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Rationalizing camera equipment — what do you need?

Filed under: photography — 2014-10-15 by Richard L. Hess — Last Edit 2014-11-10 by Richard L. Hess

I have used 35 mm single lens reflex camera systems since about 1965 when I started out with a Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic, and a 50 mm f/1.4 lens. In 1966, I added to that a Spiratone 35 mm f/2.8? wide angle lens and a Sun Zoom 70-210 mm f/4.8? telephoto. Later I added a 400 mm f/6.3 preset lens.

In 1977 I moved to Canon F-1’s and ended up with a nice system of Canon prime lenses 17 mm f/4, 28 mm f/2.8, 50 mm f/3.5 macro, 85 mm f/1.8, 135 mm f/2.8, and 200 mm f/4 and three F-1 bodies. Late in the life of that system I added a Tamron 500 mm f/8 mirror lens which was not what I had hoped it might be.

After a brief flirtation with Canon EOS, I moved to Nikon in 1990 and have been shooting Nikon ever since. I had more lenses and bodies than I ended up knowing what to do with, going from 20 mm to 500 mm f/4. Over time, I owned six Nikon film bodies, five DSLR bodies (so far), 11 prime lenses (all but one a Nikkor), 9 Nikkor zoom lenses, and 5 Nikkor teleconverters! In 2003, I bought my first D100 digital SLR and have had two of those, a D200, and now shoot with two D7100 bodies.

Thinking back on this, I spent 12 years with the Pentax/Spiratone system, 12 years with the Canon FD system, and I’ve been with Nikon for 24 years.

I was somewhat happy with the 18-200 mm lens on the D200, but it didn’t make me happy on the D7100. I suspect that the 18-200 was perhaps the limiting factor for resolution on the D200, at least at some focal lengths! (click the image for a larger view)

12-400 mm histogramWith metadata from ten years of digital shooting and lenses ranging from 12 mm to 700 mm (500 + 1.4 x extender), I was able to figure out what focal lengths I shot. This graph includes all lenses that I used for 500 or more images with the exception of the 60 mm f/2.8 AF Micro Nikkor which I use for technical photography and now lives on my D200 body in the audio tape restoration studio. Note that the 500 mm lens and the 1.4 x extender did not make the cut. The sample size was about 26,000 images.

I must state that these data from the digital bodies are quite different from my earlier practice with film bodies, but I have no accurate statistic of what I shot where or when, although I know I used the 500 mm f/4P a good deal at zoos and in the wild.

One must also remember that I spent 30 years in broadcast engineering and photography was a serious avocation, but not a business. I’ve sold a few images, but I don’t do this for a living.

I have stayed with what Nikon calls DX format bodies. This is an APS-C sized sensor, so the focal lengths are actually multiplied by a factor of 1.5. I will provide the effective focal length as we are accustomed to using on full-frame DSLRs or 35 mm film in [brackets]. This smaller sensor size has been attractive to me as it allowed me to effectively replace the 500 mm f/4 lens for wildlife photography with a lens that went to 400 mm because the smaller sensor made that effectively 600 mm.

Here are the tallies for six focal length “bins” based on the above data (with all the lenses included except the 60 mm). While these bins may appear arbitrary, they were re-computed from the raw data when I was evaluating what became my final lens selection.

12-15 [18-22.5] mm — 3 %

16-70 [24-105] mm — 47 %

70-85 [105-128] mm — 9 %

85-200 [128-300] mm — 31 %

200-400 [300-600] mm — 9 %

500/700 [750/1050] mm — 1 %

87 % of my shooting has been in the 16-200 [24-300] mm range. This is actually quite unsurprising. The late Galen Rowell suggested a 24 mm and an 85 mm lens as the two most useful ones. I agree, though I like to go longer. The spike at 12 mm suggests that perhaps I wanted to go wider. The technique discussed below does not impose a hard limit. The spike at 200 mm is also an indication that I wanted longer focal lengths than 200 mm when shooting with the 18-200.

