As we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words. Some things are just conveyed far more effectively in an image than they could ever be in text. Many of the most important events of the 20th century are seared into the public consciousness by images that have become just as famous as the events themselves. Take Jeff Widener’s photographs of the Tiananmen Square ‘Tank Man’ for example. These images have become so strongly associated with the events they depict that the two are now almost impossible to separate. That’s the power of photography.
This power has been leveraged by businesses for almost as long as cameras have existed. The development of the web from a text based format in the early days to a largely visual medium today means that your business’s choice of photography is now more important than it has ever been.
Fortunately, these days professional results can be achieved with a digital camera for a fraction of the cost that businesses would have paid for photography in the days of film. In this series of articles we’re going to show you how to use the power of photography wisely to ensure that the image that customers associate with your business is clear, engaging and professional, without costing the earth.
Whilst there are many great companies producing excellent cameras and lenses, in this article we’re going to limit recommendations to models from Canon and Nikon as these are the two most widely available manufacturers.
Buying the right camera for the job
Naturally, the first thing you need to do is get yourself a camera. For professional results you really need to use a DSLR. A DSLR is a digital camera where the image you see through the optical viewfinder is exactly the same image coming through the lens.
If you’re wondering why you shouldn't simply buy a bog standard digital camera without an optical viewfinder, the answer is four fold:
DSLRs offer far better image quality than most other digital cameras. This is in part due to the fact that they have larger sensors which can capture more light.
Whilst it sounds complicated, the time between the you pressing the shutter button, the mirror moving and the image being captured is literally a split second. The SLR system is far faster than most other forms of camera and it will often be the difference between you getting or missing a shot.
Holding the camera with the viewfinder against your face and your arms braced against your body helps steady the camera and prevent blurry shots.
Most cameras will use far more battery power if you have the rear screen turned on all the time. Using the optical viewfinder uses very little power. This means there’s less chance of your battery running out when you’re getting some crucial pictures of a conference, a product launch or some other one-off event far away from the office and, crucially, your charger.
There are two main types of DSLR on the market today, crop sensor and full-frame. Full-frame cameras are the most expensive as they have a sensor the same size as a 35mm film negative. Remember those? This large sensor gives you the best image quality as it gathers more light. Crop sensor cameras are cheaper as they use a smaller sensor that costs less to manufacture.
If you can afford it, a full frame camera will give the most professional results. The technology used to produce sensors is improving and bringing costs down and recently several full frame cameras aimed at enthusiasts and semi professionals have entered the market. The two best examples of these new ‘budget’ full frame models are the Canon 6D and the Nikon D610.
A lower price camera with a crop sensor such as the Canon 70D or Nikon D7100 will still produce stunning images and offer far greater usability compared to a cheaper model.
If your budget won’t stretch to any of these cameras then an entry level camera will be fine for light business use but be aware you might have to delve into the camera’s menu to change settings for which a mid-range model will have dedicated buttons or dials. If you’re photographing an event this can be the difference between missing or getting a shot.
One of the best features about DSLRs is the fact that the lenses are interchangeable. This is crucial as lens quality makes more difference to the end result than any other part of the photographic system. The camera itself is referred to as a ‘body’. Many cameras come as a ‘kit’ containing the body and one or two lenses. This kit is often good value for money as it offers substantial savings on the price of buying the lens separately. However, it’s only a money saver if the lens fulfils your needs.
Choosing the best lenses
Aspiring professionals will often spend more money on their ‘glass’, or lenses, than their cameras because, unlike a camera, a good quality lens will rarely become redundant.
Lenses are named according to their focal length and their maximum aperture, i.e 24mm F2.8 or 50mm F1.4. The focal length has a direct effect on both the magnification and angle of view of the lens. Lenses are grouped together based on their focal length and the affect this has on the image that they produce:
Extra Wide Angle: A lens less than 24mm. This lens has a very wide angle of view and will make close objects appear larger and distant objects appear smaller. This kind of lens is often used in movies and extreme sports films to distort perspective and make stunts seem bigger than they actually are.
