The Ultimate Camera (and Gear) Buying Guide | 2016 Edition

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Rumor has it you’re on Santa’s nice list this year.  Very well deserved my friend.

And so since Santa is going to bring you something very special this Christmas, we thought we’d help you out.  Clothes are nice.  But toys are SO. MUCH. BETTER.

To help you make your list and check it twice, let us welcome you to the 2016 Ultimate Camera Buying Guide.  And for the first time, we’ve extended it well beyond cameras to include lenses, lighting, computers/software, and accessories.

2016GearGuide

This post is long, but it could be 50x longer.  Our goal:

  • Do the long and tedious work (for you!) of comparing cameras / gear.
  • Save you time and headache by ruthlessly narrowing the options.
  • Tell you why.

For your convenience, we’ll post the following links between each category of this post so that you can jump to and from each section quickly:

Jump to Cameras  |  Jump to Lenses  |  Jump to Lighting
Jump to Computers/Software  |  Jump to Accessories

CAMERAS

There are generally 3 camera categories:

  1. Point and Shoot: These are great at being small, but bad at just about everything else (with a few exceptions).
  2. DSLR: These are great at performance and value, but bad at being small.
  3. Mirrorless: These are great at performance, okay at value, and mediocre at being small.

POINT & SHOOTS

This category is growing more extinct every day thanks to smartphones, which often match performance and yet far outpace in terms of function/convenience.  Honestly, we’d recommend the iPhone 7 Plus or the brand new Google Pixel Phone over 99% of point and shoots out there.

If you really want a point and shoot, then you’re primarily concerned with size. You want something small enough to fit in a pocket or purse.  In doing so, you give up a lot in terms of lens quality, sensor quality, and focus speed.  This is the case in almost every instance.

Except one camera maker in particular: Sony.

Sony has been changing the photography leaderboard since 2013.  And this camera sacrifices very little in terms of sensor quality and focus speed:

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 V 

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All that said, great point and shoots are becoming specialty cameras…if you really think about it.  DSLR’s will do everything better and for cheaper (spec for spec).  So what’s their specialty?  Well…being small.  That’s it!

So if you don’t need the extremely compact form factor, we recommend you buy a good smart phone for your point and shoot.  Save your hard earned dollars for a DSLR or a Mirrorless (both below) and get more power and versatility (interchangeable lenses).

DSLR CAMERAS

DSLR cameras (the “big ones” with interchangeable lenses) have dominated the “fancy camera” market since 2000, and for good reason.  You get the best image sensors (great low light quality), tremendous responsiveness (speed, speed, speed), and most importantly, a whole new world of dedicated lenses.

And as much as camera bodies advance every year, the magic is still in the lenses!  Especially when it comes to getting that beautiful background blur (bokeh) so popular with pro portrait photographers, nothing gets you this look as affordably as a modest DSLR.

We’ll break DSLR’s down into 3 categories:

  1. Entry Level: for those just getting into the DSLR game.
  2. Mid Level: for those who want a bit more.
  3. Full Frame: for those who are ready for the best.

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Entry DSLRs: Advantages

Larger image sensors.  This means camera makers don’t have to cram as many pixels into such a small space, which in turn means better, cleaner images (especially at high ISOs).  The bigger image sensor also means shallower depth of field options, so you can have the ability to make your subject stand out on a blurred background.

A word about entry level DSLRs camera sensors.  Entry level DSLRs do not have a “full frame ” (as in the equivalent of a 35mm film camera) sensor.  They have “APS-C” sized sensors that are more like 30%-ish smaller than the typical and ubiquitous “35mm film” cameras of yesteryear.

As a result, there’s a “crop factor” to keep in mind when using lenses, because lenses are still denoted corresponding to those 35mm film cameras.  Basically, the image from your typical “50mm” lens, for example, is going to be “cropped” by the smaller APS-C sized sensor.  At the end of the day, this effectively gives a “zoom” effect to the lens (if ya think about it), because you’re essentially just cropping in.

Effectively, your lens has more “reach” or “zoom” on a smaller sensor due to the smaller digital sensor size “crop.”

If the above paragraph doesn’t make sense.  Don’t sweat it.  Just know this.  For entry level DSLRs (any camera with an APS-C sized sensor, which is basically any DSLR under 2k), if you buy a 50mm lens, its field of view is actually the equivalent of 75mm (80mm for Canon) in the world of 35mm film (just remember, the format for all this stuff is still based on 35mm film).

The formula for figuring out the focal-length equivalency of a 35mm-format lens used with an APS-C format sensor is as follows: multiply the focal length of the lens by 1.5, or in the case of Canon compact DSLRs, 1.6.

So, that’s why that 50mm lens actually becomes more of a short telephoto 75mm for Nikon, 80mm for Canon.  Similarly, wide-angle lenses become less wide, i.e., a 20mm lens records the FOV(field of view) of a 30mm (or 32mm) lens and a 28mm lens effectively becomes a closer-to-normal 42mm (or 44.8mm) lens. Telephoto lenses are equally affected. A 200mm lens effectively becomes the equivalent of a 300mm (or 320mm) lens and a 300mm lens effectively becomes a 450mm (or 480mm) lens, etc.

And just so you know, 50mm is kinda the standard for a field of view most similar to the human eye.

Dedicated Lenses.  Believe me folks, the magic is in glass.  I’d tell you to spend money on glass over camera bodies any day.  Great glass makes a big difference.What’s more, camera bodies come and go every year or two.  Glass is an investment that will keep its value for upwards of a decade.  All to say, with a DSLR, you now have the creative ability that comes with using multiple lenses, each fit for a specific kind of job.

More Responsive.  All around!  Compared to point and shoots, DSLR’s turn on faster, they focus way faster, there’s much less shutter lag (time between pressing the button and the picture actually happening), and in general, they’re just much more responsive to control (more dedicated buttons for changing settings, etc).  This translates into missing less shots!

More Control.  Here’s what we’re concerned with at SPS: the ability to shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual.  Also the ability to capture in RAW format (instead of just jpg) and manually change ISO.  DSLRs of all types allow for such.  In addition, there a ton of other ‘control’ features, like different metering modes, focusing modes, selecting different focal points, exposure compensation, white balance, scene modes, the list goes on.

