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Friday, 28 May 2010


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The Jimmy Carter Approach

There was a time when I would have followed George into the abyss of the camera shops. As I reentered the world of photography the past couple of years I have been guided by one old truth and one discovered along with the joys of slipping on a backpack in the winter here in Southeast Alaska. The former is to lust in my heart for things I want, but don't need. The latter is to travel light. My base weight for winter backpacking is 11 pounds, adding a DSLR to that would be absurd.

So, first it was the LX3 and then the GF1, which allows me to make use of the lenses purchased in the mid 1970s. I do lust after the lighter lenses -- and can easily afford them -- but have decided that I really don't need zoom and the older lenses work fine.

I will resist, just Like Jimmy did back in the time when I bought the OM-1.

Thanks for making my day. All true

I bought my current digital camera (an Olympus C4000Z) in October 2002. Well-regarded camera at the time, I'm still using it and the fact is, those little 4MP images print very nicely at 8x10 and even 11x14. I even added a flash sync socket to it.

Controls drive me insane though, which is why I had wanted to upgrade to a dSLR. That's where the trouble could so easily have started.

Which system to get into? Well, it seems like the systems with the bodies that appeal to me and the systems with the lenses that appeal to me (and aren't outrageously expensive) and the systems with the flash capabilities I'm interested in are all mostly mutually exclusive. I'd need Pentax to make a compact, full-frame camera with an EOS mount, Nikon CLS flash system and Olympus JPEG processing, or I'd always wonder if I'd bought the right camera. The grass is always greener and there are so many fences around you to look over...

Worse, if I went on the basis of reading reviews on the Internet, I'd never own anything because they're all noisy, don't have enough pixels/have too many pixels, the autofocus is slow/unreliable/inaccurate/might catch fire, the lenses all have back/front/side/some other random direction focusing issues and every other copy is a lemon anyway, the flash systems are unreliable/inflexible/might blind your cat/electrocute you...and then, 6 months later, I'd have to sell it all at a loss and switch systems because some other company brought out a new camera or lens and my current system of choice is now horribly obsolete and doomed to oblivion and the need for instant gratification in this digital world means I have no choice but to switch.

Or I could take my current approach, which is to keep using my ancient Olympus for point-and-shoot snapshots or when I need to put something up online quickly, while doing my regular shooting with the Canon F-1, 28 and 50mm primes and Yashica TLR I recently acquired, all of which cost me exactly $0.00. Yes, I need a scanner now and I'm lusting after the 24/1.4L and 85/1.2L lenses, but I'm also enjoying shooting with these cameras; The F-1 just works without getting in my way and the TLR slows me down and makes me think, in a good way.

The really funny thing is 6 months ago, before I had the film gear, I took that old Olympus whose controls "make me crazy" on a trip to Costa Rica and spent 10 days shooting without once thinking about the limitations of the camera I was using.

Which leads me to believe that we'd all be happier if we just went out and shot photos in the first place!

Mike this bit of writing is so good I now feel as guilty about not contributing to TOP as I do about not contributing to PBS I promise to end this guilt as soon as my D 700 arrives.

This makes more sense than any other camera buying advice article I ever read. I am at Step 18.

I started with a full frame film camera, moved to a point and shoot because digital was "cool". Moved "up" to a Rebel... decided digital actually wasn't giving me what I wanted and went back to my old Nikon F801s. Bought a nice 50mm f1.8 and haven't bothered to shoot the Rebel for anything except family snaps ever since (it became the point and shoot). So impressed was I with rediscovering what I had all along I promptly bought an F65 for next to nothing because nobody wants film cameras anymore. Now I have a backup. Next will be the 35 f2.0 and the 85 f1.8. Damn, I could have saved some money by just sticking with what I had!

Hey Mike,

How did you get access to Nikon's and Canon's business plans?

Great article.

Firstly, hilarious . .. I skipped at lot of the steps and ended up with the D700 and a painful dose of a reality check when I went to insure all this equipment for international travel!!!!

Using the theory "buy it once" for all my 2.8 lenses, carbon fibre tripod, Really Right Stuff ball head and L bracket, plus the software puts a whole new meaning to "financial hemorrhage".

