invest in a new camera or a photo class?
January 3, 2008 4:53 PM   Subscribe

What to spend my money on- a new camera or a photography class?

I currently have a Canon Powershot S45 that's 4 or 5 years old and has a laughable 4 megapixels. That said, I've still taken great shots with it, and lately I've been so into it that I want to invest a little money in improving. I know you don't need a fancy camera to take a good picture, but I'm starting to notice the noise in my shots versus those taken with a better camera (or just by a better photographer?). Given that I have a budget and I can't go for both at once, what is the better investment now- a DSLR or a class? Will I get more from a class with a better camera, or will taking the class with the bad camera help my technique and help me make a better choice of DSLR later? Will a teacher laugh at my old camera and not take me seriously? I'm looking at classes that don't necessarily require specific equipment, but even so, is my camera just embarrassingly old? I already know my way around the manual settings of my camera and I have a basic understanding of composition.

Also, I'm the kind of person that listens to vinyl, so I understand the appeal of film and I know a film SLR would get me a big quality improvement for a much lower price, so I could possibly have my cake and eat it, but I'm not sure it would be the best way to get myself out taking all kinds of pictures with the quick feedback of digital. If you think the way to learn the most on the smallest budget is to go film, I'll listen.
posted by slow graffiti to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No camera is too old. Some may be insufficiently manual, but if it does the job, it does the job. Is it exposing light to a surface that records that light in some way? Does it provide sufficient control to get the shot you want? Then you've got a camera. Age is irrelevant.

Film's got a cheap entry-cost, but it very quickly starts adding up. The *absolute* cheapest entry is definitely a used film camera - they're practically giving away Canon Rebels with adequate-for-starting-out lenses on eBay - but think about the long run. In just a few months of occasional photography, I've clicked that shutter several thousand times; I may have paid hundreds more for my digital SLR, but I've already saved more than that in film I didn't have to shoot - never mind the benefits of instant feedback.

I went with a dSLR, and I haven't looked back since. If you know the basics, a good lens and a proper SLR will open up whole new worlds after your point-and-shoot. Read tutorials, participate in lots of forums, post photos for feedback, and force yourself to go out and shoot, shoot, shoot.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:07 PM on January 3, 2008

The S45 is fine, it has manual controls which are all you really need for a photography class. I'd go with the class, or you could teach yourself with the vast array of online resources.

Always remember the order of importance in photography:
Photographer > Lens > Camera

Stay away from film if you're learning, it makes experimentation prohibitively expensive. A wise man once said, "Your first 10,000 pictures are going to suck, it's best to get them out of the way as soon as possible." 10k shots with film will cost a bundle and give you no immediate feedback to learn from, 10k shots on digital will cost next to nothing and teach you a great deal.
posted by mullingitover at 5:17 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Understanding Exposure is the best photography book I've read. That plus my Digital Rebel has been all I've needed to take photos that I'm more-than-OK with.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 5:18 PM on January 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'd go with a Pentax SLR. Inexpensive. Many compatible lenses available very cheaply. Great cameras, good quality.

I've found the cheaper canon models frustrating. The viewfinders are really teensy. I know most people will disagree. My vote is for Pentax, particularly if you don't have a lot of money.

Classes are great, but with a point and shoot you are definitely limited. Not just by the sensor but by the viewfinder, lack of raw capability, etc.
posted by sully75 at 5:26 PM on January 3, 2008

don't let anyone scare you away from film! with a dSLR you will click the shutter 5000+ times in a year. when the year is out, look at those pictures and count the keepers - the real good ones you want to see 16x20... maybe you'll have 20 or 30? those are where youll spend the bucks with film.
suppliment your p&s with a nikon fa fg or fm [$40 tops] for the 'art', shoot the fiddling and snapshots on your other rig...
film is $3-$5 for 36 exp. development at home is another buck or two. it will take a lot of rolls to get a dslr that matches the quality of 35mm film.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 5:38 PM on January 3, 2008

another vinyl lover - yay

A film camera would be a fun choice. You can get a used all manual Nikon with some great lenses for cheap, cheap. Using one of these is quite a joy. It just feels so well made.

Digital SLRs are fantastic, but they are still expensive and the price is dropping fast. If you do go this way I think the best way is to buy a lower end one where the prices are competitive in a brand where you may want to upgrade later as prices come down (this is basically warmed over advice ala Stan Chin, but I have come to believe he was right). IMO, only Nikon and Canon are worth the long term investment as the other companies are dropping like flies.
posted by caddis at 5:39 PM on January 3, 2008

Oh, almost forgot -- the 'instant feedback' from a dSLR is a crutch at best. it's fun to play around with at first, but soon you are reliant on visualizing your shots through the LCD screen and not in your mind.

taken to an extreme, i commonly see people shoot a 4GB card worth of pictures with no regard to any of the mechanics of photography. on the one hand, this is a marvel of technology. on the other hand, if you're not developing the technical skill, what's to say you'll get that perfect shot right when you need it. light doesn't always stick around for 10-15 shots while you take a shot, look at the screen, adjust, repeat.

when I shoot my D50, I do my best to think about the technical process of each exposure - zones, composition, etc. i think my photography improves better when i take LESS pictures than when I take more...
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 5:56 PM on January 3, 2008

oh, and the act of taking a picture, then looking at it on a dSLR is called Chimping.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 5:57 PM on January 3, 2008

Interesting article on film SLRs. The rest of the site is pretty much a photography course in itself.
posted by The Deej at 6:34 PM on January 3, 2008

A class. But, a GOOD class.

