Here is an interesting question. Being a minimalist I obviously don’t get into collecting loads of stuff. I think I am not naturally inclined towards GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) anyway. The most cameras and lenses I ever had at any one time? Not sure. I guess 4 cameras and 4 or 5 lenses. That might sound like a lot to a casual shooter but it is not much especially for someone into film photography. I think the analogue shooters are famed for having tons of gear. Not least cause so much of it is inexpensive. I had 3 old manual Minolta camera bodies and the lenses were only between 50 and 100 bucks each. As well as that I had a Sony A6000 and one or two Sigma AF lenses. Anyway, I didn’t need that many cameras. I was maybe on the verge of becoming a collector. Maybe.
My gear has changed over the years. I started with Nikon and now I find myself back with them again. I have shot Canon, Fuji and Sony in the digital line up but Nikon ”feels like home”. I learned most of what I know on an old Nikon D7000. I used it so much it became like an extension of me. I even bought it twice since I sold the first one. Incredibly then the second one was stolen. Maybe someone out there is telling me to move on.
Currently, after the theft of cameras, I have only very basic stuff. Of course it is still possible to produce a masterpiece of art on it, but the flexibility is severely limited. It doesn’t provide me with what I believe are the essential tools. I have a Nikon D90 close to the end of its life, a Nikon F801s film camera (they are only around 40 euro on ebay), and a Minolta X700, which is damaged. I can shoot with it but half the pictures will come out with a white line down through them. Quite the waste of money on the film and processing! As regards lenses, I have the cheap but good old 50mm AF D lens, the 85 mm 1.8 AF D, which has a focusing problem that makes the AF unusable! And a Minolta 35-70 3.5 for the X700. A nice little lens.
So how do I improve this? What do I need? Well I have learned quite a lot about what is needed, over the years, to get the pictures I want and it can be narrowed down. First let’s look at the basics for those who are not in the know…
There are prime lenses and zoom lenses. Primes are generally better in low light and have more blurred backgrounds which can look great in portraits. They are also mostly inexpensive compared to zooms that produce images of the same quality. There is no doubt that zooms are versatile but they can be heavy and costly to get anywhere near as sharp a picture as from a prime. Many portrait, documentary and street photographers survive fine with just primes. If they want to get closer, they simply change lenses. Of course, having a second camera body on you during an actual shoot is essential, in my opinion, but I will get back to that. There is something special about primes. It feels more targeted. The frame is what it is. You can’t zoom in and out so you move and position yourself the best way possible. As a result, your portfolio can have a look about it that is consistent because you always use the same couple of prime lenses. Fitting the world into these frames which each have their own personality, is challenge but very rewarding.
Now, from my shooting, I have come to realise I basically need 3 prime lenses. A fourth lens, a zoom, can be useful as mentioned above but I would not spend a lot of money on one. Something mid-range that is good value for money and produces a little above average results. Nothing incredible. Something to ”hammer nails with” like the kit lenses you usually get when you buy a DSLR these days. There are older kit lenses for full frame cameras from the 90s that can be surprisingly good and are very cheap. It’s tempting but they are bulky and heavy. I am not counting that here as something I want to definitely get. I am also not considering that one day I could very well take an interest in shooting wildlife. That would put me down another path.
The 3 lenses cover 2 focal lengths that I have carefully thought about and consider to be the most useful to me. This is subjective of course. Others would want very different lenses. For example, if you shoot wildlife you would likely want much longer focal lengths than I am talking about. Anyway, they are:
28mm or 35mm lens
50 mm lens
85 mm lens
That’s it! With that I know I can get the results I want in 90 percent of situations. The wide angle is great for street photography and a little ”landscape” stuff, which I honestly try to avoid. It is also very effective at giving a cinematic look which I am keen on. Furthermore, although not traditionally for portraits, wide angles can be used for environmental portraits where you want the background to be integral to the shot. Consider a picture of a mechanic in their garage leaning against a car they are working on. Everything being in focus, with the mechanic in the centre, is a very effective shot. Wide angles also give nice perspectives such as when you shoot up into the canopy of trees. I went through a phase of that in the past. I want to also point out that for this lens, it does not need to be really sharp wide open. Lenses have apertures which open and close to allow more and less light in, very importantly to have more of the scene in focus or more blurred backgrounds to a subject. I have noticed, from experience, that apart from some very close up work where blurred background can be very interesting, street photography and the portraits I just mentioned lend themselves best to as much being in focus as possible. The wider a lens opens, generally, the more expensive it is (and bigger). Since I don’t need a lens that opens wide, I am happy with a 2.8 or even 3.5. You can get 28 or 35 mm lenses that open all the way to 1.4. I plan to shoot at F11 minimum. (Don’t worry if you don’t understand the terminology. It’s just a number system that indicates how much light gets in to the camera and effects the pictures). I would be happy to have the 35 F2 AF D lens. It’s a bit of a classic but in the meantime I am going to pick up a very cheap Sigma 28mm lens for 40 euro just to fully explore the possibilities of the focal length and have fun with it. Learn this way.
