I bought my Single Lens Reflex camera, a 24-megapixel crop-frame Sony Alpha 65, during February of 2013 which would have made me 17 years old at the time. I had just begun taking an interest in the world of artistic imagery because of a few photography albums posted online by friends, causing me to research into and ask those friends about the methods that they used to create such images.
One in particular, an altered photograph of the downtown area in my hometown Downers Grove, had a large influence on my desire to shift into photography. I asked my friend who had taken the image how he achieved the starburst effect emanating from stationary lights and headlight streaks from passing cars, as well as the effect of filtering out all colors except red. He told me that he used Adobe Lightroom for the filtering, which instantly put me on a path to acquire the program for my own use, and that the other effects were achievable with single lens reflex (SLR) cameras.
He told me to set the camera to have a high f-stop value to get that effect, and some research into f-stop mechanics led me to find that a high f-stop value would shrink the aperture within the lens to increase the depth of field and would also shape the orifice into a heptagon which caused the flares that formed starbursts on each light source in a photograph. I always try to understand phenomena like that in the fullest detail that I can, so I looked into the physics behind the light’s interaction with the aperture to know exactly how the light is influenced. The science behind the effects and limitations of modern cameras intrigued me greatly when I learned about such things as chromatic aberration, noise, diffraction limitation, focal distance and depth-of-field, which alone had me convinced of the capabilities of SLR cameras that point-and-shoot cameras lacked.
I researched modern brands and technologies to see where I could get the most for my money with as many features that I would expect to use as possible. The Sony camera body that I settled on had the best specifications and in my opinion the most useful features of any camera within my budget, so I purchased it. Over the next few years I learned much about and tested the boundaries of SLR crop cameras, capturing moments often exactly the way that I wanted to, and not left disappointed by the limitations of low-quality cameras. Photography has become a relaxing hobby and a way to share my experiences with others through beautiful, creative art.
My search for the best budget camera body included popular brands like Canon and Nikon, but I was really drawn to the capabilities of mid-level Sony SLR camera bodies. While there were fewer lenses to choose from, and there was ultimately less deeply-developed lens technology, the bodies available had features that I found extremely useful. The body that I settled on, the Alpha 65, has a 24-megapixel CMOS image sensor where other brands models with competitive prices only offered 18 megapixels.
The feature that I enjoy the most, though, is the A65’s OLED viewfinder. The camera processes images drawn from the image sensor, then displays the images at a high frame rate in the viewfinder after adding any selected effects and displaying the real brightness that a captured photo will have at the selected ISO setting, all in real time. In most models up to that point, in 2013, camera viewfinders relied on light directly reflected into the eyepiece by a mirror stationed behind the lens that flipped away to allow light to hit the sensor only when the image was being taken.
Sony’s newest models at the time take advantage of a fixed translucent mirror, which reflects 30% of the light to the autofocusing array and allows 70% to reach the sensor at all times. This real-time display of the exact final product is a tremendous help in trying to get a shot right the first time that it’s taken. Usually, trial-and-error is necessary, which is slow and causes some good time-sensitive shots to be missed or taken using bad settings and familiarizing oneself with the exact effects of light settings becomes necessary for certain situations. The extremely high resolution of the A65’s viewfinder essentially makes the photo framing process seamless and unnoticeable to the photographer that they aren’t looking straight through the lens.
Over the years, I have purchased a wide array of lenses for different purposes, my favorite of which is my 50-mm focal-distance f-1.4 portrait lens. The f-stop is defined as the ratio of the focal distance to the diameter of the aperture orifice, with higher values than one representing a larger focal distance than aperture diameter. When I bought my camera, I selected the version that came with a basic kit-lens called the SAL1855 with allowed for a minimum f-stop of 3.5 and a focal distance range of 18 to 55 mm. I got by with this lens for a while, since it effectively does what most point-and-shoot cameras do, zooming out to a normal wide angle shot and in by a factor of three for zoom-shots.
