Moving to the next level of DSLR - recommendations?
May 15, 2012 10:17 AM   Subscribe

Six months ago, I posted about learning to take pictures of my three-month-old baby. I got some great advice and have left auto mode behind (for the most part). However, I think it might be time to move on from my trusty D40 and would love some recommendations. Or am I jumping the gun too quickly?

My tastes run to natural light photography; we're generally indoors, often with low light. My current frustration is the quality of the D40's shots at higher ISOs. I see a degradation in quality going from 200 to 400, and it gets very noticeable going up to 800. Now that my little guy is crawling, even shooting wide open often doesn't let me set the shutter speed high enough to avoid blur. Here is what I'm looking for:

- I would like to stay with Nikon. Several people in my original thread recommended getting a prime lens. I picked up a 35mm f/1.8G, and holy crap, I love my lens. My lens is a Nikkor, and while I know there are adapters available, I'd rather stick with a Nikon if at all possible.

- Great at higher ISOs.

- Fast auto focus. I think more focal points would be great (the D40 has 3) but I know there will be plenty of situations where I might not have time to mess with it.

- I'd like something where I can pick it up and not spend forever trying to locate functions and settings. I wish I had more time to practice than I do. However, my time with my little guy is limited (work full time and he's in bed about an hour after we get home). I know there will be plenty to learn about any new piece of equipment, but I would like to hit the ground running as much as possible.

One more question - am I even correct that upgrading my camera would help? Or am I just a)running into a common limitation of low light photography and/or b)hitting a steeper part of the learning curve? Or all of the above?

You've already helped me come so far. Thanks in advance for any additional help!
posted by CrazyGabby to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The D40 is from 2006, and camera technology has made incredible achievements since then.

By way of comparison, I had a 2005 Canon 350D, which got unacceptably grainy at 800 iso. I now shoot with a brand new 5d Mark III, which is pretty good at ISO 25,600. That's five stops of exposure--meaning (roughly), that I can shoot at the same f-stop and shutter speed with at 3% of the same light I needed to shoot at ISO 800 with the 350D. People are getting acceptable images at ISOs in the range of 50,000 and 100,000--not ideal, but if you're trying to document the existence of the Yeti or something, I'm sure it's fine.

If you want to stay with Nikon, just pick a body at the price point you like. They're all great. Modern digital cameras are amazing marvels.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:28 AM on May 15, 2012

Light is always the joy and bane of photographers. You're always going to want more light, and the hardware or film just can't do much more without it. You're going to get incremental improvements with exponential cost from here on out when buying new sensors/cameras.

I'd invest in a good flash that you can put off-camera and fake the look of natural light, and a reflector with which you can go grab more natural light. Stick with the camera you have, for the best bang for the buck.
posted by cmiller at 10:28 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The D40 is a great camera, and in my opinion, what you are describing is the need for a better lighting setup rather than a new camera. Were I faced with the same challenges, I would consider upgrading to a great flash; you can get some excellent images with a good external setup and a diffuser, without losing the natural light look.
posted by ellF at 10:29 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, I'd invest in a good external flash first, and learn all of the cool things you can do with that in terms of bouncing light off of walls and ceilings, and with diffusers and reflectors. That way, you're learning another aspect of photography that'll fill in your skills, AND when you're really ready to upgrade your camera, you'll already have another piece of equipment that you know how to use that can supplement the new gear.
posted by scarykarrey at 10:33 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went from a D40x to a D7000 last year, and the difference in ISO performance is stunning, similar to Admiral Haddock's experience with his Canon cameras. It's important for me personally as I travel a lot and travel light, and the D700 allows me to stay off a tripod from dawn til dusk. So it's either upgrade or go the flash route as others have noted. Learning how to use artificial light is a great skill to have either way.
posted by MillMan at 10:42 AM on May 15, 2012

I agree with those who suggest you learn how to use an external flash with a bounce card, diffusers, and reflectors, and then start learning how to use external flash off-camera. It would be much, much cheaper than upgrading to a new camera.

Do not discount flash because you prefer natural light photography. Natural light is wonderful, but you can get much better results when you learn to mimic natural light with off-camera flash, reflectors, and bounce cards. Plus, these skills will transfer when you do have a reason to upgrade to a new camera.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:19 AM on May 15, 2012

Admiral Haddock is right: a newer camera will have a newer sensor that does better in lower light. Any current Nikon DSLR will be an improvement, even the D3200 (if higher-end models intimidate you with their features and fiddliness).
posted by mcwetboy at 11:42 AM on May 15, 2012

in addition to most of what is said above, my suggestion would be to explore the option of getting a new-ish camera body for a weekend rental. this works out in most cases to well under $100 - take pictures with that and some good lenses and you`ll be able to decide if what you are missing is in the camera body or glass (or both) or if learning more about lighting is the key to what you are looking for.

Either way, its addictive, your photography will only improve. Have fun !
posted by cusecase at 11:47 AM on May 15, 2012

I wouldn't want to be firing a studio flash into the baby's eyes all day - fuck flash. Get a Nikon body with a full frame sensor if you can afford it, maybe second hand. Get more primes. Next time, avoid the ones with "G" in the name though.
posted by w0mbat at 11:48 AM on May 15, 2012

w0mbat: Avoiding direct flash is why we're suggesting diffusers and bounce cards.
posted by ellF at 11:51 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Natural light photos can look great when the light level is adequate, and when the quality of that light is good.

The world abounds with crappy available light photos which were taken that way simply because there was enough light, despite the fact that the light was lousy.

Pick up a (used, discontinued) Nikon SB-600, SB-700, (used, discontinued) SB-800, or SB-900 speedlight and learn to use it bounced off of ceilings, walls, sheets, newspapers, or whatever, and you'll open up a whole new world.

