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I'm thinking of buying entry level DSLR Nikon D3500. I haven't used DSLR before, so I'm not sure if it is a good decision to buy DSLR. I would like to know if with this camera I can shoot portraits with blured background such as on the new smartphones with two cameras. Another thing I want to know if buying DSLR is good for beginners in photography and amateur photographers and is it worth the money.

I'm new in this community, so I'm not sure if this is the right place to ask this question.

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    Most of a photograph's features come from the lens, not the body. You're talking about DOF for example. This is a very broad and unanswerable question, unless someone is willing to provide a few pages as an introduction to photography. – timvrhn Jun 5 at 8:25
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    Are you interested in learning more about photography, or just looking to get a nice camera for taking photos of your friends? What drew you to looking at DSLRs, specifically? – Kat Jun 5 at 12:23
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    Cameras don't shoot nice portraits; people shoot nice portraits. – David Richerby Jun 5 at 22:03
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    The camera doesn't make the photo, the photographer does. :) – John_ReinstateMonica Jun 6 at 2:54
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If you read the other answers, it should be apparent that the qualities you seek such as (a) better portraits and (b) the desire to have a blurred background ... aren't really one thing, but a combination of many factors.

There are some nuances but the short answer is ... portraits do not require advanced DSLRs (so entry level is fine) but... there are nuances to consider. I discuss these below.

The advantage of the DSLR isn't that the camera is 'better' per se, but rather that it allows interchangeable accessories (such as lenses, lighting, etc.) to create the right conditions in order to capture the results you want.

Much of this is based on the knowledge & skill of the photographer. Buying a more expensive musical instrument doesn't make a person a better musician... learning music and practicing makes a person a better musician. The camera can't propel you forward ... but a camera with limited capabilities might hold you back.

If I buy a better guitar than anything Peter Frampton uses ... I will still not be a better musician than Peter Frampton (nowhere even close). His knowledge and skill in that area of music is legendary and mine ... not so much.

Better portraits

We're getting into a subjective area, but flip through portraits you like and try to notice why you like them. Inspect the posing of the model, the composition of the frame and how foreground or background elements are used. Check out the lighting (especially check out the lighting).

My personal thoughts are that:

  1. Photographer knowledge & experience (skill) is probably the most important factor to influence the results. There's no getting around the notion that there will be a lot of learning and a lot of practice. The camera itself isn't a substitute for those considerations ... no matter how much a person pays for the equipment. Compositional skills, posing skills, exposure skills, lighting skills, etc. all require knowledge & experience ... regardless of how good the gear is. The camera will offer an 'automatic' mode and while that mode will capture adequate shots, they probably will not be the artistic results you were hoping to get.
  2. Lighting is next. I put this ahead of lens selection. A key idea here is that you cannot have good light ... without good shadow. An image of a full moon never looks as good as an image of a 1st Quarter moon. The difference is that one has 'flat' lighting and the other has the light coming from the side. When the light comes from the side, any 3D textures produce shadows. It's the interplay of those highlights and shadows that causes the subject to appear three-dimensional with loads of textures. This isn't just true of the moon... it's true of anything you photograph. Shadows queue the eye (and the human brain) and provide information about the textures and contours. Another consideration is whether the transition from highlight to shadow is an abrupt line ... or a gentle transition. Is it 'hard' lighting or 'soft' lighting (hard & soft refer to those transitions... a hard-edge has an abrupt transition with a sharp line separating light & shadow. A soft-edge is a very gentle transition from one to the other.) Lighting can create moods... you can use light to convey emotions such as joy or peace or despair. In my opinion this is one of the most powerful tools a photographer has (and yet so very many photographers seem to be obsessed with just their camera.) The best lighting is the lighting that does what you want ... and this often means you may need ways to control the lighting (which is why advanced photographers own auxiliary lighting and lighting modifiers).
  3. Lens selection is next on my personal list of priorities. A helpful way to think of lenses isn't so much by focal length ... but by angle-of-view. A lens can be wide, normal, or narrow. A normal angle of view is one that matches roughly what a human eye would perceive. A technical point to keep in mind (it's not hard to remember this) is that a lens will provide a normal angle of view if the focal length of the lens is the same as the diagonal measure of the sensor. For most DSLRs with an APS-C size sensor this is roughly 28mm (that's not exact). A 28mm lens on such a camera will offer a normal angle of view. If you use a shorter focal length (e.g. 20mm) you will have a moderately wide angle of view. If you use a much lower focal length (e.g. 10mm) you will have a very wide angle of view. A 50mm focal length will offer a moderately narrow angle of view. A 200mm lens will offer a very narrow angle of view. These angles-of-view create some interesting and useful side-effects. Wide angle lenses do not just shoot wider scenes... they also stretch the sense of the depth in a scene (want to make a room look larger or make a subject appear farther away... use a wider lens). The opposite happens with a narrow lens. Narrow lenses (long focal lengths) produce compression. Far away subjects don't look so far. The sense of depth in a scene is 'compressed'.
  4. The camera body is in last place on my list. It isn't that it is not important... it is important. But it wields less influence than the three factors above it. There are many instances where the physical sensor used in an entry level body is actually the same sensor used in a higher-end body. So what's the difference? Usually the difference is other features such as the number and type of focus points used ... or how quickly the camera can rapidly burst shots ... or the size of the camera's internal memory buffer. If you're doing a lot of action photography, there are features a camera might have that optimizes it toward action photography. But if you're shooting a landscape on a tripod using a remote shutter release and you have all the time in the world to get that shot... having loads of auto-focus points and high-speed burst isn't really going to help you. On the other hand if you are a sports/action photographer ... the lack of those features might mean you get fewer 'keepers' as the camera struggles to have the focus system and shutter keep up with the action.