But then, as the Mastercard commercial would say . .. what is the value of a fantastic photo that you have taken yourself. . priceless!!!!!

$400 isn't enough, granted. What's wrong with a D90 for $800 and a 35mm 1.8DX for $200?

For $1,000, it's a compact, powerful DSLR that he (as a new photographer) probably won't outgrow for quite a while. The lens is inexpensive but versatile, with close focusing that will allow him to shoot portraits, landscapes and work in low light.

I make extra money shooting events and portraits with a D90. It's capable and flexible, and suits me fine. My next body will be a D700, but it's completely out of my budget at the moment, and I assume it's totally out of George's as well.

Nobody likes a gear snob.

Hmm.. I once bought a Canon Powershot A620, and I'm pretty happy with it. There still isn't even much available in its range to replace it (I mean, no reason to throw away a perfectly functioning camera). Also bought a secondhand Canon 20D to replace my moms analog Canon body, but that combination is rather heavy and bulky.

I'm not going to get payed from my photo's why should I spend several grand on equipment?

btw, good advice for him to buy some prime lenses. Bigger sensor and replaceable good lenses is the only reason to buy an SLR. The 20D has similar performance to the A620 unless I put my prime lens on it and take it to theaters or other low light situations.

Brilliant reply. It would be a lot funnier if it wasn't true. Its always funny when people ask for YOUR opinion, then complain about what you tell them. Maybe you should start charging a consultation fee!

Was grinning and nodding through the 25 pointer! Good one. I've been holding on to my canon S2 IS for about 5 yrs now, but I'm not as much a photographer as I want to be. All my photos are of new places I visit (about 2-3 trips a year). And the S2 does a good job as I like nature shots most.

So my next buy will be a dslr like D90 but only when I know I can spend say 10 hours a month on just photos!

One tip to bear in mind is that the gear-lust and photography skills are opposites. A great photographer is not the camera, but the guy behind the plastic box, and a great photograph is what lies beyond the plastic box.

Now that is funny as hell. But you forget, purchasing the "right" gear up front requires wisdom, and wisdom can't be told to you. You have to earn it by screwing it up yourself.

Step 23, oh yes:
"...you are going to buy the best, the very best, to put the demons to rest. With a grim set to your mouth and a feeling of unstoppable determination, you purchase that D700. .... Elation vies with guilt as you write the check."

I know that feeling all too well. It sets in abruptly when you found the right rationalization for your purchase. I remember myself clicking on that "proceed to checkout" button with a "feeling of unstoppable determination"....and the Ode to Joy playing in my head (or the Ride of the Valkyries in very bad cases...)

(I now hear my 17-55mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses snicker...)

As was said before: this post is an instant classic...

I disagree. My first and only digital camera has been an entry level DSLR and I have been very happy with it. I have shot wildlife, candid people, studio portraits, birds in flight, macro various astronomical objects, landscape, interiors, concerts all with this camera and have been paid for the same and have won a few competitions and have been invited to exhibit my photos. Seems like a pretty good considering the amount of money I spent.

Yes, there are times when a bigger format can be advantageous, but the important thing is to be able to identify those situations and then use the right camera if possible - be it a D700 or a 35mm with black and white film or a medium format film or a large format film camera. Jumping on the full frame bandwagon right at the beginning with possibly no knowledge of exposure or depth of field is just wasting money.

Why would one not consider acquiring good lenses and some film cameras - 35mm, medium format and large format with an entry level DSLR over spending all that money on a full frame DSLR? To me, it seems that for most situations, the smaller sensor size of entry level DSLR cameras offers no disadvantage, and for the few situations where you really want the bigger format, you have all those film cameras and can choose the best one. Has worked out pretty well for me so far.

You forgot about the part where he buys a Leica film camera, takes a bunch of murky black and white photos that are printed by a minilab and has to sell that too when he realizes that just having a name on a camera means nothing.

Some people worry about cameras, some about their photos. This column is all about cameras. Oh well...

I did a version of steps 1-25 for film, come digital I knew I had to go straight to the end game or not bother. My 1Ds and 4 L-series lenses are still going strong 5 years later...

