Saturday, September 5, 2015

Tutorial: Better equipment for better outfit photos!

In my previous tutorial on how to take better outfit photos, I talked about things you could do to take better outfit photos that did not require any fancy equipment.  But what if you do want to buy better photo gear for your outfit photos?  What should you get?  What improvements, exactly, are you buying?

In terms of better photo equipment, I'm going to assume that you want either a DSLR or mirrorless camera with an APS-C sensor.  APS-C refers to the sensor size; most modern interchangeable lens cameras have an APS-C size sensor.  One step down in sensor size is Micro Four Thirds, and one step up in sensor size is Full Frame, which is roughly equivalent to the 35 mm film of the days of yore.  Wikipedia has a nice diagram comparing the different sensor sizes here.  Any of those three sensor sizes should serve you well, but I'm going to speak from the perspective of an APS-C size sensor because it's what I have, it's what I'm familiar with, and it's also what you're the most likely to own or encounter in stores.  For an example of what I'm talking about, here's my camera, a Pentax K-3. (I actually wrote a post about my K-3 here, on why I like it so much.)
Why Use a DSLR?
Now, if you use a DSLR instead of a point-and-shoot or cell phone camera, what improvements are you getting, from a technical and artistic standpoint?

Better manual controls.  With a DSLR, you can control everything.  Focus, exposure, depth of field, you name it.  Most of the time, the automatic settings on cameras are great at achieving a pretty good result.  But does this cold hunk of plastic and circuitry have a soul?  Does it have artistic vision?  I think not.  That's what you're for.  The manual controls are how you make it happen.

Better feedback to prevent major technical screw-ups.  DSLRs have displays to show you whether you've over- or underexposed an image, whether the right parts of the image are in focus, and even if the camera is level with the horizon. 

Better postprocessing capabilities.  The JPEGs that you use aren't what the camera sensor saw; the camera typically applies a certain amount of postprocessing to increase the contrast, clarity, and saturation of the output of the sensor in order to make it look like the real world.  DSLRs can give you the RAW file-- the image of exactly what the sensor saw-- so you can apply the postprocessing yourself.  This has several advantages.  First, the camera is generally pretty good, but your artistic vision is almost certainly better. Second, the RAW file records much more detail than the JPEGs do, so you can often save a RAW file that was over or underexposed when it would have been a total loss as a JPEG.  You'll need special image processing software (Adobe Lightroom is the one that everyone uses), but it's totally worth it.
RAW (what the sensor saw)
Out-of-the-camera JPEG
Postprocessed by me in Lightroom
More dynamic range.  "Dynamic range" refers to how large a difference between light and dark the camera can capture while still retaining detail.  In practical terms, this means that you can take photos with brighter highlights and harsher shadows without blowing the highlights and losing shadow detail, something that is especially useful when you're shooting outdoors in bright sunlight.  This is partly due to the larger sensor, and partly due to the fact that you can work with RAW files instead of JPEGs.

Better low-light capabilities.  The ability to take good photos in low light is extremely useful for taking photos in dimly-lit museums.  It's also very useful if you have to take photos indoors, especially at night, since indoor lighting tends to be poor.  There are a few reasons for this, but for this discussion I'll stick to ISO.  The ISO represents the sensitivity of the sensor to light; at higher ISO, the camera is more sensitive to light and can take pictures in darker environments, but it is also more prone to noise.  Thanks to the larger sensor, DSLRs have less noise at higher ISO.
Point-and-shoot (Canon PowerShot SX120 IS) in low light, automatic mode

DSLR (K-3 with super-snazzy lens) in low light, automatic mode
Better control over depth of field.  Depth of field refers to how much of the picture is in focus.  For sweeping landscapes, you would usually want everything to be in focus, from the foreground to the background.  For headshots, you would generally only want the person's face to be in focus, with a creamy, blurred-out background.  The camera lens controls the depth of field, with a larger aperture (ironically, smaller numbers) leading to less depth of field and more background blur.  Certain lenses for DSLRs have wide maximum apertures and so can give you much better background blur than point-and-shoots.
Shallow depth-of-field with point-and-shoot (Canon PowerShot SX120 IS)
Shallow depth-of-field with DSLR (K-3 with super-snazzy lens)

More megapixels = tighter crops.  Megapixels refers to how many pixels fit on the camera sensor.  Higher megapixels gives higher-resolution images.  This is mostly useful if you want to enlarge your photos to the size of a wall, but it does allow for more room to crop the photo and still get something that's usable at web resolution.

