Basic Equipment & Software

For my first post on photography, I thought it would be useful to present a list of gear that I have found to be essential, either through direct experience or through recommendation by other sources. In all cases, though, I have used the gear or software listed.

I claim no expertise, but I hope that I can save you some time and money when plowing ahead. I’ve definitely spent a lot of time, and unfortunately squandered a few dollars on the way, so maybe I can save you some of both.

This section is divided into two main parts that describe the “Absolutely Essential Gear” and the “Minimal Software” required to get you some great shots.

Absolutely Essential Gear

  • Camera (duh). But seriously, get a good DSLR. Canon and Nikon are great choices. Mine is a slightly outdated, but still incredibly capable, Canon t2i (550D). I got it used off eBay (one of my favorite ways to stock up on equipment).
  • Lens (duh again). But this one isn’t so obvious. Most DSLRs come with a kit zoom lens. That have good optics, and they deliver great results. If you can only afford one lens (for now), stick with a kit lens like a 18-55mm zoom. Note that the focal length of lenses are always given in 35mm “film” equivalent terms. Most lower cost DSLRs have a sensor that is smaller than the focal plane of standard 35mm film camera. In my case, the effective focal length is 1.6 x the listed focal length. So a 50mm film camera lens will behave like an 80mm on my Canon t2i. Here’s a convenient calculator for converting focal lengths for many popular cameras.
  • Camera Strap. Most cameras come with some type of strap. Be sure you have one that is wide and adjustable. It needs to be long enough that you can carry the camera across your body and easily pull your arm back through to carry only about the neck. A wrist strap can be added, but should not be the primary strap. Here is a nice summary of strap types and usage.
  • Case. You need a good case/bag to protect your investment! I have four cases, mostly because I have accumulated them over the years. So I now have several sizes; I can take a small one for light travel, or a big one to take lenses, extra filters, and extra batteries.
  • Tripod. I debated about where this item should be listed. But after thinking about my photography over the years, it’s clear that a ‘good’ tripod is essential. I’d advise against a cheap ‘travel’ tripod. I’ve had one for years, and it works. But my new (to me) DSLR is way too heavy to be stable for many situations. On the other hand, my old Davis & Sanford travel tripod only costs about $12 and now I use it for a flash stand. Instead, buy a good quality tripod. I just got a Dolica GX600B200 for about $55 on Amazon. It comes with a nice ball-head and a case. It’s a great tripod for the money. A better option is the Manfrotto 055XPROB., but it will set you back $150 and you’ll need to buy a separate ball-head $100 and even a case!

Minimal Software (so you can get good results)

You need a way to download and manipulate your images on the computer. I use Apple hardware exclusively, so I will only be discussion products that run on that platform. Fortunately, most of the software I mention will run on both Mac OS and Windows systems. Most of the products also have trial versions, so you can see how they behave before you shell out the cash.

  • Downloading Utility. Most cameras will come bundled with software for this. But third party software will work as well. For example, iPhoto for Mac works well.
  • Image Cataloging and Basic Manipulation. You will definitely need some software to edit, adjust and touch-up your photographs. iPhoto and ACDSee both work ‘ok’. These provide cataloging and basic manipulation. Apple’s Aperture and Adobe Lightroom also have cataloging and manipulation, but are also designed for more professional level phtographers. I’ve been using Aperture, and it beats the heck out of iPhoto.
  • Pixel-Based Editor. In addition to cataloging and basic touch-up, you’re going to want a pixel-based editor. This enables compositing, cloning, masking, and many features available in a traditional darkroom like dodging and burning. I’d actually say that this type of software is more important than a cataloging program. Ultimately, the best, most powerful option is Adobe Photoshop CS6, hands down. But it is expensive!!!!!! This is the industry standard, and I have used it for photography and astronomy for over 15 years. You can get slightly older versions, new or used, on eBay for less than CS6, and they will work well. Don’t go earlier than CS4, since many of the technologies you’ll need weren’t available in those very early versions. Another good option is Adobe Photoshop Elements, for about $70. It has many of the most common features, and is geared towards the hobbiest. If you’re on a tight budget, there’s the free GIMP. It’s very powerful and has much of the functionality of photoshop, but (and it’s a big but), it’s interface is tedious and often confusing. Try it.

If you get started with the equipment and software listed here, you’ll be prepared for most situations. With a few tips on how to use this equipment, your shots will go from “snap shots” to “photographs.” At least that’s what happened to me.

Next time I’ll discuss some camera basics that I’ve known for a while, but have relearned for DSLR, that will really improve your shots, whether artsy landscapes, or pictures of a child’s birthday party.

Cheers, Dean

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