The Last Bargains Left Standing

Published May 23, 2009

We get a lot of “What should I buy” questions this time of year, every year. Folks have saved up a bit and are researching just what lens to add to their lineup for the summer photography season. Of course I tell them to just rent what they need for the Summer so they won’t have to store it all Winter 🙂 Some folks are stubborn, though, and press for more practical advice.

This year, a lot of people had major sticker shock when they went to price their ‘future favorite lens’: its gone up $100 or $500. Almost every lens, in almost every brand, is a LOT more expensive than it was last year (Yes, you Sony shooters, I know the Alpha lenses haven’t gone up—but they were more expensive to start with, so now its even). So this year, more than others, the question has become not “which is better for the money, lens X or lens Y”; its “I was going to buy lens Y, but now I can’t afford it. Is there a less expensive alternative?” Truth is, there are sometimes less expensive lens options, but usually the option is a lens which is ‘almost’ as good, but not quite what they were hoping for.

As someone who has to buy a lot of camera gear every month (OK, gets to. Nobody’s buying the ‘has to buy lots of camera gear’ bit, are they?) I’m aware that there’s a lot of SLR gear that has NOT gone up in price and now is, at least compared to that new lens, a real bargain. So rather than battle the Universe, lets consider what you might get with your hard-earned money this summer that will let you take much better photographs without paying the 20% price jump the Nikolyalpha 18-500 f/2.0 “L” zoom just had. Here are my suggestions:

Behind Curtain #1 – A NEW CAMERA!!!

OK, several hundred of you who talk to me regularly are thinking “Roger, you always say ‘buy the glass, not the body. The lens will still be good years from now, the body will be out of date!’.” That’s always been true, but things have changed this year. Here’s why:

Bodies haven’t increased in price. Relative to lenses, they’re a great value. A Canon 50D for example is now under $1,000, and a 40D under $700, both a lot less than they were 6 months ago. The other brands may not have dropped that much, but none of them have increased either. Compare that to what’s happened to lenses. A Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 has increased in price from $1375 to $1800 and a Canon 85 f/1.2 increased from $1500 to $1800 during the last 6 months. Compared to lenses, bodies are a better value right now.

The megapixel wars appear to be ending. We’ve gotten to the point where the sensors are reaching the limits of physics. You can have great high ISO performance on a 12 megapixel full frame camera, you can have incredible resolution at 20+ megapixels, but you can’t have both. Features are becoming more important selling points than pixels (although some advertising departments are still beating the dead horse). It used to be every generation increased megapixels 50%, now megapixel counts are staying the same or edging up just a bit. If you’re still shooting a 6 megapixel camera moving up will double your resolutions (or more), but next years model likely won’t have markedly greater resolution.

The new camera features may be better than you realize. The newer cameras can do some things the older cameras just can’t. No question you can still shoot a great photo on a Canon 20D or Nikon D70, but there are some important things you can’t do with an older camera that you can with a new one:

  • Autofocus Microadjustment – if you think this isn’t a big deal, you haven’t tried it. I know no one who hasn’t seen a dramatic improvement in performance of one or two of their lenses with this feature used correctly. Do you have a lens that people online rave about, but that you don’t think is so great? Try this and you may be singing its praises next week.
  • Live View – Its not for everyone, or for anyone all of the time, but if you shoot from a tripod for landscapes or Macro you can focus more accurately than the camera’s autofocus ever can. Live View has become, in the last year, the standard for lens testing: if it wasn’t focused in live view, the results are questionable. It also gives markedly improved focus in low light conditions. And you can pick up some old, cheap, but amazingly sharp manual focus lenses and actually be able to manually focus them using Live View. There’s a money saver for you!
  • Better high ISO performance – at least for Nikon and Sony shooters the newer cameras have markedly improved high ISO performance compared to previous generations. And no, I’m not going to start a discussion about whether that ISO 3200 setting is usable on a 50D.
  • Movie mode – OK, here we go. I totally understand that you’ll never, ever use movie mode and anyone (like me) who does is a wussy-butt wanna be photographer who’s ruining the art. Nobody uses movie mode on an SLR. Of course they don’t. Except for the 50% of our movie-capable SLR bodies that are rented out to professional video photographers. Just them, but nobody else really uses it. Except for the half-dozen professional still photographers who suddenly are renting video capable SLRs and Glidecam video stabilizers from us. OK, just them and the video guys. And the photographers suddenly renting shoe-mounted shotgun stereo microphones. No one else though. Except for the one’s renting 5DMkIIs and wireless microphones, shoulder mounts, and asking how many batteries it takes to shoot 4 hours of video. But other than them and the 90% of people who shoot their kids on an SLR, nobody will care about video mode. I get it.

A second body is the ultimate luxury There’s several reasons every pro has more than one body. Sure, it is a backup in case your primary body needs to go into the shop. But also being able to carry two different already mounted lenses (say a standard range and a telephoto) can mean getting the shot that you otherwise would miss changing lenses. And if conditions are rough you might be more comfortable taking the old body out but would be terrified of risking the new one. Or set the old body up on a tripod with a remote shutter release at a function for wide angle shots while you walk around shooting with your new body. Have the old body converted to Infrared. The possibilities are endless.

