How To Build A Camera System

When you buy a D-SLR, you’re choosing more than just a camera-you’re selecting a system of lenses and accessories, as well. Camera features like sensor size and resolution, metering and autofocus technology, exposure modes and so on are all important considerations; but you’ll also want to look beyond the camera at the range of additional options available for the models you’re evaluating.

First Camera?

If you’re considering your first D-SLR purchase, you have the best opportunity to compare camera systems, lens ranges and accessories like specialty flash. Once you invest in these extras, if you decide to switch camera brands later, you’ll have to replace some or all of your accessories to take full advantage of the new camera system. Lens mounts aren’t interchangeable between camera makers, and many accessories also are system-specific.

Tamron AF28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di

It’s easy to get caught up in the exciting technology, but before you commit to a particular camera and system, it’s wise to put everything into perspective vis-à-vis the types of photography you like to do most. So, let’s look at the camera features and accessories you’ll want for the best results with specific subjects.

Panasonic Lumix DMC L-10

People & Portraits

The entry-level D-SLRs have great features for photographs of people, offering Portrait modes and even “face detection” technology, which identifies human faces in a scene and adjusts focus and exposure accordingly for optimum results. Serious portrait photographers, though, may be better suited by higher-end models because of the better overall image quality and skin tones they produce.

Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX

Portraits look most natural when shot from around 3.5 to 5 feet away. If you move much closer, features will elongate; if you move much farther back, features will flatten.

A short tele lens (80-105mm on a full-frame D-SLR, 55-75mm on an APS-C D-SLR, 40-55mm on a Four Thirds System D-SLR) will produce a good head size at the ideal 3.5- to 5-foot shooting distance. So a prime lens in that range, or a zoom that includes those focal lengths, is an ideal first-lens purchase for a portrait enthusiast.

Faster lenses (ƒ/2.8 vs. ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6) will let you reduce depth of field more to really throw a background out of focus and concentrate attention on the subject. They do cost considerably more than slower lenses of equal focal lengths.

Nikon MB-D10 Multi-Power Battery PackOlympus Zuiko Digital ED 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD

An accessory flash unit with an adjustable head and diffuser will let you “bounce” the light off a nearby wall, ceiling or reflector for soft, pleasant lighting. A flash bracket will let you move the flash off-camera away from the lens axis, eliminating red-eye and allowing you to vary the lighting angle.


If you’re shooting sports, speed is crucial. All of today’s D-SLRs provide shutter speeds from several seconds to at least 1?4000 sec., so all are well-suited to action work.

The big camera concern for action photography is autofocusing performance, and here the pro models really shine, but the sweet-spot and even entry-level models are quite capable of producing good action shots with a little extra planning and preparedness on the part of the photographer. Look for AF modes that track a moving subject.

Burst rate, or the number of frames the camera can record per second, is another important feature for shooting those action sequences, especially when you need to capture the “decisive moment.”

An ideal sports-action setup would be a pro or sweet-spot D-SLR with a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 zoom and a wider zoom for overviews. If you can’t get near the action, a longer lens is useful. Faster lenses are very helpful—a tripod can be burdensome for action photography, and a fast lens will give you the best chance of using a fast shutter speed. Also look for lenses with image stabilization, especially those that have stabilization modes designed for panning with the action.

A battery grip will double your shooting capacity, as it holds one or more additional batteries—handy when you’re shooting action sequences. Grips often incorporate a shutter button for more comfortable vertical-format shooting. Some cameras even offer a faster burst rate when you use an accessory grip.

Entry, Mid or Pro: Which Are You?

Nikon D60

If you’re buying your first D-SLR, “entry-level” models are a good place to start—although exactly what constitutes an entry-level model is becoming a bit fuzzy. Canon’s entry-level EOS Digital Rebel is available in four models as of this writing, and Nikon lists three entry-level models (the D40, D40X and D60). Entry-level models are relatively inexpensive, compact and easy to carry, and capable of turning out terrific /images.

The “sweet-spot” midrange models are good first D-SLRs if you’re really serious about your photography. They offer better image quality, faster performance and are more rugged, so they’ll hold up better under frequent use.

Pro D-SLRs really do produce better image quality and provide better AF and metering performance, along with more versatility and more rugged construction. But they cost a lot more and are much bulkier than even the sweet-spot models, so they’re not for everyone.


Pro landscape photographers generally use moderate wide-angle through short telephoto lenses, and these are readily available for all D-SLRs.

