Which lens?

This is the beginning of a large article that I have written for my website. Read the rest of it on www.nature-images.eu.

Lenses are the most important part of photography equipment. Many beginners and non-photographers are surprised to hear this, but this is true: Only the level of colour noise depends on the camera; all other aspects of image quality are entirely associated with the performance of lenses. Although cameras are very complicated electronic devices, lenses are optical, electromechanical and electronic devices at the same time, hence they require a much more sophisticated engineering and manufacturing. Digital camera models have much shorter life cycles than lenses. Usually manufacturers need about a decade to make significant improvements to a lens that was already nearly perfect. Absolutely new and technically innovative lens designs appear very rarely. Cameras have a much shorter development cycle: Their models usually get updated more frequently — every 5 years at most; new and better models of cameras are even released every two or three years. Therefore, when we purchase a lens, we do it for at least 10 years, till we are forced to upgrade by competition and by technical progress. With cameras it happens much earlier. Therefore, if selected carefully, lenses serve longer than much of the rest of our equipment. Only supports (tripods, etc.) are more timeless.

Usually lenses are also the most expensive items in our equipment kit. While many have only 2 or even just one camera body, no serious photographer has just 1 lens per camera. 3 was the minimum number of lenses owned by the photographers whom I knew so far. I currently have 8 lenses. The cost of several lenses usually exceeds the cost of a camera many times.

Cameras are rather than lenses “many-purpose tools”: With the same camera you can photograph various subjects, in various photography areas and genres, while a certain lens is usually needed for a certain subject and genre.

All this makes the process of choosing lenses much more difficult than of cameras. While technical specification and a couple of independent reviews are usually enough for making a judgement about a camera, for a correct decision to purchase a certain lens you need to know very well your needs, be clear about ambitions and plans for the future, have a lot of practical experience with other lenses. When people are asking me for lens recommendations, I am, of course, saying: “Get the best lens you can afford!” This is my usual answer of the question “What lens I should buy?”, and I explained the reasons of it in my earlier article — Choosing the Camera Brand. Unlike with many other things that may be overpriced, the price of a lens is usually a good indicator of its quality: Expensive lenses are usually better than cheap although many cheap lenses are quite good. A much more difficult question is “Which one?” Every lens has its specifics, and the choice of lenses depends on a number factors that may be different for different photographers. Therefore, a universally applicable and straightforward answer isn’t possible to give.

This article should be a general overview of choices a photographer has and of recommendations based on my own experience and knowledge. However, I am not going to give definite recipes — “To shoot this, take this lens…” It is the reader who should draw conclusions and make decisions.

Although I use Canon equipment I am mentioning lenses for both Canon and Nikon cameras. This shouldn’t be understood as a recommendation to choose either of the brands but only as an example of lenses with a certain focal length.

What about Sony?

Sony is a very innovative and very promising brand of photographic equipment. However, most lenses for Sony cameras are made by other manufacturers. Although some lenses are really good, there is not a so wide variety of them as for Nikon and Canon. Therefore Sony even recommends to use lenses made for other systems via an adapter with their α series of full-frame cameras with interchangeable lenses.
When I was writing this article Sony was still rarely used by nature photographers. Therefore, I didn’t discuss the lenses for this platform in depth. However, everything I have written here is valid for Sony too.

Parameters and Characteristics

There is a usual misconception that in certain areas and genres of photography lenses with certain technical characteristics are to be used. I often see people writing or saying that, for instance, a 14mm lens is a “landscape lens” and a 100mm one is “for portraits”, etc. This is an extremely simplistic and counterproductive point of view. In reality a photographer chooses a lens not according to the subject but according to the way how he wants it to be depicted. Landscapes can be photographed with ultra wide-angle and with super telephoto as well. Portraits shot with wide-angle lenses often look more dynamic and impressive than those that were shot with a telephoto lens.

The focal length is the most evident technical characteristic and the key parameter for choosing a lens. According to my observations, a photographer decides to get a new lens much more often because he needs a lens with a certain focal length. Therefore, also in this article I structured the discussion of lenses based on this characteristic. The focal length of a lens can be either constant (fixed) or variable. The short name commonly used for lenses with variable focal length is zoom, and lenses with fixed focal length are usually referred to as prime. I described the advantages and disadvantages of both these kinds of lenses in the article Prime vs. Zoom. Actually the biggest practical difference between them is in the need for the photographer to move which greater with prime lenses. Therefore, it is easy to decide which type of lens if better for you: If you can’t or don’t want to move a lot when you are photographing, a zoom lens is what you need.

Since a single zoom lens can have a wide range of focal lengths, it is difficult to discuss them together with prime lenses. Therefore, I am going to maintain the division between prime and zoom lenses also in this article and treat them separately.

Once the need for focal length is clear, other parameters apply in the following order:

  1. Special features and capabilities, such as tilt-shift, fisheye, zoom, work distance, etc.;
  2. Resolution;
  3. Contrast and colour rendering;
  4. Aperture range (maximum and minimum);
  5. Out-of-focus rendering (bokeh);
  6. Level of chromatic aberrations and flare;
  7. Distortion, vignetting;
  8. Autofocus;
  9. Image stablisation;
  10. Protection against dust and moisture;
  11. Build quality, brand.

Once you know what focal length you need, technical specialities and features is the next important thing for lens choosing. In some cases, you have to decide, for instance, if the lens should be with mechanically adjustable optical system — so-called, “tilt-shift”, or if it should be a fisheye type lens, or if you only should need a zoom lens for you work and not a prime… Also you may need to make a decision about focusing distance that you subject would require. This parameter is very different even in the lenses with the same focal length. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers clearly show it in the technical details of their lenses probably because they think that it isn’t an important information. In some areas of nature photography this parameter may play an important role however. For instance, a very short focusing, or working, distance is required for making close-up photographs of small animals so that the surroundings are also visible in the resulting image. Another parameter magnification ratio that is usually stated in the description of lenses is related to minimal focusing distance.

When you know all this and know how much money you can spend, it’s time to start looking for the best lens that fits into this framework of requirements and limits. When assessing and comparing the quality of various alternatives, resolution is the most important quality aspect that photographers normally look at. The resolution results in sharpness, so when someone is talking about a “sharp” lens, he is meaning that this lens has good resolution, i.e. can capture finer details. There are at least three reasons to want the highest resolution. First, the more detailed the image the larger can be the presentation of it, i.e. the larger can be the print of it, or the higher the resolution of the screen it will be displayed on. Of course, modern computer screens or projectors have still a much lower resolution than cameras. However, it is increasing rapidly. For the time of writing, so-called “4K” monitors, i.e. capable of displaying a 8Mp image at 100% size, were already entering the mass market. The first “5K” screen was released 2014 capable of displaying 14.7 Mp. This means that your 14 Mp photographs can be presented on it without size reduction. Certainly, it isn’t the limit, and the resolution of screens will continue to grow. Also new high-resolution or very large display media will appear in the future. Therefore, if you want your images still to look good on large format prints and electronic media in the next decades, you have to produce them with maximum possible resolution already now.

The second reason is related to resolution of the recording media, i.e. of the imaging sensors of our cameras. Lenses made for film cameras don’t provide adequate resolution for modern digital camera sensors. Although adapters for such lenses are still available, using them even with 5 Mp cameras doesn’t make sense. The same problem arises with low-end lenses that were produced for digital photography when you attempt to use them with high resolution cameras. Currently only the best lenses can provide adequate resolution for 35 Mp or 50 Mp sensors of modern full-frame cameras. Due to the natural limitation caused by the optical phenomenon of diffraction it is unlikely that the lens resolution will grow in future far beyond the already achieved maximum. However, we can expect the majority of cameras to have 30-50 Mp sensors very soon. This means that low-quality lenses that we buy now won’t be useable anymore.

The third reason why you need maximum resolution is more typical for wildlife photography. Too often images of wild animals need to be cropped during postprocessing for better composition. This happens, for instance, because the animal has moved in the frame before you released the shutter or because the distance was too large so that the subject appears too small in the photograph. Obviously, the more detailed is the image the more space is available for cropping. Cropping leads to enlargement of the rest of the image because the physical dimensions of the output medium remain constant. For instance, if you planned a print on a 60×70 cm paper sheet but cropped the digital original by 15%, thus reducing its size, the paper sheet size will still remain the same. In the consequence, only 15% less content will be printed, or in other words, the remaining 75% of the original instead of 100% will be stretched to fit the 60×70 cm large medium. Everything in the image will be enlarged by 15% in that case. As a result, a not very sharp and not very detailed image will then look even worse.

The best lenses provide a more or less uniformly sharp image all over the frame surface. However, not very many are so. The wider the lens the more prone it is to sharpness fall off at frame borders and in the corners. Also aperture plays a role: The majority of lenses deliver the sharpest images at apertures that are at least 1 stop smaller than the maximum and 1 stop larger than the minimum while the sharpness improves further towards the middle of this range. For instance, a good lens that has f/1.4 maximum and f/16 minimum aperture would be sharper in the range between f/2.0 and f/11. The best sharpness will be at the aperture around f/2.8-f/8. A wider range of sharpness is another reason that makes us wish lenses with wide maximum aperture. Lenses with aperture starting at f5.6 will usually be good only at f/8 and f/11. While in wide angle lenses f/16 is the most used aperture, in telephoto lenses the sharpness may noticeably decrease already at this aperture value. Aperture of f/22 and f/32 is generally considered as useable only in extremely good lenses that are free of other optical imperfections, such as chromatic aberrations. Otherwise the image will be too blurry due to the effect of diffraction. The urge for such extremely narrow apertures exists only in macro photography. In other areas, f/16 is the upper limit that is enough for the required depth of field.