The option to shoot looking through the lens (TTL).  Might sound simple, but actually looking through a viewfinder (instead of live view, i.e. a 2.5″ screen on the back of the camera) just gives a completely different experience.  You see things differently.  To me, it’s so much more tangible. So much more enjoyable.Add to that the fact that you have an actual mechanical shutter (meaning you feel and hear an actual ‘click’) and taking pictures becomes so much more…raw, palpable, authentic…FUN!  It’s the difference in playing an actual acoustic grand piano vs an electronic keyboard. One, you feel through your bones.  The other, you just hear.

Accessories.  From battery grips, to speed lights, to off camera flash, and everything in between, DSLR cameras open into a big world of photography.  There’s enough out there to where you don’t ever have to stop growing and learning.

Entry Level DSR’s: Disadvantages

Cost.  Kind of .  Truth is, you can enter the world of DSLRs for $450.  That’s honestly a great value, when you think about it (compared to $300 point and shoots that are nowhere NEAR as powerful and effective)!

Size.  Although these entry level DSLRs are more compact than their prosumer and professional DSLR counterparts, they’re still too big to slip in a pocket or small purse.

Feature Creep.  These cameras can come almost overloaded with long menus and options.  This can be overwhelming. For example, these cameras might have 12 different shooting modes.  At SPS, we only need about 4, because we understand exposure. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Intermediate DSLRs: Pros and Cons

“The main advantages of an intermediate camera over an entry-level one include a greater range of control over exposure settings, more robust construction, greater low-light sensitivity and a more powerful image-processing system—resulting in even cleaner, more detailed imagery than one would get using an entry-level DSLR.” -B&H Photo Video

There’s no need to make a long list of pros and cons.  It’s essentially the same list as compact DSLRs, but factor in better construction, more responsiveness, better in low light capability, and sure, a bit of an increase in overall image quality.

Friends who have gone from, say, a Canon Rebel to a Canon 7D tend to say that the 7D just ‘feels’ so much better…kinda like a toy compared to a fine tuned machine.

It’s kinda like cars. Entry level DSLRs are like your inexpensive compact cars.  Intermediate prosumer DSLRs are like your full sized, well equipped cars.  They both get you to where you’re going.  One just drives a lot better.  One feels kinda like a go-cart.  The other feels solid, responsive, and fast.

Keep in mind, if you put professional glass (lenses) on these intermediate DSLRs, you’re going to get great results!

Full Frame DSLRs: Pros and Cons

“Professional-grade DSLRs are the most technologically advanced cameras in production and provide the highest-quality imagery possible, while realizing the tools necessary for photographers to gain complete control over their imagery. These cameras seldom incorporate or rely on the “auto” features found in entry-level or intermediate-level cameras, leaving much of the decision-making process to the photographer. They are designed to be rugged for more frequent, repeated use and are built to hold up under the most strenuous conditions.” -BH Photo Video

One important note here is that many pro level DSLR’s have full frame sensors (full 35mm equivalent), meaning your 50mm lens actually has the same field of view as, you guessed it, 50mm.  That way wide angle lenses are still wide.

This also translates into even less Depth of Field.  In other words, there will be less DOF with a 50mm at f2.0 on a full frame camera than the same lens and aperture on an APS-C sized sensor (as talked about above).  Additionally, big sensors + cutting edge image processing equals the best possible image (low noise and smooth, beautiful gradation, and natural tones).

These camera are like driving a Mercedes.  They handle exceptionally well, and just feel almost magical in your hands.  Looking through the viewfinder, you see a big, bright, clean image. They simply ‘drive’ like a dream!  But of course, you’ll pay for it!  And that’s about the only con… ๐Ÿ˜‰

[/popup] a little side bar re: the pros/cons of DSLRs (including the pros/cons of entry, mid, and full frame).

Within each category, we’ll suggest 1-2 cameras for each of the “Big 3” (Canon, Nikon, Sony).  Reason being, if you already have lenses/accessories for one system, we know how difficult it is to switch brands.  If you’re just starting out, feel free to pick our winner from each category.  But to be clear, you really can’t go wrong with any!

ENTRY LEVEL DSLRs

Canon Rebel t6i  [24.2MP; EF-S (cropped sensor); ISO 100-12,800 (expandable to 25,600); 5fps; 19 cross type sensors; Touch panel lcd display; Wifi]

Here’s why: If you’re a Canon user, you’ll get a bump in nearly every aspect from the long time t5i workhorse, and with a very welcomed addition of a tilt-able touch screen and built in Wifi (which, once you have a camera with Wifi, you’ll never accept going back).

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Nikon D5500  [24.2 MP DX (cropped sensor), ISO 100-25,600, 5fps, wifi, swivel touch screen, 9 cross type sensors]

Here’s why: If you’re a Nikon user, it’s worth the extra $100 to step into the 5×00 series over the 3×00 series.  The D5500 is an award winner and rightly so.  Wifi and a tilt-able touch screen give this camera some added possibilities.

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Sony a68 [24.2MP APS-C (cropped sensor), 79-point Phase Detection “4D Focus” AF system, 8fps, In-body image stabilization, 2.7” tilt-able, 460K dot LCD screen, ISO 25,600]

Here’s why: If you’re a Sony shooter, you have the choice of camera bodies that are leading the pack in every category.  The a68 is all about speed and superior usability.  Especially notable is its 79 phase-detection AF points.  It all translates into an extremely fast and wide AF area for catching moments that will last a lifetime.

IMG_8498


ENTRY LEVEL WINNER: Sony a68

If you’re just starting out and aren’t waist deep in lenses for any one system, then the a68 seems to be the clear winner.  The 79 point 4D focus system and IN CAMERA image stabilization for every a-mount lens is just insane at this price point!  Not to mention faster frames per second (8fps).  And let’s not forget, Sony makes all the sensors for Nikon.

Lastly and most importantly, even a few years ago we couldn’t whole heartedly recommend Sony over Canon/Nikon because their lens and accessory selection were lagging.  Well…that is no longer the case.  Whether through Sony or Zeiss, you’re covered with superb lens choices.  Additionally, Sigma is making Sony a-mount lenses of all their highly regarded and award-winning ART Series lenses (see below).

