photography 100

121707_playgroup_0067 This was a comment, but since I get so many emails about photography and camera advice, I figured I’d make this a post, so people can refer back to this in the future. I plan to post more of these in the future, including photoshop tutorials (with photos to demonstrate), and also just fun projects. Hopefully, people will send me a few of their favorite shots from that week’s project, and I’ll post them here.

I cannot give advice when it comes to buying a new camera. I just don’t keep up with all the models or reviews unless I’m actually shopping for a camera. I can tell you this: I hated the white balance on the Nikon D70/D100 models. Made everything yellow. I suggest you check out the cameras you’re considering in person, at a store, then buy it online and pay no tax (and find a coupon for free shipping). I’d ask if it has auto-bracketing (both exposure and white balance bracketing)… you might not use this right away, but it’s HUGE when you’re ready to really learn more about photography. You don’t need a camera with night settings, or fireworks or an icon of a mountain. If you want that, buy a point and shoot. I could write all day about this (but it’s time for bed)… I will say, get ready to learn more. You have to. Otherwise, why buy an SLR? You are ready, and you can do it, even if you ease into it slowly. It’s a wonderful hobby you’ll always have. On that Hallmarkety note, maybe I should do some posts on my 101 notes from back when I was first learning about photography. It would make me happy to share what I learned in the past.

Here is what you need to know at first: learn what aperture is and what it does. Then learn about shutter speed and what it does. Then learn about exposure. Then metering. Search for these things online. You don’t have to memorize it, but at least spend a half hour understanding an overview of these things. It’s why you’d want an SLR, to play and customize and learn. To have the camera record exactly what you see, just as you see it that moment. Or to keep your subject crisp, but to add a motion blur to everything around them using a panning technique.

I use Nikons and just prefer them to Canon. But that’s probably just because Nikon is what I know and what I learned on. I began with an N80 (film) and learned all I did shooting color negatives (aka slide transparencies… those things you put in a slide projector) because when processed, they were less forgiving if you made a mistake, and they weren’t spit through a machine, so they were not color-corrected. So I was able to see the result of the smallest changes I made. So I could shoot the same image, modifying the aperture, let’s say, in each shot. Then I could look at each one and say, “Oh, I get it. That’s what it does.” Now you can do it digitally, and auto-bracket (which means you can set the camera to take 3 different photos, even though you press the button just once… and although the photo is the same, the settings are different, so you can compare them and see which exposure you like best) which is much, much cheaper than developing all that film. Though I do still love the silkiness of film. The photos seem more poetic, more buttery, when shot in film. How I love black and white, where you tell them to “push” the film a stop. Okay, getting too complicated on ya. So long story longer, I’d probably buy THE BODY ONLY and buy a good lens separately (buy just the body, then purchase a decent lens, not the crap it comes with). When I say “good lens” I mean a “fast lens.” So it would read something like 1:2.8

Sorry, this is getting complicated. I just know for me, what made a huge difference in all my photos was buying a good “fast” used lens. I bought two excellent (used) lenses with fixed focal lengths (you can read all about what the different lengths do to your actual photo). Here’s what I’ve got (and use):

I also currently use a Nikon D300 body.

Dsc_7935bw2 Nikon af nikkor 35mm 1:2D (aka f/2D ) That means it’s a fixed 35 focal length (no zoom). So you see a lot of stuff in the picture, good for groups, for street photography, for capturing a scene, a photo journalistic feel, AND the lowest number aperture is an f 2 (I typically set portraits to f5.6 or lower… what this does? Keeps subject nice and crisp but blurs the stuff around them). A fast lens also allows you to shoot in low-light conditions without having to use a flash, allowing you a lot of great ambient light, to really capture the moment. Also, you can pop your flash and set to a slow shutter speed (30 or less)… this allows for more ambient light. See, photography can get complicated, but it’s so much fun. I just love it. Love learning from others, too.

85mm 1:1.8D af nikkor (This is a fixed 85mm lens, again, great for portraits. And the 1.8 aperture is awesome. No photo taken with this lens is ever bad. It’s a “D” lens, which means it has its own aperture ring to work with older cameras or with D movies in newer cameras).

