Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Body or the Lens?

This one is easy to state but difficult to execute.

(FYI - I followed the lens advice from Kevin Brown, a photographer friend of mine, and have not been sorry. See his work at

Put your money in really good, fast lenses. Make them a priority over the camera body. Here are my thoughts on why.

  • A good lens will be fast which means a large aperture (e. g., f/2.8 or larger) so it can gather more light and allow more latitude with shutter speed and/or ISO settings.
  • A good fast, zoom lens will maintain a constant aperture over the entire zoom range. That is a 70-200 mm, f/2.8 zoom will be capable of f/2.8 even at 200mm. A lens that is characterized by an aperture rating of something like f/3.4-f/5.6 means that when it is zoomed to 200 mm its largest aperture will be f/5.6, much slower than the constant aperture of the fast lens.
  • A good lens will be well made and will be durable; lasting for many years (easily 8-10 years). A camera body will be superseded with the newer model in about 18 months but even if you skip a generation you'll still be trading bodies in 3 years.
  • It doesn't matter how many mega-pixels your camera body has, unless the image delivered to those pixels is tack sharp your photo won't be the best it could be. It might be "good enough" but is that what you really want?
  • Ditto on distortion (barrel and/or pin cushion)
OK, now for the "Con" part

  • No one fast lens will cover a REALLY wide zoom range. It is likely that you will need at least three to go from extreme wide angle (12-24 mm), to standard range (24-70 mm) and reasonable telephoto range (70-200 mm)
  • A good lens is expensive. Most fast lenses in the above-mentioned ranges will be in the neighborhood of $1,800 each.
  • These lenses will also be HEAVY.
  • A body with that fast 70-200 mm telephoto will require a more stable (heavier) tripod and a larger capacity (heavier) ball head. The necessary tripod and ball head will set you back about $1,000. I use a Gitzo 3540 LS tripod and Really Right Stuff's largest ball head. (I'll blog about the right tripod/ball head combination in a later posting.)

Some practical notes.

  • This stuff adds up: Body $5,000, Tripod & Head $1,000, 3 fast lenses @ $1,800 each $5,400 - easily $11,000 to $12,000 not counting back packs, strobe, extra batteries, etc.
  • If you are just starting out and can't afford all of this then go for a good body instead of the pro version. That is buy the new Nikon D300 at $1,700 instead of the pro D3 at around $5.000. The image processing engine is the same and many of the capabilities are there. I use the D300 because that allowed me to put the extra $$ into 2 of those fast lenses.
  • Get a lens that will suit what you are doing but be careful NOT to go for the cheapest. A great all-around lens is the Nikon 18-200 VR zoom. It is not a fast lens by the above standards but the VR helps. At around $700 or so it will serve for most things (except macros) that you will want to shoot. Check out lens reviews at Ken Rockwell (good common sense advice) and dpreview (deep technical analyses). I've said before that I LOVE this lens.
  • I haven't bought that fast Nikon super wide angle lens yet. I am using the Tokina 12-24 Pro DX f/4 constant aperture and have had great results.

Bottom Line: In the long run you want to build your equipment around good, fast lenses with the camera body being secondary. Those lenses are going to still be giving great results long after you've traded camera bodies several times. It doesn't matter how expensive or feature-rich the camera body is if you don't get the optimum image to the sensor.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Make That Wind Work For Ya'

OK, I know I said that my next post was going to be about where to put the $$; camera body or lenses but I wanted to get this one posted for memorial Day.

Sometimes we just have to take what Mother nature throws at us. I was out taking shots around dawn on Saturday and it was REALLY windy, as it often is here in North Texas. I wanted a shot of the red, white and blue bunting at the station for the Grapevine Vintage Rail Road but the wind had it whipping something fierce. So, I took advantage of that and set my camera to use rear-curtain-sync flash. The exposure was 1 second at f/20. The long exposure allowed the camera to capture the movement of the bunting and the flash froze the motion at the end of the exposure and added the in-focus portion to the image - visible most easily with the stars.

This shot seems kind of fitting for memorial Day.

Here's another shot using similar technique.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Lense(s) Do You REALLY Need?

Disclaimer: Written by a Nikon user from that point of view.

As DSLRs become ever better regarding their noise handling abilities at high ISOs (> 800) and with the proliferation of shake cancelling technology (be it Nikon's VR, Canon's IS, etc.) we can get by (i. e., take good photos) with lenses that a few years ago would not be considered suitable for "pros" to use. Bumping the ISO to 800-1600 or higher is possible (the Nikon noise reduction DOES work superbly well) and the VR can add 2 to 3 stops of margin. Given that, do we NEED to drop the coin required to add a "fast" lens or two or three to our gear?