Better remote shutter release capabilities.  This is great for taking pictures of yourself.  My DSLR has a 12 second self time, so you can hit the shutter button and then run into position.  It also has the capabilities to use a wireless remote, so you can get into position and then trigger the shutter.  It also has an intervalometer (which is what I use), which tells the camera to take X pictures, one every Y seconds, so you can take a string of shots without having to touch the camera at all.  ETA:  It turns out that Canon doesn't include a built-in intervalometer even on their high-end bodies, though a cursory search suggests that Nikon and Fuji do, as well as Pentax.  Adding an intervalometer to the firmware would be simple, so I'm not sure why Canon doesn't, unless it's to force you to buy more accessories.

Now, if you buy a better DSLR, what won't you won't be buying?  It can't buy you better artistic vision; the camera can't take better pictures than what you tell it to.  It can't buy better lighting; that's a whole different kettle of fish.  It also can't make you a better model.

What Should I Buy?
I'd recommend a DSLR or mirrorless body, an autofocus prime lens somewhere in the 30 to 40mm focal length range (for full frame, 50-60mm) with a maximum aperture somewhere between f/1.2 and f/2.8, and a decent full-size portable tripod.  If you want to buy more gear, I'd buy a copy of Adobe Lightroom, a hotshoe flash, a flash stand, and a flash cable.  Here's a discussion of each of those in detail.

DSLR or mirrorless body.  Honestly, it probably isn't that important to have a new, top-of-the-line camera body.  You're taking pictures for web resolution, not to make 24"x36" prints, so the megapixel count doesn't matter that much.  You're taking pictures of stationary subjects, not racecars or hummingbirds, so the quality of the autofocus probably doesn't matter that much, either.  It probably makes more sense to buy a gently-used high-end body that's a few years old or whatever mid-range body is currently being discontinued.  For example, for Pentax at the time of writing (September 2015), this would be a K-5 or K-5 iis, the former high-end APS-C bodies, which tend to go for around $400-500, or a K-50, the mid-range body which is being discontinued, which is currently around $300.  The current-generation bodies are around $200-300 more.  If keeping an eye out for deals isn't your thing, Black Friday usually has very good sales.

There are the endless Canon vs. Nikon wars, but the smaller manufacturers like Pentax, Sony, and Fuji tend to make better bodies at this point-- they need better build quality and better features to attract customers since they don't have the ubiquitous retail presence of Canon or Nikon, and they don't tend to deprive their lower-end models of features to force you to upgrade.  (At some point, I should write a post about what features are useful for outfit photography.)  On the other hand, these manufacturers don't have much of a retail presence.  This isn't really a problem, since the two major players, Adorama and B&H, have incredibly generous return policies-- as long as you keep the packaging, you can return stuff within 30 days, no questions asked.  (I don't get any money or anything for recommending them or for you clicking on the links to buy stuff.)  Also, since the smaller camera manufacturers do sell fewer cameras, it can be hard to find reviews in a timely manner.  My favorite review site is undoubtedly Imaging Resource, for its relatively fast, unbiased, incredibly detailed reviews with useful and consistent real-life comparisons between camera models.

Here's how you should choose what brand/model to buy.  First, do you have a friend who's a photographer who is happy to help you?  If so, get whatever they have, because they can help you find your way around the camera, give you gear recommendations, and maybe even let you borrow their stuff.  Second, does the size and weight of the camera matter to you?  Do you want to be able to carry it around in your purse with you wherever you go?  If so, get a mirrorless camera, because the bodies are smaller and lighter (but usually more expensive).  Then, decide between bodies based on the image quality, the features, the ergonomics, and how easy it is to use the manual controls.  Get the one that feels good in your hand, the one you feel excited about.  A camera is a piece of technology, but it's also an artistic tool-- the better you're able to connect with it on an emotional level, the more you'll want to use it, and the better the work you'll produce.

Also, if you have a chance to buy an extended warranty through the manufacturer, it's usually a good idea.  I recently had to send one of my bodies off because some part of the focusing system broke, and the $20 two-year extended warranty covered a $330 repair. 

30 to 40mm prime lens.  I should write a whole post about lenses.  For now, I'll just say that IMHO the most useful lens to have is a fast normal prime lens-- something with a focal length between 30 and 40mm, and with a maximum aperture between f/1.2 and f/2.8.  Let's unpack what that means:

-- Prime lens:  This is a lens which has a fixed focal length-- it doesn't zoom.  Typically primes have better image quality and larger maximum apertures.

-- Fast lens:  This means that the lens has a large maximum aperture (for whatever reason, smaller numbers refer to larger apertures).  A large maximum aperture does two things.  First, it's better in low light, since the large aperture can gather more light.  Second, it can give a shallower depth of field, which does a better job of blurring out the background.