I was interested in the ability to take much more zoomed-in photos, so the first lens that I purchased separate from the camera is a SAL55300, with a focal distance range of 55 to 300 mm and a minimum f-stop of 4.5. With this lens I was able to begin taking shots of birds, planes, the sun and moon including the 2018 solar eclipse, distant wildlife and out-of-reach objects. I quickly learned the lighting limitations of both lenses, especially the impact of f-stop and focal distance on the brightness of a photo and how low-light images were affected by this effect.
To combat that problem, and to give myself a way to take clear, “fast” shots in low light, I purchased a SAL50F18 in April of 2013, only two months after I had bought the camera. This was the first fixed-focal-length lens that I acquired, set permanently at 50 mm. Because of this fixed length, the lens is much more compact than most others and has a minimum f-stop of 1.8. The aperture is able to open noticeably larger than either of my other lenses which allows far more light to pass to the image sensor, making for a brighter image with a much deeper depth-of-field, introducing me for the first time to using bokeh as an aesthetic tool.
The term “bokeh” refers to the quality of the blur behind and in front of the subject of focus in a photo. With these three lenses, I was able to get quite a large range of photos but was unable with any of them to come within less than 10 or so inches from the subject and keep it in focus. Again, in April, I purchased a lens that would cover this close-up range called a macro lens, capable of focusing on objects slightly less than an inch from the front lens element. With this I have been able to take extraordinary photos of insects, plants, circuit boards, jewelry and many other small, detailed subjects.
I found that often when I was at an event or scenic location and wanted to take time-sensitive shots that required me to change lenses, I would miss those shots. For this reason, I purchased the next lens in my arsenal in May of 2014, an 18-250 mm lens which I had hoped would replace my SAL1855 entirely and in most cases, cover the same range as my SAL55300. While it does cover a larger range than the SAL1855, I found that the bokeh that it produces is less attractive than that produced by either of my other lenses, so I barely use it. It was more of a practical situational purchase than something that I needed to buy to get an otherwise unattainable desired effect. If I were to return any lens it would be this one, but it is nice to have it on hand for taking photos of events for others.
I had heard extremely good things about a lens called the SAL50F14 which was quite similar to my 1.8 f-stop 50-mm portrait lens, and I was thoroughly impressed with images that I found online taken with it. With its minimum f-stop of 1.4, it boasts a 65% increase in light allowance over the portrait lens that I had at the time, so I sold my portrait lens and replaced it with the SAL50F14. I found it in a used listing on eBay in great condition, being sold for a very nice price, which was the only reason that I decided to make the trade, as my images with the f-1.8 lens were admittedly sufficient. The craftsmanship and precision of construction in my new portrait lens, however, is far superior to that of the SAL50F18, and it has the added bonus of being compatible with full frame image sensors if I ever decide to upgrade my camera body whereas the old lens was not compatible with both crop and full-frame sensors.
With this set of five lenses, I had covered just about every possible photography need that I could imagine. However, the widest shot that I could take sometimes was not wide enough to capture some of the broader shots like cityscapes and sunsets, and I wished to find something that could cover a wider range. I came across the SAL1118, whose maximum zoom picked up where my previously widest zoom lenses left off, at an 18-mm focal distance. Its minimum of 11 mm has been sufficient for me in all of my wide-angle shot needs.
Wider lenses suffer from large amounts of chromatic aberration in the corners and loss of definition near the edges of the photos taken through them due to the inherently large angles of incidence between the light passing into them and the surfaces of their constituent glass elements. For this purpose, I tend to avoid using this lens when I can, but I appreciate the range that it allows my mid-level crop camera to achieve.
Photographing technology is ever-evolving, with higher-megapixel cameras, new sensor and lens mechanics, higher light sensitivity, new image-compression formats and display digitization techniques coming out in new models all the time. However, one great thing about photography itself is how diverse the options are in terms of how one approaches taking a specific photograph. There are so many choices that go into each photo including settings, framing, color, contrast, exposure, bokeh, zoom, and plenty more, paired together with the endless photo opportunities that exist. There is no end to what can be achieved visually and shared through photography. Anyone can pick up any camera, start to learn for themselves what makes a good image in their mind, and create something that nobody else can ever recreate. I hope to travel and find more opportunities to take new styles of photos and try to capture the moments that I experience to share with anyone who may enjoy them.