Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Keepers and Regrets Part 1: Cameras and Lenses


Ever since I started photography, I have tried several photography related equipment.  Some of them turned out to be good, and some were bad.  And even though some were good, I didn't actually use them for one reason or another.  That's what this series of posts is about.

Please note that this list has many disclaimers. For example, certain equipment may have been useful to me at one point but because my shooting style changed, it became less useful.  Just because I didn't keep it doesn't mean it would be bad for you.  In addition, there are some equipment that I don't use much but which I still kept because they don't cost much and occasionally they are the best tool for the job.  That's why I've taken pains to give my reasoning.  Hopefully, it will help you decide not just whether the equipment is good but whether the equipment is actually useful for you.

In this part I'll discuss cameras, lenses, and accessories.  Next time I'll discuss lighting equipment.





CAMERAS
For photographers who shoot candids and who have more than one lens, I strongly recommend getting a second body.  It is one of the best photo-related purchases I made because I got to use my other lenses so much more.  You don't have to get a very expensive body either.
  • Nikon D70 - Great camera because of the unlimited sync speed.  It's also the cheapest Nikon that has a built-in commander (but it can only command one group, and only in Channel 3).  In retrospect, I would have preferred to get a D70s because the latter can use a radio remote shutter, and has almost the same cost.  The D70 can only use infrared which is not reliable.  The D70's high ISO performance is not good by today's standards and you're capped at 1600 ISO but it's ok if you have enough light (natural or flash). The 6mp resolution is low but is more than adequate if you and your audience don't print large.  The controls for reviewing shots on the LCD are a little unusual compared to newer Nikons but I got used to them.
  • Nikon D80 - This is the cheapest Nikon DSLR that has a full popup commander capability (up to 2 groups + popup, 4 channels).  In all other respects it is not bad, and it is a clear step up from the D70, except for the sync speed.  The controls are better than those of a D70 and are more similar to newer DSLRs.
  • Nikon D90 - Yes it has decent low light capability.  I also like the feature where you can assign the Fn button to the top item on My Menu, just like the newer Nikons (I assign it to the popup commander menu).  But actually the D300 is not far behind, and these days, the D90 and D300 can be found for almost the same cost.   I would not trade in the advantages of the D300 (especially AF fine-tuning and the better AF system) for the slightly better high ISO, video capability, and Fn button functionality of the D90.
  • Nikon D300 - These days it can be found for very low prices and I think offers one of the best value for your money in its price range.  The high ISO performance isn't spectacular, but it's not bad.  For web viewing, I consider 3200 ISO usable.  When I had the D300 I was tempted to get a D90 because of the better high ISO performance, but a couple of years later, when I did buy a D90, I found it wasn't a big difference and in retrospect, I would have bought another D300 instead of a D90.
  • Nikon D300S - I don't know why there is such a big difference between the used prices of a D300 and D300S.  If you can find a D300S for a good price, then yes the dual memory cards, better live view controls, and perhaps the video are useful.  Otherwise I would just save your money and go for the D300.
  • Nikon D3 - reviewed here.  If you're looking for full frame, a D3 is a fine option.  My regret is that I found it too big and heavy to bring with me on some occasions (like casual shooting).  In retrospect I think it would have been better to get a D700 as long as I can get it for a much lower price.  Not only would I have saved money, but the D700 is more compact, and has a popup flash with commander.
  • Nikon D600 - Reviewed here.  Still very happy with it.  Among my photo-related purchases, it is one of those that I am most satisfied with.  Considering that it costs around $2k, that's saying a lot.  I think the refurb ones that are now available at $1600 offer a very good value, and if I wanted a full frame camera, that's probably what I would get unless I could get the D700 for 35% less or something.
  • Fuji S5 Pro - Reviewed here.  The femme fatale.  I'm still happy with it notwithstanding the many issues.  Problems: slow (reviewing shots takes a few seconds, slow buffer, slow continuous shooting speed, cumbersome playback controls, poor high ISO performance by today's standards.  Nonetheless, the highlight detail is just amazing, and the very long shoulder gives its images a unique tonality, even compared to the newest DSLRs with wide dynamic range.  To me it is like shooting with negative film but with the convenience of digital.  How can you not love that?
  • Nikon N90 - I shot with it a few times but because of the cost of 35mm film, I was hesitant to shoot with it.  When I got an S5 and a full frame camera I had even less reason to shoot with it.  Today it just gathers dust. If I were to shoot with film my choice would be medium format which is still supposed to have a better image quality than a DSLR.  With 35mm I get better highlight detail but the shadow detail and noise is not as good as a DSLR, so the inconvenience and cost of film might not be worth it.  If I really wanted a 35mm film Nikon, then yes I think the N90 is ok although I would try harder to find an N90S (which has better autofocus) or better yet, a bargain F100.
  • Nikon P300.  Reviewed here. Lack of a hotshoe was limiting.  Image quality is just ok.  Upgraded to LX5.
