Choosing a Lens for Your Photography, Buying a Used Camera, and More! [Episode 16]

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In Episode 16 of the Improve Photography Podcast, Jim and Dustin answer listener questions about getting started in flash photography, choosing a good lens, and buying a used camera.

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Guide to Episode 16

[:45] Should I go with the Tamron 70-200mm with VC, or the Canon 70-200mm without IS?

Once you decide you’re going to shoot professionally, a 70-200mm lens is very versatile.  It makes a big difference in sharpness of pictures if you’re shooting in low light. Wedding receptions, etc, go for the Tamaron. If you’ll be on a tripod then go with the Canon.

Dustin isn’t thrilled with third party lenses, simply because they don’t seem to put nearly as good quality into the lens. Jim says that the durability of third party lenses is often questionable.

Jim says a lot of the times you really should look at the third party lenses, however.  They are much less money in some instances, and many of them offer excellent quality.

[8:00]  When buying a used camera how much does the number of shutter actuations matter?

 A shutter actuation is simply a click of the camera’s shutter.  Each picture is an actuation.

When buying a used camera, you want to check to see how many shutter actuations it has, because you’ll know how long the shutter will last. You can find out how many shutter actuations your camera has by reading this article.

Each camera’s shutter is rated to a different number of actuations, so compare how many actuations have been used on the used camera to how many actuations the camera manufacturer rates the shutter for on that camera.

If the shutter goes out, it costs $200-500 to get it replaced (more for a nicer camera).

[13:00] What’s the problem?  I calibrated my monitor, but the prints are still turning out dark?

Possible that it could be the quality of the monitor itself, not calibrations. If it’s an older monitor, it’s just not going to produce the same brightness as a newer one. Also, if ambient light changes it makes a big difference too – maybe you have a big window that the light changes.

Depending on whether or not it is light outside, can make a very big difference on how the photo looks on your screen, even if the screen is technically correct.

Make sure you have a good monitor. Make sure the room is set correctly, and then make sure you’re using a really good quality printer – there are huge differences in photo results from different labs.

If you’re a mac user or using a laptop, most of those have the auto dimming feature to save power. Keep brightness at 50% (if it’s a newer monitor out there).

[15:00]  Should I buy a faster lens, or flash gear?

No matter what lens you have, adding flash photography or any type of light into your photos will give better quality images. But between the two, always go for flash gear first. It will make a big difference. Once you get started with flash, the quality of your images improves hugely. Once you get better at manipulating the light with a flash, then you become better at handling the natural lighting.

At some point, your lens will be what holds you back. So at that point, it’s time to get a new lens, but first go for the flash gear. Read here for recommendations.

[22:00] My SB400 speedlight is giving “Error: Flash not set properly forward” What’s the deal?

The Sb400 flash is ETTL only.  It cannot be used as a manual flash.  Consequently, if you point the SB400 up at the ceiling, you’ll get this error because the flash cannot meter on the ceiling.

[23:05] Closeness of umbrella, speed light, and subject: how far apart should these be?

Flash and umbrella as far apart as possible. Click here for a video. When the flash is further away, the light has more room to fill out the umbrella and spread out the light. When it is really close together, it is diffused (so it is softer) but it’s still a very narrow beam of light.

Why does this even matter? We often think the softness of light means how dark or bright it is. “Softness” = how long it takes to transition from a highlight to a shadow. The larger the light source, the harder the transition is.

White shoot-through umbrella that goes between the flash and the subject, or there is a silver reflective umbrella

What should be the zoom on my flash? Most flashes will allow you to have a more constricted beam (zoomed in) but you’ll want it to be zoomed out in general. Usually we want softer light, but you can’t say always. If you’re just starting out, go for the softer light and then once you’re good at that, you can be more creative with the light.

First stage flash photographers: Beginners use too many lights, and they also place their lights too low which makes pictures look scary. Light is too bright in comparison to the ambient light.

Next stage: good nice, soft light, but you’re shooting for even light instead of good light. Without the interest of highlights and shadows, you can’t show off the contours of people’s faces. Also try different colored flashes.

