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Choosing a first SLR outfit

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If you are new to photography my advice would, for the moment at least, to completely forget today's all-auto SLR cameras, good though they are (although I will add a bit of info about them too). Why? Because they can do everything for you, it's very tempting to let them do so. With a manual SLR, you have to do everything yourself, so you learn (often by trial and error, but that can be the best way) how exposure affects the image, how shutter speed and apperture (the settings on the lens, also called f-stops which open or close an iris in the lens by certain amounts) work, and how focus works.

When I first started off in photography, I wanted to buy a new Auto SLR but was persuaded by my camera dealer that that wasn't a good idea. I've always been very greatful that I was given this advice, as I think it really made me learn the basics of photography. I now use a modern autofocus SLR and sometimes I find the automation invaluable. But even then, because I understand why it makes the decisions it does, I can feel confident enough to disagree with it and set it to my own settings, frequently for better results than the automation would give. Automatic cameras give good results 80-90% of the time, but sometimes you need to override their automatic modes. It's important to be able to know at least when you have to do this.

Anyway, rave over, I would suggest you bought either a second hand manual camera from a reputable second hand dealer (unlike a private ad, they will refund you if the camera breaks down within a period of buying it - usually 6 months. Although unlikely it's peace of mind worth having. Also they will have thoroughly tested the camera so you almost certainly won't be buying a dud. Private ads are usually OK, but they could be someone trying to sell of a dud camera).

If you ever want to "upgrade" to autofocus cameras, buy either Nikon or Pentax as their autofocus cameras accept their manual lenses (although with no autofocus and sometimes no autoexposure). If this doesn't worry you, Olympus, Canon and Minolta both made excellent manual cameras.

In terms of models, in Nikon the Nikon FM (fully manual but includes a light metre so it tells you when you are on what it considers to be the right exposure setting) has an excellent reputation, and costs anything between £170-£270 depending on condition, as has the Nikon FE (has apperture-priority auto-exposure - where you select what f-stop setting you want to use on the lens, and the camera sets the "correct" shutter speed) which costs slightly less. For the ultimate in Nikon cameras, the pro Nikon F3 costs £299-£479.

Olympus are well worth considering. Olympus Zuiko lenses exceptionally good lenses, even compared to today's lenses. The OM1/OM1n is fully manual like the FM and the OM2/OM2n (around £95) has aperture-priority exposure. The OM10 has no manual exposure mode and isn't so good. The OM3/OM3Ti and OM4/OM4Ti are both exceptionally good cameras and again one (the OM3) is fully manual.

I have used the Pentax Super A and it is also a very nice camera, although I've heard the Pentax LX is better again. Canon made some good cameras especially the A1 and Minolta did too eg the X700.

For lenses, I would suggest buying second hand Nikon, Olympus or possibly Sigma lenses as although modern independant lenses are very good, they haven't always been so. It's often said, but it's important to note that image sharpness does NOT depend at all on the camera (unless it has seriously bad problems with how it handles the film - and no modern camera is likely to unless badly damaged) but instead the lens.

My suggestion is that you get either a second-hand Nikon FE or Olympus OM2 and 28mm, 50mm, 100mm and possibly 35mm lenses. As well you would probably find a set of extension tubes handy - Jessops make a good set which they sell new for around £100 - for use with the 50mm and 100mm for macro photography (you could instead buy a 100mm macro but this is much dearer.) 100mm is a better lens for macro as you don't have to get in quite as close to achieve the same level of magnification. Out of the two, the Olympus is cheaper and smaller, and very comparable to the Nikon so this is what I would probably end up choosing. It would be a good idea to go along to a camera shop and look at a few models yourself to see what you enjoy using. Have a look at www.ffordes.co.uk or www.mifsuds.com for some prices.

You will also need a tripod - and this is something not worth economising on. A Gitzo Explorer is apparantly very good for close-up and landscape, but Manfrotto make very good tripods as well.

Finally, I would try to take the time to attend a part-time photography course perhaps at a local college (perhaps using some of the money you saved by buying a second hand camera). City and Guilds courses are available at many colleges and are well recommended. Do be carefull not to choose a course where the tutor is mostly interested in "stylish" photography! Try to choose one which includes some darkroom work as learning to develop and print your own (black and white) negatives is enjoyable and teaches you a lot about photography.

If you still think you would prefer an autofocus camera, the Nikon F80 is a very good camera as is Canon's offering, the EOS 30E. A bit higher in price, the Minolta Dynax 7 is very good and has many advanced and useful features - but it might be a bit overkill for a first SLR.

Any further tips on obtaining sharp pictures? (especially landscape work)

  1. Most important - Use a good tripod and a small aperture (eg f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 etc). This is especially good for landscape work.
  2. If you don't want to use a tripod for a particular shot (sometimes it is impossible, not allowed, not convenient or makes you lose sponteniety) then choose a short focal length, and a fast shutter speed (the rule is not to use a shutter speed longer than that of the focal length of your lens eg 1/300th of a second on a 300mm lens or 1/60th on a 50mm lens etc but with practice you can use a longer exposure than this guide suggests.
  3. Get a UV filter for every lens and leave it on all the time. This protects the lens. To improve sharpness, buy a *good* UV filter and keep it clean by not fingering it and using a lens cloth (not tissue) to dust it off.
  4. All lenses have an f-stop setting at which they give their best theoretical performance, usually around f/8. This makes little difference to your photos unless you are more interested in assesing lenses than actually taking photos.
  5. Finally, remember that although having good equipment and good technique helps, nothing can make up for poor compostion and other "aesthetic" matters. I suggested taking a course above, but also study the "masters" of photography, such as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, etc. Also practice visualising images even when you don't have a camera with you. The photographer's visual sense is far more important than what camera he or she uses.



October 2002 Copyright (c) Gavin Duley

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This page last updated Sunday 21 June 2009
Copyright (c) Gavin Duley 2002 onwards