For all new lenses, it is easy to find information about resolution. Manufacturers are the first source of it because they always publish in the announcements of the new lenses the so-called MTF charts — graphical presentation of resolution and contrast. Resolution is of course the main parameter that the reviewers always test. They do it through photographing either so-called ISO resolution charts or any objects with fine details — postal stamps, banknotes, etc. Then they evaluate and compare the sharpness in the middle, a corner and sometimes at the border of the image shot with different aperture and, in zoom lenses, at different focal length. When you are looking for a new lens, study the official MFT charts and the results of several tests from independent reviewers and make your decision accordingly.

Contrast is the next issue photographers usually pay attention to. Through contrast the ability of the lens to gather and to transmit to the sensor the luminance and the colour of the scenery is described. Good lenses should do it without loss of detail in the image. Therefore contrast and resolution always go together. Photographers talk sometimes about “micro-contrast” meaning the contrast of fine detail. This contrast can’t be as easy corrected in postprocessing as the general contrast of the entire image. Therefore it is important that the lens is capable of capturing the finest details with sufficient contrast.

Usually photographers praise lenses that provide more contrast over the entire image. The colour in such images looks more intensive already when they come out of the camera. Of course, brightness and contrast can be adjusted afterwards in the process of RAW format conversion or in the editing software, but more photographers seem to prefer stronger initial contrast and like the lenses that provide it. I often have heard people saying that Nikon lenses have better contrast and criticising Canon. Indeed, contrast is among things that I like in Carl Zeiss lenses more than in Canon.

Although contrast is displayed in MFT charts, viewing sample images of various subjects at 100% size (so-called 100%) is a better method.

Aperture range is important for choosing lens for several reasons. Two of them are quite obvious: First, a wider aperture allows a higher shutter speed and provides a shallower depth of field; second, a narrow aperture results in more depth of field, thus has an advantage in macro photography or for telephoto lenses. Another reason was already mentioned above: The wider the total aperture range the wider is the range with better sharpness.

A shallow depth of field causes problems with small subjects but in many situations it is preferred because the majority of photographs that the nature photographers create are portraits of animals. A blurred background is one of the basic requirements of this genre. Of course, a shallow DOF is of advantage when there are too many objects in front and behind the photographed subject. This a very usual case, for example, when the subject is in grass or in a tree.

The blur pattern in out-of-focus parts of the image (referred to as bokeh) differs in various lenses and even can be a speciality of a certain brand. Sometimes photographers even are looking for lenses with a special kind of bokeh. Fortunately, it is a parameter that is very easy to evaluate: Just look at sample shots done with the widest aperture and decide if you like the blur.

Also a number of quality related issues exist that photographers aren’t so often confronted with but would want a lens to be free of it. They may become evident in certain lighting conditions. Colour fringing, or chromatic aberration (CR), is one of them. It appears at the edges between very light and very dark elements of an image. Chromatic aberrations can be hardly found in the images made with wide-angle lenses, but lenses with greater focal length may be more prone to it. Modern RAW converters and photo editors can correct the CR very well, and it is isn’t a knock-out criterion in lens choice. There are no lenses that are completely free of it like there are no lenses that don’t have other issues that are normal to any optical system, such as flare, i.e. a phenomenon when the light is reflected by the optical elements inside the lens. Unlike CR, flare can’t be corrected in postprocessing automatically. Some flare artefacts can be removed through retouching, but it is a very annoying and destructive for the image pixels work. To recognise and to evaluate how strong lens flare is, you need to look at photographs done at various aperture when the light source was in the image, for example, the sun shining across the image from one of the corners. If the artefacts that you see won’t appear to you as too bad, you may decide to take the lens. Don’t be very critical, remember that literary all lenses have such issues and ask yourself how often you are going to shoot against the sun.

Distortion is a common problem of wide-angle lenses. Some ultra wide lenses produce images where only objects that are in the middle of the frame preserve their shapes. There are two types of distortion — barrel/pincushion and perspective. Strong barrel distortion is normal for the so-called fisheye lenses but may be irritating elsewhere. Strong perspective distortion is typical for wide-angle lenses and many people don’t perceive it as disturbing in landscape photographs. However, in images with clearly rectangular objects, for instance with trees, it may be particularly unwanted. Certainly, distortion is particularly noticeable in close-up photographs of animals. Some people can live with it and even regard it as an artistic effect, but for my taste, it is just an imperfection that should be avoided or corrected whenever possible.

To a certain extent both kinds of distortion can be corrected in postprocessing, however, always with loss of some parts of the image. Even if automatic correction is possible, for it to be effective the distortion should be uniform: If there is, for instance, a barrel distortion, than it should not be interrupted in some parts of the image. Look at sample images and decide yourself if you like what you see. If the distortion appears too strong or non-uniform, look for a different lens. A tilt-shift lens is the best solution of the distortion problem. Such lenses are also free of many other issues, such as non-uniform sharpness, strong flare, vignetting, etc. However, all this to a somewhat higher price than of normal wide-angle lenses.

For some kinds of photography and for some lenses, autofocus and image stabilisation are either required or nice to have. Autofocus is absolutely important in wildlife photography, when the subject is moving or may move at any moment, or when you just need to change the focus quickly and precisely. Autofocus is a standard feature in telephoto lenses. However, the speed and precision of it is different in various lenses of various manufacturers. Autofocus is not needed in macro and landscape photography. Macro lenses usually have it, but in mine I never turn it on. Wide-angle and ultra wide-angle lenses are normally with manual focusing only.

The same applies for image stabilisation (or “vibration reduction”, in Nikon terminology). Both, in Canon and Nikon equipment it is not the camera but the lens that should provide image stabilisation. Image stabilisation isn’t necessary in landscape photography and is even thought to be disturbing and should be turned off when the camera is mounted on a tripod. It is, however, absolutely required for telephoto lenses used in wildlife photography. All such lenses made by Sigma lack image stabilisation, and therefore are not useable in very many cases when the photographer has to handhold the camera.

A nature photographer would want a lens that is protected against harsh environment influence — is sealed against dust and moisture, has scratch resistant finishing. Most lenses aren’t so. The best protection against dust and moisture is in the big super telephoto lenses of Canon and Nikon. These are also lenses with most scratch proof paint. Since such lenses are usually carried open and used sometimes in bad weather conditions, you should always ensure that the wildlife lens that you are considering to purchase has some kind of environmental protection. Unfortunately, most other lenses aren’t so. All Carl Zeiss lenses have at least very stable finishing and due to exceptionally good build quality are very sturdy. They are an exception. Even expensive lenses of other manufacturers are completely unprotected and very prone to scratches. Among them, tilt-shift lenses are particularly prone to dust and moisture. Also the black paint of current Canon lenses is quite unstable and begins to get off already in the first field use.

Build quality shouldn’t be your main concern if it is going to be an expensive lens of a renowned manufacturer. Normally, such lenses have good or very good build quality. However, it is important to look at it in cheaper lenses. In some cases you’ll have to decide if you should get a cheap lens and be careful when you use it, or to get a more expensive one that may be more reliable and sturdy. Anyway build quality shouldn’t be the main reason for your decision. Other parameters discussed above are much more important. Personally, I would take just the lens I need, even if I would see that it isn’t very well built.

As I already wrote in my article about choosing the camera brand, I don’t regard price as something one should first look at when choosing the equipment. If we can’t afford something, the too high price is an obstacle, and not a factor that makes us not to want or not to need that item. Our needs and wishes aren’t defined by prices, hence the cost of a lens isn’t regarded here as a choice parameter though I am giving a hint about the price range of lenses in a certain focal length range as a number of dollar signs ($) corresponding to the number of digits in the price tag. For instance, $$$$$ means that prices start from 10.000$, and $$$ — that they are less than 1000$ but more than 100$. Except when you buy it used, an SLR lens that is suitable for nature photography wouldn’t cost less than 250-300 dollars, or euros, or pounds. Even the cheapest lenses made, for instance, by Korean companies aren’t cheaper. Usually, depending on subjects and personal requirements, a nature photographer has to be prepared to pay more, much more for lenses. An average price of good lenses for Nikon and Canon cameras varies between 700 and 1500 dollars (or euros, or pounds).

Of course, I am aware that many people can’t afford top-priced lenses. Then they should consider the less expensive alternatives. I will suggest them in gray boxes in this article. With some subjects, such as birds and many other animals there is simply no cheap way to quality photographs. Everyone who is serious about wildlife photography has to be ready to pay dozens of thousands for equipment, or to choose subjects and photography techniques that would require less expensive equipment. For example, someone who can’t pay 15.000$ for a 800mm lens, can have a 300mm one for 6000$ and find a way to get closer. If even 6000$ is too much money, then one can use a wide-angle lens for 700$ or less and go even closer to the subject. If it shouldn’t be possible, other subjects are still there, such as landscapes, plants, invertebrates, etc.

Also a word needs to be said about lenses for cameras with imaging sensors that are smaller than 36×24 mm — so-called APS-C, or “cropped” sensor cameras. This topic is specific for Canon and Nikon technical platforms because other manufacturers make exchangeable lens cameras either only with 36×24 mm (Sony, Leica) or with smaller sensors (Olympus, Fuji, Pentax, Samsung, Panasonic, Sigma). While APS, i.e. full-frame, lenses in Canon and Nikon are absolutely compatible with APS-C sensors, there are restrictions for use of lenses for APS-C sensors with APS cameras. In Nikon, an APS-C lens (identified as “DX”) will fit the mount of a full-frame camera but will render a correspondingly (1.5 times) smaller image. In Canon, the EF-S lenses are made exclusively for APS-C cameras and won’t fit a full-frame camera at all. Some manufacturers of expensive hi-end lenses, such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach, make them only for full frame. Sigma and Tamron produce different lenses for APS-C than for APS. Sigma marks such as “DC”. Tamron‘s APS-C lenses may be more difficult to recognise. The compatibility with Canon and Nikon will be the same as of native lenses. Therefore, owners of full-frame cameras have to watch what lens they are buying. If it is a APS-C lens and you have an APS camera, in Nikon, there is no reason to have a lens that won’t render the whole frame, in Canon, such a lens won’t be useable at all.