Wow, what a déjà vu ! I'm also Mike and I also usually spend time recommending cameras to others ;D Anyway, great article, I shall definitely recommend it to some of the buyers who ask me for an advice.

P.S. I usually recommend keeping the kit lens, since (from my experience) a lot of casual photographers, who have point and shoot cameras beforehand, prefer the comfort of zooming over the quality of the image.

Thanks, Mike. Read both posts. Wonderful.

Of course, there are many things in life like this, and only so much time and money. When you learn which areas of life your too-cheap purchases frustrate you in, you will know where to take the advice given to "George."

Some would say you won't know what you're missing out on if you start too cheap, but I say if you need the best just to appreciate something, that isn't your truest calling.

the best wall of text I've read in a long long time :D pretty much sums up my experience in purchasing camera, haha.

I ended up with d700 too :)

Dead on and freaking hilarious. Should be required reading. HILARIOUS!

My path mirrors this reasonably well...

I started out using my undergrad's Pentax K-1000s. I wanted one, but didn't understand buying a used camera, so I grabbed a ZX-M. I wanted to cover my focal lengths, so I got an atrocity of a 28-200 3.5-6.3 Sigma zoom. I couldn't take pictures indoors, and I always wanted wider. On a trip to San Francisco, I bought a Samyang 18-28mm lens and took some of my favorite pictures with that bit of junk. I borrowed primes all the time, unable to buy one, and realized I'd made mistakes with my zooms. I favored a 24mm prime, deciding that was my favorite focal length.

A project came up that demanded many, many, many digital pictures, and I realized that a good digital would cost about what all the film and processing and photo cds would, so I got a Canon G5. Loved it.

Digital SLRs became "affordable" with the first Rebel and D70, so I sold the G5 to a friend and grabbed a D70 with kit lens and 50mm prime. The prime was too long, but was the only way I could shoot indoors. I hated the high ISO on the camera and found myself needing a wideangle. I longed for the 20mm prime.

I needed a 35mm film camera again for grad school, and knew I only had one lens that would cover. I liked what I saw from Canon files, so I sold the D70 and kit lens (buyer had no interest in the 50mm prime... to the coset, for now) and bought a refurb 20d and Elan7. Found a refurb 16-35mmL, which covered my wide angle digital, and I got a 50mm and 100mm prime as well. Life was good, but again 50mm was too long for digital and the zoom was very bulky. I got a 28mm prime and life was again good. I knew I'd never buy an APS-C lens, and one day I'd have a 5D and be free of the reduced format. Years of happiness pass.

I decide I want something smaller, and Pentax beckons. I grab a K20d, the 16-50/2.8 zoom for wide angle and for versatility, and the three pancake primes available at the time: 21, 40, and 70mm. I love the little lenses, long for the 15mm to come, but never really take to the camera, finding the files too noisy. I begin to wonder if I've made a mistake. The switch to Pentax from Canon has resulted in a loss of about $150, which I consider to be pretty good.

I notice the D90 has nice looking files, and that Nikon's primes aren't anywhere near as big as my Ultrasonic Canon primes had been. I figure a nice wideangle zoom and a 24 and 35mm prime would make a nice set with my still-in-the-closet 50mm prime. I'm about to jump when I find an amazing deal on a D700, combine it with microsoft's ebay cashback, and hastily pull the trigger. Instead of a short zoom, I get an 85mm prime. With all the savings, and the 85 instead of a wideangle zoom, the D700 kit comes to just $150 more than the D90 kit would have (something of a a false equivalence, since I could have done that deal with the ebay cashback too). I sell the Pentax gear, and actually make money on some of the lenses (I'd picked them up used). The upgrade from Pentax to Nikon ends up costing about $300.

Now I have a D700 with 24, 35, 50, and 85mm primes, and I want for almost nothing. As I mentioned a week ago, I consider a 20mm or 135mm, but mostly just want a smaller camera to complement the system that I honestly could see myself using the rest of my life... if only the camera keeps running that long. At long last, I have only primes, I can shoot in any light, and I love my images. The files allow for prints far bigger than I ever really make, and if I absolutely needed bigger prints (for something I can't presently imagine), I'd rent a D3x. The D700 is truly all I need. The road was long, but worth traveling.