The above is my priority list. A different photographer might give you a different order. I don't get to hung up on brand names or equipment. Loads of companies make fantastic cameras. It is possible to select a camera that may not be ideal for a particular type of photography ... and it is possible to select a lens that isn't ideal.

Blurred Backgrounds

Ultimately the ability to have one thing in sharp focus and another thing far out of focus (to make that thing blurry) is based on an idea called the Depth of Field (you'll often see this abbreviated as DoF).

If my subject is 10 feet away and I point the lens at the subject, we'll need to focus the lens on the subject. In reality we are adjusting the focus for a 10 foot distance. If something is not precisely 10' away... suppose something is 9'11" or 10'1" -- will being fractionally nearer or farther make a difference? Probably not when you consider the ratios... 10' = 10 x 12 inches or 120 inches away. So a 1" difference works out to a difference of just 0.8% (not even 1%). But what if a lens was focused to 10' and something else was 100' away... now the difference is more significant.

DoF is the idea that there's a range of distances at which you will judge the subject to be ... more or less ... acceptably focused (I didn't say perfectly focused). How you judge this will also be affected by how closely you inspect the image.

There are a few factors that ... when added together ... affect the overall depth-of-field.

This include things such as:

  • Focal length of the lens where short focal length lenses tend to produce much broader depth of field and very long focal length lenses tend to produce much narrower depth of field.

  • Focal ratio of the lens. The focal ratio considers the size of the physical opening in the lens through which light may pass. But instead of being a simple diameter ... it is expressed as a ratio of the lens' overall focal length divided by that physical diameter. If a lens with a 100mm focal length has an aperture opening 50mm across than that lens has a focal ratio of 2 ... since 100 ÷ 50 = 2. That would be expressed as f/2 (the 'f/' is short-hand for focal ratio). If we adjust the opening so that it has a diameter of 25mm then the focal ratio becomes f/4 because 100 ÷ 25 = 4. One take-away is notice that the lower-focal ratio example (f/2) had the larger physical diameter opening in the lens (50mm opening on a 100mm lens). If the lens had a very tiny opening (a pin-hole) then all the light has to pass through just that one very tiny point. Such a lens would have and extremely large depth-of-field. If you use a lens with a very large opening, the photons have a choice of many different paths through the lens. This reduces the overall depth-of-field.

