Rule 53: Travel Light — But Not Too Light

It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but every so often I actually do manage to take my own advice. Case in point came over the weekend while shooting a play that a friend of mine directed. Not knowing where I’d be able to find seating, and wanting a degree of flexibility in my shot options, I decided I’d pack the camera with the 28-300mm lens attached. All done, right?


Even when I’m traveling light — body, one lens, small bag — I try to be careful not to travel too light. My D600 has two SD slots (each of which usually has an 8GB card in it). My battery, rated for 1,500 shots or so, had been charged that morning. And with an all-in-one lens, it’s not as though I needed to carry my big bag, with my other four lenses. I could easily have shot the entire evening on just two memory cards and called it a day, in theory.

That’s all well and good, except that at some point, theory collides with practice, and that’s when things start to get hairy. In this case, things getting hairy involved my first memory card flashing an error message about fifteen minutes into Act One. Luckily, I hadn’t packed only the camera, lens, and monopod; I also had a spare battery, four spare memory cards, and a cleaning kit. I was able to pop out the defective card (which at least retained the shots I’d already taken, even though it’s now dead as a doornail), put in another, and continue shooting.

I understand as well as anyone that camera gear is bulky, heavy, and sometimes quite literally a pain in the neck to lug around. I don’t necessarily suggest carrying every last piece of your kit everywhere you go. There are times you just don’t need everything. At the very least, however, make sure you have enough. Have “spares,” whether it’s an extra lens if you’re shooting somewhere hazardous (if you fall and clobber one lens, you’ve got something else to shoot with), an extra card (because they can, and do, fail) or a spare battery, even if you’re in the habit of keeping them fully charged (if you’re shooting in the cold, your battery life shortens markedly; you can warm the battery back up in a pocket, but you’ll still need something with which to shoot in the meantime). Cleaning supplies are also a must; it doesn’t even have to be an elaborate cleaning kit. Just one of those lens cloths in a neoprene pouch can be a lifesaver if your lens gets smudged, or if your glasses get so filthy that you can’t see the viewfinder properly.

How ’bout you? What are your absolute essentials when you’re traveling light? Have I left something out? Sound off in the comments!


The Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Buying Anything and Everything

If I Had a Million Dollars…

This is, if we may be so immodest, the only buyer’s guide you will ever need for anything photographic, ever. Well, alright. We’re kidding. Maybe. In all seriousness, though, whatever you’re buying, the dozen questions below will help you to make a better decision.

1. What do I want to buy? If it’s something that fills a need, continue down the rest of the list. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a grand or three burning a hole in your pocket and just want a new gadget, wait on it.

2. Are there aftermarket versions of this item (hereinafter referred to as “thing”), and are they any good? Branded stuff is generally going to be of higher quality, but there are aftermarket versions that can be every bit as good. If it’s something you need (or just want) badly enough, you may decide that you’re willing to make some tradeoffs to save a few bucks. Bear in mind, however, that a savings isn’t much of a savings if you change your mind and need to upgrade later. Buying right the first time means a short-term hit to the wallet, but can also mean a savings (somewhat paradoxically) down the road. For just one example of what I’m talking about, check out this post by Thom Hogan. There’s also my own take on buying OEM versus aftermarket.

3. Is there a substitute for “thing”? From time to time, I get it in my head that I’d like a fisheye lens, and then I remind myself that I can get the same effect in Photoshop; the fact that I’ve never actually bothered to convert any of my images to look like they came from a fisheye probably reinforces the wisdom of passing up the lens in the first place. If, on the other hand, you find yourself spending countless hours of postproduction time doing that very thing, it might be worth your while to just get the right tool for the job. This is also true of other low-budget fixes (i.e. closeup filters in place of macro lenses).

4. Are there other things I need to buy to go with “thing”? Photography is a lot like shaving. Just the same as Gillette will sell you a razor for around ten bucks and then charge you $75 bucks a pop for blades (I know, I’m exaggerating… but not that much), many photography-related purchases rely on other “stuff” to put them to best use. If the filter size on that new lens isn’t the same as your others, you may need a new polarizing filter; if you’re buying a new tripod, you may want an extra quick release plate; if you’re buying an SLR, you’ll need memory, batteries, and other doodads. Buying a printer? You’ll need something to calibrate your monitor (and a new monitor if the one you’ve got can’t be calibrated). Make sure you take those costs into account.

