Jump to content

Choosing Your Gear


Choosing Your Gear

Gear can be a seductive thing for photographers. There’s this misconception amongst most newcomers to photography that without the pro gear they will not be able to make professional images. It’s simply not true.


Granted, the pro gear will give you better optical quality and perhaps more bells and whistles, but as far as image quality goes, it all comes down to how you use it to make whatever images you’re trying to make. I’ve seen photographers with the very best gear available making the most banal and pointless images and I have seen photographers using the most rudimentary gear make some of the most spectacular images simply because they knew how to get the best out of the gear they have and they exercised an often ignored or under-developed human quality, namely vision.


Unless you’re obsessed with pixels and bokeh and flare and optical aberrations, you will be quite capable of making exceptional images with even the most modest of equipment. Sure, we all want to have the very best, but getting there needs to be a carefully plotted course of needs versus wants. The trap I fell into when I was first starting out in photography was convincing myself that unless I had that Nikon F5 or that 80-200mm f/2.8 lens I would never make great photos. And so began a very long and financially crippling obsession with gear. I went from a nikon F60 to a Nikon F5 in the space of 2 years (with a lot of others inbetween). Then I decided that I had to change brands, so I sold all my Nikon stuff and bought Canon digital stuff. Then Canon kept bringing out better digital bodies and I couldn’t afford them, so I ended up selling the Canon stuff and bought more new Nikon stuff. I got poor really quickly and my photography didn't improve at all.


I was focusing more on gear and less on subject matter. And that problem dogged me for much of my life as a photographer. I was never happy with my gear. I think I am now finally at a place where I have more gear than I will ever be able to appreciate and I am very happy with it. I also find myself less distracted by the newest camera and lens releases because I am happy with what I have. I also know now what it is I want to do with the gear I have and as a result my vision is starting to come through in what I shoot for myself. As David duChemin preaches, “Gear is good, vision is better.” and that is a credo I am striving to live by these days. We have to find a balance between those things. Okay, so with all that preamble said, what gear should somebody who is new to photography be looking to invest in?


This is a very genre specific question and it’s something I get asked a lot by many people who are taking an interest in photography for the first time. I've approached this lesson with that person in mind.


The first thing you need to ask yourself is this: What types of photos do I want to take?


The answer to this question will give you a starting point on the map of gear acquisition. Most of the people who ask me for recommendations are not really serious photographers, but they would like to buy equipment that they can take on holiday, or use to photograph their kids playing sports and use without too much fuss. They don't want to know about f/stops and dynamic range. They basically want the Swiss Army Knife of cameras.


There are a lot of entry level cameras to choose from and these days there are very few being made that aren’t producing amazing image quality at a variety of different applications. I actually can’t (and don’t) keep up with the camera releases at the bottom end of the market, simply because there are new ones out every time I open my myYahoo page and look at the RSS feeds I have there from a number of camera review sites. We are certainly spoiled for choice and I suppose it’s like trying to get a handle of what new smartphone to buy these days. A minefield awaits.


For Casual Photographers

Brand wise there are the two main players, namely Nikon and Canon. Both of these companies have been around for a long time and have built up formidable lens and flash systems around their products. They have cameras at every level of user proficiency and you can go crazy trying to decide which lenses you should buy.


A lot of the lower end Canon and Nikon cameras will often be sold with bundled kit lenses, such as the 18-55mm and 55-200mm zoom lenses. I don’t have too much experience with these lenses but on the lower end cameras they certainly give you a wide range of options photographically. You get a moderate wide angle for the times you want to go on holiday and take wider shots, plus you have a telephoto lens that you can use to photograph kids playing soccer or other sports. I would happily recommend these kits to those people who are probably never going to become serious photographers, but who want those Swiss Army Knife features. The systems are affordable and you will seldom have any difficulty reselling them later because everybody knows those brands are the ones the pros use.


There are other brands to look at, including Sony, Samsung, Pentax, Fujifilm and the system I am now using, Micro Four thirds, which is supported by Olympus and Panasonic. However, apart from the Micro Four Thirds system which has models in all the user segments, the other brands are slanted more towards intermediate users and this is reflected in the pricing of those systems. There are very few sub-$1k systems available from those brands. The Sony, Samsung and Fujifilm ranges in particular are still evolving, especially on the mirrorless front, so the pricing of those products is more in the $1-2k range. There are also much smaller markets in the west for these emerging brands than there are for the two big players, so reselling could be an issue later on.


For the casual photographer therefore I would look at the entry level DSLR options from Canon or Nikon. You can build onto those systems easily and there are lots of lenses and bodies available to buy second hand.


For Serious Photographers

This is where it starts to get a little tougher to make recommendations, mainly because there are so many more options and the choice of brand and format becomes more of a factor to consider.


As I mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, I started on Nikon, moved to Canon and then moved back to Nikon, before now settling on Olympus. Somewhere inbetween there was a brief, but voracious love affair with Leica (a brand that I don’t think any intermediate photographer is going to want to dip their toes into just yet). My takeaway from using all those systems is that they all have their plusses and minuses. They all do the same thing at the end of the day too. Make photographs.


