Help me take pictures of women in their underwear!
November 27, 2007 3:24 PM   Subscribe

What's the best, cheapest camera I can buy for catwalk photography?

I'm a lingerie blogger who often attends trade shows where catwalks showcase the next season's collection. I'm not a photographer but have a Fuji Finepix S 5600 that I use for the shows, which isn't cutting it. I need to get something better suited to catwalk photography, but don't want to spend the earth. I'm hoping to find a reasonably priced camera that can handle these things very well:

1) Very short delay between photographs -- some models don't even bother stopping at the end of the catwalk to pose (haven't they watched Top Model?) so getting a few shots in is essential to get a good picture. With my current camera you have to take a photo, wait 3 seconds, and by then she's gone.

2) Works with catwalk lighting -- this one might be my own ignorance at how to handle my Fuji, but my dream camera would be able to cope with the harsh catwalk lights without washing out the models. I'm not sure if this means a powerful flash or a setting on the camera?

3) Magazine-quality image size -- I sometimes freelance and it would be great if i could send in my photos for magazines to use. My 5MP at full-size doesn't quite cut it

4) Brilliant image stabilization -- my number one problem right now is fuzzy pictures - i've played around with settings on my curent camera to correct for this, but i'd love to have a camera that can just cope with taking clear shots of moving people.

I'm hoping for something under £500 if possible - i'm also happy to buy from the US. If you think my current camera is up to scratch and I'm just not using it properly, i'd love to hear that too. Thanks in advance and I welcome any advice!
posted by ukdanae to Shopping (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
About the 4th: are you using a tripod?
posted by DMan at 3:33 PM on November 27, 2007

Response by poster: Hi DMan - sorry I forgot to mention! I do use one but it's kind of a nightmare to get one schlepped out there (I usually have to go to a party before/after) and fight with the other photographers to get it set up. I was hoping to have something that didn't need one in most situations.
posted by ukdanae at 3:35 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: I think a digital SLR would work well for this situation. Your budget comes out to about $1000 USD, so here's what I'd suggest:

Buy a used Canon 350D - these can be had for less than $500USD. For lens(es), I'd go with a 50mm f1.8 or (depending on how far away you are from the models) a third party 18-50is f2.8 lens. That should give you plenty of shutter speed and eliminate the fuzzy pictures.

Good luck!
posted by entropic at 3:43 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: Nikon D40. It comes with a short zoom, but add this 55-200 zoom to get in close. Total, about $750 US.
posted by The Deej at 3:48 PM on November 27, 2007

Oh, and you can kick the ISO up to 800 or even 1600 on a digital SLR and still have very low noise. Great for available light.
posted by The Deej at 3:49 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: A DSLR, either a Nikon or a Canon, would let you shoot in RAW format, and then you can output to any size image for sending to magazines.

And with moving subjects, the best kind of stabilization is a tripod or monopod. It will need to be strong enough to hold your camera and whatever lens you may want to use, but compact enough to fold into a large bag. However, if you are regularly washing the models out because of the bright lights, then your shutter speed is too long and will be adding to the blurriness of the photos (long shutter speed + wobbly arms + blurry shots).
posted by rhapsodie at 3:56 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: If you are getting blurred images because the people are moving, then image stabilization isn't going to help you, it only helps with blur due to camera motion, which a tripod should be helping with anyway.

It sounds like you need something that will let you use a higher shutter speed under ambient lighting conditions. That means you need a camera with a "fast" lens that can capture a lot of light, and that can take decent pictures at higher ISO settings (probably in the 800-1600 range) without a lot of image noise or loss of detail due to noise reduction.

It also sounds like you need a camera with good light metering to help deal with the harsh lighting. Good dynamic range so it can capture details in what would otherwise be shadow or blow-out highlights is also important.

Dynamic range and low noise at higher ISO settings both favor cameras with larger sensors. Most all-in-one cameras have pretty small sensors. Some are significantly larger than the norm though, including the Canon G-series, and some of the Fuji cameras like the f40fd, the IS-1, S9100 and the s6000. (On the other hand, higher megapixels for a given sensor size work against these same attributes).

The camera most likely to work in your situation is a true DSLR, even at the low end of the range. They can be fitted with fast lenses. They can easily crank of 3+ shots in quick succession, they have much bigger sensors than any all-in-one camera which gives them much better low light performance and dynamic range, even at higher megapixel levels. In addition, they should have better light metering, especially if you buy one notch above entry level. The downside is that they are bulkier and they cost more, but you might be able to get one in your price range.
posted by Good Brain at 4:00 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: To expand on my earlier reply:

How far away from the models are you usually? If you really only want a shot of them at the end of the runway (so that you'll always be taking shots from about the same distance), a fast prime lens in an appropriate length would be a great solution for you. If you're fairly close to them, something like a 24/28 or 35mm lens with the 350D would be good; if they're a little further away, the 50mm; even further, there's a good 85mm f1.8, etc.

