Friday, August 28, 2009

Lights, Camera, Lenses.

Have you ever been discouraged when looking at really good photos?

I have.

Before I knew anything about photography, I'd sit and stare at gorgeous photos on websites and blogs and think, "How did he do that? Why is her photo so crisp and light and mine so dark and blurry? Why does that photo look alive and mine look, at best, really sleepy? What am I doing wrong? Why do I even bother?

One of the things I've found so frustrating about photography is that it is very hard to find help when you're a beginner. There's so much information about photography online that really, it's like there's none at all. Where does one even begin? Where are the classes? Where is the step-by-step help that will walk me through exactly "how she did that"? And, without the photography speak that makes absolutely no sense to me.

I can relate to every one of those feelings. I've felt them and been so frustrated with photography at times that I've wanted to curl up and cry. Because just like so many of you, I want to take good pictures. I want to capture "on film" what I'm really seeing - not some blurry, dark version of it. I want to look back at my children's lives and see their past in vivid, clear color - not in blurry dark drearydome.

I'm not a professional. In fact, I'm a beginner. But, I have learned a handful of things over the last two years - when I first caught a passion for photography - and I want to share them with you. In part, because you asked me to. And, in part because I love to talk about photography. I'm gonna start with my camera equipment: what camera I shoot with, the lenses I use, and my external flash that makes all the difference in the world.

In the future, I plan to continue posting the new things I'm learning, what's working for me, and little tips and tricks that I'm picking up as I study and practice and learn.

If you're here because you want professional photography help, you're in the wrong place. But, if you love to take pictures, and you want to know what's worked for me, then I think I can help you with that.

Today, I'll share my camera, lenses, and flash with you.

What camera do you use?

I own a Nikon D40x.

My husband bought it for me in November 2007 and it is one of my most favorite things I've ever owned. I love it. Use it. Talk to it. Play with it. And, it is never more than an arm's reach from me at any moment.

The Nikon D40x is a Digital SLR camera. The main difference between a Digital SLR and the Point-and-Shoot cameras you see hanging on the wrists of millions of people everywhere is that with a Point-and-Shoot - you turn on the camera and take a picture. You do have some control over settings and such, but most people set it on auto and just begin taking pictures.

A Digital SLR is a camera body that allows you to choose and then attach different lenses based on what and where you're shooting. They're more expensive than Point-and-Shoot cameras, but give you much more control over exposure, how much light is coming in, and allow you to create much more dynamic and eye-catching photos. Yes, you can take great photos with a Point and Shoot - but you won't be able to customize your photos like you can with an SLR.

Why Nikon? Why not Canon?

When we were in the market for a Digital SLR, we did a tremendous amount of research. After reading a boatload of reviews, there were only two brands that we seriously considered: Nikon and Canon. We looked at both brands. And, frankly - I just liked the way the Nikon felt in my hand. If you Google "Nikon vs. Canon SLRs", you will find opinions galore about which one is better. Most professional photographers are Nikon people or Canon people. And, most of them could handedly convince you why they shoot with the brand they shoot with.

I'm a Nikon girl.

Why the D40x?

When we were shopping for our camera two years ago, the Nikon D40x was Nikon's newest entry-level Digital SLR. We read rave reviews about the Nikon D40, and the D40x was an upgrade from that. But, most importantly, we wanted an entry-level camera. We didn't want or need the best camera out there, but we wanted a good one. And, the Nikon D40x suited our needs perfectly.

We bought our D40x as part of a kit - rather than buying just the body and then choosing the lenses we wanted. We did a lot of research and found the best price at Costco. The kit came with the D40x body and two lenses - a standard zoom lens and a high power zoom lens, and a camera bag with some accessories. I believe we paid about $900.

Nikon typically has a "kit" out at any given time with the newest version of their entry-level Digital SLR. And, it is usually in the $800-$1000 range. So, if you were to buy a kit today, it would be a different camera than the D40x I bought two years ago - but come with similar lenses and accessories. Make sense?

***Updated 10/2011 - The current entry level kit is the Nikon D3100. This would be my current recommendation!***

What lenses do you use?

Up until this past Christmas, I shot with the lenses that came with my kit.

