The Gear Post – What Am I Buying Again?

Towards the end of every semester, I start getting The Questions. They’re not about grades, thankfully – my students are smart enough to know not to ask those questions.

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Your gear is your livelihood. Buy well, treat it well and you'll be well.

They are about life. Sort of. Life after they have to return the college-owned gear I’ve supplied them with for their coursework. It’s a great program – supported fully by my department head, my dean, my mentor and Canon – and one of the things I’m most proud of here at the University of Georgia: There is no financial barrier to taking the photojournalism courses. None. Every student is supplied the same gear so there’s no advantage to the wealthier student or detriment to the financially strained student.

It’s what the flagship state university should do and it’s what we do – educate regardless of economic status.

The semi-down side to this is the students all panic at the end – they own little, if any, gear that will carry them into their careers. And with so many of them heading to smaller publications (that may not supply equipment) or off into the freelance world (where they’ll be expected to have everything they need to complete a job), they need to make some quick decisions.

And that’s when I get The Questions: What should I buy? Where should I get it? How much is this going to cost me? Do you think my parents/grandparents/rich aunt would get me this stuff as a graduation gift? Can I keep what you’ve given me and you just report it as, uh, lost?

So here are the answers, in order: Everything you need. From a reputable dealer. A lot. Maybe. Only if you like the state penitentiary.

There, I’ve answered your questions.

But they are students, they always have more questions. And my students, the best students, have really good questions. So here are some of the answers …

In the fall of 1989 I bought a used pro body, a used motor drive and two used lenses. I used them - daily - until I went fully digital in 2001. They still work.

In the fall of 1989 I bought a used pro body, a used motor drive and two used lenses. I used them - daily - until I went fully digital in 2001. They still work.

I’m going to break this down into a couple of parts. I don’t want to hand out a list of stuff because the stuff changes all the time. And the stuff has a lot of religion mixed in with it and everyone knows how well journalists deal with religion.

We shall start with a talk of what you need, because that’s the first question asked. Then where should you get it, which will work its way into how much this stuff will cost. I can make some suggestions on pieces relatives can get you as gifts that won’t send them into apoplectic fits. I’m not going to explain why you can’t have the stuff I’ve loaned you because I think you understand the phrase “felony theft.”

WHAT YOU NEED

Before you buy anything, you need to know what you’re going to do with it. You wouldn’t buy an Audi if you wanted to go offroading (although, the 1986 Audi 4000 CS quattro I rallied for years spent a fair amount of time on logging roads and took at least one midnight trip through a snow-covered corn field). Similarly, if you’re going to do sports primarily you would choose something different than a colleague who shoots portraits in a studio.

And how serious are you going to be? Will it be all photo, all the time? Are you going to do more multimedia? Hard core or occasional video? Will you be primarily writing but looking to occasionally illustrate your stories? There are a lot of options out there with no simple answer. So let’s start to work through all of this.

The camera is going to come first. Do you need a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) or a high-end point and shoot? If photos will be your first priority, you want a DSLR. If they’re a second or third or occasional priority, a top-line point and shoot will work. (If you’re reading this, you care enough that most low or mid priced cameras will drive you insane.)

We’ll deal with the point and shoot end later, but in the DSLR category cameras generally fall into three ranges – consumer, prosumer and professional. The gaps in image quality across the three is fairly minimal in most situations at this point. (The higher-end cameras will deal with low-light situations better.) The differences come down to durability, responsiveness, features and expandability.

 

Use the gear, don't abuse it.

Use the gear, don't abuse it.

Durability issues fall into a couple of categories, the most important are shutter life and environmental survivability. Camera companies rate their cameras by the number of shutter activations they are expected to survive through. Consumer level cameras tend to be designed for up to 100,000 cycles. Pro level cameras used to say 150,000, but that number has exploded with some top cameras claiming to test to 300,000 activations. (That doesn’t mean that frame 300,001 will cause it to fail – just that tested shutters all exceeded that lifespan. Most go on well past that point.)

Environmental survivability deals with the ruggedness and weather sealing of a camera. Your folks aren’t going to take their camera into a war zone, in all likeliness. But you may take it out to a snowy high school football game or have to shoot from the vibrating deck of a helicopter. The pro level cameras are designed to deal with these situations. They are gasketed to keep as much moisture out as possible – they aren’t water proof, but they tend to be more water resistant. They are built to handle vibrations and wild temperature fluctuations. (In the “old days,” shooters heading to the arctic would have all of the lubricating greases in their cameras and lenses replaced with very low viscosity oils so the gear wouldn’t freeze up.)

