CAMERA-- I use a Nikon D40, but if I were starting over, I might buy a Canon or invest in an even nicer Nikon just so I would have more lens options. I didn't realize that all the magic is in the lens.
LENSES-- I have an average 18-55 mm lens that I really almost NEVER use, a 55-200 mm zoom that I rarely use, and my prime, 30mm f/1.4 that I almost always use. (It's a Sigma lens because Nikon doesn't make one that will Auto Focus with the D40, which is really sad because the one they make that's f/1.8 is like $100 and the Sigma is like $400. I know. You'll want to throw up even worse when you realize just how bad you want it.)
THE PRIME LENS-- Allie sold me on that just a few months after I had my camera and felt frustrated that my pictures were not coming out like magic yet. I knew there was a lot to learn and "talent" to acquire or whatever, but I was grateful when she said a lot of the "bright" and "sharp" magic comes from the lens. The "prime" or "portrait" or "fixed focal length" lens. Those are all the names I've heard it called. The magic is the f-stop, which describes the aperture. The lower the f-stop, the wider the aperture. The wider the aperture, the more light is let into your photo (without giving you that ridiculously slow shutter speed that turns the whole picture to blur) the more light in you photo means the brighter and sharper your pictures. It also means you can capture photos (without your ugly flash) in lower light situations, inside, or later in the day etc..... gives you more options. Also, (and I hope I describe this correctly) when you have the f-stop turned all the way down to 1.4 (or as low as yours goes) has a shorter "depth of field" which means the area it focuses on is smaller. WHICH means, yes you want to make certain you are focusing on the right thing, (usually the eyes, toes or lollipop or whatever other thing you want to accentuate) because the rest will most likely be less in focus, the background, totally out of focus. Which we all love. Allie called that bokeh... sounds like it should be a marshan word in Backyardigans now that I'm writing it doesn't it Allie? ... never mind, that's Boinga.
P.S. ABOUT THE PRIME LENS-- I forget that when I first got it, it was such an adjustment because it DOESN'T zoom. That's the whole "fixed focal length" thing. That's why mine is a 30mm. And not like a 30-85mm... or any other range. That's WHY it can do what it does. Allie said... that someone else said.... that's why it's so good at what it does, isn't trying to do too much at once. Because of that, that number is important. Because if you want to be closer or farther, you can't just twist the lens, you twist your bottom... closer or farther. I think I would prefer a 50mm so my pictures could be closer (The minimum focusing distance makes it so it won't focus if you get too close so I can't do those baby lip shots or anything), but this is the only prime lens that I found that will auto focus with my camera. The D40 apparently doesn't have the AF in the body, it needs to have it in the lens... blah blah blah.
MODE-- Because it's all about that low f-stop, I shoot in Aperture mode (turn the little dial to the A) and usually keep it turned all the way down if I'm shooting just ONE set of eyes. If there are more in the picture (this took me a while to really remember to do) then I turn it up so there won't be a bunch of blurry faces.
OTHER SETTINGS-- hmmm... the only things I really change often are my aperture: (if you're in A mode you can just turn it up and down using that little dial where you're right thumb is (it's like that dial you had to advance between pictures on disposable cameras), and ISO. If there's plenty of light I keep it at 200 or 400. If there's less, 800 and sometimes 1600. 1600 is also good if your kids aren't sitting still enough. It takes it faster. But the higher your ISO the grainier your picture. 400 is probably average for me. But I would way rather turn it all the way to 1600 and get a little "noise" on my picture, then turn on that ugly flash. Because honestly... one of the first tip-posts I read on Allie's blog said:
#1 TURN YOUR FLASH OFF
-- and I'm embarrassed to say that I really don't think I'd realized the flash was a no no. I mean it has it's place, and those fancy flashes that bounce the light around so they don't flash right on people's faces are much better, but if you don't NEED it, the natural light sure creates a prettier picture. Here's a quick reminder of the difference. Notice the depth of field... the curtain all in focus in the first, (the ugly shadow behind the chair) and the blurred background in the second? And a view of what I'm looking at right this very minute in case you were curious.
Where was I? I think maybe that's it for now. Hopefully I've stopped before I've given any really POOR advice.
Oh wait! Editing! I do do some post-processing.... Picasa which is free and SO easy to use (you can just download it online) and a few things I learned from Allie in Photoshop.... I think that's for another day though... naptime is coming to a close far too soon...