Sunday, 22 December 2013

All gear, no idea? (Pt 1)

I've always had a mental tug of war about what cameras and lenses to use for travel photography trips. For me, it's not so much a matter of price as practicality - compact, light and inconspicuous are not adjectives I associate with Nikon's top-of-the-line gear. Nevertheless, for a minimum threshold of sharpness and image quality, one generally needs to be using bodies with the most advanced technology and good glass. With few exceptions, good glass is heavy glass.

To be sure, this is not an in-depth gear review. There are tons of very detailed, blow-by-blow feature comparisons of every permutation on the internet for that - here I concentrate on the reasons I chose what I chose for the express purpose of travel photography.

After experimenting with different kits, here is the distilled version of my camera gear:

2 camera bodies
Nikon D7000

I currently shoot with a Nikon D7000 (DX, or cropped sensor) and a Nikon D600 (FX, or full frame sensor). Sometime in the future I plan to upgrade to full frame completely, but this works for now. Both cameras are compact and light (~680g) – two of my key requirements for travel photography. They are also beautifully ergonomic.

Nikon D600


Don't be fooled by the 'pro-sumer' categorization (as opposed to ‘pro’ bodies like the D3x, D4 etc which are at least double the price and weight) - DxOMark, which independently measures camera and lens image quality and ratings, awarded sensor scores of 80 and 94 for the DX D7000 and D600 respectively, compared with the FX D700's 80 and D4's 89.


David vs Goliath

Why do I need two bodies? On location, the light and surrounding action sometimes changes so fast that you have no time to change lenses. In situations where changing lenses is potentially devastating (think desert with fine sand blowing every which way and into your sensor), having two camera bodies to cover the required range is mandatory.

Speaking of range, the beauty of shooting both formats is the breadth I can cover – 16mm all the way to 450mm! This conveniently brings me to my..

lens kit 
Nikon 16-35mm f/4G ED VR II AF-S – awesome awesome lens. At 680g, very light for its pro features. At 16mm, there is obvious lens curvature – which can be to one’s advantage if used correctly. VR comes in handy for low light situations. Now you may ask why I chose this lens over the legendary  Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S . The latter weight is 1kg, and it is bulky. Doesn’t take filters (protective or otherwise) either, which in rough-and-tumble travel situations is a must. Oh did I mention it costs about $2k?

Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR – this is by far my favourite lens. I owned the cheaper Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6G AF prior, which, for its price ($200 bundled with D70 + kit lens) was a great bargain. Whereas the G falters in sharpness beyond 250mm, the VR delivers with nicely sharp silhouettes in this range.
This is an FX lens – although all FX lenses can be used on DX, it is considered a waste of good glass to do so. However, mounting a 70-300mm lens on a DX body gives you range – an effective range of 105-450mm to be exact! Weight wise, very light at 745g compared to another Nikon legend, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S @ 1.5kg! The ratios are roughly the same price-wise as well!

Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8D AF – newest addition to my family to complete the FX trinity. I had been looking around for a good standard zoom lens for some time. The excellent Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S was the obvious choice; however, the 35-70mm is roughly 70% cheaper, 30% lighter and does not overlap in terms of range with my 16-35mm. Reviews rave about sharpness and image quality – we shall see once I have it on hand.

Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S DX – this lens will be retired once the 35-70mm arrives. it is a decent lens for what it is – a kit lens that came with my first DLSR, the D70 – but not quite there in terms of sharpness and bokeh.

Nikon 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor Lens AIS – a beautiful, very sharp manual lens with micro (close-up) ability. Too bad there is no auto-focus. In theory this is a great lens to bring along on trips where low-light shooting is required; in practice, though, you can only carry so many lenses (comfortably). Changing lenses and focusing manually in the dark is a practical challenge as well. Small and compact, it is a bit heavier (290g) than it looks due to a solid 1980s build.

Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AIS – another beautiful, sharp manual lens. Sturdily built like the rest of its generation. Smaller and lighter (250g) than the 55mm, I would *maybe* throw in this lens to the kit. At the back of my mind, low-light situations (especially interiors) tend to be cramped, so wider-angle lenses are probably more useful to bring along.

Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR DX – the aptly named ‘travel lens’. This is the one lens I would bring with me on ‘less-serious’ photography trips (if there is such a thing). Basically, this means trips that are not dedicated photography trips, where I bring only 1 camera body. The range is extremely convenient for all-purpose travel photography, and the lens is pretty light at 560g.

In my next post, I shall talk about camera accessories that supplement the camera bodies and lenses, including how I carry all this stuff around!

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