A Rational Approach to Buying Gear

Twenty something years ago, when I was just breaking into the field, things were so different.

Thirty-five millimeter film was the format. And as now, most all PJ's used Nikon or Canon. Sure, some went with Leica range-finders if their style (and wallets) permitted. But for the most part you got married to the Nikon F (or Canon FD) lens mount and your big decision was made.

It was all about the glass. Film cameras were nothing more than fancy little light-tight boxes when it really came down to it. Metering modes, frames-per-second rates, durability - all that was secondary to the quality of the glass you were sticking in front of the black box.

Now, everything has changed. Glass is is either very good, or very, very good depending on how much you spend. You can get f/2.8-and-tack-sharp at nearly any focal length if you are willing to crack open the wallet and lug the heavy glass around.

These days, TTL-flash standards and compatibility seem change more often than I change socks - which is one reason I like to stick with simpler approaches to strobe technique.

We have already talked about a cheap way to put together a light kit. But judging from the e-mail I get, many of you are facing similar decisions when choosing digital camera bodies and glass.

For new professionals, gear decisions are tough because you feel like you have to be ultra-equipped to go up against your competitors. (Not true, by the way. But you feel that way.) That's a lot of pressure to spend heavily before you know whether or not you will make it. In my experience, Nikon and Canon both end up with a lot of student loan dollars, simply because the shooter had no other choice.

For amateurs and hobbyists, it is hard because you are not getting any real income to justify the photography black hole you have created for your disposable income.

Having made plenty of gear-buying mistakes myself, here are my thoughts after twenty-plus years of experience and much wasted money.

The first thing you have to do is to define some sort of equipment compass point for yourself.

Are you a budding (or aspiring) pro? Are you going to eventually be outfitted to the nines? Gonna cost a lot of money. You'll want to get there in a way that wastes as little of it as possible. And if chosen wisely, your early purchases will have a second life as backups for your ultimate heavy-use selection of gear.

As individual digital cameras have much more influence over the quality of the final photos than did their film-based predecessors, you have to think about where you want to start on the quality/price curve of digital bodies.

(From this point on, I am using Nikon as an example, because I have not shot Canon since shortly after EOS made its first appearance. If you shoot Canon - not that there's anything wrong with that - do some research and you quickly find the equivalent path for your brand.)

Right now, if I were just starting out, I'd be looking at Nikon "prosumer" bodies. They get the benefit of the trickle-down R&D from the pro bodies, at a small fraction of the price.

Beyond that, I would be looking at a one-generation old prosumer model, which would mean the D100 at the time of this writing. Alternately, you could look for a two-generation-old pro body, such as a D1h or maybe a D1x.

But bear in mind that you might wind up with the heavily used body of a former pro. Which could be a little like getting a liver transplant from Keith Richards, if you know what I mean.

The more I think about it, the more I'd look for a nice looking D100, hopefully from an amateur (low miles) who is jonesing for a D200. Searching eBay, and internet photo retailers makes it easy to troll for a used body in your price range.

Is it gonna give you pictures as good as a D2x? Nope. But for about $500.00, it can get you into the game for way less money.

And here's the kicker. If you are lighting your work well, you will take the already very good files of a prosumer camera like the D100 and kick them up a couple of notches. You'd be surprised at how much better a well-lit D100 file can look that a poorly (or not at all) lit D2h file, for instance.

One downside is that the D100 (and most other prosumer bodies) does not have a PC synch. But that is easily remedied with a $20 Nikon AS-15 adapter, (where to get it) which will convert any hot-shoe to a PC-synch terminal.

If you wanted to start a little further down the scale and go with, say, a D70, this would get you a PC synch, too. Come to think of it, the AS-15 deserves its own post. I'll pop it up soon.

Speaking of the D70, you have to remember to to a little Googling to find out what lenses are compatible with what bodies. Some of the lower SLR digitals will only take special "digital" lenses. Yes, that's a crock. But you'll want to make sure all of your bargain gear will get along with each other. Try DPReview.com - they are a great resource for doing that kind of homework.