If there's not enough light, you could also add a shoe-mount flash unit. Most people will suggest the 430EX, but you could get its older cousin the 430EZ (or 540EZ) for a lot less money and just learn to adjust your camera's settings manually. You should also consider an external flash if there is plenty of light, but it's from different kinds of sources. For example, if there are fluorescents and incandescents lighting the models, the white balance of your images will be off. If there's just one (main) light source, you can compensate for whatever it is if you shoot RAW files. An external flash will allow you to overpower the ambient lighting and achieve the same result.

The Deej and Good Brain: to get decent/good performance at 800-1600 ISO, you really need a camera with a better sensor, something like the 40D or 5D (or one of the newer 1-series cameras, but I'm not as familiar with them).

Hope all that makes some sense!
posted by entropic at 4:24 PM on November 27, 2007

You probably want a faster lens than the one suggested by The Deej.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:28 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: I'd look into the DaShiv-approved Pentax K10D. Built-in image stabilization and neat auto ISO features that will help you get the best shot with the available light. Pentax's lens selection isn't the best, but the kit lens (the one that you can buy with the body) will get you started until you figure out the basics.
posted by wemayfreeze at 7:34 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: The Pentax K10D is also in your price range. It has image stabilization inside the body. It with either a Pentax 50mm f1.4 or a Sigma 18-50 f2.8 would run about $1000.
posted by Quonab at 7:49 PM on November 27, 2007

Or what wemayfreeze said.
posted by Quonab at 7:50 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: Unless you learn how a camera works: shutter speed, iso, aperture, white balance, lens choice, lighting- and what the infinite combinations of these variables mean, you can have the world's fanciest camera and still take lousy pictures. There is no magic camera. It's all about the photographer's working knowledge of the camera.
Get a digital rebel, a 50 1.8, and a monopod. A tripod is rather ungainly in tight spots and a monopod provides plenty of stabilization.
Get a flash. I think maybe a 430ex for your needs. Don't rely upon catwalk light with cheap gear if you want sharp pics.
Most importantly, take a photography class. You'll be better off for it.
Learn how all the variables work together so that when you're faced with difficult photo situations, you'll know how to handle them.
Between a monopod and a flash, you can freeze the models' movement and control the lighting situation in the room.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 8:16 PM on November 27, 2007

n'thing a digital SLR, but throwing in a few notes about them:

- You can rent digital SLRs and lenses. A lot of sites do rentals by the week. I don't know what's available in the U.K., though. I recommend this, actually, as a way to try out a camera before buying it. (Really try it out, as opposed to playing with it in 5 minutes. To truly take advantage of an SLR, there's a definite learning curve!)

- If you're not too risk-averse, older cameras depreciate a lot and can be had cheaply on eBay. I got a (6-megapixel) Canon 10D for around $300. I don't see a need to upgrade, either. (Just make sure you know what you're buying!)
posted by fogster at 8:54 PM on November 27, 2007

Best answer: I'm hoping to find a reasonably priced camera that can handle these things very well: [...]

The camera matters not a whit.
The lens matters quite a bit.
The flash matters most in the kit...
...if you expect your models to be well-lit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:21 PM on November 27, 2007 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: First of all, thank you all for your wonderful help. I agree with The Golden One that I need to take a class or otherwise learn how to actually use a camera as I'm going to need to adjust to lighting conditions, etc.

To answer your question entropic, i'm not usually very far from the models, maybe 5 feet max (unless it's Paris, and then i'm balancing on one toe on top of a Frenchman under a pile of other angry Frenchmen). In some cases i'm right at the end of the runway.

I'm going to go away and learn about lenses and shoe-horn flashes and all the rest of it - thank you again, i foresee a carpet bomb of best answers for this one!
posted by ukdanae at 1:03 AM on November 28, 2007

Seconding a monopod, FWIW.

Also, your blog has some very fashionable undies indeed. Kudos for that.
posted by disillusioned at 1:46 AM on November 28, 2007

Best answer: A few other suggestions:

1) Get some good reference books. I very much like Understanding Exposure and The Art of Photographing Women. The latter is more about photoshop techniques, despite the title. It's a bit over the top when taken to its extreme and I disagree with a lot of the author's stylistic glamour choices, but it has some very helpful foundations for how to look at manipulating images. The former is more about camera settings, and here you want to focus on general exposure settings but also the interplay between ambient light and flash.