  • Lumix LX5.  Reviewed here. I use this frequently for product photos and as a camera that I bring with me anywhere, especially when a DSLR would be too large.  It's not perfect because the low light capability is not astounding but I like it for what it is.  I find the hotshoe very useful.  I also like the ability to change aspect ratios.  When used copies of micro-4/3 cameras such as the Pen dropped down in price dramatically, I was very tempted to sell the LX5 and get m4/3 instead.  However, an m4/3 camera is not really pocketable (because of the lens) therefore I stayed with the LX5.  My only regret is that one time I saw the LX7 for $299 and thought that was the normal price and didn't feel rushed to buy it.  It has since gone back up to $399 or more.  I should have snapped up the LX7 to replace the LX5.
  • Fuji Real 3D W3 - This is the camera I've been bringing with me everyday since I got it a few weeks ago.  Review coming soon.
LENSES (arranged by focal length)
  • Tokina 10-17 Fisheye.  Reviewed here.  Shot with it a lot a few months ago.  In recent months I hadn't shot with it much, partly because I have several other lenses to test.  To be honest though I still like it and am looking for more opportunities to shoot with it.  Complaints: autofocus can be unreliable. I was lucky to get a good price for it.  If it was offered instead at full price, I would probably save the money and buy a Samyang fisheye (or one of the other rebranded versions).  One advantage that the 10-17 has over the Samyang is that the 10-17 can be used for a full frame camera to cover an even wider area (although corners will be soft).
  • Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6.  Reviewed here.  I found it very useful, although for people and other moving subjects, it works best with a DSLR that has good low-light capabilities.  I later upgraded to a Tokina 11-16.  If I were looking for a low-cost wide angle, I probably would buy the Tokina 12-24 instead.
  • Tokina 11-16.  Reviewed here.  Happy with it and still shoot with it often.  However, if I had a camera body with good high ISO capability, I would probably save the money and get a Tokina 12-24 instead, not just for the savings but also for the wider range of focal lengths.
  • Tamron 17-50 VC.  Reviewed here.  I sold this only because I wanted to cover the standard focal length range with a full frame camera for shallower depth of field.  Otherwise I would have kept it.  Even now I sort of regret not keeping it because its image stabilization is the only affordable way for me to get stabilized video for the normal zoom range (the Tamron 24-70 VC is too expensive for me).
  • Nikkor 24-70 2.8. Reviewed here. If I had only one lens this would be the one I would choose.  However, nowadays I find it a little boring and predictable, therefore I would hesitate to buy it at its current prices.
  • Nikkor 28 1.8G.  Dunno yet.
  • Nikkor 28-70 2.8.  Reviewed here.  Was happy with it.  If you can get a good deal then in terms of performance it was almost as good as the 24-70.  The biggest difference for me was that the 24-70 has a significantly shorter minimum focusing distance.  Otherwise I think the 28-70 is pretty good.
  • Tamron 28-75.  Used it only on DX (with the D80).  On DX, the focal length was perfect for portraits.  I was pleased with the performance.  The only issue was that it wasn't wide enough.  But if you're not interested in wide angle, it's great.  I'm now interested in it again as a fast standard zoom for full frame.
  • Tamron 28-105 2.8.  Reviewed here.  Biggest issue for me was the halation, which became distracting, and the softness wide open at wider focal lengths.  Otherwise it was ok.  Not bad if you can get a good price for it.
  • Nikkor 28-105 3.5-4.5. Reviewed here.  I use this often for its 1:2 macro capability and sometimes as a walkaround lens. For the price I think it is a good deal.
  • Sigma 50 1.4. Reviewed here.  Smoothest bokeh I've seen among the lenses I have.  Useful focal length on full frame.  Hard to focus at f/1.4. Usually I have to use f/2.0.  Somewhat regret selling it because it could be useful not just for full frame but as a short telephoto for APS-C (it can be paired with a wide angle on my full frame camera).
  • Nikkor 50-135 3.5 AIS.  Nice range for portraits.  Nice bokeh, good contrast, and looks sharp wide open.  Haven't used it for real shots yet but it didn't cost me much so I'm not in a rush to sell it.  Now that I have more experience shooting with manual lenses, I plan to use it for real photos.  Issues: lens creep.
  • Sigma 50-150 HSM II. Reviewed here.  Very compact for a fast telephoto zoom.  Like the Nikon 85 1.8G, I like that it is usable wide open.  Its biggest issue is lack of VR.
  • Nikkor 70-200 VR I.  Was way too big and heavy to bring around except on "real" assignments.  I was also not impressed by the VR.  Due to the bulk, I got to use it only a handful of times.  In retrospect I should not have bought it.  I sold it and kept the Sigma 50-150 instead.
  • Tamron 70-300 VC.  Previewed here.  Impressive acutance and image stabilization.  Much better than I expected.  Haven't shot with it much lately though.
  • Nikkor 85 1.8G.  Reviewed here.  Very happy with it.  Nice contrast.  Bokeh is usually not bad.  Best feature is that it's actually usable at f/1.8.  A few months ago I didn't use it much because I preferred to use a standard zoom.  Now I have sold the standard zoom and this is one of the lenses I usually bring with me.
  • Loreo 3D Lens.  Reviewed here.  Delivers 3D photos.  But is hurt by a lot of flare, plus softness at f/11.  If I had known that I would really enjoy 3D photography, I probably would have just bought the W3 and skipped the Loreo.
CAMERA ACCESSORIES

  • Hoodman LCD flip up cover: I find it very bothersome.  I would only recommend it if you want to pretend you have a film camera or you're trying to break a chimping habit.