The serious photographer should have in his or her mind, before even deciding on a camera system, what kinds of photographs they want to make. This will make it easier to pick a system. Are you looking to do wedding photography? Do you want to do photo-journalism? How about landscapes, portraits or macro photography? Will you be getting into flash photography? Are you going to be printing really large prints?


All of the main systems will give you gear that will enable you to do those types of photography, so you need to look at each system very carefully and decide what is most important to the kind of work you want to do. Let’s look at bodies first.


DSLR Bodies


Canon and Nikon have concentrated their camera business on the DSLR format. If you don’t know what that means, basically it is an abbreviation for digital single lens reflex. The light enters the camera through the lens, bounces off a mirror that is positioned at 45˚ in front of the sensor, is then reflected onto a focusing screen and then either by prism or other mirrors is inverted into a viewfinder that you look through to frame your photos. When you press the shutter button to take a shot the mirror flips up, the shutter opens and the sensor is exposed to light, which is then converted into a digital image that gets stored on the memory card. It’s a complex system that has some advantages, but also has some disadvantages for photography. More on that in a bit.


Within the DSLR eco-system of the two main players are a couple of different sensor sizes. There is what is commonly (and irritatingly incorrectly) referred to as “full frame” sensors, which are based on the traditional 35mm film system of old, and there are what is known as APS-C sensors. The APS-C sensors are smaller sensors that are a crop of the traditional 35mm frame. The Nikon system refers to these two different sized sensors as FX (full format) and DX (cropped format). Canon don’t bother with a designation like this, which can make it a little difficult to pick out the full format and crop format models from their lines.


Both manufacturers make lenses for each of the formats, but because both formats use the same size lens mount, it is possible to use lenses designed for the larger format on the smaller format. It’s also possible to put lenses for the smaller format onto larger format cameras but the image circle is reduced and as such the frame isn’t fully covered with those lenses. Nikon FX cameras deal with this by masking off the parts of the frame that are not covered and essentially make a photo with less pixels using the centre part of the frame. I’m not sure if the Canon system does the same thing, but what I can tell you is that there are not all that many APS-C lenses designed for serious use as there were at the beginning of the DSLR revolution when we didn’t have the full format 35mm sensors. Nikon seem to have pretty much stopped developing DX lenses and have turned their attention to updating their extensive range of FX lenses.


Nikon are also bringing out more and more cheaper FX bodies these days, so for the serious photographer I would suggest looking at the 35mm full format bodies rather than the APS-C ones. You can pick them up at decent prices second hand, especially the older top end pro bodies like the Nikon D3 and Canon 1DS. I just saw a Canon 1DS Mk3 selling locally for the equivalent of about $1100k. That’s a very, very nice camera that offers a 21MP sensor and a full range of features that a pro would use.


However, having said that, there is a benefit for wildlife photographers in using the APS-C formats mainly because you have a couple of benefits when using telephoto lenses designed for the full format on these crop format bodies. What happens is that because the crop format is only reading the central part of the image circle, the often less optically pure outer edges of the projection onto the sensor are cropped off, meaning that from edge to edge of the cropped frame you will see less light fall off and also sharper corners. The other major benefit is that you get what appears like a closer view of your subject than would be the case if you were using the same lens on the full format. In layman’s terms you get a tighter view of a subject. I will go into more detail on this in another lesson, but suffice to say that wildlife photographers prefer the smaller sensor size because of these factors.


Some DSLR’s are better at some things than other DSLR’s are. For instance, if you are aiming your creativity at the studio photography, or landscape side of things, you don’t need a DSLR that shoots at 10 frames per second or needs to track focus of low flying aerobatic aircrafts. Your needs will be perfectly suited with a higher resolution sensor that you can shoot at lower ISO values. Similarly, if you are intending to become the next Al Bello of the sports photography world you are not going to be well served with a camera that only shoots at 5 frames per second and starts producing more noise than a death metal band at moderate ISO values like 1600 (I’ll get into more detail on these issues in other lessons). These are camera specs and traits that you will need to research online. There are many, many sites out there that provide free equipment reviews. Wherever possible it’s a really good idea to rent the kind of camera you would like to use to see if it is going to fit with the type of work you want to produce.


DSLR Advantages:

  • lots of bodies and lenses to choose from
  • good resale from the main brands
  • covers most photographic needs adequately
  • excellent battery life


DSLR Disadvantages:

  • Mostly quite large and heavy bodies
  • lenses are big
  • pro level gear is hugely expensive
  • optical viewfinders are not always practical
  • sensors attract a lot of dust


Mirrorless Bodies


We now live in an age where mirrorless cameras have fully come into the serious photographers sphere of interest and this has sparked many an online debate as to whether a DSLR is actually advantageous in any way to mirrorless cameras. Personally I have completely moved away from DSLR’s to mirrorless cameras, but for many other photographers the mirrorless cameras don’t quite break the hold that DSLR’s have on their needs just yet. Let’s first have a look at what a mirrorless camera is.


