What’s in my bag?
I used to collect odd lenses (Reflex-Nikkor 50 cm f/5) and I have a large camera bag that is stuffed with old manual focus gear that still makes it out and about with me from time to time. I also have a high-tech travelling bag that I bring when I want to carry the least weight possible. I have a D700, Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 and Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 in a shoulder bag at all times along with a remote cable release. On the other shoulder I have a very old, worn and entirely-too-heavy Manfrotto tripod (a durable tripod is your best friend and though you may occasionally loathe carrying such a heavy load, when the wind picks up and your photos are sharp, you’ll know the crippling back pain is worth it).
You can’t take pictures without a camera.
Gear isn’t everything. In fact, gear is probably the least important aspect of photography nowadays. Yes there are new-fangled cameras that have all sorts of wonderful features that push excellent images into the range of technically extraordinary, but the truth is that the $800 camera you pull off the shelf at Best-Buy does about 99% of what my $2,500 camera does.
“So then why do you have that expensive camera?” you may ask. The truth is that there are a lot of reasons, but they all boil down to the same thing – it’s a fancy toy. Not only do I not make photographs for money, but I use a rather lavish set-up to do it. True, I’ve paid for most of my gear by taking jobs, but I’ve never taken the leap to doing anything else – as soon as I had the money, I stopped taking the jobs and got the gear. Like a hipster and a fixed-gear bike, if I have to explain it to you, you’ll never understand.
So what do I recommend?
I recommend two different set-ups depending on your budget and your interest level. My recommendations are for Nikon, because I have a Nikon and I simply don’t know the ins and outs of the Canon system to tell you which entry level v. professional level is worth the price trade-off. Canon makes awesome cameras and awesome lenses – I just can’t offer advice.
Beginner/lower budget – D90(D7000)/18-105mm kit lens
Nikon has a series of entry-level cameras that are truly excellent. If you are picking up a camera for the first time, any of these (including the new D3100, the D5000, etc) will serve you well indeed. I personally know HDR shooters who have worked with the D5000 for a long time, but who admit to wishing they had the D90 for its more professional controls. For the burgeoning HDR shooter, however, the D5000 (and likely its replacement the D3100) lacks some of the higher-level features that you will eventually want. Therefore I recommend the D90 or its soon-to-be-announced replacement, the D7000. These cameras have wonderful sensors, can auto-exposure bracket and can drive the focus motors of older auto-focus Nikkor lenses and produce HD video. They are rather more expensive than their smaller brethren, but if you intend on taking more than the occasional family snapshot – you will be better served by the more advanced features. This also means you will go longer without purchasing another camera body as your skills advance.
Advanced/higher-budget – D300s or D700/24-70mm f/2.8 lens
Here’s the rub: the D300s is a fantastic camera. I know this because I know that the D300 is a fantastic camera. The 300s has better ISO performance a few more bells and whistles and takes HD video. ‘Nuff said. It is soon to be replaced (if the rolling schedule of DSLR replacements has anything to say about it), but it will give you years of faithful service. For almost twice the price, the D700 is every bit as sweet and then a fraction more (it has a 36mm CMOS sensor, which means the imaging surface is the same size as old 35mm film – i.e. wide angle lenses look like wide angle lenses on the D700). It has the same resolution, but big, fat pixels that are even more sensitive – yielding noise-free images even at very high ISO ratings (ISO 800 on my D700 could pass for ISO 200 print film, maybe better). Whether it is worth it in the price/video trade-off department is up to you. I bought my D700 with the idea that I wanted to do ultra-wide angle work. If you are at all hesitant about the price, go with the D300s and never look back.
Buying the less expensive camera will give you another advantage if your budget isn’t of elephantine proportions: you can buy better glass. Lens coating development was one of the big breakthroughs in optics over the last half century, and the marketing hype claims that the newest formulations are a leap forward. The Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 is a fast, durable lens that covers the most useful focal lengths and boasts Nikon’s newest “Nanocrystal” coatings. I don’t know if it is the coatings or just wonderful optical design, but the clarity, contrast, sharpness, and color of images produced by this lens are breathtaking. I own this and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 and I can tell you they have better coverage, sharpness and contrast than even my venerable Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-D IF. Seriously. And if that weren’t enough, the quality and unique focal lengths afforded by the 14-24mm f/2.8 are enough to lure Canon users into buying an adapter so that they can use this beast on their Canon bodies.