So why do APS-C lenses exist when an APS lens can fit both types of cameras? The lower cost ist the main cause of popularity of APS-C cameras. Obviously, a budget camera needs a budget lens. EF-S and DX lenses in Canon and Nikon are just so, as well as their equivalents produced by Sigma and Tamron. APS-C lenses usually accompany a camera body in a so-called “kit” — a set of a camera body and lens sold together, and many occasional users of SLR cameras are completely satisfied with them, or buy another such lens they learn about from a magazine or a discussion in the Internet. Also it is obvious that for a lens to be low-cost also technologies, know-how, materials and manufacturing of APS-C lenses should be low-cost. APS-C lenses made by Tamron or even by Sigma may have similar quality as APS lenses of these manufacturers. The APS-C lenses of Canon and Nikon can measure only with their low-end APS lenses. Some APS-C lenses can deliver images of decent quality but still aren’t good enough for serious photography. Personally, I never have seen a professional or semi-professional photographer using them although there are even professionals who use APS-C bodies at least as a spare camera. I too don’t use them, never had one and don’t recommend anyone who has serious ambitions in photography. Therefore, I just omit APS-C lenses in the following discussion in this article. All lenses that I am mentioning further are for APS sensors.

Read the rest of this article on www.nature-images.eu

LensCoat 4Xpandable: A Review

This is an excerpt of a review published at Nature-Images.eu. See the full text here: LensCoat 4Xpandable.

I am sure there is no nature photographer on Earth who wouldn’t know LensCoat — a US company that makes neoprene protective and camouflage covers for very many DSLR lenses. I the last couple of years LensCoat was constantly extending not only the number of lens models they were making covers for but also the offer of other products, such as — pouches, rain protection covers, etc. Finally, this year the company debuted in the photo bag market segment with a new series of large lens bags called Xpandable.

Image

The Xpandable long lens bag series currently consists of 2 models — 3Xpandable and4Xpandable. The first is with 70cm of maximum height a little smaller and therefore more suitable for lenses up to 400mm f/2.8 of Canon and Nikon, or 500 mm of Sony and Sigma. Larger lenses can be put into it either without a camera attached or with hood reversed. In that case, also the high tripod foot may be an obstacle that will need to be removed or replace with a shorter third-party foot.

The 4Xpandable is 73cm high which makes a big difference because it can accommodate a 800mm or even 600mm Canon or Nikon lens mounted on a camera, with hood in shooting position and even with a 1.4x or 1.7x (Nikon) teleconverter.

It looks like 4Xpandable is currently the only bag on the market that comes close to satisfying my requirements for a long lens bag, namely:

  1. to accommodate my wildlife photography equipment completely assembled: a 600mm lens with the hood on, a teleconverter (up to 2x Canon Extender III) and a camera attached;
  2. when empty, to be packed in a compact way for transportation in other baggage separately from photographic equipment.

Therefore, I ordered a 4Xpandable bag soon after it was released.

Image

Improvement Suggestions

Here are some improvement suggestions for the case if someone from LensCoat team would read this review:

  • Increase the minimum height by 3-5cm. This will allow to keep a 2x teleconverter attached in both positions — when the bag is cuffed and when it is expanded to full size.
  • Provide means for fixation of the lens and camera when they are inside. That can be a padded collar, pads or similar.
  • Make the walls of Xpandable more stiff. First, this will additionally reduce the side movements of the equipment in the bag. Second, a more stable shape of the bag will also be better for tripod attachement. Third, the attachment of harnesses and waist belts will be improved this way.
  • Provide M.O.L.L.E. attachment points at the sides of Xpandable bags in addition or instead of those that are now on the front.
  • Provide an optional complete harness system, like in trekking backpacks — with padded waist belt included.

Conclusions

This bag could be great as a pouch for a ready-to-use long lens and camera combo when you need to transport it in a car or on a cart, such as on Eckla Beach Rolly (see a reviewEckla Beach Rolly). Travel photographers who go to African or Indian national parks may find Xpandable particularly nice to use in safari cars — when the equipment has to be ready for use but at the same time to be protected from dust and hits when the car is moving. Being a wildlife photographer, I need this bag for use at locations where I arrive for shooting with all my baggage, but then have short walks to search for a particular subjet while the rest of equipment remains in a base camp or in a car.

Overall, I do not recommend Xpandable for situations when it needs to be carried over long distances. If you are looking for a backpack for hiking or trekking with your largest telephoto prime lens always ready for shooting, LensCoat Xpandable isn’t for you. Unfortunately for this area of use there is still no perfect solution for 600mm-800mm lenses. Photographers with such demands have to choose from 3 compromises — 1) to get one of the bags mentioned in this review, i.e. made by KinesisLoweproTenbaKönig, and carry the lens with hood reversed; 2) to use a normal trekking backpack with some kind of padded insert; 3) to go for LensCoat 4Xpandable. I did the last, and 4Xpandable became a nice addition to my two other bags — F-Stop Gear Satori EXP that serves me as trekking backpack (see a review F-Stop Gear Satori EXP), and Lowepro Flipside 300 that I use during short excursions with little equipment. I don’t plan to hike with 4Xpandable on my back a lot.

As I explained in this review, the 4Xpandable model is too wide even for the largest prime lens, which is currently 600mm f/4. For owners of 800mm f/5.6 lenses who don’t use teleconverters very often and have replaced the tripod mount foot with a shorter one I would recommend to take a look at 3Xpandable. Its diameter is 19cm, and it should fit the lens better. However, this bag is 3cm shorter than 4Xpandable — too short even for a 1.4x teleconverter. Owners of a 600mm f/4 lens, like me, would probably use teleconverters more often. Then 3Xpandable may be only an option if you’d agree not to carry the lens with a TC attached or to carry it with the hood reversed.

If you don’t need your large lens bag to be foldable, i.e. if you don’t transport your equipment to shooting location in other bags and cases, take a look at Kinesis PolyCore L622 bags instead. These bags are more advanced and better for long carrying.

For the reasons that I have explained in this review, I mean that Xpandable bags aren’t worth to be purchased outside the US by anyone who doesn’t absolutely need their unique capabilities — at least as long as trade treaty between US and EU isn’t signed, and custom duty and import VAT apply.

Read the rest of this text here: http://www.nature-images.eu/contents/reviews/xpandable/index.html

Loosing a Carl Zeiss lens cap may be expensive

Guten Tag Hr. Tiutenko,

ein org. Zeiss Deckel würde 22,– Euro kosten. Alternativ haben wir einen Objektivdeckel ohne Beschriftung für 5,90 Euro.

Good afternoon Mr. Tiutenko,

an original Zeiss lens cap would cost 22.– euros. Alternatively, we have a lens cap without label – for 5.90 euros.
— a German Carl Zeiss dealer

A plastic lens cap with “Carl Zeiss” label on it costs almost 4 times more than a blank one. If you have a Zeiss lens with an original cap, be careful not to lose it! I have lost one a couple of months ago and had to get a replacement. Above you see a reply from a Carl Zeiss dealer.

Carl Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF with Canon EF Adapter: First Use in the Field

Image

I tried the Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF for the first time in the field yesterday. As I mentioned in another post to this blog some time ago, this is a Nikon mount lens that I purchased for its unique working distance of only several centimeters. This makes wide-agle shots like this one possible. Unlike with fisheye lenses that are typically used for this kind of photography, with the Zeiss 25mm the distortion is not noticeable. Since I have Canon cameras, I use this lens with an adapter. This means, that all controls are manual. Since the aperture also has to be set manually, the image in the viewfinder is dark. To my big surprise, however, the Live View image was lighter, and focusing was much easier.

A tale of a lost centre column

Unfortunately, I lost the centre column of my new Gitzo GT1542T Traveler Series 1 tripod in the field during my Ethiopia trip. Since it is a product of the “legendary” Gitzo, and even more than that — it is a current model of a popular series, I was expecting that obtaining a spare part in Germany wouldn’t be a problem. After my return home, I searched the Internet for the part that I needed. To my surprise, only a so-called “short” column variant was offered by Gitzo dealers in their online shops. Also at Gitzo website no standard, i.e. long, column could be ordered. At Gitzo’s site I found the address of their service partner — the only one in Germany, by the way. I sent an e-mail to that company asking for help with restoring the centre column. They responded very quickly, sending me a page from spare parts catalogue and asking to choose the part I needed and to send them its number. The centre column that I was looking for had the code D09516.24.

I mailed this code to the service. They wrote back that it would cost me €114 and that they have to order at Gitzo in Italy. Though 114 euros for 30 cm of carbon pipe was quite a lot, I agreed. They informed me that the shipment would take up to a month. (Note: The spare part had to be shipped from Italy — a neighbour of Germany whose border is only about 500 km away from my home.)

Exactly 30 days after that I received the package per post in my office. It contained a column but I recognized at once that it was too short. At home, after I assembled the tripod, it was looking as shown below. Compare this picture with the second picture in my review of Gitzo GT1542T Taveler Series 1, and you’ll see the difference.

This image shows the GT1542T with the same Manfrotto 486 ball head as above, but the centre column is shorter. I got it as replacement for the lost original from Gitzo service.
This image shows the GT1542T with the same Manfrotto 486 ball head as above, but the centre column is shorter. I got it as replacement for the lost original from Gitzo service. 