So, for about $660.00, you have a body and some light, as detailed in the "Starving Student Light Kit" post earlier. The prosumers tend to come with fairly weak, built-in pop-up flashes which will help you with the on-camera stuff in a pinch. But the idea will be to combine the inexpensive camera with well-crafted off-camera light to push the results beyond what you would normally expect from such a body.

Next, you'll need glass. (Sorry. "Lenses," for the foreign readers who have enough problems with English without my resorting to jargon.)

My strategy here is to buy decent glass that will cover your most-needed focal lengths without breaking the bank. Then, when you get more money to buy the high-end stuff (if you even want to) you can use your starter glass as backups or even as lenses for remote bodies.

Here, your choices will be defined by what you are shooting. But I really like the value of one or two slower zooms and a fast 50mm lens.

The zooms cover your focal lengths. And the lack of f/2.8 speed is not so much of a problem if you develop the ethic of a lighting photographer. They are cheap and will do until you have more cash.

The 50 is a great choice for a speed lens. Get a 1.8 (or 2.0) as this gets you into the low light range for a two-digit(!) price tag. As a bonus, with the digital camera's magnification (because the chip is smaller than the film was) a 50 is a good portrait lens.

And optical designers have been making 50's long enough to where it almost impossible to go wrong, optics-wise. Sharp, cheap, fast, small, lightweight. A great buy.

Later, when you have discovered more about your style (and preferred subject matter,) you can splurge on the fast pro lenses and use the cheaper stuff for backup. Or not. You may find that the lighter/slower/cheaper zooms suit you just as a shooter who adds light.

But the 50's and small zooms represent an excellent value for the money.

Even more so, when you find out where and how to get them - along with a flash made for off-camera light thrown in - for almost nothing.

Coming next: The Great Flash and Glass Garage Sale


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Anonymous David S. said...

I suspect that you're a bit confused about the "digital" lenses. At least in the case of Canon, the deal is that the 1.6 crop bodies CAN use the "digital" EF-S mount lenses, in addition to the regular EF lenses. The EF-S lenses can't be used on the higher end bodies that have a larger sensor.

May 22, 2006 1:31 PM  
Anonymous Aaron J Scott said...

As a Canon user just recently going digital, I'd like to give big props to my 20D. The 30D just came out and it's just a slight upgrade from the 20D. The great thing about that is the price for the 20D has dropped several hundred dollars (new and used) since the introduction of the 30D. It might be several hundred than a Nikon D100, but it'll get you into the 8.0 Mpx range. Even the Rebel XT does a pretty fine job, but I prefer the functionality of the 20D.

Riffing off of David, as a Canon user, you'll want to get one of the "digital" lenses if you have a camera with the 1.6x conversion. I'm using the 28-80mm from my old 35mm and there have already been quite a few situations in which I just couldn't get wide enough (it's the widest lens I have at the moment). Canon, of course, has very nice lenses in the EF-S line, but I've got my eye on the Sigma 18-50mm f2.8. But that'll be another month or two--I'm still recovering from previous equipment purchases!

May 22, 2006 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Nick Wright said...

Great post.

I am a huge follower of the less is more philosophy that you talk so much about.

When I got back into a photojournalist position last year with a paper that does not supply gear I had to repurchase a lot of stuff.

I went with an older prosumer body (the 10D) and bought Canon's excellent f/4 L series 17-40 and 70-200 zooms. The two zooms sell for roughly $500 each and are half the weight of their 2.8 cousins. And I also have a 50/1.8 (that is literally falling apart) for when my f/4 isn't enough aperature.

I really cringe when folks go off on how professionals HAVE to have f/2.8. I'm happy as a can be with my lenses and have yet to find any reason to plunk down all the money to "upgrade."

Love your writing and style, keep up the good work.