MID LEVEL DSLRs

Canon 80d  [24.2MP EF-S (cropped sensor), ISO 100-16,000, 7fps, 45 cross type sensors, wifi]

Here’s why: If you’re a Canon user, you may be wondering why we haven’t chosen the Canon 7d Mark II, which has been a popular choice since 2014.  If you need the 10fps continuous shooting, then sure, go with the 7D Mark II.  But for $300 less, we’ll go with the upgraded 24.2MP sensor of the 80D along with Wifi to boot.  And as for the focusing system, the 80D gives up very little.

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Nikon D7200 [20.9MP DX (cropped sensor), 4k video, Multi-CAM 20K 153-Point AF System, Native ISO 51,200 (Extend to ISO 1,640,000!), 10 fps, 3.2-inch 2,359k-dot tilting RGBW LCD touchscreen, Wifi + NFC + Bluetooth]

Here’s why: This is a tough one if you’re a Nikonian.  At first, we thought we’d recommend the powerful, fast, and robust Nikon D500.  The D500 trumps the D7200 in every single category, touting a brand new AF system (with 153 AF points!), 10fps, and much improved low light shooting (higher ISO capability).  It’s hands down Nikon’s DX flagship offering.  If you’re a sports or action shooter in the Nikon system, then by all means, the D500 is your specialty crop sensor camera.

So why the D7200 instead of the D500?  Well, there’s one main factor: PRICE.  Here’s the deal, for the exact same price of the D500 (at the time of this writing) you can step into Nikon’s full framed Nikon D750.  Given 99.9% of SPS shooters are parents who are taking portrait-type pics of their kids, the advantages of a full frame sensor scream loud and clear (better low light capability, more dynamic range, more bokeh, and better lens focal length matching).  For these reasons, we’d recommend the D750 over the D500, and leave the D7200 as the affordable mid-level option.

Let’s also talk about the other side of PRICE, which is VALUE.  The D7200 has received rave reviews from the toughest critics.  It’s a “workhorse” camera that just flat out gets the job done, yet at such a modest price.  And this value absolutely means so much to so many of us.

IMG_8495


 

Sony a77II [24.3MP gapless crop sensor,ISO 100 – 25,600, 79-point Phase Detection AF, 12fps, In-Camera Image Stabilization, 3-way tilt screen, OLED Tru Finder, Wifi + NFC]

Here’s why: If you’re a Sonyton, you’re rejoicing at all the speed and power of the a77II’s mid level price tag.  It’s a race car.  Easy choice.

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MID LEVEL WINNER: Nikon D7200

The Sony a77II was originally our Mid Level winner.  The a77II single handedly out-paces (on all levels except for one) even the aforementioned Nikon D500 crop-sensor flagship , and for $600 less, mind you.  Compared to the Canon 80D and Nikon D7200, so many of its specs are just no contest whatsoever.

So what’s the hold up?  One thing: low light performance.  You see, the a77II isn’t technically a DSLR.  It used a brand new technology called a translucent mirror, which actually causes a 1/2 stop loss of light reaching the sensor.  This is no issue at all with normal ISO’s.  But when you started getting into high ISO range, the image gets more noisy than the competition.  It’s something that Sony will address in the future.  But for now, we know how important low light shooting is when it comes to capturing moments of our kids indoors.

As for the Nikon D7200, it represents the finest in terms of price to performance ratio.  There’s a place where value should win.  And this is that place.  A huge market segment doesn’t want/need “the best.”  But they’ve grown past the “cheap” entry level point.  They just want a solid step up without going too deep (for now ๐Ÿ™‚ ).  That’s why we choose value as a primary indicator for our Mid Level Subcategory.

FULL FRAME DSLRs

Canon 5D Mark IV  [30.4MP (full frame), IS 100-32,000, 7fps, Dual Pixel CMOS AF with 61 focal points – 41 cross type, Wifi, touch screen LCD, 4k video]

Here’s why: Although the  Canon 5D Mark III is now 4 years old, it will remain a workhorse for many pro-level shooters.  Even as such, the Mark IV gives the legendary Canon 5D series a much needed and long awaited lift in all areas.  And when it comes to lower priced Canon 6Dit’s AF system is archaic (it’s the same AF system as the original 5D had, which is 11 years old at this point).

IMG_8496


Nikon D810  [36.3 MP FX (Full Frame), ISO 64-12,800, 5fps, 15 cross type sensors]

Here’s why: This one’s easy.  The Nikon D810 rocks. It’s an exceptional camera that has won award after award.  Need a less expensive option?  Then go with the Nikon D750.  In fact, if I had to give a “Best Value” award to a full framed DSLR, the D750 would be it with no second thoughts.  But as far as sheer brilliance, the D810 is an absolute power house.

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Sony a99II [42.4MP back illuminated full-frame sensor w/ no low-pass filter, 12fps, world’s first 79 hybrid AF cross-point array for unmatched AF tracking and 4D Focus hybrid phase AF system that combines dedicated 79-point AF sensor and wide 399-point focal plane phase detection on the cameras imaging sensor, ISO range of 100-25,600 (expandable to 102,400), 4K movie recording w/ full pixel readout, 5-Axis In Body Image Stabilization, Wifi + NFC, 300k+ cycle shutter, 3 axis tilting 1228k LCD monitor, OLED Tru Finder w/EVF benefits]

Here’s why: Announced in the fall of 2016, the a99II is class shattering on paper.  At some point, reviewers will be getting some hands on time with this camera to see if the feel (and files) live up to the specs.  Until then, we can’t wait.

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FULL FRAME DSLR WINNER: Canon 5D Mark IV.

It’s really difficult not to give this one to the Sony a99ii.  Sony has given its shooters an incredibly designed high resolution (42.2 mp) back illuminated sensor (without a low pass filter), 12 fps continuous shooting at full resolution (as fast as Nikon/Canon flagship $8,000 cameras!!!), a truly ground breaking auto focus system (with endless implications, such as eye tracking!), class leading video capabilities (puts the Canon 5DIV to shame in this category), it’s built like a tank (all metal housing with a 300k cycle shutter), and oh… 5 AXIS IN BODY image stabilization (that’ll work with ALL your lenses) rated at 4.5 stops!!!  Seriously, it’s insane that this camera costs less than Canon/Nikon flagships, let alone less than the Canon 5D Mark IV.

So where’s the rub?  Well, it hasn’t been released yet, only announced.  And we can’t in good faith declare a camera a winner based solely on specs (and great marketing).  In particular, we’d like to see the a99II’s low light performance in large part due to the translucent mirror.

