GreyMatter, Personal

Guide to Photography Gear – Part 2


Note: This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast.  It will cover much of what I’ve learned through hundreds of hours of research, in my 25+ years of practicing photography.  My experience with photography gear includes a wide variety of manual and automatic SLRs, DSLRs, compacts and mobile phones from 1995 till date, spanning Nikon, Canon, Panasonic and includes both manual and automatic SLRs in 35mm and digital formats from Nikon, Canon and Pentax.

If you haven’t already, please read Part 1 of this series before proceeding…

How do you choose a lens?

There is no right answer for this question.  It all depends on your individual needs (or shall we say, “wants”?), and the amount of money you’re willing to spend to address that need.

Any lens is a tradeoff.  Size & weight often clash with build quality and optics. Zoom range can compromise distortions and aberrations, and wide apertures (i.e. “fast” lenses) usuall comes at a cost.  You have to choose what you need/want most.

If you’ve just bought your first DSLR kit, and are already shopping around for “another lens”, my advice to you is STOP!  Shoot a few hundred (or thousand) photographs, first.  Then, look at all of them and ask yourself: “What couldn’t I do with my kit lens that a new lens will allow me to?”  The answer for which is the right lens for the job will come from that (and your budget, of course!)

The world is also divided between those who swear by lenses made by camera makers like Canon and Nikon, and those who think that “off-brand” versions from Sigma or Tamron or Vivitar will do just as well.  Typically, off-brand lenses lose much of their market value in a re-sale, but there are exceptions to the rule.  Once again, you decide what works for you, and what you can afford.

There’s also the “subject” to think about.  If you work in low-light conditions, you need fast glass.  If you’re into birding and wildlife photography, you need a telephoto in excess of 200mm (and a fast glass, if you can afford it!).  If your thing is landscapes, you may want a wide or an ultra-wide lens.

A mid-zoom like the 18-55mm on the entry-level DSLRs (equivalent in field-of-view to the 28-80mm on 35mm film cameras) is a good starting point for most newbies.  But your specific need will determine if you need any thing else, and whether or not a particular lens can deliver it for you.

Then, there’s the issue of dust on the sensor (on DSLRs), and the matter of changing lenses when you’re on the field trying to capture that “good light”.  If you’re looking for an ideal walk-around lens, you’ll need to figure out the focal length that works best for you, given your specific needs.

If you shoot wide as well as long, you should consider a versatile zoom like the 18-135 or a super-zoom like the 18-200.  It’ll save you the bother of changing lenses, and let you capture every thing you can see over a really wide range.  Don’t sweat too much about distortion figures or chromatic aberrations that are a part of any super-zoom… you can always correct it in Photoshop if you’re really picky about it.

Just remember, AF lenses don’t always autofocus with different camera models – there are a lot of variations out there, depending on when your particular model was made.  e.g. If you’re a Nikonian, the entry-level DSLRs (D40/x/60/3000/5000) will not AF with the older lenses and will need an AF-S lens for autofocus.

Tip: Unlike in the old days, “big” or “heavy” (or even expensive!) glass does not necessarily translate into better quality.  You’d be surprised what modern-day technological advances can do to lens design.  The Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D is a fine example of outstanding optics in an affordable package that costs less than $150.

As an aside, if you are buying big or heavy, you will also need a tripod.  That is a subject matter for an independant post, but the short story is Tripods come with three attributes: Capable (sturdy), Light-weight, Affordable – You can choose any two!

One more thing: Lenses also use different filter sizes, and the lens you really want may use a non-standard filter.  In the long run, this translates into more hassle maintaining and changing filters, for someone who owns several lenses. (e.g. Nikon’s lenses use a few standard filter sizes, which keeps things simple).  Many serious photographers get around this problem by buying the biggest filters each time (77mm) and use step-up rings to mount them across their different-sized lenses.  That, of course, costs more but is also more convenient.

Finally, here’s an extensive writeup on all you need to know about Nikon Lenses’ features and compatibility. (Thanks, Ken!)


Digital vs Film?!
(This section was written in 2009 and is being retained only for historical accuracy)

Is that even a valid question?  It’s natural for a newbie to wonder why, in today’s age, would any one consider Film?!  After all, you’re probably reading this because you’ve finally taken the decision to move from Film to Digital, right?

I started photography more than a decade ago, naturally, with a film-based camera.  At first it was just reading about photography, then using some friends’ equipment, then my very own manual SLR (Zenit Z12), and then a nice little Canon AF SLR (EOS 300).  Every one starts off in film, and then goes digital.  But, when you’ve shot enough digital, you can begin to truly appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of each medium.  And yes, there are limitations in both.

There are volumes written about the “dynamic range” or “latitude” that film offers that digital simply cannot, or about the hi-magnification print output possible with standard 35mm film that is mostly unmatched by DSLRs, even today!  It is also a fact that Film (because of its cost) forces you to plan and frame each shot carefully, instead of firing away carelessly on your digital.

Today, I mainly shoot digital, but I also enjoy having a vintage Pentax Spotmatic with a Super Takumar 35mm lens at hand, for those times when I just want to slow down and “experience” the art of photography to its fullest. It all depends on which stage of the learning curve you’re at.

Tip: Yes, shooting film is expensive, and only affordably for a few.  When you’re a newbie, the best tool to really hone your photography skills is the “instant replay” feature of digital and the ability to shoot without worrying about the costs.  Here’s a detailed analysis of film vs digital, if you’d like to know more.

Parting Thoughts?

This is just the beginner’s version.  Each time you encounter a term or concept that you didn’t know about, you need to start digging more.  Do your own research.  There’s just no substitute for it.

There is plenty of rich information on online photography forums and review sites.  But, don’t believe every thing you read in any one place, if you want to play it safe.  I’d recommend reading multiple sources to form your own opinion.

Last but not the least, remember that the only way to get better at it is to shoot, shoot, shoot…

Happy clicking!