Embrace the laziness of digital, shun the cost (and effort) of film, improve your sense of how your camera will react in certain situations by thinking consciously about how your camera will react, not by punishing yourself by spending money for each bad shot (and absolutely not by dicking around refusing to press the shutter button until you find the one perfect shot, it really, truly is OK to take multiple pictures while searching for the one you want, in fact one of the things I learned from my class was that most people will go into a project with one idea, and only after 8-10 different/playing around shots will they come up with a new, usually better, take on it).

If you can, find a teacher who worked as a photographer (rather than as a fine artist or only as a teacher), the perspective of "I MUST come up with a usable, interesting photo of this subject in this time period" seems to be closest to what most people want/need...if you're at the zoo, sure you want an artistic, great looking photo of the lion, but you (probably) don't have the free time to come back over several days like a fine artist would, waiting for that unique shot that makes a point about the social conditions surrounding zoos and showcasing the lion, you've got this afternoon.
posted by anaelith at 6:39 PM on January 3, 2008

your existing camera would do fine for a class. The only thing you'll really be missing with respect to a dslr is the ability to open the aperture all the way and really isolate your subject from the background (all in one cameras never get a really shallow depth of field, even at max aperture). There are many other advantages to a dslr, like better low light performance, less image noise, more megapixels, more dynamic range, interchangable lenses, next to no shutter lag, better autofocus, metering, etc; but in terms of creative control, I think depth of field is the biggie.

What do you find lacking in the best of your current photos?
posted by Good Brain at 6:59 PM on January 3, 2008

the 'instant feedback' from a dSLR is a crutch at best.

I've got to heartily disagree. For me, using a DSLR was instrumental in learning about the fundamentals of exposure. I learned quite a bit from chimping the first couple of months I had a DSLR. I learned even more from going home, looking closely at my pictures and the EXIF data to see how I could have improved it (picture was a little blurry, so I should have had a faster exposure time, etc.) This is in contrast to when I first tried learning with film, where I'd fire off a roll, some of the shots would be off, but I'd have no idea why.

To be honest, if you're enthusiastic about learning more, you'd be much better off buying a few books (one on the artistic principles of composition, one on the nitty-gritty of exposure and post-processing), a DSLR (I'd go with the Rebel DSLR, but you can't go wrong with Pentax or Nikon either) and a cheap 50mm prime, and trying to learn on your own.
posted by alidarbac at 7:28 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I vote for buying a dslr. Just having it will open up a lot of possibilities. Plus, it takes time to learn all the functions and features. Best to know your camera well before taking the class. You will also want/need raw conversion software and a decent digital asset manager program, so plan on a learning curve for those too. Expect to want a bigger hard drive because you'll be shooting a lot of pictures. More ram in computer would be nice, and then you'll want to get an online gallery working - lots of good things to learn. My local library has tons of books on all these subjects, maybe yours too, so don't start spending too much money on books.
posted by conrad53 at 7:42 PM on January 3, 2008

Response by poster: The big problems I'm having now are mostly low-light related- when I went to Europe and tried to get shots inside cathedrals when the subject was often a ceiling that was high and low contrast, or when I try to shoot a concert (and I do go to a ton of shows), the point and shoot is a bitch to focus. It can do low light, it can do movement, but I've never gotten both out of it.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:45 PM on January 3, 2008

Definitely the camera... and a tripod if you want to help with the low light situation.

Even though I think what's behind the camera is the most important, making the jump to a DSLR is a huge one. The feel and accuracy when you're looking through the lens is a big plus for me. Reiterating what has already been said, you want to shoot as much as possible and your personal style will likely be borne from your mistakes. If you get a tripod (which I wholly recommend), shoot a lot of night shots. I learned a lot about exposure, lighting, and composition from it because it slows everything down.

I took a class a while back shooting all film and the greatest benefits that I got from it beyond the fact that I was shooting 2-3 rolls a day were the free use of equipment and chemicals. Other than that, the group feedback was helpful, but not crucial. I still prefer the look and quality of film, but after going digital, the workflow and economic benefits make it hard to go back.

If you want some outside feedback and are in an active meetup community, join one and that should give you some perspective on your photos.

I also recommend just sitting in a bookstore and looking at as many different portfolios of photographers as you can.
posted by borjomi at 8:33 PM on January 3, 2008

If you like low light you really want to hook up with an SLR and a prime lens -- the 50mm f/1.8 alidarbac refers to is the best bang-for-the-buck of any lens ever. Canon and Nikon both have that lens new for $100ish. A lens with a huge aperture and a high ISO film or sensor makes handheld low-light very possible. 3200 speed film rocks. :)

You can go dirt cheap -- a used plastic all-singing, all-dancing Nikon N-series film body for $50, a new 50mm lens for $110 and boom! If you take a class which teaches B&W development you'll learn how to use the camera in terms of visualizing and planning light levels in the finished print, which is incredibly applicable to digital as well since sensors capture a narrower range of light than film. Plus you will have a freaking blast.