The disadvantages of this column were obvious: First, the tripod was about 10 cm lower than originally; second, the head was too far between the legs when the tripod was folded for carrying, therefore it was not so compact. Strangely, the packaging of this spare part was labeled correctly, i.e. as containing a D09516.24 item. Nevertheless it was obviously a wrong part. I returned it to service company with my complains, explanations and even photos of the tripod before and after the column replacement. The service replied that they would send the item back to Italy.

Two weeks later I received another e-mail from them where they were informing me that their Italian colleagues are going to send the same wrong centre column again meaning that it was correct. I replied that I wouldn’t accept it: It was clearly a much shorter column; everybody was seeing this — no matter what was written on the package. The service wrote back that they would ask Gitzo to investigate this case for possible error.

Another month was over. I sent an e-mail again to that person in the service company that I had been communicating with before asking him for an update. I got no reply. Then I sent a request to Gitzo directly via their homepage. The Manfrotto (In case you still don’t know: Gitzo is actually a branch of Manfrotto.) office in Germany replied the next day. They offered me two alternatives — either to order a spare part from Gitzo in Italy and hope that it will be that time a right one, or they will send me a longer column from a Gitzo GT1830 Mountaineer model (part number D09906.24), however, made not of carbon but of basalt. Certainly I preferred the first option, i.e. to wait again till a replacement part arrives.

A Gitzo GT1542T centre column compared to one from Gitzo GT1830 which is compatible but much longer and made of basalt. I was afraid that using such a long basalt column may reduce the vibration damping ability of the tripod.
A Gitzo GT1542T centre column compared to one from Gitzo GT1830 which is compatible but much longer and made of basalt. I was afraid that using such a long basalt column may reduce the vibration damping ability of the tripod.

Three weeks later I received a mail from Manfrotto Germany telling that the centre column arrived, and that it was indeed longer. The next day it arrived per post, and recognized at once that this time the centre column was identical to the original. To my pleasant surprise, there was no invoice in the package but only a delivery note: The item was free of charge — as “fair dealing”. Although three months were necessary till the function of my tripod was restored, I was finally satisfied with Gitzo’s service. Of course, it was a bit awkward for people at the headquarters that they weren’t recognizing at first what was wrong with the item that they had initially shipped. However, they took my complaints seriously and finally satisfied my requests.

I also have learned from this story two things — that even small parts of an expensive gear are expensive and, even if they weren’t, that it is better not to loose them because their replacement may take very long.

Review: Gitzo GT1542T – Traveler Series 1

Note: I wrote this review for my website already in February 2012. The full version — including videos is available here: Nature Images by Arthur Tiutenko: Gitzo GT1542T — Traveler Series 1

In two years of using a Novoflex Quadropod as the only tripod I had many opportunities not only to appreciate its advantages but also to recognize some deficits and problems. Although the praise and the complaints that I have written in my review a year ago (see Novoflex Quadropod) remain valid, I had to conclude that the Quadropod isn’t an optimal solution suitable for all situations when a photographer would want to use a tripod. When I decided to purchase a Quadropod, my goal was to have only one support with me during expeditions and trips — for all shooting situations and all kinds of subjects — for wildlife, landscapes, macro. The Quadropod concept was promising this. However, its limitations became obvious after I used it a couple of times in the field. I have written about it in the Quadropod review in detail, thus would list them here briefly:

  1. Even QP B — the lightest Quadropod base and the one that I have — is quite heavy.
  2. Assembling the Quadropod takes quite long, and a nature photographer who needs it to be immediately ready for use has to carry it assembled. With four normal, i.e. full-sized, legs a Quadropod weighs almost 4 kg and is bulky just like any large tripod.
  3. The light weight variant — with walking sticks — can support only very small equipment and in practice is suitable only for landscape photography, and when no wind is blowing. Shooting with a camera and lens that weigh together about 3.5 kg is not possible due to extremely high vibration. So for wildlife photography only normal legs or their combination with walking sticks can be used.
  4. The legs can’t be fixated in open position and collapse as soon as you try to move the Quadropod at short distance. If your fingers happen to be at the base, it may be literary a pain — when they get jammed.
  5. There is no fixation that prevents the legs from being unscrewed off the base when you are adjusting their length, i.e. rotating the locks. For me this is the most annoying thing in Quadropod. I hope that Novoflex will find a way to improve it. Otherwise the Quadropod will be a fail.
  6. Unfortunately Novoflex doesn’t make bases with removable centre column. Therefore, if you need a minimal height that is usually important for wildlife and macro photography, you have to choose the version QP B, i.e. the one without centre column. However, it is not that good for landscape photography where a centre column is of advantage because it allows quick and precise adjustments of view angle. With Quadropod there is no chance to have both unless you buy and carry with you two bases. As I wrote in the review, my Quadropod has a QP B base. Although I enjoyed using it with a heavy tele lens, it was very annoying when I was shooting landscapes. I even missed some shots while I was tampering with four legs of the Quadropod trying to find the proper height.

Due to such deficits of Quadropod I could not realize my plan to get along with only one support. My second goal was to have such a tripod that I would not hesitate to take with me more often. This goal wasn’t possible to achieve with the Quadropod, and I noticed that I still prefer to leave this heavy gear at home whenever possible. This experience resulted in a decision to get a second support that would be an addition to Quadropod offsetting its deficits and inconveniences.

As usually in such cases, I did a careful research of small tripods currently available on the market. After many comparisons and serious considerations I finally chose this Gitzo.

Construction and Features

The GT1542T has the height and stability of a standard tripod, such as Gitzo Mounaineer Series 1, but is more compact when folded and much more light. It is dedicated to photographers who use professional equipment and need a highly portable support with no compromise.

The brand Gitzo is famous for high-end tripods that are utilizing some of most advanced technologies and materials. The GT1542T is one of such products. With a kit based on this tripod model the company won the “If Design Award 2012” — one prize out of 2,923 entries at one of the world’s most prestigious design competitions!

With only 1 kg, the GT1542T is currently the lightest and with less than 50 cm transport length the most compact tripod on the market that is strong and stable enough to support the weight of a professional camera body and a medium sized tele lens. The table below gives and overview of these and other important technical characteristics.

Load capacity (with short column) 8.0 kg
Material carbon fiber 6X
Maximum height 149 cm
Maximum height (with centre column down) 116.5 cm
Minimum height 22 cm
Closed length (with centre column reversed) 42.5 cm
Weight 1 kg
Load capacity 8 kg

The metal parts of the GT1542T are made of magnesium and have the beautiful spotted finishing that characterizes the Gitzo tripods (see the picture on the right). The leg segments and the centre column are made of 6x carbon fibre, a material that is patented by Gitzo who claims that it makes their tripods more shake resistent and more sturdy.

The GT1542T is delivered with a long centre column. When it is completely pulled up, the total height of the tripod increases by almost 30 cm. It can be replaced by a shorter column that is available separately. The height of the centre column can be adjusted very quickly: To move it up and down you only need to loosen the fixation ring at its bottom a little. Tightening this ring immediately fixates the column. Gitzo calls this “rapid column”. Nature photographers who often have to react quickly at subject’s movements and scenery changes would particularly appreciate this feature. The columns in Gitzo tripods are not rotating, i.e. the horizontal rotation of the equipment is done through head. The mechanism that prevents rotation is very simple: There is a small trench along the column that fits on a rib inside the tube through which the column is moving.

The centre column can be removed completely, and the head can be mounted directly on the base. This reduces the total height even more and may increase the stability of the tripod so that it can support a heavier gear. I suppose that the claimed maximum load capacity of 8 kg can be achieved only when the column is completely down or removed. Also the minimum height of 22 cm should be possible only without the column. To remove the column you have to unscrew either the head mount at its top or the hook at its bottom. Then you can loosen the fixation screw and just pull the column out. The screw with the hook and the head mount can then be put in place of the column.

For transportation the centre column can be reversed. If the head is small, it can fit between the legs as shown on the picture below. The length of GT1542T is then below 50 cm, and it can fit even in a small equipment bag.

This image shows the GT1542T with a Manfrotto 486 ball head when it is folded for transportation. With such a small head, the centre column can be reversed. This reduces the length to less than 50 cm.

This image shows the GT1542T with a Manfrotto 486 ball head when it is folded for transportation. With such a small head, the centre column can be reversed. This reduces the length to less than 50 cm.

Since I use my GT1542T mainly for landscape photography, I have a Novoflex Magic Balance head and a panorama plate mounted on it. It doesn’t fit between the legs and I don’t reverse the column (see the picture below). Even then the tripod easily fits in my bag.

Here is my GT1542T how I use it most of the time: with a Novoflex Magic Balance leveling head and a panorama plate. This head is thicker and doesn't fit between the legs. The column can't be reversed because of that. This makes the tripod almost 10 cm longer.
Here is my GT1542T how I use it most of the time: with a Novoflex Magic Balance leveling head and a panorama plate. This head is thicker and doesn’t fit between the legs. The column can’t be reversed because of that. This makes the tripod almost 10 cm longer.

The installation of GT1542T goes very quickly. You can get a collapsed tripod in position for shooting in not more than 20 seconds. When a leg is in a collapsed state, the fixation screws are so close to each other that I can loosen all three simultaneously rotating them with one hand. After that I can pull the only 1 m long leg to its full length with only one movement of my arm.

Stability and Shake Absorption

The stability of this very small and light tripod is remarkable. However, to have an unbiased opinion, I would need another tripod of similar size and quality that I don’t have at the moment. For now I only can report that I was very impressed when I tried the GT1542T for the first time. Despite its thin legs and overall slim construction it felt rock solid.

