Gear Recommendations for a Photography Student

Many people have a basic camera phone or point-and-shoot camera these days, but if you are going to take a photography class or otherwise get more serious about improving the craft of photography, you may want to consider the kinds of equipment you will need to be able to experiment more in-depth with the technical and creative sides of photography. There are an overwhelming number of camera models on the market to choose from, but in this guide I have tried to boil it down to a select few for those who have never shopped for a more advanced camera before. The approximate prices listed are current as of January 12, 2015.

Whether we are looking at the models below or considering other options of your own, my criteria for evaluating cameras starts with some very important requirements:

* The camera must allow Manual control of aperture and shutter speed. This is most easily confirmed by the presence of an “M” mode on the main shooting mode dial.

* The camera should have an interchangeable lens system. Basically, you want the option to switch out lenses (wide angle, telephoto, macro, etc) for different photography subjects.

* If you are planning to use an older or used camera, make sure the battery is reliable or get additional backup batteries. There’s nothing worse than everything and everyone being ready for a shoot and your camera running out of batteries!

Budget Cameras ($350 or less)

Cameras in this section are going to allow much more creative control than camera phones and most point-and-shoot cameras, and will be adequate for many basic photography classes. But they will be more limited in functionality than more expensive cameras, making you want to replace them sooner with an upgrade as you get serious about photography. The units I have listed belong to the compact mirrorless class of cameras, which allow for interchangeable lenses while still remaining very portable and affordable. The tradeoff is usually that they will be slower than more expensive cameras, and they will also tend to be noisier or grainier than higher-end cameras due to the size of the image sensor.

Sony A3000 with 18-55mm lens: $298
This is a trimmed-down version of Sony’s very popular Alpha-series cameras. While it won’t win any performance awards as a camera, it will surely still allow you much more functionality that your smart phone and cheap point-and-shoot camera. People seem to find the grip on this camera to be very comfortable.

Canon EOS M with 18-55mm lens: $316
This is a very interesting camera offering by Canon that uses the same image sensor as many of their higher-end DSLR cameras, but in a very compact form factor and low price. You can also purchase an additional lens mount adapter in order to use standard Canon lenses with this camera. If you think you’d ever like to upgrade to a more serious Canon DSLR, this is a great way to get started at a low cost of admission.

Panasonic DMC-GF6KK with 14-42mm lens: $349
This is a capable camera that conforms to the Micro Four-Thirds standard, which means that you will easily be able to acquire additional lenses from a number of manufacturers when you are ready to expand your craft. In my opinion, the versatility offered by this model over the Sony A3000 is well worth it if you are shopping in the sub-$350 range.

Entry-Level Digital SLRs ($550 or less)

Cameras in this section are true digital SLR (DSLR) cameras will be very good for many photography applications, have lots of lens and accessory options, and will last for a long time if you take care of them. It’s astounding to see how a $500 camera today can outperform even $2000 cameras from just a few years ago!

Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm lens: $369
This is Nikon’s entry-level DSLR, and it offers great performance for the price. It is a very capable camera that will offer everything an aspiring photographer needs to create exciting images. One bonus feature is that in the video recording mode, the camera can continuously refocus on your subject, just like a camcorder.

Sony NEX-5TL with 16-50mm: $398
In the past couple of years, Sony has been making huge strides in the photo industry and gaining a reputation for creating exciting and innovative cameras that perform well under a variety of shooting conditions. Sony’s NEX and Alpha series cameras have gained a lot of popularity and are giving Canon and Nikon a run for their money. Check out this camera with the very compact form factor.

Canon T3i with 18-55mm lens: $549 (I’ve seen much better prices than this during sales!)
Canon has since replaced the T3i with newer models, but this camera still offers amazing performance. It is easily the camera I have most often recommended to budding photographers, and for good reason. Of the models listed on this page, I have the most personal experience using this camera, which has proven to be a winner in terms of image quality, features, and price. One bonus feature is the flip-out LCD screen which will allow you to shoot from extremely high or low angles to get unique perspectives.

