alan little’s weblog

your camera does not matter

16th January 2005 permanent link

Instapundit introduces us to South Knox Bubba, who introduces us to the bizarre concept of a “basic DLSLR kit”’ costing a shade under ten thousand dollars.

Folks, try not to worry too much if you don’t have a ten grand starter budget. You can win photojournalist of the year with a $500 digicam. Alternatively, Ken Rockwell has some sensible advice about starter lenses for DSLR photography. Dante Stella also has strong views on what lenses most photographers need/can use effectively (although I disagree with him about 180mm telephotos)

Let’s take a look at Bubba’s ideas anyway. I have no interest in Nikon-vs-Canon religous wars. (I personally shoot Nikon. I’ve been very happy with the Nikon cameras and lenses I’ve used; I’m sure Canon make very good cameras and lenses too)

Canon kit:

20D Body: $1400
24-70mm F2.8: $1095
70-200mm F2.8 IS: $1600
400mm F4 DO IS: $5300
100mm F2.8 Macro: $450

Total: $9845

Nikon Kit:

D70 Body: $900
17-55mm DX F2.8 $1350
70-200mm F2.8 VR: $1600
200-400mm F4 VR: $5300
105mm F2.8 Macro: $580

Total: $9730

In the Canon kit he hasn't got a wide angle lens (24mm isn't wide on a 20D) – he realises this. But if you’re actually interested in taking pictures rather than dick-waving, a wide angle lens costing a few hundred bucks is going to be useful far more of the time than a 400mm, $5,000 mega-wonder-telephoto.

He hasn't got a really good portrait lens in either kit. The macro lenses could serve in a pinch, but on these cameras they’re really too long, and at f2.8 they’re not really fast enough for available light indoors either. For both Canon and Nikon a 50mm f1.8 costs a hundred bucks or so and makes a lovely indoor portrait lens on a small-sensor DSLR.

50mm portrait

No batteries, no flash cards, no flash. With either of these cameras I would want at least two batteries and three or four one gigabyte cards. If I were laying out this kind of cash I’d want a proper flash gun too. The built-in flash on the D70 is ok for daylight fill flash, but for non-available light indoor photography (an abomination, but necessary sometimes) you really need more power and the ability to do bounced and/or diffused indirect light. Plus you’re quickly going to find you want powerful flash and a beamer a lot of the time with your $5k giant telephoto lens.

I really question the usefulness of those $5k giant telephotos. If I were a professional sports or wildlife photographer, or rich (“professional sports or wildlife photographer” and “rich” being pretty much mutually exclusive), I would buy the Nikkor 200-400mm tomorrow. But I’m not, and while I’m sure a lens like that would be great fun to play with I don’t think it would actually help to improve my photography.

Bubba specifically says he’s looked at the specs of high end pro SLRs and decided he doesn’t need them. Fair enough. If I had that kind of money to spend, I’d sooner spend half of it on a Nikon D2x (due out in February) or a used Canon 1Ds (seem to be going for around $4k on ebay) than on some esoteric wonder lens.

Here’s what I’d do with ten thousand dollars to spend on a Nikon DSLR kit, following Bubba’s rule of buying new from B&H:

D2x body:$4995Due out in February, this seems to be the expected price
50mm f1.8:$100budget portrait lens. Alternatively the 105mm f2 ($920) or the 85mm f1.4 ($1000) – both reputedly absolutely lovely lenses, but a bit long for portrait use on a small frame DSLR.
70-200mm F2.8 VR:$1600I already have the lovely 180mm f2.8. If I were buying again, I’d get the zoom for more versatility
17-55mm DX F2.8:$1350I really want something a little bit wider than the 18-70 that comes with the D70. This or the 12-24 ($940)
SB800 flash with SC29 cable:$395
300mm f4:$1100The teleconverter, the 300 f4 and the 80-400 are all good options costing well under $5k if I decide I really need something longer than the 70-200 (already equivalent to a 300mm f.28 in 35mm). I’d try the teleconverter first.
80-400mm VR:$1430
TC17e teleconverter:$420

Total: $8860

I don’t know the Canon range so well so I won’t comment in detail. I’d go for a used 1Ds for around $4k, swapping that for the 400mm telephoto. On this body 24mm is wide enough, but I’d definitely want the 24mm Tilt-Shift ($1000) for landscape photography. If I still had any money left over I’d get the 100-400 IS zoom ($1410).

And what would I get on an absolutely unlimited budget? There’s definitely Leica M7 in there somewhere, plus a Phase One P25 and something Zeiss-y to stick on the front of it. I could make Bubba’s $10k look like small change.

Update: reading further, I see that Bubba is into bird photography. In which case yes, he does need those big long lenses. I retract the bit about “dick waving”. (I was wondering if he might be into sports, in which case neither the D70 nor the 20D is fast enough for serious use). He says he’s quite happy with 6 or 8 megapixels resolution, and “To me, the lenses are the biggest investment. New bodies will come along all the time.” Which is true. For me, resolution, low light ability and a fast(er) camera are the things worth spending money on for the sort of photography I find interesting; Bubba has clearly thought his priorities through and decided that for him telephoto reach is very important. Fair enough.

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