To be able to judge more objectively, I did some tests with my equipment. As usually with such tests, I was interested in real-life suitability rather than in technical aspects, i.e. I wasn’t measuring anything and analyzing statistics. I used the same testing method as in my tests for Novoflex Classic Ball 5 and Quadropod review last year that allowed me to roughly assess the shake resistance of GT1542T which is the most important characteristic of a tripod.

To avoid additional damping effect of the ground I had put this tripod on a stone floor. Since the GT1542T is obviously strong enough to support a camera with wide-angle lens, I took telephoto lenses for my tests that are much more critical in terms of shakes. To simulate a heavy load, I used my EF 300 mm f/2.8 IS USM which weighs over 2.5 kg. Together with a 5D Mark II body it was well over 3 kg. For reference I took a much lighter combination of the same camera with a Sigma 150 mm macro lens. This had to simulate a normal use of this tripod. Since I was assessing only the capacity of the tripod I didn’t use any head with it. Instead the lenses were mounted with their collars directly on tripod’s centre column. Photographers normally use a cable or wireless, or timed release when shooting from a tripod. Personally, I use the timer release in the camera more often. So I did this time. Since the test setup with a 300 mm lens was causing pretty long shaking, I set the timer to 10s instead of my usual 2s.

All test shots were made with the same exposure settings — ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/15s — with and without live view, i.e. with and without mirror hit.

Below you see the images from test shots with a reference setup — Sigma 150mm F2,8 EX DG APO HSM and EOS 5D Mark II. Here and in all other tests below, the grey square marks the area in the frame that is showed as 100% crops in the next two pictures.


Test shot with a 150 mm lens at maximum height, i.e. with the column completely pulled up, and live view on. (The area showed below in 100% crops is marked with grey square here.)


150 mm — 10s timer, no mirror lockup, nor live view


150 mm — live view, 10s timer.

The first image above that shows the full frame from a shot that was done with live view turned on, i.e. when the mirror was blocked. I applied smart sharpening to this image when I was resizing it. I did this also with the next two such overview images. All 100% crops here are of course unprocessed.

As you can see in the above samples, the quality of the image is quite good — note that it was made at shutter speed of 1/15s when the column was completely pulled up. The blur caused by mirror hit is very well noticeable in the left image, however.

The next images come from the tests with a 300 mm lens. The results of the test are quite surprising. Gitzo recommends to use the GT1542T with lenses up to 200 mm only. Such lenses weigh typically not more than 1.5 kg. My 2.5 kg heavy 300 mm tele exceeds this very significantly. Also the longer the focal distance of a lens is the more prune it is to shakes. Therefore, the test setup with EF 300 mm f/2.8 IS USM was quite extreme. Nevertheless, the tripod did the job surprisingly well.



Test with a 300 mm lens with the column completely up. As in previous picture, the area of 100% crops is marked with grey square. The image showed here was made with live view on.


300 mm — release button pushed with a finger.



300 mm — timer release in 2s.


300 mm — no mirror lockup, nor live view


300 mm — 10s timer release, live view

The first of the above 100% crops comes from an image that I shot when I just pushed the release button on the camera. You see how blurred it is. The second image was made through automatic release in 2 seconds. The equipment was still shaking. The result was less blurred but also unusable. The other two images that were made with timer set to 10s and after the shaking stopped are quite good.

My biggest surprise was to find out that pulling the column down and reducing the height brings not improvement except reduced vibration period. As you can see on the pictures below, the sharpness is similar to above images that were taken with maximum column height.


Test shot with a 300 mm lens with the column down. The area showed below in 100% crops is marked with grey square here too.


300 mm — 10s timer, no mirror lockup, nor live view


300 mm — 10s timer, live view

To test the damping capability, I used the video function in the camera. I tapped the camera with a hand and recorded the shakes on video. Below are three video clips with the results. Please compare the videos at the bottom of this page http://www.nature-images.eu/contents/reviews/gt1542t/index.html.

The first clip shows how the camera with a 150 mm lens shakes when the centre column is pulled up to full height. The vibration is quite insignificant and completely disappears in less than 2 seconds. A camera with a small lens can be released via a 2s timer.

With a 300 mm lens mounted, the GT1542T shakes much stronger, and much more time is necessary for shakes to settle down. Pulling the centre column completely down makes a big difference in this case: The shakes disappear almost as quickly as in tests with the 150 mm lens and the column up. The other two clips demonstrate this.

Conclusions

The Gitzo Traveler Series 1 tripod, a.k.a. GT1542T is probably the best light weight tripod on the market. Of course, we will see if the tripod manufacturers would manage to create an even better traveller tripod that would meet professional requirements in the next years, but at the moment the GT1542T is absolute state of the art in terms of engineering and technical design.

My impressions of handling this tripod and the test results that I reported above in this article allow the following conclusions:

  • The GT1542T is a perfect travel tripod for a serious outdoor photographer because it is extremely light weight, compact and sturdy.
  • Ideally it should be used with load of up to 2.5 kg. The GT1542T performs then like much bigger tripods.
  • The ability for vibration damping is very good but it can take well over 2s for GT1542T to completely absorb the shakes after you have touched the camera. Therefore a remote shutter release — via cable, IR, or radio — should be preferred with larger lenses over a delayed release with the camera timer.
  • Obviously, mirror lock-up or live view have to be turned on for optimal results.
  • The GT1542T can be used with longer telephoto lenses than recommended by Gitzo but only in emergency situations, i.e. when not bigger tripod is available and hand holding isn’t practicable for some reason. However, it would work only if you would manage not to touch the gear during the shot and the weather would be absolutely windless. Maybe also hanging some additional weight on the hook or in a bag between the legs can improve stability, but having not tested this option, I can’t confirm it.

Choosing the Camera Brand

If you ask someone about his or her first camera, most likely you will hear: “I got it from my father.” Indeed most people entered photography already when they were teenagers with a camera in hand that they got from parents, older brother, or as a birthday gift. In times of film photography, the equipment choice of amateur photographers was often predetermined by this, and the cameras were used until they got broken. When it happened the photographer had already a couple of lenses and hence an additional reason to stick to that brand and to get another compatible camera. Usually only those people who were meaning it serious with photography sooner or later landed in a situation when they had to choose a new camera according to their needs and plans. Nowadays, this moment comes much sooner, because the lifecycle of digital cameras is much shorter than of mechanical. The technology advancement is so rapid that even people with no professional ambitions update their cameras every couple of years.

For a typical digital camera user who has only one compact or bridge camera with a non-exchangeable lens and a built-in flash radical updates are very easy: A new camera that also has it all, is being purchased or received as a gift. The so-called “megapixel race” of the manufacturers appears to be the main driving force for such purchases: A camera owner wants a new camera as soon as it gets about twice as many megapixels as the old. Other factors that influence the choice are size and weight, zoom lens power, ability to capture good looking images automatically, prestige of the particular model.

For professionals and serious amateurs (to be short, I’ll call both “photographers” in this article) choosing the initial camera brand and changing brands are complex decisions, with long lasting practical and financial consequences.

Just like in times of mechanical film cameras a good starting point is the acknowledging that we are choosing not just a single piece of gear but a whole equipment system that may in many aspects determine the success of our photographic work and that we will have to stay with for many years.

Important Aspects to Remember

  • What we are choosing is not just a camera but a technical platform.
    Unfortunately there are very few brands whose lenses and camera accessories are interchangeable. Typically the camera manufacturers have developed and continue developing proprietary gear that won’t fit that of other brands. Therefore when we are considering a camera of a certain manufacturer we should look at it as at a system with a whole spectrum of items that we may need for our photographic work. Comparing various brands is comparing equipment systems — not just cameras.
  • It may be a choice for life.
    … okay, it is a bit exaggerated, though not very far from truth if we are talking about someone with limited finances. Certainly, you can change the equipment platform any time but, you would need to get rid of your previous camera gear. Even if you manage to sell it, you will loose a lot of money. Buying the whole set of cameras, lenses, flashes and other accessories will demand again a huge investment. Not everyone can afford such radical measures. Changing the brand makes only sense, if the current equipment is absolutely unsatisfying or outdated. Therefore, most photographers usually stay in good and in bad times with the camera brand that they have once chosen.

As with the rest of my site www.nature-images.eu, I assume that the reader of this article is a nature photographer, or someone who would like to know more about nature photography. Although many aspects that I am going to discuss below are applicable to any area of photography, the scope of this article is only equipment for nature, or wildlife photography. Specialists in other photography areas and genres should excuse me, if my judgements appear wrong or incomplete. I photograph only nature subjects and am not claiming to have expert knowledge in all areas of photography.

Criteria

As with any choosing process, when we are considering a camera system, we need to be clear about our criteria. Among them, our preferred photography genre, style and subjects are certainly the most important. You should always look at the equipment from the perspective of your specialization as a photographer. Obviously, for landscape photography a different equipment is necessary than for birds, for insects other than for safari… Not only different subjects play a role but also how you show them. For instance, cameras and lenses for animal portraits can be quite different from those that are used for photographing an animal in action.

Photographers usually have certain aesthetic preferences and personal style of imaging that, on one hand, have grown from use of certain equipment, but on the other, the equipment has been chosen accordingly. For instance, I heard from some photographers who use Canon equipment that they don’t like colour rendering in Nikon. To me this sounds odd because the images are normally recorded in raw format, and colour, contrast, white balance, saturation and other parameters are set and adjusted in postprocessing. However, some people want already the image that comes out of the camera to be as close as possible to their personal aesthetic expectations.