For more recommendations on entry-level DSLR cameras, check out this video by B&H Photo:

Worthwhile Accessories

Consider adding the following equipment to your photography supplies:

A very good tripod at the $50 range is this Dolica tripod. It’s reasonably lightweight for travel, while having enough stability for most consumer DSLR and smaller cameras.

Blow dust and other particles off of your lenses and gear with this Giottos air blower for less than $10. This is much better than blowing with your mouth and getting spit on your lenses! I rarely bother to wipe my lenses with cleaning solution, but I frequently use the air blower as a simple and effective part of camera maintenance.

I have many different backpacks and camera bags over the years, but the one that I have continued to use all these years as a travel pack is the $60 Lowepro Slingshot 102 AW (technically I had the 100 which was the older version). It’s just enough for me to hold a camera with lens attached and two or three other lenses and a few small accessories. The main design innovation is that you do not have to take off the backpack to get to your gear, so it’s great for traveling. It also has straps for securing your tripod to it, but I’ve never used that feature before. If I have a very important professional shoot, I will of course use my bigger case, the Lowepro Pro Roller x200, but for basic photo trips, I turn to the Lowepro Slingshot.

Finally, if you’re looking for an external flash, please see my Basic Flash recommendations page!

Higher-End Cameras and Additional Gear

There are a whole lot more options out there in terms of cameras, especially if you are willing to spend more than $500 for a camera and lens combo. For example, you can see what I use in my professional photography work on my Gear Page.

If you are looking for a camera that is even more powerful or has even more advanced features than what is discussed in this article, please send me a note at so I can get a better idea of your requirements and make a custom recommendation for you! I can also provide suggestions for many other kinds of camera gear.

Don't forget to check out the Recommendations page for the latest products that I'm showing to friends and blog readers based on their requests. I love talking about this stuff, and every time you click on a referral link from this website to a featured retailer like and B&H Photo and Video, I get a small commission that helps keep this site running, at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support, and please contact me if you need any recommendations!

Basic TTL Flash Strobes: Super Quick Review

Should I buy an external flash? What’s a flash with good features and price?

If you’re in a big hurry to get an external flash, go ahead and just get the YongNuo YN-468 II for Canon or the YongNuo YN-468 II for Nikon cameras. Otherwise, keep reading to better understand why you should even care about getting this accessory.

There are lots of reasons to have at least one external flash in your camera bag. The primary reason to get something better than the built-in flash on most cameras is that built-in flashes produce in-your-face lighting that is considered unflattering, uncreative, and sometimes downright ugly. Direct flash is responsible for most cases of red eye, hard shadows on the wall behind your subject, and distracting reflections from shiny surfaces in your scene, among other problems that diminish the quality of a photo. Using an external flash gives the photographer added versatility by allowing the light to be “bounce” into the scene from a nearby wall or ceiling instead of directly from the camera’s point of view. This can result in more pleasant, softer lighting and natural-looking portraits.

With that in mind, most budding photographers probably should get an external flash that supports TTL metering, which is a kind of “auto” mode for flashes. When the external flash with TTL is mounted on the camera’s hotshoe, the camera’s computer helps calculate how much light to output through the flash at the moment that you take the photo. In TTL mode, the main control a photographer has over the flash power is to increase or decrease the flash compensation level, usually with the + or – buttons on the flash unit. For example, if you took a photo of a kid at a birthday party and the background of your photo looks good but your subject in the front is lit too brightly by the flash, you can press the – button to decrease the flash power for the scene before shooting again.

The external flash I have tried that has the best price-to-features ratio is the YongNuo YN-468 II TTL Speedlite. There is a YongNuo YN-468 II for Canon as well as a YongNuo YN-468 II for Nikon cameras. It sports a basic TTL mode as well as a Manual mode for when you want exacting control over the flash power. If I knew nothing else except that you wanted to try an external flash for your Canon or Nikon DSLR, this would be my recommendation.

