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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 - 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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