The ease and ubiquity of digital photography has transformed a parental dilemma that was rather minor in the film era into something many of us wrestle with every day: Do I step back and capture my kids’ moments, or do I stop focusing on posterity and just participate in the present? The first time your kid dips his toes into the ocean, do you lurk nearby with a wide-angle lens, or do you forget about the camera and hold your kid’s hand? Record the moment, or participate in it?
How you deal with this dilemma—to shoot or not to shoot—will vary with the moment and with countless variables that may be in play, and I am not here to tell you when to be a recorder or when to be a participant. (See this Playground Dad post for more on this subject.) But one of the variables in play is the camera gear itself, and I am here to share some ideas on how to set that variable so you can capture your kid’s childhood without turning into the family’s full-time staff photographer.
The DSLR vs. Point-and-Shoot Debate
Despite astonishing advances in digital camera technology, particularly its miniaturization, camera shoppers still have to decide between small, slow, not-so-great cameras and big, fast, awesome digital SLRs, or DSLRs. Despite what most of the camera manufacturers tell us, there is no such thing as a small, lightweight, pocket-size camera that can hold a candle to the big DSLRs, and that is why the majority of professional and “enthusiast” photographers still use DSLRs for the bulk of their work even while they ride the Instagram/Twitter bandwagon. Unfortunately, the best point-and-shoots (including smart phone cameras) are still relatively slow in terms of shutter responsiveness, or how quickly the camera snaps a photo after you press the shutter button; their lenses’ optics cannot compete with the better DSLR lenses; and due largely to the laws of physics, the small sensors of point-and-shoots can’t capture the deep, rich images that large sensors can. And forcing cameras into smaller packages means the controls—for changing aperture, adjusting exposure, overriding auto settings, and so on—get buried in touchscreen menus. This isn’t to say there aren’t outstanding point-and-shoot cameras to be had, or that incredible photographs aren’t taken by such cameras every second of the day in every corner of the globe. But again, there is a reason wedding photographers, sports photographers, photojournalists, and other pros are still using expensive, bulky gear: You get what you pay for.
Mirrorless: Best of Both Worlds?
Attempts to meld the best features of DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras have produced a new kind of digital camera, the “mirrorless,” which is essentially a compact body that has a larger sensor, a powerful processor, and the ability to mount interchangeable lenses. (“Mirrorless” refers to the lack of a mirror, prism, and viewfinder, which take up quite a bit of the volume of a DSLR.) But these mirrorless bodies have many of the aforementioned drawbacks of traditional point-and-shoots, and once you start adding large interchangeable lenses you’re basically heading back in the direction of an unwieldy DSLR, anyhow. The image below, for example, is of Canon’s new mirrorless EOS-M paired with one of the most versatile zoom lenses on the planet.
In addition to resembling a great dane copulating with a chihuahua, this rig’s length and weight pretty much defeat the point of having the smaller camera. Meanwhile, the EOS-M is more expensive than several of Canon’s entry-level DSLRs. The same is true when you look at what Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm, Panasonic, and other companies are offering in the mirrorless class.
To be fair, today’s super powerful DSLRs are indeed big, heavy, and expensive, as are the better interchangeable lenses. Unless you’re comfortable lugging a DSLR rig everywhere you go, you will miss many photogenic moments that could be captured by an inexpensive point-and-shoot or that amazingly smart phone that’s already in your pocket.
So, what to do? In my opinion, if you have a smart phone with a decent camera, such as the iPhone 4S, you already have a very competent and very portable point-and-shoot camera that can be whipped out at a moment’s notice. In fact, I think dedicated point-and-shoot cameras with fixed lenses will go the way of portable cassette and CD players in a few years, with these jack-of-all-trades mobile devices nudging them into extinction. (I gave my wife a mid-range Canon Powershot a few years ago, and she never even thinks to use it anymore because her iPhone 4S rendered it redundant.) But is a smart phone up to the task of being your main photographic tool?
At the risk of coming off as a snobby gear head, I would say no way. What you get when you pony up $1000 or more for a DSLR body and a good lens is a tool that will let you make images that your iPhone simply cannot make, no matter how many hipsta- insta- apps you purchase or how well you master the iPhone’s capabilities. Again, the laws of physics and the limitations of manufacturing mean sensors and lenses need to be big enough to receive light and render images both sharply and accurately. Today’s best DSLR sensors can basically shoot in the dark, and they have enough pixels—18, 22, even 36 million—spread out on a large enough area to produce massive, high-resolution, low-noise images. And the processors behind them can handle bursts of 10 frames per second and HD video clips up to 30 minutes in length. (The 30″ limit is actually based on avoiding certain import tariffs in Europe than any technological limitation.) Some cameras that can be purchased for $1500 or less are now being used to shoot scenes of major Hollywood movies. Today’s DSLRs are truly amazing. So, which one should you buy?
