Lens, or Flash?
January 5, 2010 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Should I buy a new lens, or an external flash?

I'm a bit of a DSLR neophyte, just switching over from point-and-shoots in the last year. Aside from some small accessories - tripod, wireless remote - I've not really branched out besides what came in the box (Nikon D60). I've got a few gift cards burning a hole in my pocket, and was curious if I should put them toward a lens or an external flash.

I've been spending a lot of time taking photos of my infant son, but also like doing landscapes/cityscapes when we travel.

So, which would be a better investment for a rookie like myself? Flash or lens?
posted by po822000 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A lens would probably give you benefits in both areas (pictures of your son and landscapes) whereas a flash would only be helpful for pictures of people and things like macro photography.

Anecdotally, I love my Nikon SB600 flash.

A lot of people will probably recommend the Nikon 50mm (or "nifty fifty" as it's sometimes known) but that lens will not autofocus on your D60. About a year ago, Nikon released a 35mm prime (or fixed-zoom) lens that will autofocus on your D60. I'd probably recommend that in terms of lenses.
posted by DMan at 1:30 PM on January 5, 2010

A flash might be better for taking pics of your son (indoors). Bouncing it off the wall/ceiling will make for way nicer pics. Do you have an option of renting one to check 'em out?
posted by aeighty at 1:32 PM on January 5, 2010

Response by poster: DMan -

I'm probably belying my utter lack of knowledge here, but why would you go with a prime lens?
posted by po822000 at 1:38 PM on January 5, 2010

The prime is fast and sharp for a decent price. I don't know about Nikon's 50mm AF issues but I have the Canon 50mm 1.8 and it's great, pretty much all I use (also a neophyte).
posted by ghharr at 1:45 PM on January 5, 2010

why would you go with a prime lens?

They just take better pictures. The basic reason (and I am not going to be able explain this well) is that they are "faster." They especially do well in low light. Just buy one and take pictures- you'll see the difference.

I have the "nifty fifty" and love it. I have never seen manual focus as a big deal. I turn the ring, I look at the screen, I get the focus I want. Sure I screw up once in a while but it's digital, who cares? And actually if you're going to be taking pictures of your infant son, good luck getting him to hold the position you autofocus on anyway. My experience with my D90 is that it whirrs around trying to autofocus FOREVER, so if the thing I'm trying to focus on moves at all, it will have moved by the time the lens is done. (unless I'm somehow doing it wrong).
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:46 PM on January 5, 2010

another option if you are just starting out and want a single lens is to get one with multiple focal lengths. This will open up your options while keeping your costs down. My favorite lens is a 28-135mm IS. It works very well and almost always meets my needs.
posted by birdlips at 1:46 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you do get a cheap flash, make sure you get one where the head rotates. You will definitely want to adjust it to bounce off walls/ceilings/etc. Unbelievably, some people make ones where it always just points straight ahead.

I forget the brand, but I got a cheap one on Amazon for like $70 that is fully adjustable. It's not pro-quality gear by any stretch, but it works for me.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:49 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

A flash is one of those things you should learn to use only after you've learned to take pictures without it--it can easily be a crutch to dealing with varying light conditions. Go with the lens, especially a short prime lens with an effective focal length approximating the human eye, which is ~50mm. Since the D60 multiplies the actual focal length of its lenses by 1.5, you should look for a lens around 30mm. I don't know Nikon lenses, but Sigma makes excellent prime lenses for the Nikon and they're usually quite noticeably cheaper.

By matching the focal length to the human eye, you'll get better correspondence between what you actually see and what you capture. By using a prime you'll have a wider range of (flashless) light conditions that are usable to you, and you'll think more about framing the shot, rather than just zooming in to catch the whole subject and not much else. After shooting with it for a while, you'll understand photography better, and at that point will know better when to use a flash (not often).
posted by fatbird at 2:01 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some observations:

1) The kit lens on consumer SLRs is generally pretty bad. Sometimes better lenses get packaged, but ordinarily the elements are commonly made of the very cheapest glass. If you are looking to buy your first upgrade lens, really any lens will likely be an improvement. Something in the 28-135 range is likely relatively cheap, and probably better than what you've got. You may be amazed about the increased color and contrast in your pictures; lenses really do make all the difference in the world.

