What should I upgrade next? Lens/Body/Flash? :: Digital Photo Secrets

What should I upgrade next? Lens/Body/Flash?

by David Peterson 0 comments

When you got your first DSLR, the chances are pretty good that it came with what we call a "kit lens." A kit lens is a mid-range zoom, usually with somewhere between an 18mm to 70mm focal length. A typical kit lens doesn't tend to be the best quality piece of glass, and usually has a fairly narrow maximum aperture. But, it's a good, versatile beginner's lens that lets you take good photos in most of the situations you're likely to encounter. Your kit lens is a great tool for when you're first starting out, and when you're first learning your way around your DSLR. But at some point, you're going to start to realize that your kit lens is holding you back a little bit, and it may be time to expand your gear. But where do you begin?

It might surprise you to hear that upgrading your lens may not be the first thing that you need to do. For some photographers, that basic kit lens is going to remain serviceable for a long time, and a better upgrade might be new flash, a tripod or a set of filters. How do you know? You start by looking at the types of photography that you currently do the most, and the types of photography that you're likely to want to do more of in the future.

Not every photographer is interested in creating the same types of images. Landscape photographers aren't going to require the same upgrades as portrait photographers or macro photographers will. That's why it's important to ask yourself what kinds of pictures you think you'll be taking in the near future, not just what kinds of pictures you happen to be taking right now.

Lenses

A lens is probably the first upgrade that most people consider when they start thinking about expanding their photography kits. But the type of lens that you upgrade to, as I said, depends on what you're going to be taking pictures of. If you like to photograph wildlife or sports, you're going to want a long, telephoto lens in the 300mm to 400mm range. That's going to allow you to get closer to any elusive animals that you might encounter in the wilderness, and to get closer to those elusive athletes who are going to be way down there on the field while you're stuck up in the nosebleed seats. If you're a landscape photographer, you'll want to upgrade to a wide angle lens instead, which will help you capture the entirety of those big, beautiful, natural scenes. If you're a macro photographer, you're going to want to upgrade to a macro lens. A macro lens has a much shorter focusing distance than a standard lens has, which will allow you to get closer to small objects like flowers and insects. And if you like to take photographs in low light, you may want to upgrade to a 50mm prime lens, which is a fixed-focal length lens with a large maximum available aperture. A 50mm prime lens is extremely useful in low light, especially when you don't want to fire your flash and you don't want to have to choose a slow shutter speed, either, because the risk of motion blur is too great.

Tripods, camera bags and filters

Now, what if you mainly just take photographs of friends and family, or you only break out that DSLR when you're traveling? Do you still need to upgrade lenses? The answer is a resounding "maybe." If you're generally happy with the quality of the images that you get using your kit lens, there's really no reason to go out and spend money on a new or better one when when you're only going to be seeing a marginal improvement in your work. Instead, you may want to consider upgrading to something else. If you're a traveler, consider buying a comfortable camera bag—a messenger or purse-style bag that looks more like a fashion accessory than a camera bag can be a great alternative to a traditional-looking camera bag, especially if you're traveling in areas where you think an expensive DSLR might be a target for theft.

Another great investment for portrait photographers and low-light photographers is an off-camera flash. And off-camera flash is useful for taking photos indoors in low light, and unlike your built-in flash you can bounce it off the ceiling or wall and get a nice, softly-lit image rather than those ugly, glare and red-eye filled flash images you're probably used to. Off camera flash can be really useful in daylight, too, especially at mid-day when the shadows are really dark. Use your off-camera flash as a fill flash to help lighten the shadows and even out the light overall. Off camera flash is a lot more versatile than on camera flash is, because you can hold it to the side of your subject and create a more three dimensional look than you'd get if you pointed it directly at your subject. And off camera flash is more powerful as well, which means you don't have to be as close to your subject when you use one.

