Key Lenses

LensfamilyI own six lenses now, and a post by Richard Harrington on Photofocus made me think about lenses I’d choose I was starting over or starting out.

My first lens was my Nikon 18-200 VRII.  For some reason, this is a really controversial lens.  You’ll see lots of people on photography forums malign it, say it isn’t sharp, talk about distortion (which is an automatic two-second fix in Lightroom) and generally look down their nose at it.  Luckily, I listened to Scott Kelby, Trey Ratcliff who recommend it heartily.  Heck – even Ken Rockwell likes it!  It is really versatile, reasonably light and I’ve gotten very sharp shots from it.  As a travel and walkaround lens, it is hard to beat.  Lately prices for used copies of this lens have dropped close to $500, which is a steal.  The older “VRI” model sells for even less, which is crazy – the only difference is that the “VRII” has a switch that locks the lens so it won’t extend while you’re walking around (which is called “lens creep).  If you see a good deal on one, grab it and get this $5 solution for lens creep from B&H.  For most of us Enthusiast Photographers, this takes care of most of our zoom needs.

This brings me back to Richard’s advice – the next lens should be a prime.  Primes give you the ability to shoot in really low light, are usually sharper than zooms and give you more ability to generate “bokeh” – that pleasing blurred background that is so useful for portraits and creative photography.  Here’s the big news – they are really affordable too!  For only a few bucks more than the list price of the 18-200, you can buy the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G!  Even better, the 35mm f/1.8 sells brand new for less than $200. On Nikon DX cameras and other “crop sensors” (which include pretty much all both the most expensive DSLRs out there), this gives you the “nifty fifty” field of view – a “normal” view of the world that is pretty much as your eye sees it – not zoomed out or in.  If you’re on a full-frame camera, you’ll want a 50mm lens (hence “nifty fifty) to achieve the same thing.

I started with my 35mm 1.8G and it is the lens I reach for when I want to get creative.  It is also really, really light and really sharp.  Later I added the 85mm, which is just plain outstanding for portraits.

If you’re wondering whether to invest in the more expensive, wider-aperture primes (like the f/1.4 lenses), my advice is generally “No” – there isn’t that much difference in light and they are usually significantly more expensive – from more than twice the money to as much as 8 times as much!! (from the $200 Nikon 35mm f/1.8G to the over-$1600 f/1.4G). The exception to that might be the 50mm if you’re shooting FX or full-frame Canon, etc.- you’ve already spent some serious money and the $500 f/1.4G is outstanding as are the Canon equivalents (and are less expensive than their Nikon cousins…).  If you need to save the $300, you won’t be unhappy with the f/1.8G model, either.  For 85mm lenses, the Nikon f/1.8G is actually sharper than the f/1.4G and far less expensive.

To net it out, get a flexible zoom and a 35mm or 50mm 1.8 prime to start and build from there.  The more you shoot, your needs beyond that will begin to become more obvious to you and you won’t regret having those two lenses in your bag.  (here’s my obligatory “What’s in my Bag?” post)

What lenses do you own?  Any you especially like or dislike?

Top 5 Pieces of Advice for an Enthusiast Photographer (100th Post!)

