Hypothetical Minimal Nikon Kit

(commentary)

I’ve been thinking a bit about what I’d keep and not keep in terms of camera gear lately. I am at retirement age this year, after all. Not that I’m going to retire, but I find that these little mental workouts of what I would do in certain circumstances to be good, as they help me focus my thinking about how photography equipment actually performs.

First, let’s recap: I shoot landscape, nature, wildlife, and sports. I would likely continue to do the first three if I retired, but not the last. That has an influence on what cameras and lenses I’d need, obviously. 

Here’s what I’d keep in terms of cameras:

  • D800E
  • D7100
  • V3
threekeepers.jpg

Surprised? So was I. A bit. But the D800E/D7100 combo is perfectly fine for my wildlife work (and the V3 supplements that). Macro work would fall to the V3 most of the time (assuming I’ve got enough light). And I can go wide/normal with all three for landscapes.

You’re probably not surprised by the D800E. As I’ve written for a long time now, the D800 is the most well-rounded DSLR you can buy. It’s not perfect at a lot of things, but it’s surprising how well it does when pressed into roles you might not have considered for it. The D7100 usually gets dismissed by people for only one thing: the smallish buffer, especially when shooting raw files. Try to find another serious complaint about the D7100. Focus is as good as we’ve had in crop sensor cameras, the sensor is as good as we’ve gotten in crop sensor cameras, and even the consumer build body stands up to an awful lot of travel stress I’ve thrown at it. 

It’s the V3 that surprised you, admit it. My first impressions article on it pointed out a lot of things that just are head scratchers for a camera at this price point. Yet, in using it, the same thing happens as with all the other Nikon 1 bodies: you either just reject it outright for its flaws, or you grow to appreciate what it can actually do if you can tolerate the idiosyncracies. That’s one thing about first impressions: they’re first impressions. Sometimes the good overwhelms the bad, but only if you give it time and tolerance. I’m willing to do that with the V3. While Nikon has made mistakes in each of the V designs, they’ve also made the high-end shooting experience a bit better in each subsequent model. I still don’t like some of the design points, but in actual shooting the camera performs as I’d expect and handles better than the V2, so it stays. 

Lens-wise, the easy part is this:

  • 70-200mm f/4, 80-400mm AF-S VR, 200-400mm f/4 (the wildlife lenses)
  • A few primes, probably the 24mm f/1.4, 58mm f/1.4, 105mm f/2.8
  • The basic CX lenses (10mm, 18.5mm, 32mm, 6.7-13mm, 30-110mm, plus one of the mid-range zooms)


That leaves a tough choice for landscape work on the two DSLRs. Probably the 16-35mm f/4. I’m not 100% happy with that choice, mostly due to the linear distortion, but it works for both the D800 and D7100, takes filters, doesn’t have huge faults, and gets me wide enough while staying a little flexible via the zoom. Those of you with really long memories—yes, I was writing about this on the fledgling Internet even back then—I started in the 90’s with the 20-35mm f/2.8 and ended the D1 era with the 17-35mm f/2.8. So I’m not budging much. Still, the Galen in me wants a light wide option for hiking, so maybe I’d also keep the 20mm Voigtlander.

If I only take the 80-400mm or 200-400mm, I can fit all the above gear (cameras and lenses) into one pack. For wildlife shoots where I’d bring both those lenses, I’d have to give something up, and that would most likely be the primes. 

Let’s go deeper through some of my thinking. 

Why those lenses, is probably one thing you’re wondering. The other thing that might have came to mind was “why not m4/3 or Fujifilm X or Sony FE?” 

