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Friday, 28 May 2010


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"Well, that was fun. Amused myself, which is something."

Mike, your columns are amusing,
even when they are serious.

There is a "George" in all of us.

And reading T.O.P.
reminds me the world is
still our oyster.

I am George and so is my wife!


I took this advice from you before (don't remember which post) and got a Canon G9. Now, more than 2 years and maybe, oh, 7000 photos and 250+ videos later (I have small kids) I understand the shortcomings of the G9, know why I want an SLR, understand why that SLR must have good video and have a decent idea of what type of lenses would work best for me (a smallish zoom and a very good close up low light prime).

And I really really enjoyed the 2 years with the G9, in my mind, the $600 I spent on it was some of the best money I ever spent.

Another way to select a camera is to base your decision on cutting edge technology so that you, in your own small way, can progress photography by taking photos that couldn't be taken previously due to technical limitations of the equipment. This approach is implicitly a criticism of the Leica film camera obsession and also praise for the Nikon D700 that has allowed me to photograph without intrusion the most private of ceremonies.


Substitute "Gilles" for George...you nailed my path if not the specific brands. Today, the d700 and 2 lenses are all that I use. In the closet... the Mamiya, the Fujifilms (2), the d200. the cheap Sigma lenses... and so forth

Only wished you had written this much sooner.


Forgive my slowness, but could you expand upon this concept of taking photographs, please? I'm not sure I'd be happy in any time-consuming activity that takes me away from camera reviews, pixel peeping and admiring my latest camera from several arm's-length angles.

To "George": When starting out, first figure out what type of images you want to make. No point in purchasing a P65+ back and a camera to accompany it (even if you can afford it) to make 8x10s or images for the 'net.

Second, find a camera store with a clerk who knows what s/he is talking about and will invest time with you (an hour or two or however long it takes) explaining the features of a few different cameras. Hold them in your hand and see how they feel. How's the balance? Do the menus make sense? Are the buttons in the right places?

After you've narrowed it down some, take the nice salesclerk's card and go home. Think back over your visit and which camera seemed best to you. Go back tomorrow and buy it.

Ignore the kit lens that comes with the camera. Buy a body and a fixed lens that fits your subject matter. Learn how to use the camera and how to see.

Add equipment as your photographic style and your needs demand. Yes, 'needs' is such a relative term.


Don't forget the old adage "Walk before you run"
Putting a D700 into the hands of a neophyte might scare the be****s out of him and leave him totally lost

I still think the first step of a cheapish camera to dip one's toe in the water is a good idea.

Get bitten? Then go for the big guns

I've made part of this pilgrimage myself, but have stopped short along the way for one simple reason: weight. Specifically, the percentage of my body weight that I can carry comfortably for more than an hour or two. I got to the APS-C camera and realized that no matter what, I'm not going to carry a full-frame body and glass. It hurts too much. So rather than advising people to start with the full frame "top," maybe it's best to start in the middle. If you do need to trade up, you've cut out the digicam purgatory, and if you can't even hack the bulk of a small DSLR, you haven't yet spent a fortune.

Substitute a900 for d700 and call me George.

Although I know the feeling and I rather be shooting with the best I've got it's not the only thing that decides if I take the dslr out or the p&s.

I got myself a pana fz5 some years ago and still believe that it's a great camera.

Most of the time I take it with me when the dslr is just to big to carry around.

I always suspected that photo writers wrote fiction [wink wink].

I feel that in these last two posts there may well be a criticism of capitalism. Our industrial society is constantly goading people into buying more, buying upgrades, buying better than last year's stuff.

It is easy to say, but a sense of thankfulness or contentment, may be what is needed to rest these stupid purchasing games. I advocate one camera, one lens, and be done with it all until it breaks.

I think that some (a moderate amount!) of money "wasted" over the years is inevitable and should be looked at as paid-for experience, or a pay-as-you-go college course. We've all been to 'George College'. Fortunately I did mine mostly via eBay (say what you will) so I bought and sold quite a few lenses before I 'graduated', didn't lose much (some I even made money on), and came out not only with the kit I wanted* but a much better understanding of why it was the right choice.

*except some Pentax Limited primes.

Mike, I have never forgotten an observation you made some years ago to the effect that cameras and photography are actually two separate and distinct hobbies.

And the quest continues. I just ordered a K-x to replace my K20D - better low light capabilities according to Those Who Know.

Thanks for a great post.