Sigma ex fixed 105 1:2.8D macro (I like a 105mm lens because it’s a flattering focal lens, good for shooting fashion). Also, MACRO means you can photograph something small and make it seem larger than life… like the sprinkles on a cupcake can look like Mike and Ikes. Something like that.

Af nikkor ED 70-300 1:4-5.6 (zoom lens. Zoom just means several focal lengths… you can zoom in and out. Telephoto means it magnifies something in the distance. I use it a lot. It’s not the fastest of my lenses, but I rarely shoot with this lens inside. Though it’s fine inside! It’s great for shooting anything outdoors).

Sigma DC 18-50mm 1:2.8 EX D (If you get a Sigma lens, just make sure it’s made for a Nikon. This is considered a wide angle lens. Anything below 60 (from what I recall is considered wide angle, though a fish eye is an extreme wide angel giving a novelty effect). With WA lenses, you have to be careful what’s in the foreground of your composition, because it tends to make it seem larger than other things. Not flattering for a portrait, as the nose and forehead might make you look like Rocky (from that Cher movie about the mask kid). Now, everyone chime in and say how insensitive and horrible I am. Dear Lord.

Sigma 50mm 1:1.4 EX DG HSM




  1. Any comments on the new Tamron 18-250? We just bought a new Cannon Digital Rebel XT and wanted a multipurpose lens that we could just put on the camera and leave there….it came with the standard 18-55mm but the folks at the camera shop suggested the 18-250. thanks!

    FROM STEPHANIE: It sounds good, but you have to remember, it's an f3.5-6.3, which means you can set the aperture to 3.5 when the zoom is shooting wide angle 18mm shots, but when you zoom to 250, the aperture cannot be set to any number below 6.3. It's just important you know its limitations before you buy it. It's great though, the idea of one camera lens no matter what you come across and it enables you to really play with composition. Don't get lazy, though. It's important to get up close to your subject, not to rely on zoom as a spy. It makes an enormous difference in your shots. Seriously. Don't get into that bad habit.

  2. Imagine the synchronicity. I just bought a SLR (digital) recently. A canon XTI, I realize that is blasphemy on this forum>>)but I am just trying on photography as a hobby>>you know to see how it fits>>who knows it could blossom to something else!!
    I did upgrade from the kit lens to a Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 aperture aspherical lense(wide).
    I figured the 18-55 could possibly get a little dull after a while:) This is great info (although directed by way of Nikon) but great info nonetheless>>>Keep it coming!!


  3. Thanks so much for the info. I got a new camera for Christmas. I know it's a Canon and I bought 4 lens that a friend suggested that I needed. One for taking pictures of my homes (I'm a Realtor) and the others for taking pictures of my grandchild that's due in July.

    I've been playing with one tele something or another… I've got alot of reading to do! I took a picture of a cup and saucer from 30 ft away and could see an imperfection in the china. AMAZING! I'm having a ball!

    Hope you have wonderful New Years!

  4. Thank-you so much.

    I just love your photography; both on this site(beautiful beans)and the Hotel Gansevoort's.

    I'm looking forward to taking some photography courses when I move and this has given me some great information.

    Are you planning on a book of your photographs anytime soon?

    Thanks again and I hope you have a great New Year's.

  5. Thank you very much! I just bought a new camera and will keep your advice in mind. Greetings from Germany, dear Carrots!

  6. Wow, talk about great timing. I spent ALL DAY yesterday researching cameras and lenses. I'm getting the Nikon D80 body, no doubt about it, but I'm stuck on the lens. Everything I read says to get the Nikkor 18-200 VR, but I'm scared it wont be fast enough. My other option would be to get 2 lenses (18-55, 55-200). As far as what I'm using the camera for…I take tons of pics of my kids (portrait), vacation, and cheerleading competitions (fast paced and at a distance). What do you think? Any advice would be appreciated!

    FROM STEPHANIE: What about renting the lens for a day? Take it to a cheerleading competition and give it a whirl. Do all you plan to do with it, and see if there are enough frustrations that will bring you to getting two lenses. Also, the "fast" factor about which I was speaking has more to do with lighting and less to do with catching an action shot on a sunny day. It's the camera, in that case, and how many frames per second it shoots. I bet you'll be happy with the one lens. It's only an issue in dark situations.

