Where (your) dSLR (is a happy dSLR) [The entry kit dSLR Part 6]


Finally, we get to the gear section. What do you need to buy?

The answer is not much.

Memory Card

The only thing you need to buy is a memory card.

I recommend a 4GB SDHC card rated at Class 6 or higher. Note: Class 6 is 40x, but 40x covers minimum speed, while card manufactures advertise maximum speeds—not the same thing! There are (and will be) faster cards, but most entry level cameras don’t support them, and manufacturers are laggards at doing so. Plus, the cards we are talking about retail for $18 or less right now.

(Why not more than 4GB? If you need more space, I recommend more cards instead of a larger card. Right now smaller cards are cheaper overall and you won’t be as distraught when you lose one or one fails during a long shoot. For now, one card is enough. To manage multiple cards, find something with pockets designed for SD cards specifically—as they are used, put them back in reversed.)

It’s a shame a memory card isn’t bundled with the cameras. As I’ve mentioned before, dSLR cameras are sold to consumers all wrong. Instead of making a kit a list of parts, manufactuers should integrate them into a single system: put the battery inside the camera, mount the kit lens on the body, a memory card in the slot, and gear the packaging for impulse buy or unpacking pornography, like Apple does with the iPod and iPhone. The money saved in packaging alone (and shipping that packaging across the world), covers the $10 for the SDHC/6 card. Just open the box and start shooting.

Costco Nikon kits are out

Nikon kits are out
Costco, South San Francisco, California

Sony DSC-WX1
1/50sec @ ƒ2.4, iso 160, 4.2mm (24mm)

The actual boxes of the D3000 and D5000 superkits are a nice touch, but Nikon could do better. Emulate Apple—or Leica for that matter.

If you look at the picture on Page 1, you’ll notice the card I got was an Eye-Fi. These ones allow you to wirelessly send your photos to the computer and the web, and they now make models with a class 6 rating, free geotagging, as well as a “pro” model that can even upload Camera RAWs to your computer. In reality, it was one I had lying around. There is even a deal to get an Eye-Fi card for free, but remember there might be some limitations because this model, while being in the 4GB sweet spot, isn’t class 6, may not geotag (for free), and doesn’t support camera RAW uploads. This means that depending on how you end up postprocessing, you might be popping the Eye-Fi out of the camera anyway to get at your files before deletion. I really think that unless you spring for the Pro version, you’re probably better off relegating the Eye-Fi to your pocket digital or in slot 2 on your 2-card professional camera.

I can’t mention the Eye-Fi without talking about the latest Canon Rebel T2i (550D). This model, in addition to supporting the new SDXC standard, actually puts an Eye-Fi UI in-camera. This is good because Nikons tends to power down the circuitry in order to be very battery-efficient so full uploads of your images rarely happen from an Eye-Fi. This (outrageously expensive for the class) model, doesn’t make that mistake. I’ve dinged Canon for being memory card laggards in the past, so I must credit them for taking the lead here. Of course, none of these features justifies the price premium, so I skipped it in my earlier discussion.

Memory card reader?

Speaking to that article I just linked, what about a memory card reader. The Eye-Fi card comes with one built in, and many laptops (including MacBooks) now come with readers built-in. So check if you already have one before purchasing it. By the way, my new favorite memory card reader is the Kingston MobileLite G2 which also supports Sony memory stick and is better designed than the others. On the other hand, it doesn’t support the new SDXC standard. 🙁

Why not just connect the camera via USB to the computer? Simply put, it will drain your battery if you’re not careful, and most people are not careful.

Spare battery

I’ve already written an article about this showing why it is a good idea to buy a spare. Because of compatibility issues mentioned in the article, I purchased one with the Nikon D5000. That article also tells you when to change, charge, and store the battery—as well as how to save a huge bundle of cash.

One thing I forgot to mention in the article is that the Pentax uses standard batteries. For this case you’ll need to buy two sets and a recharger. I recommend low discharge AAs—they may hold less charge, but you don’t have to keep them charged and work better in the battery workflow I mentioned above. As for a recharger, I’m not too sure: the two MaHa rechargers I have work great, but I’m sure there are much cheaper ones out there that charge even faster. Just do some research on the web before purchasing.

I’d wait a week just to make sure you have a dSLR you want to keep before buying the spare battery.

Straps and Bags

A strap is a personal preference that you can do without. Camera manufacturers always include a very functional cloth or polyester strap with their cameras. This will do fine until you discover what strap sect you want to subscribe to.

One argument against this policy is that the bundled strap usually has the manufacturer’s logo emblazoned on it making it attractive to thieves. I think that any dSLR is going to be ripe for theft and the typical drug-addicted thief isn’t going to be so brand-conscious as us. Besides, the logo they put on these models is generic. If someone was so discriminating, they’d notice that it doesn’t have the actual model number emblazoned on the strap like the more expensive models do.

