You don’t need a DSLR to take good pictures.
I’m going to repeat that. You don’t need a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) to take good pictures. Nor does a DSLR make you take better photos than the ones you’re already taking, unless you’re already experienced with using DSLRs.
This is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a couple years, but what finally pushed me over the procrastination hump was that I had three different people come to me in the last few days, all with variations on this same question:
“I want to take better photos. What DSLR should I buy?”
My answer to all of them, after asking a few clarifying questions, was the same: none.
When I hear this question, it sounds to me like someone asking “I want to learn how to sew. What $2,000 sewing machine should I get?”
This post series will explain why I think most people don’t need a DSLR. There’s a lot of reasons, so it warrants more than one post. I hope you find it helpful!
Without further ado, here’s part I:
1. The problem with your current camera may simply be that you don’t understand how to use it.
When I get a question like this, I almost always answer with a follow-up question of my own: what don’t you like about the camera you have, and how old is it? The answers almost always fall under one of three categories: “the photos are always blurry”, “the photos are grainy at night”, or “the photos aren’t as colorful as yours”. Here’s the deal with those problems – only one of those is actually a camera problem. The others are due to user ignorance unless you’re using a camera that is 6+ years old. And really, that’s totally understandable, totally fine, and most importantly, totally fixable.
Your photos are blurry? That’s because you’re shooting at a slow shutter speed, most likely due to low light – something that happens even with a DSLR if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can compensate for this by boosting your ISO settings or lowering your aperture settings when you’re shooting in low light. And yes, most cameras, even a $200 PNS (point and shoot), have that capability these days.
Your photos are grainy at night? Welcome to the joy of shooting at night – even my 7D looks like crap at night unless I run the image through noise reduction software. Now, image noise is effected by the size of the sensor in your camera (and it’s worse on smaller sensors), but that is far from the only factor. If you do a lot of shooting in low light conditions (night time, indoors), consider looking into a model that touts its’ high ISO capabilities. This is the only problem of those above that is actually a camera problem – most older cameras don’t have the high ISO performance that new cameras do.
Your photos aren’t as colorful as the ones you see online? Well, nobody’s look like that out of the camera. We all use software (Lightroom, Photoshop, Nik) to edit our photos after we take them. For example, here’s few different shots of mine before/after editing:
Quite a difference, right? That’s what editing does. No, it’s not cheating, it’s part of the process just as much as the hours my mother used to spend in the darkroom, dodging and burning, adjusting the chemistry and the timer were. There’s a reason that Lightroom calls itself a “digital darkroom”. Arguably, learning how to use Lightroom can do more for the quality of your photography than a new camera will, if you don’t currently edit your photos.
2. This brings me to my next point: if you’re a beginner with aspirations, a good PNS camera and some photography lessons will take you much further than a DSLR and no lessons will.
Now, I’m not talking about expensive tutors or classes at your community college, I’m talking about one of the greatest educational resources available today: YouTube.
YouTube has some great instructional videos out there, really. A photographer friend and I were talking the other day about how YouTube has basically made technical photography classes pretty pointless. Everything you need to know about how your camera works and how to make it work well can be learned on the internet.
What about the non-technical stuff? All that “developing a style” and “capturing a moment” BS that photographers talk about? Here’s how you learn that: look at good art. Go to photography exhibitions. Look up the greats online. Look through their portfolios. Focus on what speaks to you, disregard the rest. Don’t just look at photographers either – some painters, especially the Dutch masters from the 17th century, are absolutely excellent for learning what good light looks like. Learn to appreciate art, and figure out what you like and what you want your work to be like. My personal favorites are Arnold Newman, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Dorthea Lange, and my own mother, Sandy Wilson.
In addition to learning how to use your camera and how to develop your own style, you should also, as I mentioned above, learn how to edit your photos. There are plenty of tutorials out there on how to use Lightroom and Photoshop, and to a lesser extent, Nik. These are professional tools, so they’re complicated, but learning to master them will improve your work exponentially.
Part II, which is about how DSLRs are likely more camera than you want, will be up soon, followed by Part III, in which I recommend a few favorite alternatives to a DSLR.