Okay, let’s go through the latter question first:

  • The wildlife work I do and want to continue to do requires top level focus performance. None of the mirrorless cameras currently get there, though they’re getting closer with each iteration. The choice here is between small/light versus better focus performance. I’ll take the latter, and I know the Nikon AF system about as well as anyone, so can really push it to its limits. I’m also paring down my lenses quite a bit, and would always have the all-CX option to go really light. As much as I complain about things in the Nikon 1 system, the things that are right are really right. All of us Nikon 1 users tend to value the things that are right more than the things that are wrong.
  • m4/3 certainly has the lens set I’d want, at least once we get the promised high performance telephotos later this year and early next. I can’t complain at all about the current and future lens set. Plenty of good options with excellent performance. m4/3 really boils down to two problems for me: (1) focus performance is good, but not at DSLR levels; and (2) both Olympus and Panasonic haven’t proven they can make money in still cameras, and there’s that nagging thought that going all-in with m4/3 could eventually turn out to be a losing bet. I’m not overly worried about #2 other than in terms of getting gear serviced; I wouldn’t be adding/changing gear all the time in the future (see below). 
  • Fujifilm has the prime and wide angle lenses I want, and has promised one of the telephoto options I’d want, but they mostly miss at the long telephoto end for me. Moreover, my experience so far with their telephoto focus performance is that it isn’t there. Focus is great in the wide angle to normal range for most things, but the current telephoto is slow to focus and has a tendency to not get back to the subject fast enough when it misses, and I wouldn’t want to bet on how long it is until they fix that. 
  • Sony FE has a sensor I like (36mp) in a smaller package. But lenses are a waiting game, and I don’t like having the sensor data crippled down from 14-bits to 11-bits with lossy compression. The Zeiss 24-70mm was disappointing in my initial testing, by the way, which makes the lens waiting game a little more of a risk. And again, the telephoto options are limited.


In terms of my lens choices, they angle towards landscape at one end (wide) and wildlife at the other (telephoto). I’m not much of an in-between man. The 35mm to 85mm focal range has never really excited me, which is why there isn’t much there in my hypothetical kit. Almost every camera system now has competent wide angle support (the 6.7-13mm CX lens is a gem). It’s the telephoto end that trips up almost all the competitors and makes things really mostly a Canon/Nikon game. The interesting part is that with Nikon, the game goes all the way down to the Nikon 1.

Would I keep a casual small camera, something that’s pocketable? Yes, I probably would. That’s actually perhaps the toughest problem in this exercise for me. You see, one thing I’ve decided is that the Panasonic GM1 is a better jacket pocket camera than my Sony RX-100II. Why? Basically it boils down to sensor and lens. The Sony wins in that it’s shirt pocketable, and is highly competent. Now that an EVF is part of the package, the RX-100 is a lot of camera in the smallest possible soap bar size. But the RX-100II is 28-100mm and the upcoming RX-100III is rumored to be 24-70mm. Remember what I wrote up above about how much I enjoy 35-85mm? ;~) Neither of Sony’s choices nets me much usable lens. Meanwhile, I could just sneak another small lens into my jacket pocket with the GM1 and be happily out of the focal range I tend to avoid. But no EVF! And in this exercise, I didn’t keep any other m4/3 cameras, so I’d be keeping extra lenses just for the GM1. 

I’m not sure what the right answer for casual shooting is. Maybe wait? I hear the iPhone 8 solves all my casual camera problems ;~).

You, too, can play this game (some of you already have, judging by emails). Here are the rules:

  • You’re about to retire, so you’ll have plenty of time for photography.
  • You’re on a fixed and limited income, so you’re not going to continue pouring on the Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). Just the opposite: with equipment you’re going to be in Last Camera Syndrome (LaCS).
  • Since your gear isn’t going to change over time, your workflow probably won’t either. Gone are the days of worrying about how much more storage you’ll need for the next camera’s raw files! 
  • Retirement age means a couple of things: you probably don’t want to be carrying big 40-pound bags of gear all over the place, for example. At some point, you probably won’t be able to do so reliably. Maybe you can work out of your vehicle with shorter trips, though. 
  • You probably want to put what “disposable income” you do have more into where you take your photographs and what you do with them after you’ve taken them (it’s finally time to sell a few of your best shots as prints…or at least give them to friends and family). 
  • Given the above, put together a complete, minimal set of gear that you can be happy with for the foreseeable future. 


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