Hypothetical Minimum Set, Part Two


Last week I wrote about a hypothetical set of gear for me if I were to retire today. It presupposed the gear I already have in my closet, and my choosing of which things to keep, which to get rid of. 

Today I want to propose a different hypothetical case. 

Let’s pretend for a moment that after Rodale I went back into the Silicon Valley world again, and didn’t have time for photography so didn’t acquire anything in the digital era. Well, maybe a convenience camera or two, but nothing serious. Now I’m about to retire, and I want to return to and enjoy photography as my hobby. So what would I buy today starting from scratch?

Again, this is a hypothetical retirement I’m talking about, emphasis on the hypothetical. Some of you assumed I was retiring after I wrote the last article, so please look up the meaning of the word hypothetical if you don’t know it. 

If starting from scratch really were the scenario I faced today, I’d be putting together a strict budget right up front. I’m going to be a little arbitrary and put that budget at US$10,000. Certainly that ought to be enough to buy some serious gear I can enjoy taking nature, landscape, and wildlife photographs with for the foreseeable future, right?

Oh, one more arbitrary thing that’s going to shock some of you: of that US$10,000, I’m going to set aside at least 20% of it for “unknowns.” In other words, I really only have US$8,000 to spend. 

Why the 20% set aside? It’s simple, and more people should be budgeting big hobbies like this, especially if they aren’t completely sure of what they need and what they should buy. And, by the way, even the “sure” ones probably are wrong, so they ought to do the same ;~). 

Simply put: when you’re entering into something and committing big dollars, you should always want to hold back some reserve for the things you didn’t think of. 20% is okay here. It might be I discover that I (again hypothetically) need a better computer, or some software I don’t have, or more storage, or I need to replace something that I was counting on using (an old tripod), or even that what I thought was the lens I’d use a lot isn’t and I’m totally missing not having another lens. You just don’t know the unknowns until you’re deep into the venture, but you might not then have the ability to do anything about them if you’ve blown your budget. So US$8,000 it is. What will that buy me?

Caution: I’m going to be a bit arbitrary here. These are the items that interested me most in each maker’s line that fit into my budget for my types of photography; your mileage may vary. Also, prices are drawn either from B&H or the maker’s Web sites and rounded.

  • Canon — two 7D cameras (US$3000), 10-22mm, 40mm, 70-200mm f/4, 100-400mm (US$3900)
  • Fujifilm — two X-T1 bodies (US$2600), the 10-24mm, 35mm, 56mm lenses (US$2600), and I an wait for any telephoto option worth having.
  • Leica — a t-shirt. Just kidding. I can’t afford any Leica system in this scenario.
  • Nikon — two D7100 bodies (US$2400), 10-24mm, 35mm, 70-200mm f/4, 80-400mm (US$5100)
  • Olympus — two E-M1 bodies (US$2600), 9-18mm, 25mm, 35-100mm f/2.8, 100-300mm (US$3000)
  • Panasonic — see Olympus, but substitute two GX-7 bodies (US$2000) or two GH4 bodies (US$3400)
  • Pentax — two K3 bodies (US$2400), 10-17mm?, 35mm, 50-135mm, 55-300mm (US$2100)
  • Sony — two A77 bodies (US$2400), 11-18mm, 35mm, 70-400mm (US$3400, but needs another telephoto choice to be equivalent)

Yes, there are some idiosyncrasies in those lists, and I’ve left some money for buying other accessories like flash, support, and so on. Yes, I could have picked cheaper backup bodies, but I’m not going to: my preference is to have a real backup. That way I don’t have to think about which camera I have in my hands, I can just think about the picture I want to take. For lenses, I basically picked a wide angle zoom, normal prime, and two telephoto lenses I could live with, where possible. I’ll rent exotics if I need them (and if they’re available for the camera I pick). Again, these are my choices: if you were to do this same exercise (and you should), your lists would vary. 

Even that little bit of research started to reveal a few things to me (which is why you should do the same exercise). For my needs:

  • Canon in EF-S and Nikon in DX, supplemented with some full frame lenses, both have a solution I could live with. Canon came in at US$6900, Nikon at US$7500. Is it worth a premium to buy the Nikon? Maybe, maybe not. I think it would come down to my evaluation of the two most extreme zooms (wide end and long telephoto end). 
  • Fujifilm isn’t all there yet. I’d be out of the wildlife game until Fujifilm stepped in with the right lenses.
  • Olympus is looking good at US$5600, but the two zooms at the extremes are a little shaky, though there are lots of other options in lenses (the Panasonic 7-14mm, for example), with more coming.
  • Panasonic costs more than Olympus if I go with the DSLR-type bodies.
  • Pentax’s lens situation I wouldn’t be happy with. 
  • Sony’s lens situation is a bit of a head scratcher, as one of the lenses I want is labeled as discontinued on Sony’s own site even though they’ve since replaced it. The telephoto and prime are good, but the wide is weak and I wanted another telephoto option that isn’t available). 

See why Canon and Nikon sit so firmly in control of the DSLR-type market? And why Olympus is the one the leakers usually talk about first? 

  • Here’s a message to Fujifilm executives: you’re perfectly fine as long as the user doesn’t want anything longer than 56mm (85mm equivalent). You need to figure out what the telephoto options really need to be, and make sure performance is better than with the one you currently supply.
  • Here’s a message to Pentax executives: WTH? The lens lineup looks like the sandwich menu at a 70’s deli that never got around to changing with the times. Lots of pickles, but no modern choice of meat. 
  • Here’s a message to Sony executives: the reason why you have 1.5% of the DSLR marketplace in the US is that your lens situation is out of control. Even after looking closely, I’m not sure what I’d be buying into. 

They’re called interchangeable lens cameras for a reason. Limit those options, and getting me to buy just gets incredibly more difficult. It’s probably one of the reasons why sales are declining even at the top end, too. 

You might have noticed that there are no full frame cameras in my list, and no 36mp cameras, either. Well, on my self-imposed US$8,000 budget, I don’t really think I could afford a complete system with those things. I start making far too many compromises to get the body. Remember, I’m hypothetically retiring in these examples. I’m not going to be blowing much money on gear later short of winning the lottery or finding that I had a sleeper investment in my 401K that’s paying off big time.

FWIW, I spent two weeks recently in the Galapagos with the Fujifilm, Nikon, and Olympus kits I described. From that experience, I would absolutely go with the Nikon if this hypothetical situation applied to me today. Again, Fujifilm left me wanting at the telephoto end, and big time. The Olympus was a challenge to get keepers with on fast moving bird action (the Fujifilm probably would have been, too, but I quickly avoided the 55-200mm lens because of that). 

On the other hand, for the scenic work and when I was doing animals-in-environment shots, both the Fujifilm and Olympus did well. Some may even prefer their JPEG rendering. However, looking at IQ after raw conversion, I’d still rate the D7100 as the keeper. I’ll have more to say on this soon. 

What was I getting from the D7100 that I couldn’t quite get from the X-T1 or E-M1? Well, this, for instance:

INT EC GAL April-2014 D7100 36168.jpg

Even though I’m at <300mm equivalent here (albatross have huge wingspans), the real issue is the speed of the bird relative to me and the fact that they were not always flying straight patterns near their landing spots. Oh, and cluttered backgrounds that all the cameras want to try to focus on, so you need override ability to that which works. With 24mp (actually about 22mp with this crop), there’s incredible detail in the birds features, and no visible noise despite using ISO 800. But here’s the kicker: that’s shot 3 in a sequence of 8. All in focus. The best I could do with the other cameras was 2 of 8 in focus. 

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