Wide Angle: A lens with a focal length between 24mm and 35mm. Lenses at the shorter end of the scale will share some characteristics with extra wide angle lenses. These lenses are great for getting shots of large groups of people or taking pictures of buildings and room interiors.
Standard: This is the focal length most like the human eye. 50-80mm are standard lengths and are great for portraits and headshots as they compress facial features in a flattering way. A standard prime lens is fairly cheap because good image quality can be achieved without complicated optics.
Telephoto: A lens longer than 85mm but less than 130mm. This lens narrows the field of view but magnifies the image. This has the effect of compressing the image and making objects appear closer together than they really are. These lenses are good for getting pictures of distant objects or people mingling at events.
Super Telephoto: These lenses are over 300mm and are some of the most expensive on the market. They are also large, heavy and only really necessary for specialist applications such as sports and wildlife photography.
A lens’s aperture is a hole that is made bigger or smaller by overlapping blades. It affects the amount of light that can pass through the lens. Along with the amount of time that the shutter stays open it is one of the ways the photographer controls how exposed an image is. The size of a lens’s aperture is expressed as an f-number or f-stop such as f2.8 or f4.
There are two major types of lenses: ‘prime’ and ‘zoom’. A lens with a fixed focal length, i.e 50mm, is a ‘prime’ lens and will generally be less expensive than a zoom, e.g. 24-70mm, lens of similar quality. That’s because changing the focal length of a lens as you do when you ‘zoom’ introduces optical problems that need to be rectified inside the lens. This means quality zoom lenses are generally more expensive and heavier. A very cheap and light zoom lens is unlikely to be any good unless you like unusual paperweights.
Some things to bear in mind when shopping for lenses include:
Get the biggest (smallest number) aperture you can afford. Aim for around f4 for a standard zoom lens and around f1.8 or f1.4 for a standard prime. This lets more light in, letting you take pictures in a greater variety of conditions, and will give you beautiful depth of field (which we’ll get onto in the next article in this series).
Don’t get zooms with a massive difference in focal length. Unless you buy a super expensive lens like the Canon EF 28-300 L then the image quality will be poor. Stick to zooms with a multiplication factor of around 4 or 5, such as a 24-70mm or 70-300mm lens.
Prime lenses are cheaper than zooms. If your budget is very tight you might save money and get better images by buying a 50mm prime than a cheap zoom.
That said, zooms offer more versatility. They may be heavier but you might be able to save weight by needing to carry fewer lenses.
If you intend to use your DSLR for video (Read Howard’s article on using video for your company) then it’s a good idea to buy a lens with some sort of image stabilisation. This uses tiny motors to correct for the camera shaking and it can make a real difference to the quality of your footage.
If you have a crop sensor camera, remember to take the ‘crop factor’ into consideration. Most Canon and Nikon cameras below £1000 use sensors that are smaller than an old 35mm film frame by a factor of 1.6 and 1.5 respectively. This means that to estimate the angle of view you need to multiply the focal length of a full frame lens by 1.6 or 1.5 when you put it on a crop sensor camera. For example, when used on a Canon crop-sensor camera, a 50mm full frame lens will give you the equivalent angle of view of an 80mm lens.
Be aware that whilst a lens designed for full frame will fit on a crop sensor camera the reverse is not true. Crop sensor lenses will foul the shutter on a full frame camera. Canon full frame lenses form their EF series and their crop lenses the EF-S series. Nikon call their full frame lenses FX format and their crop sensor lenses DX format.
A good setup for general business purposes is a mid range crop sensor camera and a ‘standard’ zoom with a sensible aperture such as the Canon EF-S 17-55 f2.8 or Nikkor 16-85 f3.5-5.6 DX. If you buy a full frame camera then something like the Canon 24-105mm f4 L or Nikkor 24-120 f4 will cover events and most product photography.
In part two of this blog we’ll look at how to combine shutter speed and aperture to make sure your shots are exposed properly and how you can use depth of field and blur to convey different feelings in your images.