Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Camera Lust

So yesterdays lens post prompted a reader to comment "You are inciting camera lust".

Oh, you think so? Honey I aint even started yet ;-)

Seriously, I love photography, and have since I was a kid. I got my first camera as a "premium" from one of those door to door sales programs for kids to sell wrapping paper and stamps and collectibles to their neighbors, that they used to advertise in boys life and the like.

It was an Ansco 110 with a built in flash... and it was utter crap. It broke pretty much right away; and my mother felt bad, and bought me a considerably less crappy Vivtar 35mm for christmas; with cheesy autofocus and auto exposure that sort of worked.

Yeah, it was a junk camera, BUT it taught me the most basic principles of photography:
  1. Interesting subjects make interesting photos

  2. Composing a shot badly can make the most interesting subject boring. Composing it well can make boring things, surprisingly interesting

  3. Lighting isn't everything, but it's everything else

  4. Great cameras don't take great photos; you do. The better the gear, the more it gets out of your way to let YOU take the photo you want; that's all.

    Oh and coincidentally, the better the gear, the easier it is for YOU to screw up the photos as well. After all, good gear assumes you know what you are doing, and just want it that way.

  5. That said, bad cameras certainly can (and frequently do) ruin good photos. Although you can take great shots with bad cameras, you're always taking a risk that the camera won't do what you need it to.

    If you want to get good shots, consistently; you need as much control, as much versatility, as much quality, as much reliability, and as much toughness as you can afford.
So gear isn't the answer... but it sure is fun to play with and drool over aint it?

I admit it, I like photography half for the photos, and half for the gear... in fact maybe more than half, considering how much of a gadget obsessed geek I am...

But really, what I want, isn't bells and whistles; it's gear that will get out of my way, and let me take the photo that I want to take.

When I was 12, I cleaned out a neighbors attic, and he let me keep anything I wanted. In that attic was a box with a Nikon F2, a 60s era Rolleiflex 35c, a light meter (my memory says Contax, but I don't think they ever made standalone meters... maybe Konica?) and a Bolex movie camera; along with some lights and accessories.

Unfortunately, they were all broken except the meter; but I was able to trade the Bolex and the lights and accessories to a Camera shop for the repairs to the Nikon and Rollei ( shutter on the Rollei, mirror on the Nikon. Monetarily I probably got the worse of that deal, but I didn't care).

The biggest problem I had with the Rollei was getting film stock for it. Of course I grew up in Boston where there was no shortage of camera shops; but I was 12. It wasn't exactly easy for me at the time. Consequently, I never used it much. Also, as I didn't have my own darkroom, development costs were high... and mostly it just sat on my shelf looking cool (until it was lost in the fire when I was 19).

Hey, what can I say, I was 12. I didn't know any better.

The F2 on the other hand... Well first, it was an F2AS with the DP-12 viewfinder, so it had automatic light metering, which was awesome; and the worlds most expensive and hardest to find batteries; which was not. Thankfully the camera was operable without batteries (how long since that's been true eh?).

I had a 50mm f/1.8 and an 85mm f/1.8 with it (from the box o goodies), but no flash. Thank god for fast lenses (sharp too, though I remember them both having a lot of what I know know is chromatic abberation).

I eventually saved and got an 80-200mm f/4.5 to go with it (flea market find actually); and an old SB-2 flash unit that went over the film winder, because the F2 didn't have a real hotshoe. It was weird... you had to take the flash off to rewind the film; and the flash batteries lasted for like a single roll anyway. It mostly got left behind, and eventually the adapter for the winder/shoe broke.

I took a LOT of pictures with that camera.

Of course I was always losing rolls of film, or forgetting to have them developed, or not having cash to have them developed... I'd guess I probably took 4 times as many shots as I ever developed, at least.

A couple years later my grandfather bought a fancy little Ricoh point and shoot, and gave me his Canon "AE-1 Program", because it was "old" (though at least 10 years newer than my Nikon) and "too big, and bulky, and complicated" for what he wanted a camera for.

He also gave me a pair of binoculars with a 110 camera built in. Very fun to play with, but I didn't use it much because the 110 camera bit was awful... huh, funny how google is. I decided I wanted to figure out what they were, and bang, one of the first results is exactly right, including the case.