Responsiveness is a big issue and usually shows up in what’s called shutter lag – the time between when you press the shutter release and when the camera actually exposes the chip. You want that to be as short and consistent as possible. A lot of variables can affect it (autoexposure mode, autofocus mode and acquire time, etc.).

There are some other areas it will affect, though. Focus acquisition and tracking tends to be better in the higher end cameras. How the buttons and menu structures are arranged can have a big effect on the responsiveness of a camera – if a feature you need takes multiple buttons or submenus to get to, that will slow down the feel of the camera in your hands.

Frame buffers, burst rates and write time are other areas that fall under responsiveness. How many photos can you take in a row before the camera slows down? And how quickly can it reset the mirror to make the next frame? If your camera has a burst rate of 10 frames per second but only has a five frame buffer before it needs to slow down to write to the card … well, what’s the point? And if you are shooting in a studio, 10 frames per second may be overkill.

To be honest, the feature sets in most modern cameras are pretty equal. You’ll have a few little differences here and there, but they’ll all have a couple of choices in how autofocus is handled. They’ll all have the basic exposure modes (manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, program and some sort of “creative zones). You’ll see differences in how many autofocus selection points there are, how the evaluative metering patterns are organized and possibly in the ability to control external flashes.

Ahh .. flash. An evil, evil word to many young photographers. Consumer and prosumer cameras tend to have built-in flashes where the pro level gear does not. Some of the prosumer cameras can use that built-in flash to control external flashes – a very cool feature.

Expandability is the last differentiating area we’ll talk about. You want to buy a camera system you can grow into over time – and that will eliminate a bunch of neat cameras by companies who aren’t “full line” manufacturers. At this level, you’re only looking at two religions – Canon and Nikon. While Olympus, Sony, Pentax and Leica all make some very neat pieces, none of them offer enough accessories and support to build a career around.

As you move up through the different camera levels in any brand, you’ll be able to get more stuff. Need wireless remote controls? You can get that at the prosumer level, generally. Need underwater casings? You’re probably looking at professional level stuff.

Can’t You Just Tell Me What to Buy?

Well, no. Because I don’t know what you’re going to shoot. The above section should help you decide what level you need to be looking at, but won’t really tell you what to buy – because we don’t know what you’re going to shoot. So let’s look at three main areas: Photojournalist shooting stills; photojournalist doing multimedia; and the non-photojournalist doing stills.

For starters, wipe out any thought of the consumer level cameras – they will drive you insane. They are fairly slow, limited in expandability and not durable enough for any professional needs. That moves you to prosumer and professional level gear.

Is you’re shooting primarily stills – with no video needs – what are you pointing the camera at? General news, features, some sports for a local paper – start with a prosumer camera (or two, really, because you want a backup). If you’re main focus is sports, spot news or coverage that will put you in hostile environments, you want the better build quality of a pro level camera.

So you have a camera choice in mind – what are you going to attach to it? Now we’re talking about glass – lenses, optics, that through which you see. I always recommend putting more money into lenses than bodies. In the film days, that was because all that was between your subject and your film was the lens. The camera was just a box. That, plus lenses tended to outlast cameras. Every pro-level Nikon lens I ever bought is still with me. I’ve never worn one out (though I came pretty close to destroying at least one).

In the digital age, the bodies have a huge affect on image quality. Twenty years ago if you wanted a different image quality, you changed film stocks. Now you change the whole camera. And cameras get better every 12-18 months. Buy good glass and you can move it from camera to camera. Spend the money there, it’s an investment. (And you’re buying for your career, right? This is Your Calling, right?)

Okay, so what should you have for glass? Two is the minimum – short zoom, long zoom. That gives you the most flexibility. You want fast glass – lenses with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8. As a journalist, you’re going to work nights – you want to see. You also want the wider apertures to control your backgrounds. And they’re also going to be sharper – most lenses are at their best optical performance two to three stops away from the extremes of the aperture range.

Both Canon and Nikon have short zoom lenses that are designed for cropped sensor cameras. They are attractive, but eventually you’ll buy a full-frame camera – I’d avoid them. Canon has a 16-35 mm f/2.8 lens, Nikon has a 17-35 mm f/2.8 lens – start with those.

Next up is a long zoom – 70-200 mm f/2.8 is the norm here. Nikon’s includes their vibration reduction system, Canon sells both an image stabilized and a non-image stabilized version. If you can swing the IS version, do it. But the non-IS is the same pieces of glass, I believe, and just as sharp.

