Thursday, May 1, 2008

Gearheads Begone!

I had a student of mine ask me yesterday what lenses I used with my camera. I replied "a 50mm f/1.4, an 85mm f/1.8, a 17-40L f/4, and a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. His eyes got big and he just said "whoa". He hasn't gotten his first advanced camera yet, and is still in the dream phase. I think he was impressed that I had more than one lens per body, rather than the actual lenses themselves. I also don't think he knew much about the actual lenses, whether they were good or not, whether they were expensive or not, he just knew enough to know that I was not listing an 18-55 kit lens.

I find lots of folks out there who, even after having had SLRs or DSLRs, are still in this "gearhead" phase of checking out what everyone else has. They think "if only I had THAT combination, then I'd be able to take the photos I want! This goes for bodies, lenses, tripods, software, etc. In fact, the first question I get if someone walks up to me when I'm out somewhere shooting is "what kind of camera is that?". I can see the checklist forming in their mind: My Stuff/His Stuff--who's is better?--who will win? [FYI: I'm being a little extreme here with my writing to exxagerate the point. I've just been waylayed a number of times and have missed shots while trying to be nice to people who would like nothing better than to chat about gear] In order to prevent this, I've actually taken gaffer tape and taped over the markings on my camera bodies and lenses. It's really funny to walk through a crowded event and see lots of people craning their head to try to figure out which brand/body/lens combos I'm using. The big white lens on the 70-200 gives that one away, but the others are tougher to figure out. When they ask me what cameras I'm using, I just say "Canon". That's enough for most of them, and I suspect that they automatically assume I have the latest and greatest model. Silly.

My advice on gear:

DSLR BODIES: At low ISO ratings (100, 200, even 400), you're not going to notice much difference between models in the same brand--unless it's Nikon, because their older cameras didn't do so well at 400 and above, whereas the new ones are nice). Buy what you can afford and buy the next one only when your present one will not give you what you need. Even the earliest dslrs would make great 8 x 10 prints. If that's all you're shooting, don't worry about getting the latest and greatest. In the past few years, we went through some new product offerings where it was the same camera as the previous model, but with a bigger LCD. Big whoop. The newest rounds are adding Live View (nice, but unless you're shooting tethered how much are you really going to use it?) and sensor cleaning (shake, shake, shake, but really, how hard is it to clean a sensor? Come on, it's a gimmick). As they pack more pixels into the same size sensor, the real challenge for manufacturers is to keep the image quality and noise reduction EQUAL to previous models, not better than previous models. That being said, a 10 MP image of equal quality is better than an 8 MP image if you're going to be printing it huge--say 20 x 30 or more. If you're printing 8 x 10's or 11 x 17's, you're not going to see much difference. Will you be able to strut a bit more if your camera is the newest?--sure. Will it make you a better photographer?--probably not.

LENSES: Here is where I will tell you that spending the extra money is definitely worth it. Get good glass. You may not need the best stuff, but stay away from the cheapest. When buying lenses, you should first decide what you intend to shoot. If it's going to be a lot of available light stuff, then a lens with a wide aperture (f/1.4-f/2.8) is going to be great, because you'll have more control and get a higher shutter speed with these lenses. Beware though, that some of these lenses (like the Canon 50mm 1.4) are really soft until you stop down to f/2.0 or better. Just because you can shoot at f/1.4 doesn't mean you should. If you're going to be shooting outside, or using flash all the time, you can spend less money and get an f/4 lens and it'll work out fine for you. You'll probably start out with a kit lens (18-55 or so). After that, decide what you want--wider field of view, more telephoto, etc. and let your needs guide your purchases. Don't buy things to build a collection.

TRIPODS: I can't believe what people spend on tripods. Carbon Fiber is all the rage right now, since it's so light and high-tech. Personally, I can't understand why people would spend hundreds of dollars more to save a pound of weight when they're tromping through the woods. If you want to save a pound of weight, eat less pie the week before you go. :) NOTE: I got a message from a person who loves their CF tripod. I'm sure they're very nice. I suppose I'm just too frugal.

