As with many hobbies, professions, or sports, photography has it’s own set of gear that you will need to be effective. There is a very wide range of gear that is available, from entry level to professional equipment. The most important thing about photo gear is that you need to be familiar with the gear that you own. You need to know how it works, what all the settings do, how to navigate the menus, etc. It is the photographer that makes the picture, not the gear! If you really know your way around a camera then you should be able to pick up almost any camera a create a good looking image. Going out and buying the most expensive, top-of-the-line camera won’t make up for not knowing how to use it to correctly compose and expose an image.
The Camera Body
The first piece of gear that you will need is a camera body. The two major players in this arena are Canon and Nikon. There are other camera manufacturers like Pentax, Sony, and Sigma, but generally for ease of service and support, going with one of the big brands is better.
There are many factors that go into choosing a camera body. Generally the first thing that anyone thinks about it price. You need to set a budget for yourself and then get the best equipment you can afford within that budget. You can get into the DSLR world for under $500, so don’t fret if you have a smaller budget. If you want to get into film, there are still film cameras available, but the selection is starting to dwindle. You can get in for as little as $140, but remember that there are many more additional costs associated with shooting film, namely consumables.
In the digital realm, the next thing you will probably look at is image resolution. Measured in Megapixels (MP), the resolution of a sensor is determined by how many pixels are packed onto the sensor. Currently on the market we have cameras that range from 6MP up to 24MP. So the question is: how many megapixels do you need? For a ling time 6-7MP was the best you could get, and I shot with a 6MP camera since getting into the digital world. I have made beautiful prints at sixes up to 16×20, and in theory I could have made even larger prints before the resolution would get in my way.
I have read that at this point in time, that there is not any huge benefit to resolutions beyond 12-15MP in the 35mm format. People are saying that beyond these resolutions instead of getting more clarity in your image you actually start to see the imperfections of the lenses you are working with. I have not had the opportunity to test this out first hand, but it seems logical to me.
Another thing to consider about resolution is that in theory, all things being equal using chips with the same technology but different resolutions, the chip with the lower resolution should have better low light sensitivity. Why? With the pixels packed less densely on the sensor, each pixel is able to collect more light. Again, this is only in theory, things are never equal, and usually it is newer chips with better technology and sensitivity that come in higher resolutions. However, this is one of the reasons why even if you buy an entry-level camera you should still be able to get the shots that you want.
The other major thing that image resolution affects is how much storage space you need for your images. At full resolution on the same size memory card you should theoretically get double the images when shooting with a 6MP camera compared to a 12MP camera. So image resolution will factor into how many and what size memory cards you need to invest in.
Unfortunately, not all camera bodies from all manufacturers are compatible with all the lenses from said manufacturer. Take Canon for example. If you are currently the owner of an older Canon camera (especially film cameras) then your current lenses may not be compatible with the new Canon digital cameras. As the technology has changed Canon has changed the lens mounting system. This can often be disconcerting to people who figure that they will stick with one brand because they have already bought into it when in reality they will still need to buy a whole new set of lenses for their new camera.
On the other hand you have companies like Nikon who have not changed the mounting design of their lenses for over 50 years since the original F-Mount lenses were made. This means that you can mount any Nikkor lens on your new camera or your old camera but you may not be able to use all the features of the camera or of the lens. Some cameras in the Nikon line won’t be able to use their onboard light meter with old all manual lenses. Some of the newer Nikon cameras (especially in the lower price ranges) can only use the AF-S or AF-I (lenses containing built in focus motors) lenses if you want to be able to use autofocus. Conversely, if you mounted a new autofocus lens on an old manual body you would still have to focus manually.
If you are buying new, compatibility is less of an issue, but if you are upgrading from an old system it is something that you should keep in mind.
One other compatibility note to keep in mind is this: [u]buy what your friends use![/u] If all of your friends have Canon cameras, buy a Canon camera. This way you will (hopefully) be able to share lenses and other accessories. If you need to send your camera out for repair, you will know your way around your friend’s camera when you borrow it. If you are just getting into photography it will be easier for your friends to help you learn and understand the gear you have if they already speak the language.