locks

I started Enthusiast Photographer because I thought it might be useful to someone to track what I learned over time about photography – tips, equipment, industry news, whatever.  This is now the 100th post on the site, so I thought it would be appropriate to boil things down a little.  Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Learn more about photography: What makes photography fun (and sometimes intimidating) is the vast amount of knowledge out there to acquire – there is always something to learn!  I’ve said many times that the best upgrade in photography is improving the person behind the camera.  Find some good books (Kelby, Peterson, et. al.), Blogs (byThom, PhotoFocus, etc.) or videos (FroKnowsPhoto) and always keep growing!
  2. Learn more about your camera (and lenses): I don’t think it is unfair to say most Enthusiast Photographers haven’t maximized the capabilities of their equipment.  I was astounded how much I didn’t know about my camera (especially the autofocus system) when I read Thom Hogan’s guide to my camera.  What I learned greatly expanded my understanding of the piece of equipment in my hand, my comfort level while shooting and ultimately my photography.  I’ve read it a couple times, and I’m getting ready to do it again – each time I walk away with more.  The same thing is true about some lenses.  Does your lens have switches or buttons?  Do you know what they do and when you should use them?  Generally we’re limited to the owner’s manual here, but read RTFM 🙂 and check reviews to make sure you’re getting the most out of your glass, too…
  3. Decide if you’re a tripod shooter or not (if so, get a good system): Kelby, Hogan and others say that you should invest in a good tripod off the bat.  I’m going to disagree with them…sorta.  If your thing is kids, street or travel photography, a tripod might not be as big a deal – modern lenses with vibration reduction give you much better hand-held results at slower shutter speeds, and your money might be better spent on glass.  If you love landscapes, portraits, macro or any other area of photography where the sharpest picture is key or you’re dealing with very low light (think dawn, dusk or inside dark buildings), then a tripod is one of the most important things you’ll buy.  If you do, spend money on a good one. That doesn’t automatically mean a super-expensive one, but don’t go cheap either.  Find a nice one used or save up for a good one.  I’ll have a post coming on buying tripods and heads later.  For the record, I love my tripod and use it constantly.  I also have a monopod that has come in extremely handy, too.
  4. Always prioritize glass over body when it comes to upgrades:   The latest “sensor” is always sexy.  More megapixels, better low-light performance (ISO), more detail in shadows (dynamic range), whatever.  But here’s the thing – A good lens is going to make any camera better.  An average lens is going to make every camera and photographer work harder.  Icing on the cake comes from the fact that your glass will probably work on your next body, too.  If it doesn’t (for example if you switch from crop-sensor to full-frame), lenses keep their value far better than bodies.
  5. Have fun!: There are so many details to remember and settings to fiddle with that you can wind up missing out on the cool stuff going on around you!  Frankly, if you’ve been diligent about #1 and #2 above, this is probably less of an issue.  One other way you miss the fun is when everything becomes a photo-walk.  During my trip to Europe last Summer, I went light in my bag and shot for fun as much as expression.  It was great – we had a ball and they camera never got in the way of my vacation.  I wound up with some shots I really love, like the one at the top of this post.

So there it is!  Honestly, there are probably more than those five, but that is what is coming off the top of this hair-thinning dome… 🙂

One last note – if you enjoy this content, please feel free to “Like” the Enthusiast Photographer FaceBook page or “Follow” @enthus_photo on Twitter

[EDIT:  It has been a day or so since I posted this, and I just happened to wander by Thom Hogan’s site – he has a very-similar 5 things on his site (called “Last Camera Syndome II)!!  All I can say is I didn’t see his until just now, but it makes me feel good that my thinking tracked pretty closely with Thom’s (though that might worry him!! 🙂 )

Continuing Saga of CES: Lenspen

So between a busy day job and being a little under the weather, I’ve fallen behind in finishing up my CES experiences.  I’ve only got a couple left after this: Timbuk2 and my Nikon/Canon visits.  Today’s topic, however is Lenspen.

Ever tried to clean a filter and only have it wind up looking smeared and covered in tiny threads?  I’ve got pretty good microfiber from my auto detailing hobby and side business, and even my best stuff fails for photography filters.  On occasion, difficulty cleaning the filters has made me debate keeping them on the lens.  It sucks.

I’d heard references to Lenspen, but had never taken the time to look them up.  While a co-worker and I were wandering around, I happened to see their booth at CES.  I’m really glad I did.  I watched a demo, and picked up three different models.