And yes, I ended up, to a T, exactly where you predict, plus two lenses that actually see use pretty frequently, one of which was "accidentally" purchased 5 years ahead of schedule, and which spent most of that time with no camera to be mounted onto.

xsi + 18-135mm = good karma ?

I get a lot out of all your writing Mike, but this post is a gem. It deserves to be picked up and repeated and reprinted all over the world again and again. Oh, I so recognize that completely set conviction that portends an impulse purchase within the week.

Lord, you nailed it perfectly, and I'm right in the middle of it!
One day it's a self-indulging thought of a mythical "light kit" (if only I had *that 20 ais... or that 100 2.8 E... or...), another day it's "Oh, man, I do *love* so much professional equipment, and 24 is the way to go: gotta sell the cheapy (but takes wonderful pictures...) Tamron 28-75 for a 24-70. It's 8x the cost and 3x the weight, but I *love* professional stuff, feels... good, and "reliable". That's important, Honey (we all have one, no?): I *need* my equipment to be reliable, I must be able to count on it.
Then it's again a weird idea of "light" kit, this time enthicing a reaction from the sweet half suggesting a PEN and "just a couple of lenses"...
The only sane thought, from a photographic standpoint, that I have had, is to buy a damned printer... well, 2 years after "starting", and 6k $ down the drain, guess what I still haven't bought? :-)

I'll print your article (with what printer, by the way? :-) and hang it over my bed...

Great work!

I've always heard photographers say that the quality comes from the photographer, not the camera.

If pressed to offer similar advice, I'd actually suggest starting with a low-end DSLR and a P/S. Keep the P/S on you at all times and take pictures often. Learn what's good, delete the rest (probably ~99.9% of shots). Use the DSLR to learn the technical side.

After you've had these for a time sit down and decide what your photography priorities are. Do you want to try shooting for a living? Is this just a hobby? Do you end up only taking shots at family gatherings that won't be printed large?

This is the route I took. I'm almost 4 years and about $1k down that path with my D80 and its cracked body (thank you very much cobblestones in Venice) and I don't even know the brand of the P/S. I'll need to make my decision in another year or two, but if I decide that this is only ever going to be a hobby, I'll be glad I didn't drop $3k on day one for a camera that I'd be too intimidated to learn how to use.

You have the benefit of knowing what you ended up doing and wanting, and the skill to use your tools to the utmost, but don't forget that the path was important.


You did miss the part where, nostalgic for your early film camera days, you dig your 30 year old OM-1N out of the closet and bypass digital SLRs altogether. Not sure how long this phase will last...

I took a much different path but no less expensive. I went straight from analog to a Nikon D80. But the kit lens was absolutely horrible and I became so dissatisfied that I dumped Nikon altogether (after 25 years of Nikon cameras) and went to a Canon 5D Mark II.

I use the macro all the time, but the close-up tube stays in the bag.

My twist to this story is that my wife wouldn't let me sell the old Nikon gear to offset the cost, she took it. Now she and my 10 year old son use it. Wish I had started with a P&S so that they weren't shooting with a Nikon D80 (equiped with a better lens). Perhaps I should buy my son a cell phone :) and get him away from the dSLR before he actually figures out how to use it.


im in step 8 :D

I'm a little polished now but I think I made every mistake listed here at one time or another, good to know I'm not the only one.

Absolutely right on! I was lucky enough that my mother bought me a Pentax MX w/ a 50mm MF lens for my 16th birthday. That camera had a mechanical shutter, which worked without a battery (which drained right away due to some electrical short). Learned to set exposure based on the instructions on the Kodachrome 64 box. Ten years later, I left that camera on a bus in Bangkok. I loved that camera.

Then, many years later came digital. I started with a Minolta 7hi, which has a stunningly (28-200)lens attached to an atrocious EVF. I took some really great photos with that camera, photos that really want to be printed large, but of course the resolution doesn't allow that.

Soon after buying the Minolta, Pentax (my original love) came out with a DSLR, and then another, and another...Well I bought the first model, and five years later, my used K-7 should arrive on Friday.

