The most "bang" for my photography buck.
December 1, 2009 11:03 AM   Subscribe

What are some upgrades I can purchase for my Canon EOS 40D that will provide me with the most improved images for the least amount of money?

We're expecting a baby this spring and I foresee an increase in the amount of pictures we'll be taking, so I want to make sure we're doing it right.

I don't mind paying for new upgrades (combined, probably up to $1,000). Right now I have only what came with the stock kit (standard body, 28-135mm lens).

Specific recommendations for flashes, lens upgrades, remote controls, etc. would be very much appreciated. For example, I'd assume, for starters, we're going to want a pretty quality portrait lens, right?

posted by siclik to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure you even need to worry about a portrait lens. Frankly, the single biggest problem with taking pictures of kids is that they won't sit nicely still. So grab the 430EX flash and learn how to bounce it. Remote's nice, and cheap ($20) but necessitates a tripod and a nontrivial amount of setup work that gets tricky when you add a squirmy baby.

As for a portrait lens: $80 gets you the 50mm f/1.8, aka the Plastic Fantastic. Image quality's awesome, length is fine for a crop-sensor portrait lens, and it's hard to beat that price.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:12 AM on December 1, 2009

The #1 best thing that improved our photography, especially of our baby, was an external flash unit. It lets us take shots of our quickly-moving baby indoors without that harsh direct flash look by using bounce. It's also good for fill when outdoors. The Canon 430EX II, 580EX II are both excellent. I decided to be a bit 'different' and got a Metz 48 AF-1, which is in between the 430 and 580 in terms of power and features, and is under the 430 in price.
posted by zsazsa at 11:15 AM on December 1, 2009

Get a big CF card or two, and a fast card reader. You will be shooting A LOT. Shoot in RAW.

35mm prime lens and a 50mm prime lens to capture in available light (I have the 35mm F2.0 and the 50mm F1.8). Babies are easy, they don't move around much, but you'll want to capture a lot of moments with soft indoor lighting instead of hard flash light.

Buy some kind of good backup solution - a mirroring RAID like the Netgear Duo for backups. You will want backups, because these pictures can only be taken once.

I also found the Flip to be really nice, I got a lot more use out of it than my HD video camera.
posted by kenliu at 11:15 AM on December 1, 2009

I have trotted this pony out a million times on the Green, but the 50mm 1.4 lens is, in my book, the best value of all of Canon's lenses. The colors it is able to produce are really phenomenal, and the contrast is so punchy your teeth will feel loose. If you're in a major metropolitan area, you can generally pick them up used for cheap. On a crop sensor like that in the 40D, this lens will feel closer to an 80mm lens, which is a bit tight for portraits inside, but it think it's worth the trade offs. At f1.4, it is exceedingly fast for indoor use, which will be great for your little wriggler. There is also a 35mm 2.0 at a reasonable price point, but I've never used it. You might prefer the wider angle (which will feel more like a 50mm lens on your camera). The 50mm will blow your 28-135 out of the water. I'd avoid the 50mm 1.8, which is nice, but pretty junky. The 1.4 could run you about $250 used.

I would also highly recommend getting an off-camera flash to replace the built in flash on the 40D. I'd recommend the 430EX II, which is a fine flash. I have it and it's big brother, the 580EX II, and for the most part, I find them pretty interchangeable (580EX II has more power, is bigger, and has a PC connection).

I also HIGHLY recommend a Black Rapid strap to replace the stock Canon strap. The Black Rapid straps stay slung across your shoulder and connect to your camera with a moving hook--which allows you to leave the camera by your side (slung like a six shooter) and then draw it without any fumbling. The fact that it sits on your shoulder for instant use (rather than your neck) saves a lot of aches.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:16 AM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, the first thing I'd suggest is get some prime lenses. On a crop body like the 40D, great lenses are the 85mm f/2, the 135mm f/2 and make sure you get a 'normal' lens like the 35mm f/2, the 28mm f/1.8 of the like. Primes are just sharper than zooms. You have to move around more, but you'll learn that it makes you think about your composition more.

