Saturday, September 25, 2010

Using the most basic equipment-Part 3

This is the third installment of a four part series exploring photography using nothing but the most basic of equipment. I will discuss the things I miss most about not having a complete “professional quality” camera system. Part 1 covered my reasons for undertaking this experiment. In Part 2 I talked about why I enjoyed using the minimal “amateur kit. Part 4 will delve into some of the “real” reasons for the perceived quality differences of images made with “beginner” versus “professional” gear.

There are many things, some small and some large, that miss about having a “complete, professional” camera system. As I go through this list you might notice that some of them are the same things I like best about having only a “amateur, minimal” camera kit. This is the nature of photography as well as many other parts of life – everything is a trade-off, giving up one thing to gain something else.

What I miss most of all with the amateur kit are really fast lenses. I shoot a lot both before and after sunrise and those f/1.4-f/1.8 single-focal-length lenses and constant-aperture f/2.8 zooms sure come in handy compared to the f/4-to-f/5.6 variable-aperture kit zooms. A tripod works fine to keep still objects sharp at 1 ½ or 2 seconds shutter speed but don’t help if the subject is a moving bird or wind-blown flower. The larger maximum aperture also gives a brighter viewfinder image, especially important with “amateur” camera bodies which often have dimmer “mirror-box” prisms rather than solid glass prisms. I definitely do not miss the huge size and weight of those fast lenses.

Second on this list is the internal focus of the “professional” lenses. Internal focus means that the lens stays the same length throughout the focusing range and also that the front lens element does not rotate during focusing. That latter makes the use of polarizing filters much simpler. With “amateur” kit lenses the polarizing filter must be re-oriented each time the lens is refocused. A small additional benefit of internal focus, especially for sports or fast-moving wildlife, is they tend to focus slightly faster than standard lenses.

The third most-missed of a “complete” system are the extreme lens focal lengths: 16mm fisheye, 14mm super-wide-angle, 400mm tele-photo(with or without tele-converters). These lenses can always be added to even the cheapest camera body in a manufacturer’s line-up, of course, but that defeats the purpose of a minimalist kit. Instead, the photographer is forced to think creatively to accomplish the vision for an image with the equipment at hand. For very wide angles this usually means backing up a little if possible, or exploring different points of view, or just making the decision of what must be in the shot and can be cropped out. On the tele-photo end, the photographer can either get closer when possible or crop down to the subject after the shot is made. Some shots are missed or just not possible and this is something that must be accepted. This is also something that is true no matter how much gear a photographer accumulates over the years.

Fourth on my most-missed list is size and weight(yes, also the two things I like best about the “amateur” kit). I have quite large hands and am a big, strong guy. I just like, and feel more comfortable using, a “full-sized” camera body that fills my hand. The Canon Rebel XSi body is tiny and feather-light compared to the EOS 5D-II, 7D or 1D-MarkIV bodies. It feels like a toy. It has won me over with its image quality and durability but every so often I still find myself thinking “this is just a toy camera with a Napolean complex”. The extra weight of a “pro” body/lens combination also makes for steadier shooting when not on a tripod. Image stabilization only makes up for so much.

Last but not least I still get occasional anxiety attacks about having only one camera body. I tell myself I can go to any big-box store and walk out with a replacement within a half hour(something not usually possible for a “professional” body). I miss being able to keep two bodies with different focal length lenses ready to shoot around my neck(but my neck doesn’t). This was probably the easiest adaption to make, all things considered.

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