UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


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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