Body construction may or may not be a big issue for you. In general, the lower cost, entry level cameras feature a mostly lactic construction. This makes the camera very lightweight, and to some it may even feel cheap. If you do a lot of traveling and weight and space are an issue then choosing a lighter body may be a good thing. On the other hand, if you do a lot of hiking or outdoors stuff and you like to take your camera along, a more rugged construction might be beneficial. It is going to be heavier, which may be a downside to the hiker, but it will stand up to be pulled in and out of a backpack and being bumped around.
As you move up the product lines you generally see more metal construction and then all metal construction on the professional lineup. You may also notice that the physical size of the camera gets bigger as you move up the product lines. This is often to accommodate more features and electronics and sometimes just to give you more to hold on to.
When digital cameras in the 35mm format first hit the scene they were using imaging sensors that were slightly smaller than a 35mm frame (24×36). This smaller format has become known as APS-C (Advanced Photo System type-C). In the Nikon world it is also known as the DX format and in Canon speak it is the EF-S format. The Canon APS-C chips are slightly smaller than the nikon chips, however all the chips maintain the same aspect ratio as 35mm (except for cameras using the 4/3 sytsem).
Due to the smaller image size of APS-C you get what is known as a crop factor or focal length multiplier. For a Nikon DX camera the multiplier is 1.5X. For a Canon EF-S sensor the multiplier is 1.6X due to the slightly smaller sensor size. What this means is that if you mount a 100mm lens on an Nikon DX camera the effective focal length becomes 150mm (though the actual focal length never changes). If you were to mount a 100mm lens on a Canon camera the effective focal length becomes 160mm.
An interesting note on APS-C size sensors is that they actually help you get greater depth of field when used with full frame lenses. This is due to the fact that they only use 75% of the image circle of the lens. So, like how the iris controls how much of the lens in used, since the smaller sensor uses less of the lens you gain some DOF. However, use of a DX or EF-S lens negates this as they are designed with an image circle that matches the sensor size.
In the last couple years we have seen the proliferation of full frame digital sensors. These are chips that cover the full 24×36 frame of 35mm film. The biggest advantage to full frame is that there is no crop factor. Your 100mm lens behaves exactly the same as it did on your film camera. The larger sensor also made it easier to achieve higher resolutions as the pixel destiny is smaller.
In general, cameras with full frame sensors are more expensive, but if you have a collection of compatible lenses from your film days, it may be a worthwhile investment for you.
There are a whole host of additional features that you will find on different camera bodies. You may find that you like the layout of the controls better on certain cameras. The inclusion of “vari-programs” like sports, portrait, landscape, and night shot modes may be of interest to you. The flip out and rotating screen that some cameras feature might be a selling point. As with many technology purchases, go to your local store and give the cameras a test drive. If you have a good local shop the will usually have people who will help you out and not just try to make a sale. Try to avoid the big chains like Ritz and Inkleys and develop a relationship with your local shops as they are usually friendlier and more helpful (and often less pushy to make a sale). As in theatre, having a good relationship with your local shop is a good idea because they are the people who will come through for you in a pinch.
Lenses are arguably the most important piece of kit for a photographer. Having the right lens can make or break a shot. There are hundreds of lenses on the market to choose from and multiple manufacturers as well. The die-hards swear that they will only buy Canon glass for their Canon camera or Nikon glass for their Nikon camera, but some of the other manufacturers are making amazingly high quality glass at significantly lower prices than the big two. Choosing lenses can be a very daunting task even for professionals. The choices, options, features and functions may seem overwhelming but hopefully this guide will help make it easier.
One of the first things to consider when looking at lenses is the focal length. Consider that the average field of view for the human eye is about equivalent to a 50mm lens (on 35mm film or a full frame sensor). In general a 50mm lens gives you a field of view of around 47˚ and the field of view of the human eye is approximately 53˚. 50mm is considered to be a “normal” focal length.
The vast majority of lenses on the market today are zoom lenses. A zoom lens allows you to set the focal length of the lens anywhere in the range it covers. Fixed focal length lenses or prime lenses are, as the name suggests, fixed at one focal length. The general consensus is that prime lenses offer better image quality and overall sharpness as every lens element is made specifically to work at one focal length. Prime lenses also tend to be faster lenses, offering a wider maximum aperture.
