Saturday, August 9, 2008

Lens Envy

There's nothing quite like the intoxicatingly drooly seduction of "lens envy" in action. Whether I'm standing on a sideline, sitting in a wedding pew, or attending a press conference, I tend to get distracted by lustful thoughts regarding someone's camera ... humminah!! ... Now, I know full well that God said "thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife" -- but you'll notice there was no mention of "thy neighbor's lenses" ...

Granted, schwanky gear won't make you Ansel Adams, but it will make you smile ... and I'm grinning ear to ear. Why? Let's start at the beginning.

It started back in 1979 as a freshman in high school, with a Kowa SeTr 35 mm camera with a 5omm 1.9 lens and a 135 4.0 telephoto lens. The Kowa was a great way to learn the basics of lighting and composition ... I bought it used out of the Free Press classifieds from someone who lived in an apartment on Pine Street in Burlington.

That gave way in 1981 to the incomperable Canon AE1-Program with a 50mm 1.8 lens, a 28mm 2.8 wide angle, and my signature 70-200mm 3.5 telephoto. The Canon got me through high school yearbook photography and photojournalism in college. Using a Bristol community grant (investing in the future of youth) I bought it from Abe's of Maine -- hey, who knew they didn't take out-of-state personal checks back in the days before credit cards? Dang. Nice drive, at least.

I loved shooting with the AE-1 Program ... Gradually, I started to get artistically lazy and transitioned into a decade of dabbling with a variety of point-n-shoot cameras, first film and then digital, as the kids grew. My workhorse during that time became of the Olympus D-490Z 2.1 megapixel digital camera with the equivalent of a 35-105mm zoom lens due to its compact convenience and immediate gratification (no more 1-hour photos ready in 7 hours).

In 2004, the artist in me stirred as I came upon a digital SLR-like Minolta A-1, with a 28-200mm 1:2.8-3.5 lens ... 5 megapixels, tilting viewfinder, articulating lcd screen, fast focus and little shutter lag, and a remarkable (back in the day) anti-shake mechanism. It had full manual controls as well as (my beloved for sports) aperature priority. I bought it over the internet from B&H Photo in New York City. Having manual control again reawakened my love for photography and was born.

Unfortunately, as I was shooting that beautiful quirky camera into the ground, Minolta was selling out to Konica and Sony. By the time I had literally worn it out, they only had A200's to give me in its place. The A200 had the same 1:2.8-3.5 lens and was a step up to 8mp, but it was slower and regretfully consumerized -- lacking many of the charming quirks of the A1. The A200 served its purpose and my travelogue approach to life continued -- but lens envy eventually set in and I set my sights on a digital SLR as I was in the process of wearing out the A200 like the A1 before it.

After five months of research and five weeks of serious stalking, and just as the antishake mechanism on the A200 began to go, I decided on the Nikon D300 and again turned to B&H Photo (at . It wasn't an easy choice. I looked hard at the Canon 40D (AE1-P legacy, lots of local use), the Nikon D80 (had shot with one courtesy of the ad agency I use), and the Olympus E3 (had the articulating lcd) ... Spent a lot of time at , at , talking to fellow photographers, and even read Consumers Report. Rockwell's assertion that the D300 is "the world's best amateur camera" certainly caught my eye ... 12.3 mp ... 3 inch lcd ... 6 frames per second ... What was that word? Oh yeah -- humminah!!
Ultimately, the rugged weather resistant build of the D300 won me over (remember, I'd just worn out two nice cameras within 5 years) ... Fortunately, a bit of life's corporate lemons turned into found-money lemonade for me, making the jump to the D300 financially feasible and particularly satisfying.

Once I decided on the D300, I agonized over what lenses to start with. Maybe just a traditional 50mm 1.8 to start? No -- we need to have more fun than that! I considered pairing the 16-85 1:3.5-5.6 VR and the 70-300 1:4.5-5.6 VR to cover a larger range. I got distracted with dreams of doubling/tripling my lens investment by going with the 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 VR to get better low light performance ... I had momentary delusions of achieving the reach of the incredible 200-400 4.0 VR ... I ultimately opted to pair the flexibility of the 18-200 1:3.5-5.6 VRII and the low-light/depth-of-field permformance of the 85 1.8 -- seemed to be the best match for my interests and my budget and sets me up well for the future.

After yet another purchasing adventure, this one linked to a zealous anti-fraud system at the bank and another creative role for GrammaB, the purchase was made. On August 6, 2008, the D300 arrived along with the Nikkor AF 18-200mm 1:3.5-5.6 VRII telephoto zoom, the Nikkor 85mm 1.8 portrait lens, and the Nikon SB600 flash ... The Lowepro Nova 4 all-weather bag soon joined the collection ... Woooohoooolio!! Days later, the Manfrotto 682B Monopod joined the collection -- and it was woooohooooolio all over again. Three months later, I've added the 50mm 1.8D prime lens ... the collection is growing!

I'm pleased with what I've seen so far as I've unpacked it and begun to test the pieces. The size and weight is amazing (twice that of the Minolta), but I love it. The speed is impressive. The noise is coool. What did the neighbor kid yell at the end of Incredibles? "That was TOTALLY WICKED!!!" Photos will begin to be posted over at once the planet slows down enough for me to catch up with life.

And as for the lens envy? Am I cured? Me? Hardly. Granted, I'm no longer likely to be embarassingly outgunned at sporting events, weddings, or in the press corps for a while at least -- but I am still zesty for the 70-200 2.8 VR's low-light performance (for indoor events) and the 200-400 4.0 VR's extreme reach (for safari work) ... Sooooo you see, even with magnificent equipment, lens envy never really goes away ... :-)