If you can’t afford both lenses should you buy a mid-range zoom? Or slower ones? Or off-brand/aftermarket ones? Maybe, maybe and no.

You want to be a professional? Then buy the right gear. When you’re on a job and your gear fails, what does that say about you? The client doesn’t care about your budgetary woes, they only care about you doing the job. When my car isn’t fixed because the mechanic’s home-improvement-store-brand tool failed, I don’t care – I want my car fixed. And if the mechanic isn’t good enough to afford good tools, or not smart enough to know the difference, he’s not going to be my mechanic for long.

If your shooting style lets you work a mid-range zoom (something in the 24-100 mm range), then that’s a fine first lens. Constant aperture is better than variable aperture, generally.

Each manufacturer has different grades of lenses – Canon calls their best lenses “L Series,” Nikon’s usually say “ED” on them or have a gold band. Better lenses will usually have better individual pieces of glass and always have better, more durable construction. (As an example, I have Canon’s 28-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. Extremely sharp, very flexible, great walking around lens. But I wouldn’t want to shoot with it every day – it’s not built to withstand heavy use and feels like it would break easily if knocked around a bit.)

You also want to have a flash. Yes, you hate it now – go read Joe McNally’s book and life will get easier. Then practice with it, every day, and life will get better. Make sure you get an off-camera cord, too.

So your basic kit:

  • Prosumer or pro level body (preferably two of them, perhaps one of each)
  • Short, fast zoom
  • Long, fast zoom
  • Flash
  • Off-camera cord for the flash

You’ll also need a bag to carry all of it (yet another religion to debate about) and filters to protect the lenses. Start with the basic UV filters from Tiffen or Hoya for now – just don’t go out without them, okay?

(Okay, now you’re really annoyed. You’ve read, what, 2000 words and I still haven’t told you what to buy? Get over it and I’ll get to more specifics later.)

But you need to do video? How much? And do you want a simple video camera for emergency situations (like the Flip Ultras or the Kodak PlayTouch (which includes a mic jack))? Or do you need a full-blown kit like a Sony HVR-A1U? Or a tapeless one, like the JVC GY-HM100U?

Or do you want an all-in-one system, like the Canon 5D Mark II or 7D or Nikon D300s or D3s? Those let you use all of your lenses for creative control and have some audio control, as well.

More options, more choices.

And what about the non-journalist? What should they lean towards? Probably a full-frame camera for maximum control and quality.

Okay, here’s your list …

Photojournalist, not doing video:

Two bodies, preferably at the pro level but prosumer is a possibility. On the Canon side, that would be a 1D Mark III or Mark IV or a 7D. On the Nikon side, the D3 or D300.
Short zoom – Canon’s 16-35 mm f/2.8 or Nikon’s 17-35 mm f/2.8
Long zoom – Canon’s 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS (or the cheaper non-IS version) or Nikon’s 70-200 mm f/2.8 VR
Flash – Canon’s 580 EX II or Nikon’s SB-900
Off camera cord from Canon or Nikon

Photojournalist doing video:

You need a DSLR that can do video – Canon’s 5D Mark II reigns here, but the 1D Mark IV is a possibility. On the Nikon side, the D3s or D300s will work.

Everything else is the same, except you now need microphones and tripods. (Which could be a whole other pair of diatribes.)

Non-photojournalist:

Body – Canon’s 5D Mark II or Nikon’s D700, both are full-frame cameras
Lenses – Canon’s 24-70 mm f/2.8 or 24-105 mm f/4.0 or Nikon’s 24-70 mm f/2.8
Flash – studio strobes or several of the Canon 580 EX IIs or Nikon SB-900s, along with stands and modifiers
Tripod
Off camera cord from Canon or Nikon

WHERE SHOULD I GET THIS STUFF

Here, again, the internet has changed everything. When I started out, I had A Guy – Roy, at SBI Sales in Boston. One of my mentors sent me to see Roy when I needed a 300 mm lens. He had a used one in his case, took it out and called me into his office. Then closed the door.

Here was his deal: he was going to discount the price – heavily – just for me. I couldn’t tell anyone, but whenever someone asked where I got my stuff, I was to send them to Roy. I was doing marketing for him and I was okay with that. For several years, Roy helped me out and I helped him out.