Some considerations for tripods would be--LEGS: do you need the independent legs, or would you rather get the legs that connect to each other? I have Benbo Trekker aluminum legs and I love them. I've used them for 5 years in all types of terrain ranging from the ocean, to rocks in rivers, to steps, etc. and the legs always find a good foothold. Reasonably priced and stable.

SIZE: Not all tripods will fit in your luggage, and you'd better plan for the tripod to be in your packed luggage when flying. I bought a cheap set of legs from Amvona (on Ebay) because they're small when packed up, yet extend to a comfortable working height. It's not the greatest, but for something I'm mainly going to use submerged in salt water, that's fine with me.

WEIGHT: For tripods, weight=stability. An ultralight tripod is going to blow over (with your camera attached) in a high wind or if it gets bumped. Getting a tripod with a hook at the bottom of the center post to attach weight to it works, but you have to remember to use it every time.

HEADS: I've got a lot of different tripod heads, each with different purposes. My favorite is a Manfrotto 322RC pistol grip ball head, which I use either on a monopod or on a tripod. It's fast and solid. In the studio, I usually use a tilt/pan head, because it's easier to make fine adjustments.

STRAPS: I recommend the OP/Tech camera straps with the quick release buckles. They're great when you're using multiple cameras all day long. Those woven straps that come with cameras are awful after a few hours.

VEST: I've got a Domke vest and love it. Nuff said.

BAGS: I have a few different Lowepro backpacks and a Tamrac 5405 shoulder bag. I use the backpacks to carry large amounts of gear, but when it actually comes time to shoot, I pull out what I want, put it in my vest, and leave the backpack in the room or in the van. Walking around with a big backpack full of all the stuff you "might" need is not a good thing. The Tamrac 5405 is a nice little bag for carrying one cam with a shorter lens along with my phone, PDA, dig voice recorder, and other small gadgets. I carry this around wherever I go. It does get heavy after a few hours and cause some shoulder pain, so I bought the Domke mail carrier pad and that helps a lot.

CF CARDS: I like the Sandisk Ultra IIs. They work. I've had problems with Lexar and Kingston, so I don't even consider them. To keep my CF cards, I use a Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket (dumb name--nice product). It holds 10 cards and folds up nicely with a lanyard which I clip to my vest loop for added security.

BATTERIES: SterlingTek is a great little company. I've been using their batteries for 5 years. The couple of times there were problems, they replaced the batteries without hesitation.


Todd Muskopf said...

Feel free to leave your comments!

Zack Lee said...

it's funny that you talk about "gearheads". Every time my friends see my photos and they like them, the first thing they always point to is the gear I have. Even when I'm travelling with a couple of them, they'll always say that I have the best camera therefore I will always have the nicest photos.

At the back of my brain though, I thought I've taken equally crappy photos with a P&S and a DSLR.

Todd Muskopf said...


A recent quote I heard, which I find absolutely hilarious, is looking at someone and saying "Gee, that's a great pen. I bet you're a fantastic writer!".

Same sort of thing.

Morris said...

Why are you crosposting this rubish all over DP Review? I wood appreciate it if you did not post this things in the D40/50/60/70/80 forums as these are dedicayted to wildlife photography.
I am a long establishd member and we like to share bird photogrpahs, you are welcome to join in if you wish. Birds in flight are the hardest type of photography to master, I am thought of as an elder spokesman and many people enjoy my work. I wood be glad to teach you about this most rewarding side of photography.

Wilson said...

I can see the checklist forming in their mind: My Stuff/His Stuff--who's is better?--who will win? I have gotten so sick of this that I've actually taken gaffer tape and taped over the markings on my camera bodies and lenses.

This sounds more like you have a problem than they do. Amazing how you can read their minds. And you actually feel the need to cover up markings on your equipment? That is bizarre.

Todd Muskopf said...

Thanks for your comments. It's possible to learn from everything. I was overly excited at beginning this thing and wanted to share it with everyone. Having been a DPReviewer for many years, I thought I might see what people's thoughts were on my blog. Sorry if you were offended in any way. I won't reply to my other posts, so hopefully they'll die off quickly.

Todd Muskopf said...


I find it amusing. I didn't realize it would be seen as bizarre.

Perhaps you and I have had different experiences.

Thanks for the comment.

Tom James said...


You may be a great photographer, but you really should brush up your spelling.