Even when used in the camera's hot shoe, doing this will enable you to shoot flash pictures with lower ISO's, less noise, more depth of field, and cleaner color.

After you've become thoroughly familiar with this kind of photography, you may still eventually want a newer camera, but the flash will still serve you well.

I have three SB-800's and an SB-600 which I've used hard, for ages, and for many thousands of pictures. They last a long time if you don't abuse them.
posted by imjustsaying at 5:21 AM on May 16, 2012

I said "studio flash", which is almost never used direct. Generally it's bounced off an umbrella or, better, through a softbox. Softbox light is basically diffuse daylight in a box, and far nicer than any lighting you will get bouncing on-camera flash off random objects like an amateur, but I wouldn't want to use even that on a daily basis in my own house on my baby, because the flashes are still flashes which kids don't like, and the bulky equipment would get in the way.

Hang out with a large window at your back with daylight streaming through it. White net curtains on the window are good. This is what softbox light is imitating, and it's free.
posted by w0mbat at 5:40 PM on May 16, 2012

w0mbat: Talking about studio flashes, softboxes, and full-frame cameras is massively overwhelming overkill in CrazyGabby's circumstances. I've seen too many people give professional-grade advice to beginner photographers. There's an awful lot of distance between a D40 user with a single prime lens and a studio photographer with tens of thousands of dollars in equipment. This is a parent taking baby pictures here.
posted by mcwetboy at 8:23 AM on May 17, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I'd like to learn more external flashes and lighting setups at some point. For now, though, part of what I want to be able to do is follow him around with my camera and not worry about getting him positioned under a lighting setup. I have some great shots I took in front of windows before he was mobile, but now he rarely wants to stay in one place for them (the good windows in our house aren't really in areas where it's easy for him to play). Although I have at tortured him with the camera enough that now when I pull it out and call to him, he starts hamming it up.

This is probably a dumb question, but is there such a thing as a "mobile" softbox I could attach to one of the flashes that was mentioned?
posted by CrazyGabby at 11:24 AM on May 17, 2012

You can buy tiny softboxes like this one to use with a camera mounted speedlight, but the downsides are that they really aren't big enough to provide what most would consider "softbox" lighting, and that you're still blasting the subject with frontal lighting.

I still stand by my suggestions in my earlier comment.

Also w0mbat, for what it's worth, in my 36 years of full time, professional photography, I've shot a few hundred thousand photos for clients by "bouncing on-camera flash off random objects like an amateur".

There are times when a full studio lighting setup are the way to go, but for day to day, spontaneous of my children I've always kept a body with a short, fast zoom and a camera mounted flash at hand.

I'll take capturing a great moment with reasonably decent lighting over missing the moment with perfect lighting any time.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:55 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, much of the lighting that we're talking about here is fully mobile. Of course I know that it is hard to keep a baby in one place, and natural light doesn't follow him everywhere.
You may be used to thinking that flash either looks poor (when it's just the on-camera flash creating frontal light with hard shadows) or great (when it's studio lighting) but there are many in-betweens. I bet money that most of your favorite inspirational "natural light" baby/child photos were taken with a flash unit mounted on-camera with a diffuser or bounce card creating a great natural-looking light.

I recommend you start with an external flash (speedlight) mounted on your camera and a diffuser of some kind. Yes, you can get softboxes, mini umbrellas, and all kinds of different diffusers. However, I suggest you get this one, as it is both cheap and extremely versatile: Better Bounce Card. Most diffusers are far more expensive than this, and if you don't know what you want yet, this one is a great introduction while creating light that will satisfy many pros. I am still using mine years later because I am always pleased with the results.

You can get this one to use with almost any speedlight (I prefer my old SB-800). You can see that you point the flash towards the ceiling (or a wall, or wherever else) with this attached to the top, and the light bounces onto your baby from that direction. But you also have the light bouncing off the card mounted on the back of the flash, which will bounce a little light into the areas which will naturally be dark, like eye sockets and under the chin. It's a small thing, but makes a huge difference. The card is very bendy, and you can fold it down behind the flash so that only a little bit of white is visible, and this is the way I prefer to use it: most of the light is bounced to create a natural light effect without shadows, but just enough bounces to fill the face and eyes to create a little sparkle. You can bend it so more of the white card is available, or less, and you can play with your camera settings to lighten or darken the background as you like. It's a wonderful learning tool with great professional results, and it's completely and totally mobile.

An off-camera lighting set-up can also be mobile, and this is the next step for a learning photographer. You can take this step when your baby starts to crawl around. Using remotes, you can set your flash up on one side of the room and then you can take pictures without flash attached as your baby crawls around and plays. The flash can be positioned to bounce off the ceiling or with a diffuser or any number of ways, but the effect on your photos will change as your baby moves and you move around the baby and the flash stays stable. You will learn much about how the light looks in different positions from working like this, and it will create extremely interesting but natural-looking lighting while teaching you how to use your camera better even in great natural light settings.

You can also buy a new camera, definitely. However, at some point, every photographer has to learn how to create good natural-looking light, as it is what separates the amateur from the intermediate photographer. I remember being convinced that I only wanted to use natural light until exactly the moment that I learned to make a flash work for me. I went from being able to make pictures in certain conditions to being able to make pictures in (almost) any conditions. Flash is an essential tool for the photographer no matter how nice your camera is, how high its ISO can go, how big its sensor is (and how wonderful your noise-reduction software is, as well). Learning to use it now will make it even easier for you to follow around your way-more-mobile toddler in a year or so.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:33 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Pregnant; send help.   |   Quirky Travel Journal Questions Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.