Tuesday, 29 May 2012

It's not about the gear, stupid.

Bumped into a photographer friend this morning in town on the way to work, and after we parted (about 15 minutes later), I realised that all we had talked about was 'gear'. 5DMk3 this, 70-200mm that, Nikon blah blah, Canon hoo haa.

What is it with photographers and their gear? Do dentists who bump into each other talk about the latest drill? Do mechanics talk about the latest spanner? Maybe they do? (Any dentists or mechanics out there who can verify this?).

I'm obviously as guilty as the next bloke - although I do fluctuate between two complete polar opposites in the gear vs talent debate. It's been very fashionable for a while now to put the 'gearhead' aspect of photography down. You have to have been living under a rock for the last few years not to have heard the 'best camera is the one you have with you' mantra bought up time and time again by the insanely gifted. To which I say - CRAP! Oh, and by the way, what do these 'what you have with you' exponents have with them most of the time? Canon 1DX's or the latest iPhone 4G of course. Quite frankly I'm thoroughly sick of the whole 'I just take my iphone with me on holiday and get beatiful 8x10" prints' brigade. I've got an old iPhone 3 and the camera on that thing is just crap (oh no, I said 'crap' again!)

Go up to a sport photographer at the Olympics and tell him his gear doesn't matter. Go on, I dare you. Would he swap that new 12fps Canon 1Dx for my iPhone 3? I think not. And I wouldn't expect him to either. I find the whole 'gear doesn't matter' thing so condescending it makes me want to spit (in case you hadn't already noticed).

BUT - (and yes, there's always a 'but'), nor do I hold to the whole 'got to have the latest and the greatest' gear mentality either. Do you use a Canon? Do you use a Nikon? Or, heaven forfend - do you use a Sony? To which I say - who gives a flying...... what brand of camera you own? Use a Pentax for all I care - although really, why would you!  :-)  (joking people, joking).

Has it got 6MP, 8MP, 12MP or 36MP!? Who cares? I've owned three of the four megapixel ratings mentioned (guess which is the odd one out), and no client has EVER asked me how many megapixels my camera has. Granted, I'm not shooting for billboards - or cropping heavily - but if you are, or do, then it becomes a real question of need - not merely of keeping up with everybody else. And who really cares whether those 12MP came from a Canon or Nikon? I mean, really....

Most of us are shooting for the web, or computer screen viewing now anyway, aren't we?

Here's a test for you...

Can anyone tell me, just by looking at the image above, whether it was shot on a Canon or a Nikon? Is it from a 6MP, 8MP, 12MP or 24MP camera? Was I wearing sneakers or bare feet when I took the shot? Are any of these questions relevant?

Of course not. All that really matters is whether I've taken a 'good' photo or not. And this is where the 'technical' capabilities of the gear come into play. Am I happy with lens choice, depth of field, is it sharp where I want it to be?

How about another image...

What about this shot? Is it digital? Is it film? Was it cropped to a square image, or shot on medium format? Was it converted to black and white from colour? Again - is it Canon, Nikon or Sony?

More important, for my growth as a photographer, I'd much rather ask - is it a good composition? Does the image have something to say? Is it graphically pleasing? Have I taken it at the right angle so that it expresses what I wanted to say? Was the camera working with me, or against me (the 'gear matters' part of the picture equation).

And finally...

All the same questions as the previous image apply - even though the two photos couldn't have been captured more differently.

When we stop, and concentrate on the image, then 'no', the gear doesn't matter. BUT - of course it does matter, by allowing you to take the kind of image that you have in your mind's eye in the first place. With technology moving at such an alarming rate - and no sign of this slowing up any time soon - the line between want, and need, can easily become blurred.

In the end, though, all I really 'want' to be is a better photographer. Do I really 'need' the latest Nikon D4? Of course not. Will simply owning it make me a 'better' photographer? Ah - no.

And for the record - the first image was taken on an Olympus Pen EP3 - as was the second image. The last image is... film. Taken on a Bronica S2 medium format 6x6 camera. And it also happens to be my favourite image of the bunch.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Out and About with 3 new lenses

I finally got myself up and out of bed early last weekend to go and take some photos. We've been having some great weather leading up to winter, so I decided to head out to Lake Brunner with a bag full of lenses - to try them out.