If you've already upgraded to a wide angle lens (for landscapes), a prime lens (for low light photography) or a macro lens (for extreme close-ups), you're also going to want to invest in a tripod. Tripods are extremely useful for shooting in low light because they keep your camera stable during those longer exposures, which means you can eliminate camera shake. They're helpful for landscapes as well because landscapes require narrow apertures, and narrow apertures typically correspond to slower shutter speeds. And a tripod can also help with macro photography—macro images require camera stability for other reasons, because it's exceedingly difficult to keep your focus point in the right place when you're hand-holding your camera and your subject is small.

Along with that tripod you also need to have some way of remotely releasing your shutter. That usually means a remote release, although you can use your camera's self-timer feature in a pinch. The self-timer counts down a set number of seconds from the time you touch the shutter button until the time the exposure is made, which allows the vibrations to cease before exposure is made. Of course, using the self timer does tend to be a little limiting and you won't be able to take photos in rapid succession if you're using one, so if you do find yourself taking a lot of photos with your camera mounted on a tripod, a remote release is a good upgrade.

Landscape photographers may also benefit from filters—polarizing filters are great for cutting back on reflections, which can happen when you are taking photographs of the surface of water or glass surfaces such as windows on buildings. Polarizing filters can also make a blue sky look bluer, and can increase the definition between blue sky and white clouds.

Neutral density filters are another great tool for landscape photographers. A neutral density filter acts as a pair of sunglasses for your lens, which can make it possible for you to shoot at slower shutter speeds in bright light conditions. You may want to do this if you're trying to capture that misty-water look in a waterfall or a stream, for example, because sometimes it's difficult to achieve that slower shutter speed in brighter conditions. And a graduated neutral density filter (which has a clear part and a dark part) will allow you to shoot beautiful landscape images even in bright conditions, because it can be used to selectively darken the sky.

Camera bodies

How often should you upgrade your camera body? That's a much more subjective question. Investing in good quality lenses is always a good idea, because a good quality lens will last you a long time, so long that it will probably outlive several camera bodies. But manufacturers are coming out with "new and improved" camera bodies all the time, so often that you probably think you ought to upgrade your camera body as often as you upgrade your cellphone or your laptop. But the real answer to that question is personal. Camera bodies are expensive (more expensive than many phones and laptops) and upgrading them is really only necessary when the technology starts to fall significantly behind modern cameras. For example, if you have a camera body that has poor high ISO performance and you like to take photos in low light, it might be time to upgrade your camera body. But if you're still happy with the quality of images your camera body is producing, there's really no need to spend a lot of money on an upgrade. Instead, invest in a lens or another piece of equipment that you do think would help improve your photos.

What about megapixels? It seems like manufacturers are constantly coming out with new and better cameras in the name of more megapixels, but should you use that as a reason to upgrade? Probably not. Unless you frequently print your images in large format or you significantly crop your photos, those extra megapixels aren't really going to do a lot for you.

In other words, if you think that your current camera is holding you back creatively, or preventing you from moving into new genres or capturing excellent images in the genre you like best, then it might be time to upgrade. But make sure that you understand the differences between technical limitations and your own limitations. A better camera body will not make you a better photographer, so if you're not capturing excellent images in your favorite genre, think first about what you can do to improve your skills, and then ask yourself if a different camera body might be able to help.

Conclusion

I'll be the first to admit that buying new gear is one of the great joys of life, but you and I both know that photography can be an expensive hobby, and new gear should not be purchased without some careful thought. Only make those big investments in gear that's really going to help you capture better photos in the genres you work in now, or in the ones you have a strong interest in learning. Don't fall under the pressure of salespeople or friends who think that "everyone should have" one piece of gear or another—always evaluate your own situation first, ask yourself how much benefit you'll receive from adding that item to your toolkit, and make an educated decision before you upgrade.

Summary:

  1. Consider the type of photography you do
  2. Lenses
    • Telephoto for sports and wildlife
    • Wide angle for landscapes
    • Macro for close ups
    • 50mm prime for low light
  3. Accessories
    • Camera bag for traveling
    • Tripod and remote release for long exposure and macro
    • Off camera flash for low light and portraits
    • Polarizing and ND filters for landscapes
  4. Camera body
    • Only upgrade when the technology is significantly behind the times
    • Don't worry about megapixels unless you print murals or crop heavily

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
15 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.