Anyway, the Canon was theoretically a much "better" and more advanced camera than the Nikon, with full auto-exposure, and exposure and aperture priority program modes (which I don't remember ever using); and it had a medium size zoom lens and a decent flash with it.

Honestly, I didn't like it. I only took a few photos with it, and sold it to pay for other things (including the Nikon Speedlight, and a 24mm, or maybe 28mm, wide angle which had horrible distortion). It was too fiddly, and the controls seemed wrong... like they were in the wrong places.

However, the Nikon was almost old as I was; and there were lots of new and cool cameras coming out. In particular, new cameras with full autometering, full autofocus, built in flashes, remote shutter releases, and real hotshoes.

Unfortunately, I couldn't afford any of the new Nikons with autofocus... not by a long shot.

At the time, the then current "prosumer" Nikon SLR, the N90 (or F90 everywhere but America) was running a cool $1500 list, and even on the deepest discount was over $1000, and that wasn't even for the kit. If I remember right, at the time, the cheapest of the new generation lenses was like $400. Never mind even considering the F4, which was around $2000 (the F5 was still a couple years off).

Also, all my Nikon lenses and gear were manual focus, and mostly older than me; and while they would work with the new bodies (that's the joy of Nikon), I wouldn't get all the features possible.

And I was stupid.

I sold all my Nikon gear, to buy a fancy brand new Minolta Maxxum 3xi, a flash, and three autofocus zoom lenses (a 35-85, a 55-135, and a 135-300 if I remember correctly).

What can I say, I was a teenager.

I would KILL to have that F2 and lenses back right now (not the least consideration of, the F2 is now a collectors item, and worth a fair bit; and those lenses are spectacular).

That isn't to say that the Maxxum wasn't a great camera; it was. What it wasn't was a professional quality camera, with professional quality lenses. It was slow to shoot, slow to focus, the lenses were slow to zoom... (to be fair, all the first two generations of autofocus cameras were; escpecially in comparison to a pro manual like the F2).

I took good pictures with it, but the camera got in the way.

Finally a few years ago, I sold all my film SLR gear, thinking that I would immediately buy a Canon DSLR (the Nikons were too expensive at the time, and not as good)... and I lost my job and went broke shortly thereafter.

I was stuck with prosumer point and shoots for a few years, biding my time so to speak; and in the mean time I acquired a wife, children, and a MUCH lower budget for cameras and lenses etc...

Finally, Nikon announced the D80, a very nearly pro quality camera, at a reasonable price (I paid $1345 with an 18-135 zoom); and I was able to get back into SLR photography in the digital world.

I've been shooting with the camera since Christmas 2006, and I still love it. It's a great camera. In fact, the best I've ever owned. If you know the controls, it gives you every bit as much control as the old F bodies. No, it's not a magnesium body, and yes, there are still some control you need to access from menus, but overall I'm very happy.

There's only one problem.

It's a DX camera; which means lens cropping factor is an issue. If I want to get a really decent wide angle lens, I need to spend a LOT of money on a much wider model than if it was a full frame camera.

The fact is though, I really can't afford a full frame camera right now. The three lowest cost, good quality choices are the $4,000 Nikon D3 (apparently worth every penny, but still outrageous), the $3,000 Nikon D700, and the $3,000 Canon EOS-5D... though the D3 and 5D are being replaced by upgraded models shortly (both are officially out, but not widely available yet), so we should see SOME price drop in them (though with the D3X streeting at $8k I don't expect a huge drop), I don't think we'll be seeing any kind of full frame DSLR under $2,000 any time soon.

For those who would tell me to go to another manufacturer for a lower cost, I would say to you two words: Lens Selection

note: I always want to spell lens lense. Lense is the proper spelling. I don't know when it was decided in American english to drop the E. The pronunciation is with the Z sound, not the sibilant S; therefore should be followed by an e.

Anyone who had any plans for using a wide variety of lenses would be silly buying any camera other than a Canon or Nikon. There's nothing wrong with Pentax or Sony (formerly Minolta) lenses (and the new Sony bodies are actually quite excellent. Very good sensors -Nikon uses them- , and built in anti-shake/vibration reduction); there just aren't nearly as many of them in comparison.

Actually, that's my "camera lust" dilemma.