Nikkor 18-55mm. This is a standard zoom lens that I used to shoot most of my day to day photographs: pictures of my kids, my food photos, vacation shots, etc. I don't use this lens much anymore, because I got a new lens that replaced it. (more on that in a minute)

Nikkor 55-200mm. I don't own this lens anymore, but it is a great high power zoom lens - meaning you can get in really close from really far away. One of my sweet babes knocked it off of the counter with a Captain Hook sword and it shattered into pieces. I cried. But, my husband surprised me and bought me the lens I'd been pining over for months a few days later. He rocks.

The following lenses are the two lenses that I use every day. And, I'm absolutely in love with both of these lenses.

Sigma 18-250mm HSM.

Oh, how I love this lens. This lens covers just about every distance and situation I find myself in. I can shoot the kids if they're really close to me, or I can zoom in from far away and catch them doing something naughty. My five year-old starts soccer this fall. This lens will be perfect for his soccer games. If he's running right by me, I can get the shot. If he's across the field, I can zoom in and capture him there.

Changing lenses while you're outside can cause dust, dirt, grass, etc. to get inside your lenses and camera body. So, I try to avoid changing them outside. This lens essentially replaced both my 18-55mm and my 55-200mm because it covers that whole gamut. It's sharp, clear, and I love the way my photos look comin' straight off my camera when I use this lens.

Here are a few photos I took with this lens:

It takes great landscape photos.

But, it also takes great portraits.

It's a great all purpose lens and unless I'm shooting food shots, I rarely take it off of my camera .

Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D

This is the lens I use for almost all of my food photography. It creates the most wonderful depth of field - focusing in on one small section in the photo and blurring out the rest.

I took this photo of my carrot cake recipe with this lens. See how it focused just on one part of the icing?

That's exactly what I wanted it to do.

I also love what this lens does with portraits. I took this shot of Max with this lens.

It creates wonderful shadows and depth. I always say that this lens is emotional - cause it creates such moody photos. I love it.

One last piece of equipment that you'll never find me without:

My external flash.

I really dislike using the built-in flash on my camera. It gives people this "deer in the headlights" look and it can take the most beautiful moment and wash it out and make it harsh. But, sometimes a flash is absolutely necessary.

Nikon SB-600 External Flash

One month in to using my camera, I realized I needed an external flash. I never use the built-in flash on my camera. Never, never, never. Most of the time, I try to use natural light, and use no flash at all. This includes taking pictures of my kids, as well as my food photos.

BUT, flash really is necessary sometimes. It just is. So, when I need a flash, I use an external flash. My external flash clips on to the top of my camera, and I can play with angles, bounce it off ceilings and walls and create soft, indirect light instead of the harsh light that comes directly from the flash on my camera and lands right on my subject - most of the time, right in his/her eyes. Have you ever watched people get ready for a flash? They're completely freaked out at the blast of light that's about to hit them right in the eyeballs.

If you really want to take soft, glowing pictures while indoors, an external flash is absolutely necessary.

That sums up my current photography "equipment". If I could give you three pieces of advice based on what I've just shared, it would be:

1. Get a Digital SLR. Just do it! You will never regret it and you won't believe the difference it will make in your photos the minute you take it out of the box. Set it on auto and shoot. You'll be amazed.

2. Choose good lenses. A kit is a great way to go for your first SLR. It's what I did, and it was a perfect way for me to get started. But, if you know you'll be shooting specific types of photos, then you can purchase a camera body and then choose the lenses that suit your specific needs. The beauty of an SLR is that you indeed get to choose your lenses! If you purchase a kit, you can add to your kit lenses as you learn and customize your camera. And, there are SO many great choices!

3. Get an external flash. It will make all the difference in the world vs. using the built-in flash! I promise!

Well, that's it for today. But, I'm not finished yet. At some later point, I'll post some of the other tools I use, and why I use them. I thought I'd be able to share everything in one post, but WHOA MOMMA, this post is long enough. I'll continue with the program I use to edit my photos, and the books, the most fantastic books, that have helped me tremendously.

*Edited to add: The program I used to use is not the program I use anymore, so I'll update once I learn enough to feel like I have something valuable to offer. The books? I'll try to get to those soon!

If you have questions about my camera equipment, please, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them there. Remember, I'm not a pro. I'm just a girl who loves her camera and loves photography. And, if I can help you - my faithful readers by sharing with you what I've learned - then I'd love to do that.