As the name implies mirrorless cameras don’t have that 45˚ angled mirror in front of the shutter. When you take the lens off a mirrorless camera you stare directly at the sensor, which can be a little unnerving at first. The imaging process is slightly different to that of a DSLR. What happens is that because the sensor is always exposed to light and there is no complex optical system of prisms and mirrors to bounce the light up into an optical view finder, the mirrorless cameras make use of electronic view finders (EVF’s). The live view that is being picked up by the sensor is transmitted to the EVF so you are seeing a digital representation of the unfolding scene in front of your lens.


When mirrorless cameras first hit the scene a few years ago the EVF’s were not that great. They were laggy and had somewhat diminished resolution, which meant that for action photography they were no good at all. Also, the sensors relied on a different kind of technology to auto focus the lenses, namely contrast detection, whereas DSLR’s used a technology known as phase detection. The latter is much better for tracking of moving subjects. However, over the past couple of years these mirrorless technologies have improved dramatically and on the more modern mirrorless bodies the EVF quality is exceptional, as is the auto focus tracking ability.


One of the many advantages of the mirrorless systems is that they are a lot smaller than their DSLR counterparts and in the case of the micro four thirds system (the one I use) the lenses are much smaller than most of those used by DSLR’s. When you’re carrying around a fair amount of gear for any particular job this becomes a critical factor in selecting a system.


Right, so now that I have explained what a mirrorless camera is, who makes them and which one would be right for your needs?


At the present time the open standard micro four thirds system (m43 or MFT) is by far the most well supported mirrorless system available. There are loads and loads of lenses being made by many different companies for this system and there are also two main manufacturers of bodies (and lenses), namely Olympus and Panasonic. Both companies have been around for almost 100 years and have fairly diverse product ranges. Neither of them exist purely to make camera systems, their main businesses are in other industries. The m43 system is at the leading edge of most technological innovations in camera systems today, with such astonishing features as in body image stabilisation (IBIS) and multi-shot high resolution pioneered by Olympus, touch screen technology on LCD’s, wifi, and now also affordable 4K video in the Panasonic GH4. It all makes for a very enticing camera system and since I moved to it I have become a very contented photographer gear wise.


But it’s not the only system out there for mirrorless cameras. The other serious players are Fujifilm and Sony. Fujifilm have developed a very well loved range of cameras in both rangefinder and DSLR like retro-styling. The sensors are technologically different to those used in many other cameras and as such they boast superior colour accuracy and dynamic range to that found in many other systems, including some DSLR’s. The lens range is increasing gradually, plus they have excellent firmware updates for older cameras, often bringing many new features to older bodies. The downside is that because it is a proprietary system there are not that many (if any) 3rd party lens manufacturers adding to the pool of options for this system. That said, you can adapt pretty much any lens from any maker onto the Fuji’s by using an adapter. You lose the advantage of auto focus and shutter priority metering, but that seldom seems to be a concern amongst the growing family of Fuji users.


The other major name in the mirrorless world is Sony. What Sony are doing with their range of cameras is a little confusing, simply because there are so many different systems within one brand to chose from. I’m still not quite sure what lenses work with what bodies, but what I do know is that they are the only camera manufacturer (apart from Leica) to be producing a full format 35mm sized sensor in a mirrorless camera, namely the Alpha a7 range. This larger sensor means you get better high ISO performance, shorter depth of field and of course in some models more resolution. At this time there are 3 different Sony a7 models on the market, each of which is tailored to a specific use. The a7 is a 24MP, general purpose body, the a7R boasts 36.4MP resolution and the a7S is a 12MP super low light sensitive, 4K video capable machine. Each body does well in some areas and not so well in others. If you think that this is the system for you, my advice is to research each one thoroughly before making a decision. They’re not that cheap either.


Mirrorless Advantages:

  • some really amazing technologies (EVF, IBIS, wifi)
  • pro level equipment is much cheaper than DSLR equivalents
  • smaller, lighter systems
  • growing market segment with lots of interest from enthusiasts
  • can adapt lenses from any system for use on mirrorless bodies
  • dust is less of a problem


Mirrorless Disadvantages:

  • autofocus tracking not as good as DSLR's
  • battery life is not as good as DSLR's
  • resale value is poor
  • some systems don't have a full range of accessories
  • professional backup not as tight as it is from Nikon and Canon


DSLR vs Mirrorless: which one is right for me?


This is a personal thing. The only person who can answer this question is yourself.


As I mentioned near the beginning of this lesson, the most important thing to consider before deciding on which system you want to make your own is to nail down what kind of photography you want to do and then find the system that works best for that type of photography. Each available system has it’s own pros and cons for each type of photography, so you need to know what you want out of it before you go and lay down your money. Research, research, research! Ask me questions. I’m here to help you find your way.


