There is no Magic Lens…

There was a question posted on the Digital Photography School Forums Recently from a person that travels and was a bit was concerned about justifying spending $1000+US for gear. The person was trying to justify the cost to themselves in thinking better gear equals gettng the best pictures the person could on their trip.

Here is the person’s question (paraphrased):

I have a Nikon 5100, 50mm 1.8 (which I love), and the two kit lenses 18-55 and 55-200.The 50 is so much sharper than the kits. I have a Manfrotto 190X tripod. 

After spending the last hour using the search function here, I came up with the following
– Use the kit lens at f8 and a good tripod.
The kit lens gives me quite good images on the tripod, but not near the quality of the 50.
– 28-300mm
– 28mm 1.8
– an UW – Nikkor 10 -24 is 800$, Tokina 11-16 is 700$

I’m having trouble justifying a +1000$ lens for a hobbyist.

What lenses should I take. Should I purchase another lens to get a better image or having the 5100, is it not worth it?

Forum member Jason Gendreau had some great advice as a response that I wanted to share with everyone.

There is no magic lens / camera for anything. For every subject there is an infinite number of perspectives. 

Long, medium, short focal lengths, low light, black and white, F/2, 2.8, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, Flash, natural light… I took a 2 hour trip up to “tops” (a mountain look out in Cebu Philippines, about 20 square meters and a nice view of the city) and that’s the equipment I used. I shot flowers, insects, environmental portrait with off camera flash, sweeping city vistas, a sunset, lovebirds, tourists, a chair, a radio tower, textured wall, architecture, patterns, a cup, a plant… When the sun went down I shot the city against a night sky. That’s the image I planned to get when i got there. Had I only taken the lens I needed to get the shot, I’d have missed out on 99% of the images I DIDN’T plan on getting while I was waiting for the light to be right for the one I did. I DID use every piece of equipment I had. No matter what you bring, you’ll find a way to use it to produce a unique image.

The quickest way to stifle your creativity and produce boring photos is to take one “do it all” kind of lens. Do it all, do nothing well. If your lens doesn’t do anything well, you’ll rarely get unique images

Notice I haven’t actually “named” any equipment that I used. Thats because equipment is largely incidental. I saw a subject i wanted to shoot and chose from what I had the best way I thought to shoot it. Had i not had that piece of equipment, I’d have chose a different way to shoot it. If I had no macro capability, I’d not have looked for macro shots, Had I no off camera flash, I’d have used on camera, or simply flash be damned. If I “had” to have flash and didn’t have it, I’d have used technique instead, Expose one frame for the person and another for the background and worked it out in post. Don’t forget post as a powerful way to AUGMENT your equipment ( not replace it ) Cameras have a crappy dynamic range. Knowing how to layer in post to increase dynamic range is ESSENTIAL skills. If you don’t know how, drop everything and learn it. You’ll be glad you did.

I will say this one more thing about equipment simply because you’re looking at perhaps buying some…

A great lens only does ONE thing well. If it does lots, it does nothing well. Look at your 55-200 for example. It has a fantastic focal range… but that’s it. its slow, not very sharp, the contrast is simply “ok”… even the build quality is nothing special. There is absolutely NOTHING this lens will give you that another lens couldn’t do better.

The 18-55 is the same.

Your 50mm 1.8 isn’t as versatile as the other 2 lenses in the least. You might think that because the lens isn’t as versatile, then its not worth taking on a trip. You’d be wrong. the lens might not be versatile, but it does one thing VERY WELL. Portraits. Its sharp, it has great bokeh, its good in dim light. All things the other two suck at. When you shoot a portrait with this lens, it will be a GOOD photo. (limited by your own skill of course) You could use either of the other lenses at 50mm and neither would take as nice a photo as the 50mm 1.8 because those lenses are medeocre. They exist only because newbies don’t understand lenses. Its easier (and more profitable) to just sell them a “one size fits all” lens and send them on their way.