For the work that I do in theatre I have found that having a focal range from 28mm to 200mm between all of my lenses seems to be ideal. My “go-to” lens for most theatre work is a 28-105mm zoom. Other lenses in my kit include a 24-70mm and an 80-200mm. You will notice that I have lenses with overlapping focal ranges, this means that I usually end up making fewer lens changes during a shoot.
You probably hear people talking about the speed of a lens, I know that I have in this article. Lens speed refers to the maximum (widest) aperture that a lens operates at. Faster lenses operate at wider maximum apertures. The fastest lenses have the same f-stop no matter what focal length you are at.
In general, prime lenses are designed to be fast lenses. Many prime lenses have minimum f-stops of ƒ/2 or lower. Zoom lenses on the other hand come in many varying speeds. If you look at a lens ant it says that it is a 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 it means that when the lens is used at the 18mm setting the widest aperture will be f3.5. However, when set at 200mm, the widest aperture will be f6.3. The only thing that is changing is the relationship between the maximum diameter of the aperture relative to the focal length of the lens (as detailed in the equation back in the section about aperture). A lens listed as a 28-105mm f2.8 has a constant aperture of f2.8 throughout the entire zoom range. This lens would be considered a fast lens. An 18-200mm f2.8-5.6 would be considered a faster lens than the previous 180-200mm that I mentioned.
Why is lens speed important to you as a photographer for theatre? Faster lenses let more light through. This means that you will be able to shoot at higher shutter speeds, which will cut down on motion blur in your images. It may also allow you to shoot at lower ISOs, which will eliminate noise in your images. Faster lenses tend to have better quality optics in them that should help you get sharper images. The downside to this is the fact that fast lenses are significantly more expensive than slower lenses in the same focal range. If you can afford fast glass it will help make shooting images for theatre much easier.
Most of the major camera and lens manufacturers now offer cameras or lenses that feature some implementation of optical image stabilization (OIS for clarity). Both Canon and Nikon build the stabilization into their lenses where some manufacturers build it into the camera body. Building the technology into the lenses allows anyone with any camera body to get a lens with OIS and reap the benefits. Nikon calls their OIS system VR (Vibration Reduction) so any Nikon lens with a VR marking has OIS. Canon denotes their lenses with OIS as IS or IS-F lenses.
The way that OIS works for both manufacturers is essentially the same. The lenses are built with a “floating” element that is controlled by accelerometers in the lens that detect any motion of the lens and move the element to compensate.
OIS technology was designed to minimize camera shake from showing up in images. Originally it was implemented in longer focal length lenses where even the smallest motion can translate to visible camera shake in the image. A general rule of thumb for when camera shake may be an issue without OIS is to assume that when shooting a shutter speed slower than the reciprocal of the focal length you may be subject to shake. So with a 200mm lens, if you were shooting slower than 1/200 of a second you may see camera shake in your image.
OIS is not a perfect system, and it won’t help you at all if your subject is moving. OIS was really designed with photographers trying to follow and shoot fast action like sports in mind. Generally this type of photographer is shooting longer focal lengths and moving the camera a lot to keep the subject in the frame. OIS will not help you get a sharp shot of moving dancers on a dark stage, though it may help you get a sharp shot of an actor standing still on dark stage if you re hand holding your camera.
Is OIS essential for theatre photography? In my opinion, no. Is it helpful? Yes. However, you shouldn’t feel like you need to go spend extra money on a lens with OIS as most situations in theatre won’t be solved by OIS. In general as theatre photographers we are competing with the motion of the performers rather than the motion of the camera.
Not a small factor and certainly one that affects most purchasing decisions is price. Good lenses are not cheap, in fact there are many lenses on the market that cost more than the flagship model high end camera bodies. In general, you don’t want to skimp when it comes to buying lenses, but you can only buy what you have the money for. If you can’t afford to get multiple fast lenses that cover the focal range you need then you have to compromise. However, with a little patience and some experimentation you can usually get good shots with any gear you have.
