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Equipment Recommendations

Clients often ask Photo Panda what equipment he recommends for people who are serious about photography. Based on his many years of training tens of thousands of photographers and working with their cameras, here is what he suggests:

The Washington Photo Safari Panda

First, you need to consider

1) how important a role does photography play in your life?

2) what kind of budget do you have available to support your photography habit?

3) what types of photography interest you the most?  Nature?  Kids?  Portraits?  Travel? Architecture? Macro?  Food?  Products?  Pets? Flowers? Journalism? Nighttime? Landscapes?   All the above?

Answering these questions will help you determine your equipment needs.


Secondly, bear in mind that good or bad pictures can be taken with any camera or Smartphone. It’s not the oven, it’s the cook who serves up the meal.  It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer who takes the picture!

Canon?  Nikon?  Sony?  Fuji?  Pentax?  Olympus? Panasonic?  They’re all good! And they can be all bad!  To paraphrase a former President, “It’s the Composition, Stupid!”

But if you have decided to whittle away your savings, your retirement money, and your kids’ college educations on camera equipment, here is what we suggest:

  • A digital single lens reflex or mirrorless camera body that takes interchangeable lenses and has an external flash mount. Any of the primary camera brands are good;  Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus, they all deliver excellent images.  Base your decision on features, size, and price. DX-size sensor bodies are fine for most photographers, the full-frame FX sensor gives higher resolution and bigger enlargements for professionals and serious amateurs.
  • (Make sure you understand the “crop factor” of your camera body.  For Nikons, you multiply the lens’s focal length by a factor of 1.5, for Canons it is 1.6, for four-thirds mirrorless cameras it is a factor of 2. Full frame cameras have no crop factor. Thus on a Canon Rebel T6i the 200mm telephoto performs like a 320mm zoom lens, and a 10mm superwide lens performs like a 16 mm lens. On a Nikon cropped sensor (DX) body, a 100mm lens acts like a 150mm lens. On a “full frame” FX camera body a 200 mm lens is, in fact, 200 mm!
  • Interchangeable zoom lenses that cover a focal length from 18mm to 200 or 270 mm. The lenses made by Canon, Nikon, and Sony are excellent but the off-brand lenses made by Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina also deliver very good quality at a much lower price.
  • For sports and nature lovers, a 70-300mm zoom, or an 80-400 mm zoom or a 150-600 mm zoom to get in close and tight on your subjects. Check out the excellent lenses offered by Sigma and Tamron that are priced considerably less than the Canon and Nikon equivalents. Another favorite of serious photographers is the 70-200mm F2.8 lens made by all the major manufacturers to work on both DX and FX sensor cameras.
  • An excellent all-purpose travel and event photography lens is Tamron’s 16-300mm zoom. Another good all-purpose lens is the excellent 24-70mm lens made by Canon, Nikon and Sigma which can be used on either FX or DX bodies. While not indispensable, this lens delivers sharper and higher quality images in low light than the 18-200 or 18-270 zooms. Want a real fuzzy “bokeh”, or blur, in the background?  Go for an 85mm F1.4!
  • A 50mm F 1.8 or F1.4 “Nifty Fifty” lens for low-light shooting and for excellent portrait and blurred background work. These lenses are small, relatively inexpensive ( $180 to $360) and VERY useful for portraiture and sports events taking place in dark places.
  • A 10-20mm, 12-24 mm or an 11-16mm superwide angle lens for large interior spaces and for tall buildings and wide landscapes. Tokina makes a highly rated 11-16mm lens. The Sigma 12-24mm is an excellent lens that works on either DX or FX bodies. The Nikon, Canon, Fuji and Pentax and Olympus superwide lenses are also excellent.
  • A set of circular polarizer and neutral density filters to fit your widest angle lenses, very useful to blue up and darken that sky, and to shoot at slow shutter speeds in bright light, giving you soft waterfalls and erasing  moving cars and people from a scene.
  • An external flash unit that provides full manual override plus tilt and swing modes,  such as the Canon Speedlite series and the Nikon SB-600/700/800/900 series. This is a very important accessory to add that extra punch of light to all family pictures, to portraits and many other uses, When its power level is dialed down to 1/8 or 1/16, the external flash unit keeps up and flashes repeatedly with the rapid shooting mode of your camera. Make sure what you get is electronically mated to your specific camera model.
  • A good-quality sturdy tripod made of carbon fiber, tall enough so that its yoke comes up to your throat, not your stomach, and strong enough to hold your camera with its heaviest lens. The best ones are made by Manfrotto, Slik and Gitzo, and the really good (i.e. very expensive) ones are made by Really Right Stuff and Arca Swiss.You also need an adjustable head (pistol grip for sports and birds, three-way head for architecture).
  • A Hoodman Loupe. a rubber eyecup with an adjustable diopter lens that hangs around your neck and allows you to clearly see your camera’s LCD screen in the bright sun.
  • Extra batteries and memory cards, and a levelling device for keeping your verticals perfectly straight , very important for good architectural work, a remote cable release for sharper pictures, and a small flashlight for nighttime work.
  • A hip bag or sling bag to carry and use all this stuff. Backpacks are good for carrying equipment, but not great for using equipment since you have to take off and open up the backpack to get access to your lenses. You will want the quick access a hip/sling bag gives you.

Where to buy: We always recommend that you purchase your camera equipment in a store, rather than online. Why?  Because you get good advice before, during and after the purchase that can save you money in the long run. A sales associate can demonstrate and explain the equipment.  In the DC area there are  District Camera and Pro Photo in downtown DC, Photocraft, and Ace Camera in Virginia, Ritz camera in Bethesda MD,  and Service Camera in Baltimore

Try Before You Buy: At a number of lens rental companies, such as Lumoid, you can rent for a few days, a week, or longer. If you like the equipment and decide to buy, they will apply part of the rental cost to the purchase.  If you decide not to get it, it has only cost you a few dollars a day vs. several hundred dollars on a purchase.

Finally, once you have the equipment you want, you need to learn how to use it and practice!  That is where we come in! Our approach is Confucian: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I understand. I do, and I remember!” On our photo safaris, we work with you as you are shooting, helping you take better pictures! That’s why our motto is: See. Click. Learn. Come join us on a safari!