But during those five years...the endless reading of reviews, lens tests, MTF figures, ebay watching, DP Review blogs. I'm F***ing addicted.

Today I drove 40 miles to the closest store where I could pay cash for a DA21mm Limited, so that my wife wouldn't know. My *istD, kit lens, and a 24-90mm are currently on ebay. Hopefully they will fetch enough to pick up a DA70mm Limited (via paypal, so once again my wife doesn't notice) to complete my set of pancakes.

LightRoom 3 anyone?

Mike - Well Done!

My first comment on all of your excellent writings on and of photography! I'm kind of relieved too - this was me, to a TEE, but it was me back in the early 90's with Nikon film gear, F100s, 80-200/2.8s and such.

When digital 'took over' I sold off all my GAS goodies and kept only the old, first FE2 and a 50/1.4, thinking I'll just "keep it simple" if I ever decide to "get back into" photography.

Now, years later, my sole users are a Leica M6 with a 50/2 and a Hassy 501C and 80/2.8. My entire darkroom, the star being my as-new Omega D5XL and complement of Schneider enlarging lenses - I mean the whole works (thanks to the list that Craig built) cost me upwards of..oh, $600? Dry mounting capability included.

I haven't bought a new camera or lens in at least three years now and no longer have that nagging - - oooh! I NEED a new ____ASPH___!

I thank you for this article for two reasons: One. I realize for myself that gear acquisition and camera/lens coveting are part of the growth path of most photographers and I am no exception. Two. I realize now that I've come to the stage that the camera - be it film of digital - is no longer the "main thing", it's the photographs one makes with them. A redundant statement to be sure, but ever so true.

I will continue to be a faithful reader for as long as you care to continue the excellent writings! Thanks Mike!

This is a great article, and my own path has been quite similar. I also had a brief but very enjoyable stint with film, and I have kept all my cameras. I now shoot with a 5D Mark II and a M9. I love them immensely, although the M9 is now my go-to camera for everything outside of work.

But if I had bought a 5DII or M9 from the start, I would have missed many photos that could not have been taken with a camera that couldn't fit in my pocket. I shot with a Canon S45 for two years straight, and upgraded to a S70 and used that for another year until I started on the slippery slope of other cameras. I had my camera on my belt or in my hand all the time, and the small size enabled me to unobtrusively capture high quality images almost everywhere I went. I couldn't do that with a large, heavy and noisy DSLR.

On the other hand, moving to a DSLR has enabled me to take many, many photos that couldn't be done with a compact, so there are tradeoffs. Getting a DSLR opened up the world of portraits with diffuse backgrounds, rich and three dimensional colour, ultimate low light shooting, f1.4 lenses, great dynamic range in one photo, instant response and superfast AF, shallow depth of field, HD video, and more. You just can't get those things with small sensor cameras, and even m43 is still lacking in many of those departments.

The M9 allows me to do most of the above, but in a much smaller and more discreet package. And it is darn fun, too.

Had these choices been available to me, ha, I'd still be spending a lot of money. A M9 and a handful of lenses is way over the D700 + two primes budget. But I didn't know from the outset that a simple purchase of a camera would turn into a major passion and vocation, so buying all that gear from the start would have been crazy.

I still use a compact camera or two. I typically have a Canon S90 or Ricoh GRD III in a pocket, and the 5DII for work and the M9 for everything else. This way I have all bases covered.

The mindset behind this post and responses exists in almost every hobby. It's like the bicyclist who buys an $8,000 carbon fiber bike but is 20 pounds overweight. We have visions of achieving success if we only had "the right stuff". God help us all!

I think I cheated a bit. I started off with a Pentax K20D and 16-45 which I still have. You should put a special warning up about Pentax though, cause there are the Takumar's, the K's, the M's, the F's, the FA's and the DA's... not to mention the *'s or the Limiteds ;-), I have 2 of the Limiteds so far the 43 & 77, do you see how I say so far....

Thank you so much for the very detailed 25-step advice! What a wonderful guide for new photographers to follow.


