Amateur Photography

February 11, 2015

I’m often asked what kind of camera I have and if I have any tips for getting started in photography. I usually feel uncomfortable when asked this because I honestly feel like most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. Partly this is because I don’t have any formal training what-so-ever, and partly because I really don’t know what I’m doing.

“Amateur” has many different meanings and usually has a negative connotation. But when I say amateur photography I mean: “take photos for fun, not for profit”. This post is intended for those interested in photography just for personal use. If you want to make money from photography, then I’d get advice from a professional.

You’ll often hear professional photographers (i.e. photographers that make money from their work) say that “the camera doesn’t matter”. That’s not true at all.

What they might mean is, you don’t need a $6,000 camera to take good photos, and that’s true. But spending a good amount of money (at least $500) on a DSLR will immediately get you better photos. A lot of it will be luck at first (maybe that’s what the professionals are getting at), but I remember being amazed at the quality of the photos I started getting when I finally had a decent camera. Pair a good fast lens with an entry consumer-level camera, and you’ll start getting better photos on day one.

You’re not going to be shooting photos that look like they were shot by a professional, but that’s ok, because they weren’t!

I started getting serious about photography after my amazing wife (fiancé at the time) surprised me with a Nikon camera as an early wedding present. I had often complained, “I wish I had a good camera so I could get good photos of the dogs.” A desire to learn, a good camera (and lens), and a subject is all you need to get started.

My Recommendations

  1. Determine your commitment level (or budget)
  2. Buy a camera
  3. Buy a prime lens
  4. Read Understanding Exposure
  5. Shoot!

Determine Your Commitment

Decide how committed you are and how much you want to spend. If you want to stay under $1,000, then you’ll need to stay in the consumer-level cameras. If you have $2,000 or more, then you might look into professional-level cameras.

The major difference between consumer- and professional-level cameras is the size of the sensor. Manufacturers call it different things, but in Nikon world (where I live) it’s called DX and FX formats. DX is the cheaper, smaller (cropped) sensor and FX is the larger, “full-frame” sensor. The biggest benefit (or the one I care most about) on the full-frame cameras is that they perform better in low light. This means you can use natural light inside buildings and anywhere else where natural light is hard to find. In low light on a cropped camera you’ll either get blurry photos or photos with a lot of grain/noise. On a bigger full-frame camera you can increase that ISO without increasing the noise (there are still limits, though).

Full-frame cameras also typically come with more features, more buttons, better, faster hardware, etc. The gap is closing slightly between the high-end cropped and low-end full-frame cameras, but I’d still recommend the full-frame camera if you have the budget.

Buy a Camera

Now that you know your commitment, pick a camera. I’d say stick with Nikon or Canon (mostly because that’s what I see professionals using), but feel free to choose anything that has good reviews. I love my Nikon gear but that’s only because my first camera was a Nikon.

If you’re buying Nikon, take a look at this buying guide on Nikon Rumors. This lists all the latest models and shows if they’re new or will soon be replaced. Check out this table on Wikipedia to find older models of equivalent current offerings if your budget is tight.

I have the Nikon D600, which has now been replaced by the Nikon D610. It’s the cheapest professional-level Nikon you can get.

Before the D600 I had the Nikon D60, which is described as an upper-entry consumer-level. It’s been replaced now and is comparable to the Nikon D5500.

An entry-level Nikon D3300 is great too, though. Starting off with anything is going to yield you better photos than your point-and-shoot or iPhone. As you get more serious you can upgrade (this is what I did and continue to do).

Unless you find a great deal on a package, get the DSLR body only. You’ll want a couple hundred dollars left to get a good lens.

Side note: if you’ve got a larger budget and need mobility for your camera, there are mirrorless cameras that are almost as small as your point-and-shoot but have detachable lenses. I can’t offer any information about them as I have never even seen one in person, but just know they’re an option if you’re looking.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to buy used or refurbished. My Nikon is a refurbished camera and it’s great. You can also buy an older model. For example, if you can’t afford the Nikon D3300, look at prices on a D3200. I’ve used both Amazon and Adorama to purchase used or refurbished equipment.

Buy a Prime Lens

Spend the rest of your budget on a prime lens. Prime lenses do not zoom (prime meaning one focal length), but because of that, they’re cheaper to manufacture and they are “fast”, meaning they have really wide apertures.

My favorite lens on my D60 was a 35mm prime lens. This is equivalent to a 50mm prime lens on a full-frame camera, which is what I have for my Nikon D600, and it’s still my favorite lens. You can get either of these for about $200 new. Used prices typically don’t get much cheaper than new (these lenses retain their value), but you can always look.

Read Understanding Exposure

You’ve got a camera and lens, so now you need to learn the basics. If you leave your camera in Auto mode, you’re wasting your money. You might get lucky in Auto, but spend a little time and just learn the basics as you go.

Understanding Exposure is the only book I’ve read on photography and the extent of any “training” I’ve had. The author teaches the exposure triangle (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) which is necessary to understand your camera. Once you learn these you’ll know what you can (and can’t) do with your camera.


Now, time to get some photos of those pups!

My Photography Gear

For those interested, here’s all the gear and software I use for my photos.