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Night Photography Beginners Guide, Part 1: Choosing a Camera

I’m often asked about the techniques and equipment I use to create my night photographs. Most enquirers assume it involves lots of expensive equipment. It doesn’t have to.

This first chapter in the series is aimed at the absolute beginner;  the person who possibly doesn’t even own a camera yet. I’m going back to the place I was at in early December 2009; no digital camera,  no experience of night photography, no clue how my attempts would turn out but with a determination to learn.

Before I get into some of the detail, I have to point out this series most definitely will not be the definitive guide to night photography. I can only share my personal experience and what I’ve found works for me. Other photographers may well disagree with some (or maybe all!) of what comes next.  But if you’re a total NPy newbie and you like my work, you should find at least some of the info in this series will have you producing good quality images early in your night photography career.

I’m covering digital photography only here. Shooting on film is a whole different ball game and won’t be covered on this site – firstly because I know next to nothing about it and secondly, the quickest, easiest and least expensive way to start shooting at night is with a digital camera.

OK, lets start. You need a DSLR. It’s possible a few of the latest high end compact point and shoot cameras might work in some applications but for maximum versatility and capability, you need a DSLR. Depending on what you intend to use your images for, just about any currently available DSLR will work. If funds don’t stretch to a brand new camera, save some cash and buy used, like I did. If you’re feeling flush, skip the next few paragraphs, buy the best new DSLR you can afford and come back for the next installment.

Buying used: not wishing to plough too much money into uncharted territory (in case it didn’t work out 😉 ), I bought my first DSLR on ebay. I paid £190 for a used Canon 20D. It came with kit lens (17-55mm), charger, battery, leads, manual and discs i.e. everything I needed to start taking photographs. I opted for the 20D mainly because I’d read Troy Paiva used one. They were (and are) readily available on ebay for reasonable money. Troy points out in his technical guide that it’s important to use a camera fitted with a CMOS sensor. I had no idea what that meant but figured if a 20D worked for Troy, the 20D was more than good enough for me.

Checking on ebay earlier today, used 20Ds typically sell for between £150 and £250.  If you can stretch the budget a little further, consider a Canon 40D. Compared to the 20D, it has more mega pixels (10.1 vs 8.2) and comes with a larger, easier to read LCD (3 inch vs 1.8 inch).  I have to admit that larger LCD would be a benefit to me nowadays… the reading glasses have to come out at night when I’m viewing the LCD on my 20D 😉  However, don’t assume the camera with lesser features is necessarily inferior. There are people making way better images with low spec cameras than the rich kid with the latest full frame, mega-buck, top of the range model. As long as your camera meets the minimum basic requirements, image quality will largely come down to YOU. If you really get into this, postpone upgrading to something better until you know for sure your ability has exceeded that of your equipment. By that time you’ll also have a much better idea which upgrades to purchase than you do right now.canon 20D vs 40D

If you plan posting your images on the internet (eg Flickr), the 20D’s 8.2 mega pixel resolution is more than adequate to create high quality images. The largest prints I’ve pulled off my 20D so far are 24″ x 16″, they look fine to me and others must think so too, cos people have have been buying ’em! Word of caution though; going from camera to print is a lot more involved than posting pics on the internet. A topic for a separate post.

When you’re trawling the listings on ebay, you’ll notice many of the cameras are sold as ‘body only’. That’s because DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses. In brief, the best type of lens for outdoor night photography is commonly referred to as ‘Ultra Wide Angle’ eg Canon 10-22mm, Sigma 10-20mm or Tokina 12-24mm. On cameras such as the Canon 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D, 60D or the Rebel series, you’ll generally want a lens that can go as wide as wide as 12mm or less. Although my camera came with an 18-55mm, I knew I needed a wider lens to achieve the ‘look’  I was after. The next post in this series will discuss lenses in greater detail but for now, if you see a good deal for a ‘body only’, go for it because most of the cameras listed with a lens will come with the standard kit lens which you’ll most likely never use if you’re looking to create the kind of images I and other night photographers specialise in. Having said that, if the right ‘camera with kit lens’ deal comes along, at least you have something you can use straight out of the box, get in some practice and familiarise yourself with your camera’s controls.

canon 20D body only and with kit lens

BTW… sorry for not discussing Nikon or other makes here. It’s not a bias thing. I got into Canon and stuck with them. I don’t know enough about other manufacturers cameras to make any specific recommendations.

Next installment: Choosing a lens

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