Nikon D200 with Tokina 12-24mm @ f8
First shot of the day - taken at about 7.00am. I started with the Tokina 12-24mm, mainly because I knew I was going to shoot predominantly landscapes, but also because it was the first lens I purchased after getting the D200 and I hadn't taken any shots with it yet! Pretty pleased with the above result first up. I'm such a sucker for a good jetty shot :-)

Trees in the Mist. D200 with Nikkor 70-300mm @ f5.6
The mist was rolling in from the lake - which I knew it would - and I had hoped to take some moody 'boats in the mist' type shots. Trouble is, there were no boats out on the lake, so I had to settle for trees instead. The wide angle wasn't getting me close enough, so I changed to the 70-300mm, shooting right at the 300mm end on a tripod. The 'slight' softness at 300mm only adds to the mood of the shot - although it's still plenty sharp enough.

Te Kinga Morning. D200 with Tokina 12-24mm @ f8
There wasn't much else happening at Lake Brunner, so I drove the five minutes to Te Kinga - one of my favourite places to shoot in any weather. The reeds in the foreground stand out in sharp and stark contrast to the misty background - and converts perfectly to monochrome. At the 12mm end the Tokina has quite a bit of edge distortion - but this becomes less evident towards the middle of its range.

Pontoon. D200 with Tokina 12-24mm @ f5.6

Even with a bag full of new lenses, I feel that my photography is suffering from a bit of familiaritus at the moment. I'm not really getting very inspired whenever I go out with my camera - familiarity is breeding contempt. The above image, however, is a bit of a departure for me - a bit abstracty (artsy) - and I like it. I was originally drawn to it because of the light that was landing on the floating metal platform thingy - but when I took the shot it became more about the shapes, as well as the light. Anyway, it's not my traditional landscape image and maybe that's reason enough to like it.

I also took some images with the Rokinon 85mm f1.4 - but they were mostly boring rubbish - so I haven't even bothered processing them. I'll take some portraits with that lens and post them. It's really what I bought it for - not landscapes.

So despite my general photography 'funk', I enjoyed my early morning excursion with the D200 and lenses. I hope it's just the start of many more.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

After the dust has settled...

It seems that all the buying and selling is now over, and I can sit back and reflect on my new kit.

I did buy a D200, and am very happy with its condition. Very good nick - low shutter count, clean lcd, and overall 8 out of 10 condition. Having used it over the last couple of weeks I have found it responsive, with very sure auto focus and quick processing times. Yes, it's a little more 'noisy' at high ISO's, but I certainly don't worry going up to 800, and would use 1600 if I absolutely had to get the shot.

So with the body out of the way, I obviously turned to lenses. And the first lens I went for, given my reasonably tight budget, was the Nikkor 18-70mm f4.5/5.6 EF-S lens.

Yes, it's a 'kit' lens - but I still maintain it's one of the best kit lenses ever built - period. I even saw it recommended by a pro wedding photographer in England as his favourite wedding lens and I have to agree. For a Nikon shooter on a budget, there's just no better walk-around, everyday medium-range lens than this beauty. For the price (I paid $250NZ) it's fast to focus, silent, smooth, well built (metal lens mount) and very sharp. It's not perfect - no lens is - and I would like VR, but you can't have everything (especially not for that price). It stays on my camera 80% of the time, and is my go-to shoot anything, walk-about lens. Brilliant.

My next lens purchase took care of the wide-angle / landscape end of my shooting needs, and is another high quality lens that I consider a real bargain - the Tokina 12 to 24mm f4. At half the price of the equivalent Nikkor, but with almost exactly the same image performance and quality construction, the Tokina is a no-brainer.

It may be a little soft at f4, but that's not what this lens is geared towards. At f5.6 through to F16 this baby is tack sharp, right where you need it to be for a landscape lens. I will probably use it on weddings for the large group shots - again at f5.6 of f8, right in the sweet spot. But it will get most of its use out in the field, shooting landscapes. I will review this lens when I get a chance and post some landscapes I take with it. Can't wait.

Early on, when deciding on the lenses to get for my new kit, I knew I wanted a 'standard' lens that was reasonably 'fast' (large aperture) that I could use in fairly low light, indoors, that could double as a portrait lens (roughly in the 80 to 90mm field of view when taking the cropped sensor of the D200 into consideration).

I figured this would be a Nikkor nifty fifty (50mm f1.8D) that I always recommend to my photography students and use a lot myself on weddings for hair, make-up, getting ready and assorted detail shots - especially in doors.

