It’s an oft-heard truism that tools don’t make the photographer. But they do make the photographer’s job (or in my case hobby) easier. The kind of photography I do requires both an ability to control all aspects of the image-capture process, and a high-resolution sensor and lens, all of which pushes me to use of a fairly good DSLR. I could take similar photos with a hand-held point-and-shoot, and have, but I’d spend more time dealing with the limits of the equipment, and less time improving my grasp of what makes a good photo. However, that’s changing as the high-end viewfinder and replaceable-lens cameras become more like DSLRs in capability, and perhaps someday I’ll fully switch to using one of those instead. I’m not a gear nut; I buy equipment infrequently and keep it a long time. But I buy things that I expect to make my chosen type of photography easier. Here is my current list.
My primary camera, bought in late March 2013, is a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, a step up from a 40D I had for about six years. It’s equipped with a Canon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS USM lens I bought in 2010 and a new Canon EF 70-300 f/4 L IS USM long zoom lens I added in January 2013. I keep a UV filter on the lens most of the time, and use a circular polarizing filter much of the time now, but otherwise don’t use filters. I don’t normally use a tripod although I own one. I prefer to hand-hold, something made easier by using image-stabilized lenses.
In 2012 I bought a monopod (a Manfroto MM294A3) that can double as a walking stick in the woods, for taking photos in very dim lighting under the trees, but I haven’t used it much, particularly since getting the new camera. I’ve also replaced my older tripod with one that’s more solidly built and yet lighter and smaller, a Manfrotto 190XV. It is light enough to carry into the field, and there are times when I do, although that is infrequent. The tripod is equipped with an Acratech GP ballhead with an Acra-Swiss compatible quick-release, and I’ve found that to be much more solid and reliable than the Manfrotto head I tried first.
I used to use Apple’s Aperture for general photo management and RAW image processing (I shoot in RAW at all times), as well as light editing tasks, but with that now discontinued I’ve switched to Phase One’s Capture One software for those tasks. I sometimes use Photoshop Elements/Express (PE) for more demanding editing, but the more I learn, the less of a fan of PE I become: they really crippled it for serious amateur use by limiting the image to 8 bits per channel and restricting the color profiles that could be used. And I don’t use it enough to see paying for the full version as a reasonable expense. I mainly use it for assembling panoramas now.
In 2013 I started doing HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography on my 40D, using Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2 (now version 3) to process images. It works with uncompressed 16-bit TIFFs in the Adobe RGB color-space, so I can retain the quality of my RAW images while processing. For HDR I use the camera’s ability to shoot auto-exposure brackets at a set ISO and aperture, then merge them with the HDR Efex Pro software.
I use a Macbook Pro to process the images. I use one of NEC’s PA-series monitors (PA301W) for editing, which can display the full Abobe RGB color-space, although the final images are still exported to the SRBG color-space for online use. The monitor is calibrated with an NEC SpectraSensor Pro (which came with it), a point-and-click process vastly easier than the manual calibration I used to do.
I have two other cameras: one is a Samsung EX2F . It’s not a bad camera, but it’s clearly limited compared to a DSLR due to its smaller sensor. It will, however, fit in a pocket and was cheap enough that I don’t need to worry too much about using it in bad weather. And it allows for both RAW and full manual controls, so it’s much more controllable than a smartphone. That’s my most portable solution.
Although I still have the Samsung (for bad weather or “must fit in pocket” situations), I wasn’t satisfied with the images, and in July 2014, I bought a Panasonic Lumina GX7. This is a mirrorless “micro four-thirds” camera, with a much larger sensor than the Samsung, although still smaller than even my old DSLR. It does RAW, and the larger sensor makes it work much better in low-light conditions, with ISO 3200 looking better than my old 40D’s ISO 1600 most of the time. It’s in the classic rangefinder style, complete with a viewfinder (electronic in this case) that works very well in bright sunlight. I have a compact zoom lens on it (14-42 PZ, which is equivalent to 28-84 on a 35mm camera). At 3.2″ (8.2 cm) deep with the lens it’s not quite pocketable except in a large coat pocket. And it lacks dust/moisture sealing, so a pocket isn’t a great place to keep one. But it’s small enough to carry in a small shoulder pouch rather than a big bag, and unobtrusive when taking pictures in a museum or similar (the electronic shutter, if used, makes it absolutely silent). It will also do the kinds of bursts I need for HDR, but I haven’t used that very much.
I take most photographs hand-held, in manual mode at ISO 200 to 800 (except in very dim light, where I will use ISO 1600 or higher if necessary). My 40D had a fair amount of noise at 1600, but was still tolerable under some conditions. The new 5DIII works fairly well at ISO 3200, and even higher in situations where noise is more tolerable. This makes evening and under-the-trees hand-held photography much more practical, and is a substantial advantage over my old camera, even more than I’d expected.
I try to maximize depth-of-field and lens sharpness by using an f-stop of f/11, and only opening the lens up more (using lower numbered f-stops) if lighting and/or shutter speed is a problem. Old-school press photographers were said to prefer f/8, probably as it was a good compromise between depth of field and light-gathering ability, but with modern sensor technology, f/11 usually provides enough light for what I need and is the limit before serious diffraction error limits resolution. Although I shoot manual, I do use auto-focus most of the time. For HDR I use auto-bracketed bursts of five exposures at 1 EV offsets now, although my 40D used three exposures. I originally did this using aperture-priority, but eventually discovered that the 5D could do this with full manual control over the camera (it’s in the manual, just very badly described).
I travel light. Shortly before buying the new DSLR, I upgraded my camera bag from the Tamrac 5684 Digital Zoom 4 holster pack I’d used for five years (the clasp broke, and I needed room for the long zoom anyway) to an actual bag, but it’s the compact Tamrac 5502 Explorer 2, and all it contains is the camera, second lens, some filters, a spare battery, Spyder Cube reference block, a lens brush for removing dust, and a rain-jacket for the camera. It does have room for a small notebook, and a compact flash unit, neither of which I have today. It’s still quite compact, and makes for a light load, even if I’m walking around all day.
The Spyder Cube is a white/gray/black reference, to use for White Balance reference when needed but I don’t use it often. This is a 1.5″ cube with white, gray and black faces, that fits in the bag’s outside pocket along with my CP filter.
The 40D had been a solid performer since I bought it in 2007, and the old 28-135 lens that came with it was excellent for a kit lens. The 24-105 was a substantial improvement over it, and well worth the expense; it just feels more solidly built, and the images taken with it are just a little bit “crisper”. The 70-300 lens was bought in anticipation of losing the 1.6x focal length multiplier when I went from the 40D’s APS-C sensor to the 5D’s full-frame sensor, as there were times I wanted even more than the effective 168mm that gave me with the 105mm lens. This has worked fairly well the few times I’ve used it, although hand-holding at 300mm really isn’t practical; it’s best if I use the tripod, so the combination isn’t often used.
The two things that most influenced my decision to move up to the 5D were a desire to get better low-light capability and its support for shooting brackets of more than three images. These have both worked better than expected, and made both shaded woodland and high-contrast urban photography much easier.