Cheers, my friends. Have a great weekend!


  1. this was a great post, sarah! i really appreciate the detailed information.

    and i totally am drooling over a d60 right now. we'll see... :)

  2. So, Dave caught me looking at lenses the other night and I think had a small heart attack. Every year for some holiday (b-day or Christmas) he (in conjunction with my dad) has given me some part of my camera. I think he thought this year he was getting a break. Does he know me but at all??? ;)

  3. Okay, this confirm that you belong to this family of ours! I spent way too much time hearing camera talk, watching photos being taken, and feeling totally out of the loop when Dave and Lindsey were together. You would have loved being with the two of them. It was photo talk non-stop along with spending over an hour at Norman's when she spotted the shop. I spent most of that time sitting in the car...I can handle just so much. I just quietly slip away and let them have their fun.

    You know Dave will always talk photography with you. He tends to talk on his level, but you are growing and learning and probably can stay with him now that you've had your camera for quite some time.

    Yes, for sure, you belong to us!!!

    (Did you see the last wedding that Linds shot? The location was amazing in Austin. Be sure to check it out...I was so impressed, but then I'm her mom :)

  4. That was really helpful! Right now I just use a Canon PowerShot because it is little fits in my pocket and I can take with me all of the time. BUT I LOVE your photos and I am beginning to lust for a Nikon D40x with a Sigma 18-250mm HSM lens. I never think of myself as a photographer and love digital because I just snap lots of photos and discard 90% but am so thrilled when I happen to get an occasional good one. I just don’t want to set up and focus for every shot because sometimes if I am photographing, I miss out on the actual experience. For example, when the kids were learning to ski, my head was behind the camera instead of enjoying the thrill of the moment. How do you handle that?

  5. We upgraded to a DSLR summer of 08 at my husband's prodding. He wanted good, crisp pics of the kids. Ane he has this secret photographer in him that is dying to get out. This Christmas we got the flash... I couln't believe how much of a difference it makes. We are Cannon people. Can we still be friends? I don't remember why, I just remember him reading gads and gads online and going to best buy multiple times and I believe at the time the Cannon was the best deal we were able to get.

    Our current lust is for a bigger zoom. (I LOVED yours and how you could be in your kids face from across the room). As we enter the world of sports, as in kids playing soccer and baseball and such, I am seeing all the more reasons why a zoom is helpful. Maybe this Christmas?

    Loved this post.. you really are a great teacher and I love reading what your passionate about... cooking, your kids, photography!!

  6. I'm a Canon digital SLR girl, myself. :-D

    btw ... it takes more than just a fancy camera and additional doodads to get a good shot. It takes patience and a good eye for photography. You've got those, my friend. :-D

  7. Thank you so much for such an awesome and informative post!! I have researched Canon vs. Nikon for a couple of years. I actually have a Panasonic SLR that hubby bought me for my bday 2 yrs ago. I love it but there are so many features that I still don't understand them. I usually put it on auto mode but know I could and should do more. I will keep reading...

  8. Great tips!! And I've appreciated the ones you've shared with me in the past to get great food shots!

    Some day I hope to have a "real" camera, but for now, it's me and my point and shoot! :)

  9. This is very timely - I just posted about how I want to learn more about how to take better photos. :) Thank you!!

    I don't have a DSLR (yet) but did upgrade to a Canon PowerShot SX10IS which is kind of in between. It has the manual controls but not a detachable lens. I figure I'm working my way up because SLRs totally intimidate me. Now I just need to learn more about how to use this one... Can't wait to read more!

  10. I really enjoyed this post. I have a Canon, and my hubby gave it to me for my 40th birthday. Like yours, it came as a package deal from Costco. For Mothers' Day, he gave me the Sigma lens very similar to yours. I'm still drooling over the 50mm lens. It's on my want list.

  11. This post is so helpful. I've been admiring all of your photos. I am using a Canon Digital Elph, but I've been checking out SLRs for a while. Maybe I'll make the leap sometime in the near future. Oh, and I LOVE Costco!

  12. Question: How do you get your family to cooperate for candid photos? It seems that as soon as I pull out my camera people start to complain and hide!