5. Does “thing” have recurring costs associated with it? You’ve decided to spring for a new printer for your photos since you’re sick of taking them to the drugstore to be printed. Congratulations! You can now pony up for paper and toner cartridges for the life of the printer. Decided that digital is passe and you’ll shoot film now? Well, that film adds up, to say nothing of developing costs (and/or the cost of chemicals and paper if you’re going to roll develop your own).

6. What is the cost of “thing”, and is that money better spent elsewhere? Let’s be honest. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. Would I like a Leica M9 with one of those lovely Summicron lenses? You bet your ass I would. I’m also mindful of the fact that I could have about five more of everything in my current kit for that much money. The same logic applies to other, lower-priced gear as well. Comparing apples to apples, I know that there are tradeoffs between my 70-300mm and a fast 70-200mm, but I also know that if I’d bought the 70-200, it would’ve been the last of pretty much anything I’d bought for a very long time. Be practical, and understand that it doesn’t have to be the best (or most expensive) thing out there to be the best tool for right now.

7. What is the learning curve for “thing”, and is that time better spent elsewhere? Some equipment is pretty straightforward. A battery’s either charged or isn’t, and a memory card or camera bag’s either got space on/in it or hasn’t. But most of what you buy is going to require you to learn something about it if you want to get the most out of it. Lenses, software, camera bodies, hell, even tripods have a learning curve associated with them. The time spent mastering them can enrich your photography, but it can also frustrate the crap out of you if you decide you didn’t need the thing after all.

8. How often/for how long will I use “thing”? You’ve convinced yourself that you’ve missed one bird shot too many, and you now want a 500mm lens. After 625 trips to car shows and not a single one to an aviary, the last winged creature you saw was the hood ornament on a Thunderbird. How’s that lens looking now? Sometimes missing a certain kind of shot makes us want a certain kind of gear to remedy the problem, but if we don’t find ourselves in the kinds of situations that lead to those kinds of shots in the first place, it’s useful to reconsider.

9. Can I rent or borrow “thing”, and is that a good idea? Renting or borrowing (or, in the case of software, downloading a trial version) can be a great way to kick the tires before you buy, or to avoid buying altogether if you can’t foresee the next time you’ll need the thingy in question. Be careful, though; rentals don’t come cheap, and if you’re renting something often enough, the accumulated rental cost can rapidly add up to what it would’ve cost if you’d just purchased the darn thing, as Zack Arias points out in this post.

10. Might “thing” pay for itself (and if so, how soon)? Even if you’re not a professional photographer, there’s still a chance that the situations in which you use your camera might defray its cost (and if you’re a pro… well, duh). If the “thing” has the ability to earn its keep (here I’m thinking of product photography, real estate photography, and other circumstances in which someone who doesn’t consider themselves a photographer still needs to take pictures of something), that’s worth bearing in mind.

11. Do a lot of people use “thing”, and where can I find out what they have to say? Let’s say that you’ve considered all of the above, and darnit, you’ve just gotta have it. Narrow it down to two to three options; even if you’re dead set on one brand, make, and model, you don’t want buyer’s remorse later because you didn’t do your homework. Now, check out reviews from several sites, but don’t stop there. Get to your local camera shop and try out the different options. Sometimes the reviews (good or bad) are right, sometimes not. Your results may vary one way or the other, and you don’t want to find out the hard way.

12. Will “thing” make me a better photographer? The answer is a qualified “Of course not.” Good gear won’t save a bad photographer’s ass, and a good photographer will find ways to make even bad gear work for them; it’s your vision that drives the photo. With that said, having the right gear  can sometimes make it much easier to translate your vision to a photo.* Just don’t mistake the gear for the vision, OK?

*Next time someone tells you gear absolutely doesn’t matter — and some people will, despite any evidence to the contrary — tell them to get a detailed shot of the surface of the moon with a disposable film camera.

OEM Versus Aftermarket Gear: A Buyer’s Guide (Sorta)

You’ve got your new camera, and darnit, you’re fired up. You’re going to buy one of everything to go with it (two, if you can find enough change in your couch cushions). Well, hold on a second. Read this first.

Here’s the thing: regardless of which camera you’ve purchased, you have options as to what you buy. More specifically, will you buy OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), or aftermarket (someone made it who’s got no connection to the manufacturer)? There are advantages and drawbacks to both; below, I’ve listed some instances in which aftermarket gear and accessories are a good idea; others in which your results may vary; and finally, times when you’re best off going with the original manufacturer.