  • Subject distance is another factor. If a subject is very far away a lens needs to be focused to near the infinity point. Of course everything in the background is even farther ... so also focused to near the infinity point. Since there isn't much difference ... the background seems to be more or less just as well focused as the subject. Foreground subjects might appear blurry. But if the subject were close to you... and the background was quite far away, the background will probably appear to be more blurred. As a photographer I rarely place a subject against a wall for a portrait shoot... unless that wall is extremely interesting and will add to the overall value of the shot. Better to pull them away from the wall so that the wall can fall begins to get farther outside the depth-of-field.

All of these factors have to be combined... each one simply influences the overall depth of field. None of them completely rule the depth of field.

A camera with a long focal length lens using a very low focal ratio and a subject placed somewhat close to the camera with a background placed much farther away ... will result in strong background blur. Doing the opposite ... short-focal length lens, high focal ratio, and a more distant subject ... will produce very large DoF and you won't notice much blur in the background.

Other Considerations for Blur

There is a term used in photography called 'bokeh'. This term refers to the quality of the blur... not the strength of the blur.

Once upon a time, Canon produce a particular 50mm f/1.8 lens that had merely 5 aperture blades inside the lens and these were not well-rounded blades. This means the opening in the lens was a pentagon instead of a circle. As points of light blur, they blur with the geometry of the aperture opening. This means that as pentagons overlap pentagons it created a rather strange effect ... the quality of the blur was not very smooth. It was somewhat jagged ... jittery ... almost nervous looking. It did not evoke emotions of peace and beauty that will add to the effect most photographers were going for.

Canon replaced that lens with a lens that has identical optics (not similar... identical!) But that newer lens has 7 aperture blades instead of 5 and the blades on the newer lens do a bit better w.r.t. to being more well-rounded. This produces a more circular opening and the results in images produce a much better quality in the background blur (the blur appears more smooth).

The lenses are optically identical and they have identical focal ratios. But one lens produce a poor quality blur. The other produces a higher quality blur.

This is what the term 'bokeh' is meant to convey... the quality (over quantity).

This means that even if you combine the conditions such as focal length, focal ratio, and subject distance (relative to background distance) to try to maximize the background blur... it is possible to have a blur ... but a blur that you may not enjoy.

Summary

  • An entry-level DSLR body is fine for portrait work. Portraits usually do not require advanced camera features.
  • You'll need to pair it with an appropriate lens to achieve the results you want (blurred background portraits). A DSLR is often packaged with a 'kit' lens and this is usually a standard zoom offering a bit of wide angle and a bit of narrow angle but not a particularly low focal ratio (manufacturers try to pair the camera body with an affordable lens to put them with financial reach of more consumers). Using a 50mm lens would be better ... using an 85mm lens would be even better still.
  • Your skill will be very important ... the equipment alone wont be enough. If you use the 'automatic' setting mode it will tend to go for 'safe' exposures ... not artistic exposures. Skill is needed to learn which settings produce the results you want.
  • Lighting will also be an important factor. Good lighting isn't just natural lighting... it's lighting that does what you want. Photographers with deeper pockets invest in equipment (although a lot of lighting gear can be surprisingly cheap when you compare lighting costs to lens costs and other equipment costs) ... but they invest in this gear specifically because it lets them control the lighting.
  • +1 Great answer! – mattdm Jun 5 at 16:29
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    Overall I find your answer very helpful. Re: point 3 of the 'My personal thoughts' section: Focal length/AoV does not determine perspective (stretch vs. compression), only shooting distance affects that. The reason wider angle lenses usually stretch a scene is because we move closer to the subject and the ratio between subject and background is increased. The reason longer lenses compress a scene is because we usually move back and the ratio between the subject and background distances is reduced. If you shoot with a wide lens and crop it to the same AoV as a telephoto lens used from... – Michael C Jun 6 at 3:54
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    And Peter Frampton with a beginner guitar will still sound better than a noob (like me) on a 60k Les Paul. – Alexander von Wernherr Jun 6 at 7:45
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    @StianYttervik is the lens (hollow sphere) a 'mirror' lens? These lenses typically produce a 'donut' shaped bokeh (round ring which is black in the center). The black spot in the center of those lenses is the shadow of the secondary mirror obstruction. – Tim Campbell Jun 6 at 22:00
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It's not the camera, it's the lens.