As I wrap up this first lesson what I’d like to re-iterate is that once you have chosen your gear, please go out and shoot the daylights out of it. Don’t sit indoors on forums and blogs comparing your shots to those of other photographers using different gear and then surmise that you can only get the same shots if you change your gear. Change your attitude instead! Shoot every day and grow your vision. Learn all your camera’s functions, even the ones that you don’t think you’ll ever use. Make the camera an extension of your body. Make sure that driving the camera is as easy and natural as walking and chewing gum for you (I’m assuming that you can do those things!). The famous golfer Gary Player has a saying that I am somewhat fond of. He says “The more I practise the luckier I get.” It’s true for everything. Repetition is the foundation of excellence.


In the next lesson we will start to look at lenses and what you should be looking to invest in when you’re starting out. 


This articles featured image is from:

Søren Astrup Jørgensen 



Edited by Dallas

  • Like 1


Recommended Comments

There are no comments to display.

  • Similar Content

    • Dallas
      By Dallas
      What interests you?
      I’ve heard it said before that the more successful photographers in the world aren’t actually interested in photography as much as they are interested in the subjects that they photograph. For these photographers the subject is everything and photography is merely a means to an end. I think there is a fair amount of truth to that. If you’re passionate about a subject, it shows up in your work in ways that the unfamiliar photographer isn’t able to reproduce in their work of the same subject.
      When I was starting out as a photography enthusiast I was primarily interested in taking "artistic" photos of my family life. I use the word "artistic" very liberally here! At the time I had two young sons who were 9 and 2 years old. My original intention was simply to document their lives in an aesthetically pleasing way, so that at some point in the future (which I guess is now), I could look back at those photos and marvel at how they had changed over the years. I would have a record of the way they looked and also of the things we got up to as a family.
      Other people pick up a camera for different reasons. I know so many photographers who started out with an above average interest in something and wanted to make photos of it. Fashion, wildlife, travel, portraiture, sports, etc. This interest then lead them to photography, which in many cases became a central theme around their primary passion. All the serious wildlife photographers I know seemed to get into it this way. I know a few sports photographers who followed the same path and who now, through their love of sports (or a particular sport), make a decent living out of photographing it.
      The first and most obvious advantage to photographing something that you are interested in is that you will already have a good working knowledge of the subject matter, which will hopefully give you a bit of an insight into what makes good photos of it. Take surfing as an example. The best surfing photographers in the world were at some time surfers themselves (can you ever give up surfing?), so when they are at the beach taking photos, they already know instinctively when they should be firing the shutter so that they can catch the best moments. Same thing for rugby photographers. Or football photographers. You have to know something about the game in order to get the shots that others who also love the game will get excited about.
      I remember the first time I got an accreditation to photograph a professional rugby match. I was petrified. But I knew already in my mind what I wanted to shoot and I set about positioning myself in places where I knew I would get something I wanted. Most of the professionals who were covering that game camped themselves behind the away team’s try line so that they could get shots of the home team scoring. I took a different approach and followed the action up and down the touch line. I got shots of the set pieces such as scrums being set, line-outs being contested, tackles being made and so on. This is because I knew the game. I loved the game! When I handed my photos in to the local newspaper editor he was quite taken aback with this approach and ended up running one of them on the back page of that Sunday’s paper. I was thrilled. Sadly I don’t have any of those images anymore due to poor digital archiving on my part, which is something we will discuss in another lesson, but the point is that if you have an above average interest in a subject you should be able to make above average images of it, provided you know your way around your camera.
      In a nutshell, your muse in photography is the thing you are most interested in (not necessarily another human - I’m also being a bit liberal with the use of the word here). It will provide you with the creative impetus you need to push your vision of it. As you spend more time with your muse you will get to know its character better and as with everything you practise abundantly, it will reveal its true character to you, giving you better results than those of other photographers who’s interests may overlap slightly with yours and who spend very little time examining the same subject matter. Nature photographers are particularly adept at this and they are frequently rewarded with the most incredible images. This doesn’t happen out of randomness. These are people who will spend an entire day in a hide waiting for a species they are wanting to photograph to appear. They will not simply fire away maniacally when the species appears, instead they will observe its behaviour, wait and choose their moments. Subject knowledge is key to the success of this type of photographer.
      So as a new photographer what things are most important to you? You need to know this at the outset if you are hoping to become a better photographer. I’d like to take a short amount of time to look at three main areas of photographic interest and point out a few observations I have made over the course of my involvement in photography and how interest can help you make better images in those areas.
      Commercial Photography
      This is probably the holy grail for many photographers who study the craft in formal settings. It’s the practise of making images that are designed to provoke feelings of desire in consumers and it can range from lifestyle type images to still life, to fashion. The photographer’s job is to get you interested in the product that is being sold by making as loud an appeal to your visual senses as possible.