Canon Life-Size Converter EF

Landscape /images require great detail, and often are printed large, so you’ll want to shoot them at the camera’s slowest ISO setting to minimize noise and maximize detail. If you want everything sharp, from foreground to background (usually you do, in landscapes), use the smallest lens aperture to maximize depth of field. Of course, the more megapixels your D-SLR has, the bigger you can blow up the resulting /images, and the more detail they can reproduce.

Nikon PC-E Micro Nikkor 45mm f/2.8D ED

A depth-of-field caveat: With the super-short-focal-length lenses needed to produce true wide-angle views with small-se
nsor D-SLRs, you probably won’t want to stop down past ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 because diffraction at very small apertures will reduce overall image sharpness (one reason a full-frame D-SLR is a better choice for landscape photography). But the shorter focal lengths used with the smaller sensors result in more depth of field, so shooting at ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 should cover most needs.

Olympus Vari-Magni Right-Angle Finder

An ideal landscape setup would include a full-frame D-SLR, a wide-angle lens (24mm or shorter; a good 16-35mm zoom also is a fine choice), a normal 50mm lens and a short telephoto (80-135mm). If your vision leans toward compressed perspective, a longer lens will let you zero in on distant subjects and “stack” things. Currently, the only full-frame D-SLRs are Canon’s EOS 5D and EOS-1Ds Mark III and Nikon’s D3 and D700. Smaller-sensor D-SLRs and the shorter lenses designed for them also can do the job, but the full-frame models, with their larger pixels, produce the best image quality.

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Pentax AF540FGZ

One key consideration for landscape photography is the weight of your gear. Scenic locations usually involve some walking and hiking, and you’ll notice the weight of your gear. Here’s one spec where the entry-level models beat the pro bodies hands down. Carrying fewer lenses also helps reduce weight, so look for big-range zooms that can take you from wide to tele.


Professional wildlife photographers mostly use pro SLRs and superfast, super-costly supertelephoto lenses-the 300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8 and 600mm ƒ/4 are popular. The pros also use sturdy tripods with gimbal heads (such as those from Jobu and Wimberley), which provide support, but also allow them to pan the camera to track moving subjects.

Olympus E-520

If you expect to compete with the pros in selling your photos, you’ll probably need similar gear—the pro items provide better image quality and AF performance, and are more rugged. But you can do a lot of great wildlife photography with much less costly gear.

Sony SAL-16F28 Fish-Eye Lens

An entry-level or “sweet-spot” D-SLR is a fine wildlife camera, and a slower super-telephoto costs much less than the fastest (a 300mm ƒ/4 costs less than one-third the price of what the same manufacturer’s 300mm ƒ/2.8 costs). And a midrange 75-300mm zoom lens provides that 300mm focal length for less than half the cost of the 300mm ƒ/4. A nice added benefit of the lower-cost D-SLRs is that their smaller image sensors provide a free focal-length “boost,” making any lens that’s used frame like a lens of 1.5x to 2x its focal length on a full-frame SLR.

Nikon D700

One advantage the higher-end D-SLRs have for fast-moving wildlife is quicker shooting rates. Shooting at 8 or 10 fps will get you more “poses” to choose from than the 3 fps of an entry-level model.

Sigma SD 14

Teleconverters fit between the camera body and lens and increase the focal length of the lens by a factor of 1.4x, 1.7x or 2x. A 2x converter turns a 300mm lens into a 600mm, at a fraction of the cost. The teleconverter also maintains the camera lens’ minimum focusing distance. Add a 2x converter to a 300mm lens that focuses down to five feet, and you have a 600mm lens that focuses down to five feet.

Sony DSLR-A350

The major drawback to a converter is that it reduces light transmission by one stop for a 1.4x and by two stops for a 2x. A 2x converter turns a 300mm ƒ/4 lens into a 600mm ƒ/8 (and thus eliminating AF capability with many D-SLRs, which generally require at least ƒ/5.6 to operate). Teleconverters also reduce sharpness a bit, although a major-brand converter used with a lens for which it was designed will produce excellent results.

Sigma 28-300mm f-3.5-6.3 DG

Which is more important: the camera body or the lens?In brief, the lens. All other things being equal, an entry-level D-SLR with a higher-end lens will produce better image quality than a high-end D-SLR with a cheapie lens. If your budget is limited, it’s better to get a less costly camera body and a better lens than a high-end camera and a lesser lens.