I’m a Canon guy, but all of the major camera manufacturers produce a half dozen or more DSLR bodies ranging from $500 to more than $6000. Again, you get what you pay for when you buy a DSLR body. But what will make perhaps the biggest difference in the quality of the photos you get out of a DSLR is the lens, or “glass,” you put in front of the sensor. It’s taken me about six years of buying and selling DSLR lenses to settle on a kit that I’m happy with, and again, the lesson learned is “you get what you pay for.” (Have I said that already?) But there are some good deals out there. Here are some rules of thumb that, if followed, might spare you from wasting money on disappointing glass:
1. Get at least one “fast” lens that lets you shoot in low light and experiment with depth of field. What I’m talking about here is aperture. Without getting too deep in the weeds of optics, a large aperture means the lens lets in more light—like an eye does when its pupil is dilated—which means an image can be captured in relatively low light and/or with a relatively fast shutter speed. If you like using natural light and/or your camera doesn’t have a flash, a fast lens is a must. Get something with an aperture of f/2.0 or larger. (In lens terminology, a small f-stop number means a large maximum aperture. The lower the number, the larger the aperture and the “faster” the lens.) There are plenty of “standard” lenses—think 35mm to 60mm in focal length—in the range of f/1.2 to f/2.8, and many of them are well under $1000. One of my favorite lenses is Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4, which I got for around $350. It’s light and compact, yet fast enough to capture your newborn’s face in dimly lit rooms. The other upside of a large aperture is the shallow depth of field, which isolates the subject from the background and, depending on the lens, turns that background into a creamy blur of colors. (This is called “bokeh.”) Canon also produces a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which some call the “plastic fantastic,” and it is even lighter and smaller than the f/1.4. Best of all, it’s just north of $100. These are two examples of good, inexpensive glass that will be incredibly useful for photographing your kids, especially when they’re babies or toddlers.
2. Go long and go wide. It’s very tough to limit yourself to one lens once you buy into DSLR gear. If you start with a standard lens such as a 50mm, you may also want a wider lens, such as 16mm or 20mm, to capture your kids and whatever scenery they’re in. And then there are telephoto lenses, which are great for shooting your kids on the sly, or when they’re in a herd of toddlers on a soccer field. Again, you have the option of getting lenses with larger apertures, and I would strongly recommend f/2.8 or faster for both wide angle and telephoto, even though such lenses are expensive.
3. Don’t be seduced by zooms. A lot of people buy zoom lenses, such as a 24-70mm or the 70-200mm lens shown earlier in the post, because you can get such different shots without changing lenses. In theory, you could buy three zooms—a 14-24mm, a 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm—and basically cover all bases with just three pieces of glass. But in most if not all zoom lenses, one or more focal lengths may be inferior because the lens could not be optimized for just one focal length the way a fixed or “prime” lens is. So, while your zoom lens is adaptable to various scenes and subjects, it may not capture those scenes and subjects as sharply as a couple of prime lenses would. Primes are often the better deal in terms of image quality—because they’re optimized for one focal length—and in terms of price. (Canon’s latest 70-200mm f/2.8L IS zoom lens costs over $2200, but the 200mm f/2.8L prime costs about $800. For the price of the zoom lens, you could instead get three very good prime lenses, all of which would be lighter and more compact.) The obvious downside to using prime lenses is you have to move around more to go tighter or wider, and you will need to change lenses fairly often, which isn’t always safe or convenient (dusty trails, cramped buses, misty beaches, etc.).
Again, there is no such thing as a 12-300mm f/1.4 lens, just as there is no such thing as digital camera that is the perfect balance between powerful and compact. My advice: Start with an inexpensive body—even an older, used body—and splurge on a few good lenses. In fact, let me say that louder…
4. Buy a used body, splurge on glass. The used market is flooded with perfectly good lenses and bodies. With bodies in particular, the rate of product upgrades is so high, and the gear lust so widespread, that it’s possible to find a year-old model on the used market for $500 or more off the retail price—because owners can’t resist buying the latest and greatest. If you go back two or three models—say, from the current Canon 7D or 60D to the 40D—you can get a great camera for about 20% of its original price. Doing so will free up some of your budget to invest in good lenses. It’s better to spend $1200 on a few good lenses and $400 on a used body than the other way around. Lenses do not depreciate in value the way bodies do.
5. Share your gear with your significant other. This isn’t a gear tip per se, but it may inform your purchasing decisions. As this post describes, it’s very easy for one parent to become the official family photographer, which results in photo albums (digital or otherwise) that make you seem like an absentee parent. (The ratio of mom-son to dad-son shots in my Flickr stream is 20:1, if not worse.) Encourage your spouse/partner to use the camera, even if you have to get whiny about it. If the weight or size of your gear is a bigger issue for your spouse than it is for you, consider getting a lens that is more comfortable for them. A “pancake” style lens like the one shown below can make your rig seem much more user friendly.
Again, there is no perfect digital camera kit that will work for everyone, but I hope these tips will help a few moms and dads capture beautiful images of their families and save a few bucks, too.