If you want a cheap and good option for shooting portrait pictures, you should definitely purchase in addition to a DSLR, a 50mm f/1.8 "nifty fifty" lens. Do expect to spend $100-$200 for the lens.

50mm is about optimal for portraits, because the relatively long 50mm focal length on crop sensor cameras is long enough to obtain blurred background while being short enough that the distance to the subject need not be excessive.

At 50mm, the kit zoom probably has f/5.6 aperture. A nifty fifty has f/1.8 aperture, which is more than 3x the difference. Three times the background blur with a nifty fifty.

Even an expensive (and heavy and large!) zoom (17-55mm f/2.8, $700-$1000) cannot match a nifty fifty (50mm f/1.8, $100-$200).

Also, the f/1.8 aperture is useful in low light no flash situations: the f/1.8 collects 9.68x the amount of light than the f/5.6 (@50mm) zoom.

  • I slightly disagree as 50mm is ok for full body shots but will distort the face features if used for a head only portrait. I would suggest 85mm, although more expensive, for more versatility. – Selcuk Jun 6 at 2:06
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    @Selcuk Perspective distortion has nothing to do with focal length and everything to do with shooting distance. If we have to back up with a 1.6X crop body + 50mm lens to the same distance as we would use to get the same framing with a FF + 85mm lens, the perspective will be identical. – Michael C Jun 6 at 4:14
  • @MichaelC Adding the crop sensor vs full frame variable to the equation is not fair. You should remember that it will also change the depth of field and you will not get the same bokeh as a full frame body. If you don't magically change the body between shoots, you are not able to shoot the same portrait from a different distance from the subject. For headshots 85mm can be used at a more comfortable distance, with less distortion. – Selcuk Jun 6 at 5:02
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    The specific camera mentioned in the question is an APS-C camera with a cropped sensor. I'm not the one that "added" it. I said nothing about shooting from two different distances. Rather I said that the perspective (not the DoF) would be identical if one used an APS-C camera with a 50mm lens and a FF camera with an 85mm lens from the same distance. – Michael C Jun 6 at 8:35
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    It's not the camera..., I'd say the caveat to that is if you are really concerned with blurring the background, a camera with a full frame sensor will make that easier. – JPhi1618 Jun 6 at 16:17
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Is an entry level DSLR going to shoot nice portrait pictures? By itself, no, absolutely not.

It's easy to make the joke that the camera by itself just sits there and doesn't take pictures at all, being an inanimate object and all. Of course, we know what you actually mean, but there's really some truth to that. A DSLR is by nature a flexible tool, and that includes the flexibility to get bad results as well as good ones. So, in a very real way, whether you get nice pictures is up to you, not the camera.

If you put some time, effort, and brain-power into learning how to operate a DSLR and to understand fundamental concepts about light and composition, you can absolutely get better results with a DSLR (entry level or above) than with a phone camera.

However, if you just want to snap pictures without learning anything or working for each shot, a high-end smartphone is guaranteed to produce results you'll be happier with 99% of the time.

Spending your money on a DSLR (or other interchangeable lens camera) and hoping that that alone will produce good photographs is a recipe for frustration and disappointment.

You say:

Another thing I want to know if buying DSLR is good for beginners in photography and amateur photographers and is it worth the money.

and fundamentally, to answer this, you need to know if you want to actually be a beginner in photography — that is, someone who is starting on the path to something bigger. Do you want to be an amateur in the true sense of "someone who does something because they love it"?

If the answer is yes, then it's probably worth quite a bit of money (and in fact, I'd suggest starting beyond so-called "entry level" cameras — see Are there disadvantages to a prosumer camera for a beginner, aside from cost?).

