The Camera You Need

Posted on August 21, 2009 by psu

If you hang around the Interweb forums related to photography long enough, you come to notice that the two most common questions are always first “what should I buy?” and second something like “what bag should I put it in?” or “I am going on a trip, what should I bring?” When you think about it, all of these questions stem from the same basic source of insecurity on the part of the photographer. What these questions really say is “I don’t know what I want to do with the camera, please help.”

I’m here to help.

The Simplest Answer

Use your iPhone.

The Next Simplest Answer

If you don’t want to read the rest of this article, then the answer I have for you is simple. What you want is the newest Canon point and shoot (or Panasonic if you can find it). Now you can get on with your life. Carry the camera in your pocket. Take the occasional picture when it comes up. This answer will work for 90% of you, including me. You just don’t know it.

The Rest of the Answer

If for some reason you think that the point and shoot above will not fit your needs, then you lied to me. You actually have some idea what you want to do with the camera, because you have some idea of what the point and shoot will not do. Usually this falls into two areas:

  1. You want a camera that’s faster to operate.


  1. You want “better image quality”.

Here the answer is also simple. You want the smallest and cheapest DSLR from whatever line you like (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony) along with a single lens. Just use that like you would use the point and shoot above. Of course, this introduces the age old question: “Which lens?”

Which Lens?

This is where most people get tripped up. The lure of the interchangeable lens camera is that you can change the lenses. The main problem with interchangeable lens cameras is that you can change the lenses. The way the camera should actually work is that it should come with a single lens glued to the front which you can only remove after you have taken a few thousand pictures and studied them to find out what you personally like to do with the camera. At that point the camera would allow you to change lenses.

But this is not how it works. You can buy all the lenses you want before you have even cracked open the camera, leading to what I will call “Premature Contingency Shopping Syndrome”. It works like this: new camera dork has his nice D40 with a kit lens, and decides that he needs “more flexibility” or something. Finding his way to the Internet, he comes across dozens of articles on what lenses he will need for various tasks. Maybe something like Thom Hogan’s long treatise on the Nikon lens system. He then spends his days shopping on and, debating with himself whether the 70-200/2.8 with an extender will be “good enough” or whether he should really spring for that 300/4 instead.

Then, of course, he’ll need something to use to carry all his purchases. Thom is there to help with a great piece on the best photo backpacks. Pretty soon the packing list for the trip includes two camera bodies, three large aperture zoom lenses, an extra-long telephoto, two flashes, pocket wizards, and a couple of light stands to be “sure” that you can get those good vacation shots.

Don’t let this happen to you. What gets lost in the shopping is the key fact that all these lists on the Internet are not about what you, they are about what the writer of the list needs. So think a bit harder about that question before you jump in.

The Camera You Need

It turns out that if you read over the two Thom Hogan articles links above, he has already told you what you need.

But lest you bemoan the fact that you’ll never have enough disposable income to afford all that, remember this: there will be a few photographers out there with that D60 and two kit lenses that are shooting up a storm. People keep asking me what the best lenses are. You now have two answers. One is the list of lenses you see above, the other is what you’ve got, used right. Start by learning to do the latter, then add better options as you can afford to.

You should really listen to this man. Buying some new lens will only do you any good if you have a specific task for which you need said lens. But need is a funny word. You can think that you need a lot of things. It’s hard to really know. In particular, reading articles on the Internet can convince you that you need a lot of things that you don’t need.

But listen to Thom. You don’t need that stuff. I will bet you a case of beer that if you open all your pictures in Lightroom (ok, or Aperture) and look at the metadata embedded within, you will find that 90% of your shots could have been taken with either a wide to normal zoom lens or a single focal length lens somewhere in that range. It’s fashionable to discount the so-called “normal” lens as a boring perspective without flare or creativity. But entire photographic careers have been built by people nothing but a normal to wide lens. David Alan Harvey is perhaps the most famous photographer to work this way.

I think you need to remember three things about lenses:

  1. Most pictures happen in the range of a normal lens or a wide to normal zoom.

  1. Wide lenses are good for pictures with exaggerated front to back spatial relationships, or shots in tight spaces. Take one of these if you like that sort of thing.

  1. Telephoto lenses are for things that are far away like small animals or the baseball game. Be careful about thinking you will get good sports pictures though. You won’t.

With this in mind, the stuff you actually need is simple to catalog:

  1. Make a list of pictures you want to take. Will they be close to you? Far away? At a “normal” sort of distance?

  1. Bring the stuff that will help you make those pictures.

Once you can answer these two questions everything else works itself out. It’s even easy to figure out what you need to bring on your next trip and how to pack it.

What to Take With You

Here is what I do. My thing is “cityscape” type pictures. I like the streets and the buildings and the overall landscape of the town. I shy away from portraits, candids and other people pictures just because I’m not much of a people person. I generally also have little interest in things that are far away from me because I can’t see them and I’m not that good at aiming the camera. On most trips I take:

  1. Nikon SLR.

  1. The Nikon 18-70 normal zoom.

  1. The Nikon 12-24 wide zoom.

  1. A flash or two which I never use, or only use badly.

  1. Extra batteries and cards and so on.

I pack a small bag (a Domke F-803) that can hold the camera, lenses and flash all at once into a rolling carry on. Anything extra that doesn’t fit in the small bag gets checked. I have another bag for my laptop. I have spent a lot of bag angst trying to get the camera and the laptop in one bag, but it just doesn’t work. So give up now.

When I get to the place (the place is usually San Francisco or Paris), I unpack everything into a drawer in the hotel room. Then, in the morning I ask myself “do I feel like taking wider shots today?”? Usually the answer is no, and I stick the 18-70 on the camera and throw the camera and the flash into the Domke and get on with my day. I have found experimentally that I can carry a D200 with this zoom lens all day in a bag with my other travel items and not get too upset. The D200 is too big though.

Sometimes, the answer is “yes”, and I take the wide zoom along. Then I get more upset because my bag weighs more.

For this latest trip, I knew I’d be trying to take pictures of the Tour de France even though I would not be any good at it. So, I threw an extra telephoto zoom into the bag but didn’t carry it that much. This zoom was not the huge and heavy 70-200/2.8VR. No, this was the smaller, lighter, slower 70-300/4.5-5.6. You obviously give up a lot with this lens, but I did OK. It did came in handy at the Giverny gardens, but I was unhappy most of the time it was in the bag because even though it’s smaller than the bazooka, it was still too big and heavy.

Summing Up

Over time I have concluded that your goal for taking a camera on a trip is to bring something that is as small as possible while still keeping your inner voices at bay. While I have managed to do this to some extent, I think my kit is still too big. If had two wishes in life, one would be that Nikon copy Canon and make a pair of smaller lenses that cover the 24-105 and 70-200 ranges with image stabilization and a constant F4 aperture. Then I would spend more time carrying only one lens. The second would be that they put the D3 autofocus and imaging engine into the D90 body. Hopefully both of these will happen eventually.

So now you know what you need, if you are me. But since I’m a dork on the Internet, I have implicitly assumed that your needs and mine are exactly identical. What this really means is that you should have stopped reading after the first section and just taken your point and shoot on the last trip. Chances are it will capture most of the pictures you want these days. That’s what happened to me on my most recent Paris trip. So the sad truth is, I don’t need any of this stuff at all. And therefore, neither do you.