Getting Started Shooting Nudes: Essential Gear - Choosing Your Camera

Blog Post Jul 11, 2020

The single most important piece of gear you need to get started with nude photography—or any type of photography, for that matter—is a camera. You must have some device capable of recording an image. Though there are many other items that most photographers would consider "essential", the reality is, pretty much everything else beyond the camera is optional.

If you already own a camera, start with what you already have unless you know, with certainty, that it isn't sufficient for your needs. After you've done a handful of shoots with the gear you own, you'll have a much better idea about what you need and will be better equipped to decide what, if anything, you should buy.

If you don't have a camera, but you do have a recent, high-end mobile phone, you actually have a good enough camera for doing available-light photography, though you may find models skeptical about working with a "photographer" whose only gear is their phone. That won't be an issue if your first models are yourself, a spouse, significant other, or friends, however.

Buying a Camera

At some point, if you get serious, you'll want to buy a camera. Choosing what camera model to buy is a very subjective and personal decision. The most important factor in determining what camera to buy will most likely be how much money you have to spend.

Getting the very best camera on the market does you no good if the purchase doesn't leave you enough money to buy lenses and accessories, pay for models, or cover your rent and other living expenses. So, before you do anything else, figure out how much you can realistically afford to invest in a camera system, keeping in mind that you'll need at least one lens in addition to a camera body (unless you buy a camera with an integrated lens, which I generally don't recommend). You'll also need at least one storage card (SF, CF, etc.) to store the pictures you take.

Most photographers will steer you away from what are called "kit lenses"– which are the lenses that are sold together with a camera body as a package. Kits often also include other accessories that you probably don't already have if you're buying your first serious camera: things like blower bulbs, lint-free cleaning cloths, storage cards, filters, a flash, a camera bag, or a remote camera trigger. Although there are exceptions, kit lenses tend to not be very good, so most serious photographers prefer to buy their body and lenses separately. I take a more muted view on this. While I buy bodies and lenses separately nowadays, a kit can often be a great choice for getting started on a budget. While a kit lens will rarely be great, if you're going to be shooting mostly outside at high ƒ-stops, you can get really good results with them.

We'll talk about what ƒ-stops are more in later posts, but a "high" ƒ-stop means the aperture of your lens is closed down very small so it lets less light in. When you shoot outside during the day under a cloudless sky, you can easily shoot at ƒ16, or even higher. At these high ƒ-stop ratings, the difference between a really good lens and a "just okay" lens won't be all that noticeable. If you're planning to primarily shoot outdoors to start, a good camera body with a kit lens might be the best option in your price range, just realize that you'll probably end up buying a better lens (or lenses) at some point in the future as you gain more experience and become more demanding.

Digital vs. Film

For most working professional photographers, the digital vs. film debate was settled long ago and—spoiler alert—digital won. That being said, film is very much alive and has been seeing a resurgence of late.

I'm going to put a stake in the ground and say: if you're just getting started, start with digital.

A cabinet full of old cameras.
Photo by Jonathan Kemper / Unsplash

Digital photography borrows most of its terminology and paradigms from film cameras, so most of the skills you'll learn using a digital camera will transfer directly over to film. But, digital is much more forgiving, so you'll likely find it far less frustrating than learning on film.  Once you've got a good grasp on the fundamentals of photography, switching to film will be much easier and less painful than trying to learn the fundamentals of photography at the same time that you're learning the nuances of film.

Interchangeable vs. Integrated Lens

If you buy a camera with an integrated lens, you will be limited to the focal length and apertures of that lens. I'll discuss when and why you might use different lenses in future posts, but getting a body that uses interchangeable lenses will give you a lot more flexibility and freedom to grow as a photographer. Even if you only plan to buy a single lens at first, choosing an interchangeable lens body will give you the option to grow your collection of lenses (aka "glass") over time.

Additionally, good glass treated well, will likely outlive your camera body (several camera bodies, in fact), meaning you can buy the latest, greatest, newest body in the future without having to re-invest in new lenses, as long as you stay with the same vendor and system type (e.g. Nikon FX or Canon EF-S³). If you buy a camera with an integrated lens, when you outgrow it, you have to replace everything.

Sensor Size

One choice you have to make when buying your first camera is what size sensor will my camera have? The size of the sensor is one of the primary factors in the cost of a digital camera, with smaller sensors generally costing less, but also having lower image quality. A larger sensor typically give images that are sharper, have a greater dynamic range, and contain less noise. Larger sensors also tend to have better low light performance.

