Building a camera system


in Geek stuff, Photography

Woman with flowers in her hair

I often get asked about what sort of photographic gear serious amateurs should buy. Normally, I direct them towards this excellent primer on building a digital SLR system, written by Philip Greenspun. It is, however, a bit on the long side. Here is a briefer encapsulation.


I would go with Canon or Nikon. This is mainly due to compatibility, both across a wide range of accessories (lenses, flashes, etc) and across long spans of time. Both companies make excellent gear that will be usable for decades. I happened to go with Canon and have always been happy with them.

There are other brands that have advantages (both in terms of price and features), but the market for Canon and Nikon related gear is broad and deep.


This really depends on what sort of photography interests you most. Someone seriously into nature photography would skew their purchases towards telephoto gear, while someone looking to take informal shots in casual settings might go for fast primes. The basic sequence, however, looks something like this:

  1. Get a crop-sensor dSLR. These cost about $600-700 and are very capable cameras. One thing to remember, though, is that they will multiply the effective focal length of all your lenses by 1.6. As such, a 50mm lens on a crop sensor is akin to an 80mm lens on a film body or full-frame dSLR.
  2. Get a memory card, but don’t worry about filters and things unless you are going to be working in very wet or dusty places.
  3. Get a couple of batteries. You don’t want to find yourself in the middle of an excellent and unexpected photo session, but unable to snap any more shots.
  4. Buy the kit lens. It won’t be of great quality, but they are usually very cheap when bought with the camera body. They are also often the only way to get cheap wide angle capability for a dSLR.
  5. Buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens. These have great optical quality, can allow fast shutter speeds in dark circumstances, and can often be purchased for about $100. A 28mm or 35mm lens would more closely approximate a 50mm ‘normal’ lens on a film camera, but these tend to cost a lot more.
  6. Get a tripod. It’s not necessary for absolutely every kind of photography, but it is useful for most. It is also a good way to keep your camera stored in an accessible and highly visible place (which prompts me, at least, to go out shooting more often).
  7. Get a camera bag that works for you. This is a tricky process that usually takes some experimentation. You want something big enough to carry what you need, but not so big you can never take it anywhere. You also need to decide whether you prefer a shoulder bag (much more accessible), a backpack (more comfortable), or something else. When carrying around just one camera and lens, don’t bother with a camera bag. Just bring a plastic bag in case of rain. Having your camera stuffed a way in a bag when walking around will make you miss photos. Bags are for carrying extra gear, and providing protection in transit.

Beyond this, the sequence really depends on what you plan to shoot. Some people might start with flash(es), some people might save their pennies for professional grade zoom lenses. Others might improve on their kit lens with consumer grade zooms (such as the reasonably high quality lenses that zoom from around 30mm to around 100mm and are available for under $500). Some people might assemble a collection of primes. Some people might save up to go straight to a full-frame body.

As someone who has tried a fair sampling of different kinds of photography, I would suggest that the following is a reasonable sequence:

  1. Consumer grade zoom (about 30mm to 100mm)
  2. Portable reflector (for portraits in sun)
  3. External flash and method for triggering it off-camera (either a cable or radio triggers)
  4. Light stand for flash and umbrella
  5. Second flash with triggering system
  6. Light stand for flash and umbrella
  7. Professional grade telephoto zoom (i.e 70-200mm)
  8. Professional grade wide angle zoom (i.e. 24-70mm)
  9. Wide angle prime lens (28mm or 35mm)
  10. Macro lens (85mm or 100mm)
  11. Full-frame dSLR body

You may want to sell the consumer zoom once you have professional grade ones, though it can be useful in situations where you need a wide range of focal lengths but can only bring one lens. If you never plan to get a full-frame dSLR, a professional grade wide angle zoom specific to crop sensor bodies might be a good idea.

Other options beyond this:

  • More flashes
  • Flash accessories (grids, snoots, softboxes, beauty dishes, gobos, etc)
  • Crazy nature lenses (i.e. 100-400mm)
  • Teleconverters (make any lens act like a longer one)
  • Fisheye lenses
  • A second body, so you can use two lenses without having to swap.

If you’ve worked your way through all of that, probably know a lot more about photography than I do. If you are in need of more distant horizons, there are two words to consider: medium format.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah August 21, 2009 at 1:13 pm

That’s a very pretty picture.

Milan August 21, 2009 at 1:26 pm


It was taken at Lisa Poushinsky’s Round Barn Party. More photos from the party are on Facebook.

It was shot on my Canon Rebel XS, using a 70-200mm f/4L IS lens and a large soft gold reflector.

Tristan August 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm

I agree with everything above. However, I would add:

1) Modern kit lenses have exceptional image quality (sharpness), although distortion is sometimes an issue.

2)Tripods can often be purchased for very little at value village type stores. I don’t think it makes sense to spend a lot on a tripod in your initial kit unless you really want to do night photography. For evening photography, a prime lens coupled with the high sensitivity of crop bodies is plenty – and not having a tripod allows for more spontaneity.

Milan August 21, 2009 at 4:54 pm

One other thing:

If you’re going to spend the big bucks to assemble any portion of the kit above, it’s worth shelling out $200 for a good point and shoot (P&S) digital camera, small enough to fit in a pocket. Try to have it with you all the time, to capture images that turn up when you aren’t lugging around heavy SLR kit.

BuddyRich August 22, 2009 at 7:42 am

I’ll second that last comment.

A good P&S in your pocket is better than the best dSLR back at the hotel.

Milan September 1, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Canon is releasing a new crop sensor body. I already have an APS-C sensor, in my Rebel XS, so I’m not too excited.

I am saving my pennies for a full-frame 5D.

R.K. September 1, 2009 at 1:00 pm

The video capability in the 7D could be a worthwhile feature for a lot of people, though apparently video from dSLRs is really wobbly.

Milan September 9, 2009 at 11:04 am

Alternatively, you can spend US$7000 on a Leica M9. Ken Rockwell says that it is “the most important digital camera ever created for the creative travel, nature and landscape photographer.”

It’s the world’s smallest camera with a full-frame sensor.

Milan November 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Ricoh has come up with a new take on the dSLR. In their new GXR system, each lens has a built-in sensor.

. November 10, 2009 at 1:49 pm
. March 14, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Snapping a good camera
Photography: A promising new class of digital cameras is emerging between small, basic compact models and bulky, elaborate single-lens reflex ones

Mar 4th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

THERE has long been a product in the middle when it comes to choosing a camera; somewhere between the expensive heavyweight kit used by professionals and simple point-and-shoot snappers. Not only are serious amateurs interested in this part of the market, but the pros are too. In the 1980s many news photographers carried something like a small Canon AF35M in their gadget bag. With a relatively fast lens, a motorised film winder and, in particular, its innovative autofocus system, it was a useful backup to bulky single-lens reflex cameras.

Now autofocus is universal and 35mm film has been replaced by digital imaging sensors and memory cards. But choosing a good mid-range camera has become more difficult. It is not just that most cameras now pack almost as many megapixels as anyone needs. Some have been redesigned to create new types of cameras especially for digital photography. Indeed, some mid-range models are capable of producing results close to that of the best digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs).

. September 3, 2010 at 11:02 am

Canon has developed a 8 x 8 inch CMOS digital sensor. It will be able to capture an image with 1/100th the light intensity required by a DSLR and will be able to record video at 60 fps in lighting half the intensity of moonlight. There are already many excellent quality lenses designed to cover 8 x 10 inches, although Canon may develop some of their own designed specifically for their requirements.”

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