If you are really sold on a zoom, the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 is great on a crop body and is TACK sharp. The EF 24-105mm f/4L is a great all purpose lens you can get for about a grand too, but it's wide end is still a bit long on a crop body. It's a huge improvement in image quality over the 28-135.

If you are shooting primarily indoors, you can't go wrong with a speedlite. I'd only ever consider the 430EX II or the 580EX II since the 270 doesn't have manual controls. They are useful outdoors too, but only as a fill light reall.

Get a tripod for shooting landscapes, I like the Manfrotto 055 legs, but if you have the scratch, Carbon Fibre legs are great and very lightweight. The 055 is a bit heavy, but rock steady.

Wired or wireless remote shutter releases are great, especially if you are shooting long exposures from a tripod, like night shots, or light trails.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 11:17 AM on December 1, 2009

I'll second an external flash, 35mm, 50mm lens and add a subscription to Flickr and at least one external hard drive (a friend lost several months worth of baby pics!).
posted by starman at 11:19 AM on December 1, 2009

I can't argue with anything suggested above. But one of my favorite toys so far has been a battery grip with the extra set of controls. Great for flipping the camera and getting portrait orientation shots without having to fumble around for the shutter button. And you get to put in two batteries instead of one, plus AAs if you're in a pinch (and get one that comes with that battery holder too).

Also, something nice and wide. I have the Tokina 12-24 for my 350D and love it. No more worrying about things leaving my shot.
posted by theichibun at 11:33 AM on December 1, 2009

Nthing the 50mm f1.8, as long as you get a good copy, you'll be happy as a clam. It should be noted that I had to pick from 6 different versions to find the sharpest one of the bunch, so be careful when ordering online.

Also the external flash and a method of firing it. Take a look at the strobist phenomenon over at, a lot of really good info there on how to light. It can get a bit overwhelming, but try and stick to the 101 content for now and be active in the flickr group.

Used lens, which someone already pointed out, are a hugely good deal. is a very reputable dealer in second hand gear, and they're "bargain" lenses are usually in way better shape than you think. A good 24-70mm f2.8L will do you for years to come, long after you replace the camera body. Always always always spend the money on good glass, and a fancy shmancy camera body second.
posted by felspar at 11:39 AM on December 1, 2009

nthing felspar.

Good glass is where your money should go.
The 24-70L is excellent. The 17-40L or the 70-200/4L are also great choices depending on the distances you shoot from.

Also, if you have Photoshop, onOne's Phototools Pro 2 is hands down the best "swiss-knife" plugin for PS. If you buy just one plugin for PS it should be that one.
posted by damiano99 at 12:01 PM on December 1, 2009

1. Get a 50mm. It'll be your portrait lens. I definitely recommend springing for the 50mm 1.4 over the 1.8. The focus speed on the 1.8 is slow enough that you'll miss some moments as the tyke starts moving around more.

2. Seconding an external drive, or whatever it takes to backup your photos. Flickr works well, too, since they'll keep full-res versions of all the images you upload.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:06 PM on December 1, 2009

Nthing the 50mm f/1.8, aka the Plastic Fantastic that Tomorrowful mentioned, although the 1.4 might be worth the price difference.
posted by Brainy at 1:06 PM on December 1, 2009

50mm f/1.8 for the win.
posted by bshort at 1:19 PM on December 1, 2009

skip the tripod, skip the remote. In general you don't take good photographs unless the camera is in your hands. Particularly if a child is your subject.

50mm 1.8 is an ok lens, and it's cheap. 50mm 1.4 is a much better lens but much more expensive. Either one will work.

35mm F2 lens is super totally awesome, small and cheap. You need to get that lens.

As far as "portrait lens" goes...that is only meaningful for a certain kind of portrait...formal, a little emotionally distant. They tend to be longer lenses, which means you are further away from your subject, which means that you are removed from them emotionally to some degree.

You'll find most of the great informal portraitists, and great photographers, used lenses 50mm and wider for the most part. Cartier-Bresson in particular.

A 580ex flash will be good for freezing motion. But you do need to do some learning on how to use it. Simple fact: pointing it at your subject=bad pictures. Pointing it behind you towards a white wall, with a fast shutter speed may equal really good pictures. So you need to learn how to bounce flash.