Buy Aftermarket:

1. The Strap: The strap that comes with your camera, provided it has one, is probably scratchy and uncomfortable. The straps that ship with Canon and Nikon cameras (the ones with which I have direct experience), while they’re strong enough, have two big drawbacks. One, they’re emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name, which doesn’t lend itself to subtlety, much less stealth. Much more importantly, they feel as though they could cut through your neck if you attach anything heavier than a loaf of Wonder bread to them (and your average setup, even with an entry-level SLR and 18-55 kit lens, ain’t exactly lightweight). There are literally dozens of other options, some much more stylish (MOD and Capturing Couture have some funky options), comfortable (I particularly like my Crumpler) or functional (a number of pros probably wouldn’t give up their Black Rapid straps except at gunpoint, and maybe not even then).

2. The Bag: Many manufacturers sell bags with their name on them. They’re competent enough; they’ll hold and protect your gear just fine. The problem is, in both their design and their very conspicuous branding, they practically scream “Camera bag!” There are other options that don’t draw as much attention to themselves, like Domke’s expensive but refined-looking bags, messenger bags from Crumpler and Tenba (not my personal cup of tea; they’re a little too exposed), and more specialized bags from the likes of LowePro, Pelican and Think Tank.

3. The Accessories: Here, I’m talking primarily about hoods, and lens and body caps. For something that’s basically a little plastic widget, some of these have no business carrying the price tags they do. There are scads of aftermarket options available here, many of them every bit as good as what ships from your camera maker of choice.

Now, a caveat: I strongly suggest against buying any of these things online. When it comes to straps and bags, you want to check build quality and comfort (not to mention, when it comes to a bag, how well it organizes and holds your stuff). No matter how good the description or product photos, they won’t tell you how the product feels, which makes a big difference when it’s hanging around your neck, or on your shoulders, for hours at a time. Also, you’ll want to try caps and hoods with your lens. If you’re not happy with the fit (some caps fit better than others, some hoods may fit your lens but vignette badly), find something that works better.

Toss Up:

1. Lenses: This one’s a subject of some debate. Every manufacturer makes some lenses that are very, very good, and a handful that are either mediocre or that flat-out suck. OEM lenses are generally better (even if sometimes only by a hair), but can go for twice as much or more than their aftermarket counterparts. Tokina, Tamron and Sigma each have some lenses that are very close in optical quality to their Nikon/Sony/Canon/Pentax counterparts, while some manufacturers (Zeiss, for instance) routinely make lenses that shame anything made by anyone else, though they have a price tag to match. Research carefully, paying attention to the good and bad that’s said about any lens, and be sure to try them for yourself, since even lenses with decent reviews may not be up to your standards. I found this to be the case with a Tamron 18-270 that I tried a while back; it was, to my eyes, unacceptably soft, and the autofocus was so slow that I could probably have left the shop for coffee only to find the lens still hunting for a focus point when I came back.

2. Gadgets and Peripherals: Even Amazon has now gotten into the game of selling remotes and such for different cameras. In some cases, the price point is low enough that you’d might as well go with the “real” brand (especially cable releases and wireless remotes). An off-brand battery grip might be much less expensive than, say, one by Nikon, but you may also find that there are issues that make the price difference seem much less attractive (build quality, etc.). This can also be true of GPS and WiFi peripherals. Again, shop around and do your homework.

3. Speedlights: Here, I’m going to speak mostly for the brand I know (Nikon): There are a few companies that make less expensive speedlights, but Nikon’s stuff is engineered to work with the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System), which is a big reason that some people choose Nikon over other brands. I suspect (though I’m admittedly going out on a limb here) that other manufacturers’ flashes are probably better built to work with their cameras than a number of the alternatives. With that said, if you’re not picky about how your speedlight works (heck, somebody’s got to be buying this stuff), the savings on an aftermarket product can be significant. One word of warning: DO NOT purchase an older speedlight (or use one you happen to have laying around) for use with a newer camera. Older speedlights can fry the electronics in many newer cameras. Check with the manufacturer, and/or with your local camera shop.

Buy OEM:

1. BATTERIES: If you buy an aftermarket battery, you may save a few (or several) bucks over one with a big  brand name on it. You may also find that it drains faster, overheats or catches fire, or does something else you’d generally rather a battery didn’t do to your camera. Your warranty generally won’t protect you if you’re not using an OEM battery, so be careful here. The same also applies to camera and battery chargers for the same reason.

