Over the last year I’ve been rekindling an interest in photography. I’d grown tired of the deer-in-headlights look of the flash on point & shoots, and curious about the flexibility of a digital SLR camera. Unfortunately as hobbies go it is a potential money sinkhole. And it doesn’t help that many online reviewers assume dropping $1,000 on a new lens is no big deal. What follows are some of the good and bad purchases I’ve made while moving from complete rookie to rank amateur.

  • In the long-debated Canon vs. Nikon argument, I went with Canon. The Digital Rebel XTi had just come out and had what I was looking for. My biggest question was where to buy it. Good photography stores are tough to find, and yet they often charge 10-20% (plus tax) more than what you can find online. I bought mine at Hunts Photo during their annual sale in October. It is always a tough call between trying to get the lowest price or supporting a local store. The Rebel has been great camera, and fits my hands fine despite some feeling it is too small. Others have written much more in-depth reviews of its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Skip the Rebel's kit lens. It is a cheap, slow zoom lens, and the range is neither very wide nor tight. I bought it, and regretted it until I later sold it on Craigslist. The rule of thumb when picking a lens is that you can pick two of three features: Fast (low F-stop), Inexpensive or Zoom. On vacation this summer in Hawaii I was suprised how many Rebels I saw with the kit lens attached. I think if you're not going to put on other lenses, there are less expensive and bulky bodies, like the Canon PowerShot G9, that can take good pictures (and even shoot RAW). Instead pick up the Canon 50mm f/1.8. At $75 this is the like the first hit the drug dealer gives you for free. In a few months you'll be trying to score "L" glass and paying loads for a Gary Fong piece of plastic. But in meantime it is a great chance to learn on a prime lens and employ "sneaker zoom" to frame the shot. Others have written convincingly about the merits of starting with a 50mm that can produce high quality images.
  • Good tripods are expensive. Like many things in photography, you mostly get what you pay for. I tried to skimp and bought the relatively cheap Slik Sprint Pro Tripod. It is very lightweight, but the controls for adjusting it can be frustratingly slow. Instead, I'd pick up an inexpensive Joby Gorillapod. In addition to the awesome name, it is amazing how useful it can be if you get creative. Also, it is very compact and can be stuffed into many camerabags. Perfect for night shooting in urban environments.
  • The first camera bag I bought was a small Lowepro bag that only holds a camera with the attached lens. As soon as I bought a second lens, I needed a new bag. I'm a fan of the Tamrac Messenger camera bag, that I reviewed earlier. I'm happy with the compromise between size and amount of gear that will fit inside. And the messenger style is much quicker to access than any backpack style bag.
  • While not strictly necessary, I'd recommend using some of the money saved above to buy Adobe Lightroom. Learning how to use Lightroom (and shooting in RAW format) has improved many of my photos. Plus, if you are metadata or organizational nut, it is great for managing your photo collections. Soon you'll regret that you ever added tags directly to Flickr instead of adding them in Lightroom and exporting the photo. Of course there are cheaper alternatives like Picasa or iPhoto, but I'm hugely impressed with Lightroom for such a young product. While the full title includes "Photoshop", it is the exact opposite of Photoshop in terms of initial usability. Photoshop is for experts, beginners be damned while Lightroom is usable from day one but still has powerful features as you learn more. </ul>