What should I buy next?

As you know, I invite reader questions on this teaching blog, and I try to answer them on the blog.

A member of last weekend’s audience at the Photo Show wrote me some very kind words about how he enjoyed my seminars. He then added:

I am just entering the world of photography as a hobby and just have a quick question.  So far, my equipment consists of the Canon T1i with the kit lens.  I have also purchased an accessory kit for the camera that contained a bag, UV Haze filter, and a spare battery.  I was wondering what you would recommend as my next move.  I am interested in the 50mm 1.8 lens and plan on picking it up this week, but where should I go from there?  A polarizing filter?  An external flash? An additional lens?  Any input/advice you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Interesting question – and a good one. As beginners in photography, there seems to us to be an infinite array of “must have” goodies, and it is important to decide where to spend our dollars.

So here’s my take on this. First of all, I think the choice is right:the Digital Rebel (any variety” XTI, XS, XSi, T1i, or T2i) is a great camera.

Canon T2i Digital SLR

Canon T2i Digital SLR

Not that there are bad cameras:today’s cameras are all great. While the Pros virtually all use Canon or Nikon, the offerings by Sony, Olympus, and Pentax are also great. It’s whatever you like best – how does it feel, how do the menus look to you: any small SLR will do exactly what a large expensive one does, so it is whatever you like.

So you have chosen a camera. And you have bought a spare battery (a must!) and hopefully also a few extra memory cards (I like 4GB cards: that size “fits on a DVD”).

More important than the camera is a lens. By all means start with the kit lens, but add the 50mm f/1.8 lens as soon as you can. (On Nikon starter cameras you need to manually focus that lens; on some others, there is no cheap 50mm lens availanel. This is one reason I like Canon). On a small DSLR, the 50mm f.1.8 lens works like an 80mm lens (50 x 1.6; a small sensor appears to magnify the lens length), and 80mm is perfect for portraits. And the large aperture (f/1.8, a low “f-number”) enables you to dramatically blur backgrounds and achieve very selective focus (“narrow depth of field”). Use this lens to take available light portraits and everyone will love their professional quality.

So what’s next? Here is my list.

  1. A flash. I would go for a 430EX II flash. You can read all about flash on this blog – and why you never aim it straight at the subject from on top of the camera (which is the worst possible place to mount a flash). Bounce the flash and you’re good with great light.
  2. A wide angle lens. A lens in the range of 10-20mm would be fabulous. Search this blog for “Wide Angle” to see why, and to see what these lenses can do.
  3. Then a long lens (say in the 70-200mm range), especially if you shoot things like sports, wildlife, or if you do a lot of studio portraits or other photos that need “zooming in”.

Then, and in no particular order, I would think of adding utilities, such as:

  1. A sturdy tripod
  2. A good camera bag (or “photography bag”: my camera does not go in a bag!)
  3. Lens hoods for each lens
  4. A circular polarizer filter
  5. A Hoodman Hood Loupe
  6. Perhaps some flash modifiers, like Honl bounce cards.

And from that point on, “it depends”. On what you like – and by then you will have a good idea.

The list goes on, but the good news: in the past, we used to spend $20 every time we used our camera. Today, that is gone: no more film or developing, So take that same money and use it for stuff that lasts, instead. In the end, you still spend less, and you end up with great equipment.

And keep in mind that lenses last forever: a good lens (with a low “F”-number”, i.e. a “fast lens”) will keep its value for decades. The same applies to flashes.

And above all – take some training. Even with one camera and lens, once you know how it works, you can do miracles!

14 thoughts on “What should I buy next?

  1. With respect, I’d offer a slight modification to what should I buy next? …

    Nothing. Hang on to your money for a while.

    I’d suggest just taking that camera and kit lens and do a whole lot of shooting. Try it for many things: landscapes, portraits, sports, wildlife, indoor light, what have you. Then consider as you proceed: what do I enjoy shooting? How good were the results that I’ve gotten so far? What problems did I encounter?