2. Memory Cards: Check your owner’s manual, since some manufacturers only approve certain cards for use with their cameras. While camera manufacturers generally don’t make their own cards, there are a couple of big brands with a lot of market share (and mind share), like SanDisk and Lexar, and quite a few that make less expensive stuff (PNY, ProMaster, Kingston, Transcend, et. al.). The problem here is that some of them don’t “make” them so much as re-badge other manufacturers’ substandard stuff (if that Class 10 only clocked as a Class 6, it might end up with someone else’s name on it). In short, stick with reputable brands, and spend the extra cash. I’m not going to name names here (I’d rather not put up with a lawsuit), but that’s why you’ve got Google.

3. Filters: Some camera and lens companies, like Nikon and Hoya (which owns Tokina), make filters. Some companies (like Polaroid) license their name to other manufacturers, and other companies aren’t affiliated with anyone in particular. The bigger names are generally your better bets here, since they use better glass and coatings, and manufacture to higher tolerances. Some of the aftermarket options, on the other hand, use inferior or uncoated glass, or inferior manufacturing processes (and the Polaroid filters, in most cases, aren’t even glass; they’re plastic). Since you’ve presumably spent good money on your gear (especially your glass), don’t let your filter be the weak link.

Did I miss something? Have your results varied from what I’ve listed? Let me know in the comments!

Review: The Fuji X10 Camera

The Fuji X10: A flash of brilliance, or a flash in the pan? Read to find out.

Fuji turned a lot of heads last year with the introduction of the X100, a stylish, retro-looking compactish APS-C camera that was about the last thing anyone expected from a company widely viewed as a perpetual also-ran. Despite some quirks (such as a fixed 35mm lens, which some shooters found a bit too limiting) and issues (not least of which were chronic shortages and a poky autofocus system), the company clearly had a hit on their hands. Many people – myself included – wondered if this would be a flash in the pan, or if the company would follow up with something equally promising.

With the Fujifilm X10, it appears as though they’ve done just that. A smaller camera, with a smaller sensor, it nonetheless combines respectable image quality with the same balance of form and function that made its bigger brother a hot commodity. After a week shooting with the X10, here are some early impressions.

Specs and features: The X10 features a 28mm – 112mm equivalent 4x optical zoom (pancake) lens with f/2.0 to f/2.8 aperture, a 2/3” 12mp CMOS sensor, OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), auto bracketing, RAW shooting, 2.8″ 460K dot high contrast LCD screen, magnesium alloy body, macro focusing to 1cm (at 28mm equivalent), 1080p full HD, full manual controls, optical viewfinder, built-in flash plus flash hotshoe, burst rates of 7fps full resolution/10fps at 6mp.

Build: Metal, and lots of it. Metal body, metal control dials, metal housing for the zoom, even a metal lens cap. The build is pleasantly solid, yet the X10 doesn’t feel like an albatross around your neck. Two features on the X10 take some getting used to. First, unlike other cameras in its class (most notably the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100), the X10 features a smooth and precise manual zoom, rather than the motorized zoom more commonly found on compacts. The on-off switch, interestingly, is built into the zoom ring as well. The cam is stiff, but not frustratingly so, and there’s likewise just enough resistance from the on-off switch to keep you from accidentally shutting the camera off, provided you don’t jerk the zoom ring.

The only downsides to the build are small ones. First, when you first pick this camera up, you’ll find yourself looking for buttons (like zoom and power) that aren’t there or have other buttons in their place. Not a flaw, exactly, but something that takes some getting used to. Second, there’s the odd thread size on the lens, which won’t take any filters currently available (the threading is 40.3mm, and the smallest filters I’ve seen are 40.5mm) and requires the purchase of a lens hood/adapter that costs eighty bucks. Nothing like mandatory “accessories.”

Controls and menus:  I’ve heard complaints about the menu layout on Fuji cameras, but I didn’t find it to be an issue here. For one thing, the menus aren’t that much of a nightmare. For another, the wealth of buttons, switches, and dials (P, A, S, M, EXR, user modes and an “Advanced” mode on the main dial, dedicated exposure compensation, a Function softkey, and a handful of other knobbies) on the camera’s exterior means being able to do quite a bit on the fly without having to trudge through menus and submenus to do what you want to do. An assignable function button and two user-programmable modes add even more flexibility. The biggest adjustment – especially once you get used to having your key settings in your viewfinder on an SLR – is having to take your eye away from the finder if you want to adjust your shutter speed or aperture, or double check your metering. While I wasn’t expecting the lovely and innovative hybrid viewfinder from the X100, I would at least have appreciated an AF indicator in-finder. One of my previous film cameras – as luck would have it, a cheap Fuji compact – had the feature, so you’d think this wouldn’t have been an insurmountable challenge.

f/2.5, 1/1000, ISO 100, Macro mode.