Eventually, I left Boston and needed to have some more accountability – meaning I had to put stuff out to bid. Through that process, I came to know Jeff Snyder, who worked at a Washington, D.C.-based company at the time. His bids were always the best and the customer service was always top notch.

Jeff eventually left for another company and, after trying to place an order with his old company, I followed him and have continued to buy from him and recommend him. Why? He is My Guy. When I have a problem, I know he’ll solve it. When I need something odd or I need it RIGHT FREAKING NOW, he takes care of it. He’s also been a huge supporter of photojournalists across the country.

When he went to Adorama a few years ago, they started sponsoring NPPA events – because of Jeff. Having the number for A Guy in your phone book is tremendously reassuring. He won’t beat everyone else’s price, but he will help you in any way he can. And, in the end, customer service means more than saving a few dollars.

That said, you may be starting out and can’t afford to go new. I understand. In the last 20 years, I’ve bought one professional lens new – a beautiful Nikkor 180 mm f/2.8 AF-D … sigh … I spent $900 on it. Then dropped it three days later, and it’s never been right. Last time I ever buy something new …

So what do you do? You go online to places like keh.com – they have a great web site that lists everything they have in stock and the condition it’s in. And their ratings are very, very conservative. I’ve bought gear from them for more than a decade and always been happy, both with the gear and the customer service. They can become Your Guy. Adorama has used stuff online, as well.

One last piece of advice – if you find a price online that is too good to be true, it is. There are a lot of scams, the biggest being a bait-and-switch deal where they process your payment, then call to up-sell you on all of the things that should come from the manufacturer. If you refuse them, your order is suddenly backordered forever. And if you cancel, there’s a cancellation fee. Do a quick search about the site and you’ll probably come up with lots of horror stories.

HOW MUCH IS THIS STUFF GOING TO COST ME?

My favorite answer – it depends.

It depends on what you may have, what you’re going to do and how much you can spend – because you’re going to spend it all. Photography is a lot like racing – they say the way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a large fortune …

Camera? Used - $350. Motor? Used - $150. Wide angle lens? Used - $225. Filter and hood were probably new.

Camera? Used - $350. Motor? Used - $150. Wide angle lens? Used - $225. Filter and hood were probably new. Best money I ever spent.

Your basic DSLR kit – one body, two lenses, a flash, off-camera cord, bag, some cards and filters – is going to run you about $5,000 if you go new. Going used could knock that down to under $4,000.

(I’m going to let you catch your breath for a moment …)

Once you start moving up, a kit based on two pro-level bodies, two zooms, a telephoto, flashes, monopods and the usual accessories is going to run your $12,000-15,000. Oh, and you should buy a computer and software, too … to start your basic photojournalism freelance business, you’re looking at about $20,000.

Which seems insane. Until you look at what the start-up costs are in almost any other business. To open a McDonald’s you need to pay a $45,000 franchise fee. That doesn’t buy you a building or fry-o-lator, just the rights to put the arches on your door. FIgure $500,000 to $1 million to sell your first quarter pounder with cheese.

Look at your business plan – you have a business plan, right? – and see if it will support what you need to buy.

CAN AUNT LEWELLYN HELP ME OUT?

In a word, YES. And in multiple ways. Buying photo gear is bankruptcy by a thousand swipes of your credit card. You know the big ticket items, but there are lots of little things you should have, too. Let them help with things like:

  • Camera bag – go look, find one that works for you. I like Domke bags for their durability and flexibility for over the shoulder carrying and the ThinkTank line for a belt system. But there are lots of others.
  • Filters – every lens needs a filter, round up the sizes and hand them out.
  • Tripod/monopod – gonna need it eventually.
  • Camera straps – I hate the ones in the box and use the Domke Gripper straps almost exclusively. Others feel passionately about other straps.
  • Memory cards – Howard Hughes was asked how much money a man needs to be happy. My response to how much memory would make me comfortable is the same – just a little bit more.
  • Lens and camera cleaning kits – life is dirty, clean it up.
  • Light stands, assorted grip equipment, gels, spare batteries – you use it, let them contribute.
  • Clothing – journalism happens in all weather, be prepared. I love GoreTex and L.L. Bean stuff – buy quality and it lasts.
  • Stepladder – you know you want one.

Gift cards can help, but ask for them for places like Amazon.com so you can choose from lots of retailers. (Philly’s Photo Shack is a nice place but isn’t going to have what you need.)

AND WHY CAN’T I KEEP THE STUFF YOU GAVE ME?

As noted above, it’d be a felony. And there’s another you coming in next semester – it’s their turn.