Somehow I "got it" from day one, but then in those days the choices were so much simpler. After borrowing a Petri 7 for a few months and know that photography was it for me, I bought my first camera. It was 1972, and I bought a used Nikon F with non-metered prism and the 50mm f/2 Nikkor. A year later I bought a light meter (!) and a 35mm f/2.8. A year later, after using Leica M2 with 35mm Summicron for a few months, I sold the Nikon and bought a Leica CL with 40mm Summicron, which I still own and use. When I needed to start using longer lenses, I got a Leicaflex SL and a couple of telephotos. I also shoot Pentax 6x7 and Arca Swiss 4x5. I have bought very few cameras in the past 38 years, and, as you suggest, have saved a ton of money by buying only the best, usually used, and then just using the hell out of them. I just bought my first serious digital camera and it pains me that my camera shop guy felt compelled to make sure I knew the body would wear out far quicker than any camera I've ever used before. But he also admires that I only bought the body (E-PL1) so I could use 35-year-old lenses on it.

Yes, it's true that buying and trying is part of the fun. That's why you seriously miscalculated in your cost estimate. I figure that if he starts with around $4000 and a D700, after 5-6 years the total will be more like $54,000 because he will still have to go through all the iterations you describe, but it will end with a medium format system, probably something like the Leica S2!

Man, I'm really glad I started with the P&S, 'cause I seriously cannot afford an S2 system!

"Even if, by necessity, it has to be inexpensive."

How do I get in touch with your lawyers for the damage done to my laptop reading this sentence while drinking coffee?

This article was so brilliant because it is so true. Thanks Mike!

"I always suspected that photo writers wrote fiction [wink wink]."

More like autobiography, I'm afraid....


Even if I agreed with the "buy your last camera first" approach, absent a bit of luck, I'm not sure that it's possible for the typical beginner to know which camera / lenses will best serve their needs in the long run.

This certainly would have been true in my case (although I'm no beginner), as the subject matter that I'm passionately photographing today wasn't even a blip on my radar two years ago. That I managed to buy into a system that has largely been a perfect match with my needs has far more to do with luck than any careful thought or meticulous research on my part.

Paul McCann's comment that one should "Walk before you run" has truth to it.

I was at our local zoo a few years ago, shooting with a single camera and lens, when I happened upon a young lady who was also out shooting. She, on the other hand, had an enormous amount of expensive camera equipment with her. So much, in fact, that she was using an empty baby stroller just to hold it all. I mentioned that I liked the camera she was struggling with using. She replied, "Thanks. I only wish I knew how to use it!"


I was out at a truck show yesterday. I nabbed my Olympus E-1 and 11-22 and 50 Macro. The 11-22 never came off the camera. The E-1 is old and slow, and only 5Mpixels.

The E-1 and the 11-22 lens made fantastic photos and didn't get in my way. What else is important?

never bought a new one, I have a couple similar Manfrottos, i keep one in the car and one in the house so I don't forget them.They have all kindsa dings and scratches and even a little corrosion, but some how in spite of all that they work fine (Did buy new heads though) Same with lenses, I have a bunch of them. only one bought new my 12-24 'cause at the time i couldn't find them used. marks and dings on most of them too! They work great!
One of the great nbenefits of used is that they hold their value quite well. so you don't feel so bad when you sell a body at $1500. less than you paid for it!

You wrote:
"In real life, "buying and trying" is part of the fun. And there's no one right journey for everyone-just as there's no one correct destination."

While I wanted a DSLR as I contemplated leaving the film camera world, at the time, I was mortified at the thought of sensor dust, and having to clean the sensor. This was before auto-cleaning in the bodies. I had a friend with a Canon 20D or 30D, who had dust problems.

So, I opted for a Sony F717, which sported a superb Zeiss-designed lens, 38-190mm f/2.0 - 2.4, a tilt body, and a macro mode (= close focussing, not true macro @ 1:1). I also had a wide-angle converter @ 26mm.

Meanwhile, as auto-sensor cleaning became the norm, I started saving money for highly-rated DSLR lenses in the focal lengths I wanted, and finally made the plunge into the DSLR world.

In many ways, the Sony Digicam images are as good as the DSLR images at my print size (8x10). But the DSLR offers much more flexibility, of course, including using a true macro 1:1 lens, which I missed from my film camera days.

During those Digicam years, I learned to use Photoshop, so those were formative years for me.

I don't think I'm the only one who made a conscious decision to enter the digital world with a Digicam, with the intention of getting a DSLR later.

Do we qualify as having taken a 2-step course of action?!


Don't you think you and this blog's readership suffers of survivorship bias?

After all, we're the Georges still sticking around. Many more strayed from the path when the next thing caught their interest. For them spending kilobucks on "serious" equipment before even knowing whether photography is their passion for life (or at least a few years) would have been bad advice.

if you start every hobby by buying only the best equipment, you might go broke.