On the other hand, if you mean "someone who doesn't know much and doesn't care to" (a dabbler, perhaps), then without even knowing your financial situation I can say that no, it would not be worth the money.

  • Of course, I plan to put some effort and time to learn how to properly use the camera and take pictures, however I'm not sure if even with learning I will be getting nice pictures with not very expensive gear. – someone12321 Jun 5 at 14:53
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    @someone12321 That's definitely not an "of course". We get lots of people who show up here frustrated because they said "beginner" but they really meant "not actually interested at all I just want results". You might take it for granted, but not everyone does. Take this as a complement, I guess. :) – mattdm Jun 5 at 14:55
  • I don't really know what I will be doing in couple of months or years, I've always wanted to have a camera and shoot a nice pictures, and I have an album of pictures taken on my cheap smartphone. I was thinking that maybe I should buy one camera that will be as a hoby in my free time. I guess that I should decide whether I should enter the world of photography or not. – someone12321 Jun 5 at 15:00
  • @someone12321 Yes, exactly. And sadly, we can't really decide that for you. :) – mattdm Jun 5 at 15:02
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    @someone12321 my local camera shop (Portland, OR) will rent you a 70D + 50mm for $120/day (or Nikon equivalent) (or Fuji/Sony equivalent for about $20 less). Spend an evening watching YouTube on beginner photography and exposure topics, rent gear the next day, and spend ALL DAY shooting. Guarantee, at the end of that day, you'll know whether you want to keep going with a DSLR or not...and $120 for a day's entertainment is cheap compared to other activities. – Hueco Jun 5 at 15:30
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Yes, low-end DSLRs can get you nice photos. But it depends a lot on the photographer, not just the camera.

The main thing to keep in mind for blurry backgrounds is the ratio between two distances:

  • camera to the point of focus; and
  • camera to background.

The further the background relative to the subject, the blurrier the background.

Also, the bigger the aperture opens, the more pronounced the effect. The size of the opening is represented by the f-stop. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture (harder to focus). So f/16 will give you a much sharper overall picture than f/4. Much of the time, f/8 is pretty sharp all around, and if your lens can reach it, f/1.8 will give you good subject isolation with a blurry background. But you’ll need to experiment to see what you like.

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    "f/22 will give you a much sharper overall picture than f/4" is not necessarily true. Below about f/11 or so on an APS-C sensor you will start getting diffraction limited - a 50mm f/1.8 will be sharper at f/4 than f/22. – Philip Kendall Jun 5 at 12:26
  • @PhilipKendall Thanks! I’ve dropped it down to f/16, which, if I recall correctly, is about where diffraction starts making a difference for the older 16MP DX cameras I’m familiar with. – Lawrence Jun 5 at 12:31
  • @Hueco Thanks! (sheepish grin) Corrected. – Lawrence Jun 5 at 14:01
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    No worries. I try to make a point of reminding new shooters that the f/stop is a fraction - as most new photographers see f/1.2 and f/16 and think that f/16 is bigger. I've already upped this from your last change, but think it would be worthwhile to remind OP about this. – Hueco Jun 5 at 15:24
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I had an entry level for years (Canon 550D) and I have taken really good shots on it. Although lenses are important, I would like to enumerate a few other factors (sorted from the most important to the less important) that will influence on your results

  1. The subject: This is by far the most important of all. Your cellphone can make a much better picture than your camera if you point it to the right subject. I have wasted a lot of time taking pictures of not so interesting subjects and thinking about saving money to buy a better camera until I finally discovered that it is a much better investment to spend that money on short travels to parks with view-sights and animals, or neighborhoods with cute streets and interesting people, etc etc.