-- Normal lens:  This refers to the focal length of the lens, which tells what field of view the lens gives.  On an APS-C sensor, 30 to 40mm on a APS-C sensor is considered a "normal" field of view, which is roughly equivalent to that of the human eye.  Below 30mm, you'll start to get perspective distortion; above 40mm, you'll have a hard time getting all of yourself in the frame in enclosed spaces, like a room in your house.  Even outdoors, above 40mm I have a hard time making sure that I'm actually in the frame because I'm so far away from the camera.
My two fast normal primes, 40mm f/2.8 and 31mm f/1.8
 You should be able to get a good fast normal lens for somewhere between $150-500, though of course it is possible to spend waaaaaaaayyyyyyy more.  I'd give a tighter price range, but I don't know what's available for each brand.  My favorite lens review sites are, SLR Gear, and Lens Tip.

At the same time, if the only thing that's in your price range is the 18-55mm kit lens the camera came with, just use that.  It won't be as good and it won't be as versatile, but it won't make or break your efforts at outfit photos, either.

Tripod. As I mentioned in my previous tutorial, you probably don't need to buy a great tripod.  The really expensive top-of-the-line tripods are designed to be stable enough to hold a large camera and lens steady for long exposures in adverse conditions.  You just need something to hold the camera so that a person doesn't have to.  If you do want to spend more money on a tripod, though, you can buy one which is smaller, lighter, and generally more portable.

For example, my first tripod was something like this model.  It's plastic and aluminum, and it costs around $25.  There's nothing wrong with it for outfit photos, but it's a pain to carry around, and it barely fit in my carry-on suitcase.
My first tripod.
My new tripod is carbon fiber, weighs 1.7 lbs, is small enough to fit in a large purse, and is actually more stable than my previous tripod.  I take on long hikes and forget I'm even carrying it, and I use it for long-exposure astrophotography with no problems.  If I carried a larger purse, I'd probably take it with me everywhere, too.  The only downside is the cost-- around $250.  For me?  Totally worth it.  For you?  Probably not so much.  On the other hand, there are probably some compact aluminum tripods that aren't nearly so expensive.
My new tripod, with a size comparison to my first tripod.

Adobe Lightroom.  If you want to work with your RAW files, this is probably the best software to use.  It's basically the digital equivalent of an awesome darkroom.  There might be a free open-source alternative, but I don't know.
Screenshot of Adobe Lightroom.
Hotshoe Flash, Flash Stand, and Flash Cable.  I wrote one post on why a hotshoe flash is superior and what sorts of things you can do with it, so in lieu of saying anything here, I'll just point you to that.  For actual gear recommendations, I'll defer to the Strobist.

Where Should I Buy It From?
Here's a list of my favorite sources for camera gear.  I don't get any money if you buy things from them-- I've just used them myself and had good experiences.

Adorama and B&H-- The two largest retailers of photo and video equipment in the US.  I think it is safe to say that they have the best service of any retailer I have ever used, ever.  You can return things within 30 days, no restocking fee, no questions asked, as long as you keep it in good condition and don't lose the original packaging materials.  I've done it, and it's really that easy.  If the price drops within some period of time of buying that item, and you let them know, they'll give you the difference.  Their free shipping is essentially next-day shipping for me (NYC to Boston).  I could go on, but they're really great.

KEH-- Seller of used camera gear.  The prices are reasonable but higher than what you'd find on Craigslist or Ebay, but on the other hand, they have a condition rating system and offer warranties on what they sell.  I've bought from them on a couple of occasions, and was very pleased with the service.

Midwest Photo Exchange-- I haven't used them that much, but they seem to have a really good selection of lighting equipment.

I'm reluctant to recommend Amazon as a source for camera gear.  Sometimes they're fine, but if you're inexperienced, it can be hard to tell whether you're getting an authorized retailer or a gray-market seller.  The latter is usually less expensive, but doesn't come with a manufacturer warranty.

This is a lot of information to digest, I know.  But if you have questions (or want to argue with me over gear), feel free to leave me a comment!


  1. Thank you for this detailed, but focused discussion. Once a year I think about taking sewing photos for a blog or something humbler like Imgur. I take down my first-generation, hand-me-down DSLR. I start reading general articles, maybe watch a video. Then I put my head down because it's too much information.

    I'll print this out and read it carefully several times and maybe even try applying the principles.

    1. You're welcome! If you have any follow-up questions, or if you're confused about anything, please feel free to leave a comment here and I'd be happy to help you!

  2. I had a crummy experience at B&H about two years ago. It was a Sunday and worse than Grand Central Station. The instructions I got from the staff as to the appropriate counter were lackadaisical considering how confusing and crowded the space was. Because my camera is older I had done some research on the B & H site beforehand and I knew more than the sales clerk. Next time, I'm trying Adorama.

    1. Good to know-- my only experiences have been ordering online.