My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Buying camera gear on a budget, advice from a non-expert

Note, this post is aimed at nature photographers, although many of my points apply to all photography.

Since I want to upgrade my photographic equipment, I have been reading tons of reviews of cameras and lenses lately, and in my opinion, most of them are well-intentioned, but miss the mark.

One of the few that I think was well done comes as no surprise to me, it was Kerry Mark Leibowitz’s review of his Nikon D 800 on his Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog. If you read it, you’ll get a feeling for his thought process as he weighed the pros and cons of making the purchase in the first place, taking into account the camera’s capabilities as compared to his subject matter and style of shooting. The other thing that may strike you about his post, is that he used the images taken by his camera to judge the quality of the lenses that he uses.

There’s one of the real keys to getting great photographs, the lenses that you mount to the camera, much more so than the camera that you use!

Most people who make photographic gear recommendations start with the camera, telling you about all the great bells and whistles that you can get with each camera. However, if you read the same person’s tips for getting better photos, you’ll find that the tell you to disable or turn off most of those bells and whistles and shoot manually!

So, why pay for the bells and whistles if they are not going to improve the quality of your photographs?

The truth is that even an entry-level DSLR from any of the major manufacturers is quite capable of producing high quality photos, when you use a quality lens!

Most of the people offering advice on purchasing camera equipment will make a suggestion as to which of the “kit” lenses to buy when you purchase the camera.

Here’s a truism for you, none of the “kit” lenses typically sold with a DSLR is going to produce top quality photos, and if you read the reviewer’s tips to photography, you’ll see that.

Even if you purchase a mid-level DSLR, the kit lenses that you have to choose from are entry-level lenses designed to keep costs down, which also keeps the quality of photos taken with them down.

Here’s another truism, when you consider the total costs you end up having tied up in camera equipment, the camera body is one of the lowest costs items in your camera bag.

Another recommendation made by many experts is that you should start with entry-level equipment, then work your way up by replacing one item at a time, and defraying the cost by selling (at a loss) the entry-level stuff you purchased. Sorry, but selling at a loss is not the way to buy on a budget.

So, let’s stop and think for a second.

A camera is useless without a lens, and a lens is useless without a camera, you need both. The camera holds the sensor that records the image used to create the photograph, parts of the auto-focus system, and the shutter, which is just a part of the exposure control system.

The lens contains all the optics used to create the image that the sensor in the camera records, along with the aperture, which is part of the exposure control system, most of the auto-focus system, and in most brands, the image stabilization system, if so equipped.

The camera can only record the image produced by the lens, so I would say that the lens is the most important part of the whole, if quality photos is your goal.

A top of the line camera when used with an entry-level lens will not yield the same quality of photo as an entry-level camera using a quality lens!

There’s one more thing to consider, camera bodies become outdated much quicker than the lenses do! A camera body is current for about five years before being completely outclassed by the newer models, but lenses stay current for much longer, perhaps for decades.

So, that’s where you should start looking if you’re thinking of buying a DSLR system, the lenses that best suit your needs and budget, then, choose a camera to go with the lenses that you need, not the other way around.

OK, you’re in the market for a camera, the first question to ask yourself is do you actually need a DSLR to start with.

Unless high quality photos are your primary concern, you may well be better off with a good mid-level compact digital camera, especially if you’re planning on carrying a camera while hiking, backpacking, or other strenuous outdoor activities. A DSLR and the lenses are both expensive, and heavy to lug around. The compact digital cameras are much lighter, easier to carry, and produce photos that are surprisingly good. I have a Canon Powershot that I carry while kayaking so that I don’t risk having my expensive DSLR meet an untimely death by going for a swim. I love that little camera, it produces photos almost equal to my DSLR.

Every one who uses a DSLR and multiple lenses has a story about how they left one or more of their lenses home to save weight, and then it turned out that the lens that they needed most was the one left at home. With a compact digital, that’s never an issue.

The images produced by the mid-level and higher compact digital cameras is very good, especially considering their ease of use, and relative cost when compared to a DSLR and a battery of lenses to match the compact digital’s capabilities.

If you do decide that a DSLR is just the ticket for you, don’t bother looking at camera bodies until you decide on the lenses that best fit your needs.