A close-up image of a digital camera with no lens and shutter raised so that the sensor is visible.
Photo by Alexander Andrews / Unsplash

But… sensor technology has been advancing at a breakneck pace over the last decade, so a larger but older sensor will often be inferior to a newer small one.

Here are the names of common sensor sizes you'll often see thrown around, in descending order of size:

  • Medium Format Sensor (e.g. 43.8 x 32.8mm, 53.4 x 40mm): Generally only found in very expensive, high-end professional cameras, these are the largest sensors you'll find in mass-produced cameras. The name "medium format" comes from the film days, when 2¼ roll film was called "medium format" because it was larger than 35mm, but smaller than traditional plate cameras that used 4x5 and 8x10 sheets of film. Medium format sensors are nearly (but in most cases, not quite) as large as a traditional 2¼ medium format film frame. Today, the name "medium format" is used to describe a handful of different size sensors that are larger than a traditional 35mm negative.
  • Full Frame (35mm x 24mm): The most common sensor size used in professional-grade digital cameras, this sensor is exactly the same size as a 35mm negative. Since the earliest professional digital cameras used this size, the traits of other sensors are often specified relative to a full frame sensor.
  • APS-H (≈29mm by ≈19mm): A slightly smaller sensor used in a lot of "prosumer" and enthusiast DSLRs, there are several slightly different versions of this sensor with slightly different sizes. Sensors of this size (and the next size down: APS-C) are often referred to as "crop sensors" because many of the bodies with these types of sensors can use lenses designed for full frame cameras, but the sensors only capture a portion of the image from the lens, resulting in the image being cropped. APS-H has a crop factor, compared to full frame cameras, of 1.3.
  • APS-C (23.6mm by 15.8mm): A little bit smaller sensor used in many smaller consumer DSLRs, this sensor has a crop factor of 1.7.
  • Micro 4/3 (17.3mm by 13mm): About a quarter the size of a full frame sensor, this size sensor is used in many mirrorless cameras, especially smaller, consumer-targeted ones.
  • CX (13.2mm by 8mm): A sensor used primarily in higher-end point and shoot cameras.
  • Small Sensors: There are a whole bunch of even smaller sensors whose sizes are generally given as a fraction of one inch on the long edge. Some of the small sensor sizes you may see are: 1/1.7, 1/2.5, 1/2.3, 2/3, 1/3.2, 1/1.2, and 1/1.8. These small sensors are primarily used in consumer cameras, webcams, security cameras, and mobile phones.

While larger sensors are generally "better" than smaller sensors, going with a less-than-full-frame sensor is one of the best ways to keep your costs down when buying your first camera. Full frame cameras are mostly targeted at working professionals and very experienced hobbyists, so they tend to have the most cutting-edge features. As a result, they cost quite a lot, with very few current-generation full-frame camera bodies starting at under $2000.

When shooting under bright daylight, or with studio strobes, many of the benefits of a larger sensor are far less evident, and the cost savings from a camera with a smaller sensor can be significant. There are some very capable crop-sensor cameras available starting around $500.

The reality is, modern camera sensors are amazing and are only going to keep getting better. You can great results with any modern sensor and the benefits of a full frame or medium format sensor more often than not will be lost on someone who is just getting started.

In most respects, once you've selected your camera body, you don't really have to worry about the size of the sensor any more. There is, however, one thing you need to know about cameras with different sized sensors: the lens focal lengths are different.

For example, a 50mm lens on a full frame camera does not give the same field of view as a 50mm lens on an APS-H camera. The equivalent focal length on APS-H is roughly 38mm. To convert, divide the full frame focal length by the crop factor of the sensor you're converting to. APS-H has a crop factor of about 1.3, so if we divide 50 by 1.3, we get 38.46. Since focal lengths usually only come in whole number values, we round down to 38mm, and that tells us that a 38mm lens on an APS-H camera will have roughly the same field of view as a 50mm on a full-frame camera.

Must Have Features

When you start researching cameras, you might get a little overwhelmed by all the available models and features. Sometimes, two models from the same manufacturer will seem so similar, it's hard to even understand why they both exist. There are a few absolute must-have features you should look for, though.