LensPen is really simple:  You use the retractable natural-goat-hair brush (these are some hippy goats, that’s all I’m going to say about that…) to remove dust and particles from the lens surface.  Then you open the “pen” end, which is really a small concave rubber tip with a carbon-infused pad on it.  You wipe the lens clean using a steady circular motion and *voila* clean lens.  There is a filter model with a slightly flatter tip.  You re-charge the tip when you put the cap on and twist a bit – there is a reservoir of carbon material in the cap.

They rate each pen for 500 uses, which for me sounds like a years of use.  It works great, and I’m now satisfied that I can keep my filters and lenses clean.  They are probably available at your local camera store (and I mean the real camera store…) or, of course, at B&H.

One less thing to worry about…

Enthusiast Photographer Hits CES – Beta Shell

From the Beta Shell website - all of my CES photos were phone-terrible...

I came across something that might be really handy if you ship your lenses or travel with them packed in a suitcase.  I’d never seen Beta Shell before, but it is a pretty cool product line.  Essentially they are hard plastic cases that have memory foam at the top and bottom with close-cell foam collars to stabilize the lens from the hardest shocks.  The top is a screw-in affair that is water-sealed – and I mean capable of submersion and all kinds of dastardly conditions that would normally ruin your lens.  These things seem almost military-grade.

Cutaway view showing the rubber-gasket-sealed top and foam at top and bottom.

A view inside - note the neoprene lining on the inside of the barrel

Inserting the lens...

Ready to go...

Another cutaway view

Quick view of their banner at the show

I talked to the owner/inventor of the company for a little while – he seems like a good guy who has thought through his product very well.  If the water-tight lid becomes a little sticky due to pressure/altitude changes, there is a flat bar across the lid that can be leveraged against a table or counter-top.

They aren’t available from B&H or your local camera store yet, just directly from the company, but that is something he’d clearly like to change – ask about them at your local camera shop (and I don’t mean the mall, I’m talking about the places that has a whole corner devoted to light stands and a case full of nothing but 1970’s-vintage film cameras.  If you don’t know the closest one of these, I suggest you find it – they are great fun and a valuable resource).  Beta Shells start at $45 for the smaller ones and go to around $90 for the biggest lenses.  That isn’t cheap, and probably is a lot more useful to a Pro photographer who ships his/her lenses or a camera store that rents them than an Enthusiast Photographer, but I could see getting one for my two 2.8 lenses for secure storage and the off chance I mights ship them instead of travel with them.  They also seem to be very well-made – my guess is they would last for years of hard use.

Are DSLR’s going the way of the Dodo?

Trey Ratcliff of “Stuck in Customs” fame made a pretty bold statement today:  The DSLR is as dead as the dodo and he’s not going to invest in any more DSLR bodies or lenses.  Considering who Trey is and what he does and that we are said to be only a couple of days away from a big new announcement from Nikon (probably a D800 and maybe a D4), that is a pretty big statement.  For the record, I have tremendous respect for Trey – he is a terrific photographer, I appreciate his craft with HDR, he is clearly an extremely intelligent guy and appears to be a really nice person as well, so I’m not throwing stones.

Anyway, Trey is asserting that in as few as two years that mirrorless cameras will displace DSLRs and make them as obsolete as a horse and buggy.  I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with Trey, so I thought I’d lay out my thoughts.  Let’s start with the disagreements:

  • You shouldn’t buy a new DSLR body: I’m only sort of disagreeing here, and to be fair Trey isn’t saying you shouldn’t buy a new body, he’s saying he won’t buy another one.  Trey is a leader in our little world, though, and a throng of people will follow him just like they do on a photowalk.  Reading the comments on the article, some of those followers are genuinely wondering what they should do.  There isn’t really a wrong answer.  I think many people are tempted by the latest body well before they get all the juice out of the tool already in their hands.  I also have friends with well-worn D300’s who will upgrade to the next pro-DX camera (presumably the D400) as soon as it comes out as much because it is time to replace the beater as anything. Generally speaking, body investment seem to follow the lenses, not the other way around.  The kind of sea-change Trey envisions will necessitate that a lot of people will have to invest in a whole new set of “3rd Gen” cameras (his term for mirrorless, which I actually like a lot), and I just don’t see that happening for the bulk of the market.  Photographers buying their first serious interchangeable-lens system will consider it (and probably buy it) and high end photographers who aren’t limited by budget will do it if the quality is there.  That leaves out the big, fat middle of the market place where all the volume is – and volume is what makes the market.  I’m not trying to talk anyone into buying a new body, but I’m also not *quite* ready to declare it a bad investment, either.
  • You shouldn’t buy DSLR lenses:  One of the key things that makes a Nikon 1 attractive to me is the FT1, an adapter that would let me use my current Nikon lenses on this new class of camera.  If this adapter allows you to get high quality photographs using the existing lenses, why not own them now and get the benefit?  Lenses generally hold their value a lot better than bodies, and if the compatibility story is good on mirrorless/3rd Gen I think the impact on lenses will be minimal.  Add to it that the crop factor gives some of these lenses a really fun “reach” – the 2.7x crop factor offers a 200mm lens an effective 540mm field of view!  As a zoom guy, that sounds awfully fun!  (Have a look at the fun photo Andy from Nikonandye put up on FMForums – a Nikon 1 with an effective 6,480mm!)
  • Small size is a good thing:  Trey seems to say that lugging a big camera around and looking like a pro is a bad thing.  I know Steve Huff would agree.  I’m not saying I love a big camera or huge, heavy lenses, either.  But I don’t like how many of the smaller cameras fit in my hands, and I think some weight is a good thing when trying to steady a camera.  In fact, maybe my technique is just whack, but I think I’d have an easier time getting steady hand-held with my front-heavy 80-200 mounted on my D90 vs. the same lens on a D3s.  The heavier the load at the back from the body, the harder it is to get steady (at least it seems that way for me).  So I’m not completely sold on the super-small form factor of the Nikon 1 series, but I do think mirrorless will offer much greater freedom for camera designers to create cameras that are more natural to hold.  They might wind up looking a lot different…
  • Mirrorless will replace DSLR’s in two years:  When I’m not out being an Enthusiast Photographer, I work in the technology industry, and have watched a lot of technology fade into oblivion.  Here’s the problem:  it never fades as fast as anyone thinks.  There is so much investment on the side of the industry and their customers that it takes forever to finally kill anything.  Look how long the floppy disk lasted! For that matter, look at the computer you’re using to read this blog – does it have a CD or DVD drive in it?  When was the last time you used it?  I’ve seen lots of people say that optical is dead and is going away in the face of huge USB drives and streaming content.  But just ask the CEO of Netflix what his opinion is today verses when he made the Qwikster announcement…  Optical drives are going to die, but it is going to take a few more years.  Heck, two years ago there were experts predicting it would be gone already.  The super thin, light, more expensive PC’s have started to go without them, and it will trickle down through the industry.  But not for a while.  I’ll say two years.  🙂

On top of all that, the industry has a franchise to protect.  The whole stratification of DSLR families between consumer, prosumer and pro cameras (and lots of shades of grey…) and the lenses, etc. that support a huge revenue stream and represent a massive investment from the Nikon’s and Canon’s of the world won’t change that quickly – they can’t afford it.  So my opinion is you’ll see it push from the bottom and the top and trickle.  The companies will milk their cash cow DSLR revenues while figuring out how to still make pro mirrorless platforms that produce the revenue and profits they are used to from those segments – and that won’t be easy as you get to the prosumer and pro platforms.  Who is going to pay D3X money for a mirrorless?

I’d like to introduce Trey to Andy E., who writes the Nikonandeye blog.  Andy has a massive array of Nikon lenses and I believe he owns every Nikon DSLR ever made. He’s an interesting cat.  He’s written up his experience with the Nikon 1 system on his blog, and participated in some interesting threads on Fredmiranda, including using the FT1 (his photo of the Nikon 1200mm with the tc301 and the V1 for an effective 6480mm is pretty humorous).  Some of his recent discussions have compared the Nikon 1’s to his D3X, which is Trey’s baby, so I’d bet the two of them in the same room would be fascinating, and to get them out shooting together would be a lot of fun.