2) A nifty fifty is a great idea. I don't know Nikon at all, but I would avoid any lens that does autofocus on your camera body. Also, keep in mind that the D60 has a 1.5 crop sensor, so that 50mm lens will "feel like" 75mm on your camera. That's pretty tight for a lot of indoor shooting (but you may like it, so try it out). A 35mm lens on your body would "feel like" 50mm, and so it might be a better choice. Be aware that there are often a couple of versions of the same focal length lens. Canon, for instance, makes its 50mm in 1.2 ($1200), 1.4 (say, $400) and 1.8 (say, $100) apertures. I think the 1.8 is junk, and the 1.4 is simply divine. I don't think the 1.2 is worth the extra money. Fredmiranda.com is a great place to research lenses.

3) I have spent a LOT of money in fast lenses this past year. I don't regret it, but I have to say that I got the most bang for my buck with my flashes. If you want to learn how to control light and get really amazing shots with modest effort, I would say get a flash, look at the various proponents of flashery (Off camera flash: strobist, on camera flash, Neil van Niekirk etc.). If you just want to shoot pictures and not think about it (which is 100% totally OK, and you can get great shots), get a fast lens.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:03 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the 1.8 is junk

Actually, the Canon 50mm 1.8 for $100 is a hidden gem. It feels cheap, but it's got amazing optics for the price. A lot of the photographers on photo.net swear they keep two around for point-and-shoot action, and they don't care if they smash it because it's so cheap to replace, comparatively.
posted by fatbird at 2:11 PM on January 5, 2010

I have the Canon 50mm 1.8 and like it (for my purposes, it's the right combination of features and price). I also have an external camera-mounted flash. The external flash is great for indoor shots. I bought that first, and the 50mm lens second. I don't think you can go wrong either way, really, especially if the flash and lens you are looking at are about the same price. Pick one, get the other later.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:26 PM on January 5, 2010

I do realize that some people like it; that's why I said "I think." And if one is keeping two $100 lenses around in case one breaks, you may as well have purchased the 1.4 used off Craigslist (I think I paid $250 for mine). In the end (or at the beginning!) it's not really relevant, as the OP is using a Nikon.

So, in any event, OP, you can see reasonable minds may differ about a lot of this stuff, and it comes down to personal preferences. See if you can try lenses and flashes out before you buy. You might try to attend a local camera club on Flickr or meetup.com and see if someone is willing to let you shoot for a little bit with their lenses or show you how their flash works. Another great resource is pbase.com and pixel peeper, which allow you to search photos by camera or lens to see what images look good to you.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:33 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get a flash. It sounds like you want to do two things, which is fine, but only one of them is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Photos of your child will mean more to you so get the flash and learn to take better pictures of your kid. Landscapes are fun but the landscapes aren't about to disappear while your son grows up.
posted by chairface at 2:34 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree that the Nikkor (Nikon) 50mm f/1.8 lens is pretty awesome and you will be very happy with it. It is much better than the kit lens and only costs about $100.

But get the flash, because kids move fast and not even the 50mm will be fast enough when it's dark inside or outside, even with a fast ISO. And practice using the flash with a bounce card (especially A Better Bounce Card) because then the light in your pictures will look natural and your child will look normal.

And join Flickr! You can learn so much on Flickr.
posted by aabbbiee at 2:48 PM on January 5, 2010

Best answer: People like prime lenses because they are cheap, and work well in low light (relative to the cost). Unfortunately, most cheap prime lenses won't focus on the D60 (or D40) because, to save cost & weight, those cameras don't have built in autofocus motors. You'll probably want to get newer AF-S lenses with motors built in. The Nikon Nikkor 35 mm - F/1.8 lens is the recently-released "prime" lens that is made to work with your camera. It will run you at least $200. Getting that will enable you to take better low-light pictures, but you won't be able to zoom.