An amusing aside once you do dabble in strap religion. Be aware of the accent colors adopted by manufacturers. They are:

Brand Color
Nikon Gold or Yellow
Canon Red (sometimes White)
Olympus Blue
Sony Orange
Pentax none, possibly White or Silver or Red

I have a strap with red accents for one of my cameras. Whenever I shoot that camera, my friends ask me if I switched to Canon. Not yet! I just use that color to distinguish my infrared body from the others. Be safe and stick to a plain black strap. 😉

Bags are a personal preference that you can’t do without. I can’t seem to find my religion and few do. Because of that, I recommend getting the cheapest bag that you can find. Even better, find a nutcase like me as a friend—I’ve given away three of my old bags that I’ve outgrown. In fact, I’ve given away so many that I ended up buying Marie the Nikon DSLR system case, which had the added bonus of including an instructional DVD. (It also has attractive yellow piping some will say screams “steal me.” Of course, the bag is too small to be used by anyone but a first time dSLR owner so it’s not exactly like the thief is going to be hitting the jackpot on their next visit to the pawn shop.)

I don’t buy the camera-bag-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-camera-bag argument. The only time I’ve had my bag ripped off, it was in an attache that doesn’t look like a laptop bag or a camera bag. Almost all other incidents I’ve heard about cameras being stolen occurred in checked luggage, which never looks like a camera bag. As for the “looks cool” argument, I think anyone with a sense of fashion will tell you that all these camera bags, even the fancy ones, resemble vodka: tasteless, odorless, and colorless. This bag may be an exception—it sure costs like one.

An alternative is to use your favorite bag, buy Sony’s wrapping cloth for transport, and stuff the camera in that bag. I haven’t tried this yet, but they look sort of cool, don’t they? 🙂

Sensor and lens maintenance

All the cameras I’ve mentioned have a dust-shake feature that works. It’s not perfect, but I believe you should avoid any purchases as long as possible before entering the sensor dust removal arms race.

You’ll want something to keep your lens smudge free. The most useful tool will be a Lens Pen. Buy one now and stick it in your bag.

Next is a microfiber cleaning cloth—I prefer the ones with an integrated neoprene pouch. In fact, on Flickr’s 2nd birthday, they were the giveaways. I grabbed a bunch of them (they had the cool Flickr logo) and ended up giving them all away—now I have to buy them just like you. Mine now have the decidedly less-cool Nikon logo. If you work at Flickr and can dig up some of these, I have a million friends (and me) who can give them a home. 😉

The definitive (home) solution is to buy a kit which includes a solution (along with a cleaning cloth, and lint-free paper). Instead, I mix a 50-50 solution of distilled water and isopropyl alchohol in a small spray bottle you can get at a drug store. It’s just as good as the stuff they sell at highway robbery rates—and cleans your monitor and LCDs without ruining the antiglare coating. Just don’t use the tissue paper with lotion embedded in it—mkay?

I’ve already talked about lens hoods if your kit doesn’t come with one. Make sure you have and use one as they improve the image quality of your outdoor photography.

Other unnecessaries

Speaking of quality and lenses, what about filters? There are two recommended “essential” filters for digital photography: UV filters and polarizing filters.

Don’t bother buying a UV filter. The argument for using them on digital is to “protect the lens” from damage. The problem is a great UV filter costs more than the lenses we’re talking about—I know because I own one. The only time I use them is when I lend the lens to someone—it makes them feel safer thinking that if they splat the lens, the shards of UV glass breaking isn’t going to scratch the front element. Haha, joke’s on them! In all my years of shooting and breaking lenses, I’ve never once scratched the front element of my lenses. It’s just never likely to come into contact with anything that can hit it—along with stray light, that’s another thing a lens hood protects against.

What about a polarizer? Like lens hoods, they’re really useful for outdoor photography. But unlike lens hoods, they can get very expensive: you need a glass circular polarizer—and preferably one with high transmittance. My guess is you outgrow your lens before you really find out if you’re passionate about outdoor photography. Buy the polarizer for that lens, not this one.

Lens cap leashes are also almost useless. The problem is that the leashes are attached to the strap or body, but the lens caps are part of the lenses—different lenses need different caps. If you are a guy, do what I do: always store your lens cap in your back left pocket. Pretty soon, you’ll have trained yourself so well you won’t remember where your lens cap is so you check your back left pocket and it’s there! If it isn’t there, odds are it’s in the back left pocket of the pants you put in the hamper. If you’re a girl, I don’t have an answer for you, sorry.

What about a tripod? Simply put, A good one is expensive. And you need a good one. Avoid for now and see how far you can get with the Velbon video tripod your Dad has gathering dust in his closet. I managed to last five years myself. 🙂

What about the superkits that I showed in the memory card section? Let’s examine them:

Nikon D3000/D5000 body + 18-55 f/3.5-5-6G VR lens $450/$690
AF-S DX VR 55-200mm f/4.5-5.5G IF-ED $223
4GB SD card ~$11
DSLR system case and Nikon School DVD (Fast, Fun & Easy) $30
Nikon School DVD (Understanding Digital Photography) $6
Nikon School: Guide Book to Digital SLR Photography $1
Total $720/$961
Actual Costco superkit price $649/$849
Cost savings $70/$110

Given that most of the stuff is on my “purchase anyway” list, this is a very good deal, especially for the D5000. The real question is do you really want the 55-200 VR? If not, you could sell it for $180 or so and still do okay.

I’ve already explained why Costco’s superkit is a unique case. In many cases, instead of this, you have bundles that include a useless UV filter, or a crummy polarizer, or a crummy tripod, or a crummy third party battery, or an extra charger, or God-knows-what—I’ve even seen places try to sell you stuff that are included with the kit (the original battery, original charger, lens and body caps, instruction manual, CD-ROM, camera strap) as add-ons! Run away, run far, far away!

Instructional purchases left to next section

(Article will be finished in part 7)

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