  7. Holy crap this is complicated. Maybe I need to find a new "new" hobby. Is sitting on the couch watching bad t.v. a hobby?

  8. Thanks Stephanie. I read your blog often, but this is one of the few times I have posted a comment. I just got my first SLR (Canon Rebel XTi) in September. Much of what you said has reaffirmed what I have learned in the past few months, but I also learned several new pieces of information. Thanks for the rundown of your lenses. (I am trying to decide what my next lens purchase will be.) The only lens I have added to my bag in addition to the near worthless kit lens, is the Canon 50mm f/1.8. I really enjoy shooting pics of my 14 month old with this lens. It's nice and fast, and at $75 bucks it's a great lens for Canon beginners.

    When you post pictures in any of your future "101" posts, would you mind posting the focal length, f stop, ISO and shutter speed used in the pic?

    Thanks again and I am REALLY looking forward to more of your photography posts!!!

  9. Perfect timing, as usual. I took a b&w film (darkroom) photography class this past semester and LOVED it. But this coming semester I'm taking another digital photography class, seeing as though I can't imagine I'll have access to a darkroom upon graduation in May. Not to mention it can be a pain. I'm currently looking for a SLR camera and I'll certainly keep all of this in mind. Thank you so much!

  10. I would love to see the notes as well, not only on the technical stuff but on composition as well. I have a small Panasonic Lumix (European model, so not sure it's called the same in the US) which I guess is a point-and-shoot as I can't add lenses (the term 'point-and-shoot' is not really used here). It has a powerful optical zoom, which is the reason why I bought it, much fun to play with. But I'm already a bit frustrated on making good pictures without using flash, with just ambient light as you call it. So I'll probably move on to more advanced stuff.
    My grandfather was a professional photographer and my dad recently gave me his ancient Minolta, which I apparently can only use for black and white photos. I'd love to start using it and learning, I just have to find/make some time for it. I should probably start with reading the manual for my Lumix, I have a bad habit of ignoring manuals.

  11. Oh my – that sweet little girl is going to get away with anything she wants! There is no way anyone could say "No" to that face!!! Stephanie, Abigail and Lucas are exquisite.

  12. I just got the Canon PowerShot IS-5, 12x optical zoom. I wanted an SLR, but just not in the budget. However, I'm looking forward to future posts because I love taking photos and I'm trying to make it a hobby. I plan on buying Photoshop soon. I love your photos!

    FROM STEPHANIE: Thanks. I think most high-end point and shoots allow you to still set the aperture. So have fun following along.

  13. Do you print pics at home? and if so – what printer do you use?? Thanks – very timely for me as well – just got a Nikon D40x SLR. Thanks :)

  14. Thanks so much for the advice! My local shop is going to let me "test drive" the lens (18-200). I never even thought of asking until you suggested. I just want to pass along to readers who may be looking for a camera…please beware of some of the internet sites selling equipment. Looks like there are alot of shady companies out there. I couldn't get over some of the low prices until I researched the sites. Make sure you are buying from a reputable site. From what I've gathered: Adorama, Canoga Camera, Ritz Camera, Amazon, & B&H Photo are all good. My mom and pop shop is honoring the best internet price I found from a reputable company. Stephanie, please feel free to add to that list. Thanks again!

    FROM STEPHANIE: So glad my advice helped.

  15. the fast factor – something i do wonder about. my camera cost maybe $200 more than my little brother's, but his flashes 10x more quickly than mine. i have the sony 10 megapixel carl zeiss cyber-shot. it's so annoying that i can't get a quick snap like i want.

    this is a very helpful post. i can't wait to learn more and become an even better photographer.


  16. Thanks so much Stephanie! For Christmas my husband got me DSLR photography lessons from a local artisan house, and I can't wait to learn more about taking fabulous photos like the ones you have on your site!

    We have children of the same age and I love seeing the growth of your beans in comparison to my own little sweet pea :)

  17. Wow, this is a great post. Thanks, Stephanie.

    I just got my husband a digital SLR as a wedding gift (I went with an Olympus 510, which has some nice features that are perfect for our amateur level). We had a blast trying to figure it out on the honeymoon, but I'd like to take a class on digital SLR photography to really figure out what we're doing. Any chance you found (and can recommend) any good recreational classes in NYC?

