Since my college days I have been fantasizing about photography equipment. My first Nikon camera, an FM, came with a fold-out poster featuring the more than 60 Nikkor lenses that would fit my new camera. I framed that poster and hung it on my dormitory room wall, and have had it ever since. That was in 1982, and since then, lens design and capability have changed considerably, though the function of lenses has remained the same, to focus light onto film or a digital sensor.
I dreamed about what I would do with each of those lenses if I had them all, and of course I dreamed about which ones I would buy next. By the late spring of 1982, I had my first newspaper internship, and on my first day on that job I had the Nikon FM, a Nikon Series-E 28mm f/2.8, a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, and the vaunted Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. I’ve been building and rebuilding my kit ever since.
When I dream about what kind of gear I would use for my work as a news and magazine photographer, it’s tempting to imagine what I would buy if I won the lottery or found an unclaimed satchel of money in the woods behind our house. Since those are somewhat remote possibilities, more of the time I imagine what kind of kit I would assemble if I were starting from scratch today, or recommending what a young professional photographer might need.
In terms of cameras, the pixel count, at least in my work, is irrelevant. More important considerations are things like focus speed, battery life, color rendition, and build quality, the last one being more significant for pro shooters than weekend photographers, since we pros tend to be rather relentless with our gear. I currently shoot with the excellent Nikon D2H, and with modern software and shooting RAW files, image quality and resolution is superb. The only thing I would change about the camera if I could would be to make it capable of shooting video, since I currently have to carry a separate video camera for movies I make for our newspaper’s web site.
If I were buying new cameras today (plural, because I always shoot with two), I would seriously consider the Nikon D300S, not just for its capabilities (including video), but because it is next in Nikon’s line to be replaced, and that might translate into a price break.
I know that many photographers in the market today are pushing for, and buying, the so-called “full frame” sensor for their next cameras, but I have always considered the “full frame” sensor, which is the same size as a frame of 35mm film, arbitrary and somewhat irrelevant. The DX-sized sensors in my current cameras remains an excellent choice for what I shoot.
All of today’s cameras are great. What matters more to me is lenses, since you can cheat yourself out of image quality by putting a $59 lens on a $5000 camera. So what lenses would I consider?
- A decent wide angle lens. At the moment I shoot with the excellent Tokina 12-24mm f/4. It’s an amazing lens, and I have nothing negative to say about it, but if I were starting from scratch today I would look for an f/2.8 in this same focal length range. Nikon makes a couple of excellent choices for this role, but they are quite a bit more expensive, and based on my own experience, I trust Tokina. For me, it’s the Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX, an 11-16mm f/2.8 zoom.
- A top notch 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. I presently use the excellent AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8, an industry workhorse. It is not near retirement, and gives me stunning results, but if I were replacing it, the only real choice would be Nikon’s superior but crazy-expensive AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. I know that’s an alphabet soup of specs, but the bottom line is that this lens is indispensable for sports, news, portraits, night photography, you name it.
- A versatile super-telephoto. I have a 20-year-old AF-Nikkor 300mm f2.8 that still serves me well, particularly for night football action. It is huge and very heavy, however, so I don’t bring it out all that often. For many of the daytime sports I shoot, I have a nice AF 300mm f/4 Nikkor I bought used a few years ago. Its maximum aperture is only one stop smaller than the bigger, heavier 300mm f/2.8, so it is still bright enough for much of what I shoot, yet is vastly smaller, lighter, and cheaper. Replacing either of them today is an easy choice: the AF-S-Nikkor 300mm F4D IF-ED. It is compact, lightweight, works well with Nikon’s excellent teleconverters, and is almost four times less expensive than the newest f/2.8 300mm.
A lot of photographers (or wanna-be photographers) will tell you that older cameras have noisier sensors and they would “never shoot above ISO 800” with thus-and-such camera, but those photographers are ultimately missing the point, that technology and equipment aren’t a goal and don’t make images. A good photographer’s goal is to capture and share a moment in time, and good images are made in the eyes and minds of talented photographers.