When it comes to the Canon 5D Mark IVwe’re 100% sure it will be an every day work horse for years to come, especially for still shooters.  At this price level, the 5D Mark IV is aimed at the working pro.  This person needs day in and day out rock solid dependability along with a shooting experience that gets the “gear” out of the way.  They’ll find both of these in the latest evolution of the legendary Canon 5D heritage.


 

MIRRORLESS CAMERAS

Mirrorless cameras came onto the scene pretty strong in 2013.  And since then, it’s been a tidal wave of new cameras.  The big benefit of mirrorless cameras are their smaller and lighter form factor.  Keep in mind, however, that none of these (with a lens attached especially) will be small enough to fit in a small purse, let alone a pocket.

So the main size benefit is actually the weight, especially if you’re often shooting all day, hiking, or lugging a camera around at Disney.  The big drawback: you’ll pay a premium (compared to similarly spec’d DSLRs) for that lighter weight.

Also keep in mind that you’ll get both cropped sensor and full frame sensor options in this category.  But instead of sub-categorizing this…uh…category, we’re just going to list some of our favorite offerings of 2016:

FUJIFILM X-T2 [In its compact, lightweight and robust body, the X-T2 delivers everything you need.]

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Fujifilm X-A3 [Super retro, super intelligent, super compact, super cool]

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Canon EOS M5 [This is basically a smaller, lighter, and improved Canon 80D.  Should be a solid seller for Canon loyalty.]

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Sony a6300 [The speed of this camera is just flat out astounding.  It has the world’s fastest Auto Focus speed (0.05 sec.) and shoots 11fps continuous. All with a cutting edge 24.2MP crop sensor.  Weather sealed metal construction and 4k video with full pixel readout? Yep and yep. Sounds like it’s set to compete against Canon/Nikon $6,000 offerings.  And it is.  Except, oh, it’s $5,000 less at $998!

Reviewer after reviewer raves.  And given that there SO much value packed into such a modest price, we crown the Sony a6300 as WINNER: MIRRORLESS CATEGORY.

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Sony a7R II  The first a7R series got a lot of attention a few years ago.  But when the a7R II was released mid 2015, it turned the heads of an entire industry.  And people’s necks hurt for days.  Here’s why:

  • World’s first Full-frame back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor-42.4MP, 5-axis in-body image stabilization optimized for 42.4MP full-frame, 4K movie recording with full pixel readout and no pixel binning
  • 2.4-million dot XGA OLED Tru-Finder w/ ZEISS T* coating, Simple connectivity to smartphones via Wi-Fi and NFC w/ camera apps, Fast focal plane phase-detection AF realized with A-mount lenses
  • Shutter vibration suppression, first curtain shutter, and silent shutter, Resolution meets sensitivity 42.4MP up to ISO 102,400 / 4K up to 25,600, Durable, reliable and ergonomically enhanced for professional use
  • Fast Hybrid AF with 399 focal plane phase-detection AF points

Let me summarize: REVOLUTIONARY.

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CAMERA OF THE YEAR WINNER: Sony a7R II

Since then the Sony a7R II hit the shelves in mid 2015, it has been responsible for a flock of long time Canonnites and Nikonians converting to Sonytons.  It has received rave review after rave review, even from the stingiest and most objective.  I agree with DP Review’s 2016 Roundup and give the Sony a7R II the “money no object” camera winner.  Even though it’s far below the cost of flagship Nikon and Canon offerings.

Important Note: I couldn’t in good faith recommend a camera body that doesn’t come with a wide variety of class leading lenses.  And in 2016, a few major developments came along:

  1. Sony released its new G Master Series of lenses.  Drool.
  2. Sigma ART lenses are now being made for Sony.  They’re A-mount for now, but Sony makes its own A-to-E mount converter.  Game over.
  3. Zeiss continues to partner with Sony, making great lenses as is.

Here’s a teaser video about the new Sony G Master Lenses:

Beyond lenses, Sony has sufficiently caught up in all the other areas too, such as speedlights, accessories, and 3rd party integrations.  Example, starting in early 2017, I’ll be able to use my Sony a7R II and Profoto Lights with TTL and HSS.

“MY” Sony a7R II??  Yep, one has been ordered just this morning.

Okay.  Well that was fun.  Let’s move onto lenses, shall we?

Jump to Cameras  |  Jump to Lenses  |  Jump to Lighting
Jump to Computers/Software  |  Jump to Accessories

LENSES:

No matter what camera body you have, it’s time to move onto some lenses.  ๐Ÿ™‚  Glass is where the magic happens, folks.  It does no good whatsoever to have the best image sensor in the world if the window into that sensor is lousy.  Beyond simple quality, it’s big apertures (2.8 and wider) along with longer focal lengths that produce that dreamy background bokeh so many long for.

In general, we have long suggested you start off with a 50mm prime as it’s the most economical way to get pro-quality optics.  Sharpness, color, saturation, bokeh, speed.  Everything improves when you go from the cheap kit lens to a 50mm prime.

BTW, “prime” just means it’s not a zoom lens.  In general, they are easier to make and thus less expensive.  Plus the maker can optimize the lens just for that single focal length which equates to superior sharpness.

That said, if you’re willing to spend some money right out of the gates, nothing beats the background compression and pleasing face shape given by a traditional portrait focal length, which is 85mm and upwards.  So you should be considering an 85mm prime or my (Kyle) personal favorite prime, the 135mm 2.0.

Then again, you could skip the portrait primes and just bite the bullet with a 70-200 2.8 (stabilized version is worth it).  It’s what’s on my camera 90% of the time.  Plus you can use it for bicep curls.

Of course, many like primes on the wider end too.  Particularly the 35mm 1.4.  I’m (Kyle) more than satisfied with a great 24-70 2.8 at this focal length (especially the best of the best 24-70 versions), but to each their own.

That said, our final word of advice is to make sure and buy the lens that matches your system, particularly your effective focal length if you’re working with a cropped sensor.  We’ll include each subcategory of lenses below, followed by a winner (of course).

50mm Primes

The “nifty fifty” has been a long time “gateway lens.”  For just a couple hundred, you can step into the world of beautiful images.  Here are the popular options:

CANON

NIKON

SONY

50mm WINNER: Sigma ART

You’re going to see a theme with the Sigma ART series of lenses.  Winner…winner…winner…  And it’s not just us here at SPS.  It’s the entire world.  Sigma has done something truly special with their ART series.  They are leading the pack.