    For example: almost certainly, the indoor lighting results will have been, let’s say, sub-optimal. The kit lens isn’t fast, so subjects were blurry, or up went the ISO (along with noise), or the pop-up flash engaged and your subjects looked like startled deer.

    Around this time the possible purchase options will make themselves pretty obvious. Then the good advice in Michael’s list above can be consulted. Some people only ever shoot birds in available light with long glass, so a flash purchase would be unnecessary.

    But if the money’s just burning a hole in your pocket and you just have to spend it on something before you get started, I’d suggest picking up a “kit” zoom telephoto (eg 50-200mm range) so you can better cover wildlife and sports initially.

  2. Good advice, Bruce. Though I will say that a good photo kit should always include camera, spare battery, kit lens (I suppose!), 50mm “fast” (e.g. f/1.8) lens, and a flash. Those are safe buys.

    The rest – well, as you say, this depends on your specific needs, and this will show itself with experience. But the short list here should, I think, be in every photographer’s bag.

  3. Michael, while I agree that in general a flash is a pretty safe bet, I didn’t get into flash myself until I’d become very comfortable with available light shooting, about a year and a half after my first dSLR purchase.

    In fact my very first lens purchase was a 35mm macro because I had discovered that one of my own favourite subjects is flowers. So that also dictated my first flash purchase: a macro ring flash — a pretty specialized piece of kit I’m sure you’ll agree.

    But now, somewhat later, I’ve added two remote-able hotshoe flashes and various modifiers and stands. I recently went for a Honl grid and snoot, partly based on your articles.

    Thanks for the great lighting articles, btw. I greatly enjoy your how-to’s.

    • Hi Bruce, I agree with you.

      I didn’t buy a flash for a about 2 years after getting into photography, I went with upgrading my EF-S 18-55 to an EF-S 17-55 2.8 because i mainly shot landscapes and natural light subjects and preferred good glass on the front of my camera.

      I agree with Michael on the idea of a second battery and extra memory, and like you say the rest can wait until you decide on what sort of photography you enjoy.

  4. As a relative rookie, I’d agree the 50mm 1.8 should be the next thing to buy – depth of field and low light shooting – in ways the kit lens can’t touch opens up a lot of “a-ha” moments. I had a dslr for almost 3 years with the kit lens before I discovered the 50 ( through Michael) and now it’s my most used lens. For $130, you can’t afford not to buy it.

  5. Indeed: I reiterate, by all means start with the kit lens, but add the 50mm f/1.8 lens as soon as you can.

    It is the combination of affordability and speed (low light/blurry background ability) and its length as a great headshot lens that makes this a no brainer. After that, with other lenses it’s more of a “that depends, I need to know more”.

  6. This is a great discussion, Nice to get peoples input. For me I bought the 50MM 1.8 at the same time as I bought my DSLR package. A funny story, one year ago I was at the Henry’s photography show. I was sitting at a travel photography seminar that Michael Willems was teaching. He was talking about lens and he gave the crowd 30sec to get a pen and paper out to write down this lens, a must have in your Lens Bag. So as a new student, I was excited to I write down 50mm F1.8. Lucky I was sitting alone, I just smiled because I realized already had it.
    After my DSLR kit and the 50MM the next item was a Flash EX430II then 55-250mm. My newest toy is Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 wide angle. It’s not brand name like Nikon or Canon but you’re also saving 30%-40%.
    There are a lot of deals out there, you just have to look, talk to different people, *Duncan and Wright, Henry’s, Downtown Camera’s and Burlington Camera just to name a few. Do your homework, and spend your money wisely. I love photography, the purchase is almost as fun as using the new equipment. I hope this helps you in your next photography purchase. Thanks again to Michael for posting his daily blog.

  7. Michael,
    in your blog when talking about 50mm, you said that it needs to be manually focussed with Nikon Starter cameras? what is classified under this category?

    I have a d90, will i have to manually focus with the 50mm?

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