  18. HOW adorable are those little tater tots!! Can you believe they are growing so fast??!! Wonderful pics.

  19. Perfect timing for this post Stephanie. I have a Nikon D40 I bought last year and am so frustrated I can't get good portraits with the lens it came with. I will take your advice into account when shopping for a better lens and will consider myself fortunate to get anywhere near the beautiful portraits you get of your kids. Thanks so much!

  20. Have you been to Photobase( Stephanie? I am sure you have but am posting about it because it was such a great discovery when I bought my first digital camera. The galleries contain some of the best photography I have seen. Period. Pros and amateurs both post there and best of all, they include info about the shot (camera, lens, speed and aperture). Love it.

  21. Nice post. I'm glad you're enjoying taking pictures and sharing your knowledge. As someone who works in a specialty camera store, however, I take offense at your comment to "check out the cameras you're considering in person, at a store, then buy it online and pay no tax". Why not take advantage of your local camera store's knowledge and help support them at the same time? True, you might be able to get a better deal online, but try asking someone at B&H to show you the features of your new camera. They'll laugh at you. The store I work at offers a free class to people who purchase from us, plus we are always available to answer any questions about your camera you might have. We also have access to factory reps and offer many other services to our customers. "Think globally, act locally". And have a Happy New Year.

    FROM STEPHANIE: I agree and am buying mine in person (when they have it in stock), but several people cannot afford to pay the extra money. And if they're in the store enough, asking enough questions, if it's a good salesperson, someone helpful, they'll trust them and will begin to support them, and will be happy to give them the business. I also know some stores that will match prices found on the web from an honorable "bricks" competitor.

  22. I've always thought photography was your best talent. But I still cannot figure out what the image is on the header of your blog (to the left of the one of you and the martini glass!)

  23. What an excellent post! My only subjective disagreement might be with low light/non flash options which I prefer because they eliminate the *FLASH* surprise element. I like to catch my subjects in natural light in an unaffected posture/attitude, but your images most often look like natural light so we might on the same path. It's great to hear your aesthetic on photography. I continue to work with both film and digital so your thoughts are truly interesting and revealing about your own approach to imaging. Which, by the way, I think are excellent…


  24. I'm with you Steph, I LOVE my prime lenses! I'm a Canon girl (shoot with a 5D), but I love my 85mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.4. Great, fast lenses that take awesome pics! I can't stress enough what Steph said about getting another lens besides the
    kit lens that comes with the dSLR's today. Most of them are crap. It's SO worth the investment to get a fast lens. Thanks for this Steph, I can listen to you talk photography all day!!

  25. Thank you for the much needed information on cameras and lens. We are getting ready to buy a new camera. Although, it won't have the same flair as my dad's 1969 Canon which still works perfectly. He taught me about photography with that camera.

  26. Really useful post. I was just wondering, which photoshop package do you use to edit your photos?

    FROM STEPHANIE: Photoshop CS3 (Bridge, a companion with many viewing and sorting options among other things is also included).

  27. I have a Nikon FM2. It is supposed to be a sturdy good camera- I started on a little digital camera and decided to really learn photography I wanted to learn basics. I am frustrated trying to remember everything but practice as much as I can anyway. Thanks for this post- I will definitely refer to it there are some good suggestions in here.

  28. Stephanie, so happy you create this post. I have been an admirer of your photography since the inception of your blog. I mainly do point and shoot digital, but have gone down the path of SLR dreams several times. Did you list the 5 lenses in any particular order? I mean if I try to realize my SLR dream but can only start off with 2 lenses initially, which of the 5 would you recommmend?

    FROM STEPHANIE: Get a 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8 D (whichever you can afford) and then, there's a new lens out, I'd get if I were in need: Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras. In that order. Start with those two. Then you'll want to look into a wide angle. The 50mm one you'd use as your everyday lens. The quality will be amazing, and you'll be psyched.

  29. Thanks for the prioritization of lenses for the SLR impaired… Looking forward to more posts on photography advice. Happy New Year to you, Phil, and the kiddos.

  30. Just in time!

    I love your blog and especially your photography. This post came just in time, my husband just got me a Nikon D40X for my birthday, so I can take this hobby up a notch.