      There are very few who make it in this field. You have to have a superb sense of style and concept to be successful in commercial photography. Often times your clients are not purchasing your technical ability to get a particular shot, but rather your ability to see creatively. What are you bringing to the table that hasn’t already been said about their product? Other times you are just the camera operator on location while the art director spells out almost pixel for pixel how they expect your image to look. As a commercial photographer you need to be able to put your head into both these spaces and produce work either conceptualised by somebody else, or come up with the creative yourself. Confidence plays a huge part in the latter and your vision needs to translate to the product owner in a way that sells them on what you are seeing. You need to be interested in making the product stand out visually, which is a key ingredient to making successful commercial images. How you find that interest can depend on several factors.
      Last week I was guest judge for a commercial photography competition on viewbug.com and while there were many technically amazing shots entered into the competition, the image I chose as the winner showed to me that the photographer knew exactly how to make light and colour work together to best illuminate a subject. Those are his interests and he makes them work for him commercially.
      Nature Photography
      Up until I led my first photo safari to the Sabi Sands in 2010 I wasn’t really all that interested in nature. When we were there though I fell in love with the bush and the animals and other bugs who inhabit it, so nowadays I am more inclined to want to go and photograph nature than any other subject, mainly because I am now more interested in it than I am in making (say) images of women's shoes.
      I also saw passion for the wild from the rangers who drove us around on those safaris and this bore itself out in the images that they took (with mostly inferior equipment to what we were using). This one time we were in the middle of a herd of hundreds of buffalo and I simply couldn’t find anything of interest about these animals to photograph, but Ranger Rika, who was one of our guides on that safari, sat a couple of feet next to me and somehow saw shapes and patterns in the horns of the buffalo that made outstanding images. From then on I began looking into a nature scene rather than just at it.
      Making successful nature photos requires complete immersion into the natural world. You have to have spans of time that you can dedicate to being out there observing, ingesting and then expressing the things you see in ways that others just don’t see. This is probably the one area of photographic interest that requires the most dedication and personal sacrifice to be really good at, but it certainly seems to be to be the most personally rewarding. I have never seen an unhappy nature photographer while they’re out there, even when the light is poor or the animals are winning the game of hide and seek! They just want to be amidst the wild and letting what they see there reflect outwardly in the form of photographs.
      Human Photography
      I’m taking a very broad brush here to describe photography that includes humans. Everything from portraiture to reportage of news, to wedding photography to the family snapshot could fall under this description.
      Humans are the first things we encounter in the world and we either love them, tolerate them, are indifferent to them, or dismiss them. Whatever our attitude towards other humans is will become evident in the way we go about photographing them. Me? I find myself very shy around new people initially, so it takes me a while to build up the kind of confidence that is needed to make great photos of people I don’t really know. Which is why in my professional life as a photographer I don’t make attentive human photography a priority. I’m just not that good at it with strangers, or even sometimes people who I know but who don’t feel comfortable being in front of my camera. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like to take photos of other people, I actually love making people photos, but I do it differently. I like to make candid photos and photos where people are unaware that they are being photographed - no not voyeuristic imagery, just shots of people maybe interacting with their surroundings without being aware of my presence. OK, that sounds creepy enough to be interpreted as voyeuristic, but rest assured, it’s not my intention. :-) I’m usually taking photos of people at events where they are focused on something else and not on me. Probably why I do quite well at events as a “reporter with a camera” where there is no interaction with the subject. Inattentive subjects.
      I think for those photographers who are intent on making the human an attentive subject in their photos, being acutely in tune with other humans is key to the success of the images they make. You have to be aware of what makes another human respond in a photogenic manner if you want to get the best out of them. There’s no magic wand for this. Some photographers have a knack for it, others don’t. Some photographers, like me, suck at it. The most important thing to take away from this lesson is that you shouldn’t become discouraged if you’re not making great people photos straight away. Working on your people skills is probably the best thing you can do to get attentive subjects to respond favourably in front of your lens. Tell a joke, issue a stream of compliments (be genuine about this because most people know exactly when they are having smoke blown up their asses).
      There are of course many other areas of interest for photographers, most of which either overlap with these three in some way, or are even more specialised (consider astrophotography, UV/IR photography, etc). Directing your photographic attention towards something of deeper interest to you will most definitely result in more engaging photography. It doesn’t really matter what your interest is, use it to further your photographic ability. It will certainly result in better results than trying to photograph something that you aren’t all that interested in.
      This article's feature image is by:
      Spencer Backman
    • Dallas
      By Dallas
      All About Lenses
      As you get deeper into photography, you may become susceptible to another of the pitfalls of distraction that can lead you off the path of tending to your vision, namely the acquisition of lenses. There are many, many different lenses for all the camera systems and choosing a lens can become just as frustrating as choosing a new smart phone these days.
      When I bought my first SLR camera in year 2000 it came with a 28-80mm “kit” zoom lens. In older times the lens you normally found on a 35mm system camera was the 50mm f/1.8 or 35mm f/2.8 standard (or fixed focal length) lens. These days zoom lenses are much more popular than primes and as such you’re likely to find them on many of the cheaper range of cameras and they all pretty much provide the same angles of view: moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto.
