Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Using the most basic equipment-Part 1

This is the first of a four part series exploring photography using nothing but the most basic of equipment. In part 1 I talk about some of my reasons for doing this. Part 2 will discuss the best parts of using a minimalist camera kit. 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.

Some readers might be wondering why someone with so much photography experience is using such basic “entry level” equipment. There is a good reason I chose this camera kit and why I have continued using it for nearly two years. I would like to tell a story about it. It is a story about putting myself in the shoes of someone just getting started in photography and having a very limited budget for equipment. It is the story of finding out whether it is really possible to produce a steady stream of “professional quality” images with a minimal amount of cheap equipment and how that equipment withstands fairly heavy daily use in not always camera-friendly conditions.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for photography and like nothing better than to get others excited about it, too. The most common complaints from beginner/sometime photographers is they are not happy with the quality of their photos and they can’t afford a “good” camera body and ten “professional” lenses and the top-of-the-line flash needed to get the quality photos they want. It is a very common misconception that more expensive, even “professional” camera bodies and lenses will improve the photographs people take. There is very little truth in this belief, even less so with modern digital equipment than with the film cameras and lenses of 15 or 20 years ago. Computer-aided-design for lens optical formulations, modern composite materials for camera bodies and even lens mounts, cheaper fabrication methods for specialty glass and the advent of molded as opposed to ground lens elements have all contributed to a much more level playing field concerning final image quality between the cheapest and most expensive products in any maker’s camera and lens lines-ups.

The old saying “the photographer makes the photo, not the camera” has always been basic to my personal philosophy. Not quite two years ago all of my gear was stolen from my car trunk after a wedding shoot and I had to start over completely from scratch. Having used Minolta film and then digital bodies and lenses for 30 years, and then continuing with Sony, it was time for a change. I settled on Canon because I really liked their lens selection, range of bodies, compact cameras and reputation. As an introduction to the Canon system I purchased the most basic complete kit I could find for under $800: digital Rebel XSi body with 18-55mm and 55-250mm image stabilized kit zooms. This could just as easily been a similar “intro” kit from Nikon or Pentax or Sony or Olympus, etc… I wanted basic functionality with the cheapest lenses at a rock-bottom price just like someone looking for their first “real” camera outfit would be likely to buy.

My idea was to debunk the “better, more expensive” equipment myth. Right out of the box I was amazed at the image quality of the “kit” lenses: sharp and contrasty throughout the full zoom range, no obvious vignetting at the corners and minimal barrel/pincushion distortion. Weight of the new body plus both lenses was about half of my previous “professional” body with 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Size was also much smaller all around, requiring some getting-used-to because my hands are large but much easier to pack and carry around. The body gave me more megapixels and a full stop more speed without obvious noise than my previous bodies. So far, so good. Anyone would find it difficult, in a side-by-side comparison on a monitor or with prints, to tell whether an image was made with a Rebel XSi body and 18-55mm IS zoom or with a D700 body and 24-105mm “L” lens.

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