The Gear Trap

I take part in a Facebook group that acts as a support for photographers around the country. The group mainly consists of people new to photography and therefore the questions pop up time and time again about what gear they should buy. Most already have a usable DLRS and a couple of lenses, but seem to have got into the mindset that they need to spend a lot of money to get better. I have decided to call this “the gear trap” because unfortunately there is no 100% guarantee that if you have better gear you will get better photos.

In a series of posts I am going to offer some advice on various pieces of equipment, starting with lenses.

If you buy an entry level DSLR camera then it will always come with a lens attached. If you buy in the higher end then you will often have the choice of a body only purchase. The lens that is attached to a camera, when part of the purchase, is generally referred to as a “kit” lens. Depending upon the package you have bought you may have a single lens or a couple of kit lenses. They will span a focal length from 18mm to 300mm. Kits lenses are generally made out of plastic including the parts that we refer to as “glass” which is why they are light and also fairly robust. While we tend to think of them as cheap if you break one you will discover that they can cost up to $500 to replace.

Now when people on the Facebook group start talking about buying lenses it is generally with the goal of replacing their kit lenses.

So what is wrong with a kit lens.

If you are buying a camera from the likes of Canon, Nikon or Sony then put simply “nothing”. For the most part they will take excellent images and even perfect images if the person operating the camera knows what they are doing. More expensive lens will have a better optics (but not so much that it will be noticeable in most pictures), will focus and track faster and normally will have an aperture that can go larger. However how much that is of use to you depends upon what you are doing.

So before you reach for the credit card to buy that new lens consider the following:

  1. How well do you know the operation of your camera? Put bluntly if you have no idea what the effect of shutter speed, aperture and ISO have in getting images then putting a better piece of glass on the camera is not going to make a blind bit of difference to the majority of the end results.
  2. Work out a clear idea of what it is you will be shooting the most and then see if you can shoot it with the gear you have. When I started shooting it was mainly sports that took my fancy. The 70-300mm lens I had with my camera was more than adequate shooting my daughter play netball or to capture the local club rugby game, but it failed miserably when I tried to capture her in roller skating competitions. The difference between the sports was that there was less light in the indoor environment. The answer was a 70-200 F2.8 lens in this case.But on the other hand most of my model shoots were in the studio under lighting that I could control. I was shooting mostly at F8 so didn’t need a lens capable of F2.8 and so I shot with the lens that came with the camera for nearly 3 years. It is still used a lot for these types of shoot.
  3. Are there other ways to improve the final result? A lot of poor images are often the lack of light rather than issues with optics quality. While better lenses generally allow you to operate in lower light, the same results can be achieved by introducing other light sources. Your camera’s built in focus doesn’t actually know what it is seeing when it focuses. Rather it is looking for the point where the contrast is the colours is at it’s strongest. This is why cameras have problems focusing when the light is lower.
  4. Determine what your upgrade path is likely to be for bodies. Until around 10 years ago pretty much any SLR lens that came from a manufacturer would fit and work on the other bodies that they made. This is no longer the case. While the higher end lenses specifically designed for full frame camera will generally work on crop sensor bodies, lens designed specifically for crop sensor bodies may not work on full frame cameras. Also not all cameras (especially entry level ones) have the lens focus motor built in so they require the lens to have its own motor. There is little point in buying a whole lot of lenses that will not work later if you plan to move to full frame at some stage, because the lenses are likely to outlast the body.

Finally if you do decide that you want to go with better glass then a great start is with a 50mm F1.8. They are relatively cheap at just under $200, are quite fast and enable you to go into low light situations. And because you can’t zoom them you need to think about where you place yourself and move to get the shot.

2 thoughts on “The Gear Trap”

  1. Paul, in general I agree with you.

    However, note that Canon sold kit zooms with their entry level cameras for a while that were truly horrible. Even the untrained eye could see how bad they were. I believe the latest versions are better.

    Even a capable kit lens will be “slow”, i.e., won’t give you much opportunity for shallow depth of field. This, plus the different rendering a good lens can give you are good reasons to add further lenses to your kit lens rather sooner than later.

    Finally, I don’t quite understand your warning about buying APS-C format lenses with the exception of Canon EF-S lenses. APS-C format lenses from other manufacturers, such as Nikon, Pentax and Sony are FF compatible. FF cameras typically support a “crop” mode so that one can continue to use one’s APS-C format lenses.

    1. Thomas, the main reason behind the article was almost to act a “devils advocate” and get people to think about the equipment they are using before thinking that buying gear will automatically improve their images.

      I can honestly say that I have not seen bad quality in the kit lenses that came with the two Nikons, however I did run into their limitations in terms of low light shooting and they have been replaced.

      In terms of the warning about APS-C lens is again to make people aware that there could be possible issues because not all lenses are created equal.

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