Adjustable ISO

ISO a measure of the camera sensor's sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the less light you'll need to get a correctly-exposed picture, but the trade off is a lower quality final image. The term is a holdover from the film days, when different film stock had different sensitivity to light and you would pick your film based on the lighting situation you were planning to photograph. Nowadays, it's rare for cameras not to have an adjustable ISO, though some consumer cameras hide this setting away and adjust the ISO automatically by default. If you're going to get seriously into photography, you need to be able to control the ISO, and it's best if the controls to change ISO are easily accessible while shooting. You don't want to miss the perfect shot because you had to take the camera away from your eye to adjust ISO.

Manual Mode

Many consumer-targeted cameras either don't have a fully manual mode, or are designed in such a way that using full manual mode is difficult. You want to make sure that the camera you're looking at has full manual mode, and that shutter speed and aperture are easy to change without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

The three settings I've mentioned - aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, make up what photographers call the "exposure triangle", because they are the three values that primarily affect whether your image is properly exposed. Being able to adjust all three of these settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder will make your life so much easier when shooting.

I'll talk about the exposure triangle in great detail in a future post.

Hot Shoe and/or PC Sync Socket

Many models of camera, regardless of style, will have a hot shoe, which is the little metal doohicky on the top of the camera body that you can use to attach an external flash. As you start looking at more expensive "prosumer" and professional models, you'll also start to see something called a PC sync socket somewhere on the camera body. Most cameras with a PC sync socket will also have a hot shoe, though there are some high-end medium format cameras that have a PC sync socket, but no hot shoe.

A picture of a camera hot shoe next to a picture of a PC sync socket.
Two ways of triggering external flashes and studio strobes: the hot shoe (left) and the PC sync socket (right)

Even if you think you only want to shoot with natural or existing light, getting a camera with at least one of these two items is a good idea, because you may reach a point where the limitations of natural light start to frustrate you. Fortunately, most prosumer and pro cameras have both, and even the majority of consumer cameras have a hot shoe.

Raw File Support

Internally, all digital cameras use a "raw" file format that represents the image data exactly as it was recorded by the sensor. Cameras are capable of converting that raw file format into a standard image format such as JPEG, and some cameras default to this behavior. Most serious photographers keep and edit the raw file, which functions like a digital negative, giving you a lot more latitude to make adjustments to your image without losing image quality.

A Camera that Fits You

One "feature" that rarely gets talked about when purchasing a camera is a really important one: how the camera feels in your hand, and whether the controls on the camera make sense and are easy for you to use. If you get serious about photography, you will spend a lot of time holding your camera. If it doesn't feel good to you or the control placement doesn't feel natural, then it's not a good camera for you, no matter how nice the specs are³.

In general, it's not a good idea to buy a camera you haven't had a chance to hold in your hand before you purchase it. There are times when you can break this rule–such as when moving to an upgraded version of the camera you already have—but generally speaking, you don't want to buy a camera unless you know it feels good in your hand, isn't too light or heavy, and has controls that make sense for you.

Mechanism Type

Digital cameras come primarily in two different styles that use different internal mechanisms: DSLR and mirrorless.

DSLR

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex, and is a style of digital camera that evolved from film-based SLR (single lens reflex) cameras. In all single-lens reflex cameras, the image is reflected up to the viewfinder using a mirror and a pentaprism, so you're seeing the actual image that will be recorded when you press the shutter button. Prior to the SLR, when you looked through the viewfinder of a camera, you were seeing an approximation of what would be recorded on film.

When you press the shutter button to take a picture, the mirror that bounces the image up to the rangefinder very quickly moves out of the way to allow the image to pass through to the shutter and onto the sensor.

Until recently, nearly all professional and prosumer digital cameras were DSLRs. While the mirror-and-pentaprism combination was revolutionary in the days of film, at this point, they are largely an artifact of the past because digital cameras can pull the image directly from the sensor and display that in the viewfinder or camera screen with just a few wires.  The mirror mechanism adds quite a bit of size and weight to the camera and adds a potential mechanical point of failure. It also limits the speed at which pictures can be taken. Even the highest-end professional DSLRs can't exceed about 14 frames per second because of the time required to physically move the mirror out of the way.

Mirrorless

Several camera manufacturers started replacing the mirror and pentaprism mechanism in their cameras with a simpler system that pulls the image directly from the camera sensor and displays it in the viewfinder digitally. By removing the large physical mirror mechanism that redirects the light away from the camera sensor, and the pentaprism that directs the image to your eye, mirrorless cameras can pack identical functionality into a smaller, lighter package that's less prone to mechanical failure.

