Photodendron - Getting Started
Choosing 35mm Photographic Equipment
Ed Bancroft, Bellevue, Washington
Reprinted from "Seattle Rhododendronland," Seattle Chapter newsletter
Acquiring new photographic equipment is a frustrating experience. If you do your homework and study the camera manuals of the various manufacturers, you may spend endless hours reading. If you talk to your local retailers and photographer friends about the "best camera," you will likely find they have differing opinions. Fortunately, nearly all of the well-known manufacturers are producing good 35mm camera systems nowadays.
As you progress as a photographer, you will likely come to rely on your own judgment and less on your camera's automatic systems. Therefore, it is important that you concern yourself with buying the basics and not the frills. The important basics include:
1. Lens interchangeability
2. Through the lens metering
3. Shutter speed controls of 1 second, or longer (to 1/1000 of a second or less)
4. Manual override of all automatic exposure functions (manual operation mode)
5. Full frame viewfinder with focusing system
6. Cable release and tripod acceptance
7. Depth of field preview capability
8. Mirror lock-up
The first six items are very important and are basic to good 35mm photography. The focusing system (split image, etc.) should be simple and easy to use. The viewfinder should have a good bright image (partly a function of lens speed) and the controls should be conveniently located and easily grasped. Exposure information should be easy to read and interpret.
You may also have some personal requirements. For example, if you wear eye glasses, it may be important that an eye piece can be added to the viewfinder window to adjust for distance.
Compatibility with automatic flash systems may also be important. Most rhododendron photographers prefer available light and seldom use flash. But, some rhododendron photographers use flash gear frequently.
Before selecting a camera body, you should explore the lens selections that are available in, or compatible with, certain manufacturers. The macro lens is truly the workhorse of rhododendron photography. This lens is designed to perform at short camera to subject distances - let's say, for example, eight feet down to close-up range of only a few inches Most of your rhododendron photography will fall in this range.
Various manufacturers provide these lenses in different focal lengths - usually 55mm, 60mm, 90mm, 100mm, 105mm, and 125mm. The 55mm and 60mm lengths may be substituted for a standard lens. This is probably the least costly initial purchase (one camera body and one macro lens).If you are already committed to a camera system with a standard lens, you have four options. First, you can continue to get by with what you have. You may miss some of the close-ups, but there are still a lot of pictures you probably haven't tried. Second, you can add a macro lens in the 90mm to 125mm focal length. The longer focal length allows you to operate at a better distance from your subject (you will interfere less with your own light) and the longer focal length acts a little like a semi-telephoto lens which extends your ability to take pictures of those just out of reach flowers. Although depth of field is reduced in the longer lengths, background separation is improved.
Your third choice is considering a close focusing zoom lens. The zoom lens is very handy for travel and other photographic uses. It is more costly, however, and more difficult to use, but it does provide a significant extension of your capability.
Finally, you can use extension tubes (spacers) behind your standard lens to provide a close focusing capability. Extension tubes are relatively inexpensive. They do not affect the quality of your image (they have no optics). They may also be used in combination with close-up lens attachments which fit on the front of your lens. These attachments are also relatively inexpensive, but when you add up the cost of all of this gear, you are probably approaching the cost of a macro lens.
There is no need to purchase fast lenses (optics with large maximum apertures). Again, concentrate on the basics. Fast lenses cost more, weigh more, and take up more room in your tote bag. There is no need to buy extra filters at first. Wait for some experience to determine what corrections you may need, if any. Filters should not be used on a macro lens for close-up shots anyway. If you use a small tote bag, you may find a leather camera case unnecessary.
Apply the money saved from these items toward a cable release, a medium weight tripod, and a ball and socket head. Medium weight tripods include the Citzo model 120 up to the Citzo model 220. The performance models with horizontal leg extensions are recommended. Leitz manufactures the best ball and socket. Try the large American thread model.
These last two recommendations will shock you when you see the cost, but a tripod will improve your photography far more than spending a lot of extra money on bigger lenses. In fact, a tripod used with a gray card will eliminate the need to take several exposures (bracketing) to get a good slide or negative exposure. The film and processing saved will, in time, recover all of the cost. Meanwhile, your pictures will be vastly superior.
In conclusion, you should not hesitate about equipment too long. Buy the products of a popular and well recognized manufacturer. This will make it easier to buy and sell used equipment later. Consider the total system, lenses and all, before committing to a purchase. Keep it simple and basic. We, suggest you remember the words of Mr. Ernst Haas from his book, The Creation: If I have any word of advice to give, it is that a photographer should learn to work with the minimum amount of equipment. The more you are able to forget your equipment, the more time you have to concentrate on the subject and on the composition. The camera should become an extension of your eye, nothing else.
Ed Bancroft will be one of the featured speakers at the Western Regional Rhododendron Conference, October 7, 8 and 9, 1988, Everett Pacific Convention Center, Everett, Washington.