The SB-400 flash will cost you about $100. Being able to flip the flash up and bounce light off the ceiling makes a huge difference in the quality of flash pictures. And having a separate battery for the flash is good, too, so you can do things like use it to light up people faces outdoors without worrying about wearing down your camera battery. I don't have a prime lens yet, so I can't comment on that, but I think the flash is well worth the money.
posted by designbot at 2:55 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

An excellent resource for getting started is kenrockwell.com. Here's what he has to say about the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 lens, the SB-400 flash (both recommended), and the D60. He also has a D40 User's Guide which should mostly apply to your camera as well.
posted by designbot at 3:03 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get a lens. I assume you have the 18-55mm lens that came with the camera. Does it say VR on the lens? The Nikon Vibration Reduction lenses (Canon terminology is IS for Image Stability) make quite a difference. I have recently done a ton of research, including reading all the reviews (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc.) and shooting both VR and non VR lenses and blowing them up to max on my computer. I have just bought the Nikon D5000 with the 18-105 VR lens. This lens will cover just about every hand-held situation I want, from scenery to portraits. I don't use a flash much--I prefer the quality of natural light. If you don't want to sell/trade the 18-55 lens, then get the Nikon 55-200mm VR lens to complement it and give you more range for portraits, scenery, etc. It will capture that boat and seagull reflected in the lake with minimum wasted background, and also catch your son playing from a bit of a distance, resulting in more natural photos.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:48 PM on January 5, 2010

I would also recommend the AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 and the SB-400 as good starting points. A good fast prime lens does wonders in low light for not very much money (I have three of them): being able to shoot at f/2.8 or less rather than f/3.5-4.5, max, lets in a lot more light and makes for better low-light photography. (And you get primes because they're cheaper than zooms: the 35mm f/1.8 is $200; the 17-55mm f/2.8 is, like, five times as much.) An external flash that can be turned upwards for "bounce" flash makes a world of difference over the pop-up flash. (And there are cases when the light is dim enough that I need both a fast prime and a flash -- and even then I'm shooting ISO 3200 at f/1.4 ... )

I might even suggest the AF 50mm f/1.8 (the aforementioned "nifty fifty"): even though it doesn't autofocus on the D60, you can get some strikingly good shots using manual focus; I certainly did when I used a D40. It's cheap, anyway; the AF-S 50mm f/1.4 will autofocus on a D60 but is much more expensive.

Other possibilities: the 55-200mm VR lens is a good, cheap telephoto lens, if you're looking for something more telephoto-y than your 18-55mm kit lens. The VR is a nice touch at telephoto focal lengths. Since one drawback of the SB-400 is that it doesn't rotate (making bounce flash impossible when you turn your camera 90 degrees to shoot in portrait mode), you might also consider an SB-600, which is a lot larger (it looks ridiculous perched atop a small D40/D60-sized camera), more expensive and more complicated, but can point in more directions.

Look into flash diffusers as well.

(Seriously, Canon users, if you don't know your Nikon gear, a discussion of Canon gear isn't helpful at all for a Nikon D60 user. Also, the kit lens for a D60 is actually not that bad.)
posted by mcwetboy at 4:01 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are things you cannot do with image-stabilized lenses that you can do with a good prime lens, which usually also has the added benefits of being smaller, lighter, cheaper, and better quality - added on top of "free" macro capability a lot of the time. These things include having larger amounts of background blur ("bokeh"), as well as action capture.

Stick with primes. Flashes can and will come much later if you stick with a good wide (20mm for ~1.6X crop + 100mm if you're a portrait or sports shooter). Cropping is cheap and easy with the huge digital sensors we take for granted today, and FOV really only matters once in awhile, like portraits. This is the only thing I've learned after 15+ years of shooting just about every type of film and digital: primes, primes, primes.
posted by kcm at 4:19 PM on January 5, 2010

