also means there's a lot of ego, and maybe some fear, wrapped up in purchasing gear. It doesn't have to be that way.

Invest in Yourself Instead

You don’t need to own the newest everything (or even the newest anything) to be a good photographer. Some people say they feel inadequate when they don’t have the most recent, top-end equipment but, quite honestly, if there is one thing I have learned it’s that good technique, hard work, and experimentation will take you much further than whatever camera has just been released.

Spending less on your camera can help you invest more in your creative and professional development.

Invest in Your Business Instead

If you're in the business of photography, keeping your overhead low by using the minimum viable cameras can be a big help in keeping the business profitable. This can mean either buying a less expensive, used camera or using your new camera until it is no longer viable.

Buying a new camera every time one is released can place unnecessary financial strain on a business.

Invest in Your Vision

A good camera and lens is very important because it's the tool that helps you accomplish your vision. Finding that good camera does not necessarily mean the one that has the most megapixels, fastest frame rate, or the fastest auto-focus. Finding your minimum viable camera comes from the combination of an honest self-assessment of your needs as a photographer and some expert advice.

An original Canon 5D is makes a viable camera for most photographers
By Charles Lanteigne - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Assess Your Photography Needs

Choose the gear that fits what you will be doing most of the time. What situations will you shoot in? Will you be shooting sporting events or still-life, landscapes or portraits? Features that are vital for one type of photography may never be used in another.

How much light will be available when you work? Will you be able to control the light or add light? Or will you have to work only with what light is there? The amount of light you expect to shoot in will help you select your lens and your camera body.

If you don’t know yet what you will be shooting most of the time, look for a middle of the road approach and add specialized equipment as you need. Remember, you can always rent or borrow what you don’t own.

How Many Pixels Do You Really Need?

Probably less than you think. Major camera companies are constantly trying to one-up each other with pixel counts but much of the time your photos will be viewed at far less than their full resolution. A good understanding of where your photos will appear and at what size will help you figure out how many megapixels you need.

I firmly believe 12 megapixels is enough for a camera. It is plenty for a printing in a magazine or creating a decent sized print for the wall, and more than enough for photos on the web or as stills in a video.

What About Big Prints?

You can upsample your image in editing software like Adobe Photoshop to create larger prints. I have seen excellent 20x30 inch prints made from an eight megapixel camera. It is not ideal to upsample an image, but this approach works well especially if you begin with a well-exposed, sharp image that has little noise.

Lenses Are More Important Than Cameras

Choose your glass first. The lens forms the image on the sensor and if that image is not at its best, no sensor can make it better.

The type of photography you do will dictate what type of lens you will need. Plus, a good lens enables you to get the most from all your cameras. Lenses last a long time, and that allows more time to see a return on investment.

Aperture

One thing to consider is the maximum aperture available on a lens. The smaller the f-number, the more light will pass through the lens. A maximum aperture of f/1.4 allows lots of light to pass through and enables you to hand-hold the camera in low light situations. Aperture also affects the depth of field and the shape of the blades determines how the out of focus areas in an image look.

Prime Lens, or a Zoom?

A single zoom lens with a modest range of 24-70mm can cover quite a lot of your photographic needs. With fixed focal length "prime" lenses you might need two or three lenses to cover a similar range.

Prime lenses are less expensive than zooms and often have terrific optics. To change the field of view, you have to change your position or switch lenses. Zoom lenses allow you to change the focal length and, with it, the field of view without repositioning the camera. However, the really good zoom lenses are expensive.

New, or Used?

Used lenses offer the same optical quality at reduced prices. If you can afford a new lens, great! By all means go for it, especially if you can't find a comparable pre-owned lens. Lenses are durable and have few moving parts so they last a lifetime. Also consider current third-party lenses, especially the Sigma Art line and certain better Tamron lenses, because they are comparable if not equal to the same-brand models.

Specialty Lenses

Some types of photography require specialty lenses. Macro photography requires a macro lens. For architectural photography, consider a tilt-shift lens to correct the perspective in the image. They are expensive but offer great optics. 

A fine example of vintage Nikon manual-focus lens
By Hiyotada (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Don't Overlook Manual Focus!

For great optics, consider a used, manual focus lens. You can find lots of excellent, older lenses from Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Zeiss and other makers. For top-notch glass, check out the new manual focus lenses from Voigtlander, which have excellent reputations. Manual focus is useable in a range of situations, it just takes some practice. If you're shooting landscapes or architecture or macro, autofocus doesn't matter at all.

Adapt Your Lens

Lens adapters allow you to use a lens from a different manufacturer's mount type on your camera. For example, you can use an adaptor that mounts a Nikon lens on your Canon EOS body. This is a great way to use the best available lens on your camera.