Optics: The X10’s lens is “only” a 4x zoom, covering the equivalent of 28-112mm.* That doesn’t sound like much when some available superzooms boast up to 36x zoom. However, it’s a useful range, and by keeping the range reasonable, Fuji avoided the optical compromises that inherently come with superzoom cameras (including their own). There’s slight barrel distortion at the wide end, but it’s easily corrected with the right software. The maximum aperture ranges from f/2.0 to a still-bright f/2.8 at the long end; because of the size of the sensor, f/2 isn’t going to give you quite the same control over depth of field, or the pleasing bokeh, that you’d get from a fast 50mm on an SLR, but it’s useful in low light nonetheless. The minimum aperture is f/11 throughout.

Autofocus: Not SLR fast, and not even Olympus PEN fast. However, compared to many compacts I’ve tried, it’s quick and doesn’t hunt much in low light. It’s also noticeably faster than its notoriously poky bigger brother. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a soccer game, but under normal conditions it performs acceptably well.

Video: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a stills guy. As such, I shot a couple of cursory test videos. They’re about what you’d expect from a camera of this size… fine for home viewing, but unlike, say, a Canon 60D, not something you’d use for cinematic shooting. The stereo condenser mics are merely acceptable, and there’s no jack for an external microphone, so your movies will pick up the noises from zoom and autofocus.

f/5, 1/480, ISO 1600. As expected, there's noise from the ISO setting, but the photo is still useable.

EXR and High ISO Performance: Given that I tend to do a lot of shooting in low light, I wanted something with good (read: low noise) performance in the upper reaches of the ISO range. As it turns out, high ISO shots are good at 800, acceptable through 1,600, questionable at 3,200, and go downhill sharply after that. The EXR setting for High ISO/Low Noise performs quite well in low light, as does an “Advanced Mode” that fires off four shots in sequence and then merges them. Both are useful indoors for situations where you’ve got some light but would prefer not to use flash (especially since the built-in flash has all the limitations you usually get from a built-in flash). The EXR for dynamic range, on the other hand, turned out to be something of a disappointment. After trying a number of metering, exposure and DR settings in EXR with the same results (only a moderate improvement in dynamic range, but nothing that’d knock your socks off), I’m less than impressed.

Image Quality: There are a number of image sizes, compression options, and aspect ratios to choose from if you’re shooting in JPG. While this is a 12MP camera, keep in mind that it’s much smaller than an APS-C sensor, so those are 12 million really tiny pixels.  You won’t be able to crop with the same kind of impunity that you can with, say, a D90. To further complicate things, certain modes (EXR and high-speed burst, for instance) cut the resolution from 12MP to 6MP. While the IQ is still good, it doesn’t leave as much wiggle room in post. RAW shooting is also an option, whether full-time RAW, RAW + JPG, or (using a dedicated RAW button on the camera body) the ability to shoot single RAW frames. RAW processing can be handled in-camera, or via the software that comes bundled with the camera.

The X10 has a few different saturation settings that simulate Provia, Velvia, and Astia film, in addition to filtered black and white modes, and control over noise reduction. The film simulations are competent, the black and whites pleasing, and the NR a decidedly mixed bag; as with most other cameras, the more NR that’s applied, there’s a loss of detail, but there’s also a change in the overall color cast of the photos when too much is applied. Auto White Balance is generally reliable, though there are presets for certain lighting situations, and custom WB is quick and easy on this camera.

The Short Version:

Pros: Top-notch build quality; optical finder; a mostly well-corrected lens that’s fast throughout the zoom range; good low-light performance; thoughtful, discrete design; good image quality; minimal shutter lag; SLR-worthy burst rates at full resolution; whisper-quiet performance.