Final stage: settle down, embrace shadows, only use creative techniques when they’re necessary etc. This is when your results will become quality.

Go through the stages – get it out of your system and learn new techniques.

Layer your flashes, ONE AT A TIME. It’s important to have an interesting subject: highlight exactly where you want the viewer to look.

[28:40] I would like to invest $500-$700 more in a new lens. Do I go for a wide angle or telephoto zoom?

Low budget, new lens, that will shoot landscapes and groups.18-135, ready to start getting a little more serious about landscape photography and want to go wide: 10mm on a crop sensor. Sigma has 8-10, and 10-22. Canon makes 10-22, Nikon makes 10-24. Haven’t seen a landscape lens for a crop sensor camera that I’m happy with. Best bet may be Tokina 11-16.

Full frame you’re out of price range.

Telephoto: very expensive if you want to get a fast aperture. 70-300 is a perfectly good idea for a medium telephoto lens. Usually not quite enough for shooting wildlife. Nikon and Canon both make something around $5-700 range.

[32:00] Prizes for reviews!

The winner is kellyF69.  If that’s your username on iTunes, email Jim at prize@improvephotography.com to get your free online photography class.

To be entered to win the online photography class each week, simply go to this podcast on iTunes and write a one or two sentence review.  While they appreciate a a 5-star review, any review will get you entered to win a class for free (a $98 value).

[48:30] Doodads of the Week

Jim’s doodad of the week is a technology I haven’t used yet – the Olympus OMD micro 4/3s camera. Smaller sensor size, but you lose the mirror. Smaller, pocketable camera. The feature Jim loves about it: live bulb mode. When shooting night photography, often want to go into “bulb mode”. It can take 30 minutes to get one shot in night photography, but with this you just press until you like it and then let go. Around $800, lenses aren’t quite as expensive as DSLR lenses, but still up there. Read here to see why smaller sensor size can give you a better field of view.

Dustin’s pick of the week is a website called fluidr.com (supported by flicker) – a great resource to be able to search based on the lens used to take a picture.

Jim and Dustin plug their flash photography workshop.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. mike says

    Two things… First, Jim, the Sun is a star. Second, I tried searching for umbrelladay on your web site, but I get an error 404 – page not found. Can you give the correct web page URL? Thanks. I enjoy and learn quite a bit from your podcasts.

  2. Keith says

    in regards to the article “I calibrated my monitor, but the prints are still turning out dark?”
    The statement you made ” If it’s an older monitor, it’s just not going to produce the same brightness as a newer one.” This is true but it’s not the brightness of the monitor that is at fault. A good calibration unit should be able to measure the monitors brightness and also the ambient light falling on the monitor.
    If your monitor’s brightness is too dark you would naturally brighten your image in post processing by using the brightness slider or change the Gamma settings. This would make the actual image too bright and be reflected in the quality of your prints. Also, newer monitors are purposely made to have a brighter image because the majority of people watch movies and play games on their systems and they want bright vibrant colours. Because the monitor is extra bright and we perceive the image to be ‘bright enough’ it is in actual fact darker than desired and that is when your prints will print darker than expected.
    All this was learned from experience as I too had photos that printed and were darker than expected. The I got wise and got a good calibration unit for my monitors.
    I use the Xrite i1 Display color monitor.
    Now I never angst about the colour or quality of my prints. What I see is what I get.

  3. says

    The question about the SB400 flash: I have a SB400 and a D3100. I get this error all the time when I have the flash pointed up. I believe the reason for this error is because this flash is only iTTL and has no manual controls. I think the reason I get the error is because the camera is setting the flash based on the iTTL information but when you point the flash to the ceiling you are changing how the flash interacts with the scene and you may not get the results you’re expecting based on the iTTL information.

  4. says

    @Kieth – Thanks for the input. I think what Dustin was talking about is not that you CAN’T calibrate an older model to the correct brightness, but that older monitors are prone to “wandering” from the correct settings faster, and often need to be calibrated more frequently.

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