I said all that to say this… When you go out to buy a lens, buy the lens that does the ONE THING best. Next time you buy another lens, buy another one that does ONE THING the best again. (probably one thing different than the last time ;D )

Eventually your going to have a selection of lenses that do awesome things. Then you can choose which lens you want to use for different kinds of images.

This is what I recommend for you on a trip like the one your planning…

Portrait lens. (it would be nice to have a high quality portrait zoom for controlling backgrounds, but they are expensive. The prime you have is good for portraits, but not “environmental portraits”. You’d need 3 prime lenses to cover environmental portraits well, or a high quality zoom… either way, not possible for this trip without spending lots of cash.) I recommend sticking with the prime for regular portraits, and the 18 -55 and 55-22 for environmental portraits. They wont look special, but you’ll have something anyway.

One ultra wide zoom. You mentioned the 10-24mm nikkor. Its a specialty lens for landscapes and very wide vistas. Its an EXCELLENT choice for landscapes and vistas. It does those extremely well. I don’t have one, but I’d imagine using it effectively will take some time and practice because its not a particularly good lens for anything else. You have to know what it does well, and only use it for that. Its part of knowing your gear, and its limitations. I think that this lens is the real reason the Canon to Nikon adapters actually exist lol, many professional Canon landscape photographers use this lens.

Macro… of some kind. I use extension tubes for my macro shots. Extension tubes are a much cheaper and much more versatile for close up and macro photography vs buying a dedicated macro lens. They work by allowing you to focus your lens much closer than normal. Any of your lenses can use the extension tubes, so they essentially make all your lenses macro lenses. Which is great when your on a budget and traveling. They have no optics, so they do not affect your image quality in any way. They will cause lens flaws to become more apparent though. Soft lenses will be even less sharp because your magnifying the problem. Your 50mm lens would make an awesome macro lens with extension tubes, though I’d not recommend the other two except in a pinch.

A GOOD LIGHT tripod. Absolutely essential for low light and landscapes. Ultra wide images are “typically” taken low to the ground to maximize the look of depth. Unless you want your knees to be perpetually dirty, get a tripod that sits very low. Lower than 12 inches.
A flash is always good to have, but not always so important while traveling.

If you were to buy the 10-24mm nikkor and a set of extension tubes, I would say you’d be pretty much set for equipment capable of producing magazine quality images. Not that I think you will, but what I mean is that you’d only be limited by your own ability.

You could use the 50mm for great portraits, the 10-24 for stunning landscapes and vistas and the 50mm with extension tubes for macro and close up shots. Anything else could be done with the 18-200mm lenses. they might be nothing special, but they do fill the gaps.

Also make sure you have a spare battery (or three) that way you can swap out a full batt and charge the other. I recently went on a trip to Romania for a month and had 4 full batteries when i arrived. I forgot my charger. I was able to shoot for 2 weeks before I had to hunt down a local photographer willing to fill them for me. he filled them, and I was set till I got home. I dont think you need 4 batts, but at LEAST one spare is essential. If you have to not buy the 10-24 or extension tubes in order to buy a spare… get the spare. Its that important.

Another important thing is the ability to dump your cards. Don’t say that your going to bring a dozen 8 gig cards and just fill them up because you will fill them all in 3 days and either have to start deleting or buy more. A laptop with a large capacity external drive is the way to go. or at the very least the external drive and card reader or camera cable. then you can borrow a computer at some point to clear the cards. Protect the external drive with your life.
I hope this huge post was worth your time to read, and good luck on your trip! It sounds like it’ll be a blast.

 As you can see this is sound advice for anyone going on a vacation or holiday. Additionally it is also a great list of first lens types to buy as you learn photography. I say this second part because as you learn you need to try different types of photography. Don’t just stick to one type!

In a future week I will post a list of lens to complement this advise that a beginner can afford with out breaking the bank.

Thanks for Reading
Jason

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