Nikon R1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight

Close-Up Photography

Close-up fans need some means of focusing on very close subjects. The best is a macro lens. A macro lens will focus close enough to provide a life-sized image on 35mm film (“larger than life” on a typical APS-C digital sensor), and it’s designed to perform well at such close shooting distances. You also can use a macro lens for normal photography because it focuses out to infinity.

Nikon AF-S VR Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF

Macro lenses come in three basic focal lengths: 50mm or 60mm, 90-105mm and 180-200mm. Longer macro lenses produce a given magnification at a greater shooting distance, handy when photographing skittish or dangerous subjects, or when you want to include less of the background in the frame. The greater working distance also gives you more room for your lighting setup and reduces the chances of casting a shadow on the subject, but it also flattens perspective.

Macro zoom lenses focus closer than standard zoom lenses, but produce less magnification than true macro lenses, are less sharp than true macro lenses and, in some cases, focus close only at a certain focal length. That said, macro zooms can be handy for lower-magnification close-up work such as flowers and larger insects.

The big problems in close-up photography are camera and subject movement, and depth of field. Image blur due to camera shake or subject movement is magnified, and depth of field is extremely limited. So you need a brief exposure time and a small aperture. Close-up pros use electronic flash because its brief duration minimizes blur caused by camera or subject mo
vement, while its great intensity at close range lets you stop the lens down to maximize depth of field.

Sigma EF-530 DG Super

As with landscape photography, a tripod will hold your camera steady and lock in your composition so you can study it without accidentally changing it as you squeeze off the shot. A remote control or cable release will prevent jiggling the camera as you trip the shutter, and a camera with a mirror prelock also will help reduce camera shake. Remember, any camera shake will be magnified along with your close-up subject.

Ring lights are flash units with circular flash tubes that surround the lens and produce pleasant, even shadowless, illumination for close-ups. Some manufacturers also offer macro flash systems that employ several flash units and thus allow directional illumination, which can be more dramatic than the flat illumination of a ring light.

Pentax 600mm f/5.6 ED IF

An ideal close-up setup would be a D-SLR with Live-View capability, a macro lens and a macro flash setup. However, any D-SLR works well for macro work, and the conventional TTL viewfinder shows you almost exactly what the image sensor sees. For odd-angle shooting, look for an angle finder, which attaches to the camera viewfinder’s eyepiece and lets you do low-angle shooting more comfortably.

Olympus Ring Flash Set (SRF-11)

Night And Indoor Low-Light Photography

If you want to shoot handheld in low light, you need fast lenses and a D-SLR that produces good image quality at higher ISO settings. Currently, higher-end Canon and Nikon D-SLRs produce the best image quality at higher ISOs and longer exposure times.

Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14 EX

When shooting at high ISOs or long exposure times, it’s best to activate the camera’s noise-reduction features. Some D-SLRs provide both long-exposure and high-ISO noise reduction, and you’ll get better image quality if you activate them when using long exposures and high ISO settings. You also can reduce noise using noise-reduction software after the fact.

Pentax K20D

Another great feature for low-light photography is image stabilization. Many of today’s D-SLRs employ sensor-shift stabilization, which moves the image sensor to counter camera shake. Because it’s built into the camera body, sensor-shift stabilization works with all lenses; the drawback is that it stabilizes only the recorded image, not what you see in the viewfinder.

Samsung D-Xenon 12-24mm

Other manufacturers offer stabilized lenses, which sport the advantage of being optimized for the specific lens and focal length, and stabilizing the viewfinder image as well as the recorded one-but you have to buy the stabilized lenses to get the feature. As with close-up work, a remote control or cable release let you trip the shutter without jiggling the camera.

Samsung GX20

Extras For Everyone

No matter what type of subjects you shoot, these three extras will make your photography more enjoyable and productive.

1. Spare batteries. D-SLRs can shoot from 500 to more than 1,000 /images on a full charge, but it’s always a good idea to have at least one spare set of batteries. If your charge is low, switch batteries. Don’t risk the problems that can occur when your battery runs out during capture.

2. More memory. As with batteries, take spares. When your card is near full, replace it. Do this if you capture that “shot of a lifetime,” too. While rare, card failures do occur, and it would be a shame to lose a great shot that way.

3. Comfortable camera strap. Your camera will probably come with a strap, but they’re typically not very good. There are more comfortable and durable straps available (UPstrap, for one).

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