2) It's not the cheapest thing in the world, but if you have a requirement for getting set up quickly, there's nothing I've found like this Bogen Neotec tripod. Rather than clips or turn locks on the legs, it has a simple pull-out mechanism with a push lock. (You'll also need a tripod head of some kind - there are many choices.)

3) It's out of your stated budget, but the camera you really want is the Canon 40D. The low-light/high ISO performance is exceptional, it can shoot at 6.5 frames per second with very fast tracking autofocus, and it has excellent spot metering. Once you learn what you're doing, you'll also probably find the three user-selectable presets very handy - you can set one for fast tracking autofocus, one for closeups, and one for further away, to easily handle differing exposure requirements. I've used it to take burst shots of my son on the swings, and almost all of the shots come out pin sharp.

4) Post production is nearly as important as getting the good shot in the first place - if you don't get the shot, you're screwed, but if you get the shot and don't handle it right in post, you're still screwed. Currently, the best affordable solution for that is Adobe Lightroom. Shoot RAW.
posted by Caviar at 8:05 AM on November 28, 2007

Just wanted to add that while a monopod seems like a good idea at first glance, it's actually a lot more cumbersome to use in practice. Not as cumbersome as a tripod, naturally, but you're only gaining a couple of stops at most with a monopod, and it's a bitch to lug around. I own a Bogen monopod with a quick-release handle, and even that was a pain. And remember that you have to buy a separate head for it to connect to the camera--well, you don't have to, but if you don't you'll be screwing the 'pod directly into the camera body. Then you can forget about switching from horizontal to vertical, or anything off-axis for that matter.

If you can shoot with a flash, get this ringflash and call it a day. If you can't... be prepared to shell out on fast glass with vibration-reduction components.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:43 PM on November 28, 2007

I've never been able to use a monopod properly. I find it much more difficult to hold steady than leaning against something.
posted by Caviar at 10:22 PM on November 28, 2007

Best answer: I'll second the "take lessons and read books" advice. The more you know, the more you can control your images.

But meanwhile, here is some quick and dirty advice in case you need to shoot before acquiring said knowledge.

With a Digital SLR (or any camera, actually) find and use the "aperture priority" mode. Set the aperture to a low number. The camera will set the proper shutter speed. The low aperture will give you those nice blurry backgrounds that work so well in portrait and fashion work. I have been a photographer for over 30 years, and 90% of the time, I use aperture priority.

Also, even with an autofocus camera, you have to practice focusing. Ever shoot 2 models side by side, and get a nice sharp background while the models are out of focus? That's because your sensor may be focusing on whatever is in the middle of the finder. If the camera is not smart enough to know where to focus, learn to first aim where you want to focus, lock the focus by holding the shutter button halfway down, then recomposing before firing the shutter. In fact, my camera does have an intelligent focusing system, but I turn it off because it's faster for me to choose the focus point myself.

Also, with any DSLR, don't fear setting a high ISO. Yes, do some testing first to see if the results are to your standards, but even a lower end DSLR like my Nikon D40 provide great results. Here's a grab-shot with the D40 at ISO 1600 and balanced flash. If you zoom in, yes, you can see grain (technically "noise") especially in the dark areas, like the black shirt. But, grain is not the enemy of a good shot. It all depends on how big an enlargement you will make. Plus, I would rather have a sharply focused photo with some grain, than to not get the shot. Do people look at the this photo and say it's a lousy picture because the sky has grain in it?

So, learn your craft, and find your own style. You are in for a lifetime of challenges and a real feeling of accomplishment. Plus you will have pictures of women in their underwear.
posted by The Deej at 6:47 AM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agreed - high ISO is often necessary to get the faster shutter speeds to nail the shot, but this is why it's so important to nail the exposure correctly, and also to understand how and why you did so.

This is the best discussion I've seen anywhere about how to compensate for noise in high ISO images. The big problem is that if you underexpose, you need to bring up the shadows after the fact, and the act of doing so amplifies the noise. If you nail the exposure, or even overexpose a little (but then you risk blowing out your highlights, as you did in that grab shot), your shadows will come out fine. Does it ruin the shot? Not necessarily, but it is a distracting element that you might be avle to minimize.