If you primarily shoot theatre that doesn’t have a lot of fast action or dancing then you will probably do just fine with a slower lens. If you have stage photo calls where the actors hold their positions while you shoot then a slower lens will not hinder you. If you typically shoot fast action, musicals or dance shows then you will probably be better served with faster glass. The same goes for if you shoot during rehearsals or performances.
Many camera manufacturers sell their camera bodies in kits that come with a lens or two. Often this seems like a great deal, but if you looked the lens up on its own you might find it to be a fairly cheap lens. Many photographers recommend that you stay away from kit lenses and apply the money you save from buying just the camera body to the purchase of a better lens. Generally I agree with this sentiment however, for the budget minded, the kits are pretty good deals. Most kit lenses are not terrible, they are just are not great. Sometimes getting a kit will allow you to actually get two lenses since usually you save something when buying the kit and maybe have enough to buy a second “good” lens as opposed to buying two “good” lenses.
After a camera an a lens, a tripod is probably the next most important tool for a theatre photographer. A tripod will give you a solid base and keep your camera steady which helps eliminate camera shake and will allow you to take longer exposures. A good tripod usually comes as two pieces, the legs and the head.
Generally I suggest staying away from the cheap tripods you can get at your local BestBuy. First of all, they are generally designed more for video use. Secondly they tend to not be a sturdy and well built. Many of these tripods are not able to support some heavier cameras and lens combinations.
Choosing tripod legs is pretty straightforward. The main option you have is material. Most tripod manufacturers offer legs in many different materials from aluminum and steel to carbon fiber. Generally you choose legs based on weight and height. Some tripod legs are designed to be compact and lightweight for traveling/hiking while others might be heavier and more bulky. You also want to look at the minimum collapsed height and the maximum extended height and pick legs that fit the kind of work you generally do.
Tripod heads can often be the most expensive part of a tripod system. There are many choices for types of tripod heads. You have ball heads, pan/tilt heads, micro-adjustment heads, video style heads, and more. Also, within all of those categories are many different types of heads. The most important factors when choosing a tripod head are ease and comfort of use and how much weight it is designed to hold.
All tripod heads are rated for how much weight they are designed to hold. This includes the weight of the camera, lens, and any other accessories attached to the camera. If your favorite lens and your camera weigh 13 pounds then you need to get a head that can hold at least 13 pounds. If you were to put your 13-pound camera on a head rated for less weight you run the risk of the head slipping and not holding position.
My personal preference when working in the theatre is a pistol-grip ball head. This head is really fast and easy to operate and manipulate. It takes a little getting used to, but being able to adjust to an infinite range of angles with a one-touch lock/release is great.
All digital cameras require some form of memory card to store images on. There are two major types of cards on the market today: Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD). The camera that you buy will determine what type of memory cards you will need. The main factors that go into choosing a memory card are size and speed rating.
Size is simple, bigger cards will hold more photos. Some people prefer to have multiple smaller cards because in the event of a card failure or loss, you end up loosing less work. One thing to consider when you consider size is the average image size that your camera yields in the format that you usually shoot. If you usually shoot JPEG files, they take up less space than a TIFF or RAW image. If you generally shoot in modes that produce large files like TIFF and RAW then you will want a bigger card.
The speed of a memory card refers to how fast data can be written and read from it. If you have a high-resolution camera and shoot large image formats (RAW and TIFF) then you may want a faster card. Every camera has some built in buffer where images are stored in queue to be transferred to the memory card. Having a faster card allows the camera to write images from the buffer to the card faster which allows you to take more images in rapid succession.
Protect Your Investment
Having spent a good chunk of your hard earned money on a camera and lenses you need to think about how you are going to protect this investment. One of the first things you will want to pick up is a camera case or bag. Bags come in many shapes, sizes and styles. Picking a bag can be a very personal thing. You may want to go to a store and look at the options. Bring your camera and try them out. Think about if you will be adding any additional gear in the foreseeable future and get a bag that will accommodate that gear.
You will also want to get a basic protective filter for your lens. This will protect your lens from bumps and scratches. It is a lot cheaper to replace a $30-$60 filter than a lens costing hundreds. You will want a plain old UV(0) haze filter or any filter that has no real impact on the image.