This is the hard way, I know that, the vast array of lenses on the market can be overwhelming at first. I think that’s why most people start by choosing a camera, as that limits the number of lenses you have to choose from. If you pick a “Brand A” camera, then you are limited to the lines of lenses that fit the “Brand A” camera.

But, what if the lens that you’ll use most isn’t available for a “Brand A” camera, or if a lens is available, it is way outside your budget? Actually, you’ll probably find the latter to be true, as most manufacturers offer lenses for just about every purpose, the question becomes, can you afford the lens that you want, for the type of photography that you do the most.

I am not going to attempt to recommend lenses to any one, we’re all different, shoot different subjects, and have different styles in the way that we shoot. On top of those reasons, we also have different expectations and budgets as well.

What I can do is point out the questions you should be asking yourself as you shop for lenses.

The first may be obvious, but needs to be stated, what is your overall budget? Be realistic, or you’ll be disappointed. Quality lenses cost more, just as quality cameras cost more. The good thing about interchangeable lenses is that you don’t need to purchase every lens you’ll want right off the bat. Buy the lens that you’ll get the most use out of to start with, and you can add other lenses as your budget allows. Don’t forget to save some of your budget for the accessories that you’ll need, such as extra batteries, memory card(s), and filters. Don’t spend the money on a quality lens, then effectively throw that money down the drain by using inferior quality filters on your lenses.

What range of focal lengths do you need? And, what range will you use most often? It pays to spend the most money on the lens(es) you’ll be using the most. If you do mostly landscape photography, that will be on the shorter end of the focal length range, if you shoot mainly wildlife, that will be on the longer end of the range, but not always.

How often do you use a tripod? If you’re doing serious landscape photography, the answer should be 100% of the time, or close to it. Some wildlife photographers do as well, while others shoot handheld most of the time.

How much weight do you want to lug around with you, and how far are you going to have to lug it?

What is the minimum maximum aperture you can live with? If you shoot in low light situations very often, maximum aperture may be one of your deciding keys as far as the lenses you purchase.

Do you need a zoom lens, or would a prime lens be a better choice for you? A quality prime lens will always out perform a quality zoom lens as far as absolute photo quality is concerned. The reason is simple, a zoom lens requires more elements than does a prime lens, and every element creates some distortion and loss of light no matter how high the quality is. On the plus side, zoom lenses do require you to carry fewer lenses, and they make composing a photo much easier.

Will a teleconverter (extender) work for you? These are a relatively low-cost way of getting a much longer focal length lens, but they do have their downsides as far as reducing image quality, functioning correctly while using auto-focus, and reducing the effective maximum aperture of the lens they are used with. Not all lenses or camera bodies are compatible with teleconverters either, making them less of an option to many people, but they are something to take into account.

OK, so how do you use your answers to help you pick and choose the right lenses for you? I’m going to talk about a few of the choices I have been looking at as I have been researching my next purchases. I am looking to upgrade from a Nikon D 50 body and a 70-300 mm lens. I shoot mainly wildlife, and 90%+ of my photos are taken at 300 mm. However, I would like to do more landscape photography in the future. As it is now, even set at 70 mm, the lens I currently have is too long for landscapes most of the time, I use my Canon Powershot under those circumstances.

One lens that I have been considering is the Sigma 150-500 mm lens, but that thing is a tank, or I should say, it’s like a tank’s cannon. I’m not sure if the quality of photos it will produce would make it worthwhile to haul that thing around with me. I do almost all of my photography while hiking or at least walking, and even being a big guy, I think that the Sigma is heavier and larger than I want to use as my walking around lens. For some one who normally shoots from a blind (or hide as they say now) this could be a good lens choice.

Canon makes five different 70-200 mm “L” series lenses, ranging from the EF 70-200 mm f/4L USM at $709.99 to the EF 70-200 mm f/2.8L IS II USM at $2499.00. Three of the five have Image Stabilization, and you can get either a f/2.8 or f/4 version with or without Image Stabilization. So how does one decide which one to buy? If money were no object, the answer would be easy, especially since many people would find that they used this lens most of the time, it would be the EF 70-200 mm f/2.8L IS II USM. However, I’m not most people. I shoot mainly wildlife photos, and the 200 mm maximum focal length is far too short for my purposes. And, at 70 mm on the low end, it is probably too long for most landscape work, just as my current lens is.