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35mm Primes

Before we go into the longer portrait focal lengths, let’s suggest some 35’s.

CANON

NIKON

SONY

35mm WINNER: Sigma ART

Once you shoot with one, you won’t argue with us.  ๐Ÿ™‚  And although it’s expensive, it’s still $600-$700 cheaper than the Canon/Nikon/Sony counterparts.Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 1.26.17 PM


 

85mm Primes

85mm has long been regarded as the ideal portrait length.  You have enough reach to get some background compression, beautiful bokeh, and a pleasing face shape.  Plus, it helps create a comfortable working distance from camera to subject.

Personally, I like the 135mm range even better for portraits (more background compression and blur), but that’s just a preference.  Also consider whether you’ll be shooting on a cropped sensor or a full frame sensor.  A 135mm on a cropped sensor will often only work outdoors where you have room to back up from the subject.

CANON

NIKON

SONY

85mm WINNER: Sigma 85mm ART

Surprise surprise.  But here’s why: you’ll save $$$ and get performance as good or better than the camera maker’s flagship.

 

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135mm Primes

Once you look through a large aperture 135mm and beyond, it’s hard to ever see the same again.  The background compression, bokeh, and narrow angle of view will open up a whole new world of possibilities, especially when it comes to portraiture.  Location scouting truly becomes all about light.  Backgrounds are often just a dreamy blur.

100mm Macros

Let’s talk about one other popular prime length before zooming on (see what I did there).  And that’s the 100mm (ish) Macro.  Macro lenses are designed for close up photography and can certainly be a blast.  But don’t forget that with their focal length and amazing sharpness, they can also work well as a portrait tool.

24-70mm Zoom

This is a workhorse lens in the bag of most any professional.  Great for walk-around / all-purpose use, it covers 3 popular prime lengths (24mm, 35mm, and 50mm) and then gives you a little bonus reach.  f2.8 isn’t too shabby either.  Finally, the latest versions of these lenses approach the contrast, color, and sharpness of their prime counterparts, albeit without the max apertures of 1.4.

70-200mm Zoom

I’ll just say a few simple things about this lens:

  1. Don’t try one unless you’re prepared to start saving to buy one.  It’s that enticing.
  2. I rarely take mine off my camera.  Even inside.
  3. It’s big and heavier than most imagine.  So it’s wise to try one first.  But then again, refer to #1 above.

Most think this lens is primarily for sports or wildlife shooters.  It will do those well.  But it’s equally as useful and impressive as an everyday portrait lens, event lens, or around the house lens.

Lastly, if I (Kyle speaking) could only have ONE single lens, the Canon 70-200 2.8L IS II is it without even a blink of hesitation.  “Well, what would you do for wider focal length needs?”  Valid question.  My answer: iPhone.  That’s how much I love the 70-200 2.8.  Cheers.

CANON

NIKON

SONY

NOTE: SIGMA ART RUMOR

For what it’s worth, rumor has it Sigma’s highly acclaimed ART Series of lenses will be getting the 70-200 2.8 at some point in the future.

70-200 WINNER: Manufacturer

This is one lens where we recommend the Manufacturer version if the budget allows.  The biggest reason for this: Auto Focus reliability.  There’s usually more focus inaccuracy with the 3rd party options.  Plus, AF speed is better.

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Jump to Cameras  |  Jump to Lenses  |  Jump to Lighting
Jump to Computers/Software  |  Jump to Accessories

LIGHTING

As important as lighting is, we’re only going to be able to hit the highlights here.  After all, this is a resource guide more than a tutorial.  Although (as you might see), we take teaching pretty seriously. For those interested, we’ll be taking a deep dive into all things lighting over the next year or so within our SPS Grads Program.  The next enrollment period opens for this program on Dec 21st, 2016, by the way.

There are 4 main categories of lighting:

  1. Ambient Light.  This is the available light (daytime or nighttime).
  2. Constant Light.  This is added light that’s constant (not a quick flash of light).
  3. Flash – Speedlights.  These small hot-shoe mounted flashes are a staple in your gear bag.
  4. Flash – Strobes.  Similar to speedlights, but they don’t mount on your camera (rather on a stand) and they’re more powerful.

Let’s also mention one important observation.  Using a flash isn’t just about adding in light to dark scenes.  It’s also not about “studio work.”  It’s just as much about adding in light to bright scenes, where needed.  And thus, the main reason to buy the really big, powerful flashes below is actually to use them during daylight hours (and compete with the brightness of the sun).  A simple speedlight will do the trick for lighting indoor shots at night.

AMBIENT LIGHT

There’s no light to buy here.  Only shape.  And thus there’s one critical piece of gear.  A reflector.

Reflectors come in all shapes and sizes and colors.  We go into this more in the Photo Fix.  But for now, we’ll just recommend a simple 5-in-1 Reflector.

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This 5-in-1 reflector kit is economical, gets the job done, and the shape works well for attempting to man the reflector without an assistant.  Reflectors are great for bouncing ambient light back into faces, of course.  But they’re also perfect to use along with all the flashes we’ll talk about below (as fill light).  Plus, this 5-in-1 includes a diffuser option as well, perfect for shading the sun but letting some of it come through.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t dare leave home without my reflector.  ๐Ÿ™‚

CONSTANT LIGHT

You’ll obviously need constant light anytime you’re lighting a set for video.  But many photographers start here as it’s easier to see how the light will fall on your subject.  What you see is what you get.

I’ve been a long time fan of the Westcott Spiderlite TD6.  In particular, I own this 2-Light Promo Kit.  I’ve used it on many client shoots and these days I use them all the time for SPS videos.  What I love:

  • Super bright
  • Daylight balanced bulbs (great for using in conjuction with window light) 
  • Cool to the touch (unlight tungsten based constant lights).

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Of course, the Spiderlight needs a stand and plenty of room.  It’s a commitment.

So perhaps my favorite constant light is the Westcott Ice Light 2.  It’s handheld, super bright, daylight balanced LED, ultra portable, and weighs less than 20 ounces.  Boom!

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Last but not least, when it’s time for me to replace my Spiderlites, I’ll definitely be looking into the incredibly innovative Westcott FLEX LED Lights.  In particular, the Peter Hurley kit looks amazing.