  13. Thank you! That was so helpful. I definitely need to get an external flash. It will be on my Christmas list! I love both the lenses that I have but sometimes wish I had one in the "middle" that might be going on the list as well.

  14. Brenda,

    That is a constant balancing act. I don't want to miss capturing moments that I want to be able to share and relive at a later point, but I don't want to miss "being in the moment" either.

    I try to take pictures for a "set" period of time during any activity, family outing, etc. Then, I put my camera away. If the "perfect shot" comes along, I may run and grab my camera if it's something I just really want to photograph - but for the most part, once I put my camera away, I put it away.

    Again, always a balancing act. And, I'm learning to hand the camera over to my husband as well - allowing him to capture me with the kids and giving me time to just "be in the moment".

  15. DelKee,

    OH, do I understand this one - especially with little ones.

    You know, I used to think that perfectly posed photos of my kids and family were what I wanted - everyone smiling and behaving and reflecting NOTHING of what life is really like. But, the more I photograph my family (and children), the more I'm learning that candid shots- the ones where everyone is just being "them", doing what they do, naturally laughing and smiling simply because life is good - those are the photos I'm after.

    SO, for the most part, I don't take portraits of my family - or get them to pose - hoping to get a "candid" shot that isn't really candid. I just snap away - when they're not really looking, and try to not be noticed.

    One of the things that makes a wedding photographer TRULY great is when you hardly know they're there. No one wants a camera in their face when they're trying to just enjoy an experience. I think about that a lot when I'm with my family and wanting to capture our memories.

  16. Oh, how thankful I am to you for this wonderful post about your knowledge in photography!!!!! I am looking forward to more posts on photography from you!!!!! I have been researching lenses and thinking about an external flash, and this post has helped me tremendously with making that oh-so-scary decision on just what I need!!!!! I've e-mailed you about your camera and lenses and such, and am so grateful you have posted detailed info about it all on your blog!!!! You are an excellent photographer!!!!! I look forward to reading about other photography tips and info you have learned and are willing to share with novice photographers such as I!!!! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    ~ Cara in Fort Worth, TX

  17. Thanks for sharing. I caught the photo bug in the last year and I have loved taking my shots. I really like taking pictures of flowers- they don't run away, talk back or throw things at you!
    I have a Nikon D80. I love it. We have a speedlight too. My husband is a high school teacher and used to teach yearbook and he had to teach his students the basics of photography. I actually prefer not to learn from him. But, that is just me. I'm weird that way.
    I totally want a nifty 50. That would be the bested Christmas present in the world!
    My goal this next year is to start dipping my feet in the pool of photoshop. I haven't tackled that yet. And you can do so much with it. Right now I just edit my photos on Flickr in their cheesy Picnic program. Just the basics. But hey, that's me.
    I look forward to what you have to say about photography! Thanks for sharing as usual.

  18. Sarah,

    Photography is a hobby I hope to pursue one day when more time is available in my life.

    One of the best pieces of advice given to me was to keep a cheap filter on your lens. So I keep a $12 UV filter on the front so that it might be the only thing that cracks if it drops. Then you might save the lens. (or you can be neutral ones)

    YOU are clearly more knowledgeable than I, so you probably know this. But just in case...

    I just happened to stop by today randomly. Hope your homeschooling journey continues to go well. You are not alone in the feelings of overstatement and inadequacy, but God has clearly surrounded you with friends to remind you of that.

    Wishing you the best on your journey and God bless!

  19. THANK YOU! Seriously thanks for taking the time to write this. You were right on the money with everything you said and it all made sense. I am just gonna DO IT. I'm just not sure which one yet. :(

    I'm going to look for your other camera related posts.

    Btw, I'm over from Keeley's!

  20. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post as much as I have your others. It was easy to understand and helpful. We're shooting with a Nikon D40 and a Sigma 70-300 which we love.

    By the way, you have a way of writing that captivates me so that I'm reading every word, not just skimming for the highlights. That's refreshing.

    All the best to you and your new little one....

  21. I just re-read this post and I wanted to tell you that I finally did it!

    My husband got me a Canon Rebel T2i (at Costco) as an early Christmas gift and I'm just starting to use it. I'm overwhelmed by all the controls, settings, and features! Thanks for inspiring me to take the plunge.