      Back when I started photography the 28-80mm zoom lenses were considered to be somewhat crappy and one of the first bits of advice I read when I started looking at the photography forums on usenet was to get rid of the kit zoom lens and buy something a little better. Like a 50mm prime. I had very little idea what that meant at the time so I scratched around on websites and read a lot of photography books to try and decipher what all these foreign (to me) terms were. It turned out that not all lenses were created equal. Fancy that? And there I was happily snapping away roll after roll of film on my Nikon F60, totally oblivious to this nugget of information.
      Then something happened.
      A neighbour of ours worked at an insurance company and she had somehow acquired a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 zoom lens from her company that she gave to me, since she knew I had recently gotten into photography. It was at that point that I became acutely aware of just what a difference a lens can make to the look of your photos. The 35-70mm zoom was so much sharper than the 28-80mm that came with the Nikon F60 that I could hardly believe my eyes. Whaaat?
      I scoured the rec.photo.equipment.35mm forum daily. looking for information from other photographers on what they thought were the best lenses out there. And so I opened Pandora’s Box. From that point it all began so slide downhill for me. I was no longer interested in making pictures. I was interested in acquiring lenses. Taking pictures almost became secondary to my mission of finding the next best lens. It was probably no coincidence that my interest in my managerial position at the bank head office I had been working at began to take a back seat to this ongoing quest for more and more lenses and cameras. I even began buying and selling cameras to colleagues to fund my ongoing obsession with gear.
      Anyway, the point I want to make with this digression is that while it is true that a better lens will improve the quality of your image, it will not improve your vision. As I like to say to people when I am discussing the merits of HD television, crap in HD is still crap regardless of how much sharper it appears on my screen. And so it is with photography. Putting more emphasis on getting the best lenses before you are able to even properly compose a scene is very much like putting the cart before the horse.
      That said I do think it is important to understand a little about lenses and what they do for your photography before you get into the business of taking pictures. So, if you are new to photography, what lenses should you be wanting to get?
      General Purpose Zoom Lenses
      The lens that you are most likely to find on entry level cameras these days is very similar in focal length range to the one I described at the beginning of this lesson. It’ll be a zoom lens that gives you a moderately wide angle to moderately telephoto range of view. Depending on the size of the sensor (format) you’ll see different numbers on the zoom range. For the full format 35mm system you’ll most probably not get a kit lens as these are more professional cameras and as such they are seldom sold with a lens. However, the general purpose zoom lens options usually range from 24mm up to around 85mm or sometimes 120mm for this format (eg. 24-85mm, 24-120mm).
      For the smaller APS-C formats you’ll usually find an 18-55mm zoom lens comes with the camera and for the micro four thirds format there are either 14-42mm or 12-50mm options available. Now these kit lenses are not to be scoffed at. Compared to the kit lenses around in the days when I first came to photography they are very capable performers and I have seen images from some of them that are indistinguishable from those made with much more expensive pro zoom lenses. It all depends on how you use them.
      The big difference between the kit lenses and the professional zoom lenses comes down to the size of the lens aperture and whether or not it is a variable aperture, depending on the focal length you are using.
      Professional zoom lenses usually have a constant f/2.8 wide aperture throughout their zoom range. We’ll get into the concept of apertures and what they do in a later lesson, but for now all you need to understand is that the smaller that f-number is, the bigger the hole (aperture) in the lens is that lets light pass through. If that aperture stays the same throughout the zoom range it basically means that exposure time is going to stay the same as you zoom.
      The consumer grade zoom lenses have what is known as a variable aperture in the zoom range. You’ll see this expressed like this on most consumer grade zooms: f/3.5-5.6. What it means is that as the lens zooms into its subject, the aperture gets progressively smaller and the net result is that the exposure time between the wide angle and the telephoto angle is accordingly increased (which has an effect on susceptibility to camera shake, or blurry images because you are not holding the machine still enough). In daylight photography, or photography where there is a controllable external light source, such as a flash, this doesn’t really matter so much, because you’re probably going to be shooting your lens at what we term a “stopped down” aperture value anyway, something like f/5.6 or f/8.0. The constant and large aperture of a pro zoom lens is usually used in low light or when a photographer wants to shoot “wide open” to blur out the background of a subject.
      Compared to their consumer grade counterparts, pro zoom lenses are seriously expensive, in most cases they will cost more than the camera you’ve bought. They are also significantly larger and heavier than the consumer grade lenses and depending on their design they will be sharper when using the biggest aperture. Those are the main differential features between the two.
      These days most camera starter kits come with both a general purpose zoom lens like the 18-55mm, and a 55-200mm telephoto zoom lens. These two lenses will give the average user the ability to cover most of the subjects they are going to want to photograph, from general outdoor scenery to close-ups of their kids running around on the sports fields. It’s only once you find yourself wanting to do more specialised types of photography that you will begin to see a need for more specialised lenses. Enter the “prime”, or “fixed focal length” lens.
      Prime Lenses (Fixed Focal Lengths)
      Zoom lenses are called that because they allow you to change the angle of your view by zooming in or out of a subject. A prime lens has only one view. If you want to get closer to your subject you will need to move closer by zooming with your feet.