Be warned though, it does come with some drawbacks. Most adapters do not allow the lens to communicate with the camera body, so autofocus won’t work and neither will the automatic aperture. That means you have to open the lens aperture manually to focus and compose, then manually stop down to your desired aperture for each shot.

Choosing a Camera Body

Choosing a camera body is the next step after picking out a lens because camera bodies are often not owned as long as a lens. Camera companies update their model lines every two to three years, so there are newer models always available. You can always upgrade your camera if you find it does not meet your needs.  

Full-Frame vs Crop-Frame Formats

Should you choose a camera with a crop-frame sensor, such as APS-C or Micro Four Thirds, or a full-frame sensor camera? While there are certainly some great crop frame cameras out there, full-frame sensors have big advantages and are worth the step up in price. Images created with full frame cameras appear sharper and have smoother tones, a wider range of tones, and finer details.

Comapison between the quality of a crop frame and full frame sensor
Here is a comparison of a crop frame sensor on the left and a full-frame sensor on the right. Both cameras have similar megapixel counts.

Larger sensors physically collect more like with each exposure. In turn, the photosites on a full-frame sensor are larger and allow more light into them, which translates to better image quality with less noise in the electronic signal. On a crop frame sensor, the photosites of an equal megapixel sensor are smaller and more densely packed, which translates to more noise in the electronic signal.

ISO Range

The ISO range of a camera tells you how sensitive the sensor is to light. If you need to work in low light situations, look for a camera that has an ISO of 3200, which is more than enough to shoot with if you have a lens with an f/1.4 aperture. But if your lens only has a maximum of f/5.6, you will need to use a tripod or add you own light.

Viable Options

So what are my picks for a minimum viable camera outfit?

For a lenses, I would choose a prime lenses like Nikon’s 50mm f/1.4D and 28mm f/2.8D. Either lens allows lots a of light in due to wide maximum apertures. Plus, they offer quick autofocus and have great optics. Best of all I can pick up either one used for around $200. If I were insistent on a zoom lens I would opt for the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L. It is a bit pricey, even used, but for around $1000 it is extremely well made and versatile.

The Nikon D700 and the original Canon 5D are great cameras for many photographers. Not the latest and greatest, but still amazing machines. They both have full-frame sensors that offer 12 megapixels and were designed for professional use. They have shutters that are designed to take hundreds of thousands of photos without failing, so they will continue to work for quite some time.

A Nikon D700 is an example of a minimum viable camera
© Chriusha (Хрюша) / CC-BY-SA-3.0 /  Wikimedia Commons.

Either of these cameras are available used, in good condition, for well under $500 dollars, a figure that is less than many new cameras with smaller sensors.

How to Get More Out of Your Camera

There are several techniques and procedures that will help you get more out of an older DSLR. Camera calibration and profiling will help you ensure that colors are accurate and consistent no matter what camera you use. Lens correction can help you correct distortions that all lenses have, to some degree. There many different ways to do noise reduction after you have taken a photo to clean up images shot at high ISO settings as well.

Good Exposure

Proper exposure is the best thing you can do for image quality from any cameras. Getting good exposure isn't all that hard, it just takes a bit of practice. The D700 and 5D both have excellent built-in meters. Learn how to use those meters, make correct exposures, and the image quality they deliver will rival any other camera.

Add Some Accessories

Appropriate accessories make a camera more viable by extending its abilities or make it more convenient to use. Two things not to overlook are batteries and memory cards. Having spares of those two items will keep your photo sessions going long enough to get the job done.

For some types of photography, a good speedlight is essential to getting the photos you need. Another option for low light photography is a tripod. A good sturdy tripod is one of the most essential pieces of gear. When using a tripod, your camera will be rock solid, enabling you to create long-exposure photos.

Another overlooked accessory is a decent camera strap and a good camera bag for carrying your camera around. Your job becomes much more difficult if either of these items is not comfortable. Look for a wide camera strap that can spread out the weight of a heavy camera and try on a few different bags before deciding on one to purchase.

Conclusion

As a photographer, you have more to offer than a collection of equipment. You have your experience, expertise, and unique vision. The gear does not make the photographer and the savvy photographer makes the most of their equipment.

Spending less money to obtain a good camera enables you to spend more money and time developing what makes your voice unique in photography. So, instead of buying every new version of a camera that comes along, invest in yourself. Take an online course or attend a workshop to learn a new skill. Go to a portfolio review, a photo gallery, or museum and get a fresh perspective on your work and the photography world. 

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