The requirements of image quality are the next important criterion. They come from two sides — from quality standards that are established in our photography area or genre, and from our personal standards. They don’t necessarily match. Often hobbyists tend to set lower standards for themselves while they admire the work of professionals. This is silly. I don’t see any reason why an amateur should set the upper limits for the quality of his work and to refuse professionalism. Strangely, the predicate “professional” as such seems to scare some beginners. Objectively, there is no such thing as “professional equipment”. It is only a label on the best products that manufacturers are offering at higher price level. This doesn’t mean, however, that amateurs are automatically excluded from buyers. The prices of professional equipment look scary for beginners and for professionals likewise. Nature photography professionals rarely earn their living with photographs. In that sense they aren’t different from amateurs. Not all professionals can afford high-end equipment while many hobbyists can. So if you are a lucky guy who can afford the newest and best camera model, just go and get it!

In the box below, I have put the main criteria in the order how I would apply them if I were looking for my first camera system or for replacement of the current.

Main criteria in order of validity

  1. main area of usage: landscapes, wildlife, macro, underwater, studio, etc.
  2. main subjects: birds, “safari” animals, flora, insects, herps, etc.
  3. genre: portrait, action, still life, panoramas, etc.
  4. your personal style and aesthetic preferences:
  5. image quality requirements: colour and contrast rendering, dynamic range, low noise, resolution.
  6. special requirements: low light, serial shooting, autofocus, weather protection, weight and size, lens preferences.
  7. cost
  8. comfort: size, weight, ergonomics, etc.
  9. prestige

In fact, my own list of criteria goes only to 6. I never considered the last two — prestige and comfort — seriously but I assume that some people would do. As to cost, I regard it more as obstacle than as a choice criterion. I have never made my preference only according to the price tag and am not recommending anyone to do it. For me, choosing means determining that something meets my requirements. If I need a certain piece of equipment, it doesn’t automatically mean that I can or even will ever get it. Like most people, I have my financial limits that are the main obstacle on the way to the equipment that I need or would like to have. However, these limits don’t keep me away from specifying my requirements and preferences — and goals. If you know, what you want, you will be looking for a chance to get it and this chance may come some day. You will be searching for opportunities to get the necessary money and thus approaching the chance. Indeed, there may be many such opportunities. Sometimes a revision of your daily expenses and priorities may already do wonders. A good thing with photo equipment is that it can be purchased in parts: You start with purchase of a lens that you want and use it with a cheap camera first. Meanwhile, you gather money for a better camera… Obtaining good equipment is a continuos process. If you are serious about photography, the cost shouldn’t matter for you. Have a vision and work towards it!

Certainly, the goals have to be realistic. If you want to specialize in bird photography, but your longest lens is 200 mm and you know that you will never be able to pay another $5.000 – 10.000 for a suitable super tele, it is better either to rethink your ambitions and to specialize in other subjects or to work on your photographic style and methods that would allow you to successfully utilize the available equipment. Even in this case, the cost will be not a criterion but an obstacle that doesn’t allow you to get the equipment that you have chosen.

Like with the cost of equipment that not everyone may afford, physical size and weight of cameras and lenses may be a limitation for some people. A super telephoto lens with a professional camera may weigh 6 kg or more. Not all people will be able to hand hold it. Together with other lenses, tripod and accessories the weight of photo gear that a nature photographer has to carry in the field can exceed 15 kg. It could be a serious obstacle for some people. When choosing your camera system and later — when purchasing additional equipment — you should be aware of this issue. Again, I don’t mean that you should purchase your equipment per kilogramme or inch. However, it is wise to always remember that you will be using it in the field. You should have a plan how you are going to do this.

A photographer choosing the equipment shouldn’t be guided by considerations of weight, size or even cost. However, I can imagine that there are people who would. Since such criteria may exist, I am mentioning them here.

The above said also applies to considerations of prestige, or vogue. In my hierarchy of requirements, prestige is on the last place. In fact, I have put it on the list because it may be an issue for some people, though a serious photographer typically wouldn’t admit that he is paying attention to prestige even if he does. Particularly this may be true for professionals. A pro simply has to meet certain stereotypes and expectations of the clients. One of them is that a pro has a “professional” camera and a big lens. Some customers even may know something about photography and thus have their picture of what is professional and what not. Often this picture is based on manufacturer statements and less on performance or technical features. I have heard from commercial photographers that they needed the most up to date gear in order to impress their customers. Not being a commercial photographer, I am lucky not to have such urge, but I can think of situations when it would be an important issue even for me.

Options and Alternatives

When photographic cameras were mechanical, it was not only the camera and the lens that were capturing images. The film was the third part of this process. The quality of the film was not less important for achieving a good image than the quality of the photographic equipment. In the 20th century, a good photographer could achieve an excellent image using a decent camera with a very good film. Technical features and quality of the camera were not influencing that much the image quality: If the lens and film were good, the image quality could be good, too. With digital photography, the influence of the camera has increased so that a poor quality camera even with a good lens will much more likely deliver a poor quality image.

Image quality is a result of combined work of several components, such as lenses, imaging sensor, and processor in the camera. The use and availability of lenses depends very much on camera viewfinder system, i.e. if it is a mirrorless or DSLR system. When I was choosing the camera brand I was looking first of all at lenses and imaging sensor. In general, there are three main parameters that are to be compared in alternative camera systems:

choice parameters for a digital camera system

  • Image sensor size and quality
  • Viewfinder construction: mirrorless or mirror
  • Quality and availability of specific lenses and accessories

These and other options and alternatives I am going to discuss in the next sections.

Digital or Film

In the last decade of the 20th century after the invention of of digital photography, its benefits were highly disputed and even the future perspectives were questioned. Like any technological revolution digital photography was met by traditionalists with a lot of suspiciousness and skepticism. The discussion of pros and cons continued well into the beginning of this millenium. Even now there are some enthusiasts who defend the film and criticize the digital even though they realize that the digital technology has won and will dominate the 21st century.

Just like magnetic tapes and venyl disks in sound recording, the use of film for capturing photographic images remained in the past: This page in history of technology is turned. The advantages of digital imaging over film are for me out of the question. Therefore, I am mentioning the film here and opposing it to digital photography only for completeness, and not because such dilemma really exists — especially for someone who is choosing the camera brand nowadays. Today, a photo camera has certainly to be digital! All camera manufacturers have ceased to develop and produce film cameras long time ago. Films are still available on the market, but it is to expect that they will gradually become more rare and disappear within the next decade.

There are still some fans of film photography around who are claiming that images captured on film have artistic qualities superior to those of images captured on digital media. Since digital technology gives us a complete freedom to process and manipulate any recorded image, there is no objective reason for such claims. People who have them either don’t understand the new technology completely or aren’t able to master it and thus feel uncomfortable.

I never regretted and won’t regret that film photography became history, and I don’t have that romantic attitude and nostalgic feelings about the film that some photographers who belong to older generation than mine still appear to have. The digital technology gives almost unlimited means for creativity. Just like it used to be with the film, modern digital cameras only record images. The rest is done in the lab which is now a computer. Thus, if someone wants an image to look like made on film — blurry, grainy and with odd colours — it can easily be achieved with image processing software. But I don’t see any reason to do that because even inexpensive amateur equipment today outshines professional cameras and labs of the past in quality of image recording and processing.

Below I am giving some key advantages of digital over film cameras.

Advantages of digital photography over film

  • Much higher light sensitivity (so-called speed): While the light sensitivity of consumer films was usually in the ISO 100 to ISO 800 range, some modern DSLR cameras are capable of capturing images with speeds up to ISO 204,800.
  • Much higher spacial resolution: Thus, capability to capture more detail.
  • Overall better image quality: Better contrast, sharpness, less grain… As a result, the images can be enlarged for output on much larger media with less loss of quality.
  • Flexibility of image processing due to use of computer.
  • Convenience: Digital images are easy to store, to archive, to present, to transport, to re-use…
  • Cost: The digital photography workflow is more affordable, first of all, because no expendable materials are used in it.
  • Simplicity: Since images can be immediately previewed and re-shot, better results can be achieved just through trial and error. For beginners, this this allows a more steep learning curve.
  • Better integration in publishing process: Since digital devices are also used for display of images and publishing, film would always have to be converted into digital data (scanned). This step isn’t necessary when the original image is already digital.

The arguments against the digital photography and in favour of film are too often hate motivated and have little to do with reality. After the already mentioned biased opinion about the aesthetic side of film photography that the digital should be missing, the next such argument is that with digital photography the work of a photographer is becoming less creative and more casual. The critics believe that a digital photographer would achieve the desired image rather through tweaking it in a computer than through careful shooting. This, of course, isn’t true. A serious photographer would always prefer photographing to processing not only because it is more fun but because the quality that was missed during shooting can never be restored in postprocessing completely. That computer software allows us to go beyond the limits of analog film processing is a progress and not an evil — as some film fans are claiming.

However, in early years of digital photography, there was one objective criticism that most photographers including me were taking seriously: The dynamic range of films was generally believed to be greater than of image capturing and processing electronics. This situation changed completely with the advancement of digital imaging in the last decade. Both, in film and in digital photography, the dynamic range is a complex issue that results from quality of several members of the imaging workflow and of their capability to record, to process and to display the image information. In film photography that were lenses, films, chemicals, paper, scanner, etc. In digital photography the dynamic range depends on the quality of the lenses, the sensor and digital processor in the camera, and of other equipment that is used for processing and display of images. Modern large image sensors, such as in DSLR and medium format cameras, are capable of recording the luminance range that is close to that of human eyes and hence adequate for representing all the tones perceivable by humans. In film and digital photography alike the biggest limitation is, however, not in recording but in display of dynamic range. Currently, neither the photographic paper, nor the printers, nor the displays of consumer electronic devices can cover the entire dynamic range that is being provided by the imaging process.

Cropped, Full-frame or Medium Format

The image sensor is the key element in a digital camera that is responsible for capturing the light and thus is of crucial importance for image quality. In current photo cameras sensor of two kinds can be found CCD and CMOS. Neither of these technologies has clear advantages or disadvantages. Brands and camera models that are currently preferred by nature photographers have CMOS sensors, but this may change in future.