I have shot Nikon primes for more than forty years, kcm. I have a dozen. They're great if you want to change lenses constantly and/or move closer or farther from the subject, all the while hoping it doesn't move or change. Digital photography has changed the way I take pictures. I now look for that small subject or moment that I would have either overlooked or not considered worthy when shooting film. I shoot much more spontaneously. I don't use a tripod as much. I zoom, re-frame, and bracket exposures constantly, because I can pick the best ones and delete the others without expense. My best picture with the D5000 was taken yesterday. It is of a school bus with a couple of kids standing outside in the snow, shot through my rain-soaked car window as I was waiting for my daughter. It is an exquisite, soft, pastel semi-abstract, perfectly framed and exposed without cropping or retouching. A totally unexpected, lucky shot. I would not have considered shooting it with film. I couldn't have framed it with a prime unless the kids and bus waited while I changed lenses.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:53 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I've had to "adjust" to taking pictures when I knew I'd be cropping after switching exclusively to primes. Yes, it's not 100% the same, and there are times it won't work whatsoever (again: macros, portraits, high DOF, etc.) - but like anything else in photography, the best lens/tripod/flash is the one you use.. so pick something and get out there. :)
posted by kcm at 5:00 PM on January 5, 2010

If you like the zoominess of your lens but want an upgrade, the Tamron 17-50 2.8 is great value for money.

If you've got the time to invest in practising technique, a flash would be a great investment. If you do get one, a stand and umbrella would be a good next purchase, but that's one step further. I would, however, recommend an off-camera TTL cable. The Nikon-branded one is probably quite expensive, but you can probably find a good third-party one around.
posted by Magnakai at 5:16 PM on January 5, 2010

I would suggest the Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm 1.8 for the reasons suggested above. The D60 has an adequate built-in flash. Though it probably is in the middle of your kit 18-55 mm zoom, it is much sharper and because it is AF-S, it will autofocus on your body. Since you're taking photos of your kid and want to do landscape/cityscapes, you'll want something relatively wide and sharp. (One of the problems with crop-sensor cameras is that there aren't a lot of options for very wide, except for rather pricey lenses. ) Also, the very wide 1.8 aperture allow for beautifully creamy out of focus backgrounds.

I have the D60 and the first lens I picked up was a Tamron 70-300, because I shoot some wildlife. I then got the Nikkor 35mm, which I use often when I'm in low-light or want the best quality photos of my kids. Amazing value for the price.
posted by Hali at 5:16 PM on January 5, 2010

N'thing the nifty fifty. I picked one up for my new Nikon just a few weeks ago and have been blown away by some of the portraits I've taken of the kids. For the price (I paid $129 in a mall camera store because I was impatient as hell), it's tough to beat value-wise.
posted by jquinby at 5:42 PM on January 5, 2010

The nifty-fifty everyone is going on about is great and all, but for taking pictures indoors you really can't beat a flash you can bounce or diffuse. And for outdoor landscape shots, a 50mm lens on a crop body isn't going to help you much at all. (And really, if you put the kit lens on a tripod and stop it down to f/8 it's going to be plenty sharp.) So I'd buy a flash. (Though really, you should probably buy a flash and a 50mm lens, since they are cheap and nice.)
posted by chunking express at 11:33 AM on January 6, 2010

And I suggest the 50mm as opposed to the 35mm since you want to take pictures of your son, and the fact the 50mm ends up a medium-telephoto on your camera will come in handy in this regard. The 35mm prime is probably much more versatile. I use a 28mm lens on my Canon as my everyday lens.
posted by chunking express at 11:38 AM on January 6, 2010

So, er, to reiterate: The 50 mm f/1.8 nikkor will not autofocus on Nikon body that do not have internal motors, such as the D60.

I suck at manon focusing (I learned this with my father's old Canon AE-1 from 1980 and a then-current 50 mm f/1.8). When I bought my Canon Rebel XS, the Nikkor 35 mm f/1.8 was announced, but anavailable. I wanted to go SLR now, so I went Canon with their 50 mm f/1.8 (which autofocuses on any Canon body).

I'd go for the 35 mm lens first. Your son might not like having a flash shone upon him, even if you bounce it on the ceiling.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:06 PM on January 6, 2010

I meant manual focusing. dammit.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:08 PM on January 6, 2010

Response by poster: I went with the Nikon AF-S DX 35mm 1.8. Should be here in a day or two, and will get to work with it shortly. Thanks for the feedback!
posted by po822000 at 12:58 PM on January 18, 2010

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