In December of 1969 I bought a used M3 double stroke with 35mm bugeye, 50mm, 90mm lenses and a Visoflex 1. I sold the Visoflex; replaced after a bit the 90mm with a 90mm Tele-Elmarit; after many years I sold the 35mm (got tired of the look of the bugeyes I guess).
Now I have a GF1 with Leica M adaptor--which I find to be fantastic. Do I use the M3? Yes, but only for very wide angle work with a 21mm.
And, the M3 is worth much more than I paid for it 40 years ago!
So--buy good stuff (used is OK) and keep it and enjoy it for a long time.

I think that the buy-in for photography as a hobby is relatively cheap compared to many hobbies, even if one starts with very nice equipment like the D3x.

Take up a different hobby like motorcycling or some other motorized hobby where the buy-in is several thousand dollars or even tens of thousands of dollars and you will blow past the cost of the best Nikon gear in short order.

Spending $8k for top notch camera gear is no more crazy than spending $8k for a base model Harley-Davidson or $15k for a used 4x4 truck, it just depends on what's important to you (and whether or not you have the money to spend in the first place).

Tell the Mrs. that you're thinking of buying a new Harley, leave the brochures laying around, talk prices and payments, and then at the last minute tell her you've changed your mind and decided to buy a new Nikon D3x instead. Most likely she'll be greatly relieved and be glad you bought a new camera.

@ Mike: "Far from being a symptom of profligacy, "buying the best from the outset" can be a money-saving strategy." which of course is why you choose that particular car a while back.

With tripods, I struggled with a cheap, secondhand tripod for years. I didn't buy a decent one, because I didn't like using tripods. Actually, I didn't like using that tripod, despite doing everything I could to make it more rigid and useable.

The tripod I have now (Manfrotto 055B, and I had to go just now to see what it was) works really well and I like using it, so it helps in the making of pictures, rather than getting in the way.

I would still advise to start with a point & shoot, albeit at the top of that range. Once you have mastered squeezing every bit of quality from--for example now--an S90 file, you might truly enjoy the D700. Besides, it might be good to have that S90 hibernating in your closet, in case one might go full circle....

Greetings, Janneman

The advice I've been giving to beginners who ask me what DSLR (their first) they should buy is to spend as little as possible on any Canon or Nikon DSLR from the past 5 years or so. It should be possible to find something less than $500. The kit lens is fine. Shoot it a lot for at least a year. Refrain from buying extra stuff they don't need like a 2nd lens. When they go to buy their second DSLR they will have a much better understanding of what features they would find advantageous for their photography.

Tripods. Yes, well, there's no way any self-respecting gear slut can get by without having at least three, and claiming that "they all have their uses."

There's the small, lightweight "travel tripod" that fits comfortably in a decent size shoulder bag if necessary. I find that a nice little Gitzo basalt model fits the bill perfectly.

Then there's the "medium tripod" that lives in the car. A slightly beat up but sturdy carbon fiber model is perfect, particularly because it's bound to get even more beat up as other junk is frequently piled on top of it. A heavier steel or alloy type would also be fine for this role.

And of course there's the seriously high quality "large tripod" that will comfortably and reliably hold a 4x5 field camera at big-guy eye height, also carbon fiber because, well, you're going to be lugging it around out in the field. This one is also the "studio tripod," capable of impressing friends and clients with it's sheer bulk and mechanical awesomeness.

The other two to five tripods that were bought in the process of figuring out what a truly useful tripod is either live out in the shed, or have been re-commissioned to light stand duty.

Ah yes, light stands! No ... I'd better stop there ...

Excellent, thought provoking series of articles - however, as Matt Needham says, it doesn't matter what camera you buy (as long as you get a recent used Canon or Nikon) - much like the 70s/early 80s, when you just bought a Nikkormat or a used Nikon F or Canon F1.

Daughter 1 (interests: mountain climbing, travel): used Canon 20D, used 17-40L lens - total setup - under $1,000.

Daughter 2 (Fine art degree student): used Canon 30D, used 35mm/2.0 and 85mm/1.8 lenses plus a used Mamiya 645 with standard lens for black and white film work - total under $2,000.

Me: Canon 5D with 135/2.0, Canon 5Dii with 35/1.4 lenses. Cost - a bit more, but all I had to do was replace my two 20 year old film bodies with full frame digital.

I've still got the Pentax 67 and the heavy Gitzo tripod I bought 30 years ago.