Most important image sensor parameters

  • Size, i.e. surface area: The larger — the better.
  • Pixel density: The heigher — the better.
  • Dynamic range: The wider — the better.
  • Signal-to-noise ratio: The lower — the better.
  • Light sensitivity: The heigher — the better.

The performance of image sensors varies from one manufacturer to another and also between models of a single manufacturer. It improves very quickly, and every year new cameras appear on the market that outperform all previous. Therefore no one can give recommendations in favour of a concrete model or brand. When your are choosing your camera brand, you should evaluate and compare such parameters as signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range, light sensitivity, etc. Typically these parameters improve with the size of the sensor. There is a rule of thumb: The larger is the sensor — the heigher the image quality. Therefore, I would recommend always to look for a camera with the largest sensor that you can afford. Unfortunately, also the other rule is always true: The larger the sensor — the more expensive it is.

In digital photo cameras three groups of image sensor formats are being distinguished: medium format, full frame, and reduced (so-called, “cropped”).

preferred use areas of different sensor formats in nature photography

  • medium format: landscapes, flora, static and slow-moving macro subjects
  • full frame: all subjects
  • cropped: wildlife, less suitable for macro and landscape photography

The cropped sensors have a vast variety of sizes ranging from 1.28 x 0.96mm to 27.9 x 18.6mm. Obviously, cameras with sensors of reduced size are less expensive. This is one reason why they are the most common on the mass market. The second reason is that the devices that have small image sensors can also be built small. Thus, the smallest sensors are in mobile phones and digital compact cameras. In photo cameras with exchangeable lenses sensors are not so small: 23.4 x 15.6mm (Sony NEX C) and larger. For quality photography, especially for nature subjects, cameras with larger sensors should be preferred. This is one of the reasons why nature photographers prefer to use either Canon or Nikon DSLR cameras. (See more about this below.)

The so-called “full frame” has the size of approx. 36 x 24mm which corresponds to a frame of a photographic film. Actually, such cameras were called in times of the film “small format” as the opposite to medium and large format films and cameras. The focal length of lenses is always expressed in millimeters relatively to full frame. When lenses are used with smaller or larger sensors, it increases or decreases respectively. Even if the lens can’t be used on full-frame cameras, its focal length is indicated for full-frame. To know the real focal length on a given camera, we have either to multiply (if the sensor is smaller than full frame) or to devide (if the sensor is larger) it by so-called “crop factor” — the ratio between the sizes of full and of current frame. If the sensor is smaller than full frame, the focal length of a lens decreases, i.e. its field of view gets narrower. This one of practical disadvantages of cameras with reduced sensor size. However, if the pixel density of the sensor is heigher than of a full frame sensor, the reach of a lens would increase. A money-savvy wildlife photographer often would regard this effect as an advantage of cropped sensors. Personally, I would rather use a full-frame camera with a telephoto lens and a 1.5x teleconverter than a 1.5x cropped sensor camera and a telephoto lens combo. Of course, the first would be more expensive than the second but improved image quality will be my reward.

Cameras with larger sensors than full frame are now called “medium-format”. They are built by Hasselblad, Leaf, Sinar, Phase One, Mamiya, Leica. The size of their sensors ranges from 45 x 30mm to 53.9 x 40.4mm. Calling them “medium format” is not completely correct because the “true” medium format of film cameras was different, and the former “large format” doesn’t now have an equivalent in digital photography.

A drawback of the huge image recording surface of a medium format sensor is the speed. The extremely low frame rate of such cameras makes their use for most subjects in nature photography a problem. Another problem is that the focal length of lenses decreases when the sensor gets larger than full frame, as a consequence, a 150 mm lens would be only 75 mm, if the surface of the sensor doubles. There are very few lenses for medium-format cameras with focal length longer than 100 mm but in fact they are even shorter. In practice, this makes the medium-format cameras unusable for wildlife photography, although they are unmatched when used for large and more static subjects, such as landscapes.

If you are a specialist for landscape photography and can afford it, I would strongly recommend you to consider a medium format. Even not being a landscape photographer, if I had enough money, I would have got a medium format camera, such as Phase One, to use it for my landscape shots. The digital backs of Phase One currently not only have the largest sensors but are better protected from harsh environment and therefore more suitable for use outdoors.

Mirrorless or Mirror

The construction of digital single-lens cameras (DSLR) has derived from predecessors in the times of film photography. For a viewfinder of such cameras a mirror is used that allows the photographer to look through the lens when he is composing the image and focusing on the subject. While looking through the lens, the photographer can also define areas in the scenery where the camera measures the light.

I think, the advantages of this technology are quite obvious:

Advantages of DSLR cameras

  • Long-focus lenses can be used
  • More convenient and exact image composing
  • Easier and more precise focusing
  • More precise light metering
  • Better visibility of the scenery in the viewfinder

DSLR are standard in nature photography, and at least for wildlife photography no real alternatives exist.

Currently there is no mirrorless camera model on the market that could be a perfect tool for nature photography. However, this technology develops very quickly, and it is to expect that mirrorless cameras would compete with DSLR or even replace them in many situations in near future.

There are two categories of mirrorless small-format cameras that can be used in some areas of nature photography — though with limitations: mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILC) and bridge cameras.

The MILC, or system cameras, typically have a digital viewfinder. Then they are called electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lens (EVIL) cameras. This group includes “micro four thirds” cameras — such as Samsung NX, Pentax Q, Panasonic DMC-G, Olympus PEN, cameras with proprietary mount — Nikon 1, Sony NEX. The EVIL cameras are the least usable for serious photography: They can’t be used under bride sunshine, manual focusing is difficult, stable handholding is almost impossible…

Some system cameras have optional optical viewfinder as accessory (e.g. Sony NEX), a hybrid viewfinder — as in Fujifilm FinePix X series, or purely optical — as in Leica M. The most important drawback of the optical viewfinder (also called — rangefinder) is lack of through-the-lens (TTL) viewing and exposure measuring. The photographer sees only a marked area that represents the view field of the lens — not what the lens actually sees. This may work with most wide-angle lenses, with standard and even with short telephoto lenses, but not with long teles. As a consequence, no lenses with focal distance greater than 100-150 mm can be used. Therefore, the use of rangefinder cameras for wildlife photography is very limited.

Advantages of mirrorless cameras

  • Compact size
  • Little weight

The electronic viewfinder technology is more promising. If the resolution of viewfinder picture would approach the quality of real life picture some day, the mirrorless cameras may win the competition with DSLR.

Mirrorless cameras typically have small sensors. Don’t ask me, why. For the time of writing, only Leica M had a full-frame sensor. Not just due to this fact but much more because it was a Leica, it was extremely overpriced and more a stylish accessory than a photographer’s tool. Unfortunately, among other brands that have only models with tiny sensors none can be regarded as serious photography equipment.

Like digital MILC, bridge cameras fill the niche between compact, pocket-sized digital cameras (also called “point-and-shot” cameras) and digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR). This is why they are called “bridge”. Other than in mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, the lens in a bridge camera is fixed. Typically it is a super zoom lens that covers a large span of focal lengths — often from ultra wide to telephoto. Exceptions are some specialized models such as Minox DCC or Fujifilm FinePix X that mock classic cameras and are more lifestyle objects than photography tools. They have a fixed focal length wide-angle lens. Since bridge cameras are intended for use by non-professionals, the characteristics of their lenses are described not through focal length but through magnification ratio. For a photographer this can be confusing. For example, a lens with focal length 6 – 72mm may be labeled just as “12x” zoom. Even more confusing is that such cameras often have additionally a so-called “digital zoom”, i.e. the in-camera software can enlarge the captured image.

All bridge cameras have truly tiny sensors — even smaller than in MILC. Due to this they are made extremely light weight and very compact. With such small sensors also the lenses don’t need to be big. Since the lens isn’t removable, the user of a bridge camera usually doesn’t need to carry anything else than only this one small device. Bridge cameras are very convenient but their image quality doesn’t get even close to the standards that photographers have already set using DSLR cameras. They are very popular with various professionals who use them for documentation photography where the content of an image is more important than perfect quality and aesthetics. Certainly, I would recommend current bridge cameras for such tasks and not the bulky and heavy DSLR.

I have no doubts that in very near future mirrorless small-format cameras will get larger sensors, thus becoming a serious alternative to DSLR. Maybe they even will replace the mirror cameras some day. But today DSLR remain the only choice for the majority of nature photographers.

choosing a dslr camera

Currently only six companies produce digital single lens cameras (DSLR): Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax Ricoh, Sigma. Fujifilm had also been making quite nice DSLR cameras for awhile but discontinued all models a couple of years ago and now appears to have concentrated all efforts on development and production of mirrorless cameras.

Only three manufacturers — Canon, Nikon and Sony — currently offer full-frame cameras. In the past, also Kodak had DSLR models with full-frame sensors (Kodak DSC Pro) but ceased their production in 2005. In 2012 the company went bankrupt. All current models of Olympus, Pentax and Sigma have cropped sensors.