Looking at the 99 % of my shooting (assuming I use the technique described below for images wider than 16 [24] mm) can be accomplished with:

16-85 mm — 50-59 %

70-200 mm — 40-31 %

70-200 mm with 2x teleconverter — 9 %

In the overlap region, my goal is to shoot with the longer lens as much as possible as the longer range of the 16-85 appears to be its weakest (though it’s still very good).

The good news is that this means that with two lenses, I can handle 87 % of the shooting that I’ve been doing, if they are good enough. Adding the 2x teleconverter (discussed below) brings this up to 96 %.

One of the sharpest lenses Nikon currently makes is the 70-200 mm f/4 zoom lens, and it is relatively affordable. It is an FX lens which means it will cover full-frame as well as DX. What appears to be the best of the variable aperture DX zooms (Nikon lists it with other professional equipment) is the 16-85 mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom. Both come with vibration reduction mechanisms. Both use 67 mm filters (I have only two clear protectors that I use when conditions warrant).

I became spoiled using the D200 and the 18-200 mm lens. Changing lenses as often as I’d like was out of the question, especially when shooting from boats and other riskier situations (risker as to losing or damaging a lens or camera), so getting a second D7100 made it easy on everything except the wallet. I should mention that the focus fine tuning is mandatory for the 70-200 both with and without the teleconverter. Lens Align (link) is the go-to tool to aid in this. I now need to do this procedure on my second body. It was not needed on the first body with the 16-85, but I will check that out with the second body as well.

Kirkfield_Panorama_2b

10-image panorama: Kirkfield Lift Lock

The quandary of what to do with the other 13 % presented itself. Nikon makes a very nice 2 x teleconverter, the TC 20 E iii, which works with the 70-200 mm f/4 lens. The D7100 will focus at the centre position with an f/4 lens/2x converterr combination (effectively f/8). This becomes a 140-400 [210-600] mm zoom that is sharp wide open and has vibration reduction. That takes care of 9 %.

The 3 % that is wider than 16 [24] mm has been an area of approach-avoidance for me since probably 1975 when I purchased the 17 mm f/4 Canon. It was fun, but super-wide. I did not use my 20 mm AF Nikkor anywhere near as much as my 24 mm lens on my F4 film bodies. But, on the other hand, there are situations that need something wider than the 24 mm lens equivalent.

Fortunately, in at least some of the circumstances, the image is static such as a cityscape, a mountain lake, or, in a recent example, a lift lock. Here I can use the 16 mm setting of the wider zoom and then include more area with generously overlapped individual images.

One of the things that the histogram of  focal lengths shows is a tendency to run the zoom to either end. There are fewer limitations with the panorama approach. Photoshop CC 2014’s Image Merge function is very automatic and very good.

Being someone who has enjoyed long lenses for a long time, I do wonder what I’d do with say the Tamron or Sigma 150-600 [225-900] mm zooms with vibration reduction. The Tamron received good reports, the Sigma is brand new. But even if I used it for more images, I still don’t think it’s worth the effort any more for me. I was able to take good bear images at Hyder Alaska in 2007 with the incredibly slow-to-focus original Nikon 80-400 VR zoom. The new zoom and extender is sharper and faster focusing.

Also, with the 24 mega pixel (MP) sensor in the D7100, I can crop to 12 MP and still have a very usable image. That provides the equivalent of about an 850 mm lens. At a 6 MP crop, this combination becomes a 1200 mm equivalent lens! In most situations, that is about as far as one can conveniently shoot–or beyond. Stability is an issue because, for example, at the Hyder bear viewing platform, the raised boardwalk was not rock stable. It didn’t fall over, but one did feel it move as people milled about.

So, two lenses and a 2x converter seem to be able to cover just about everything for me.

I still have the 12-24 mm f/4, 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 85 mm f/1.8 AF, 60 mm f/2.8 Micro AF, and a set of extension tubes. The extension tubes let me use the 70-200 as quite a competent macro lens with reach. The 18-55 is a backup for the 16-85 should it get lost or damaged. It also allows two-camera video shooting with the two D7100 bodies, covering similar angles of view. DSLRs, in general, cannot shoot long-form videos, apparently due to licensing choices. They seem to time out after about 12-20 minutes, so you need two to cover something continuously.