(Remember, the more cameras that are sold and discarded, the cheaper we can buy nice used equipment...we all win when others have camera buying addiction)

This article is fantastic! For anybody that is serious and isn't willing to make the investment for a good camera and good glass you will definitely be experiencing every one of these steps!

I very much enjoyed that...

I couldn't agree more.

so funny and so true. tho' i'm still on the D300 stage and i adore my 60mm AF-S micro. however, what's missing is the fact that what one really starts to think about is an M9....

Dear Mike,
You are 100% correct on the assumptions. But keep in mind that you don't buy a diamond ring for your first date because it could potentially lead to marriage. Or do you? As many have mentioned, it's a journey. A journey that challenges us until we proved worthy of a fine equipment.

On the other hand, photography is art and the camera is just a tool. Great photos can be taken even with a point and shoot.

but what about the user who gets tired of photography now he has a D300s sitting in the closet, shame it wasn't only a point and shoot that he had invested in

"but what about the user who gets tired of photography now he has a D300s sitting in the closet, shame it wasn't only a point and shoot that he had invested in"

I'm on thin ice here, because digital is more volatile in pricing and sometimes investments haven't been. But, if you buy something good, chances are you can get something back out of it when you decide you don't want it any more. The point-and-shoot is just money down the drain.

The only camera I ever had that went from a lot to nothing in value was a 2003 point-and-shoot (digital). Of course that was the era of the transition, so it doesn't really count.


My trajectory:

-1.3 mp Sony P&S in 2001
-6 mp Sony DSC-H2 ("premium" P&S) in 2005, because the 1.3 mp wasn't cutting it anymore.
-5 mp Nikon L10 for $99, just to have a little camera to carry around in 2006... it died in 2010 after a zillion snaps.
-Sony A200 DSLR (on major sale) with a kit (18-70mm) and a nice zoom (55-200mm) for under $500 in 2009.
-Purchased a 50mm 1.8, and use it 90% of the time.
-A Sony DSC-W330 to replace the Nikon L10 when it died.

In the meantime, I take pictures every single day. And, I've been watching myself improve too. Fun. No, the gear is not completely stellar. But, between a good, small P&S that I use a lot, and a 50mm prime on a good DSLR, I'm having fun.

...And that is what counts.


If I would have only seen this and shown it to my wife before purchasing a couple p/s kodaks, a d50, d80, d90, several lenses, several flashes, and other random equipment. I sent this link to her today and guess what I'm getting for Christmas! Thanks Mike!

While your logic is very reasonable and the math really can't be argued with, I have to question how wise it would be to send someone with a small budget a recommendation for something 6 times their budget. If someone is looking to just BEGIN a hobby, is it wise to invest so much right off the bat? They could very well decide a few months in that it's too much effort or that they don't enjoy it as much as they thought they would. Similarly, there could be reasons for the small budget.

Imagine the ordinary person who only makes about $25 - 30,000 a year (about average, and close to what I make). Recommending a person spend close to 10% of their yearly income on a hobby that they are only dipping their toe in is a bit akin to throwing a child who has never seen water before into the deep end of a swimming pool.

(I could also argue that not everyone is driven to buy the best, shiniest, new thing that comes along, and that many people can't be bothered to put up extraneous gear on ebay to constantly finance new purchases)

Hilarious :)

D60 with 55-200mm FTW.

Thank God,I am not alone.

LOL. Ok, this is me...just replace with Canon. Bought a G1, but the G2 came out a week later, so I upgraded with a slight loss. Horrible shutter lag etc. Got a 10d a couple of years later. Finally skipped some steps and bought the 1Ds Mk II....and the Mk III came out 3 months later. *sigh* However, since I pulled the trigger on a pro camera and *real* lenses, I'm still happy...3 years later. But I do see a 1Ds Mk IV in my future...and shopping is FUN.

Nice article. Its a pity so many people are obsessed with the hardware part of photography, when the real magic happens in the software !

Save your hardware money and invest some time to learn post-processing.

Even Nat Geo photographers come up with not so great images, despite the best equipment, knowledge & experience, which ultimately need a software rescue or polish.

Original Nat Geo poster :

Color corrected & scaled vertically :


There are plenty more such Nat Geo examples. This is not an isolated case.

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