Don’t Buy that Lens! (Until you read this)

Choosing camera lenses – How do you Envision Your World?

One of the first things we all do once we catch the photography bug is look into all the various equipment options, especially the vast assortment of lenses available for each camera body. At this holiday season, many of you may be shopping for loved ones, or compiling a “wish list” of your own.  Before making major purchases it is imperative that you evaluate your own needs, motivations, goals, and perhaps most importantly, your own vision on how you see and to portray your art.

Recommendation #1: Issues for consideration in buying equipment

  1. Price point
  2. Size/portability
  3. How will you use your new equipment
  4. What are you most likely to use?

When you first move beyond the straightforward point and shoot set up, there are numerable options available for every budget, size, and taste.  It is crucial to take some time to make sound decisions at this point: if you do not you will inevitably be left wanting something different very soon and find yourself back in the camera market quickly.

This phenomenon happened to me.  When I really caught the bug and decided that a point-and-shoot was not enough for what I wanted to create with photography, I went searching for the appropriate DSLR for my use and budget.  I made a good decision at the time in purchasing a Nikon D80, and a (relatively speaking) bad decision in purchasing the Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens immediately. The camera body was exactly what I needed, and the 18-200mm lens is a good lens, but the kit lens (18=135mm f/3.5-5.6 non VR)would have been more than sufficient for my early needs, and if I had stuck with the kit lens I would have had more flexibility to change equipment sooner, because I would not have spent as much up front. The 18-200mm lens was certainly nicer than the kit lens, but not by that much (especially in terms of sharpness, and I am a sharpness freak!), and in a short time I found that I wanted to upgrade my equipment.

Image taken with 18-200mm lens. A good image overall, but not as sharp as I would prefer

I also made a couple of additional mistakes by reading reviews from the “experts” saying that everyone needs a “fast 50″ lens (i.e. a 50mm f/1.4 or 1/8 prime lens) and any landscape aficionados need an ultra wide-angle lens.  So out shopping I went, and based on my price point at that time, I purchased the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens and a 50mm f/1.8.  And, while the Tokina lens is very high quality and one that I would definitely recommend to anyone that really needs to shoot at ultra-wide angles, I found that this lens rarely if ever came out of my bag, and I never found a good use for the 50mm f/1.8 lens I purchased.

In less than two years I found myself ready to upgrade my equipment due to the desire for a faster camera with higher megapixel count and a more solid body. The Nikon D300S therefore made its way into my bag.  Most importantly, in my quest for even sharper images, I decided to change lenses.  After renting and trialing the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 and Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses I realized they far exceeded the 18-200mm lens I had been using.  So I upgraded.  Now I find myself much happier with the images I am able to produce, but also with a closet full of perfectly good but redundant equipment in the original kit lens, the Nikkor 18-200mm,the Tokina 11-16mm, and the 50mm lens.  All of this could have been avoided if I had taken some time to develop my photographic skills and “vision” before acquiring so much equipment.

Recommendation #2: Get a solid, reasonably priced camera body and use the kit lens only until your skills develop and you begin to understand what you want to shoot and what focal lengths suit your photographic vision best.      

Developing and understanding your personal photographic vision is the most important concept to accompany your developing technical skills, because different equipment is necessary to realize your vision, and there is no right answer on what you want to shoot or are realistically most likely to shoot.  An individual that finds their passion in macro photography or wildlife imagery will have little use for an ultra-wide lens, just as a landscape photographer may have less use for the macro lens or ultra high-powered zoom lenses.

One of the best ways to determine your “view” is to shoot frequently and obtain lots of images at varied focal lengths and then see what naturally appeals to your eye as you go back through your images.  In doing so in my own work, I have found that I shoot most frequently in the 17-30mm range on my cropped DX sensor, roughly equivalent to the 28-50mm range on a full sensor.  Thus, even though I now have quality glass in both the 17-55mm and 70-200mm range, the 17-55mm lens spends at least 90% of the time on the camera.

Image shot during the Blue Hour with the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 lens

I have a couple of friends whose images I love that shoot just the opposite; rarely reaching for the wider-angle lens that spends all its time on my camera. And, while I use it rarely, I am completely satisfied with my 70-200mm lens and would not trade it for anything; when the shot requires that lens simply nothing lese will suffice!


The Empire State Building, shot form Rockefeller Center with 70-200mm lens

Recommendation #3: Once you are ready to upgrade equipment, make some decisions about what your priorities are and get those items first.  When upgrading, don’t the important “extras” such as a high-quality tripod, flash unit, and an adequate camera bag to carry what you get effectively.

At this point in my photographic journey, I am extremely happy with my D300S body and both of my main lenses, the 18-55mm and the 70-200mm f/2.8.  I have a decent but not ideal tripod that needs a major upgrade soon, and I just bought a nice flash unit, as I’ve realized the necessity of this even for primarily outdoor landscape work.  Now I just need to sell or trade in the closet full of equipment I’ve acquired that I no longer use and in hindsight could have avoided purchasing in the first place!


A final word about camera set ups – they can get large quickly!  I found that, soon after I acquired the D300 and the new lenses, I actually had to find a way to carry them around with me!  Carrying this entire set up can become quite uncomfortable when slugging around a city or otherwise on foot for a long time.  Further, there are times when I’m not certain that I’m going to actually get an opportunity to take any photos but would hate it if the opportunity did arise and I had no useful camera with me!  There are many ways to deal with this scenario, one of the simplest these days being the smart phones that inevitably have a simple but useful camera function.  however, if you want maximal portability but do not want to compromise on image quality the standard smart phone or point-and-shoot won’t do the job for you.  In this instance, if you are a wider-angle shooter like me, there are some high quality options for portable, high-quality cameras that won’t break the bank (completely).  The two best in category in my mind ar the Sony Nex-3, 5, or 7, and my favorite, the Fuji x100.  While certainly not cheap, these cameras all are significantly smaller, lighter, and more portable than standard DSLRs, and in my hands I have found no derease in image quality for the Fuji x100.

Grand Central Station shot with the Fuji x100. Processed to B&W with Silver efex pro

The main limitation is the fixed focal length at 23mm (35mm full sensor equivalent).  For me that is no issue, as that’s my natural shooting range.  For you it might not work.  But if it does, this camera may be the answer to your question of whether or not to have a quality camera with you in case that magical shot presents itself!


So, good luck shooting, and purchase your equipment wisely to create the imagery you want to make!


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