It's simple: buy the best quality used gear you can find, buy as little as possible so you can concentrate on making pictures, and thank George and his friends for making good lightly used kit available.

I came across the Dear George letter from google reader. First off, it made me smile lots, then I realised that there's a crazy parallel with my hobby/passion, which is playing the guitar.

If I sat down and thought about it long enough I'm sure I could have a similar 25 step plan.

Since 1984 I use only one Nikon F3 with three lenses. After a big and long reluctance I went to George's path. Buying a P/S, then Nikon 5400, then D70, then D90 (after 4 years resistance not to replace body).
In that process I replaced Kit Lens with two power AF-S Zoom for over $2,000. The devil really started in me.

I have to thank Nikon's Decision to release FX format and the Back-to-Film movement. It really stopped me to buy new gears. Even now I use my film gears back.

I think the devil hasn't die in me yet. A Leica MP Purchase sounds sometimes in my ear (Thanks to Mr. K. R.).

ROTL ...

Just a point of note: crop lenses work perfectly well on the D700, just at crop resolution.

I'm at the D300 stage, still finding interesting things in the menus, most recently a pretty usable b/w mode:


Got an itch for new lenses, mine have taken a beating in concerts. I foresee at 24mm and 85mm in my future.

There seem to be two basic truths here that we all need to balance.
1. Early adopters take a beating.
2. People on a budget buy everything twice.
I'm happy with what I have right now. The 13x19's coming off my five year old D70 and a couple of lenses look great to me.
For film, an ancient 500c and a couple of lenses suits me fine. Your needs may vary.
Stop looking AT cameras and start looking THROUGH them. Go out and make some frames.

I've been down some of this route with three cameras over the last 10 years, but never upgrading until I knew exactly what was wrong with my current camera. And somehow ending up paying about $1000 worth of camera each upgrade, I guess that's my pain point. Ten years ago, I could have bought a D30 for slightly more than what all my purchases have cost me so far, without having any lenses for it. I've only sold one lens and one tripod (not too frail, actually too big), and all my lenses have seen action within the last month. So I'm only a sorta-George. I don't have the spare money to be a real George.

Oh, and my macro takes stunningly good pictures. It's my main portrait lens.

@Doug: Not of your wife is really into men on motorcycles.

I enjoyed your two-part post on the sojourn many make in this hobby. I started with an Olympus E-1, and bought the 14-45, the 50-200, and the 11-22. I then went to an e-510, and last year, went to an E-P1. I love it and haven't really wanted much since.

Yesterday, my son in law showed me his brand new Canon 7D. I listed for a few minutes as I shot at 8fps and marveled at the bright viewfinder. Then I realized that I really don't like weightlifting, picked back up my E-P1 with the 20mm Panasonic prime on it and happily shot away for the rest of the event we were at.

I am too poor to buy cheap :(

OK OK OK you all have me wanting and dreaming about....my two lens kit: A Nikon SP like camera....maybe alittle smaller with a 35 1.4 to 85 1.4 lens on the RANGEFINDER digital camera

I was in an asylum suffering from being a
'george' without knowing it.Then I read your
letter and am now fully recovered.Thanks Mike.

This is by far the best gear advice ever. as for me I ended up with a used M8 and 35mm v4 cron. Surprisingly it's killed my gear lust, I guess you stop craving new features when your camera doesn't have any. also won't become obsolete on me because it was technically "obsolete" before it was even produced. Haha

My first camera, at 15, was a Praktika with a 50 mm and 135 mm. The quality of the lenses was poor but I simply loved taking pictures.

Then I earned a bit of money and at 22 I invested in a Nikon F801 with 35-70/2.8 and 80-200/2.8. Of course two months later Nikon presented the F801s with the spot meter I wanted..

I really didn't like the weight and size of the camera and lenses. I never used the 80-200. I sold all the gear and lost a lot of money.

With the money I bought a Contax Aria with a 50 mm/1.4 and a 28 mm/2.8. I loved it. Unfortunately someone stole the kit.

I shall invest again because I love to take pictures. It will be digital, I guess, (but I have a weak spot for the Nikon F6) and prime lenses for sure. The Zeiss line up looks very tempting.

I should have followed my heart because at 14 I knew what was best for me...

For learning about wines, there's a lot to be said for starting with the good ones in tastings. It's easier to learn the distinguishing characteristics of different grapes and different styles of winemaking when you're experiencing them in pure form, and strongly expressed, rather than having to sort them out from among intrusions before you're at all sure what they taste (smell, look, etc.) like.

I think digital may have finally made this solidly true for photography. The instant feedback lets people make really fast progress to understanding the basics of exposure.

