Chips, Glass and Light: Assembling an Inexpensive Camera Bag

As a newspaper photojournalist, my gear considerations were based on reliability, speed (both motor and lens) durability and image quality. My bodies were top of the line. My glass was fast, heavy, prime and expensive. I had both a daily working bag and a pool room full of specialized gear.

For the first time in twenty years, I have been buying a bag full of camera gear out of my own pocket. And while I am fortunate enough to be able to afford pretty much whatever gear bag that I decide I need, I am also re-examining every assumption I have had about gear over the last 20 years. And the results have been very surprising to me.

(More after the jump.)

Sure, it's a head trip to be the first guy on the sidelines of an NFL game to be toting around a D3. There's a pecking order to it. And don't think photographers don't notice who has what and when.

But sports is a much smaller part of my shooting equation now, and that alone radically changes your resource allocation. My priorities have changed. And the dollars being spent are my own. So I decided to put together a bag as if I were just starting out, albeit with 20+ years' shooting experience this time. Which is pretty much exactly what is happening, in a sense.

I am pretty well stocked with light (I have always maintained a personal lighting bag.) But for the sake of argument, let's integrate the lighting facet into the gear choices in the hopes that it may be useful to those of you who are buying gear without the benefit of 20 years of daily shooting.

What follows are my choices. You may be surprised at them. I know I was. I would be curious to know your version of a starter bag -- and why -- and where it would cost out. Gear is not cheap, and we have many, many readers of this site who could benefit from your experience when choosing cameras, lenses and flashes.

To be clear, I am a Nikon Guy. So you will have to interpolate for Canon. Or better yet, leave your choices in the comments.

Second, note the increased importance of light in the gear selection. No surprise there. But nothing -- nothing -- gives you the photo quality bang for the buck as does light. That is the biggest difference between how I think now and how I thought 20 years ago.

Starter Bag, Poised for Growth: $1,286.

Camera: Nikon D70s -- $500.00

I was surprised by this one myself. This is not even a current model. Nikon sometimes sells them refurbished, and they are all over eBay. Look for them on the cheap each time Nikon introduces a new model in the amateur digicam range.

Why? It is an amazing camera for the money. Sure, 6.1 megapixels is not a lot of dots. But they are pretty good dots. And 3,000+ dots on the long side is all most people really need. Besides, using light well makes your camera's output look so much better.

And the D70s is a serious flash shooter's camera. Its on-board winky flash is also is CLS commander-enabled, allowing it to wirelessly control a CLS flash in TTL, Auto or Manual mode.

Sync speed is nominally 1/500th of a second. Your flash just got twice as powerful as those cameras which sync at 1/250th. But the goodness does not stop there. You can sync at almost any speed if the D70s does not know it is controlling a flash. That makes this camera a no-brainer for a budget-conscious Nikon flash shooter.

The current model Nikon D40 (but not the D40x) has the flash sync hack, too. But it does not do built-in CLS. And CLS is what is going to be your starter wireless sync.

Neither the D70s or the D40 is a heavy-use camera. But the idea is to start with this, and move it to your #2 body when you go to a D200 or D300 as a heavier use primary camera.

Glass: Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 -- $400.00

Even more surprised at this one. Back in the day, we used to laugh at people who coughed up for the high-end Nikons and stuck third-party zooms on them. Cameras were black boxes and glass made your photos. And third-party zoom glass suc was not a good recipe for success.

Times have changed. Now, the black box very much matters. There is a lot going on in there. And lens designers have gotten better and better.

I learned about the Tamron 17-50/2.8 XR Di-II SP from a long-time photographer for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect. It is sharp. It is light. It is small. It is cheap. This particular shooter has ditched his D2's and D200's and now travels with three D80's, the Tamron 17-50, a Sigma 50-150/2.8 (will the heresies never cease?) and a pair of SB-800's.

The D80's are tiny, with great chips. He carries three, just in case. I suspect the third one stays in the hotel room. (He's never had a problem with the "A" or "B" camera.) But his daily walking bag has two bodies, 17mm-150mm range at f/2.8 all the way through, and sophisticated, multi-light capability. All for almost no weight, and working out of a small waist pack.

Back to the Tamron 17-50/2.8, I find it sharp enough to use at f/2.8 (and it stays at f/2.8 all the way through.) Stop it down and it gets better still. It is light as a feather, yet still solid. And the equivalent film range is 28-75mm. Focuses nice and close, too.

Downside: It is for APS-sized sensor camera. No can do on a Canon 5D. But they do make it in a Canon mount for the small-chip cameras. And note that the prices of these lenses have been fluctuating daily over the past couple of weeks.

Flash: Nikon SB-800 -- $320.00

Look, I told you everything was on the table, assumption-wise. But Nikon's most expensive flash for a starter bag? It'll make more sense as we look at the expansion/upgrade path at the end.

Consider the possibilities that an SB-800 yields: CLS and wireless flash, right off of the mark. At a 1/500th sync with a D70s. But the very first upgrade I would get would be a PC cord (and hot shoe/PC adapter) because that gets me the ability to sync at almost any speed on a D70s.

Besides, the SB-800 has that built-in superslave, which makes it an ideal second light later. At $320, it almost kills off the budget. But that's okay, because everything from here is cheap.

Off-Brand Light Stand -- $25

Where possible, we are pinching pennies. And stands are a good place to squeeze the budget. Example: This Interfit 8-foot stand is less than half the cost of the more compact Bogen 3373. While I love the portability of the latter, choosing the former scrapes me some money to put toward a PC cord and all that high-end flash sync if I am starting out.

Umbrella Stand Adapter -- $15

Again, the ancillary lighting gear is so cheap, relative to the camera and flash. The bang or buck you can get -- once you have the abilility to get the light off of the camera -- is amazing. You can spend more for heavier duty versions, but this one has served me well for $15.

White, Shoot-Through Umbrella -- $26.00

The convertible version is worth the extra few dollars. It gives you versatility and the ability to control your spill with that back cover. Again, cheap.

Now, The Growth Part

Looking forward, my plans would include the following, in order:

• PC cord setup, to get high sync capability. Cheap.

• A reasonably priced 70-200-ish zoom. Again, if you are using light well, your photo quality is less dependent on exotic glass.

• A second light and Pocket Wizards. My choice would be an SB-26. Again, many possibilities now. PW the '26 and slave the '800. Or go with a quick, run-and-gun SB-800 in CLS mode. PC jacks on both flashes ensure easy sync in a variety of ways.

• Second body: D200 or D300. This becomes your primary camera, saving the mileage on the D70s for when you need the high-speed sync. But it is worth noting that you can get the whole starter setup for less than the price of a lensless D200 body alone.

I was very surprised by my choices after I set aside all of my assumptions and photojournalist biases. But I am out the door for a reasonable amount of cash. I can travel light, I can make cool light. And I haven't boxed myself for expansion. Heck, my daily PJ bag (pictured up top) cost over $10,000.00. But it is also designed to crank out 500 shots a day, every day. There is no need to pay for that kind of duty cycle if you do not need it.

And again, light gets a much higher priority when you have been doing this for a while. When I was green, it was all about saving for a 300/2.8. Yikes, think of the pictures you could make with that kind of money, put toward a well-chosen bag.

Have you gone through a similar decision-making process, or do you just buy gear when the bug hits you? Are you going through the process right now? Stick your choices -- and briefly why -- in the comments. You'll be helping someone a few steps behind you in the process.


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