But, that said, some cameras do better than others. In my experience, the Canon 40D, in particular, exhibits far less noise than any other digital body in its price range. Here's an example of a high contrast shot with lots of detail in the shadows. I blew out the highlights a little, but that was intentional to increase the contrast effect of a sunlit window, which should be blown - but at 0EV, the highlights of the curtains are in range. As you can see, the shadow areas still hold a lot of detail and while there's some noise, it's minimal and clean, even at +.67EV in post. No after the fact noise reduction was done on this. I could have masked it to get rid of that, but as you note - I don't find that it detracts from the shot.
posted by Caviar at 7:48 AM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much, this is amazing advice. I've distilled the main points down into a wee checklist (hopefully of use to others in similar situations):
  1. Get a DSLR like a Pentax K10D, a Digital Rebel, a Canon 40D, a Canon 350D, or a Nikon D40
  2. Shoot in RAW format for more flexibility in post-production
  3. (probably) use a stabilizer like a tripod or monopod for the most stable shots.
  4. Turn up my ISO to around 800-1600 range to adjust for the catwalk lighting problems, and use post production to correct if ISO is slightly too high
  5. Adjust my aperture setting lower and find a good combination of aperture +ISO
  6. Use a "fast" lens around 50mm and get a flash, possibly a shoe-horn flash or a ringflash
  7. Take a photography class and/or read some books about how to use my camera and adjust for different situations
If I got anything wrong just let me know, and thanks again!
posted by ukdanae at 3:36 PM on November 29, 2007

Best answer: Adjust my aperture setting lower and find a good combination of aperture +ISO

If you're in a dark area, there won't be much adjusting. It'll be "throw the lens wide open and see how low you can get the ISO before hand-holding the body becomes untenable." Fashion photography is no place for grain, even if it looks cool and moody, because grain obfuscates the clothes. For instance, a picture of a girl in a wool coat shot @ 50 ISO looks remarkably similar to a shot of a girl in polyester @ 3200 ISO on T-MAX 3200. Designers will not be pleased, even if all your friends say the grainy shot looks better.

Use a "fast" lens around 50mm

You probably realize this, but just in case... it's not the focal length of the lens that makes it fast or slow, it's the aperture. Lenses that open wider (have smaller f/numbers) are "faster" than lenses that don't.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:53 PM on November 29, 2007

Response by poster: As a follow-up, i've checked out all the cameras and my current favourite is the Nikon D40 or D40x, mainly because of price but also because it seems to have a happy bunch of followers. I realize it's not quite as beefy as the other cameras you guys recommended, but it sounds like it will get the job done with the right lens. Speaking of that..

You probably realize this, but just in case...

Thanks, Civil Disobedient, I didn't realise that! So I want a lens with an aperture number around f1-4? Most of what i'm seeing available for the D40x is in the 4-5 range but from what i've read that's not enough?

I'm reading lots of things about VR lenses (like this site) - what is a VR lens? Is that a brand or a different type of lens?
posted by ukdanae at 7:25 AM on November 30, 2007

Best answer: A zoom lens is necessarily not as able to open as wide as a prime (non-zoom_ lens). You are trading the convenience of being able to zoom for lens speed. However, personally, I would not shoot lower than 3.5 or 4 anyway, because your depth of field (area in focus) will be so shallow as to have no room for error. With very shallow depth of field (very low f-stop number) you could likely get, say, an ear in focus, but the eyes out of focus. An F-stop of 3.5 or 4, zoomed out will give you enough depth of field so the focus will not be overly picky, but be shallow enough to blur the background.

The VR lens just means Vibration Reduction. It helps to minimize the effect of camera-shake.

In photography, as in all passions, there are many opinions about what is "best." Someone will come along soon to say that I am wrong, so wrong, all wrong. Anything you looking at right now will do what you need, and be way better than what you have now. Don't get too caught up.
posted by The Deej at 8:23 AM on November 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the explanation Deej, that makes sense. You guys are all amazing!
posted by ukdanae at 8:33 AM on November 30, 2007

Please, please, please don't buy a D40x. Many lenses will not autofocus on that body because it does not have a drive motor, unlike almost every other Nikon body. See here for a better explanation (second paragraph, with pictures).
posted by entropic at 9:08 AM on November 30, 2007

Ah, now we're in the Canon vs. Nikon debate. All I have to say about that is that they're both very good and everybody with preferences has their preferences. But be aware that buying new extremely expensive lenses gets to be very very very tempting once you get started down that path. Lenses last a long time, and every lens you buy increases your lock-in to the brand you chose, so make sure you're happy with that initial choice and also where that company has been going and where it looks like they're going for the next 5-10 years. Look at their higher-end models and see if you like the choices they've made, because that's the tech you're likely to see in the consumer models in the near future when you go to replace the body and will end up keeping all of the lenses you've purchased.

Also, Nikon's VR (vibration reduction) is the same thing as Canons IS (image stabilization).

