Saturday, July 10, 2010

Gear - multiple bodies

I try not to write about gear too much. Gear should work, not be the focus of major thought or discussion, and be the tools used to do something - take images.

There's a funny reply to the comment "wow great photo, what kind of camera do you have?" - something like "would you ask Shakespeare what of kind of pen he had?" The tools play a part, but they don't do the thing, they don't automate the making of great images.

Time and effort is best spent focusing on learning about subjects, locations, photographic techniques. Time should be spent researching, appreciating the work of others, and trying to grow as a photographer.

All that said, I just read a very good review by Thom on the 200-400mm VR lens. And then just a day later I read the very brief (too brief in my mind to really count for a review) of the new 200-400mm VR2 lens by Trey.


I agree with pretty much everything Thom said about the lens in his review. Great lens, and have issues, and struggles at 400mm for long distance shooting, and struggles even more with converters. But close up to medium distances it is great. Thom also noted much of the time he used the lens he used different bodies, as new ones became available, and very often got varying results.

Having Multiple Bodies
There are multiple benefits to having more than one Digital SLR. The most obvious of which is that you can be out shooting and have two lenses mounted and ready to go. One might have a short zoom, and the other a long telephoto. Like I said, that's the most obvious of reasons to have 2 cameras.

Assuming the cameras are from the same manufacturers (same lens mount), and might share the same batteries (like many Nikons) - there's the benefit of swappable batteries, multiple chargers, similarities in menu systems and controls, etc.

A second body is also great as a backup. Most of the time you can only shoot with one camera at a time, so, you only really NEED one camera, which makes the second camera often best thought of as a standby in case the first camera breaks, fails, dies, etc. I've bought 5 digital SLRs and more than a couple times I've had to send one in to be repaired. Actually, I never send the D70s in to be fixed. It has trouble writing to the memory card, and some times writes jibberish. The D200, D300 both went in for focus issues, and the D300 more than once. The D300 actually also had a sensor die that detects the state of the mirror (it would stick UP).

In reading Thom's review, and remembering some of the problems I've had with gear, it reminded how good it can be to have a second body. Focus performance can be a very frustrating thing to investigate. Thom said that for his 200-400mm lens the major thing regarding focus was the body, not the lens. I agree.

Last year I wondered and worried about my D300 and 200-400mm VR and the focus or lack of focus performance I was getting. As part of that I wound up going back to shoot with my old D200 and was shocked to discover that the D200 was working better for fast focus tracking.

I sent the D300 in to be "fixed" and they tuned it, cleaned it, and also set everything to the opposite of how I had it (release priority, small jpg, 9-point, blah blah).

Recently I've been using my D300s and have had some strange focus problems. With the 200-400mm I've had it hunt briefly for focus, and then give up. I scratched my head for a while, and then tried the D300 and the problem went away, it was working properly. Most likely for my issues with focus it is my gear and it is that I let my gear get dirty and I push my expectations to where I should probably get a pro level body like a D3...

So, my post was motivated by this discovery, and I finally got to the point. Having more than one camera to use allows for an entirely different set of tests you can try to see if it is you, or the lens, or the camera, or the conditions you're shooting in, or maybe nothing is wrong and everything is behaving as best as can be expected. With one camera and a problem, you might never be able to figure it out, because you have no other camera body to make a comparison to.

Focus problems with a pro-sumer level dSLR is a very common thing. I've had questions and some times actual focus problems with all my gear - as early as with the D70s and Tamron 18-200mm. Back then it was me, and my novice ways. I didn't understand focus, auto-focus, and it works be "Seeing" contrast. Try focusing on the sky or a brightly lit white wall without features - there no contrast and the camera will hunt and find nothing. Auto-focus works by seeing a change in brightness levels (contrast) and adjusting the focus until there is a sharp or distinct transition (my un-technical description). Cameras use two type of focus sensor, straight-line sensors and 2 perpendicular straight-line sensors grouped together as one.

That's auto-focus 101. When things start to get complicated is for moving subjects, placement in the frame, the direction of the movement, the speed of the movement, and the settings and horsepower of the camera itself. Trying to figure those things out and what works best and when isn't easy.

Skyway Robbery Pt 8 (plus animation)
Being able to rule out a faulty or dirty or mis-configured or mishandled camera and lens is a huge thing. Not everyone will push their gear to the limits. I don't travel to Alaska or Africa, or other exotic places, but I do seem to push things.

Birds in flight or sports are probably a couple of the most demanding focus situations to shoot in. And birds are probably harder since they are small and can move in all directions while for most sports the subjects remain on or close to the ground.

If you are upgrading to a newer camera, keep the old one. If you have a good camera now, consider buying another lesser one, used, and keep it around as second to shoot with or test things out when you run in to problems.

5 years ago I felt I really spend a lot and was done buying gear when I bought my first dSLR, a D70s and a single lens. That was 2005, now it is 2010 and I shoot with 3 bodies often taking 2 out on a day. The Fuji S5 is great for high dynamic range shooting and makes a nice landscape camera. For everything else I use either a D300 or D300s, and usually it's the D300s since I can switch to video. / Jon