PS- David, I believe with Nikon it's the same as Pentax. Some of the "lower" end digibodies are not fully compatible with all the lenses. The lenses can be used by you lose certain functions. It's not the same as Canon's EF-S line.

May 22, 2006 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Alson van der Meulen said...

All Nikon dSLRs support all recent lenses. The only difference between consumer/prosumer bodies and pro bodies is that the cheaper bodies don't allow light metering with manual focus lenses, but they do support all features like AF-S and VR. At least the manual focus lenses work better than an FD lens on a Canon EOS body ;). You can put any modern $4k lens on a D50 and it will work great. Some older Nikon SLRs (eg. F4) don't support modern lenses without aperture ring or AF-S and VR lenses.

I disagree with your recommendation of the Nikon D100 over modern consumer bodies like the D70(s). The D70 was an upgrade over the D100 in almost all aspects (including noise, controls and speed). The main advantage of the D100 is the availability of a vertical grip and a heavier/sturdier body. Modern cameras are largely electronics, and modern electronics is often cheaper and better than more expensive older electronics.

May 22, 2006 5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd also like to point out that the D70 and D50 have a 1/500 sec flash sync speed (as does the Canon 1D) which is a real bonus that I could've used several times with my 10D instead of using a more powerful strobe. The CCD sensor used in these cameras allows the use of a hyrid mechanical/electronic shutter. The D100 has a max sync speed of 1/180 sec. Canon's CMOS cameras have 1/250 or 1/200 sec sync speeds.

May 22, 2006 6:21 PM  
Anonymous James Erickson said...

I'd also like to point out that the D70 and D50 have a 1/500 sec flash sync speed (as does the Canon 1D) which is a real bonus that I could've used several times with my 10D instead of using a more powerful strobe. The CCD sensor used in these cameras allows the use of a hyrid mechanical/electronic shutter. The D100 has a max sync speed of 1/180 sec. Canon's CMOS cameras have 1/250 or 1/200 sec sync speeds.

May 22, 2006 6:21 PM  
Anonymous Douglas Urner said...

If you're looking to get decent glass at a decent price seriously consider a kit lens in the 18-70 mm range. The build quality will be so-so but the Nikon 18-70 is a very nice lens for the money. Also seriously consider manual focus lenses. Maybe start with a 50 or a 35 f/2.0 or f/1.4 which you can find without too much trouble for under $100 (if you're using Nikons you'll need to think about the meter interface, support for the AI lenses is spotty -- though they got it pretty much right with the D2 series and the D200 -- but if you're using strobes and the LCD you've pretty much booted the meter anyway).

The old MF lenses are great values and they are much smaller and lighter than going with zooms. They change how you interact with your subject -- the camera is less of a huge box between you and the person you're photographing.

As far as Nikon bodies go, seriously consider the D70. By most accounts it is a better camera than the D100 by most measures. In general the newer cameras seem to produce better files, pretty much without exception.

My personal view these days is that bodies are consumable items. Within a couple of years even a D2X will drop in price (used) to a few hundred dollars and there will be a prosumer model that produces cleaner files. If you're considering a new body (the D200 is awesome, BTW) watch the market closely and sell it when before the price drops out of used ones. I think the only long term purchases are old flashes and good glass :)

May 22, 2006 7:01 PM  
Anonymous Matt Bostock said...

Having just had my 2 month-old Nikon D40 stolen, I'm in the market for a new camera. I'm an amateur trying to go pro, and quickly realised with the D40 how important lenses are.

So, this time round, I figured why not a D1X? Granted, it's older technology, but the image quality is still very good, and *pros* relied on this equipment just a few years ago. So why can't I?

Add to that the limitations of a D40 consumer body, the DX format lenses, the lack of autofocus in older lenses, it seems obvious now that an old pro body will be a must better investment:

- When I do turn pro, and can update the body to a D2/D3, all my lenses will be perfectly compatible.
- Since the lenses are easily compatible, I can use the old D1X as a backup body.

Just my tuppence for what it's worth :-)

April 21, 2009 11:03 AM  

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