      So why would anyone want to use a lens that is less convenient than a zoom lens? Well, prime lenses usually offer other specific advantages, such as wider or longer views than zoom lenses, as well as offering a faster aperture (bigger hole to let in more light). In the old days the standard prime lens that came with an SLR camera was the 50mm f/1.8, which is still considered by many to be one of the most useful lenses available. They are sharp, small and give you a perspective not dissimilar to what you see with your own eyes. Renowned photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson only used 50mm lenses and produced a body of work that is still considered to be beyond reproach.
      Typically the prime lens is used in applications where a zoom lens cannot match the optical performance. A good example of this is in wide angles. If you were to take the average kit zoom lens and compare its wider end to that of an equivalent wide angle prime lens you would see less distortion and sharper corners. It’s not always the case with pro zoom lenses, some of which can more than hold their own with primes, but for the most part if you want to photograph architecture you’d probably want to invest in a wide angle prime lens.
      Another example of where a prime lens is often used is in portraiture. On a full format 35mm system the ideal portrait focal length is at around 85mm to 105mm. There are zoom lenses that cover these focal lengths, but they are likely to have slower apertures (smaller holes) which means that the subject doesn’t stand out as much from their surroundings as when photographed using a prime lens like an 85mm f/1.8 or f/1.4. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make those kinds of photos with your kit zoom lens, it just means that they will look slightly different to those made with the prime.
      There is a school of thought amongst many advanced and professional photographers that you only need two or three prime lenses to make 90% of the photos you are likely to take, so if you are looking at getting more serious about your photography you should consider this approach rather than spending a lot of money on the pro zoom lenses. For example, well known editorial photographer, author and online personality Zack Arias proposes using 35mm, 50mm and 85mm primes on a full format 35mm system. I tend to agree with him. Those lenses, or their equivalents, can usually be had for very little money when compared to something like a Nikkor/Canon 24-70mm f/2.8. The downside is of course that you have to swap out lenses more often, which may not always be practical. If you find that you are spending more time on portraiture than on reportage this is probably not an issue, but for an event photographer like me, nothing is quite as convenient as a zoom lens, because fast moving events won’t slow down for you while you change from an 85mm to a 35mm lens (assuming I only had one camera).
      Other specialist prime lenses include those used to make macro (or extreme close-up) photographs. I’ve never personally been into macro photography myself, but somehow over the years I have accumulated more macro lenses than any other prime lens. Don’t ask me how this happens. The first prime lens I ever owned was a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro which offered a 1:1 reproduction ratio (this basically means that the item being photographed would appear life sized on the film/sensor plane). It was as slow as molasses to auto focus, but it was incredibly sharp. That lens got me my first paying gig as a product photographer way back in 2001. Since then I have always owned a macro lens and my current favourite is the Leica designed 45mm f/2.8 Macro-Elmarit for the micro four thirds format I use. This lens lets me get really close to the subject and throws the background into a wonderful blur. It provides a similar angle of view to that of a 90mm lens on the full format 35mm system. Macro lenses can make wonderful portrait lenses but be aware that because they are so sharp they are likely to show up just about every imperfection in your model’s face, which with older models tends to win you no compliments on your photographic ability!
      The best telephoto lenses are usually prime lenses, especially for things like sports and wildlife photography. If you are looking to get into this sphere of photographic interest you can never go wrong with a good quality 300mm f/2.8 prime lens. It will most likely cost several times what most people spent on their first car, but it will give you a lot of photographic options should you wish to get into sports or wildlife. The sharpness on this type of lens (particularly the OEM brands) is mindblowingly good and it is also possible to increase the focal length of the lens by using a teleconverter without losing too much in terms of optical quality. A 2x teleconverter will turn your 300mm f/2.8 lens into a 600mm f5.6 lens and while you lose 2 stops of light, you’ll still be making amazing images of subjects in the distance with wonderfully defocused backgrounds.
      The other options for top end prime telephotos are the 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4.0, 600mm f/4.0 and more recently the big names have been offering 800mm f/5.6 primes. Price wise these lenses are made of solid unobtainium for most of us, and my advice is that unless you have already sunk yourself deep into GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), or you earn a ton of money, you should rent them rather than buy them because they are not likely to be used as often as you’d like to use them, plus the insurance on a lens like those mentioned is bound to be millstone-like on your monthly budget. Having said that, there is seldom any problem selling these lenses for good resale because photographers know just how good they are.
      Be warned though, if you are looking to buy one second hand, that they need to be thoroughly tested for any underlying issues before you part with your money. If the previous owner dropped the lens it might have some centering issues (images may appear sharper on one side than the other), the auto focus might need to be tweaked, if the lens was used in a humid climate it might have developed fungus if left unused in a case for some time. A couple of years ago I bought a 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor that seemed perfectly fine when I tested it at the seller’s house, but when I got it home I noticed that the front element was covered in some weird kind of pock-marks which I found increased flare (and thus reduced contrast) when I shot towards a light source. Fortunately the seller happily refunded me my money but I have heard of other people who were not so lucky. So if you are buying a used telephoto lens sight unseen, tread carefully. Also, if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. These lenses are often stolen and find their way into the used market at prices that most of us would jump at. If you find something fishy like this online, rather do the right thing and report it to the authorities than succumb to the temptation of using stolen goods, also known as “ill gotten gains”. It’s not worth it.