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FLASH – SPEEDLIGHTS (or SPEEDLITES)

Having at least one speedlight in your bag can open up a ton of possibilities.  If you’re going to buy one, make sure and get one that will swivel and thus bounce off the side wall or ceiling while indoors.  If you haven’t heard, we’re working on a Lighting 101 Course within the SPS Grads Program.  We’ll be going over all the possibilities of on camera flash step by step.

For now, here are some recommendations.

CANON

  • Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT: This is Canon’s big dog, which means the most power, fastest recycling, and all the bells and whistles.  If you like the idea of becoming a strobist, you’ll love the quality of this flagship offering.
  • Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT: The little brother to the 600EX-RT above, but costs half the price!  A great option if you just want to get in the ballgame!

  • YONGNUO YN600EX-RT 2 Light Kit with YN-E3-RT Radio Transmitter: I bought this exact kit a couple weeks ago, and so far so good.  This not only includes TWO speedlights, but also a wireless transmitter for getting the light OFF your camera.  The options are limitless when your light becomes untethered.  It also includes some filters.

    Personally, I don’t use speedlights a ton.  I usually reach for my Profoto strobes.  Because of this, I’m more than happy to save a lot of money on these Yongnuo speedlights.  The equivalent from Canon would cost $1,000 more!!  In fact, this entire set costs LESS than one single Canon 600EX-RT.  And for what it’s worth, the buttons, size, menus…everything…is the exact same as that of the Canon 600EX-RT.

    NOTE: The latest Yongnuo flash for Canon is the Yongnuo YN685, so you might want to consider this version if you’re not already used to the Canon layout.

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NIKON

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SONY

FLASH – STROBES

  • Much more power.
  • Quicker recycling time (the time it takes for the flash unit to be ready to fire again).
  • More consistency (both in terms of flash power between shots and flash color temperature).
  • Shorter flash durations (extremely fast flashes of light to freeze motion).

These are the main reasons to buy a “real flash.”  Otherwise known as a strobe or a monolight.  Let’s go over just a few options in the good-better-best format.

GOOD

  • Paul C Buff AlienBees™ DB800.  I searched high and low to find something that would give these a run for their money.  There are some that are cheaper, but none that are a better value.  Paul C Buff has gotten more folks into strobes than just about any other, and for good reason.
    • wide 7 f-stop power variability (5 Ws to 320 Ws)
    • adjustable in 1/10 f-stop increments from full to 1/64 power
    • all-digital controls with LCD display
    • ultra bright LED modeling lamp (400W equivalent, daylight-balanced)
    • internally fan cooled for heavy duty use
    • visual and audible recycle indicators
    • standard 120 VAC, 50-60 Hz power requirements
    • 2.9 pounds total weight
    • 60-Day Absolute Satisfaction Guarantee
    • 2-Year Factory Warranty

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BETTER:

To be clear, you’re getting more flash power, quicker recycling, quicker flash duration, more consistency, and more durability.  I own 3 of these:

Einstein™ E640 Flash Unit

  • 9 f-stop power variability (2.5 Ws to 640 Ws)
  • all-digital control from enormous LCD display
  • global plug-and-play from 95 to 265 VAC
  • adjustable in precise 1/10 f-stops
  • action-stopping up to 1/13,500 second (t.1)
  • color consistency +/- 50° at any power
  • bright, voltage-controlled 250 Watt modeling lamp
  • frosted dome cover reduces UV emission
  • audible and visual recycle indicator alert options
  • “Easy Set” button for quick return to default settings
  • complete remote control capability with CyberSync™
  • 60-Day Absolute Satisfaction Guarantee
  • 2-Year Factory Warranty

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BEST

At this point, you’re not necessarily paying for more power, but for more consistency, durability, and the system as a whole (including light modifiers).  The Einsteins above are an EXCEPTIONAL value and highly recommended.  But I also own and love my Profoto B1 lights.

There’s a tendency to peruse the Profoto Website and think that it’s the lights that make the images so good.  But make no mistake: it’s the photographers who know how to use the lights! Trust me on this one.

The reason I love the B1’s are because they’re completely battery powered, yet work like they’re plugged into the wall.  It’s basically like having 6-8 speedlights strapped together, only better because of all the light shapers available (see below). A dream to operate and use, they come well loved by many working pros.

Here’s the kit I own and recommend most if you’re really going to go for it! Profoto B1 Location Kit

 

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FLASH: LIGHT SHAPERS

You’ll rarely want to shoot the bare bulb flash at your subject.  All the fun and beauty of flashes come in the form of light modifiers.  These are endless, so let me recommend only a couple of my very favorites.

Westcott Rapid Box 26″ Octa Softbox (make sure and get the deflector plate too).

This is the best of all worlds for your speedlight.  Is it a softox, an umbrella, or a beauty dish?  How about all of them!

It’s a softbox that opens and closes like an umbrella (super portable), has an octa form factor for great catchlight shapes, and actually works just like a beauty dish (with deflector installed).  You can use it with or without the outer diffusion panel for more of less specularity.  Tons of options and versatility.  It’s the ONE must have modifier for your speedlight!

BTW, if you’re sporting Profoto, their 24″ OCF Beauty Dish is the same idea for your B1.

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Westcott Pro Signature 5′ Octabank

Softboxes, no matter what shape or size, are made by 112 manufacturers.  Feel free to choose your own favorite brand.  I trust Westcott to back their product and they have a great reputation of value.  Regardless, it’s the 5′ (or 7′ if you can swing it) octabank shape that will basically become the equivalent of a HUGE WINDOW LIGHT.  If you’re shooting families or kids, this huge light shaper makes for some easy and gorgeous work.

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FLASH ACCESSORIES

ExpoImaging Filter Set (for speedlights)When you need to balance your light color with the ambient light, or just get creative, you need gels (colored filters).  This set comes with a handy silicone band that attaches the gel to your flash – easy to swap colors and do it relatively quickly.  Bonus: organize them in the small wallet.

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Jump to Cameras  |  Jump to Lenses  |  Jump to Lighting
Jump to Computers/Software  |  Jump to Accessories

COMPUTERS / SOFTWARE

We won’t spend too much time here.  There’s obviously a ton of great choices.

For the longest time I’ve done all my photo editing on both an iMac and a Macbook Pro.  Editing on an enormous 5k display is quite the treat and highly recommended.