Cons: It’s nice to have a viewfinder (for me it’s mandatory, actually), but this finder’s lack of AF indicator, lack of parallax correction, and 85% coverage have been a bit frustrating.  While the AF is much improved over the X100, this isn’t a camera for sports shooting (unless it’s competitive chess).  The metering can be a bit iffy in less-than-optimal lighting (not consistently, but it does happen). Also, battery life –whether you’re using the Fuji NP 50 battery that ships with the camera or the Kodak KLIC-7004 which also happens to fit – is rated at a merely “meh” 250 shots.**

f/10, 1/110, ISO 400. Note the slight barrel distortion.

In Conclusion: Let’s not forget the price. I’m certainly not listing it under Pros (right now, the camera has a street price of $600.00, not counting the price gouging from some vendors that comes from a product being more in demand than in supply), but I’d have an equally hard time calling it a Con. You either need what this camera offers (the build quality, the faster lens, manual zoom, larger sensor, brighter optical finder, good performance at high ISO) or you don’t. If you need it, and have some idea what these things add to the cost of a camera, you likely understand why the camera costs what it does. If you don’t need those things, it stops being an expensive camera because you likely would’ve bought something else anyway.

A fair amount of whether this camera (or any other, really) “works” for you comes down to your expectations, and the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make. If you’re expecting the Fuji X10 have the same level of performance as a Micro 4/3 camera, much less an SLR, you will be disappointed, the same as you’d be if you expected a spork to perform like a Swiss Army knife. If, however, you approach the camera on its own terms, remaining mindful of what it is and what it’s designed to do, it’s a perfectly competent – and in many ways, quite good – piece of kit.

*There’s a digital zoom option that extends this to 8x, but camera shake (even with image stabilization turned on) and digital crop on an already smallish sensor makes this a last resort rather than a go-to option. If you really need 8x zoom, get a camera that’s built to do it optically.

**Real world results — that is to say, yours — may vary. On its first couple of uses, the battery that shipped with the camera actually shot less than that, while the older, broken in, Kodak batteries I was using as backup actually managed to surpass it by a bit. Other steps, like turning off automatic review and not using maximum illumination on the LCD, can further stretch battery life. If you’re using this as a backup or supplement to an SLR, though, you’re going to have to get used to changing batteries much more often.

The Fuji X10 Manual (PDF format)

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks for your support!

Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Gear

I'm with ftupide

If you’re already a photographer, you don’t need me to remind you that the costs for even a basic setup can add up quickly. The good news is, if you wanted to tack a few extras onto your holiday list — or even if you’re searching for a stocking stuffer for the photographer who has (nearly) everything — you can do it without breaking the bank. Here’s the “Hard Times” edition of the holiday gift guide:

  • Giottos Medium Rocket Air Blaster: These come in a number of sizes and prices. As camera equipment goes, they’re pretty cheap (the standard size usually retails for between ten and fifteen bucks), and they’re higher quality. I’ve heard that some of the off-brand versions have talcum powder or some other, similar, substance inside their blowers to keep the rubber from sticking to itself, which creates about as much of a mess as you’d expect. Given that this isn’t an expensive item to start with, pay the extra.
  • Nikon 7072 Lens Pen: Lens pens come in a few varieties. Some will have a soft felt tip, others a small brush with soft bristles; others still will have both, one at each end. The brushes are good for things that settle in crevices around your camera, in your eyepiece, or in your lense’s filter threads. The felt end, in the meantime, is handy for the stubborn stuff the brush won’t take care of. I recommend this particular one because I own it; if it had some other logo on it than the brand I currently shoot with, it’d still be as competent. If the lens pen by itself isn’t quite enough, consider a lens cleaning kit.
  • Microfiber Cleaning Cloth: Similar to the cloth used for glasses, this is a soft cloth that’s good if you have a larger area you want to clean. It’s good for your lenses and filters, and even works well in getting nose grease off your LCD.
  • FishBomb Lens Filter and Accessory Case is a smallish neoprene pouch with pockets on either side that close with velcro closures. There’s a loop at the top, so you can slip the bottom part of the case through the loop in order to secure it to a belt, camera strap, or camera bag. Its compactness is both good and bad; on one hand, it won’t fit a ton (it fits two 67mm filters comfortably), but on the other, it takes up a lot less room in my camera bag than the plastic cases the filters originally came in.
  • The Tamrac S.A.S. MXS536801 Memory and Battery Management Wallet"", like most things Tamrac, features competent, no-frills construction.  Mine currently holds  . It’s good for the times you want to travel light, taking little more than a backup battery and cards, and is also good for corraling your batteries if you’re using a speedlight.
  • The Promaster Xtrapower Traveler turned out to be a lot better than I expected, handling batteries from a few different SLRs. It also includes a USB power “out” jack, enabling you to stash a handful of cords for anything capable of charging through USB, meaning one charger instead of a pile of transformers taking up space in your bags.
  • Finally, something that’s not a piece of equipment, but that has the potential to be just as useful: if you have a camera shop in your area, see if they offer classes. Most do, in addition to single-day workshops and trips to local destinations for photo opportunities that the average person might not otherwise be able to get to on their own (one shop local to me recently did a shoot in an old penitentiery).

