2014 Photo Year-in-Review: Equipment

(Don’t bother reading this post unless you’re interested in the equipment side of photography, you’ll be bored)

Within a week of the beginning of 2014 I bought my first super-telephoto lens: the Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6. After renting large primes (notably, the Nikon 300mm VR and VRII, ~$3000 and ~$5500 lenses, respectively) from Glazers, a local camera equipment and rental business here in Seattle, I decided it would be worth my while to buy something with significant reach for myself. While those Nikon lenses were way out of my budget (not just the primes, zooms as well), I was able able to pick up the Sigma for about $900. An expensive bit of kit, no doubt, but comparatively reasonable.

Something like 90-95% of the shots I took during 2014 were with this lens, and I’ve been very pleased with the results. As I tell people, “you need a big lens for little birds.” While I feel I’m ready for an upgrade, I’m still able to consistently get great results, and I’ll be keeping this lens around as a backup for a while.

This was the only lens I bought this year, though not the only camera equipment:

  • UV filters and circular polarizing filters for the 120-400mm, 50mm f/1.4, and 18-55mm kit lens that came with the Nikon D3200 camera body that I still use. I don’t care about the UV filter part, but they work well as protective covers for the lenses. As for the circular polarizers, most of the use I’ve gotten out of them was during my sailing trip in Mexico (as well as several times in Panama). I don’t find that they are useful for most of my shooting around Seattle, but in the tropics, especially on or near the water, they really help with contrast and cut down on glare.
  • A Sirui carbon-fiber monopod. Extremely light-weight. I haven’t used it a whole lot (I’m comfortable hand-holding even large super-telephoto lenses) but when I have it’s worked well. I suspect I may want to pick up a high-quality ball-head (or pistol-grip-head) for this to make it more useful.

The real question then is, “what’s next?” As much as I’m enjoying the equipment, I’m starting to outgrow the capabilities of what I have. Most of this year I’ve been working on improving my skills and finding the limits of my equipment. At this point I’ve started to hit a number of those limits:

  • 400mm (600mm equivalent on my crop-sensor D3200) just isn’t long enough. It’s great for neighborhood birding, but there are a lot of species that are simply too skittish or tend to perch too far away from where I can get to (such as high in trees) that it would be very helpful to have significantly more reach.
  • The D3200’s high-ISO performance isn’t great. Sure, it’s pretty incredible compared even to older pro-level DSLRs, but the newer generation of sensors are significantly better.
  • The D3200 can’t shoot fast enough in burst mode.
  • Autofocus on the D3200 is ok at best: I still miss a lot of shots due to slow or missed autofocus.

That means I’m going to want to invest in more equipment.

The new Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 (~$1200) has been getting great reviews, and having handled one at Glazer’s, it isn’t much different in size or weight than my Sigma 120-400mm. Sigma has also announced two 150-600mm lenses, and released one of them, the ~$2000 “Sport” model. I’m waiting for them to announce the pricing and availability of the “Contemporary” model, which should be lighter, smaller, and less expensive (likely at the same price-point as the Tamron), while sacrificing weather sealing and image quality (mostly at the edges).

I’m leaning toward waiting for the Sigma, but my patience has limits: if it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to get it before my BVI sailing trip in May, I’ll probably go ahead and buy the Tamron instead. The other benefit to the Sigma is that it supports autofocus using the Sigma 1.4x extender (~$350), for even more range. If I end up buying the Sigma lens, I’ll be buying the 1.4x extender as well.

Nikon is almost certainly going to announce a successor to the D7100 (probably called the D7200) in early January at CES, or early February at the CP+ conference in Japan. Based on historical pricing of their highest-end APS-C bodies, this will probably cost around $1200.

What will these three items give me? Better low-light performance, significantly more options (more granular as well as faster shutter speeds), and more reach. With a 600mm lens on a crop-body sensor (as the D7200 will also have, just like my D3200), it gives me a 900mm full-frame equivalent, and based on the reviews of both the Tamron and Sigma (Sport) lenses, I’ll be able to shoot them wide-open (f/6.3) and still get sharp results (while I have to shoot my current lens at f/7.1, or better yet f/8 to get the sharpest results). With the 1.4x extender I’ll have more than doubled my effective reach to 1260mm full-frame equivalent, shooting at f/8. Since I already shoot most of my pictures with the 400mm Sigma at f/8, I won’t even need to substantially change my shooting habits.

All of these mean I’ll be able to take pictures of animals (let’s face it, mostly birds) further away, in worse light, with a higher dynamic range (better highlights and shadows), than I previously could. All of these are important as I begin my next set of adventures and continue to push my photographic abilities further.