I can buy a used D3 for $2000, or wait a while for the price to come down a bit to around $2000 with the D3X coming out; or wait for the next generation of smaller full frame DSLRs for hopefully less money (the D700 just came out at $3000, but it's streeting at $2500 to $2700); or until some used D700s come on the market (maybe soon given the number of people who can't afford those credit card payments now)...

...But I don't have that kind of cash to spend on a camera, nor will I for a long time.

...but, I DO want to buy some different lenses, for different shots and effects than I currently have; and you can buy a fair number of lenses for $2500.00

And then of course there's the fact that DSLRs are definitely going in the full frame direction. Though the DX lenses that will do what I want right now, on the camera I have right now, are FAR cheaper than the D lenses; DX lenses aren't usable on full frame bodies...

...Well, that's not exactly true. The D3 and D700 will both autocrop their sensors to mimic a DX sensor so you can use DX lenses without vignetting; but at that point you might as well be shooting with a DX body.

So if I know I'm going to eventually buy a full frame body, isn't it a waste to buy DX lenses?

Or maybe not. After all, I'll be able to take great pictures with those lenses now, and for years in the future; and I won't be able to afford that full frame camera for years anyway.

In fact it's far more likely that I'll pick up a new old stock D300 (also a DX camera, and currently about $1500, but likely to dip under $1k sometime late this year), or maybe a D90 for the HD video feature; than spring for a D3 or D700 any time soon.

Or I could spend the extra cash for full frame (what Nikon now calls "FX"; though the lenses don't have any special designation) lenses, which work on both, and split the difference.

I have what I'll call a "lens lust list" for my current camera, that looks something like this:
  1. Nikon AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED

    Price: $700

    Notes: Basically the best DX lens ever made. It's very sharp, has relatively low distortion for the incredibly broad zoom range, has that incredibly broad zoom range, and has vibration reduction.

    This is the lens you can put on the camera and leave there forever; only taking it off if you want to use a special lens, or take a weird shot.

    This lens is in such high demand, it was consistently sold out the first three years of its production.

    I have shot with a friends sample of this lens, and I want it more than any other (thus the number 1 spot).

    Unfortunately, it's DX only; and the closest thing in an FX lens is the 24-120vr (not nearly as wide a zoom range, and especially not very wide on a DX camera; though it is $150 cheaper). In fact, it's the kit lens on the new D700; and were I buying one, it would be my default lens.

  2. Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G

    Price: $200

    Notes: The lens I talked about yesterday. A DX equivalent of the classic "fast fifty" prime lens. Very versatile, good in low light, good for fast action, great for portraits... just a good all around lens, and a good value.

  3. Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D

    Price: $329

    Notes: Pretty much the best candid portrait lens available for a Nikon F mount; whether digital or film (and this is useful on either). The fastest 50mm commonly available for under $1500. I just wish they made it (or any other full frame AF lens faster than f2) in 35mm.
  4. Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED

    Price: $475

    Notes: The longest tele with VR that doesn't require its own tripod. If I need something longer than the 18-200, I'd like to be able to reach for this; especially since with the crop factor, it's effectively a 450 (though you do lose detail compared to a real 450).

    Plus, it's a great value, and it's not a DX, so it's good for full frame.

    I could possibly live with out it if I had the 18-200DX, but if I went for the 24-120 D (full frame) alternative, I'd definitely need this one too.

  5. Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX AF 11-16 f/2.8

    Price: $650

    Notes: Basically the widest lens you can buy for a DX camera; and $300 cheaper than the Nikon equivalent, sharper, and with less distortion.

    Unfortunately, it's only DX; the closest FX is the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, which is about $1800 (and three times the size and weight).
So, three of those lenses there really have no economical full frame alternative; and one has no real alternative period.

On a full frame body, the 35mm f1.8 would be replaced by the 50mm f/1.4, and I'd need a fast 75mm to 85mm prime to replace on full frame what the 50mm was doing for me on DX. Nikon has their 85mm f/1.4, and it now sells for about $1100; though the 85mm f/1.8 is only $400, and is smaller and lighter.

To get the full frame versions of the three that HAVE them, would run an extra at least $1000... and several thousand to get full frame equivalents for everything. Of coure if I DIDN'T spend more on the D lenses, when I upgraded to full frame, I'd have $1550 worth of lenses that I wouldn't be able to use.

Oh well, it's nice to dream, since I don't have the cash for any of it right now anyway.