I think the most important thing you can buy is a couple of good photography books by great photographers...particularly ones that use small cameras. Because the camera and lens you have is more than capable of taking amazing pictures in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing. Off the top of my head I'd recomend any Cartier-Bresson book and Danny Lyon's Bikeriders as amazing books to sink your eyes into.

The technical aspects of photography are easy to grasp...the emotional and artistic aspects are much more magical.

Good luck!
posted by sully75 at 2:11 PM on December 1, 2009

One thing I'll say and sound like a super snob: yes, you can learn a ton from Strobist about lighting. And yes, Flickr is good for seeing the kind of pictures people like you are taking. BUT there is a ton (the vast majority) of mediocre pictures on flickr, and there is (to me) very little emotional content on Neither of these sites really celebrate the great tradition that photography is. There is a lot of navel gazing and people checking out other people's beginning photographs. A lot of cliches. That's fine, but I don't know...I'm against cliches. So looking at some, I hate to say it, art, is pretty helpful and I think life affirming.
posted by sully75 at 2:20 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Me too-ism: Just popped back in to the thread to concur with Sully75 (with whom I often agree), and to offer a clarification. Sully recommends (as I do) the 50mm f1.4 over the f1.8--the f1.4 really is a much better lens, and I think you will have cash to spare from your $1,000 budget. But on your crop sensor, the 50mm will "feel like" 80mm--which is the traditional longer throw portrait lens he warns about giving too much emotional distance. The 35mm f2.0 will feel more like Bresson's 50mm on your cropped sensor, so if you take his advice to heart about focal length, you'll want to get the 35mm, not the 50mm.

And I agree that Strobist is full of (mostly) guys who think that the greatest achievement in photography is just an evenly lit photo. For more on Sully's behind-the-back flash use (which is what I do, too), check out Planet Neil.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:08 AM on December 2, 2009

If you want bang for your buck, pick up a 5-in-1 Reflector. Use sunlight from a window as your key light and the reflector as the fill and you've lighted your kids face perfectly. Plus the reflector will make a nice shiny, springy toy for your baby to drool over.
posted by afu at 7:44 AM on December 2, 2009

But on your crop sensor, the 50mm will "feel like" 80mm--which is the traditional longer throw portrait lens he warns about giving too much emotional distance. The 35mm f2.0 will feel more like Bresson's 50mm on your cropped sensor, so if you take his advice to heart about focal length, you'll want to get the 35mm, not the 50mm.

I'm going to have to disagree, for shooting kids I like a long lens, 150 - 200mm is what i usually try to use, and it looks like Planet Neil does too.

But what it comes down to is personal preference. I prefer to shoot candids of kids, a long lens is fun. But sometimes it is great to get down on the floor with something wide and get in their faces.
posted by afu at 8:12 AM on December 2, 2009

I'll be the contrarian and say you don't need to buy anything. Buying equipment is just Progress Quest for photographers.

You just need to spend some time learning about light and composition and your equipment. Get your technique with the camera to be second nature, so you don't have to think about settings or anything, and you'll progress a lot further and faster than buying anything here. Here's my attempt at demystifying camera settings: especially pay attention to the last paragraph. It's easy.

Also, I'd advise against get a new fixed focal length lens. Your zoom lens covers all the useful focal lengths and it's a lot easier just zooming than carrying around another lens and changing it when the mood fits. In fact, I've had pictures published in big newspapers and magazines taken with a cheapo zoom lens with a crack in the side. I know someone who won a major award with pictures taken with a giant crack in the middle of the front glass of her lens. Equipment doesn't really matter once you've got the basics covered, which you do.

Instead, the best way to improve your ability is to go out and take pictures. Don't buy anything, but spend time taking candid pictures of people in all sorts of situations. Comfort with the camera and comfort with your camera with people are the only things that will really improve your photography.
posted by msbrauer at 5:35 PM on December 2, 2009

« Older I never planned on anyone but me looking at my...   |   What is a better gift for my recently laid-off... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.