Photography is a “gear” art form—it takes more money to get seriously into photography than to, say, get seriously into watercolor painting. First, you dip your toes in the water with a new camera and a new lens, and then suddenly there’s the constant desire to upgrade. Will a new camera, a new lens, a new tripod help you take better images? There are few photographers I know who don’t wonder what it would be like to shoot with the latest, fanciest, most expensive gear.
It’s not the gear that makes the photographer, however. No gadget or gizmo is going to improve someone’s vision or compositional skills. But a better lens might allow a photographer to capture an image in lower light or with a less distracted background.
Here’s a guide to some areas in which a bit of gear upgrading goes a long way.
Ever since digital cameras first became commercially available, there has been a continued increase in their capabilities combined with a decrease in the price you pay for those capabilities. There have been increases not only in resolution, but also in dynamic range, internal processor capabilities, high ISO performance, autofocusing and more. That means if you’re shooting with a camera that’s five or more years old, you can see tremendous benefits with an upgrade.
Consider the following when deciding if it’s time to upgrade your cameras.
Resolution. For most photographers, it’s foolish to think about getting a camera with less than around 24 megapixels, maybe even 30 megapixels. That’s because it’s not just about how large you can possibly print, but also about capturing finer detail and about being able to crop and still have a decent size file when you go to print.
Dynamic range and high ISO. The range of ƒ-stops between the lightest and the darkest a camera can capture is called dynamic range. High-end cameras can capture around 12 stops of dynamic range. The more pixels on the sensor, usually the lower the dynamic range, especially as ISO increases. This is an area where there has been dramatic improvement in recent years, and it’s one of the main reasons to upgrade camera gear. If your camera produces grainy low-quality images at ISOs above 1600, a newer camera could be your ticket to better low-light image quality.
Autofocus. Although some aspects of autofocus design have been pushed to the limits in modern camera and lens design, we’ve seen a marked improvement in autofocus in the last few years, especially in low light. Some mirrorless cameras even have given us the ability to perform eye-detection focus in continual focus, at all times. Face-detection systems are going to get smarter and more accurate, but if your camera has trouble telling a face from a flower, it’s time to look at a camera with better autofocus.
Lenses are steadily getting better, too. It used to be that the lenses made by the camera manufacturers themselves provided the necessary optical quality, mechanical performance and reliability over time that photographers crave. In 2016, that’s no longer true. Sigma and Tamron—the biggest third-party lens makers—are making superlative lenses for most DSLR and mirrorless cameras, and in some cases, at better price points than the camera makers do. Even rising companies like Rokinon are producing some top-end lenses.
The best lens isn’t always the one with the largest aperture or highest price tag, but those are generally good barometers. A very important consideration is the amount of geometric distortion in the lens, in other words, how much the lens incorrectly bends incoming light. Lens reviews, and notably the independent review site DxOMark.com, will list the characteristics of a lens. Because a lens creates distortion doesn’t mean it’s not worth purchasing; there’s always a trade-off between optical quality and cost.
Moderate edge distortion in an affordable lens might be a better value than slight distortion in an extremely expensive lens, if you know how to compose your images accordingly (and if you can’t afford the expensive lens).
If you’re a landscape or a working photographer, a tripod is a necessity, but a flimsily made tripod is worse than not having one at all, because it will always let you down. A good-quality tripod and head combination does one thing, and it does it very well: It supports your camera and keeps it pointing where you point it.
Consider the following factors:
Build quality. Tripods aren’t something you want to have to replace every few years, so it’s worth investing in a high-quality tripod.
Height. Have someone measure your standing height up to your eye level and then add the height of the tripod with the legs fully extended (but not the center column), plus the head (more about that in a minute), plus your current camera. This combination should, at minimum, bring your camera’s viewfinder up to your eye level without your needing to stoop.
The Ability to spread the legs low to the ground, or ideally, flat. This is useful for working with and around obstacles like boulders and railings.
Number of leg sections. With the exception of very tall tripods with large-diameter legs, limit this to a total of three. By the time you extend a fourth section, the entire setup is more prone to flexing.
Aluminum, carbon-fiber or wood? If you’ll be hiking a lot or doing a lot of air travel, the extra expense of a high-quality carbon-fiber tripod is definitely worth it.
Center column or no center column? Purists will argue that tripods with center columns are less stable than those without. I’ve tried it both ways, and with tripods that allow me to interchange the center section of the crown, I’ve concluded that if the tripod itself is stable, the versatility of having a center column to use when yo
u absolutely need it outweighs the possible downside.
Supported weight. To be on the safe side when looking at a tripod manufacturer’s specs, take the combined weight of the largest camera and lens combination you’re likely to use and multiply it by a factor of 1.5X. There’s little sense in paying for and lugging around a tripod and head designed to support a Canon EOS-1D X and an EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L lens if you’re never going to use that heavy a combination.
There are two basic types of tripod heads most people will consider, ball and double-tilt designs. Almost all have a panning movement at their base, but there’s a growing trend, driven by the practice of shooting overlapping frames to create very high-resolution stitched panoramas, for heads to have either a single panning movement at the camera platform or panning movements at the base and camera platform levels. I prefer having panning at both the base and the camera platform, and if that isn’t an option with the head as it comes from the dealer, I add one.
Whichever head style you think works best for you, the one criterion that’s absolute is that as you lock the head down, the lens remains pointing where you pointed it.
Other specialty tripod head types include video heads and gimbal heads. When shopping for a video head, look for one with fluid-damped tilt and panning movements. You also want a head that starts and stops smoothly. Beyond shooting video, high-quality, high-load video heads do a superb job of supporting long, front-heavy, fast-aperture supertelephoto lenses.
As for quick-release, it has taken about 30 years, but the QR plate and clamp design pioneered by Arca-Swiss has become pretty much the de facto standard in quick-release technology.
I’m a big believer in available light photography. That’s to say, I’m happy to use any light I have available to use.
In the category of TTL (aka “smart flash”)-controlled, hot-shoe-mount flash, there are a number of new brands offering Canon-, Nikon- and in some cases Sony-compatible models. The cost difference between a new camera maker’s smart flash and a non-camera-brand version can be substantial. The Phottix Mitros, Yongnuo YN and Godox are good alternatives to add to your tool pool.
2016 is already shaping up as the year that TTL-controlled monolights went mainstream. Along with TTL control, these flashes add high shutter speed syncing as an option, as well.
Improve The Out-Of-The-Box Result For Any Lens
Because both cameras and lenses are complex independent machines, they’re manufactured within a range of tolerances. Combining any lens with any body means, odds are, no two will focus together perfectly straight out of the box, no matter how good the autofocus system is. This means, if you care about image quality, it’s worth every second to use your camera’s autofocus micro-adjustment controls to tune individual camera bodies to individual lenses.
Contrast-based focusing as used in Live View and EVF cameras is still better than the phase-based autofocusing needed for DSLR shooting, but even Sony a7 cameras have autofocus micro-adjustment controls, and tuning your camera’s AF systems to your lenses is well worth the time and tedium required. While there are several off-the-shelf systems, and you even can rig up a DIY target, over the years, I’ve found that the Michael Tapes Design LensAlign target used with FocusTune analysis software yields the most reliable and consistent results.
Ellis Vener is an Atlanta-based commercial photographer. You can visit his website at ellisvener.com.