Anyone who takes up photography as a hobby will know that as a hobby it can get very expensive very fast. Even a basic DSLR or more advanced bridge camera come with a price tag that is a few thousand Rand or more. As you move from being a hobbyist to a more serious enthusiast the problem compounds as the need for better equipment, or sometimes admittedly only a perceived need, forces you to consider more and more expensive equipment. I found myself in that dangerous spiral of the constant need to buy better, faster and sharper lenses after I made the decision to upgrade my camera body towards the second half of last year. I thought I had made it through that dark (and costly) patch after some careful consideration on what equipment I look to buy and what I can rent if the need arises. Then earlier this month Canon made the announcement of the 5D MarkIV camera body that I have been waiting for almost all of this year and it has seen me spiraling back into the mire…
I’ll share my thoughts on the best approach to getting your hands on the best equipment for your needs, but of course, the final decision is always yours to consider and make. As always the advice will be geared towards DSLR cameras, but like I have said in some of my other posts, bridge and mirror-less systems are always improving as well and more and more photographers are moving towards them. However not everything that follows may be applicable to those systems.
If you can afford to, I would recommend buying your primary camera body new for a few reasons. The camera body is where all the functionality resides (mostly) and therefore owning and mastering both the functions as well as the capability a camera body has goes a long to enabling you to take your best shots. However, because most of the technology and intelligence resides in the camera body it is also more prone to failure. In fact, the first Canon 7D MarkII I got failed almost straight out of the box (caught the wrong end of the bathtub failure curve) and had to be replaced. Which leads me on to the other advantage of buying the camera body new; you are covered by the maximum guarantee period the camera manufacturer provides, which is generally 2 years. A caveat to this piece of advice is that camera technology, like all other types of modern technology develops at a rapid pace, with improvements made almost constantly. A DSLR will outlast your smart phone, but not by very long. My observations have led me to conclude that the typical camera body is almost completely replaced every 4 years or so. The Canon 5D MarkIV I mention above replaces the MarkIII incarnation, which was released in 2012 and was in itself class leading.
Buying a camera body second hand could be an option when you are starting out as it could save you as much as half off the new price. The things to look out for when buying a camera second hand include condition, what the previous owner used it for and how many shutter actuations the body has completed. Usually the camera bodies are rated for a an average number of actuations – 100 to 200 thousand on the lower specification bodies and higher for more professional bodies. It is good to therefore check how close the camera body being considered is to this rated number. Of course the number is only a guide and cameras can usually outlast the rated actuation cycles. Another thing to look out for on used camera bodies is dust on the sensor – take a picture of the blue sky with a higher aperture number and it should show up.
When choosing a camera body, new or used, there are a few things to consider. Before even looking at the bodies you should figure out what you will primarily be using the camera for. A landscape photographer would eventually want to look at full frame camera, such as the Canon 5D series. A wildlife or action photographer may consider a body that has faster frame rate to capture every second of what they are seeing. Faster full frame cameras come at a price while a cropped sensor body such as the 7D MarkII I shoot with can be faster, at a lower price and also add the benefit of the crop factor to images of far away objects. An event photographer may value low light performance more than anything else, while travel photographers will look for more compact, lighter options, including the much improved micro four thirds systems currently available. That’s not to say that the camera body will be limited to the primary reason you buy it for, as they will all offer versatility when paired with the correct lens choices.
Which brings me nicely to my next thought. Once you have attained your camera body, the next decision you will need to make is what lens to get to couple to it. This is where I think it gets interesting, because of the number of combinations and permutations one could use to approach this decision. However, lens technology (being mostly glass with some focusing/stabilisation technology) does not change as rapidly as that of the camera bodies. As an example, the 300mm F4l IS lens that I own (in fact at one stage I owned 2) was launched in 1997 so the lens is almost 20 years old and Canon have in that time not had to replace it. This means that choosing a lens to buy can be a long term decision so it has to be weighed out carefully. I would start with having a look at which lenses suit your shooting style and make a wishlist and then start acquiring the lenses in your stated order of priority, again if you can afford to.
Longevity of lenses also means that there is a good second hand market for them and if you look hard enough and can wait for a little while, you should be able to get the lens you are looking for at a reasonable discount. Again there are a couple things to look out for, including scratches to the front element, general condition of the lens, making sure all the buttons work (not stuck on manual focus for instance) and that there is no dust either on the back element or mould growth inside the lens itself.
An alternative to buying for both camera bodies and camera lenses is renting the required equipment for a limited period of time. There are a number of companies that will rent out various pieces of equipment to you both in Johannesburg and Cape Town on a daily rental charge basis and may even offer reduced rates for longer rental periods. This could be a very handy way to ensure that you have a second camera body on hand for instance if you are shooting an important event. It also allows you to rent out lenses that you may not necessarily use more than once or twice a year, saving you in the long run. An example of this would be the Canon 200-400mm F4 I rented earlier in the year for a couple days in Cape Town. The lens itself was amazing, but at more than R150 000 I cannot justify owning it. However for about R1400 with insurance I got two full days of use out of the lens and absolutely loved it. Except it weighed a ton, so next time I know to work out well in advance.
Renting the equipment therefore means that insurance is part of the rental and your monthly household content insurance bill does not sky rocket, like mine did recently. The disadvantage of renting of course is that you may not have all the time you normally would have if you owned the equipment to get to know the equipment. Renting doesn’t only have to be for more expensive or less affordable lenses. When I was trying to decide on whether to buy the 100-400F4-5.6 or the combination of the 70-200F2.8 lens and a 1.4x converter I hired both and took them out for a few days testing out how they worked and afterwards looking at the image quality before deciding on which lens to buy. Eventually i decided to go for the 70-200mm as it doubles as an exquisite portrait lens and with the 1.4x converter on the back makes for an excellent 100-300mm F4 wildlife lens.
And the 5D MarkIV?
So back to the quandary the 5D MarkIV has left me in…with the announcement made last week, the body is unlikely to reach South Africa in any great numbers until October perhaps. Which gives me enough time to perhaps set up a Kickstarter fund to raise the R53 000 – to R55 000 price tag of the new camera. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly the cost of my first car 10 years ago. However, I, and it seems a lot of the people out there, am not impressed by the camera specifications. The MP count has gone up to 30MP from the MarkIII’s 22MP and the autofocus system has been improved. However much of the gains made seem to be on the video side, which erks me a little because I have shot video once with my 7D, and quite frankly can’t be bothered to try to shoot more. I am a still photographer so video capability has been, and probably always will be, irrelevant in camera choice for me.
A second hand 5D MarkIII at perhaps half the price as more people rush to switch to the new camera therefore becomes a very viable option and I have begun to keep an eye on the classifieds. Other options have also begun to crash around the hollow space inside my head it seems, even considering switching over to Nikon (oh the horror!) with both the sensors of the Nikon D810 and D750 outperforming the Canon 5D MarkIV in a recent DXO Mark sensor test by a long distance and the Sony Alpha mirrorless full frame also pipping out the Canon. But, following my own advice, I think I shall hire both camera bodies at the earliest opportunity I can find and take them out for my own side by side comparison test and then make my choice. It would be the most sensible thing to do but that kickstarter idea is beginning to sound good in my head though…