    A question about the lenses issue – how do you know what is a "fast" lense? which index implies that? what do you think is a good enough speed?

    I am so looking forward for more posts on photography (and Photoshop as well! ) keep 'em coming! thank you.

    Oh, and your kids are just adorable. Always wanted to say that.

    FROM STEPHANIE: Aperture basically means how wide will the lens (or diaphragm of the lens) open. The wider it will open (f 1.2), the faster the lens. I cannot explain it all here, obviously, so if you're interested in learning about lens speed, and seeing photos that explain it, check out wiki:

    As for just shopping for a fast lens, let's take one example. On a zoom lens: AF-S DX VR Zoom-NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED

    This means the lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 when at 18mm focal length and a maximum aperture of 5.6 at 200mm focal length. So basically, when shopping, you want to go for the smallest f number you can afford.

  31. You're quite right about some stores matching the online price of e-tailers, but beware of the e-stores that have a price that seems too good to be true. And read the fine print, also. I've heard stories of people purchasing what they thought was a kit item, only to find out the lens would have to be an add-on, at prices way above MAP. I don't need to tell you that "caveat emptor" especially applies to online ordering.

  32. I have a ready analogy for understanding the relationship between aperture (f-stop), shutter speed and film speed (ISO). Consider filling a glass of water just to the brim – how wide open you turn the faucet (aperture), how long you leave it on (shutter speed), and the size of the glass (ISO) determine a successful pour. If you use lower pressure, you need more time, etc. A small glass is like a faster film. it fills up quicker – less water is needed (or less light).

  33. With you, and this post, as inspiration I just purchased a D80, the nikkor 50mm/1.4D and the nikkor 70-300mm zoom (lenses you recommended)… And a boatload of other stuff I'm still trying to figure out (filters, sun shades, flash, gray card (masquerading as a microfiber cloth), yadda yadda yadda). My SLR dream is no longer a dream. Thanks for talking me down from the ledge of SLR fear!

    FROM STEPHANIE: That's soooo exciting! As for filters, I think you only need a basic haze +1 or UV filter. Possibly a polarizing lens (for photographing a store window, for example, when you don't want to shoot the reflection of yourself in the glass). The rest, I don't think you need, as all those filter "effects" are possible in the digital darkroom. But, the less you have to adjust once they're on your computer, the better. Have fun!

  34. I bought the simple UV filters for both of the lenses, middle of the road quality, basically to protect the lenses, not to get any sort of affects. I'll research the polarizing lens. I am already starting to think about the "next lens", despite not having used both of the ones I have yet! You were right though, just my first couple of sets on the new camera with the 50 mm f/1.4D has me psyched.

    By the way, I noticed that you have stopped using the PictoBrowser tool that links to Flickr. I really like how that looks. Have you discovered an issue with it?

    FROM STEPHANIE: It's a polarizing filter, not lens. You can add it to the lenses you have now. My timemachine has suddenly stopped working, so I'm having a bit of a panic session here. Pictobrowser, or that youtube movie I had on my site were giving some people script errors.

  35. I am signed up for some dSLR photography classes in about 10 days, so hopefully my obtuseness will be less visible after that… :)

    Seriously though, I really want to thank you for all the various posts and comments you have made on Greek Tragedy regarding your photography. I am not exaggerating my statements about how encouraging this has been and that it's THE reason I am going down this path. I have a friend who is an excellent photographer (he has a couple photos accepted for the next issue of LensWork magazine). His photos are beautiful, as are yours. But more importantly it has been your repeated responses to repeated inquiries, your "look people, I use this camera, I studied some books, I took some classes, and I used my brain to learn it, and I had to work at it" type statements that have turned me. Thanks for that.

    I have a milestone birthday in mid-Feb and I'm going to New Orleans to celebrate. I can't wait to see what I will be able to do on that trip with this camera!

    FROM STEPHANIE: One fun idea is to do a flickr and getty search for photos of New Orleans before you go, so you can get some ideas of what kind of shots you like, and also, where you'll definitely want to go because you want to photograph it. That's what I do sometimes. Have so much fun. Eat bread pudding, and happy birthday.

  36. Stephanie,
    I Flickr mailed you, just FYI, not sure how you get notified of that. Anyway, check out the results of my first digital photography project (my New Orleans trip).

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