      Third Party Lenses
      There are a number of lens manufacturers who specialise in producing lenses for the major camera brands. You’ll come across names like Sigma, Tokina and Tamron most often. These are usually cheaper than the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) lenses and for the most part there is nothing wrong with those lenses. When I was starting out I found that many "brand snob" photographers turned their noses up at anything that wasn’t OEM, but to be honest, they do so to their own detriment. In recent years Sigma have been making lenses that are often much better than the OEM lenses. They are also making some exotic zoom lenses that I found extremely useful, such as the 120-300mm f/2.8 and 12-24mm f/4.0-5.6, lenses that don’t have any counterpart in OEM terms.
      You will often hear talk in photography circles of quality control issues and sample variations when it comes to third party lenses. By sample variation I mean that if you were to put two of the same lenses on your camera you would get varying degrees of sharpness and light fall off between samples. This isn’t always the case and it isn’t always limited to the third party brands. In some instances there have been significant sample variations reported on OEM lenses too. The sensible thing to do if you're considering a third party lens is test out as many of them as you can before committing to buying one. If you buy it from a retail outlet make sure that they have a good returns policy should you get one delivered that doesn't quite meet your expectation. Dramatic sample variation in modern lenses is quite a rare thing to experience though.
      In my experience of buying lenses from all three of the main manufacturers over the years, I have found that the Sigma’s were the best performers, the Tamron’s come in second and in a distant third place are the Tokina’s. Strangely though, some of the best lens build quality I have ever encountered in lenses has been seen in the Tokina brand. I just haven’t been lucky with their optics at all though, which is a great pity.
      There are also third party manufacturers who make premium priced lenses for the main camera brands, such as Zeiss and more recently Cosina Voigtländer. Zeiss lenses for the main mounts are usually manual focus only but they do offer an electronic interface with the camera body, which means that the EXIF information seen on your image files will show the lens and the aperture used at the time of taking the shot. It also means that you can control the aperture from the camera body. The Zeiss glass is fantastic! I got to use the 135mm f/2.0 briefly on one of the safaris we organise where a guest had brought it with him. I was truly impressed with the sharpness and quality of the out of focus areas. Cosina took over the Voigtländer brand some time ago and they produced a range of APO lenses that have become firm favourites amongst serious photographers. For a while I used to own an Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6-2.8 auto focus lens in Nikon mount which was a very nice and somewhat rare lens.
      Before I moved from Nikon to Olympus I used a range of Sigma lenses and I never found myself missing anything that the OEM equivalents had. In some cases, such as the 105mm macro options from both makers, I sold the Nikkor and kept the Sigma. I found that the Sigma was less cumbersome to use and also was optically on a par with the Nikkor. At the time I made the move my main safari telephoto lens was the 120-300mm f/2.8 OS which is one helluva nice lens. The newest Sports line version of it is made to the same build quality levels as those seen on Zeiss lenses in my opinion. The Art line of Sigmas is equally impressive build wise.
      So, third party doesn’t always mean inferior to OEM. Look around at the options and keep an open mind if you are wanting to invest in a specialist lens. The one drawback (or advantage, depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on) of third party lenses is that they don’t have as good resale value as an OEM lens does. The drawback is if you are the seller who bought new you're going to lose a significant amount of the purchase price, but the advantage is if you are a smart buyer who has done his research properly, you may pick up a bargain that you can keep on using it for as long as you like without losing much should you sell it later.
      Final Thoughts On Lenses
      At the outset of your journey into photography you should have a fairly clear idea of what you would like to accomplish visually. For most people having a better camera than the one in their cellphone means that they have more than just a casual interest in making photos, but it doesn’t mean that they need to go nuts and splash out on the best lenses right at the outset. In fact, it would probably be better for them to use an inferior lens at first so that when they actually get better at their technique they will be pleasantly impressed by seeing just what happens when a better lens is slapped on the front of the camera. All too often folks with more money than patience give up on photography after buying the best gear, simply because they never get to grips with better technique and end up blaming their gear for their poor results. Never blame your gear unless it fails completely.
      My advice for beginners is to shoot the daylights out of your kit zooms first, then if you find you are beginning to gravitate towards one or other type of photography (portraits, landscapes, wildlife, etc), start looking at the lenses that will give you the most utility in that genre of photography. I’d be inclined to recommend the prime lenses before I recommend the pro zooms, mainly because they will be available at more reasonable prices. I’d also advise looking at the third party options, particularly the newer Sigmas, which can be had cheaper than the OEM versions.
      If you have any questions about this lesson please feel free to add a reply. 
      This article's featured image is from:
      Danis Lou
  • Join Our Small Community

    Like what you see on Fotozones? Join up here and make friends with like-minded photography enthusiasts from all across the planet. We are limiting our membership to no more than 2000 individuals, so if you are seeing this message there is still space available for you to join. We'd love to have you along. :)  



  • Create New...

Important Information

By visiting this website you are agreeing to our Terms of Use, Privacy Policy & Guidelines.