At the end of the day, I don’t think Trey is wrong.  I agree that there are lots of advantages mirrorless offers – smaller bodies and lenses, sharper images, more design flexibility, less moving parts which hopefully means reliability among other benefits.  It is definitely the heir-apparent technology, indeed the “3rd Generation”.  But much like it took a while for the early automobiles to figure out how to be a mass market product (not to mention a good one…) and fully displace the horse and buggy, I’m not willing to declare the DSLR dead quite yet.  He’s a leader, and he’ll adopt early.  It will just take a while for 3rd Gen to kill the DSLR.

When it is gone, I doubt we’ll mourn it any more than we do the floppy disk or the wooden carriages of yore.

What do you think?  Does the rise of mirrorless make you think twice about buying any more DSLR equipment?  Do you crave a small camera with high quality or do you like a camera that “fills your hands”?

Sharp Lenses?

Have you ever read a “for sale” ad for a lens and have someone talk describe it as a “sharp copy”?  I have to admit, the idea that there are good and bad versions of lenses scares me – wouldn’t there be some sort of testing and quality control?

I recently read an article about lens sharpness and sample variation from the owner of Lensrentals.com (if you aren’t familiar with them, they are what their names says.  If you’ve ever wanted to try out an exotic lens for a little while, check them out).

The net of the article is this:  Even the very best lenses have variation, but so do the bodies they mount on.  Some combination of a lens on a particular body might yield great results, but switch to another sample of the same body and things look different.  They are all going to vary a little, and that is OK.  The point he boils down to with data and analysis is that bad lenses are truly rare, and you shouldn’t waste a lot of time trying to match a lens and a body.  It will drive you crazy.  Get good, reputable lenses and learn to shoot them as well as you can.  Sharpness starts with the shooter.

When it comes to glass, it’s about Fast, Fast, Fast…

As we planned for a vacation in Savannah, GA, one of the most historic and beautiful cities in the United States, I decided to take along something new I’d wanted since getting back into the photography game:  f/2.8 long glass, specifically the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED.  As is often the case with photography, this new piece of equipment came with several lessons and some new doors to open. Perfect fodder for Enthusiast Photographer, right?

Before we get to the doors and lessons in future posts, let’s cover the subject of “fast glass.”  It’s a term you hear a lot in the photography world.  Every new photographer inquiring whether he/she should upgrade an old body invariably gets hit with the “spend the money on fast glass” advice.  But what is “fast glass” and considering lenses featuring low apertures tend to cost more than their more mundane cousins, especially zooms, why does an enthusiast photographer want it?  I boil the differences down to three P’s:  Packaging, Price and Performance

First, Packaging – there are big physical differences.  For the OEM (Canon/Nikon) lenses, these tend to be the top lenses made by the manufacturers – you’ll hear them called “pro glass”.  They are big, they are heavy and they feel like they are carved out of smoothest marble when you focus or zoom.  You’re going to find a lot less plastic and a lot more metal in their construction since they are made for the people who are making a living at photography.  Even the aftermarket makers (Tamron/Sigma/etc.) are generally putting their best stuff in these lenses, so expect it to be more robust – and more expensive.

The second difference is Price.  Where an old, used Nikon 80-200 f/4.5-5.6 might cost you $80 in nice shape, the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED is going to run you $800.  Used.  A new one at B&H is $1119.  Move up to the old 70-200 f/2.8 VR I and in exchange for $1500-$1600 on the used market today you’ll get the “VR” stabilization technology that minimizes camera shake so you get sharper, better pictures when you hand-hold (and let you use slower shutter speeds, etc.).  The latest version of that lens, the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII is well over $2000 used and $2399 new at B&H.

