When it comes to photography, I am all about the image. Whether I choose to create in the moment or have some pre-visualized intent, I strongly believe in the relentless pursuit of a personal vision. Faced with questions about my tools, you’d likely hear some flippant remark like, “it’s me... not the camera!” Having interacted with many serious amateurs and pros, I know that I’m not alone when it comes to professing the importance of “practice” and “being there.” However, this reality does not diminish one key fact, quality equipment is a pleasure to use and it increases the chance of realizing one’s vision. So I now unapologetically admit that this pre-amble is a poorly veiled way of saying... today’s post is about gear.
I am one of the lucky ones, as my wife and partner shares my obsession for nature, travel and photography. We spend the majority of our disposable income on adventures abroad and the gear we use to meet our photographic goals. Yet, we are not wealthy people, we are just a pair of worker bees. Often considered among the lowest ranking professionals, I am a biology teacher and Tamy is a nurse. While the work is personally fulfilling, we do it so we can afford to travel and make images of lesser-visited places.
So, how do two middle income professionals allocate their resources so they can make compelling photographs of wildlife? Anyone who is a serious nature shooter knows that wildlife photography is among the most financially taxing disciplines in the photographic arts. Much like the serious sports shooter, the wildlife photographer is dependent on fast cameras, the best autofocus systems and ultra-expensive super-telephoto lenses. To some, it is the latter that is a key impediment to joining “the club.”
Because there are two of us, the price to play is quite prohibitive. Until recently, we both compromised by shooting lesser glass or shorter focal length lenses. This all changed when Nikon introduced their AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens. For the first time, there is a professional grade super-telephoto optic that can be had for less than $1500 US. Not only does this lens shoot at an impressive 500mm, but it is a zoom lens with a non-variable aperture. At f5.6, the lens is relatively fast and can be used under most shooting conditions. Tamy pairs her brand new 200-500mm f5.6 with a Nikon D7100. The D7100 is a 24mp DX camera (1.5 times crop) that creates a viewing perspective of 300-750mm with her lens. With 51AF points and a shooting speed of 6 frames per second, the lens and body can be had for about $2200 US.
While $2200 US might seem to be quite expensive, let’s compare Tamy’s wildlife kit to the gear I use. At the time of this post, I shoot with a Nikon D4. The D4 is a 16mp full-frame (FX) camera capable of capturing 10fps. Introduced in 2012, I purchased mine in used condition for $3000 US. I pair the D4 with Nikon’s premium AF-S 200-400mm f/4G VR super-zoom. While the newest VR II lens can be had for about $7000, I found a relatively clean and older model for $3000. In order to approach the magnification of the less expensive zoom, I pair my lens with a Nikon AF-S TC-1.4E II tele-converter. With the additional optical elements, I can produce a 16 MP image at 560mm for the “low-low price” of $6250.
As I began writing this post two days ago, I intended to claim that one combination of body and lens was superior to the other. However, after processing the many images displayed throughout, I will leave that decision to you. As you examine each photograph, I would like to encourage you to read the the subtext added, as this should offer a bit context. While there is a definite benefit that accompanies the additional allocation of resources, it would be hard to justify busting a budget to buy a $6200 wildlife kit when $2200 can produce images like those illustrated here.
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