So, next up is the 50mm. The nifty fifty, as it is often called. It is very standard. So standard and ordinary it is honestly a bit bland. Still it is very useful for one thing in particular, full body and 3/4 body portraits. It is neither too close nor two far and the person looks… normal. This focal length works well. They are also small and inexpensive so are just handy to have with you all the time. I honestly can’t say much more about them. I shoot these ones mainly wide open where the subject will be isolated from the background. We get that blur I mentioned before. The great photographer Bresson shot at 50mm almost exclusively and made it work so it’s not bad for street photography at all. Just not my choice. I have no plans to replace my 50mm lens with a more advanced one either.
Finally is the king of portrait lenses, the 85mm. I have owned a few. It pains me to say it because now they are gone. I had an Nikkor 85mm 1.8 G and a Rokinon 85mm 1.4 lens. Both were excellent in their own ways. I so regret losing them. I should never have sold the Nikon or brought the Rokinon back to the shop. Anyway, this year I bought a Nikkor 85 1.8 AF D. The predecessor to the G lens, cheaper but still very good. Unfortunately I got it over ebay and it had a fault, as mentioned before. I can use, maybe. I need to practice shooting manual focus or find a way to deal with the auto focusing problem. And the use for this lens? Well it is ideal for portrait work of all kinds really. You can do full body all the way to headshots with this lens and it looks great. 50 mm creates distortion which is not flattering on headshots. With 85mm, it is not noticeable. Also the background is more blurred out than the 50 at the same aperture. Can be very effective. I had the idea of shooting at F8 or higher for headshots where the background doesn’t need to be blurred out. At that aperture, the focusing problem is less of an issue. Anyway, I plan to replace this with another 85mm. Maybe with a new copy. They are around 250 euro. Not bad.
Now, let’s talk about cameras. Big topic. Let’s point out a very important distinction first. SLRs (cameras with mirrors that you can change the lenses on) are generally divided into two types: Full frame and crop. The former is usually better and used more by professionals, I think it’s fair to say, unless you shoot wildlife for a living. The latter does something very significant when you attach a lens to it. Instead of getting a full view, you get only part of the view of the full frame. This is where ”crop” comes from. It’s like someone has cropped into the larger image. What you get is interesting. The frame becomes tighter. It’s like you have zoomed in a bit. So, when you put a 50mm lens on a crop Nikon camera you have a field of view which is actually 75mm. 50 and 75 are rather different looking! Too important to overlook. Such a difference changes an image dramatically, as you can imagine. Especially the wider you go.
Bearing this in mind, I am trying to get out of using crop cameras completely. Right now I have one full and one crop. It’s actually a bit confusing and counterproductive. I will give you an example. Let’s say I put the 28mm on the crop and have the 50mm on the full. When I look through the crop camera I am actually seeing a field of view of 42mm. That’s pretty close to 50, isn’t it? Yes, it’s too close! Granted even if it were 50mm field of view on the crop, it would have other slight differences in look but nothing so fundamental. See how it gets messy? of course if both cameras are crop it is OK but crop has other disadvantages especially for portraits. Full frame does better in low light and has more blurred background. The full frames do tend to be built better also and suited for a lot of use by pros. Exceptions exist for sure, but as a general rule of thumb.
There is an argument to be made for having a crop camera as well as a full frame one to exploit different fields of view you otherwise wouldn’t have, but I have thought all that through and it is not a benefit for me now.
So, since I have a soft spot for film and think I can get very nice film pictures too, I need to always have a working analogue camera. Right now I have only one fully functioning one that is a bit of a cheapo. I will probably upgrade to a better film camera but it is not a priority. Also, they are cheap. I can get a really good one for less than 150 euro. Obviously I will stay with Nikon so the lenses for the digital work on the film one too. Incidentally these film SLRs are all full frame cameras. Crop is only a digital thing.
The big purchase will be the full frame digital camera. I am aiming to buy a Nikon D600 or D610. They are pretty expensive. A different level than the other stuff. I want one though and think I can progress to the next level at this stage. I see how crop is holding me back in ways. It’s time for a change too.
Right now I have the D90 and that is also the reason I am getting the 28mm. On the D90 it will be similar to a 42mm lens which is actually not bad for street photography. Little more breathing room than 50. On my full frame film camera then it should be lovely too.
It is highly useful to have two cameras especially if it’s a paid assignment. In case one malfunctions and when using primes you can have one camera permanently at one focal length and another one with the other. It can be very useful.
So here is the overview…. When I have these I am going to take a back seat from buying any more gear for a few years.
Current analogue camera – Phase 1
85mm 1.8 (manual)
Desired cameras and lenses – Phase 2
Nikon F3 or F100 c.150 euro (not priority)
Nikon D610 (or similar)
Nikkor 28mm or 35mm F2 lens or similar
Nikkor 85mm 1.8 G or similar
Sigma Mini Wide 28mm 2.8 lens
So tell me what cameras and lenses you consider indispensable for your kind of shooting and why?