That said, Apple may be losing some of its mojo as of late.  The Microsoft Surface Family is quite compelling, especially their recently annouced Surface Studio.  Perhaps overkill for photo editing.  But wow would that ever be neat to edit your photos on a drafting table of sorts.

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If you don’t have a giant screen that’s also a computer, you might want to get your own dedicated monitor.  Try these on for size:

ASUS PB287Q 28″ 4K/UHD 3840×2160 1ms DisplayPort HDMI Eye Care Monitor

LG 27UD68-P 27-Inch 4K UHD IPS Monitor with FreeSync

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Of course, just as important as your monitor is ensuring its properly calibrated.  Not only do calibrators help get colors to be more accurate, but dimming the screen, they help you better see the brightness of how your photo will will look in print. We recommend either the Colormunki Display or the SpyderPro5 for features and value, but the Colormunki Smile is a great option for the more economical budget.

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Whatever the case may be for your desired computer and screen, we highly recommend the following software solutions:

For your local storage needs, few things beat the robust and powerful Drobo.  It automatically backs itself up at all times, but it’s expensive.  Alternatively, old school external hard drives are cheap these days, like this 4TB Seagate Drive.

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Jump to Cameras  |  Jump to Lenses  |  Jump to Lighting
Jump to Computers/Software  |  Jump to Accessories

ACCESSORIES

UV FILTER

Here’s why you absolutely must use a UV filter:

IMG_8158

Instead of wrecking a $2500 lens, I only wrecked a $43 filter.  That’s right, zero damage was done to the actual lens.  The filter took 100% of the damage.

That said, you want to invest in a quality filter.  Don’t put a cloudy window in front of a perfect piece of glass.  B+W filters are fantastic quality, won’t affect your image quality, and are well worth a few extra bucks.  Just be sure to get the right size for your lens!

LENS FLIPPER

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This is a great tool for carrying an extra lens without the bulk of a camera bag or if you have a backpack style bag and want to switch between two lenses without stopping to dig in your bag.  Your spare lens will securely mount to one side of the LensFlipper.  When you want to switch, just take the lens off your camera and mount to the other side of the LensFlipper and your spare is at your fingertips, ready to go.  Available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony (E mount) lenses.

EXPODISC

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Several of the SPS Team use an Expodisc to set white balance – especially in challenging/mixed lighting conditions.  It’s easy to use and comes with some warming gels in case you find that your white balance tends toward cooler than you prefer while using it.  Tip – get a size that will fit your largest lens (or exceed it if you’re just starting out) and you can just hold it over the end of your lens.  It makes the Expodisc more versatile and prevents you from having to buy another if you get a larger lens.

ND FILTERS

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Neutral density filters act like sunglasses for your camera.  They let you push your settings in bright light beyond where you normally could.  Creamy waterfall effect mid day?  No problem with the right ND filter.  Perhaps most importantly, they allow you to keep your shutter speed at 1/200 or under for max sync speed when using off camera flash.

CAMERA STRAPS

 

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The ladies on the SPS team all have this Black Rapid strap on their wish lists this year.  Kyle shoots with the Sport Breathe and we all have several friends who have a Black Rapid.  Wearing your camera cross body helps to distribute the weight – especially when you have a heavy lens on your camera.  Once you have the strap attached to your camera at the tripod mount, you’re free to slide it up and down the length of the strap which makes it a breeze to bring your camera up to your face to shoot.

LENS CALIBRATOR

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We all like to nail focus for tack sharp pics, right?  This handy lens calibrator will help you determine if your lenses are front or back focusing and will assist you in making the adjustments in camera (for those cameras with this feature) to correct your focus.

LENSBABY TWIST 60

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Who doesn’t need a fun lens?  The Twist 60 from Lensbaby keeps your subject in focus and blurs the rest of the frame in a circular pattern similar to lenses produced in the 1800’s by Joseph Petzval.  This particular lens is recommended for full frame cameras, but Lensbaby has a full line of  super fun lenses for Canon, Nikon, and Sony E mounts and there’s something for everyone.

SHOOTING BAG

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While it’s great to have a camera bag that will ‘hold it all’, you’ll also want a ‘working camera bag’ which is the bag you will carry with you when you’re actively shooting.  It will hold less gear, but that’s the idea.

ThinkTanks’s Retrospective gets the nod from Kyle as it’s manly, simple, and it does the job.  Designed to be worn cross body, it lets you get at your gear when you need it and flip it toward your back when you don’t.

The Passport Sling III from Lowepro is Sarah’s choice for a working camera bag.  Also a crossbody style, it’s economical, comfortable, and really effective.  The main compartment expands with a zipper when you want your camera body in it and then can be made smaller when you don’t.  Lots of pockets for extras round out this bag’s features.

RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES

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Rechargeable batteries are a must if you’re going to be using a speedlight.  It’s simply not cost effective to use traditional alkaline batteries.  Beyond that, the rechargeables we’re listing here are designed to hold their charge (or most of it) over a long period even if they’re not in use.  That can translate into a big win if you need your flash in a pinch and haven’t had a chance to charge your batteries.  Powerex and Eneloop are the two well known among flash enthusiasts for having the best track record.  We don’t see a whole lot of difference between the two, so we’re listing both brands’ pro level batteries here.  And trust us on this… you want eight (at least).

If you have rechargeable batteries, you’re going to want to charge them.  This Powerex charger gets our vote because not only is it fast with a quick charge time of 1-2 hours, soft charge(easier on your batteries)time of 3-4 hours, but it charges your batteries individually.  That means that instead of the charger turning off as soon as one battery is fully charged (did you know that typical chargers do this?!), it turns off just that one slot and lets the others go until they are fully charged as well.  It’s the surest way to have all of your batteries equally charged.

MEMORY CARDS

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How are you going to record those precious moments without something to record them ON?  Here are our picks for memory cards.  If you want more info on how to decipher all of the numbers on your memory card, we’ve got everything you need to know right here.  SanDisk and Lexar are staff picks for reliable brands.  If you have a super high mp camera, a larger memory card may be a better bet for you.  If not, you may prefer to spend your budget getting a couple of smaller cards in case one fails (or is left in your computer…not that any of the SPS team have done this).

SD cards:

CF Cards:

TRIPOD

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Tripods are a handy tool to have, but they come in every size, shape, color, and construction imaginable (and every possible price point, too).  How do you pick one?  Here are some things you want to keep in mind when choosing one.