On the other hand, by the time you've shot 20 rolls ($80) of B&W and developed 100 8"x10" contacts/prints ($60) plus darkroom fees and/or chemistry, you've about paid for a digital body. I'm with alidarbac et al. that a digital is just easier to learn on.

(Nikon's current low-end DSLR, the D40, won't autofocus Nikon prime lenses like the 50mm! I love Nikon but the Canon rebels are sweet and will, as far as I know, focus all of Canon's current AF lenses. I am sorry I am an equipment nut.)
posted by mindsound at 8:41 PM on January 3, 2008

The big problems I'm having now are mostly low-light related

Buy a GOOD tripod. You can buy all the fastest lenses in the world, but nothing beats a good tripod. ($120 and up, for new. not at walmart. the heavier the better!)

Learning exposure, composition, etc with a dSLR is great. I play with a D50 in the same way. My point wasn't so much that you can't do it, but thinking critically and methodically before a shot is the most straightforward way to try to get things will go the way you want. Chimping (once again, it is NOT something to be afraid of) leads me to experiment, but I find myself chasing a picture that looks good rather than following the plan I set out for my shoot.

I find that by putting thought and effort into determining film type, EI (.. or white balance, ISO, this works just as well for digital as for film), etc, all the while using the scientific process to make small, incremental changes has yielded me far more improvements than using the histogram and LCD to judge. A lot of this came on from spending time in an analog darkroom, where keeping careful notes and effecting small, methodical changes is the only way for predictably decent results.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 8:43 PM on January 3, 2008

I'm too lazy to read everyone's response, but film is really really expensive. And time consuming. I did the following:

1. Got a fancy DSLR and a few lenses. (~$1,000)
2. Read everything about composition and technical details online. (free)
3. Experimented for a few months on my own (free)
4. Took a film photography course and learned how to develop film and prints (~$400 class, $100 camera, $200 for lab gear and paper, gas money, time, pressure of assignments, etc.)

Now...I'm going back to experimenting with digital. I didn't learn anything new in the class. I got the only A+ in the class on the midterm without studying. I never bought the textbook. I'm awesome, I know, but I seriously just didn't learn anything new except for the chemical process. Film isn't useless, of course, but it's a parallel course for a beginner. It won't springboard you past the beginner level and, at least in my case, held me back from a much more productive method.

I urge you to get a DSLR.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:33 PM on January 3, 2008

Get a new camera, join a site like which has a free membership option, and take part in the challenges. You'll learn quickly, especially if you chat on the forums regularly. Lots of professional photographers on there, my photography improved rapidly when I first joined a few years ago.
posted by BobsterLobster at 12:01 AM on January 4, 2008

I'm sort of inclined to agree with most posts here. I have heard tales of really good instruction, but I'm aware that it's a bit of a minefield. It's a bit of a stretch, but if you know any pro or semi-pro photographers, maybe try asking them for some hands on advice. Maybe like running through stuff with you for an hour, looking at some photos you've taken and passing on some tips etc? Pay them a bit or buy them dinner in return.

Taking a lot of pictures is great for building up your experience, and essential for improving your photography, especially the technical aspects of it. The only way you're going to be able to learn to judge the light conditions etc is through doing it.

But a technically good photo is a boring photo. The best thing to do is to spend a lot of time examining composition. You can either through other peoples photos or through theoretical books. There's some really interesting stuff out there.

Hardware-wise, definitely go for a prime (fixed zoom length) lens on a SLR body. A prime lens will give you far superior optics when compared to a zoom lens. Sure, you have to run around to frame your picture properly, but that's going to teach you great technique. I personally have the Canon 400D and a 28mm f1.8 beauty, which is a setup I'd heartily recommend. It basically gives you a similar view as you see with your eyes. This is ridiculously good for learning on, as it's much easier to visualize what's going to emerge as a great image.

By the way, all digital SLRs apart from a couple of very high-end Canons and Nikons have sensors that are smaller than a 35mm piece of film. This means that your lens will be zoomed in a bit. It almost always results in 1.6 times the physical lens length. For instance, a 100mm lens will behave like a 160mm lens. It's very handy if you're doing telephoto work.

This means that the 50mm lens will result in an 80mm image, which is a pretty big difference. It's a great portrait lens, and handy for getting closer in on stuff, but it won't end up being what's called a normal lens. A normal lens is one that results in an image similar to what we see with our eyes. Because of the sensor crop, you'll need to use something like my 28mm (which comes to 44.8) or the 35mm f2 (which comes to 56mm.) Personally, I like being on the wider side of normal, and the 28mm is slightly higher quality and slightly wider than Canon's 35mm offering.

Anyway, I hope I've given some useful advice here. I hope you have a lot of fun with your photography!
posted by Magnakai at 8:21 AM on January 5, 2008

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