If you were lucky enough to unwrap a DSLR or mirrorless camera kit this holiday season, you’re probably excited (and owe somebody a big thank you). But if this is your first interchangeable lens camera (ILC), you may also be unsure where things go from here. Such a camera is the centerpiece of an ecosystem of lenses and other accessories that can be as confusing as they are desirable. But before you begin adding to your kit, it’s important to know what you really want. It’s equally important to understand your current gear and what it can and can’t do.
We’ve compiled a short list of next steps for the first-time DSLR or mirrorless camera owner. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it may help point you in the right direction toward a rewarding journey into the world of photography.
Study and practice
Regardless of your camera, you will get more out of it by improving your skill rather than trying to buy better gear. Today’s cameras are like supercomputers with a lens attached, and they can do much more than simply point and take a picture. Reading the manual – yes, we know it’s boring – is probably the best way to get acquainted with your particular camera’s features and controls, but it’s also worth looking elsewhere for general knowledge on photography and how cameras work.
An ILC lets you control the various exposure settings. If you’re looking for a quick guide, we have one. We also recommend Bryan Peterson’s book, Understanding Exposure, which has been the go-to guide for beginning photographers for the past two-and-a-half decades. In it, you’ll learn how to take control over your camera – rather than relying on its autoexposure mode – and create better pictures as a result.
If book learning isn’t your thing, there are ample online video courses for studying anything from the basics of exposure to how to run a photography business. CreativeLive and Lynda.com offer a wealth of knowledge on these topics. There is also plenty of free educational content on YouTube, with channels like the Cooperative of Photography (COOPH) offering creative tips and tricks and The Camera Store TV providing more gear-centric knowledge.
But nothing is more helpful than simply getting out there and shooting. Take photos of your dog, bring you camera on a hike, or ask your significant other to (begrudgingly) pose for you. Heck, take selfies and pictures of latte art – whatever the subject, the more you shoot, the more you will come to understand lighting, framing, and how your camera works.
Lenses: It’s not about the gear, except when it is
It may take some time to become familiar with your new camera, and even more to realize its full potential, but eventually you will run into the limits of a basic kit, mostly due to the lens. The kit lens that likely arrived with your camera is made to handle the basics. It covers a modest zoom range, with a focal length of somewhere around 18 millimeters on the wide end and 55mm on the telephoto end (this can vary slightly by manufacturer and format).
While a kit lens is decent option for snapshots and family photos, it won’t perform as well for any one given photographic scenario as a lens designed specifically for that type of photography. Many first-time camera owners will ask, “What’s the ‘next’ lens to buy?” Well, there isn’t just one answer to that question.
Zooming in (or out) more
The first thing many people will notice about the kit lens is that it doesn’t zoom in far enough for capturing action at a distance. Take it to your kid’s soccer game, and you will likely be left wanting. For outdoor sports or wildlife shooting, a telephoto lens is the way to go. Fortunately, many manufacturers make telephoto lenses designed to pick up right where the kit lens leaves off, starting around 55mm and zooming in to 200mm or longer.
This is perhaps the most common “next lens” for casual photographers, and tends to be one of the more affordable options, as far as lenses go. Nikon’s 55-200mm f/4-5.6 is normally about $350, but can be picked up for under $150 at the time of writing thanks to instant rebates. Canon’s 55-250mm f/4-5.6 STM lens is $300, but includes a whisper-quite autofocus motor that’s suitable for video recording in addition to still photography. Sony shooters will have to pony up almost $350 for the 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3, while Micro Four Third shooters can pick up the Panasonic 45-150mm f/4-5.6 for just under $250.
Of course, if you’re not looking to bring distant subjects closer, a telephoto lens probably doesn’t make sense for you. If you’re more into landscape photography, a wide-angle lens can take in a greater field of view compared to the kit lens.
Wide angles tend to be more expensive than their telephoto counterparts, but Canon shooters at least have access to one relatively inexpensive option: the 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 STM, which sells for just $279. Nikon’s 12-24mm f/4 lens features a constant aperture and good performance, but does cost nearly $1,200. Sony’s 10-18mm goes for about $750 while Panasonic’s 7-14mm f/4 for Micro Four Thirds cameras is similarly priced at $800. There are various third-party lenses, such as Tokina’s 11-16mm f/2.8, that also make for a good choice at a more affordable price.
Brighter is better
Beyond having a limited zoom range, kit lenses also tend to have what’s known as a “slow” aperture, something in the range of f/3.5 to f/5.6. (Apertures values are a ratio, so the larger the f-number, the smaller the aperture. F/2 is therefore larger than f/4, etc.) Aperture size controls the amount of light that can make it through a lens, and generally speaking, more light equals better pictures. If you commonly take pictures indoors or outside in low light, you may run up against the limits of your lens’ aperture.
As fitting a lens with a larger aperture also means making all of the individual glass elements bigger, it’s rare to find a lens that offers both a long zoom range and a fast (or wide) aperture. Those lenses that achieve both tend to be prohibitively expensive for non-professionals. Fortunately, fixed focal length (or “prime”) lenses offer a way to get a fast aperture at a more affordable price, although you will give up the flexibility of a zoom.
In general, lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or larger (f/2, f/1.8, etc.) are considered “fast.” Nikon’s 35mm f/1.8 is a popular option for DX-format cameras, costing just under $200. Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 STM lens, the so-called “nifty fifty,” is under $125 (Nikon also offers a 50mm f/1.8). Sony’s 50mm f/1.8 is a bit more expensive at about $200, but is still a great buy. Micro Four Thirds shooters should check out the Panasonic 25mm f/1.7 ($250).
One side effect of a larger aperture is a shallower depth of field. That is, the amount of depth in the photo that will appear to be in focus. Shallow depth of field is often preferred for portraiture, as the subject stands out in sharp focus with everything in the background blurred away. The lenses listed above are therefore good for shooting portraits in addition to their low-light capabilities.
Tripods: More than just stability
It may not seem like much, but supporting your camera with a tripod can actually help you take better pictures. It’s a requirement for certain types of photography, such as time-lapse and long exposures, but will help in a variety of other situations, as well. Using a tripod forces you to put more time into setting up your shot, which ensures you do more than create a simple point-and-shoot snapshot. Tripods are perhaps most often used for landscape photography, but can also be helpful for portraiture – yes, even selfies.
Virtually every camera uses a standard 1/4-inch socket for mounting to a tripod, so there isn’t much you need to do to ensure compatibility with your camera. Just look for a tripod that meets your size and budget requirements. Brands to consider include Manfrotto, Slik, and Benro – but there are many others. Specialty tripods, like the Gorillapod from Joby, can also give you a creative edge in situations where a standard tripod would be too cumbersome.
The most important thing you can do is learn more about photography and practice with the gear you have at hand. While every piece of gear has its limits, there is much that can be done with just a basic camera and kit lens. Speaking of lenses, what was covered in this article was but the tip of the iceberg (not to mention all of the other accessories that we didn’t talk about at all, such as flashes).
So congrats on your new camera, and hopefully this helped answer the question of what’s next.