But I have always wished I had a Macro lens on these occasions as well - especially when doing detail and ring shots on a wedding - so I decided to combine both and found a 60mm f2.8D Micro Nikkor for a fantastic price - basically the same price I would have paid for the standard 50mm. What do I loose? Well - two full stops of light for a start - but after that, not much else. And to be honest, I'm often wary of using the 50mm at f1.8 because of the very shallow depth of field, so usually open up to around f2 to f2.8 anyway. And what I'm gaining, of course, is the macro capabilities - as well as a super sharp lens. I haven't tested it out yet, but I also expect it will perform well as a portrait lens, wide open, for bride and groom shots. Again, I will test the lens out for both macro and portraiture and report back.

No kit would be complete without a telephoto lens, but to be honest, it's not a lens that I use a lot. I didn't want to go for the ultra-cheap Nikkor 70-300mm G lens - the reviews aren't great and I have an aversion to lenses with plastic mounts. But since it's not a lens that was high on my priority list, I also didn't want to have to fork out almost $1k for a 70-300mm 4/5.6 VR lens!

I briefly considered the new Tamron 70-300mm with Image Stabilization and a Sonic Motor - it's getting some amazing reviews and I almost bought one. But even $600 was a bit too much for a lens I knew I wouldn't use much, so I held out until the lens that I really wanted eventually came up for auction - the Nikkor 70-300mm f4/5.6 ED.

A 'little' better built than the 'G' lens (it's got a metal lens mount) and fitted with one ED lens element, it's a lens that I've owned before, and is a solid performer (if a bit soft at 300mm). But again, for a lens that I really won't use all that often (but is there when I need it), it was an absolute steal! It cost me $150NZ - less than some of the basic 'G' lenses are going for, so I was very happy and at that price really can't complain (even with poor 300mm performance).

So that rounds out my lenses now, right? Well no, not quite. My last lens was an impulse purchase that I bought almost out of curiosity more than anything - and is very 'left of field', even for me.

While looking on-line at Trademe one night, I came across an auction for an 85mm f1.4 for $350NZ. I almost fell out of my chair and had to re-read the auction to make sure I'd read it right the first time around. An 85mm f1.4 for $350.00 is just crazy stupid - even second hand they should go for $800 to $1000 (and up). What was wrong with this one?

And then I read further and the 'catch' dawned on me - the lens was a 'Rokinon' and is only manual focus - so it's got to be crap, even at that price, right?

Just out of curiosity, I did a Google search for the Rokinon 85mm f1.8, expecting to come across numerous reviews moaning about 'horrible this', and 'rubbish that'. But instead, what I actually read were glowing reviews, very happy owners, and excellent test scores when compared with the equivalent Canon and Nikon 85mm f1.4's. I got very excited!

The Rokinon is sold in America, but is actually a Korean lens (it just seems to get worse really, doesn't it?), made by Samyang and also sold as Bower and Vivitar branded lenses. As mentioned, it is a manual focus only lens, with an aperture ring, although the Nikon version I ended up getting (yes, I couldn't help myself) does have an electronic chip that allows full aperture control on the D200. It also means that the focus confirmation dot lights up in the camera viewfinder to confirm you're in focus, so manual focus needn't necessarily be a chore without the aid of a split-focusing screen.

With so many glowing reviews, both in terms of build quality and lens quality, I just had to grab it and see for myself what this lens was like to use. I have always loved the 85mm focal length for portraits, and have owned both the Canon and Nikon versions of the 85mm f1.8. The f1.4 versions have always been far too rich for my humble bank account to cope with - but here we have an 85mm f1.4 with outstanding image quality - all be it with the 'limiting' factor of no auto focus. Is this really such a problem? Well, apart from getting it out of the box and taking two random shots indoors with it set to f1.4 (and focusing wasn't a problem), only time - and a decent hands-on test, will tell. But ironically, out of all the lenses I've purchased for the D200, this is the one that excites me the most. I can't wait to get out and take some photos with it.

So five 'new' lenses, to go with my 'new' Nikon D200. It might sound like a lot, but I got them all for really great prices on-line, and managed to sell my existing Canon gear for equally good prices (this time in my favour), so came well within budget. I even managed to buy a brand new flash - a Chinese rip-off of the Canon 580EX. But that's another blog post...