Thursday, September 23, 2010

Using the most basic equipment-Part 2

This is the second of a four part series exploring photography using nothing but the most basic of equipment. I will discuss the best parts of using a minimalist camera kit. In part 1 I talked about some of my reasons for doing this. A discussion of what I miss most about not having a full-blown, “professional quality” camera system will follow in Part 3. Finally, in Part 4, some of the “real” reasons for perceived quality differences between “cheap, entry-level” and “top-of-the-line professional” equipment are discussed.

Using only one camera body and two zoom lenses has been an enlightening experience in many different ways. I was always anxious about equipment failure and “needed” to have at least one back-up camera body “just in case”. There was the feeling that not having a wide enough or long enough or fast enough lens should not ever be an excuse for missing a shot. Rain or heat or snow or blowing sand and salt spray were not reasons not to use the camera when there are a couple of spares if one develops a problem. For most lens focal lengths I had both a “standard” lightweight and a “professional” f/2.8 version. The result was a full 45-pound backpack plus tripod that went everywhere with me.

The very best part of using only a minimalist two-lens kit is its weight. My back and neck thank me every day for the change. Now a half day hike along the beach requires only a medium-sized fanny pack to carry everything. The whole enchilada consists of one body, two zoom lenses, one polarizing filter(conveniently fits both lenses),  a shoe-mount flash and either a carbon tripod with ball head or a carbon monopod with tilt head. I also carry a Canon G10 compact digital camera in its own shoulder pouch and a pair of Nikon 10x25 Trailblazer waterproof binoculars. Well under ten pounds for everything and nothing on my back. Freedom!

There is also the freedom from choice, which was unexpectedly quite liberating. No more deciding between the “old” Minolta Maxxum 7D or the “amateur” Sony Alpha100 or the Sony Alpha700 camera bodies. The new Canon digital Rebel body produces better image quality at higher ISO’s than any of them. No more choice of Minolta 16mm fisheye or Minolta 17-35mm “g” lens. Gone is choosing the Minolta 75-300mm f/5.6 or the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8. All of these lenses produced  approximately equal image quality. The two zooms in the new Canon kit are just as good or better and also very lightweight.

I have recently added a set of automatic Kenko extension tubes for macro work and a Lensbaby “Composer” just to have fun. I had a Lensbaby “3G” for the old Minolta/Sony kit and loved it. The “composer” is smaller, light, easier to pack and carry and does almost everything the “3G” could. It all still fits in the fanny pack or cargo pants.

After the first year the anxiety about equipment failure went away. I realized that these newest cameras, even though very compact and light-weight, were pretty tough and fairly well sealed against the elements. The main reason for previous camera break-downs was dust or water intrusion causing either mechanical or electrical failures. I am pretty hard on my gear and have no problems after two years. No dents or dings(polycarbonate is amazingly resilient), no worn-through paint(that polycarbonate again), no intermittent electrical problems(lighter weight and tougher shell mean less internal shock from a fall) and no dirt inside the mirror box or prism, which surprises me more than anything else.

I have also thoroughly enjoyed the experience of finding ways around the new kits limitations. Sort of a re-learning of some of the basics of photography and an acceptance of the focal lengths available. Having so little to use made me realize how little is really needed. It has certainly changed my thinking about what other equipment I would like to have and why I want it.

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