A typical fast lens with a constant aperture of f/2.8 for example will cost in the near-$2,000 range for something 200 mm and below. Are those lenses really necessary or worth it with the other technology that we have available to us?

As usual, the answer "depends."

I use a Nikon D300 and usually have attached to it Nikon's 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR DX Zoom Nikkor. (OK, the only important part of all of that alphabet soup is the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR part.) This is hands-down the best lens I have ever used from a convenience standpoint. Further, the images are tack sharp and the VR works like magic. It is much lighter than either the fast 28-70 mm, f/2.8 or the 70-200 mm f/2.8 (which, to cover not even quite all of the same zoom range, I would have to carry both).

The beauty of the 18-200 is that I can leave it attached and be sure that I can capture virtually anything that comes up during the day, even without a tripod. This is the ultimate "walking around" lens. Get one.

There are times though when that lens won't do it. Consider the following situation.

I live near Fort Worth, Texas, and I was shooting an indoor rodeo at night down at the Stockyards. I was using an f/2.8 lens with a monopod and was able to shoot, using available light, across the arena. To capture the action I couldn't go too low on shutter speed. Most of the night I was shooting at around 1/80 with ISO was at 800. I was pushing the envelope about every way I could. If I had been using my 18-200 zoomed all the way in the maximum aperture would have been f/5.6 and I would have needed 2 additional stops to capture the shots but the aperture of the 18-200 was maxed out so the only thing left was ISO. The 2 stops would mean that ISO had to go up to 3200 and the noise, even with high ISO NR, could become unmanageable. Without the additional light gathering available with the f/2.8 lens I couldn't have gotten the shots.

That said, we each have to judge for ourselves whether the extra cost of a "pro" lens is a good value.

More to follow on this. Next time I'll discuss where to put the most $$ - lens or body.

Thoughts on Making Photography Your Business

This is harder than I thought it would be. By that I mean, turning a photo hobby into a business.

I knew about the technical side of it all for years. Apertures, shutter speeds, their inter-relationship, ISO/ASA, composing a shot, spot metering, depth of field all were well understood. People liked my photos. I saw photos for sale and knew I could do as well or better. This was just not hard for me.

Satisfying the IRS that I have a photography business wasn't too hard either. These things were necessary: registering with the county/state as a "dba" sole proprietor business entity, setting up a separate bank account for the business, marketing/promoting the business (web site), getting a federal tax ID (so you don't use your SSN), getting a state sales tax permit, becoming a member of a professional organization associated with the business (in my case NANPA) and tracking all expenses and income carefully for tax purposes.

But the real BUSINESS part of it I greatly underestimated.

Setting up a website and deciding what you want to sell and for how much is straightforward but sales are going to be VERY slow that way unless you can get some visibility and pop up on the first page of results on Google or some other search engine.

Making a profitable business out of landscape photography is almost a non-starter. EVERYBODY is a landscape photographer. I read this many times in various magazines and web sites but I thought the power and reach of the web would mean that I could generate a stream of income but it just ain't so. Portrait photography or commercial photography are much more likely to generate income near term.

My hat is off to those landscape photographers who print, mount, mat and sleeve a few hundred images and go to art fairs, set up their tents and sit waiting for sales, hoping to cover expenses and many times having to pack it all up and take it back home. Some are successful. Many are not.

I'm not giving up but I've got to do something different. I'll write about it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Here I Go

For most of my adult years (I am 60, closing on 61) I have been a fairly early adopter of things technological. I had a Sinclair computer (remember the one with the cassette drive for storage) , bought a TRS-80 for a project at work (telecommunications network element design) had my own Apple-II Plus (with the added RAM to get me to 64 K!!), did a lot of programming in Basic, etc.

That "jump right in" attitude extended into photography when digital cameras came out. When I got out of the workday world I decided to launch a business based on my hobby of photography and set up a website to offer photos.

So I'm not usually afraid to try new things but doing a blog has always been a bit intimidating. More so, I guess, due to the demands of having something worthwhile to say rather than any fear of getting a blog set up and running (it's very easy).

As the description of this blog states, this is to be a collection of thoughts, musings, facts and frustrations associated with my experiences in things photographic. I'll discuss (and invite comment on) cameras, lenses, what works for me and what doesn't, Lightroom, Bridge, Photoshop, Nikon Capture NX, computers and most anything else that we touch in the pursuit of capturing and perfecting digital images.

Come on along but I ask for just a bit of patience as I work this out and hit my stride.