Monday, 17 October 2011

How I Upgraded My Photography Kit

Photographing around the London music scene takes it’s toll. Especially when you’re also a performer. And a drinker. It’s a rigorous environment with camera passing from hand to bag to comrade to hand and back. Where lenses perch on damp drinks shelves while you swap to some other focal length. Where things have a habit of spilling. My D200 lasted just about 5 years. I had to upgrade on a starting budget of absolute zero.

I still split my time between film and digital, so to this point lenses that work happily on both were a priority. I was of the opinion that the majority of AFs were darker than their manual counterparts and that the AF systems were sluggish and unreliable. But wondered if the latest innovations of Silent Wave Motors, Vibration Reduction and nano-coating might add up to something significantly better than my old, but much respected, manual focus AIs lenses.

It seemed time to make a major change.

First I had to sort the budget. I decided the way to go was to sell some kit. Some hard decisions were needed as most of it has been collected over years and each piece was associated with particular shots I’d taken. First I decided to sacrifice the 300mm f/2.8 AIs Nikkor with TC-301 matched 2x converter. A really specialist piece of kit that I had given £400 pounds for about 4 years prior. Then there was my exceptionally ugly 35mm PC-Nikkor, not a general purpose lens by any sense. These were pieces of kit that meant I could create images that were utterly unique as very, very few people were using these in their arsenals. That said neither had seen active service in well over 6 months and I hoped the day to day use I would get from the upgraded kit would make up for the loss.

The combined reserve prices would give me a budget of £650 to cover selling fees and a replacement body for the D200.

For a while I was distracted by flirtations with bodies like the D7000, but I played hard ball with my rule of thumb – do not buy from Nikon’s ‘hobbyist’ ranges. So realistically that limited me to the D300 in Nikon’s current range. But I knew I wanted something more rugged, considering the D200’s fate, so I investigated the D2x – top of the range, last generation. This felt like a solid compromise.

I tracked the D2x sales on eBay while my auctions were progressing. My first thought was to buy with the lowest possible shutter actuation count. D2x shutters are designed to be good for 250,000 actuations at least.  Shutter actuation count is a great indication of the work the camera has been put through. It became apparent that the shutter count to price equation was non-linear. Very low-counts cost disproportionally more. I then realised that if I took account of the number of shots I’m likely to add to the camera I can get a sense of the resale value of a camera in say 2 to 3 years time. The market value will depress anyway but it's still better to think of selling a car that hasn’t been around the clock than one that has... I spent a fortnight dogging eBay sellers with questions about shutter count until I was able to draw a graph:

This graph told me that at around 50,000 actuations (20% of the shutter life) I could get a good compromise between price and controlling devaluation. The auctions had fetched me £620. The body I bought had 55,000 actuations and cost me £550. I fell instantly in love with it.

So much so I wanted to buy it pretty things. Flushed with my eBay success I decided it was time to upgrade my 105mm AIs f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor.

I’d bought this for £150 and I have always been stunned by its clarity. It sported a filter ring from a UV protection filter that had long ago been smashed. I’d had to pick the broken glass out with tweezers and the damaged filter ring had never been removable since. It was a real workhorse of a lens and still had plenty of life left in it for anyone on a budget. This was the lens I decided to upgrade. I wanted a 105mm Micro-Nikkor AF-S IF-ED f/2.8G VR N.

When you buy any f/2.8 Nikkor you know you’re getting a very decent lens. But not all of them, and I had always considered gelding a lens to be a cost cutting exercise that may well signify a less than professional specification and build quality. I was highly dubious of the G series of lenses.  Everything else in the lens specification though told me that this was Nikon at the top of their game. I wouldn’t sell the AIs version until I was totally happy with it.

To fund this lens I decided I didn’t really need two film cameras. I have a Leica IIIb which again is a relatively unique piece of kit, meaning images I form with it will implicitly hold my own signature. It was time to sell the FM3a, and with it my 50mm f/1.2 AIs. The 50mm, as opposed to the 55mm variant, is a great optic design and this is a relatively uncommon lens. But at f/1.2 it is damn near impossible to focus on the lively subjects on stage, and its optical geometry meant that in most venues it just wasn’t often useful. I much more commonly swap between 24mm and 105mm. Since I was transitioning to very modern, high tech, Nikon kit I also decided my quirky PB-4 bellows extension can go. These together brought me £900.

With that I bought the 105mm VR, and I can say it has more than lived up to the promise. I even had change to buy an SB-600 flash gun. I considered the SB-800, but preferred the shorter recycle time of the SB-600 on 4 batteries. I kind of hate flash, it creates a lot of post-processing work, but there are times in the basement venues of London when the choice is flash or don’t shoot. So I was glad to plug this gap, since the D2x wasn’t so undignified as to house a pentaprism pop-up flash unit, like the D200.

The new kit is delivering a really clear step-up in the technical quality of the shots and the novelty has totally re-invigorated my approach to photography. Now I can’t believe I have been letting quality expensive kit sit on my shelf for months on end when I could have re-invested in the kit I now have. Not one piece of that hard won equipment is now missed, good luck to those on tighter budgets who have come to inherit them.

I’m on a journey now, having just returned from a 2 hour round trip to pick up a 17-55mm f/2.8 G DX – a gelded zoom, and DX designed! 6 months ago the very thought would have been sacrilege to me, but I guess the technicians have finally delivered something to beat the ground breaking optics of the 1970s Nikkors.

In all this trading I have lost the equipment that allowed me to shoot long and dark (300mm f/2.8) and to get macro close (PB-4 bellows) but these are infrequent concerns for me, the greatest part of my day to day photography is much improved – not so much a compromise, more of an all round win.