Money Choices: Light or More Glass

Starting out as a photographer has never been an inexpensive proposition. But things have gotten downright crazy in recent years, with pro digital cameras going for $3,000.00, flash prices that look like car payments and long glass that can cost as much as you could possibly want to spend.

It's enough to make you want to cross over to the dark side and be a reporter. What do they need, a pencil? Maybe a $500 laptop?

But then, we have way more fun than reporters, don't we? So we pay.

When I think back at how I spent my hard-earned photo-gear resources when I was starting out, it makes me cringe.

It was all about bodies and glass. Especially long, fast, expensive glass. After all, those guys who always out-shot me had 300/2.8's. So that must be the solution, right?

Well, by the time I found out that the fast glass was not what made them better than me, the financial damage was done.

Knowing what I know now, I would have approached things very differently. I would have started off with a low-end body, a cheap 50mm f/2 (or f/1.8) prime lens and a modestly priced (slower) do-everything zoom.

The 50mm would give you the speed - and a focal length worthy of exploring - for under $100. And the zoom would cheaply fill in some focal length gaps while you got your feet on the ground.

After that, I would go straight to a small light kit. For less than the price of even turning that f/4 zoom into an f/2.8 model, you could be set with a small-strobe, off-camera light.

And don't even get me started on the idea that every young shooter needs a 300/2.8. Sure, they do some things very well. But they also tend to funnel you into a certain way of shooting while they suck your wallet dry.

I recently got a chance to meet and chat with one of my long-time photo compass points, David Burnett. He shares my disdain for 300/2.8's as a God-given right for young shooters. He thinks the lenses force them into a constricted way of shooting - and not a very good one at that.

It is not that they are bad for you, per se, but that they tend to close off so many more interesting visual avenues while you are still young and impressionable.

And then there is the cost, which makes them preclude just about everything else when it comes.

So, if I can dissuade you from making the early jump to long, fast glass - even for just a little while - it will pay dividends to you which will prove useful now and in the future.

The body and some glass are an unavoidable expense. But the light is relatively cheap. I have an article I am working on detailing a ~$175 off-camera light kit: flash, stand, synch, umbrella, etc., included. Sadly, that falls into the "pocket change" category for photo gear.

And the learning-how-to-use-it part is free, now that we are digital and have no film expense. But you have to work at it while you build some techniques you feel comfortable with.

As you grow and learn (and cash some checks from assignments) you add the second body, a fast wide zoom and a fast tele zoom, and you are set. But the light kit gives you the ability to be making higher-quality photos right from day one.

Provided, of course, that you learn how to use it.

Honestly, you really didn't think I was going to suggest you go out and buy a lot of glass first, did you?


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Anonymous THuRStoN said...

Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I've read your post with interest, I'm in the process of improving my photographic skills. Right now I'm shooting with and old analogic camera (Canon FTb) and a 50mm f/1.4 and a Tele Zoom 28-200 f/5.6, before I was using a Digital Point & Shoot. Shooting analogic it's being quite a challenge to the point of getting only a few good shoot per roll. Anyway with my point&shoot I managed to capture some good photos by I found it also limiting

I read your advise and have a few questions. Right now I'm saving to get my first DSLR and 2 lenses. I love shooting wide angle and but I'd also like to try shooting sports. So my idea was getting a SLR (probably Canon) and a 17-40mm and a fast 70-200mm. But I don't know if that's a good thing. I guess, it's a question of working out my own style and shooting over and over.

Thanks in advance.

April 25, 2006 10:20 AM  
Blogger David said...


One "prosumer" body and a couple of lenses in that range would be a good idea. I would add a cheap, fast 50 to the mix to give you some low-level-availble-light capability. You can grab a used 50/1.8 for loose change these day.

I am working on a set of articles detailing different bag approaches in different price ranges, which you might find interesting.

Congrats on having the brains to step up to a Canon Ftb from a point and shoot digital, too.

April 25, 2006 12:05 PM  
Anonymous THuRStoN said...

Thanks for yr comments David!
Yeah, you're right I already had thought about a fast 50mm.
I'll keep an eye on your articles.

April 27, 2006 5:05 AM  
Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

My advice would be to treat the body as an expendable item -- kind of like buying film and processing in bulk :-(

Invest your money in glass (as opposed to bodies) -- if you need speed look for an old pro body. Something like a D1X or D2H can be had for very good prices. If you need "nicer" files and speed isn't an issue the lower end DSLRs often produce very nice files -- and aren't too expensive. Something like a D70 or maybe a D50 if you were shopping Nikon (not sure about the D50 since it takes SD memory rather than CF). Either way you're not investing too much money in a body and you can put the rest into glass and lights. I've been using my D200 with my old MF lenses and really enjoying having a small camera again.

April 29, 2006 3:21 AM  
Anonymous Thomas Ryan said...