A word to the non-photographers among you: Most photographers are a picky lot when it comes to their gear. Buying decisions usually come after considerable research, reading, and debate. When all else fails, a gift certificate to the local camera shop may be your best bet.

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks for your support!

So. Who REALLY Makes the Best Camera?

Whalehead Club, Dusk

A strange thing happens when you’re out in public with an SLR around your neck: people think you know something about photography. One question I’ve gotten a lot, with variations, is, “So, is Nikon better than Canon/Sony/Olympus/Minolta?”*

The short answer I usually give is “No.” This usually causes people to look at me funny, and I can kinda understand why; I mean, if I don’t think they’re better, how come I didn’t buy some other brand? The somewhat longer answer (which follows if I get That Look) is that Nikon is a bit better. For me.

Your mileage may vary.

The somewhat-longer-still answer:

When you’re buying a camera, there’s quite a bit to take into consideration: build quality, processing speed, video quality (if you’re into that sort of thing), JPG processing if you’re not shooting RAW, pentamirror vs. pentaprism, weather sealing, ergonomics, battery life, available lenses and the quality thereof, et cetera, et cetera. There’s not a single brand that’s had an unbroken run of successes; all but the most diehard Leica fanboys will tell you the M8 was a dog, for instance, and every other manufacturer has released cameras and lenses that had their share of quirks, if not serious flaws.

Generally speaking, however, these are precision pieces of equipment, built to some pretty high specs. As long as we’re comparing apples to apples (it’s no fair comparing one company’s compacts against another’s SLR’s), there aren’t usually enormous variations in quality.** It all comes down to finding what works for you. Some cameras feel better in the hands than others, some may have easier menu navigation and button layout, or features you’re not willing to live without (or that you wouldn’t care if the camera spit them out tomorrow).

Differences in sensors and processors, meantime, are a bit like the differences between shooting with Kodachrome or Velvia back in the day. The photos coming out of a Sony will look different from those coming out of a Nikon (even though both use Sony sensors), and the photos from your compact Kodak will look different than those from a Leica (even though both use Kodak sensors).

So which brand is better? No one brand is objectively better than the others,** but they are different, and there are subjective differences among them that mean you’ll probably like one over the others. And that’s okay.

*Now that I don’t have the yellow-and-black Nikon neckstrap on anymore, I’m curious if I’ll get that question a bit less. I’m starting to understand why sometimes I see experienced photographers putting black gaffer’s tape over the manufacturer’s logo on their cameras.

**Two caveats here: First of all, I’m dealing with bodies and not lenses/accessories, though even there I’d be assuming OEM and not aftermarket stuff; there are enormous differences between some aftermarket manufacturers, both vis-à-vis each other and versus their OEM counterparts. Second, there are exceptions here. For example, Canon has set the pace with SLR video, (though Sony’s SLR’s and a couple of Panasonic’s Micro 4/3 offerings are beginning to erase that distinction), and there are still photographers who shoot Nikon just because of the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System, which is a fancy name for their speedlights).

Getting the Most out of Photo Equipment Reviews


I’m a researcher. Not by trade, mind you, just out of habit. If there’s something I like, I learn more. If there’s something about which I’m curious, I find out what I can about it. And if I’m going to spend my hard-earned money on it, you can bet your hard-earned money that I’m going to do my homework first. This is vital with camera gear for a number of reasons, and I’d like to give you a few pointers out of getting the most out of your research so you can get more out of your money while you’re at it.