Strategy for acquiring dslr equipment

  • Think full-frame: Even if you can’t afford a full-frame camera at the beginning, make all purchases with it in mind. Do not buy lenses that are incompatible with full-frame cameras: Full-frame lenses can be used with cameras that have cropped sensors but not vice versa. Get a full-frame camera body later and use it with the lenses that you have already purchased.
  • Lenses have priority: Start with lenses if you are short of money and can’t buy at once all equipment that you need. Get the best lenses you can afford. If you can’t purchase at once the whole set of lenses that you need, get fewer but better. Prefer lenses of the same manufacturer as your camera (Canon EF, Nikkor, etc.) or of a renowned third-party, such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach. Lenses are essential for photography. Never save money on them!
  • Prefer full frame to cropped: Do not believe if someone is praising cropped cameras. Cameras with small sensors are good only for interim use. Do not spend too much money for it. If you can’t afford a full-frame camera, get an older model of cropped one and use it temporarily with your full-frame lenses.
  • Megapixels do matter: Do not listen to people who are proclaiming that heigh megapixel numbers are nonsense. Of course, the heigher is the sensor resolution, the heigher should be the resolution of the lenses that are used with it. However, many lenses are good enough for use with sensors that have up to 30 Mp or even more.
  • Choose from Canon or Nikon: The DSLR cameras of these two manufacturers are currently the first choice for nature photographers. Almost all nature images that you see in books and magazines, on posters and postcards, on websites of honoured photographers, among winners of photography contests have been made either with a Canon or with a Nikon camera. Unless you have a strong personal reason to prefer Sony Alpha, Canon and Nikon cameras should be better choice.
  • None of two brands is better than the other: Listen neither to Canon nor to Nikon fanboys claiming that their brand is the best. Look at concrete lenses and cameras that you are interested in.

As you may have noticed, the majority of nature photographers use either Nikon or Canon equipment. Of course, there are reasons for this.

Advantages of canon and nikon dslr systems

  • The largest variety of lenses: Not only the two companies themselves but many other lens manufacturers produce lenses for Nikon and Canon mounts, but less for other brands.
  • Special lenses: Lenses of some types — such as tilt-shift, extreme super teles, some wide-angle lenses — aren’t available for other DSLR brands or are optically and technically inferior.
  • More advanced lens technology: Canon and Nikon develop lenses and optimize their performance for their own cameras only. Their lenses aren’t compatible with other camera brands. Though it is a disadvantage for a money-savvy buyer, it ensures the best possible lens performance.
  • Best image stabilization: In Nikon and Canon equipment, the image stabilizer is in lenses — not in camera bodies, like in other brands. Image stabilization is helpful only in some cases — usually with telephoto lenses, when they are hand held. For the majority of photography tasks the IS is either not necessary or even disturbing, for it may degrade the sharpness. Canon and Nikon wisely provide image stabilization only where it indeed makes sense — with long telephoto lenses — and it works better than the in-camera IS of other manufacturers.
  • Full-frame sensors: Current full-frame sensors and cameras of Canon and Nikon are better than those of Sony.

A separate word needs to be said about Sony Alpha. It has its origin in Minolta system that Sony acquired in 2006. Minolta cameras had been serious competitors for Nikon and Canon in the past. Now, it still appears that for Sony professional photographers and DSLR videographers are a not that important target group, and the company is more concerned with development of consumer grade digital cameras — such as NEX system. The line-up of their DSLR lenses (even including Carl Zeiss ZA) is still much smaller than of Nikon and Canon. Many Minolta lenses are compatible with Sony DSLR cameras that have the same mount but in practice this means nothing because film lenses are not optimal for digital photography. Since Sony’s Alpha DSLR cameras are also not cheap, there is no reason for a nature photographer to prefer them over Canon and Nikon.

Canon and Nikon have the widest range of lenses combined with the most advanced camera technologies. Most third-party lens manufacturers produce lenses for Nikon and Canon. Among them only Sigma and Tamron offer lenses for all DSLR brands mentioned above. Carl Zeiss, Voigtländer, Schneider Kreuznach, Tokina have lenses either for Canon, or for Nikon, or for both, but less or not at all for other brands. Choosing the camera brand, it is worth to check how good also the third-party lenses are. I can compare Sigma lenses for Canon mount with proprietary Canon lenses because I have both: The majority of Sigma lenses are not as good as Canon’s own. Tamron lenses are even less expensive than Sigma but have a not so good reputation. However, there are some excellent Tamron lenses too that are worth to take a look at if you are searching for a budget alternative.

Only Canon, Nikon and Sigma have own super telephoto lenses, i.e. longer than 300 mm. For other brands, such lenses are made by Sigma — up to 800 mm — but they are not as good as Canon’s and Nikon’s. This is one of main reasons why Canon and Nikon are preferred for wildlife photography. Also tilt-shift lenses exist only for Canon and Nikon DSLR (otherwise, for medium format). Canon’s current TS-E lenses are better than Nikon’s counterparts. But Nikon has probably the world’s best ultra wide zoom lens — 14-24 mm — that is so popular that some Canon photographers use it with an adapter.

Of course, the relatively heigh cost of Nikon and Canon equipment may be an obstacle for some people — especially for beginners. Cameras and lenses of Pentax, Olympus and Sigma usually cost at least 20-30% less, but I would strongly recommend to resist the temptation. Don’t forget: You are choosing not just a camera but a whole equipment system. If you are short of money, just don’t try to purchase all at once — get only one lens or two that you use for a awhile with an older camera body that you can find relatively cheap on eBay. My way to the current equipment collection was like this, and I am still convinced that it was right.

Nikon vs. Canon

This is a very popular discussion topic on amateur photography forums throughout the Web. Typically, a beginner who has difficulties with the decision asks this question which is certainly quite legitimate. The replies of the community may very quickly shift into attempts of mutual insults between protagonists of the two brands. I suppose that people who carry out such verbal fights are beginners too who just recently got a camera of either brand and are very proud of this, love it, but at the same time are afraid of having made a mistake. Such willingness to defend the favourite brand in every situation is a sign of immaturity rather than of expertise.

As I already pointed out a few times in this article, both brands are the best among DSLR. Thus, there can’t be a general answer of the question, what is better: Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Many opinions pro and contra obviously result from habits, experience, attitudes: For instance, a Canon user may dislike Nikon cameras for the lack of a wheel that quickly switches between menu options, aperture settings, thumbnails in preview mode, etc.

Some opinions however are of objective kind and worth to be taken seriously by someone who is choosing the first camera. For example, Nikon users often view as an advantage that also DX lenses, i.e. made for reduced frame sensors, can be used with FX, i.e. full-frame, cameras though producing a cropped frame. In Canon equipment, the EF-S lenses can’t be used with full-frame cameras. In my opinion, it is a negligible disadvantage because a cropped-frame lens on a full-frame camera doesn’t make sense anyway. However, I can imagine that some Canon users may be annoyed by the fact that they have to purchase expensive EF (i.e. full-frame lenses) even if they don’t have a full-frame camera yet but plan to get one in future because none of EF-S lenses will then work.

The professional camera bodies of both manufacturers are outrageously expensive, but sometimes one may cost less than the other. For someone who is looking for a professional camera this may be a reason to prefer the brand with currently lower price. On the other hand, even many professionals who can’t afford a pro body choose heigh-end amateur cameras with full-frame sensors. Canon and Nikon often swap the leadership in this market segment. When I was writing this article, Nikon’s top-level amateur camera was better than Canon’s. But this may have changed when you are reading it. Always check the current status of both brands before you decide in favour of either brand.

The above said is valid for lenses too. Some types of lenses are better in Canon while some — in Nikon. I already mentioned the great Nikkor 14 – 24 f/2.8 mm lens. There is another very popular Nikon zoom lens that has no counterpart among Canon lenses: 200 – 400 mm f/4. (Canon has developed a zoom lens with the same focal length already in 2010 but still didn’t release it. It is also unknown if this lens will ever appear on the market and how much it would cost.) However, there are quite many Canon lenses that outperform the Nikon’s counterparts. For instance, Canon super telephoto and tilt-shift lenses are currently the best in class. For some Canon lenses no Nikon equivalents currently exist. For instance, there was no Nikon 17 mm tilt-shift lens and no 800 mm telephoto lens for the time of writing. Another advantage of Canon’s system is that most full-frame lenses of other brands that aren’t compatible with Canon EF mount can be used via adapters. This can’t be done with Nikon cameras, whose mount has the smallest diameter among SLR systems.

Summary and Conclusions

If you are a beginner in digital nature photography, you may be now disappointed because you haven’t found recommendations of a specific brand or model in the above text. But I hope that I could explain why there can’t be any. My intention with this article was to outline the principles of choosing a camera system for serious nature photography. Based on the above said, here are my final recommendations in brief:

  • Be clear about your requirements and choose the equipment that meets them as close as possible.
  • If you can’t afford everything at once, get it in several steps.
  • Start with lenses: Get the best that you can, and use them with a cheap camera.
  • Get a better camera as soon as your financial situation improves. If it wouldn’t, just continue using top-quality lenses with a cheap camera.
  • Prefer a used older high-end camera to a new low-end.
  • Even if you aren’t a professional photographer, get the best equipment you can. It is particularly important if you are a beginner: A “pro” camera and lenses will not only give you more self-confidence but improve your photography results. Certainly, a top-quality equipment alone won’t make you a star photographer. But to use it already when you are learning and gaining experience is much more fun. In my opinion, it also helps a beginning photographer to recognize his faults: If you are a beginner and have top-level equipment but your photographs are still not good, it should be pretty clear that you have to improve your skills — not your camera.
  • Don’t buy equipment bundles and kits: a camera with a lens, a tripod with a head, etc. Instead, analyse and select every piece of equipment separately.
  • The bigger the sensor — the better: Get a full-frame camera, or, if you are a landscape photographer — a medium format. Think of cropped sensors as of “poor-man’s” gear.
  • Don’t take seriously everything what people say about brands. Many of such opinions are biased or based on myths or history. In digital photographic technology things change very quickly. If you can’t try out the brands in question yourself, compare as many reviews and test shots as you can find.
  • Don’t buy the newest camera immediately after it was released. First wait for tests and opinions from independent parties. The flows in electronics and software may become evident within a couple of months after the release.