You know, Douglas, I'm glad you posted what you did!

I've given multiple people that same advice, and been thanked by them time and again! Lenses have a life beyond the life of the camera body. Yes, it really is just that simple! Spending more money now on better lenses not only makes good financial sense (as lenses don't depreciate nearly as fast as digital bodies), but will likely improve your photographic technique as well (shooting slower, using manual focus, etc.). Plus, older digital bodies produce smaller files which, for someone learning to process their own files, are faster to work with on most computers.

On a personal note, I still LOVE some of the shots from my Canon D30. That is only a 3MP camera, but the image quality is still good enough for 11x14.


June 14, 2006 12:37 PM  
Blogger cameron woodall said...

As a recent grad I find myself confronted with the questions that you seem to answer so well. I still shoot with my hassie but salivate over some of the digital gear out there.
My next purchase will have to be a set of stobes though, withought light there is no photo. The question is about watt per second. I do studio portraits and think I will need at least 400 w/s per strobe. Convince me that I am wrong. So I can begin to think about which digi camera is best for me.

June 23, 2006 7:02 PM  
Blogger Bourbonite said...

I started with an old brass-body Asahi Pentax K-1000, and I'm glad I did. Since I was skipping meals to afford film, it was a nice place to start, and I still have the old beast around (I only need to replace the battery for metering every 2-3 years... and as rugged as it is, I don't mind dragging it into bad places).

From there, I was able to shoot for the college newspaper... which meant I was able to jump up to the Nikon 8008 and a full complement of borrowed lenses and Speedlights. For FREE. Add in free film and darkroom time (and random assignments), and I learned more, and faster, than ever before.

Eventually I found my way to my own 8008, and later an n90s. Since I was shooting on-the-cheap (and paying for film again), I didn't find myself with the stunning array of borrowed gear that I once enjoyed. Despite that, I was still able to shoot, and still able to learn.

Recently, I realized that I had saved enough money to switch over to digital (partly due to more mature financial planning, and partly because I hadn't been burning all my money on film, letting the camera sit in the bag). I wrangled a d70s, and within a week I shot enough to pay for it (specifically, I figured film+processing (no prints) to run about $0.25 a shot)... much of that was to learn the ways of the new machine, but some shots are keepers.

So here I am... able to shoot "for free", as I was in the halcyon days of learning... but with better gear. Admittedly, with my training as an ornithologist, I want long and fast glass (I still can't match the images my eyes see with my Zeiss 10x40BGAT* binoculars, nor my Celestron C5... something I'll be pursuing for a long time, I suspect). But while I may want to shoot tiny birds from faraway, I've always shot ANYTHING that caught my eye while I'm out in the field. To this end, I've come here.

It's a rare thing for me to be able to shoot under anything close to 'controlled' conditions, and I've always considered a flash to be luxury I can't usually afford to use. That doesn't mean I'm dense enough to go ANYWHERE with a camera without carrying a flash... that'd be insane.

I'm slowly chewing through the information here. Slowly. Since my primary targets are small and distant (grr birds!) and easily spooked, most of my attention now will be focused on longer, faster glass... and getting sneakier... and holding the camera still when I can't afford the time to set up a stable base. That's just the nature of the shots I want. However... and this is a BIG however... most of the shots I keep are ones I take while I'm busy pursuing my main targets. That is, I've turned out to be a fair to middlin' photographer at the ranges I'm NOT aiming for, simply by shooting images 'along the way'.

As this site seems dedicated to some of the aspects I love (don't spend what you don't need to spend, and shoot shoot SHOOT! to learn, among others) and antithetical to some of the aspects I'm aiming for (control the shot, etc), I figure this is an ideal place to bone up on what I've been missing.

I wish I could advise the folks getting into photography to get an old K-1000... it's simply an amazing camera if you've got the patience 'ye aulde school' full-manual SLR's... but right now, especially for those on a tight budget... go digital. Go digital NOW.

You don't learn by reading. You don't learn by asking questions. You learn with every shot you take. Sure, you can aim your ideas based on what you read, and on the answers you get to the questions you ask... but YOU LEARN WITH EVERY SHOT YOU TAKE.

The sooner you can drop the cost of shooting to zero, the sooner you can shoot without reservation. You'll quickly find that making stupid mistakes is a GOOD thing... sometimes you'll get a gem of a shot that you'll never see again, and sometimes you'll get a lousy shot you can learn from. Either way... shoot. You'll learn.

July 10, 2006 1:41 AM  
Blogger garrett said...

On this topic, Kirk Tuck (who you, David Hobby, wrote about on here in the much more recent posts much more recently) has an article I really enjoyed reading about how he's going to start shooting with Olympus camera bodies that cost no more than $600 (but he is going to use the professional glass).


July 10, 2009 2:21 PM  

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