So they are heavy and they cost more – where’s the benefit?  The answer is Performance. On top of the fact they’ll have the highest quality optics, coatings and generally the most advanced technology you can cram in a tube for the best image, they are the ticket for shooting in low light.  Ever have a zoom lens hunt back and forth for focus or have low-light shot turn out blurry no matter what you do when hand-holding?  This is where the low-aperture lenses make a huge difference.

Even without the fancy stabilization (which I covet greatly, but can’t afford in this class of lens), having a low-aperture lens gives you a number of advantages.  First:  You can shoot better in lower light. Why?  The lower aperture is giving your camera more light – the lower the number, the bigger the hole to let light through.  Since the size of the hole is bigger, the lowest aperture number is called the “maximum” aperture.  Have you noticed that most zoom lenses show a range of apertures in their names?  That is because the maximum aperture of the lens grows as you zoom out.  The old consumer 80-200 I mentioned above starts at f/4.5 maximum at 80mm, but by the time you zoom all the way out the maximum has grown to f/5.6.  What that means to you when shooting is that less light is getting through the further out you zoom, and you’ll have to use longer shutter speeds or higher ISO’s  to get the exposure right.

You’ll also have more problems with good focus in low light since your camera can’t see very well.  This is because at f/5.6, the amount of light the camera can use is reduced by almost half compared to f/4.5.  And the pro glass at f/2.8 is giving your camera four times more light to work with than at f/5.6.  An f/1.8 prime would give you more than eight times more light than at f/5.6.  That gives you a lot of flexibility for faster shutter speeds that give you an opportunity to successfully hand-hold and lower ISO that will give you better image quality with lower noise.

In high end zooms, the aperture is fixed.  In other words, the aperture stays constant no matter the focal length, so f/2.8 is f/2.8 no matter how far you zoom out.  On consumer lenses, the farther you zoom out, the wider the minimum aperture will be. “Prime” lenses have no zoom capability – they are a fixed focal length (50mm, 85mm, 105mm, etc.), and tend to have lower fixed apertures.

Another benefit of low-aperture lenses is the ability to reduce the depth of field.  If you really want to isolate something, going to a low aperture will make what is visible in focus outside of what you specifically focused on less clear.  The term you’ll see is “bokeh”, which essentially is the pleasingly fuzzy background you see in so many portraits.  Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the subject of bokeh.

Lastly, all this great technology and optics also tend to give you really excellent, sharp pictures.  Ultimately, this is why you want to spend the money.  You’re getting more flexibility out of your equipment and better pictures to boot.  The good news is that this kind of investment tends to serve you well.  Did you notice above how close the prices for used fast glass was to the brand new price?  These lenses tend to keep their value extremely well.  Where the pro-quality D2X cost over $4500 in 2005, it can be had for well under a thousand bucks today.  If you bought the pro-quality 70-200 VR I for $1650 at the same time, you’d still be able to get $1500 for it today.  Not bad, eh?  Prices tend to slide down slowly over time, but it is extremely slow.  Net:  there is no better investment in the photography world than in good lenses.  They improve your shooting flexibility in a variety of ways, and you’ll be able to get most of your money back out of them, even years later.

One way to experience the joys of low-aperture shooting is prime lenses.  Nikons f/1.8 35mm and 50mm primes are very affordable and give you terrific flexibility for shallow depth of field or low-light shooting.  Your feet are now your zoom, but that is fun, too.

So, hopefully now you’ll understand what’s behind the sometimes-maddening “get fast glass” advice.  If you’re on an older body, you’ll get more bang for the buck with better lenses, and generally they’ll be able to graduate with you to later cameras and perform as well or better while holding their value!

I’ll say, however, that while I’m loving the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED a lot, it is a heavy lens.  You’re going to feel it in your bag carrying it around.  It is going to test your holding technique, etc.  These are some of those doors and lessons I was talking about…

I’ll come back and update this with some pictures shortly.  Thanks for reading!