But this lens does make a good example of how to pick and choose a lens. Can one live with the f/4 version, and bump up the ISO of their camera in low light situations? Or would the added noise be too much for their tastes, making the f/2.8 version a better choice? If some one shoots using a tripod all of the time, then they may opt for the version that doesn’t have image stabilization, while the IS would be very important to some one who normally shoots handheld. Whether using a tripod or not comes into play as far as deciding as to how much of a difference the maximum aperture makes as well. There’s a reason that manufacturers offer so many choices.

I think that for me, the EF 70-200 mm f/4L USM at $709.99 is the best bet, as I doubt that this lens will get a lot of use, and when it does, I’ll use my tripod to make up for its lack of IS, and slower aperture. That saves me $1789 to put towards lenses that I will use more often, like a super telephoto for when I am photographing small birds.

And, speaking of super telephoto lenses, Canon makes 4 different 400 mm lenses ranging in price from $1,339 to $11,499 depending on the maximum aperture and whether or not they have Image Stabilization. I am leaning towards the EF 400 mm f/5.6L USM, the least expensive of the four. Why? Because my ultimate goal is to go even longer, to a 500 mm or 600 mm lens eventually, and the more money I save now, the sooner I’ll get to my ultimate goal.

But what about Canon’s almost legendary 100-400 mm zoom? It’s only a few hundred dollars more. By all accounts, they are a great lens, but the 400 mm prime beats it as far as image quality, which is what I’m after. I could be wrong, but I doubt if I would ever use the zoom feature, just as with the lens I currently own, I’d have to 100-400 zoomed to 400 all of the time. The 400 mm prime is a little smaller and lighter as well, and that makes a difference to some one who normally hikes 5 to 6 miles a day on the weekends.

I do wish the 400 mm prime had IS, but to get it, I would have to move up to the $6,469 model, and I don’t think that IS is worth that kind of cash, but I could be wrong.

For a landscape lens, I’m leaning towards the EF-S 15-85 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM as it is a highly rated lens, and will work well for landscape photography on a crop sensor camera. At $799.99, I would rate it as a best buy.

So for just the three lenses I am looking at, the total comes to $2,848.98, throw in three high-end filters, and I’ll be around 3 grand for a total, and I still don’t have a camera yet. But, I will have three quality lenses that will cover all my requirements for years to come. And they will continue to work for me even after I upgrade camera bodies again in the future. That’s part of my overall plan as well, to buy a relatively low-end camera now, then upgrade again in a few years. I’ll hold onto the camera that I buy now, as it is always a good thing to have a second/spare body.

But, what will work for me probably won’t work for you, so you owe it to yourself to do the research, and come up with what does work for you. There are bargains out there, you just have to look for them. Start with quality glass that will last, then upgrade your camera as manufacturers continue to improve them.

I haven’t touched on buying used equipment, I have nothing against doing that, but from what I have seen while looking is that people are asking new prices for used equipment. I may be cheap, but I’m not willing to take a risk on a piece of used equipment when I can buy the same thing new for just one or two hundred dollars more. That, and there are few quality lenses on the market, people who have them tend to hang on to them because they are quality lenses.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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12 responses

  1. Excellent post with great advice. Wish I had thought out some of this stuff before I bought my equipment.

    March 24, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    • Thanks, I wish that I had before I made the switch to digital, I made the same mistakes that most people do, so I’m hoping a few people can learn from that.

      March 25, 2013 at 12:04 am

  2. Eye watering prices and ours will be higher over here (because they always are).

    March 25, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    • Thank you, I’d have to win the lottery to be able to afford what I would really like, but that isn’t going to happen.

      March 25, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      • The trouble with photography (like cycling is that you always need some better kit to complete your enjoyment. I know a man who gave up bird watching because he was always a few quid short of what he needed no matter what he acquired.

        March 25, 2013 at 7:30 pm

      • Sadly, I think that applies to most hobbies, or at least the ones that I take up.

        March 26, 2013 at 1:17 am

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  6. good information thank you,

    Michael

    July 28, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    • Thanks, glad that you found it helpful.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm

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