The first step needs to start with you, before you even start doing your research. Namely, you need to figure out not only what you need, but also what you need it for. Having a ton of information’s not going to get you very far if it’s the wrong information, or all the right information on precisely the wrong piece of equipment. To simplify this a little, let’s assume you’re in the market for a new lens. The first issue is whether you own a lens of that type (let’s say it’s a long telephoto) currently. If so, you need to ask yourself why you need the new one, and be honest. In what ways would it represent a step up from what you’ve got? Reliability? Performance (i.e. more reach than what you currently own)? Or is it just the allure of owning the newest whatzit on the market? If not, what limitations are you noticing on your photography because of what you own now? Are those limitations the result of the gear, or is there something that you could/should be doing differently with the existing equipment that you’re not doing now? And so on… The point is, be clear not only on what you’re buying, but why you’re buying it. Sometimes this results in talking yourself out of a new piece of equipment for one or more reasons, but just as often it means knowing what to look out for while you’re doing your research.

Let’s say, then, that you’ve decided what you need and why you need it. You’re in the market for a long telephoto because the 18-55 that came with your camera has been fine within its limits, but it doesn’t reach quite far enough. After careful consideration, you start researching your options. One of the best ways to do this is not by visiting a single site, but several of them. Below, I’ve listed a few types of sites (with examples), and the reason why you need to visit at least one of each over the course of your research.

Start with the manufacturer’s website. The manufacturer isn’t going to give you an unbiased review of the piece (it’s the job of the Marketing folks to try to sell you more crap whether you need it or not, after all), but at the very least, you’ll find out your options (some of which you may not otherwise have considered, or even been aware of) and the specs for each. This can save you the trouble of having to redo the other steps that follow because you forgot, or missed, a viable option.

Next thing you’ll want to do is check up on one of the more established photography magazines or websites. Popular Photography,, the BJP (British Journal of Photography) and others of their ilk generally get their hands on the equipment first, and will usually subject it to rigorous testing.* These tests are based less on informal/anecdotal evidence than on standardized tests that will look for things like distortion, chromatic aberrations, and precise measurement of things like autofocus times. You can skip straight to the conclusion of the review, where the reviewer will usually lay out the pros and cons of a particular piece in short form, or go through the entire thing for a detailed explanation. Take notes. There’s a quiz later (I’m kidding. Probably.)

Having done that, I’d now suggest going where the consumers are, on sites like Amazon, B&H, and Adorama. Pay attention to what you find. If an issue is only mentioned once or twice in 100 reviews, you can probably chalk it up to sample variation. If, on the other hand, 48 of those same 100 say that a lens vignettes at its wide end, or has consistent color fringing, that’s something to pay attention to, because it’s much more likely to be something baked into that lens’s DNA. Also take into consideration the reviewer’s skill/experience level. Sometimes a less-experienced photographer may praise a piece of equipment because they don’t know what flaws to look for, or may give it a poor review because they don’t have the experience to put it to better use; a more experienced photographer is going to have a somewhat more discerning eye, and is also generally going to be able to use a piece as intended.

Another great resource is Flickr, since you can sort photos by camera body and lens used. Test charts have their uses, but there’s nothing like being able to see real-world results taken with the body/lens combination you’re researching. These aren’t reviews in the traditional sense, but they’re very useful information, and the discussion that takes place on some of the forums can be a lot more useful than the number of stars something’s gotten.

Perhaps most importantly, once you’ve done your research and your mind’s just about made up, get to a camera shop. Test the stuff. Take plenty of shots so you can get a feel for the piece before you buy.** I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to indie camera shops, but you’ve got someone right there who can answer your questions, you can try the gear before buying it, and if you come across a lousy sample or two, you can try others ’til you come across one that fits your needs, rather than mailing stuff back and forth to your online retailer of choice.

To sum things up: I don’t think there’s a single information source out there that’s a magic bullet. There’s no way you can safely visit just one site or store and then just decide you’re done. Your best bet is to check out multiple sources, aggregate your results, and follow what your sources, your gut, and your experience tell you.

*I say “usually” because I’ve seen occasions when they assigned a review to someone who had an obvious bias toward one brand over another, or not enough experience with something to be able to really provide useful information about it.

**I recently wandered into a camera shop to buy a strap, and was looking at a third party wide-angle lens. The person who tried to sell it to me assured me that it had “practically no distortion.” I asked if he minded me taking some shots to try it out. He didn’t. I tried a couple of shots of the shelves, and something looked a bit “off.” So, just for the hell of it, I aimed for the drop ceiling in the store and fired off a few shots at varying focal lengths. Without blowing them up, I saw some pretty serious barrel distortion. Needless to say, I didn’t buy the lens, and will avoid that salesman the next time I go to that shop.