haha, sorry for the confusion... my high school had a great art department, including a full ceramics studio. There was a classroom devoted to photography, including a full darkroom. If I remember correctly (graduated in 1995), we had 9 periods each day, for about 45 minutes. I took Photography 1 my sophomore year, Photo 2 as a junior, then an independent study of Photo my senior year towards AP credit. Each course met every day. Almost every week for my last two years, I spent at least one day after school to use the darkroom for a couple of hours. (Can't get much done in 45 mins, that's barely enough time to develop and rinse a roll of film.)
For the lens, you get what you pay for. The f-stop (aperture) is generally the key thing to look at. A bigger aperture requires more glass (larger elements, but also more optical pieces within the lens), so it will be more expensive and sharper.
The f-stop numbers are inversely related to the size of the aperture opening.
A large aperture allows more light to enter the camera. For example, f2.8 allows TWICE as much light into the camera as f4 does, the same way that a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second allows TWICE as much light to enter that camera that 1/1000th does.
f-2.8 is a large opening (what I use for shooting stuff at night and indoors)
f-4.5 (a lot of "kit" lenses are limited to apertures of 3.5, 4.5 or 5.6)
f-22 is a very small opening (will result in a large depth of field, requires a lot of light or a very slow shutter speed.)
I would advise purchasing a lens with an aperture of 2.8 or 4 made by Sigma or Tamron instead of buying a comparable focal length lens but with an aperture of 4.5 or 5.6 made by Canon or Nikon.
This is generally counter-intuitive. People tend to think they need a good camera, lots of megapixels... A few friends of mine have bought the basic Canon Rebel or equivalent Nikon camera, but spent the money on a better lens and have thanked me for it. A big part of the reason to spend on a lens instead of a camera is that the lens will last a lot longer than the camera will.
The Canon 70-200mm lenses are very good. Expensive, but they make it without the Image Stabilizations (I never use it), and they make it in f4 instead of f2.8. If you take care of them, they will last forever. They are built to last.
I but all of my camera gear from B&H Photo in NYC. Their prices can't be beat, they are the industry leader in volume and do a good job with customer service. www.bhphotovideo.com
I used to work at Unique Photo in NJ, they will match B&H prices and usually have better customer service, but not as good of an inventory. www.uniquephoto.com