Behind Door #2: A good tripod and head

This should have gone first but I knew half of you would stop reading as soon as I said ‘tripod’. Now you’ve gone far enough to see that Gadgets are next so I expect you’ll soldier on. Here is the ONE TRUTH I KNOW ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHERS: The really good ones, except for street and sportshooters, consider their tripod and ballhead the most important pieces of equipment they own. I’ll tell you a secret—a couple of dozen times a day I talk to someone wanting advice about what type of equipment they need for a certain type of shoot or event. The first thing I need to know is how experienced a photographer they are. I ask directly, but some superb photographers with years of experience will describe themselves as ‘raw amateurs’ and someone who just bought their first camera and took photographs of Junior’s 4th birthday party will describe themselves as “an experienced event photographer”. So the question I ask (often to the puzzlement of the person calling) is “what kind of tripod and ballhead do you use”. If they launch into a discussion of the various combinations they tried before settling on, let say, a Linhoff carbon fiber tripod with RRS ballhead, I know I’m unworthy of answering any question they have and simply ask if I might have the privilege of visiting their website to view their work. If they tell me they don’t need a tripod, they use Vibration Control lenses, I answer their question in short sentences composed of one or two syllable words with no technical terms.

Most SLR shooters started with an introductory level camera and a couple of inexpensive zoom lenses. Then they got into it and wanted to do better. Every single one of these people (including me) asked an experienced photographer what to get and were told “tripod and ballhead”. So they bought a better lens. Or three. Still not happy, they asked other experienced photographers “how do I improve my photography?”, and were told “get a tripod and ballhead”. So they bought a better camera and took some photography courses. Eventually they caved in a bought a cheap tripod and pan-tilt head. Then a slightly better tripod and maybe a cheap ballhead. Finally they started using good support equipment, taking great images, and one day a new photographer comes up to them and asks “what should I do to take better photographs?”. And the circle starts again. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an exception to this chain of behavior in any of the 16,343,598 people who have ever bought their first SLR.

Yes, you can work without a tripod. And yes, they’re a pain to carry around and set up sometimes. And people perceive them as expensive. But in reality a great tripod and ballhead costs less than a decent lens—and it makes every lens and camera you own better. I’m going to write an entire blurb on picking out the right tripod and ballhead soon, but for now consider the advantages you get with even a decent tripod:

  • Able to get sharp images at fairly long exposures without an Image Stabilized lens (and sharper images with one)
  • Able to take long-exposure photographs at night (see Introduction to night photography )
  • Shoot at smaller apertures so the whole group or landscape is in focus
  • Actually take good Macro shots (no I’m not talking about the pretty flower, I’m talking about the pollen inside the flower)
  • Overlap several shots and combine them into a panorama
  • Keep the horizon level in your shots (most heads have a built in bubble level)
  • Avoid expensive shoulder surgery from holding that heavy camera and lens all day
  • Combine a camera and wide angle lens mounted on tripod with a remote shutter release and get dozens of spontaneous shots at the next party, family gathering, whatever without walking around with the camera the whole time (plus you can actually be in the pictures)
  • Phone numbers. Its true, guys. Chicks dig tripods. They’ll be swarming all over you. Trust me on this one.

But since I know you either already have a tripod or have something else more important to buy, this whole section was wasted, wasn’t it?

Inside Box #3: GADGETS!!!

You own SLR equipment and a computer and you’re online. Of course you like gadgets. And here’s a few that can improve your photography.

  • A shoe mounted bubble level to keep your shots perfectly horizontal or vertical. Or even better, an electronic bubble level that beeps when your horizon is level – $20 to $50
  • A remote shutter release (not much use if you don’t have a tripod, but very nice if you do) can be had in Infrared or RadioFrequency models.
  • A waterproof point-and-shoot. There are several available but I like the Canon D10 which has good image quality and can be taken down to 33 feet deep. Well under $400.
  • A weatherguard Yeah, I know you can use some plastic bags when it rains, but this does look a bit more professional, now doesn’t it? Less than $125.
  • A heavy duty monopod – Since you decided not to get the tripod, at least consider a monopod. Good ones can be had for $50 – $75, it really helps with a heavy lens, and can double as a walking stick or personal protection device.
  • A portable background kit If you’re not ready to build that home studio yet, or if you’re a pro shooting on location, this is just a great idea. You get a complete background stand and cloth which fits into a single carry bag. Around $200, additional background cloths $60 each.
  • Gorillapod – the big one, not the cheap one. Its not as steady as a tripod but with its rubber feet it will be reasonably steady on a counter or table with a standard size lens. Perfect for using that remote shutter release we talked about above. Plus its small enough to fit in your camera bag. Oh, and to be really cool, you can get a flash mount to go on top of it: the perfect thing for putting an off-camera flash somewhere inconspicuous (on the mantle, mounted to a column, anywhere. Very cool.)
  • Airsafe ArtBoxes When you print those great photos and send them to Aunt Annie do they get there all bent or creased? Here’s a simple way to make sure they arrive ready to frame.
  • Firewire UDMA card reader For huge files and video, USB ports just don’t make it. I’ve got one of these and downloading a full card went from “lets make coffee” to “lets take a sip of coffee”
  • PhotoBracelets Guys, I’m sacrificing myself on this one because any chance I had at hearing “how thoughtful” next Christmas just turned into “you just clicked the link on your stupid website, didn’t you?”. Don’t like any of my other suggestions, and you want to get that new lens anyway, despite the price? OK, drop a little coin to have a few pictures of the kids turned into a charm bracelet—you’re golden.

Roger Cicala

BTW—after researching this article, I liked the Gorillapod remote camera and off camera flash idea so much I’m going to start stocking those.

Oh, and just because someone asked: We do NOT have arrangements with the manufacturers of any of the gadgets listed above (or anyone else for that matter). We don’t get kickback’s, discounts, paid-per-click, Christmas cards or anything else from the stuff we recommend. We rent lenses and write this stuff because we’re horribly addicted gearheads. There’s no payout in it for us.

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

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