Every so often, I think it makes sense to evaluate your gear and think about how the pieces are performing and whether you should consider upgrading or adding a piece, or whether there are pieces that aren’t being used enough to warrant hauling them around. I’ve been looking at my gear and considering options, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about that and explain my thinking — and get your suggestions about things I haven’t thought of.
Part 1 is about the bodies and lenses. Part 2 (coming soon) is about bags, accessories and other hardware like tripods and toys. Part 3 (coming not quite as soon as Part 2) is about software and the digital darkroom environment.
I carry two bodies:
And my lens kit includes:
- Canon 100-400 IS — my go to lens.
- Canon 300mm f/4L IS
- Sigma 180mm f/3.5
- Tamron 28-300mm
- Canon 1.4X II Extender Teleconverter II
- Canon 2X II Extender Teleconverter II
I estimate 85% of my photography is done using the 7d and the 100-400IS, handheld on a shoulder sling. Since I do so much bird photography, that combo is a killer setup, easily handheld and hard to beat. It also makes it easy to get into habits where you don’t stop and think about alternative photographic options often enough, a charge I plead guilty to (and which I need to change). When I’m out shooting small feathery things, if I shift to using a tripod, it’ll typically be the 300 F4 + 1.4x on the 7D, also a combo that works, and which creates a sharper image than the 100-400 under similar circumstances. Sometimes I’ll handhold the 300+1.4, but the 100-400 is more compact and easier to handle (IMHO).
I’ll usually put the Tamron on the 30d and keep that handy as my second body. that gives me a lot of flexibility — but the reality is I rarely seem to use that combo; if I’m doing a lot of wide angle work, I’ll swap the Tamron onto the 7d and shoot there. In 2010, about 96% of the images I took and kept came from the 7d.
I never seem to haul out the 180 Macro. That is not a fault of the lens. When I do use it, I really like it. But for some reason, I just don’t get in the macro mindset. “Fixing” that is a goal of mine for 2011. That’s just photographic tunnel vision, and I know it.
So what changes have I considered here?
The obvious one, as a photographer of small flying feathery things: bigger lenses — a 500mm or 600m lens would be really nice. And some day, I will, but not any time soon — given the cost of large glass like that, it’s not going to happen soon. Maybe I should set up a paypal tip jar so everyone can donate to the “buy chuqui a big honking lens” fund…
I’ve admitted to having a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Tamron. There are things I like about the lens, and the lens performs well at the wider side (28-125), and is a nice one-lens unit for when I want to travel light — which you can’t do with the 100-400. But I find that it doesn’t go wider than 28mm (about 45mm equivalent on an APS crop sensor) sometimes frustrating. I’ve tried a few times to convince myself to upgrade it and get something with a wider option, something like the Sigma 17-70 or the Tamron 17-50. But in reality, I’ve never convinced myself I really need this upgrade.
And I don’t. There is, really, nothing wrong with the Tamron but the fact that I’m not currently comfortable using it. When I sit down and think it through, the range of images that are impossible to make without that 15-30mm range is really pretty small, and unless I were to go to a high end lens in that range (something like the canon 17-55 F2.8 EF S) it wouldn’t really upgrade the image quality in the key ranges – re-arranging deck chairs, not fixing the core problem. A better alternative would be the Sigma 10-20 to supplement what I have, and my best bet with a lens like that is renting it when I’m going on a trip where I know I’m going to want that option. Which is what I plan to do…
I use the 1.4x a fair bit on the 300 F4. I’ve used it occasionally on the 100-400, but that’s not an officially supported matching. Being able to push the 100-400 with a tele is a nice option to have, but in the stock configuration, you lose autofocus (but I’m starting to experiment with the “tape three pins” hack). The 2x is more problematic. I found it effectively impossible to manually focus reliably using the 30d, 300/F4 and 2x (putting it on the 100-400 was even worse) and pretty much stopped carrying it. The 30d viewfinder is fairly dim and relatively small, and the combination just doesn’t work well for me.
Of course, it took me buying the 7D to figure this out. There’s a huge difference between the viewfinder of the 30d and the 7d; the 7d is larger and brighter and it makes a world of difference when you get into the world of manual focus, especially in marginal light. If you switch into Live View, you can do even more, but I’ve found that really works best on a tripod. So I’ve done the tape hack on the 2X, and I’m going to give it another whirl and see waht happens.
None of that is a replacement for a 500 F4 or a 600mm behemoth — but it’s a lot cheaper, if I can make it create good images. If I can’t, it was still worth the experiment, and then I can retire them again.
And that brings me to the 30d. As I was analyzing what I was doing and how I was taking pictures — and how I was NOT taking pictures, it became clear to me the reason I wasn’t using the Tamron/30d combo much wasn’t the lens; it was the body. The 30d is a perfectly good body — but technology marches on. The quality of the 7d image is significantly better than the 30d — when I load my images into Lightroom, I can tell at a glance at the thumbnails which ones come off the 7D and which come off the 30d. The difference between the two is that significant. So without really thinking about it, I have been shying away from using the 30d, except in the “heat of battle” when I really need both bodies going at once. In most circumstances, when I go wide-angle, I move the Tamron to the 7d and STILL don’t use the 30d.
So it’s clear to me that if I make any change here, that change is that it’s time to upgrade the 30d to a modern body; that’s the weak spot in this setup, and I was routing around the weakness without really thinking about it. The obvious thing to do would be to buy a second 7d — but if I’m honest with myself, having a second 7d is overkill for what I’m doing.
So I’ve been thinking that the cost effective upgrade is to move to a body that has the Digic 4 processor in it, so I’m thinking the proper upgrade would be a T2i or T3i. It uses the Digic-4, it would give me the same 18 megapixel RAW image and it’d support video like the 7d (and I’m starting to dabble in that a bit — in fact, being able to shoot with one body and doing time lapse or video with the other is probably the key reason to upgrade). And the T2i is about 40% of the cost of the 7d, and the compromises I’d be making going with that as the 2nd body instead of a 7D seems like a good compromise, especially since I could then spend the money I don’t spend on the new body on the 500mm. Or at least put it away towards that…
So if I’m doing any hardware upgrades in the next year or so, it’s likely the 30d upgrade to a T2i (or perhaps a T3i. I’ll decide that when I’m ready to buy…). The second would be something like the Sigma 10-20, but for now, I plan on renting that when I want one until I see how much I use it for real, and whether it’s worth investing in. And at some point, I’ll realize I have enough money socked away for some big kicker glass. But not for a good while…
One lens I’ve looked at, FWIW, is the sigma 100-500. Right now, I don’t think that lens is for me. I’ve gotten mixed feedback about it, mostly comments about image softness at 500, and it clearly isn’t going to replace the 100-400 in my life, so I don’t see it as a good investment. And the new Canon behemoth that is going to have the built in teleconverter and go out to 560mm? That one has me drooling, but it looks like it’s going to be even more expensive than the 500mm, if and when it ships. so maybe I’ll see it as a chance to buy a used 500mm off someone who has to upgrade…
Does this make sense? Anyone have any other suggestions to consider?