How to choose a camera and lens for fashion photography

This is the first post in a series of monthly posts I will be doing on fashion photography. Before I became a fashion photographer, I was a newborn and maternity photographer. Works of Love Photography was a successful business I owned and operated for seven years, until 2013, when I decided to focus on my family. Over those years I learned so much about how to take a good portrait. There is so much to learn and know about portrait photography and what I learned has been easily applied to fashion photography. High quality portraits can absolutely make the difference between an average fashion blog and one that truly stands out in a crowded blogosphere.

Today’s post is about how to choose a DSLR camera and lens. If you really want to take your fashion photography to the next level, it is important to invest in a DSLR camera. The difference in quality between a DSLR camera and a point and shoot or smart phone is amazing. So you’ve decided you want to use a DSLR camera but where do you start?

How to Choose a DSLR Camera

The first obvious consideration is cost. Fashion blogging is a labor of love, especially in the beginning, and it can be hard to justify spending a lot of money on a camera and lens. The first thing to consider is whether or not you want a full frame or a crop sensor camera. Crop sensor cameras are very good (I used one for the first two years of my portrait business) and one can create beautiful images with them. They are also very cost effective.

Cropped Sensor vs. Full Frame

So what is the difference between a cropped sensor camera and a full frame camera? Before the era of DSLR cameras, film SLR cameras existed. These cameras had a rectangle that captured the image that was 24mm by 36 mm in size. This became known as the 35 mm camera. When DSLR cameras first became popular, it was more difficult and expensive to create a digital “full frame” sensor. Thus, cropped sensors were created. These cameras had a crop factor of 1.5 (for Nikon) or 1.6 (for Canon).

A cropped sensor is just that, a “cropped” view of a full frame image. See below for an example:

How to choose a camera and lens for fashion photography

A cropped sensor camera costs significantly less than it’s full frame counterpart. For the average amateur photographer, this is perfectly reasonable. A cropped sensor camera will effectively increase the focal length of a lens (more on what that means later on).

For example, a Nikon 50 mm lens on a cropped sensor camera produces an image with the same field of view as a 75 mm lens on a full frame camera (1.5x crop factor). This can be a good situation for telephoto photography as extra reach can be gained with a crop sensor camera (a 70-200 mm lens will take the same pictures as a 105-300 mm lens on a full frame camera).

So what are the advantages to a “full frame” camera?

The biggest motivation for me to switch to a full frame camera was an aesthetic one. Blurry backgrounds (bokeh) are very appealing to me and it is much easier to get that effect with a full frame camera. A full frame camera will have a more shallow “depth of field” (more bokeh) than it’s cropped sensor counterpart, at the same effective focal length (this topic is more thoroughly explained here).

Additionally, because a full frame camera has a larger sensor it can perform better in low light situations. The bigger the sensor, the more light it can collect. This is reflected in the ISO range of a camera. Cropped sensor cameras tend to produce more “noise” in low light situations. Finally, the quality of the image tends to be superior compared to it’s cropped sensor counterpart. The bigger the sensor, the higher quality image you will get.

Nikon vs. Canon

There are many different camera manufacturers available but today I am going to focus on Nikon vs Canon. I have used Nikon products ever since college, so the first DSLR camera I purchased was a Nikon. This was just my preference, as I know many portrait photographers who prefer Canon. Both are excellent companies that have been producing cameras for decades. The charts below show you the differences between their consumer end and professional end cameras:

dslr-comparison-2-1

*comes configured with a kit lens

dslr-comparison-1

*comes configured with a kit lens

Here you can see the cost difference between a full-frame camera and a cropped sensor camera. Entry level cameras can be purchased for under $1000. If you decide to purchase one of these, the biggest word of advice I will give is do not purchase the kit lens. A kit lens is inexpensive, but there are much better lenses that can be purchased for a similar cost. The most basic Nikon camera, the D3400 however, is only autofocus compatible “AF-P”  and this severely limits the lens compatibility of these cameras. The  Canon Rebel T6 is only compatible with “EF-S” lenses.

A full frame camera will cost anywhere between $1269 and $1500.  If you can afford it, I highly recommend purchasing a full-frame camera. Expect to pay at least $6000 for the best professional camera these companies make.

A word about megapixels.

More megapixels is not necessarily better unless you plan on printing extremely large billboards. Both the Nikon D810 and the Canon 5DMk IV produce images over 30 megapixels in size. Plan on having a lot of hard drive space on your computer if you are using these cameras. This reason alone would dissuade me from buying either of these cameras.  You will get an image with amazing detail for the purposes of fashion blogging with a camera with 12 megapixels.

The cameras I have listed are the current models both Canon and Nikon sell. A good cost-saving option would be to purchase a used camera built two to three years prior (you can see the history behind these cameras here for Nikon and here for Canon). I actually shoot with a Nikon D4 that I have used since 2012 and I am very happy with this camera. Before that, I used a Nikon D700 (the first image in this post was taken with that camera). Camera technology can change rapidly and the older versions can depreciate significantly in value.

Which Lens Do I Choose?

So you’ve decided on a camera, now you need a lens. A good basic “prime” (meaning only one focal length) is the 50 mm f 1.8 lens. This lens can be purchased for $130 (Nikon) or $110 (Canon). A 50 mm lens is a good portrait lens (and on a cropped sensor camera would produce the came field of view as a 75 mm lens). Many portrait and fashion photographers use a 50 mm lens almost exclusively. Some even use a 35 mm lens, and this can be great if you want to incorporate your environment into your photo (a good idea if you are photographing around large buildings and want them in your picture). If you want to really enhance the blurriness or “bokeh” of your photo, you want to use a lens with a longer focal length. Below I am showing you the appearance of a portrait at various focal lengths (the American Girl doll was a very willing subject!):

focal-length-comparison-jpg

I chose the fence to be in the background to illustrate the depth of field at various focal lengths. Each of these photos were taken at the same distance from the doll.  I used prime lenses almost entirely (as these are what I like to use). Aperture (or f-stop) was almost always f2 (f2.8 for the 70-200 mm and 105 mm macro lens). Notice that the background is almost completely blurred (more bokeh) with the 70-200 lens and this is very visually appealing. The 135 f2 lens creates a very similar look with slightly less bokeh. The 50 mm lens creates an image incorporating a significant amount of background (though if shooting very close to your subject the background would be significantly more blurred). The 35 mm lens is more of a “wide-angle” lens.

The Exact Lens I Use Is…

Personally, for fashion photography I like to use the 135 mm f2 lens. It is a great lens for “bokeh” and it is significantly lighter and less expensive than the 70-200 f2.8 lens. My original training was that of a portrait photographer, and I like the focus to be on the subject, with the rest of the background blurry. Other photographers I know prefer to use a wider angle lens and this can be very nice as well from a stylistic standpoint.

So, in summary, if you want to take your fashion photography to the next level, invest in a DSLR camera. If you can, try and buy a mid-range camera, and get a full-frame camera if possible. There is a wide range of lenses to consider, so think about what you want your style to be.

Next month I will be discussing how to take pictures in Manual Mode. Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions below!

April