  2. Light and weather conditions: Remember the park I said you should go? If you really want good results, you should check the forecast, go really early in the morning or maybe after rains, it depends on what you want, but this the right conditions will add the right "life" to your photos

  3. The lenses: You may be in the right place but maybe the right light you want is something that just doesn't occur naturally. Or maybe you want to be much closer to some animal, or to take a much wider picture. For this, you have the lenses. An f/4 outside in a clear day can make really good pictures, but an f/2.8 will let you work under more severe light conditions. However, an f/4 is much lighter than an f/2.8 and this may allow you to make longer journeys. An 70-200mm will make you fell amazed on how much close you can get to some subjects and a 16mm will let you make excellent wide photos. And good lens are forever. They will always do their job and you can sell them well if in good condition. They are an instant change in possibilities: you change the lens, everything changes

  4. How you use your camera and lenses: You have to know your equipment. To know where are the button, the limitations, which possibilities do you have and so on. After upgrading for a better camera, you will feel for a while that you were more capable with your old camera until you get to know your new one

  5. The camera: Finally, the camera. In my experience, a better camera gives you a better ISO, better shutter, more durable components, more functionalities, more photos per second, etc. Not necessarily a better sensor, for example. The better camera will make it easier for you to go further, but if you don't have what I told you above, there will be not a lot of difference in your results.

Best thing I can recommend in order to achieve maturity as a photographer so you finally feel that your entry level camera is limiting you is to go outside and take pictures. Just go out for it every weekend and you will start to understand the places, the lights, your equipment. After that, the day will come where you will know exactly why you need a better camera and what camera you need. And you will probably keep the entry level, because they are good anyway.

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A DX sensor has a crop factor of 2/3. You are presumably talking about the 18-55mm kit lens. For portrait work, you'd likely use it at its long end, giving you about 83mm equivalent focal length with an aperture of 1:5.6. That will give you the same depth of field as an 1:8 aperture setting on a 35mm film camera with the same kind of effective focal length which is quite discernible but not terribly strong. You'll want to arrange your scene appropriately so that the background is indeed some distance away.

The computational blurring on a smartphone aims to emulate the visuals of quite smaller depth of field, namely larger sensors/aperture. If your viewing device ends up being a smartphone, you'll not likely be able to appreciate the much more natural action of optical object isolation (but due to camera and lens parameters, more subtle) over computational approaches, particularly since the small display scale increases the perceived depth of field.

If you are going for print, things will look different already, however.

Is it worth the money? It depends on your purpose. If you don't intend to throw further money at the problem of doing portraits (namely buying a suitable prime lens or a less basic zoom lens), you'd likely be better off with a 15-year old Sony DSC-R1. It has about the same sensor size, goes to 120mm equivalent at 1:4.8 aperture. Its age has definite implications for handling (no image stabilisation, so tripod wanted), speed, storage media, convenience, autofocus, sensor resolution (10MP) and sensitivity (ISO400 is where noise starts) and so on. But for your principal criterion of a small depth of field at reasonable image quality in portrait situations, it will deliver more than the D3500 with a kit lens, but you will be left without an upgrade path.

Of course, analog cameras will deliver effortlessly in that category at quite cheaper secondhand prices but handling film is a hassle in comparison. Even if you do want to end up using film, learning your photographic skills using digital first is going to save you a lot of time and money.

To summarize: you want to throw money at a problem. The direction you are planning to throw it in is a good starting point but you'll need to throw more in that direction before achieving your goals. Partial goals may be achieved cheaper by throwing in a different direction first and thus getting a good idea how and where to throw larger wads of money for best effect at some later point of time.

Buying your learning gear preowned often means that as you develop a good idea where you want to be heading for real, the gear retains most of its resale value. Newer gear often is more supportive with regard to getting good results with moderate effort, however.

  • The thing is I won some money as a reward and I must spend it on IT equipment (so DSLR become one of the options), I wont be doing very professional shots with the camera, just some beginner shots and take pictures when I travel or at family meetings. As a portrait shots I don't really mean in studio or so, I mean outside with my friends for nice pictures. – someone12321 Jun 5 at 11:08
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    Why not suggest a 50mm, 1.8 lens rather than the kit zoom? – Eric Shain Jun 5 at 12:12

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