I have to disagree with the suggestion to not buy a kit lens (18-55mm with a new APS-C camera purchase). It's true that you'll be able to learn to 'see' better with a fixed focal length but for someone that already has that talent, why not spend another $100 to get a 3X lens (most with IS) that will be very handy as a framing tool when you can't easily change your position. Yeah, they are painfully slow on the long end and build quality is so-so but IS can help with the shutter speed, and the build makes them very light. And if you want something for limited DOF, augment with a 28mm f/2.8 or 50mm f/1.8. In Canon equipment, the kit lens and either one of those used will set you back only ~ $200.
If you've got a grand to spend buy a 17-55mm f/2.8, but I suspect that most folks don't want to spend that much on their everyday lens and would find the lower cost option very useful.

Spot-on about guitars. A lot of people try to learn on badly made, poorly set-up instruments, and get turned off right out of the gate. I was lucky to learn on an inexpensive but decent guitar, and it made a big difference.

Funny, string instruments [guitars not included--I have no clue about them] are the other way around: the cheaper the instrument, the better.

Cheap instruments allow the user to have a learning curve expensive instruments don´t. On top of that, expensive or "good" instruments tend to be very demanding regarding the technique involved, and every single mistake will be amplified. Especially for 100+-year-old instruments, where the wood is settled and much more stable than new instruments.

Jillian's post is incredibly touching, but something jumped out at me:

The only f/1.8 G lens that Nikon makes is the DX 35mm 1.8G, meaning more than half of the D700's pixels are going unused? Results are results, and she sure seems happy with them, but I'm tempted to start a collection to get her a 50mm 1.8 D, covering the same rough angle of view and maintaining the same low light capabilities, but opening up all of that sensor (and viewfinder).

Or am I missing the lens that she must have?

Google just suggested me your "letter" post and I was a bit confused being that I was not already familiar with you. I should have read that first.

That said, I've had my same low-end point and shoot for almost 5 years now and I honestly don't need anything better. For all of 5 minutes I thought of taking pictures of anything other than my cats or sister and then realized I have no interest in it - a strong reason that suggesting the high end camera.. might be unwise.

So sorry to hear about your loss, Jillian.

Your husband did something very wise in upgrading to that camera and setting it for you.

Readers of TOP need not be reminded of this, but for the wider public, a reminder what photo equipment is for.

"Jillian's post is incredibly touching, but something jumped out at me:

The only f/1.8 G lens that Nikon makes is the DX 35mm 1.8G [...]

Or am I missing the lens that she must have?"

@Will: I wondered the same thing. I figure it's "probably" either the 50/1.8D or the 60/2.8G, but i guess dwelling on such minutiae is kind of missing the point.

Great post, Mike.

I agree that we've pretty well reached the point where digital bodies can last us a while. We have all the megapixels we need. Video? I spent a month in Vietnam and never took my camcorder out of the closet. We need solid improvements on what we have: 100% viewfinders (How can I capture what I see if I can't see what I'm capturing?); economical full-frame sensors with variable aspect ratios a la 4/3; fast primes for Micro 4/3 would be nice; a Foveon sensor that doesn't crap out above ISO 200; an escape from pixels entirely--one of the inventors of the pixel recently commented he would do it differently today. There's no need to chase the latest marketing gimmick.

Nice series Mike! Though the initial "letter" was more amusing, I actually like this followup better.

The general genre of "advice to George" articles (the serious ones, not your amusing tongue-in-cheek ones) frequently strikes me as presumptuous. They presuppose that your ultimate destination is known at the beginning (and coincidentally, the same as the author's). But as you well know that's rarely the case. The world of photography is large, and beginners will probably not know in advance which corner of it they'll end up inhabiting.

Playing around with cheap gear can tell you whether you need that nice 85mm portrait lens, or a fast 400mm sports lens, or a 105 macro, or whatever. Slowly upgrading is expensive, but buying into the top end of the wrong niche can be even worse! I've got 4-5 cheap lenses I don't use much - they showed me that I didn't want the expensive versions of them. Rather than a waste of money, I call that an inexpensive education.

I can't deny your 25-step course cronology really hits me hard! a slap on my face!

I just started using entry-level dslr couple months ago and still figuring out what wrong with my photos quality. Fiddling with various setup doesn't give me clues on what is wrong since the image sharpness is not consistent.

Until one day I figure out that budget zoom telephoto lens and camera's ccd sensor has it own limits (although both were from the same maker).

No matter how much I tried to squeeze it, it's the gear that unable to deliver what I wanted.

Now I know what I need for my hyper focal photography.

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