I’m set to go with two lenses and the extender…in two different Tamrac Zoom packs. If the project/event warrants, I can put the extender in a piggy back pouch on the larger Zoom pack and put one lens in with the camera with the 16-85, but for general travel photography, this is working out well with no items hanging off the bags.

I am also not using polarizers as it is too risky for scenic sky darkening which can now be done better in Lightroom and Photoshop. Neutral Density graduated filters are the same thing, Lightroom and 14 bit capture make those somewhat unnecessary.

The graph was made by manually transferring metadata from Adobe Lightroom’s database, filtered on each lens, to a separate column for each lens in a LibreOffice spreadsheet. A row was created for each logged focal length. The quantity of images was placed in the correct cell. I used the built-in graphing package in LibreOffice.

My minimal flash needs are often met by the flash built into the D7100 bodies, though I have managed to put an SB-400 with diffuser and a coiled flash extension cord into the case with the D7100 and 16-85 mm lens. I also have an IR remote trigger and spare batteries for in there. There are two spare camera batteries and a universal car/wall charger in each of the two cases plus the OEM wall Nikon charger in the long lens case. This allows me to charge all the batteries in two passes.

The D7100 with the 16-85 mm lens has a Really Right Stuff “L” camera “plate” and the D7100 with the 70-200 has a small RRS plate (just in case). I have the Kirk tripod adapter for the 70-200 in the case, but generally not attached to the lens.

I keep two 64 GB Class 10 memory cards in each camera, allowing me about 2,200 images per camera. If I choose, the SD cards are potentially another backup for many trips, though I suspect I will still copy images from the cards to my laptop every night I am able, and at least run those to one external hard drive as well, and probably two.

Each of the two Tamrac bags weigh just under 7 pounds. One is a 517 and the other is a 519, so the whole kit weighs in at about 13.6 pounds plus the selected camera support(s).

 

Camera Supports:

I find with the good high-speed ISO performance of the D7100 and image stabilization [IS] from 16-400 mm [24-600 mm] that I use a solid tripod less. Remembering that IS is somewhat of a statistical process, I now shoot multiple in-camera images to allow for different IS options, just as I used to do to protect against processing damage, though generally I shoot fewer for IS than for processing damage.

I now have too many camera support options, and my choice seems to focus on my mode of transportation and the intent.

For many applications, a monopod is a good assistant. I found a RUBY R1602 5-Section Retractable Carbon Fiber Monopod Unipod – Black for $60 US delivered and it’s quite nice. I generally do not use a head, just screw it into the RRS/Kirk plates. I do carry a small swivel with me in the zipper compartment inside the supplied carry case. It completely replaces my Bogen 3018 monopod. It is lighter, shorter for storage (5 vs 3 sections), and I think equally stable. The whole thing with the little swivel is 1.5 pounds in weight.

Now that I have sold the Nikon 500/4P and do not see getting another lens like that, I would like to find a good home for my Black Max (Dutch Hill surveyor’s tripod adapted to photo use).

My heaviest tripod is a Gitzo 340 with either a plate or a slide centre column with a Foba Super Ball, 11.5 pounds.

My general use tripod is an old Leitz Tilt-All with a new two-section centre column and a Linhof Profi II ball head with RRS clamp, 8.3 pounds.

My smaller tripod is a Bogen 3001 with a Linhof 3677 ball head and RRS clamp, 5.3 pounds.

I just bought a Koolehaoda Q-666C Portable Carbon Tripod Monopod Kit & Ball Head Compact Travel for about $175 CAD shipped and dutied/taxed. At Amazon.com, it is available, it seems, for under $100 US. I think the Q-666C tripods all come from the same factory although they have different names on them. This is still under evaluation. The torsion stability is less than I hoped, but it’s light weight at 3.4 pounds, and relatively small. One leg and centre column and ball head becomes a reasonable monopod, but not as rigid as the Ruby.

