Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Best camera and lenses for the semi-serious

Answer:  In my opinion, it's Nikon's prevailing entry-level D-series DSLRs (currently the D3300) with both an 18 - 55 mm Nikkor lens and a 55 - 200 mm Nikkor lens (B&H currently has a good deal on the 18 - 55 mm consumer bundle).  Have one camera body dedicated to each lens if you can afford to do that (it keeps you from missing important moments because you are fumbling with lens change-outs, and it also keeps dust and moisture out of the inside of the camera body because you never have to remove a lens).
Wikipedia hosts this spectacular summary of what's on the market and what's been on the market, Nikon-wise.  I'd be lost without it.  
I get this question a lot, both on and off blog - what camera are you using?!  I see a lot of people over-buying their camera equipment because they don't comprehend what they really need (it doesn't help that popular sites such as CNET sometimes mis-identify mid-range as entry-level).  I fall into that consumer category where my intention is to do better than what a cell phone can provide, and I want to capture special moments, but I don't want to dedicate my life to the pursuit of the perfect focus.  I'm not an aspiring professional - I just want to grab great photos with a minimum of fuss, without overstepping the point of diminishing returns.  And I'm very hard on my cameras, subjecting them to a great deal of outdoor punishment, which routinely leads to shortened lifespans.  If I were to buy up, photography would become financially unsustainable for me.

And I don't see a need to buy up.  The market has come a long way in just a few years, as technology continues to evolve at break-neck speed.  I was one of the Nikon D50 early adopters in 2005, and at that time, it was considered a mid-range camera.  Today's D3300 handily outstrips the capability of the original D50, but but the D3300 is instead considered entry-level.  You could buy a mid-range package, but would you notice a significant difference in the results for your extra $500 to $1,000 investment?  To me, the sweet spot of investment remains at the entry level simply because of the remarkable recent achievements in technology.

Most of the pics on this blog were taken with the 18 - 55 mm lens, which neatly brackets the range of normal consumer experience from de facto macro to wide angle.  Here is a series of recent photos illustrating the general capabilities of the 55 - 200 mm lens.  Note that these have been cropped and downsampled to a 1024 pixel size, so the originals are much higher resolution.
Bug-eyed on the Boardwalk Bullet: If you stand on Kipp Avenue a short distance south of the Starbucks, that's probably your best vantage point for shots like this.  I took this on Sunday afternoon as I was trying to catch my family in action, not knowing when their turn would come.   
The roller coaster moves so fast that there's no time to confirm which car your family members or friends might be in - it's better just to shoot first and ask questions later.  None of my family in this one either.  
Still no loved ones appearing, but I was really impressed that this young lady's ornate hijab remained in place for the duration of her ride.  
Kemah also boasts that new upside-down ride, reportedly the only one in Texas and the second tallest in the world.  One of the enchanting things about using a basic telephoto is that picture-viewing becomes a bit like Christmas - you won't really know what you've got until afterward when you load up the pics on your computer.  My child asked, "Mommy?  Why is that guy giving the finger?"  I replied, "I don't know sweetie - apparently he was engaged in a conversation with someone on the ground."
Of course, you can also use the 55 - 200 mm telephoto lens as a de facto macro lens in certain contexts, as this anole picture shows.  Some of the effects of doing so can get a bit otherworldly, as the light collation is tighter (more polarized) here than it would have been if I'd used a regular macro.  
They are such fearsome beasts, aren't they??  I never get sick of photographing anoles.  
A dove that came a-drinking about a half an hour ago (I often keep the telephoto on the desk beside me so that I can get shots like this without getting out of my office chair!!).

Note that I took this through my office window which is perpetually covered in dog snot because my dog tries to sniff the birds through the window pane.  Any distortion you see here was not due to the telephoto lens - it's due to the cheap plate glass window I was shooting through. And the snot coating it.   
If you are torn between cameras and lenses, look at sample pics such as those above and ask yourself:  What is it that I would have wanted to achieve in those same situations that was not achieved by those pics??  If you find yourself citing a specific answer, then maybe you've got a justification to buy up.

I have always told myself that I'll go ahead and purchase the next upper level of camera at the very point where I feel I have exhausted the possibilities of the entry level models that I already own.  I myself have yet to reach that threshold.  Good luck with your own camera shopping.

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