  • Tripod size and weight – do you plan to use your tripod primarily on the go or in your home?  If you’re going to be on the go, you’ll want to prioritize the size and weight of the tripod.  Gear gets heavy.  Fast.
  • Load limit – some tripods can only handle a few pounds.  The Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens is just shy of 3lbs all on its own.  If you add a camera and a flash….it adds up fast.
  • Ease of adjustment – how easy is it to adjust your tripod to exactly where you want it?  No one wants to stand and futz with tripod legs while their subjects lose their smiles or the light fades from the sunset.
  • What’s included in the box?  Quite a few higher level tripods are sold as legs and ball head separately.

Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB 100

  • Aluminum construction
  • Just under 5.5 lbs.  That makes it portable, but it could get heavy if you were lugging it around for long.
  • Folded length of 28″
  • Max load capacity of  15.4lbs
  • Ball head and bubble level

MeFOTO Aluminum Roadtrip Travel Tripod/Monopod kit

  • Aluminum construction
  • Weighs 3.6lbs
  • Folded length of about 15″
  • Max load capacity of 17.6lbs
  • Ball head, no level
  • Comes in a bunch of super fun colors

3 Legged Thing Equinox Leo

  • Carbon Fiber construction
  • Weighs 3.2bs
  • Folded length of 13.8″
  • Max load capacity of 22-66lbs, depending on leg angle
  • Ball head with quick release option, bubble level

LENS CLEANER

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A dirty lens is no one’s friend.  Grab some of these disposable lens cleaning cloths or some reusable microfiber cloths.

 

Wow!  That was a mouthful!  We really hope you find this guide helpful.  This post contains affiliate links, which means we get a small percentage of actual sales (if you use our links).  We are not endorsed by any of these companies and all of the opinions are strictly our own.  Thanks for your support!

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18 thoughts on “The Ultimate Camera (and Gear) Buying Guide | 2016 Edition”

  1. Hey Kyle, it’s great reading your articles. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into these. I’m newer to photography, but having a blast learning and practicing.

    My question about this article, you suggest many lenses and suggest starting with the 50mm, but also suggest that the 85mm may give better results for certain applications. Are these based on a full size or a crop sensor? Or do you think it matters? So, more along the line of, would you suggest a 50mm/85mm combo for a full size sensor and may a 28mm/50mm combo for a crop sensor to get similar results from both? Thanks!

    1. At 50mm you still risk some facial distortion at close range, so for a crop sensor, we would probably recommend a 50mm/85mm combo (giving you effective 85mm/135mm on a full frame) for portrait work. Where the 24/28mm would come in would be more for lifestyle shots and ‘everyday shooting’. Hope that helps!

    2. Alena Edwards

      Could you please explain what you are referring to when you say a 50mm/85mm combo? I am looking for a lens, I have the Sony A6000 (crop sensor). This camera came with the 16-50 and the 55-210. I am looking to get more pics that focus on the eyes and make the face softer.

      1. Hi Alena,

        I’ve searched the post and can’t find where we mention a 50mm/85mm combo. I don’t know of any lenses that are a combo of those focal lengths. I think that moving to any ‘faster’ lens (meaning one with a larger maximum aperture – smaller f number) will help you get crisper shots and more background compression than your kit lenses. The 85mm will do a better job of creating background blur than the 50mm will, but on a crop sensor camera, such as the A6000, 85mm can be very tight indoors. My best advice is to go to an actual camera store where you can try out a few lenses on your camera body and see what you feel will be the best fit between a 50mm, an 85mm, or even a 135mm.

  2. I love the article you did for your 2016 best pics. I’m a parent wanting to get the best photos of their kids. What would you say the best budget camera is? I would love a DSLR along with training on how to use it…but don’t have the money to spend on it. I currently have 2 Nikons and love 1 of them. But just don’t get the pictures I would really love to take. Thanks for any advice!

  3. I am looking into getting a lens for my camera. The only one I have is the one that came with my camera. I have a Canon eos Rebel sl1. I am not a photographer by any means, just want good pictures of my active kiddos & dog, family events, etc. I’m not satisfied with my lens that came with my camera…not a big enough aperture. I don’t think I’d be happy with a lens that doesn’t zoom…What would you recommend?

  4. I am going thru the Photo Fix right now and have learned a lot. I have a Nikon D3200 and am considering investing in a lens. It sounds like 50 mm is the recommendation in Photo Fix but since my camera is not full frame do I want the 35 mm? I am still a bit confused on that but with Christmas coming I want to get a lens on my list!

    As a side note, i think one of the links may be off… under Nikon 50mm lenses, the 3rd option links you to a 35mm. Just letting you know!

    Thanks for everything; I love what you guys are doing!

    1. Do you have a kit lens right now? If you do, try zooming it to 35mm and take a look through the viewfinder and see if that’s what feels comfortable. Do the same with 50mm. That should give you an idea if you’re better off with the 35mm or the 50mm. (Quite a few Photo Fix students do end up with the 35mm, but probably an equal number prefer the 50mm.) Thanks for the heads up on the link. I’ll take a look right now!

  5. Hi, if I were go with the Sony a68 (A mount) in the beginner level which lens would you suggest. The Sony top picks are for E mounts, I thought I read somewhere about a converter. Which would be the best lens to buy without breaking my bank.. 2-3 hundred ? I want the blurred background for sure.

    thanks

    1. There’s lots of A-mount lenses…for $200-$300, you’ll just need to pick up a 50mm prime. Either Sony or Zeiss. Sony does seem to be investing more in the e-mount line (this trend is def continuing in 2017).

  6. Basshevy Miller

    I am really enjoying your photo school. You explain the concepts so clearly. It is a real pleasure.
    I so enjoy watching your kids – how they cooperate and when they are acting like yummy kids!
    Good luck.
    Basshevy Miller

  7. Kyle,
    What are your thoughts on the Sony A7RII? Looking at purchasing a camera for capturing everyday “family” life & portraits primarily. I am looking at sony a6500, versus A7II, versus A7RII?

    1. I’d buy the a7rii over the a7ii simply bc the focusing system is much improved. And for family stuff, I’d prefer the full frame of the a7rii over the cropped sensor a6500. That said, the a6500 is a better focuser. IF you can wait a few months, the a7iii will be announced this fall (fall 2017) and will inherit the tremendous AF performance of the brand new a9, but with a7 series price tags. It will be tremendous!

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