If you want to save some money and you are comfortable using the Manual mode of your camera, then you may also want to investigate the YongNuo YN-468 II, which works for both Canon and Nikon. Keep in mind that it truly does not offer any “auto” mode, so you must dial in the exact flash power that you want. That’s the level of control that I want, so I appreciate the simplicity and price of this unit. I often use up to four YongNuo YN-468 II units in my professional work, but it took years of training, experimentation, and practice to consistently achieve the results that I want in my flash photography.

For a further discussion about flash photography gear, please see the “Gear for a New Strobist” article.

Don't forget to check out the Recommendations page for the latest products that I'm showing to friends and blog readers based on their requests. I love talking about this stuff, and every time you click on a referral link from this website to a featured retailer like and B&H Photo and Video, I get a small commission that helps keep this site running, at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support, and please contact me if you need any recommendations!

Camera Lenses for your Smartphone or Tablet

Thanks for letting me try those little lenses that attached to my iPad the other day. How do I get them myself?

This question came from one of the students in my photography class. I had brought in a variety of lenses for them to try with their smartphone and tablet cameras. This is a fun and inexpensive way to add some new capabilities to “the camera that you always have with you.”

One lens kit that I tried out was the Universal 3-in-1 Camera Lens Kit with Clip. The kit came with three lenses: a wide-angle lens, a macro lens, and a fisheye lens. The wide-angle lens allows you to “fit more” of the scene in your frame, while the fisheye lens does that to an even greater extent, but it also introduces some serious perspective distortion. With a fisheye lens, straight lines become curved, which you may like for dramatic or creative effect. The macro lens allows your camera to get a lot closer to the subject while still being able to focus, therefore allowing you to take exciting closeup photos of your subject. One interesting characteristic of this kit is that the wide-angle lens and the macro lens come screwed together. You keep it in this configuration when using it as a wide-angle lens, and unscrew the “outer” lens when you want to operate it as a macro lens. I liked the spring-loaded clip that allows you to attach the lenses to nearly any smartphone or tablet on the market. The clip is easy to take off, making it an easy system that you can share with friends.

The other kit I tried out was the Magnetic Lens Kit. This kit worked nearly the same way as the clip-on kit, except that the back of the lenses are held magnetically onto your smartphone or tablet. If the back of your device is not naturally attracted to magnets, the kit comes with a few self-adhesive metallic stickers that you can stick around the perimeter of the camera lens so that the kit lenses will “stick” to the device in the right place. Both the magnetic lenses and the metallic ring are easy to remove, but my concerns regarding this kit are that it’s hard to share around the adhesive metal ring with your friends, so it wasn’t as useful in a classroom environment. But if you’re just getting these lenses for yourself, it may not pose a problem.

Overall, the kits reviewed here were each less than $20, which is a small price to pay for some new fun and functionality for your camera. Out of the three lenses, it seems that the macro lens was the biggest hit, delivering the most bang for the buck with regard to fun factor and image quality. Have you used any other types of lenses for your smartphone or tablet? Please leave your thoughts in the Comments!

Don't forget to check out the Recommendations page for the latest products that I'm showing to friends and blog readers based on their requests. I love talking about this stuff, and every time you click on a referral link from this website to a featured retailer like and B&H Photo and Video, I get a small commission that helps keep this site running, at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support, and please contact me if you need any recommendations!

Hilarious Reviews: Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 lens

The Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 lens is a 35 lbs. telephoto zoom lens that is repeatedly mis-reviewed as a rocket launcher, portal gun, space telescope, doomsday device, etc. Last I checked, there were no more than 3 serious reviews in the whole batch. The $26,000 price tag probably prevents it from getting into too many people’s hands. Sadly, most of the hilarious customer-submitted photos (with a heavy dose of Photoshop) have been removed already. Click the link or photo to check out the Amazon reviews yourself!

Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 lens rocket