The earliest commercial mirrorless cameras—such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1—used a micro 4/3 sensor and were primarily designed to compete with consumer DSLRs. It didn't take long for the advantages of mirrorless to become obvious, however, and many more manufacturers started designing mirrorless cameras across all price and feature points. Eventually even Canon and Nikon—the two big dogs in the DSLR market—started releasing mirrorless bodies.

Digital Rangefinder

You may see the term "digital rangefinder" used for some types of cameras. A digital rangefinder is really just a mirrorless camera. Back in the days of film, a rangefinder was a type of camera where you looked through a device (also) called a rangefinder, which used one of a variety of mechanisms to approximate the view through the camera's lens. The best-known brand of traditional rangefinder cameras is Leica.

While there have been a few digital cameras released that were true mechanical rangefinders, such as the Pixii A1112, the vast majority of so-called "digital rangefinders" produced today use a digital viewfinder that displays the image directly from the camera sensor. That means they are really just mirrorless cameras that have been styled to look like classic rangefinders.

Buying Used

One option to consider, if you're interested in buying professional or prosumer gear, but just don't have the budget for it, is buying a camera body used. I wouldn't generally opt for buying a camera that's more than four or five years old, but a lot of people do upgrade their equipment pretty regularly, and professional grade equipment is built to last, so if you can find someone who is unloading their old gear, you can often get a deal. It's better to buy local, as there are  a lot of scams out there. Many camera shops will also have used gear for sale. It'll usually be a bit more expensive than buying directly from a consumer, but will usually have been cleaned and may have some kind of warranty.

If you're considering buying used, see if the seller will let you take a few pictures with it. If they won't, that's a red flag. Among the pictures you should take, is one that's just of a clean white sheet of paper, which will allow you to see if there are any problems, such as dust on the sensor.

Choosing Between Mirrorless and DSLR

We are clearly in a period of transitions, and mirrorless is the future. That being said, the DSLR is far from dead. While mirrorless cameras have several clear advantages, DSLRs have been around longer and are far more mature systems with larger ecosystems. The current Canon and Nikon lens systems, for example, have been made for decades, evolving from the lens systems used in 35mm film cameras. There are literally dozens (maybe hundreds) of different lenses (from multiple manufacturers) that can be used with these cameras. Sony's e-mount system (probably the largest mirrorless ecosystem), has about two dozen lenses... if you count adapters and converters.

There are also a lot of photographers who already have large investments in their DSLR system. While there are adapters that allow you to use some DSLR lenses and accessories on some mirrorless cameras, they are imperfect, so a lot of photographers have a disincentive to move to mirrorless.

Although this is starting to change, traditionally, the ergonomics and control layout on mirrorless cameras have been less-polished than those on DSLRs, which kind of makes sense, since modern DSLRs are literally the result of over fifty years of design evolution⁴.

If you're just starting today and are not already invested in any specific system, I would probably steer you toward looking at mirrorless systems, since they are clearly the future of photography. That being said, I still shoot DSLRs and probably will for quite some time. I have yet to find a mirrorless body that I like as well as my current camera and I've invested several thousand dollars in glass and accessories over the years that I'd rather not have to replace. The downsides of DSLRs are rarely an issue for me, and I honestly like the heft and feel of a larger camera in my hand.

Conclusion

There is no one right answer to the question, "which camera should I buy". All the major manufacturers make capable cameras across a wide price and feature range. A camera purchase is a highly personal decision, so your best best is to try out the cameras you're interested in before buying anything. That way, you can be sure it works for you. We've honestly reached a point where you can get great results with the majority of digital cameras on the market, including less-expensive consumer-targeted cameras, so you need to figure out what features are important to you and let that guide your purchasing decision.


1- When shooting with the sun, consider shooting during the first or last hour of sunlight. Because the sun passes through so much more atmosphere, it is a softer, warmer light that's generally more flattering than the harsh, direct sunlight you get the rest of the day. Photographer's refer to the first hour of sunlight after the sun rises and the last hour before it sets as the "golden hour", because the light is so flattering.

2- Lenses designed for crop sensor and full-frame cameras often use the same mount and are, technically speaking, interchangeable, but generally, you want to stick with the correct lens type for your body to avoid missing part of the image or getting vignetting.

3- My father, my wife, and I all have cameras bodies with similar capabilities and price points. My father shoots Canon, I shoot Nikon, and my wife shoots Sony. All three are great cameras, and the only significant difference between them is the layout of the controls and the shape of the body. Don't worry about what camera other people use; find what works for you.

4- The earliest DSLRs were actually built using film SLR bodies.