So, that’s my insanity in rationalizing an easy/fast to use photography system that’s not too heavy. I see a minimum of 15.1 pounds, adding the Ruby monopod to the two Tamrac cases. From there, the compact carbon tripod adds 3.4 pounds, bringing the total to 18.5 pounds.

For driving trips, I will bring a bag with the other lenses that I still own plus my SB-600 flash. I will also probably bring one of the heavier tripods, depending on the trip. I’m generally grabbing the old Tiltall as it is less valuable than the Gitzo/Foba combination and I just leave it in the car.

 

More complete Nikon equipment history for those who really care (and so I can remember it).

Here are the per-lens and per camera model stats from 2003–2014 (later than the chart). Please note that all the primes (and the 35-70 mm f/2.8 and the 75-150 mm f/3.5 Series E) zooms were purchased during the time I was shooting film. All of this data was collected using DX (APS-C) sized sensors, so where I would have shot a 24 mm lens for film, I am now shooting an 18 mm lens for DX digital. But the good news is that my 200 mm lens now has the range of a 300 mm lens on film.

Cameras (Presently owned equipment bolded) & number of images in the database for that device.

D100 (2003-05 new & c.2005 used, not identified as to which) — 6772 (one to each of my sons, 2014)

D200 — 18,418 (2007-01, now with 60 mm f/2.8 Micro)

D7100-54 — 4231 (2013-06, now with 70-200 mm f/4 VR)

D7100-71 — 25 (2014-10, now with 16-85 mm f/3.5-5.6 VR)

The film bodies (all sold) were two F4s with MF-23 multi-control backs, N8008s (sold when I got the second F4s), Nikkormat, FA, FE2, and an FM2n.

Also sold are various bellows, slide copiers, cable releases, and a lens-scope converter (I still have one).

 

Primes [with D100] (with D200) {with D7100}

20 mm f/2.8 AF — 18 [18] (c. 1990, sold 2003)

24 mm f/2.8 AF — 58 [58] (c. 1990, sold 2014)

35 mm f/2 AF — 75 [57] (18) (c. 1990, to son Robert, 2014)

60 mm f/2.8 AF Micro — 1,196 [1,128] (68) (c. 1990, technical work now with D200)

85 mm f/1.8 AF — 578 [294] (284) (c. 1990, Auxiliary)

105 mm f/2.8 AF — 262 [247] (8) {7} (c. 1991, sold 2014)

180 mm f/2.8 AF — 603 [194] (409) (c. 1990, sold 2014)

300 mm f/4 AF — 44 [44] (c. 1990, sold 2003)

500 mm f/4P — 203 [142] (48) {13} (c.1991, sold 2014)

500 mm f/4P & TC14b converter — 136 (133) {3} (c.1991, sold 2014)

Not used with digital: 28 mm f/2.8 (c. 1992, non-Nikon, sold 2003), 65 mm f/6.3 Schneider Angulon in Varioflex II tilt-shift mount (c. 1991, sold 2014)

The Nikon TC-16b, TC-201, and TC-301 were not used with the digital systems (c. 1991, sold 2003)

 

Zooms [with D100] (with D200) {with D7100}

12-24 mm f/4G AF-S DX — 1862 [1316] (475) {71} (2003-07, Auxiliary)

16-85 mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR — 614 {614} Primary Lens (2014-01, on D7100-71)

18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR — 13 (3) {10} (2013-07, Backup & video)

18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR — 15,901 (13,416) {2,485} (2007-08, To son Robert, 2014)

24-120 mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S — 3,709 [1,796] (1,913) (2003-10 To son Michael, 2014)

35-70 mm f/2.8 AF — 462 [348] (114) (c.1990, sold c. 2007)

70-200 mm f/4G AF-S VR — 230 {230} Primary Lens (2014-01, on D7100-54)

70-200 mm f/4 & TC 20E iii converter — 138 {138} (2014-01, main kit)

80-400 mm f/4.5-5.6D AF VR — 3,135 [964] (1,487) {684} (2003-07, sold 2014)

Not used with digital: 75-150 mm f/3.5 Series E (c. 1992, sold 2003)



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