The depth of field issues that The Deej is mentioning above may not come into play for you, since they're dependent on the focal length of the lens. Longer lenses have narrower depth of field, so a 50mm lens at f/2 will have a depth of field from an 85mm lens at f/2. Also note that the F number is the widest that the lens can go, and you can always set it higher. At the lowest number, you'll get the narrowest depth of field and the most light, but not the sharpest picture. Lenses have a "sweet spot" that's usually around f/8 to get the sharpest picture possible.

If it sounds like there are a hundred different (sometimes contradictory) variables to keep in your head, that's because there are. Spend your time learning one thing at a time and concentrate on just getting that thing right, then move on to the next one. After a few years or so this will all be second nature.
posted by Caviar at 10:39 AM on November 30, 2007

Best answer: So I want a lens with an aperture number around f1-4? Most of what i'm seeing available for the D40x is in the 4-5 range but from what i've read that's not enough?

Apertures are actually ratios represented as fractions, which is why they're written f - slash - number. f/2.8 is thus a larger aperture than f/5.6. The larger you can open up, the more light that can get in. The blades of the lens are like the iris in your eye. When you go outside on a sunny day, what happens to your pupil size? It shrinks. When it's dark? It opens up. Why? Because your eye is getting either too much or too little light, so it opens or closes the iris to adjust. It's the same with lenses. (wiki: "fast" vs. "slow").

In general, larger aperture lenses have a lot more glass in them. So, if you've ever wondered why a lens like this 400mm f/2.8 beast is so much larger than this 80-400mm zoom (even though they both have the same max focal length)... the answer is glass.

Aperture costs. To put things in perspective, the 80-400mm zoom lens comes with all of Nikon's newest bells and whistles (like vibration reduction), and a shitload more compositional options (since it's a zoom). The 400mm f/2.8 beast only comes in one stinkin' focal length. One choice. That's it. And it's only two stops faster. The 80-400mm can be purchased for around $1,500 these days. The 400mm? Yeah, that's about $8,000.

$6,500 for two fucking stops!? Welcome to the crazy world of photography. Two stops is the difference between shooting at ISO 1600 and ISO 400. It's the difference between shooting at 1/250th sec. and 1/60th sec. $6,500 could get you a pretty sweet camera body. Or a used car.

But you can only push the ISO so much before it starts getting grainy. And you can't just lower the shutter speed to compensate, because then you risk getting blurry shots. You could use a flash, except not everyone allows flash photography indoors. So what can you do? You bend over and get faster glass.

Something else to keep in mind is that the auto-focus speed might be faster on some cameras when used in conjunction with larger aperture lenses (usually f/2.8 or faster). This is because fast lenses allow some cameras to utilize both horizontal and vertical AF sensors. Canon EOS's come to mind.

Also, please take entropic's warning about the D40x to heart. You really don't want to shut yourself out of the VR lens offerings. Remember the $6500 for two stops of glass? Well, VR will get you those two stops for a fraction of the price (e.g., 70-200 non-VR is ~$800, with VR ~$1500).

If it sounds like there are a hundred different (sometimes contradictory) variables to keep in your head, that's because there are.

It might feel this way at first until you realize that there are only a few variables to deal with, and each variable has a counterpart, and they all fit together. It's like a giant equation, and the answer is your exposure. There comes a moment where it all clicks (for a lot of people, myself included, it was after learning the Zone system). Once you realize that all the seemingly random numbers and fractions directly relate to each other in stops, an enormous wealth of opportunity presents itself to your creative expression. You stop taking pictures (subject to the whims of flight and fancy of dumb luck) and start making them.

People just starting out in photography don't realize the vast amount of creative power they have in the final output. They think it's just a matter of having the "right" equipment and being in the right place at the right time and clicking a button. They are a slaves to their tool; but, with just a bit of learning and practice they can quickly become its master.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:49 PM on November 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Aperture costs.

And exponentially much more so at longer focal lengths.

Here's why. The aperture is not a physical size, but a relation to the focal length of the lens to allow a certain amount of light to reach the film plane. i.e.: f/2.8 on a 50mm lens allows the same amount of light through as f/2.8 on a 100mm lens. However, that's clearly not the same size hole. On a 50mm lens, it's 17.86mm in diameter, and on a 100mm lens, it's 35.71mm. But on a 400mm lens, it's a whopping 142.86mm. (Some math about this.)

Of course, all of these are projecting the image onto the same roughly 24mm (in this case) sensor.

The extra cost goes into not only the wider lenses required to support the aperture (which are much more difficult to produce without flaws), but also the better optics required to get that larger image to focus properly on the sensor at the desired brightness while accounting for the light intensity falloff as the light moves through the actual focal distance of the lens.
posted by Caviar at 8:40 AM on December 2, 2007

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