General Advice

Tom Davis
Tom's home page

Last updated: April 9, 2002

Here's the executive overview:

Don't buy everything at once

Of course when you get home from the camera store, you're going to want to start taking photos right away, so make sure you've got everything you need for that (including film and batteries), but I wouldn't try to get a complete set-up at the start.

Here's what I would get:


Highly Recommended

The reason for the camera strap is obvious.

The UV filter is for lens protection. You'll be really pleased to break or scratch your $20 filter if it keeps you from breaking or scratching the $500 lens that's sitting behind it. If you buy a really expensive lens, buy a high-quality filter. Why pay for a triple-coated lens and then put a piece of junk in front of it? If you always use a lens hood (see below) that will probably provide as much protection as the filter. Get a UV filter, not a skylight filter. Skylight filters have a slight pinkish tinge.

A lens hood is the cheapest way to improve the performance of your lens. Be sure to get exactly the right lens hood for your lens; a hood that's the wrong shape can cause vignetting, or not provide as much protection against flare as the correct one. In general, every new lens you get will need its own lens hood.

Obviously, a flash isn't required, but you'll find it extremely useful for taking photos indoors (and for lots of other things as well). Some camera bodies have built-in flashes, but those will be a compromise (and if your camera uses those fancy (expensive) lithium batteries, you'll find that the built-in flash uses them up pretty fast. I would personally recommend against a body with a built-in flash.

After you take a roll or two of film, you'll have a much better idea of what to get next.

Spend money on lenses, not camera bodies

All the light of every photo has to travel through the glass of your lens. Any tiny imperfection in the lens will lower the quality of your photos. If the lens is too small, you won't have enough light to take the photos you want.

The camera body has to hold the film flat and open and close a shutter.

I've seen plenty of people who spend $1000 on a really fancy camera body and then they spend $100 for a lens and find they can't take the photos they want. If they'd gotten the $100 body and the $1000 lens they would be much happier.

I think the reason people buy the $1000 body is that it has 1000 different controls, while the $100 and $1000 lenses have about the same number of controls.

It's going to cost more than you think

If you really have a hard limit on what you can spend, don't spend it all on the first day. It is certain that you will need something you didn't think of: The above are just wild guesses; if you purchase all of these, then you'll need something different.

By the way, I would not purchase a camera bag the first day. Since you're virtually certain to get at least a few more accessories fairly early on, you really don't know how big a bag you'll need.

Consider used equipment

Many yuppies can't stand not to have the latest equipment, so when Nikon comes out with the F5 body, they trade in their almost unused F4 body to get it. Most camera shops will sell this used equipment to you at a pretty good discount, and will guarantee it.

Obviously, you can do even better at swap-meets and through newspaper ads, but presumably you're a beginner if you're reading these pages, and the stuff you get there might have something horribly wrong with it that you won't notice, and you'll be stuck with some expensive junk and no guarantee.

Don't buy something you won't use

Don't buy a camera that's more complicated than you're willing to deal with.

Don't buy a camera that's so massive you'll always leave it at home.

Don't buy your spouse the camera you want; get the one your spouse wants.

If you're buying a camera that you'll share with your spouse, make sure you can both stand to use it. I have an F4, and wanted to get a second body for backup. I was going on what I thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galápagos Islands with my wife (I was wrong; I've now been there three times: trip 1, trip 2 and trip 3), so I wanted a camera she could use. Another F4 would have been fine with me, but the thing's massive and extremely complicated. I got the N90 which worked great -- it had almost all the complexity I could ever want, but no matter what bizarre mode I leave it in, my wife can simply hold down the two green buttons, and it basically becomes a point-and-shoot.

Where to get your stuff

If you've poked around in the back of the photography magazines, you've surely noticed dozens of pages of advertisements for photo equipment, and if you've checked out the prices in local photo stores, you'll probably find that stuff costs more there.

But if you really are a beginner, I would highly recommend going to a local photo store instead of making your first purchase via mail order. You can ask questions, you can play with the various options, and if there's some problem later, or something you don't understand, you can go back to the store and presumably get some help.

Once you know what you're doing, it's a different story. I get most of my expensive stuff via mail order (I've had good luck with B&H Photo in New York City and have made dozens of purchases there, but your mileage may vary.)

If you decide to make a mail-order purchase, do your homework. Know exactly what you want, and be certain that it'll work with your particular camera body, et cetera. If you buy a lens, for example, they'll almost surely ask, "Do you want a protection filter to go with that? Do you want a lens hood? Do you want a case for the lens? Do you want to buy insurance for it? Would you prefer the gray-market version? Do you want 2-day shipping?" Know the answers to these questions before you call, or you'll probably wind up spending more than you'd planned.

Once you're hooked on photography, for something like film, it's almost nuts not to use mail-order. Order 10 or 20 rolls at a time (and the mailers to get the film developed if you want them), and keep the film in your refrigerator or freezer. Here's more information on film.

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